Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Noor (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Noor is almost a good movie. It looks nice, and the talented cast members make their characters relatable. The film just never comes together in a coherent way.

The challenge with Noor is condensing a book’s worth of material into a movie of less than two hours, a feat which director Sunhil Sippy and co-writers Althea Kaushal and Shikhaa Sharma can’t manage. The threads of the various subplots never tie together in a way I’m guessing they do in Saba Imtiaz’s well-regarded novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me, upon which the film is based.

Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) is a Mumbai journalist plagued in equal parts by self-loathing and a smug sense of superiority. She films human interest stories for an online news outlet, but she’d rather be reporting on more serious issues. Her disdain for her interview subjects is so obvious that any organization would be foolish to entrust her with any topics of import.

When Noor is not blaming her editor Shekhar (Manish Chaudhary) for consigning her to a Pulitzer-less fate, she’s complaining about how no one pays attention to her while simultaneously rebuffing everyone’s attempts to reach out to her. We have to trust that the patience shown by her buddies Zara (Shibani Dandekar) and Saad (Kanan Gill of Pretentious Movie Reviews) was earned during a time when Noor wasn’t such a self-pitying grump. She’s also obsessed with her weight, a hopelessly outdated gag used so often it seems malicious.

Things finally start going Noor’s way when she falls for Ayan (Purab Kohli), a handsome international photojournalist. Then she gets a lead on what could be a huge scandal.

“Could” is the operative word. All Noor has is an interview with one alleged crime victim, yet she wants Shekhar to publish it as proof of a widespread conspiracy. Shekhar insists that they wait, but not so that Noor can gather more evidence. He wants her to think about the potential negative impact publishing it would have on her interview subject.

That’s certainly one element to consider, but there’s a larger view of journalistic ethics that gets completely ignored. What Noor has is the first germ of a story, not a complete investigation. She has zero corroborating evidence, but none of the characters acknowledge that as a problem. Publishing what she has as unassailable proof of corruption is inviting a defamation lawsuit.

Movies about investigative journalism can be riveting — seeing how badly Noor handles it made me want to watch Spotlight again — but Noor never fully shifts into being the thriller it needs to be to deal with the can of worms it opens. Trying to integrate Noor’s low-stakes romantic troubles into the high-stakes crime narrative doesn’t work.

It’s a shame, because Sinha does a nice job humanizing a complicated character. Kohli is charming, and Gill is funny and adorable. Sadly, Zara is written as little more than a walking clothes rack, so we don’t get to see what Dandekar can do.

Sippy uses some clever techniques to depict Noor for the Millennial she is. When Noor speaks in hashtags, they appear written on screen next to her. Sippy positions his own camera over Noor’s shoulder and focuses on her iPhone screen so that we can see what she sees while she records her interviews.

While Noor is certainly watchable, the cloud of what-might-have-been always hovers over it.

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Movie Review: Nil Battey Sannata (2016)

nilbatteysannata3 Stars (out of 4)

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Nil Battey Sannata (“Good for Nothing” colloquially) is a heart-warming story about familial bonds and the importance of education. However, the movie is more than just feel-good fare, offering a canny exploration of the complexities of poverty.

Appu (Ria Shukla) is a typical teen, more fond of hanging out with her friends and mooning over film stars than studying. Also like many teens, she doesn’t understand the lengths her mother goes to just to keep a roof over their heads.

As a single mother and the family’s sole breadwinner, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) wears a lot of hats. She works as a maid for Dr. Diwan (Ratna Pathak) in the morning and does odd jobs at night, washing dishes or sewing clothes. When she comes home, she cooks and cleans so that Appu can focus on her studies.

Even though Appu is in her final year of high school, mother and daughter haven’t discussed Appu’s future plans. Chanda assumed her own toil would enable Appu to go to college, an opportunity high school dropout Chanda never had. She is stunned when Appu says she wants to be a maid like her mom.

Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s story — co-written with her husband, Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari — doesn’t lay all of the blame on Appu, though the girl’s disdain for school is a huge hurdle. Her lack of ambition is partly a product of her surroundings. Everyone she knows is poor or a laborer, so what good will an education do her? Her friend, Pintu (Prashant Tiwari), plans to become a driver like his father. He’s befuddled when Chanda asks him if he wouldn’t rather own the car than drive for someone else.

Chanda’s perspective is also limited by her financial circumstances. She knows she can’t afford the tuition for medical school or engineering school, but she doesn’t know of any other jobs that could provide the comfortable lifestyle she envisions for Appu. By happenstance, Chanda meets a man being chauffeured in an air-conditioned car, and she learns that he’s the local tax collector. She immediately determines that’s the job that Appu must pursue.

