Tag Archives: 2 Stars

Movie Review: The Girl on the Train (2021)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Watch The Girl on the Train on Netflix
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It seemed strange for actor Parineeti Chopra and others associated with the Hindi adaptation of The Girl on the Train to tweet a message the day before the film’s release asking people to avoid spoiling the ending of the film on social media. This is a movie based upon another movie based upon a book, all sharing the same name. It’s easy to find plot summaries of the previous two versions of The Girl on The Train online. What could there be to spoil?

In an effort to distinguish this version of The Girl on the Train (TGOTT, henceforth), writer-director Ribhu Dasgupta added and changed elements of the original novel and the Hollywood film based on it. The results of those alterations make TGOTT feel as though it was written for the sake of its plot twists, and not for the purpose of telling a meaningful story.

Parineeti Chopra plays Mira Kapoor, a lawyer living in London and coping with tragedy. Mira and her husband Shekhar (Avinash Tiwary) were in a car accident three years earlier that left her with mild amnesia and caused her to lose the baby she was carrying. She turned to alcohol to deal with the grief, and Shekhar left and married someone new, compounding Mira’s loss.

Every day, Mira takes the train past her old house to torment herself. She’s also become obsessed with a woman who lives a few doors down from her old place who looks like she has the perfect life. Nusrat (Aditi Rao Hydari) is pretty, a beautiful dancer, and has a handsome husband. When Mira rides past the house and sees Nusrat hugging a man other than her husband one day, Mira becomes incensed. She drunkenly goes to Nusrat’s home, determined to stop her from ruining her marriage the way that Mira feels she did with her own relationship with Shekhar.

When Mira wakes up the next day, she has a massive wound on her forehead and no memory of how it got there. Police inspector Dalbir Kaur (Kirti Kulhari) questions Mira, whose identification card was found near the scene of a violent crime that occurred during Mira’s blackout. As Kaur and the cops try to link Mira to the crime, Mira undertakes her own investigation. Could Mira really have been capable of violence, even if she doesn’t remember it?

The success of the movie hinges on Chopra’s performance. Bless her heart, she tries. To be fair, Mira is drunk and angry for most of the film, so it’s not a role that requires much subtlety. But Chopra’s yelling, snorting, and stuporous lolling about push Mira into something more darkly comical than befits the film.

Let’s revisit Mira’s head wound. It covers half of her forehead, and it is disgusting. Why Mira opts not to cover it with a bandage to prevent infection or at least spare others from having to look at it, no one knows. Then again, it doesn’t much matter since only one person even remarks on it — and then only after she’s greeted Mira and hugged her. That no one asks Mira normal questions like “How do you feel?” or “Do you need a doctor?” defies explanation.

The bones of the the story are good, providing director Dasgupta with themes of psychological trauma, women’s fertility, substance abuse, and toxic relationships to draw upon. But in the end he discards them all for a finale that has nothing to say about anything. If the goal of TGOTT is purely to deceive the audience, then mission accomplished, I guess.

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Movie Review: Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare on Netflix

Anemic character development undercuts Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare‘s (“Dolly, Kitty, and Those Twinkling Stars“) ambitions to be a movie about something important. Many important things, really.

The film opens so abruptly that I thought I’d accidentally fast-forwarded through the film’s real opening scene. Within the first three minutes, Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar) confesses to her cousin Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) that Dolly’s husband Amit (Aamir Bashir) hit on her. Dolly dismisses Kaajal’s claim, saying maybe it’s Kaajal who’s hot for Amit. Roll opening credits.

This major family conflict is set up before we’ve learned anything about the characters involved. We don’t know who they are, what their relationships were like before this, or what this means for them going forward.

Without giving us any reason to care about these characters, the story launches them into an escalating series of circumstances to which they must react. Kaajal moves out, but she can only find a bed in a charity boarding house for unwed mothers. There she befriends a Muslim party girl named Shazia (Kubbra Sait from Sacred Games) whose boyfriend’s brother leads a far right Hindu-nationalist gang. Kaajal gets a job as a phone sex operator for an online app — a job that grosses her out since she has zero romantic experience — where she’s given the nickname “Kitty.”