Appu’s intellectual laziness has caused her to fall behind in math. With expensive tutoring out of the question, Chanda heeds Dr. Diwan’s advice and enrolls in Appu’s class so that she can tutor her daughter herself. Of course, nothing could be more mortifying to Appu than having her mom as a classmate, clad in a school uniform and all. Chanda’s efforts to help her daughter cause friction between the two of them, straining their formerly close bonds.

Bhaskar is charming and sympathetic as Chanda, though it’s hard not to pull for a mother who’ll go to any lengths for her daughter. Shukla’s job is harder given that Appu is often a pill, but the actress pulls it off, making her character relatable. Even at Appu’s worst moments, the audience can always tell that she’s a good kid at heart, thanks to Shukla’s performance.

The mother-daughter relationship is the core of Nil Battey Sannata, but Iyer Tiwari does an admirable job depicting a concept that’s hard to understand, namely the way poverty complicates all aspects of a person’s life. It’s easy to prescribe education as the ultimate solution to economic hardship, but Chanda’s and Appu’s story shows that money isn’t the only scarce resource for those on the margins. Time, experience, and connections are almost as important — and almost as rare, too.

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Movie Review: Naam Shabana (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.

Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.

The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.

By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.

Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.

Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.

A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)

Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).

Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.

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Movie Review: For Here or to Go? (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

For Here or to Go? opens in these theaters Friday, March 31, 2017.

Even though For Here or to Go? made its festival debut in 2015, its 2017 theatrical release could not be more timely. The film examines America’s complicated immigration system not from a policy level, but from a personal one.

Ali Fazal — known to Bollywood fans from movies like Fukrey and Bobby Jasoos and to Hollywood fans from his role in Furious 7 — plays Vivek, a programmer on an H-1B visa working for a big corporation in Silicon Valley. He’d love a job at a startup, where he’d have a better opportunity to put his ideas to work, but his visa status effectively prevents it. Most small startups lack the resources to sponsor visa employees, and he has less than a year left on his visa anyway.

This puts Vivek and countless other foreign employees in a kind of holding pattern, stuck in jobs they don’t want and unable to get new ones. With low odds for getting a green card that would enable him to live and work in the United States permanently — it takes ten months just to get in the line to wait for a green card! — Vivek and his roommates haven’t even bothered to buy furniture. What’s the point, when they’ll have to leave it behind when their visas run out and they’re forced to return to India?

This limbo state is bad for Vivek’s social life as well. It’s impossible to find a lasting relationship when he doesn’t know where he’ll be next year, or even sooner than that if his company should unexpectedly fold, which would give him just days to leave the country.

Vivek’s romantic problems are strictly theoretical until he meets Shveta (Melanie Chandra, nee Kannokada, the pride of Park Ridge, Illinois) at a yoga class. She’s the first American-born Desi woman to give him the time of day. They have fun together, taking center stage during a Bollywood-style flash mob.

While Shveta is an all-American girl, her rich dad, Vishwanath (Rajit Kapur), is trying to convince Desi tech workers to return to India as a sort of penance for his role in the “brain drain” phenomenon, which was the subject of Swades back in 2004. One of the most disheartening aspects of For Here or to Go? is the sense that problems like “brain drain” and the unwelcome feeling experienced by many immigrants have been around for a long time and have only gotten worse since the film was completed, even before the ascent of the Trump administration. Under Vishwanath’s tutelage, Vivek starts to wonder if maybe India is the best place for him after all.

The story is rounded out by Vivek’s roommates, Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya) and Amit (Amitosh Nagpal). Lakshmi is determined to become an American citizen, believing that the US offers him a better chance at happiness as a gay man than India does. Amit has his own visa issues, and his glibness regarding immigration laws worries Vivek.

The pacing of For Here or to Go? — directed by Rucha Humnabadkar and written by Rishi Bhilawadikar — is slow in spots. There are also some logical problems, such as why Vivek never learns that his mentor, Vishwanath, is Shveta’s father.

The film also loses focus as the plot progresses. Instead of sticking with Vivek’s story, For Here or to Go? tries to cover the whole Indian immigrant experience in America. The issue of racist violence against Sikhs and how that impacts their desire to live in the US — a rich enough topic for an entire film of its own — gets wedged into a scene that’s only a few minutes long and has no bearing on the central plot.

Thankfully, some nice performances make up for screenplay scope creep. Fazal is always reliable, whether he’s acting in English or Hindi films, and he’s quite sexy in the movie’s sole romantic scene. Chandra is totally adorable. Vaidya and Nagpal are both charming as well.