Meanwhile, Dolly is enduring workplace gender bias in order to earn a down payment for a newly built luxury apartment (even though it should be obvious to her that the builders are running some kind of racket). Her marriage with Amit is sexually unfulfilling, and she develops a crush on a cute delivery driver names Osman (Amol Parashar). Also, Dolly’s youngest son Pappu (Kalp Shah) is starting to assert a gender identity that is more feminine than masculine.

The movie presents Dolly and Kaajal with plenty of challenges, but it doesn’t establish a real narrative or explain how the characters need to grow before the story ends. Including as many social justice issues as possible — Kaajal is also threatened with sexual assault by strangers and acquaintances multiple times — takes precedence over plot and character development.

Kaajal is written as so naive and devoid of personality that she seems like she sprung into being just before the movie begins. We can see how Dolly has been shaped by her circumstances, but they seem to have mostly made her mean. She hits Kaajal more than once, and she beats Pappu so seriously after he tries to use the girls’ bathroom at school that it’s difficult to watch.

Sen Sharma and Pednekar give intriguing performances as always, as does Vikrant Massey as a client who uses Kitty’s app. The subplot between Dolly and Osman is compelling and enjoyable. There just wasn’t enough to the characters in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare to truly connect with them

Links

  • Dolly Kity Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare at Wikipedia
  • Dolly Kity Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare at IMDb

Movie Review: Shimla Mirchi (2020)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Sholay director Ramesh Sippy’s Shimla Mirchi spent five years on the shelf before it found a buyer, but the content feels even more dated than that.

The romantic comedy stars Rajkummar Rao as Avi, a grumpy single guy who’s been dragged along on his family’s annual vacation to Shimla. His mood changes when Naina (Rakul Preet Singh) sprints by him, fresh from a photo shoot at her friend’s bridal boutique. One look at Naina’s heaving bosom and toned abs, and Avi is in love.

It is important to note that, in Shimla Mirchi, “love” happens the instant a man sees a beautiful woman. It is also important to note that a woman’s most lovable attribute is her torso, hence why Naina wears crop tops almost exclusively throughout the film. Avi is frequently shown ogling her bare waist, because he’s in love.

Avi’s problem is that he gets tongue-tied whenever he tries to tell a woman that he loves her. (Could the problem be that his instinct is to introduce himself to women he’s never met with “I love you” before “Hi, I’m Avi”?) He takes job at Naina’s cafe in the hopes of getting to know her better. When he still can’t muster the courage to speak up, he writes her an anonymous love letter.

Naina’s not interested in her own beau, but she sees the letter as an opportunity to cheer up her mom, Rukmini (Hema Malini), who’s lonely after her husband Tilak (Kanwaljit Singh) left her for a younger woman. Naina readdresses the love letter to her mom and has Avi deliver it — leading Rukmini to believe that Avi is her secret admirer.

The high-concept story by writers Kausar Munir, Vipul Binjola, and Rishi Virmani yields a number of cute moments, as when Rukmini stops her dance practice to sneak after Avi, bells around her ankles jingling whenever she moves. When Naina realizes that Avi is way overqualified to work as her handyman, she jumps to the wild and funny conclusion that he’s involved in a nefarious international plot that inexplicably begins with the takeover of a small cafe in Shimla.

There’s a nice relationship between Naina, Rukmini, and Tilak’s mother (Kamlesh Gill), who lives with them. Naina has cut off contact with her father, and even his own mother thinks he’s a jerk. They want Rukmini to rediscover her sense of self-worth, and the film doesn’t even hint at trying to reunite the family.

Yet even the best elements of the film are good, but not great. The acting is fine, if uninspired. The story is cute but forgettable. Shakti Kapoor plays the quirkily-named Captain Uncle, who exists to move the plot along when the writers couldn’t think of a better way to do so.