For Here or to Go?‘s best selling point is that it’s a really good tutorial on the US immigration system. That’s equal parts praise for a film that makes a dull-seeming topic interesting, and condemnation for a system that’s so complicated it needs a fictional medium to make it comprehensible to the general public.

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Movie Review: Phillauri (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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There’s so much to love about Phillauri on its own merits, but it also represents something important within the Hindi-film industry. This film is the product of an actress taking control of her career, in effect saying to the industry, “This is the caliber of movie I think the audience wants and the type of quality role female performers deserve.” It’s a powerful statement packaged within a fun, touching romantic-comedy.

Phillauri is the second movie by Clean Slate Films, a production house run by actress Anushka Sharma and her brother, Karnesh. As with Clean Slate’s first movie, the excellent 2015 revenge thriller NH10, Sharma stars in Phillauri in a role that explicitly addresses gender issues in a progressive way.

Sharma plays a ghost named Shashi, whose spirit has been trapped in a tree since her death many years ago. She’s ripped from her arboreal abode when a young man with an unlucky love life — Kanan (Suraj Sharma) — marries her tree in an effort to improve his luck before marrying his childhood sweetheart, Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Shashi and Kanan are shocked to find themselves metaphysically hitched following the tree ceremony — especially Kanan, since he’s the only living person who can see Shashi.

As Kanan copes with the stress of preparing for his wedding to Anu with a ghost in tow, Shashi tries to recall how she died. She finds the modern world unfamiliar and too liberal for her taste — she’s scandalized by Anu’s backless dress and Kanan’s whiskey-drinking grandmother — but seeing a DJ spinning a record at the young couple’s engagement party brings back a flood of memories.

Flashbacks show us Shashi’s hometown of Phillaur outside of Amritsar in the early 20th Century. Traveling salesmen bring a phonograph to town to show off the latest technology, and Shashi sneaks out of the house to listen to the music, against the wishes of her overly protective and status-conscious older brother.

Beautiful Shashi is spotted at the phonograph demonstration by a popular local singer who goes by the nickname “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh), a name that can be applied to anyone who hails from the town of Phillaur. He asks Shashi why she doesn’t sneak away to listen to his bawdy tunes the way the other single women do. She chastises him for wasting his platform on tacky frivolities instead of using it to elevate his audience, inspiring them with poetic lyrics and opening their minds to new ideas. He has the opportunity to reach an audience that others don’t have access to, particularly women during this time period.

Sharma knows first-hand about the film industry’s continuing focus on the youth and beauty of female performers, resulting in short careers and insubstantial roles as eye-candy alongside one of a handful of middle-aged male actors. Like some of her female contemporaries, Sharma is using her hard-earned star power and connections to bankroll movies that feature strong women in uplifting roles. When her character in Phillauri talks about using one’s platform for good, it’s a statement of her own purpose and a challenge to the men who dominate the film industry in front of and behind the camera to do the same.

Sharma also deserves kudos in her capacity as a producer for assembling a top-notch crew to make Phillauri. Helming his first picture, director Anshai Lal gets great performances from his cast — Suraj Sharma’s high-pitched whimpering is a hoot — in a film that looks fabulous, also thanks to cinematographer Vishal Sinha. The costumes by Veera Kapur are as lush as Sameer Uddin’s score, which makes the tear-jerking climax all the more memorable. Writer Anvita Dutt’s screenplay is tight and layered.

It’s unfortunate that not all of the songs’ lyrics are subtitled in English. Some are, when the lyrics are of particular plot significance, but there’s no reason why all of the songs shouldn’t be. Failing to do so puts international audiences at a disadvantage.

Yet a lack of subtitles doesn’t impede understanding because the script is “high-concept” done right. Phillauri‘s entertaining and heartfelt story translates just fine.

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Movie Review: The Sense of an Ending (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Ritesh Batra’s followup to The LunchboxThe Sense of an Ending — opens in Chicago area theaters on March 17, 2017.

The Sense of an Ending demands a lot of patience from its audience. Those who stay on board for the whole film are ultimately rewarded, but there are plenty of reasons to abandon ship.

As in director Ritesh Batra’s debut film, The Lunchbox, The Sense of an Ending centers on a grumpy, older, single man. However, Jim Broadbent’s Tony Webster is much harder to love than Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes. Liking a character is by no means necessary for enjoying a film, but it helps invest the audience in the story arc when that character (or his or her journey) isn’t otherwise compelling. With Sense, the challenge lies in enduring Tony’s less savory qualities in the absence of a clear endpoint for said arc.

Curmudgeonly Tony lives alone, having divorced his wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) long ago. Their only daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), is due to give birth to her first child, but she’s learned not to expect much from her father.