Then there are the elements that make Shimla Mirchi seem like it came out of a time capsule. The mistaking of lust for love and the objectification of Naina’s body are the worst examples. Captain Uncle makes some racist jokes about East Asian languages. Avi has a friend, Jude (Tarun Wadhwa), who rotates through a series of indistinguishable white girlfriends who don’t speak but are always wrapping themselves around him. He ditches the last one when he spots a pretty Indian girl in Desi attire and immediately falls in love with her (naturally).

Shimla Mirchi feels like the product of a filmmaker who started his career back when times were different. When objectifying women was the norm. When you could crack racist jokes because there was no internet and few people outside your intended audience would watch your movies. There’s nothing outrageously offensive in Shimla Mirchi. It just doesn’t feel current.

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Movie Review: The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi takes an in-depth look at a pivotal battle between Indian resistance fighters and British soldiers, but filters it though a morally questionable lens.

The film is an international production, with dialogue in both English and Hindi. Filmmaker Swati Bhise directs her daughter Devika — who co-wrote the screenplay — in the role of Rani Lakshmibai, the titular warrior queen.

Lakshmibai spends only a few minutes narrating the story of her marriage to Gangadhar Rao (Milind Gunaji), King of Jhansi, and the loss of their infant son. The action shifts to Lakshmibai’s preparations for a siege by forces from the British East India Company. In the years since her husband’s death and her assumption of sole rule, her army has been decimated by attempted takeovers by neighboring kingdoms and skirmishes with the Brits. Herself a skilled fighter, Lakshmibai trains the women of Jhansi in the arts of war.

The Brits too are in bad shape. More than a year into a rebellion against the cruelty of the East India Company, their forces are strained, suffering from cholera and heatstroke. It’s up to veteran soldier Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett) to take Jhansi, whether by force or persuasion. Local governor Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) wants blood, but Major Ellis (Ben Lamb) — a former confidant of Lakshmibai — hopes he can convince her to surrender.

When Ellis fails, the war begins. The exhausted Brits fire cannons into the castle walls while Lakshmibai tries to keep up morale inside. Both sides hope for reinforcements. It’s not exciting, but the agony of waiting adds realism. The story provides enough context to understand the stakes for both sides as well as all the key players, whether in India or England.

Bhise plays Lakshmibai as appropriately dignified, but it’s a one-note performance. She’s always in royalty mode, even when she’s alone with her adopted son Damodar Rao (Arush Nand) or her closest servants. The only time we see the woman behind the title is when she’s in mourning.

However, the real problem in The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a moral perspective that places all of the blame for atrocities committed by the British solely on capitalism, and not also imperialism — as if they can be disentangled. In England, Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) frets to her prime minister Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi) that the East India Company’s brutal tactics reflect badly on England (and thus her). When her instructions to quell the rebellion with minimal bloodshed are disregarded, she is sincerely shocked. Yet she never suggests calling off the assault, even though her favorite councilor Saleem (Omar Malik) has family in Jhansi. All she offers are thoughts and prayers, as if she’s powerless and not the single person who could stop it with a word.

Ellis is another example of the “not all Brits” approach the film takes. Despite his obvious infatuation with Lakshmibai, all he offers in her defense are forceful objections. He never risks anything for her sake until it’s too late to matter. Closing scenes explain that he returned to England and started a family — but I’m sure he thought about Lakshmibai from time to time.

England ruled India for another ninety years after the rebellion. The movie notes that the East India Company’s shareholders were compensated for the corporation’s dissolution. While the context is appreciated, I wish The Warrior Queen of Jhansi had kept its focus on Lakshmibai instead of trying to absolve Britain for some of its crimes.

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Movie Review: Saand Ki Aankh (2019)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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The real-life women who inspired Saand Ki Aankh (“Bull’s Eye“) are extraordinary, but the film about their lives is less so, because the actresses who play them are miscast. That isn’t to say that thirty-somethings Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar are bad in their roles. They’re just not convincing playing women in their sixties.