A letter arrives from the estate of the recently deceased Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer, in flashbacks), mother of Tony’s former college girlfriend, Veronica (Freya Mavor, in flashbacks). Sarah bequeathed to Tony a diary belonging to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), Tony’s college best friend who killed himself shortly after graduating.

Untangling this complicated scenario makes up the bulk of the story, as Tony tries to explain the past to Margaret in the hopes of figuring out why Veronica (played in the present by Charlotte Rampling) won’t hand over Adrian’s diary to Tony. Revisiting his younger days forces Tony to accept that the narrative he’s told himself about his life isn’t totally accurate.

Viewer stamina becomes a requirement during tedious flashbacks to Tony’s university days (during which his character is played by Billy Howle). Tony, Adrian, and their friends over-estimate their own cleverness, as is the wont of many university students. Listening to them smugly drone on about whether one can actually know anything about history is annoying. If Tony was a jerk as a young man, and he’s still a jerk as an old man, will we really care what happens to him?

By the end of the movie, I did. But much of that was due to how much I liked Margaret and Susie, his ex-wife and daughter. If both of them are interested in gaining insight to this previously undisclosed part of Tony’s life, there must be something worth redeeming. I was happy every moment Michelle Dockery was on-screen.

Besides, I’m a sucker for stories that hopefully suggest that we’re never too old to change. If Batra wants to make that his field of study, more power to him.

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Movie Review: Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The romantic-comedy Badrinath Ki Dulhania (“Badrinath’s Bride“) fails as both a romance and a comedy. A somewhat amusing first half is undone by a disturbing second half that is no fun to watch.

One of the qualities that made the main characters in writer-director Shashank Khaitan’s previous film, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (which starred the same lead actors in different roles) so likeable was that they both had strong moral values guiding their actions. That element is missing from Badrinath Ki Dulhania, resulting in a male lead character who is outdated at best.

Badrinath (Varun Dhawan) is the good-for-nothing youngest son of a money-lender, Mr. Bhansal (Rituraj Singh), in the town of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. The elder Bhansal already managed to guilt-trip Badrinath’s brother, Alok (Yash Sinha), into giving up the woman he loved in favor of an arranged marriage. Bhansal’s penchant for clutching his chest and reaching for an oxygen tank he doesn’t need prompts Badrinath to explain: “An Indian father has the weakest heart in all the world.”

This would be amusing were Bhansal not a sinister enforcer of repressive gender politics. Mrs. Bhansal never speaks, period. Alok’s wife, Urmila (Shweta Prasad), is a financial expert with an advanced education, but Bhansal will not allow his daughter-in-law to work. It’s as though he takes pride in forcing such an accomplished woman into a life of domestic servitude. Alok is too much of a coward to stand up to his father, despite his wife’s suffering.

Badrinath is just as cowardly as Alok, but also more entitled. Badrinath is so assured that he can have whatever he wants — taking it by force, if necessary — that he pursues a woman who is his intellectual superior and not the least bit interested in him: Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt).

After repeatedly rebuffing Badrinath’s stalkery come-ons, Vaidehi consents to let him and his friend, Somdev (Sahil Vaid), find a groom for her elder sister, Kritika. Though Vaidehi explains that this act of kindness will not lead to a romance between her and Badrinath, he’s sure it will.

The relationship between Badrinath and Vaidehi is cute enough until she wounds his pride, prompting a chilling post-interval turn in Badrinath. He shows some violent tendencies earlier in the film in his role as his father’s bill collector, but the sense of entitlement that drives his actions in the second half adds an element of menace.

It’s almost as if Khaitan believes that Dhawan’s good looks make his character’s actions less dangerous. A boy that cute wouldn’t really hurt her, right? Dhawan already showed that he can play scary in Badlapur, and there are echoes of that performance in this film.

Another knock against Badrinath is his cowardice. This fear on the part of everyone in the family to stand up to Mr. Bhansal — even when they know he is morally wrong — taints all of the them, but Badrinath most of all as the main character. He simply has too far to grow within the constraints of the story.

Karan Johar’s role as producer of the film is a problem because his name evokes memories of his own movie about a son challenging his overbearing father: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…. The hero of that film seems vastly more progressive than Badrinath, despite the fact that K3G came out sixteen years ago.

Throughout Badrinath Ki Dulhania, there’s a feeling that Vaidehi deserves better. She and Badrinath may look nice together on the dance floor, but he can’t offer her anything she can’t achieve for herself on her own terms. All the credit goes to Bhatt, whose natural charisma outshines her co-stars.

With such an imbalance among the characters, we’re left with just another movie about a overachieving woman who must choose whether to sacrifice her goals for the sake of a man who wants a trophy for learning how to use a microwave.

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