The main factor that keeps the movie from being immersive is that the “old lady” makeup and hair coloring applied to Pannu and Pednekar throughout looks absurd. It’s impossible not to notice it. Their temporary gray hair dye isn’t applied realistically and seems like something that you’d find at a Halloween store, meant to be sprayed on in the morning and washed out at night (if it hasn’t all flaked off by then). The same dye looks especially bad when painted onto Pednekar’s eyebrows. The texture of their face makeup might be passable for a stage performance, but it doesn’t holdup under the gaze of a movie camera.

Pannu and Pednekar play Prakashi and Chandro Tomar, respectively, two sisters-in-law living in a village in Uttar Pradesh in 1999. Their crowded household is shared by their husbands, children, and grandchildren, and governed by their husband’s older brother, Rattan Singh Tomar (Prakash Jha), along with his own wife and offspring.

All of the other performers in Saand Ki Aankh play characters their own age, with Rattan and his brothers played by younger actors in the film’s few flashbacks. Pannu and Pednekar are the only constants, further drawing attention to the age difference between the actresses and their characters. Given how brief the flashbacks are, there’s no logical explanation for why actresses aged closer to sixty weren’t cast in these roles.

Prakashi and Chandro have toiled for decades on behalf of their family: cooking, cleaning, stacking bricks, and each birthing eight children while their husbands lounge about. When Dr. Yashpal (Vineet Kumar Singh) opens a shooting range, promising government jobs to those who excel, the boys in the Tomar family scoff at the notion of working for a living. But Prakashi and Chandro recognize a chance for their granddaughters to break out of the stifling patriarchal system and chart their own destinies.

Secretly, Chandro brings her granddaughter Shefali (Sara Arjun) to the range, while Prakashi accompanies her daughter Seema (Pritha Bakshi). To encourage the two girls, the older ladies take their turns firing, only to discover that they are naturals. Dr. Yashpal convinces Chandro and Prakashi to enter a shooting tournament for seniors. In order to compete, they have to trick their husbands and brother-in-law into letting them travel to the city — no easy feat since Rattan’s strict rules for women includes veiling their faces even inside the house. The ladies pull off the ruse and win the tournament, starting their careers as clandestine sharpshooters.

For all its faults, Saand Ki Aankh is very clear about who Chandro and Prakashi are and what motivates them. They are housewives, and even after they taste success, they don’t expect more from life. When the husband of a fellow shooter talks about how proud he is of is wife, the sisters-in-law can barely understand how that’s possible. They accept that there is nothing they could accomplish that would make their husbands feel proud of them. They can only meet expectations or face potential violence for failing to do so.

It’s refreshing that, even though the story is inspiring, inspiration was never the goal of the characters. Everything Chandro and Prakashi do is for the betterment of the lives of their daughters and granddaughters.

Saand Ki Aankh‘s structuring is awkward, which is unfortunate, since this is the directorial debut of experienced screenwriter Tushar Hiranandani. Though Hiranandani didn’t write this script (which is credited to Balwinder Singh Janjua), perhaps he could have given it a final polish to reorganize it a bit. The film’s opening sequence — which repeats after about an hour when the story catches up to it chronologically — is overly long and not attention-grabbing enough to warrant a double take. Shefali serves as the off-screen narrator for a few random scenes, so it would’ve made more sense to open with her narration and use it consistently throughout. Trimming at least half-an-hour off the overall runtime would’ve helped, too.

The Tomar sisters-in-law have certainly lived lives worth making into a movie. I just wish this one was a little better.

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Movie Review: Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its novelty as a rare Bollywood seafaring epic, Thugs of Hindostan is done in by  predictable character development and a familiar plot focused too heavily on its male protagonists.

The film begins promisingly enough, with Ronit Roy playing the leader of the last Indian kingdom to resist takeover by the British East India Company in 1795. After instructing his young daughter Zafira (played by fierce little Deshna Dugad) on the importance of protecting her homeland, King Mirza plans to attack the Brits at dawn, but the Company’s merciless lead officer Clive (Lloyd Owen) attacks first. Only Zafira escapes with the help of the royal family’s devoted bodyguard, Kattappa…er, Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan).

Fast-forwarding eleven years introduces the swaggering trickster Firangi (Aamir Khan). Firangi’s name means “foreigner,” explaining his willingness to pit Indians against Indians and Brits against Indians, all in the name of making a buck. He has no allegiance to the burgeoning resistance movement threatening the Company, making him the perfect spy to gather information on behalf of Clive’s second-in-command, Officer Powell (Gavin Marshall, who coordinated the circus acts for Dhoom 3, which also starred Khan and was directed by Thugs director Vijay Krishna Acharya).

The rebel leader “Azaad” (“Free”) is really Khudabaksh, assisted by grown up Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who’s become a deadly fighter. The name Azaad is confusing, because it’s hard to tell when the rebel army shouts the word if they’re cheering for the man specifically or the concept of freedom, generally. This is significant because the first character we see in the movie is Zafira as a girl. Thugs should be her revenge saga, but Khudabaksh appears to get all the credit for attacking the Brits — unless the masses really are cheering for freedom and not just for him. Either way, crown princess Zafira winds up playing second fiddle to her bodyguard.

As is the case for many Hindi films, the challenge in Thugs is weighing the needs of the story against the needs of the stars. The stars’ needs clearly trump the narrative in this case. Without Khan or Bachchan — and perhaps with an actress with a longer resume than Shaikh’s — Zafira would be the main character. But one feels a calculus governing the whole plot, and that’s ensuring that the biggest stars get the most screentime. For example, Khan must be onscreen for three-fourths of the movie (I’m estimating), Bachchan for less (but he gets more dramatic entrances), etc. That limits the scope of what other characters are able to do and diminishes their importance.

That calculus is responsible for the absurdly lazy incorporation of Katrina Kaif’s dancer character Suraiyya into the plot. She’s summoned out of the ether as the screenplay demands, with no attempt to make her feel like a person who exists when she’s not onscreen. She’s a character designed for item numbers, nothing more. It’s a shame because Kaif is captivating in her brief dialogue scenes, and there had to have been some way to further utilize the grace and athleticism she displays in the songs “Suraiyya” and “Manzoor-e-Khuda”.

Shaikh is likewise underutilized, despite having the most compelling emotional arc. She and Kaif share a nice moment in which their characters discuss the dangers of revolutionary action (after telling Khan’s chatterbox character to shut up). The film’s high point is a touching scene in which Zafira mourns her family, and Khudabaksh sings her to sleep as he did when she was a girl. The film is lessened for putting Zafira’s thirst for vengeance second to the question of whether Khan’s Captain Jack Sparrow-lite character will finally become a good person (of course he will).

One point in Thugs of Hindostan‘s favor is that they cast British actors who don’t sound ridiculous speaking Hindi, which is not common practice in Bollywood. There are good supporting performances by Roy, Sharat Saxena, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Firangi’s psychic sidekick. Ila Arun has the only other female role of note, giving a funny turn as Jaitumbi, a potion-maker with a crush on the much-younger Firangi.

Thugs of Hindostan has one of the biggest budgets of all time for a Bollywood film, and it gets quite a lot of value for the money. Battle scenes are fun and clever, set against stunning backdrops. The leather armor worn by Zafira and Khudabashk is gorgeous, designed by Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma. Dance numbers are grand in scale.

High production values coupled with decent story pacing are enough to maintain interest while watching Thugs of Hindostan, even if its narrative deficiencies make it ultimately forgettable.

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Movie Review: Gold (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Reema Kagti and screenwriter Rajesh Devraj took some liberties with Gold, their fictionalized account of India’s 1948 Olympic field hockey victory, changing the names of players and minor details while keeping the core of the story intact. Yet the story’s predetermined ending seems to have stumped the filmmakers, as almost every attempt to create tension in Gold feels forced and inorganic.

The events of Gold are told from the perspective of Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar), an assistant manager on the British Indian field hockey team that won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As the world’s most formidable hockey team for many years running, frustration builds among the team at being forced to share their glory with their British oppressors. But with the independence movement growing in strength, Tapan and the team’s captain, Shankar (Kunal Kapoor), hope to one day win the gold for India alone.

World War II cancels the Olympics in 1940 and again in 1944. This is addressed in a song montage that shows Tapan spiraling into despair and alcoholism, but it warranted further exploration. What was it like for those athletes who spent their prime competitive years on the sidelines, particularly those in countries far removed from the theater of war? We learn from Tapan that Shankar became a coach and that another player, Imtiaz Ali Shah (Vineet Kumar Singh), became a freedom fighter, but not how they felt about being unable to compete.

Gold’s greatest fault is that it is too focused on Akshay Kumar’s character. His emotional journey is the only one shown in any real depth, and events are shown exclusively from his perspective. It’s a stark contrast to 2007’s Chak De! India — another patriotic field hockey movie — which managed to establish about a dozen other memorable characters, in addition to a manager played by a superstar actor (in that case, Shah Rukh Khan).

When the war ends and a new Olympic games is announced for 1948 in England, Tapan rushes to assemble a team. With independence from Britain right around the corner, it’s the perfect opportunity to beat the Brits on their home soil. The sports commissioner Mr. Wadia gives his consent, with the provision that Tapan share managerial duties with Mr. Mehta (Atul Kale).

With the former superstar Shankar comfortably retired, Tapan enlists Imtiaz to serve as captain, bringing veteran leadership to a squad of young players with no international experience. Two hopeful new stars include a Punjabi policeman named Himmat (Sunny Kaushal) and Raghubhir Pratap Singh (Amit Sadh), a prince from a noble family.

Yet the plans Tapan and Imtiaz make in anticipation of independence are destroyed by the surprise implementation of Partition. Violence forces Imtiaz and several other Muslim players to flee with their families to the newly formed Pakistan, and the team’s British-Indian players head to Australia. Gold‘s best sequence is the heart-wrenching moment when Imtiaz decides to leave the nation whose independence he fought for, saying: “My country is different now.” His character’s particular struggles warrant a standalone movie.

Sadly, Gold heads downhill from here. The newly assembled team’s training is plagued by problems that promise to generate dramatic tension. Only that tension never really manifests — since the problems are all solved as quickly as they start. Mehta undermines Tapan, but Wadia immediately endorses Tapan’s approach. The team won’t work together, but then they learn to do so in a matter of minutes.

It’s a shame that Kagti and Devraj abandon politics at this point, since it could have been a good source of intra-team conflict, especially since the characters aren’t strictly based on any of the real-life team members. How do working class team members feel about playing with a prince, who seems unaffected by the fallout from Partition? Is Himmat worried about the violence in Punjab while he’s in training? How do any of the other dozen or so unnamed players feel about… well, anything? Instead, the climactic tension is created by one character needlessly withholding information from others — a silly shortcut, given all the potential sources of conflict available.

The acting is uniformly decent, with Singh giving the film’s standout performance. Shah and Kaushal are good as well. Kumar is fine, but the film’s uneven mix of drama and comedy keeps this from being one of his more memorable roles. Mouni Roy — who plays Tapan’s wife, Monobina — likewise suffers for having to perform comedy scenes that aren’t especially funny. Roy is seventeen years younger than Kumar, which makes one wonder why her young, attractive character would marry a much older, intermittently-employed drunk — a question that could have been avoided by casting an actress closer in age to Kumar.

Many of Gold‘s shortcomings could be forgiven if its hockey scenes were exciting, but they aren’t (the few that exist anyway). The Olympic scenes are also hampered by distracting CGI crowds in the background. Contrast that with the thrilling, beautifully-shot hockey scenes in Chak De! India, and Gold is strictly average.

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Movie Review: Vodka Diaries (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Vodka Diaries on Amazon Prime
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Vodka Diaries is uneven as a mystery, yet Kay Kay Menon fans will find plenty to like in the talented actor’s lead performance.

Menon plays Officer Ashwini Dixit, a detective in the small mountain resort town of Manali. He and his wife, Shikha (Mandira Bedi), share a playful antagonism, though their relationship often takes a backseat to his career.

A young woman’s murder leads Ashwini to Vodka Diaries, a swanky hotel’s awkwardly named nightclub, populated by half-a-dozen or so additional characters who wind up involved in the investigation. The introductions of the new characters are poorly integrated into the main story, with Ashwini’s storyline progressing on an entirely different track that only meets with the other plotlines after a half-hour has passed.

It’s not just the length of time that makes the parallel story tracks a problem. The other characters — including a bickering young couple and two friends on a first date — are either uninteresting or annoying (specifically the cloying hotel manager, played by Sooraj Thapar). The only character we assume will be important to the plot going forward is a woman played by Raima Sen, whose defining characteristic is her mysteriousness. But without clear reasons for their presence in the story, the attention paid to these other characters feels like an interruption, pulling our attention away from Menon’s performance.

Thankfully, that all changes when multiple supporting characters are killed, putting the spotlight back on Ashwini as he tries to connect their deaths to the initial murder. Around the same time, it becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with Ashwini–as his sporadic, violent hallucinations increase in frequency and severity (punctuated by effectively jarring sound design courtesy of Jitendra Chaudhary). Ashwini and the audience are equally confused about what is real and what isn’t.

Vodka Diaries is unquestionably Kay Kay Menon’s movie, and he is compelling throughout. The film’s opens with a scene of Menon’s character running through the snowy countryside, and if that was all there was to Vodka Diaries, it would still be riveting stuff.

With her role in Ittefaq last year and now this, Mandira Bedi has become the go-to actor to play a cop’s wife. It would be fun to see Bedi turn her current specialization into a starring role, perhaps as a wife who learns so much by talking to her detective husband about his job that she starts secretly solving crimes on her own. I know I’d pay to watch that.

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Movie Review: Padmaavat (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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A note on 3D: My local theater only carried Padmaavat in 3D, but I recommend watching the film in 2D, if possible. The 3D effects don’t enhance the experience, and the glasses dull the colors and details of the costumes and sets. 3D also adds a visual distance between the subtitles and the action, for those reliant upon subtitles.

Spoiler warning: Because Padmaavat is based on a centuries-old poem, I will discuss the end of the movie in this review.

Filmmakers can choose to make whatever movies they want. Why, then, would Sanjay Leela Bhansali choose to make Padmaavat? Why now, and why tell the story in this way? What does he want his audience to take away from this story? Even after watching the movie, I can’t answer those questions.

Bhansali’s story follows the parallel paths of two 13th century Indian rulers until they converge: the ambitious Muslim warrior Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) and the milquetoast Rajput king Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). While ruthless Alauddin fights the Mongols and steals the sultanate of Delhi from his uncle, Ratan Singh searches for some replacement pearls after he gave away his wife Nagmati’s (Anupriya Goenka) favorite necklace.

Ratan Singh is waylaid in the pearl-producing kingdom of Singala (which resembles the Nopon Braidbridge in Noctilum from Xenoblade Chronicles X, for both of you out there who’ll get that reference), when the princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) accidentally shoots him with an arrow while hunting. They fall in love while he convalesces, and she returns with him to his palace in Chittor as his second wife.

Their trouble begins when the palace priest Raghav Chetan gets busted watching Ratan Singh and Padmavati make out. Banished, Chetan vows to destroy Chittor. He meets Alauddin, telling the sultan — who has an infamous Gollum-like obsession with precious things — that not only is Padmavati the most beautiful woman in the world, but Alauddin needs her in order to fulfill a bogus prophecy that sees him conquer the globe. Alauddin and his army head to Chittor to besiege Ratan Singh’s castle.

This is where things really fall apart for Ratan Singh as a character, at least in the way Bhansali depicts him. Whenever Ratan Singh mentions his “honor”, it signals that he’s about to do something incredibly stupid. On multiple occasions, he either underestimates Alauddin’s capacity for deceit or refuses to kill Alauddin and end the war, citing some mitigating rule of decorum that stays his hand. Whenever Padmavati tells him, “You know it’s a trap, right?” Ratan Singh just smiles and walks right into it.

Charlie-BrownAbove: Alauddin swears to Ratan Singh that this time he really will let him kick the football.

There comes a point when rigidly adhering to one’s principles is selfish, especially when it means not just your own death but the deaths of everyone you love, the deaths of all the innocent civilians you’ve vowed to protect, and the loss of your entire kingdom.

Then again, none of the characters in Padmaavat are written like real people, only symbols for concepts like honor (Ratan Singh), lust (Alauddin), beauty (Padmavati), treachery (Chetan), jealousy (Nagmati), and bravery (the Rajput fighters Gora and Badal). All the other soldiers and civilians are just there to take up space. What happens to them doesn’t matter. We know as much because the end notes only mention the place of Padmavati’s sacrifice in Rajput lore, with no mention of the hundreds of other women who killed themselves alongside her.

Ah, yes, the ritual suicide for which Padmavati is famous. The movie opens with a note that the film does not intend to endorse “sati,” the practice of women immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. That’s a little hard to believe given the glamorized way Bhansali depicts the mass suicide of the women of Chittor following Ratan Singh’s defeat on the battlefield. Rather than be captured by Alauddin’s army, Bhansali shows Padmavati and the palace women (and girls) resolutely marching to their death in an inferno, defiant tears filling their eyes but refusing to drop. The camera cuts away before we see them burn or hear their anguished screams, preserving their memories as paragons of virtue rather than showing the  charred corpses of the terrified victims of male egos run amok.

If Bhansali wanted to dress up Deepika Padukone in elaborate costumes, wasn’t there another ancient Rajput tale he could have picked? One that didn’t make a hero out of a woman for killing herself? Padmavati’s actions — though true to the original poem — don’t even match with her character in the film. As interpreted by Bhansali, Padmavati is a skilled archer and military tactician. Why should we believe that she wouldn’t first try to kill Alauddin herself, rather than follow her husband’s foolish lead and let Alauddin live to besiege another kingdom?

There’s so much more that could have been done with this story, especially since Bhansali appears to have taken some liberties with the original poem (based on a cursory Wikipedia search). The theme of jealousy could’ve been brought to the fore, not just in the rivalry for Ratan Singh’s affection between Nagmati and Padmavati but in the jealousy toward Padmavati felt by Alauddin’s slave and consort, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh). The fact that Alauddin and Malik are lovers and it’s depicted as no big deal is Padmaavat‘s greatest strength.

However, that relationship also plays into the characterization of Alauddin as a dirty, feral creature, one who snarls while tearing meat off the bone with his teeth and who will have sex with anyone. He is also Muslim, as we are constantly reminded by the green flags bearing a crescent moon that flank him at all times. Bhansali goes to such lengths to conflate Alauddin’s base appetites with his religion that it becomes gross.

Singh, for his part, makes the most of his problematic character, overshadowing Kapoor in all of their scenes together. Sarbh likewise seems to enjoy his free rein. Padukone looks regal — as does Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays Alauddin’s wife — but she has little to do once she leaves her forest kingdom.

Virtually all of the scenes between Padmavati and Ratan Singh are shot in slow-motion, the two of them making moon eyes at one another. This reliance on slow-mo — which extends to battle scenes as well — highlights just how little actually happens in the movie, both in terms of plot and character development. Padmaavat looks gorgeous, as Bhansali’s movies always do, but looks aren’t everything.

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Movie Review: Tumhari Sulu (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Actors Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul carry Tumhari Sulu, a task made more difficult by the story’s lack of perspective. It’s hard to tell how first-time feature filmmaker Suresh Triveni expects the audience to feel about his characters and their journey.

Balan plays Sulu, a bored housewife who entertains herself by entering radio contests. Her husband, Ashok (Kaul), ekes out a meager paycheck managing a dysfunctional tailoring shop. Their eleven-year-old son Pranav (Abhishek Sharma) earns money on the side by selling dirty DVDs and magazines to his classmates.

Sulu’s more successful sisters delight in their sibling’s lower-middle-class status, chiding Sulu for not having a job while reminding her that her lack of a degree precludes her from getting a reputable gig, anyway.

When Sulu goes to the radio station to collect her latest prize — a pressure cooker — she notices an ad for a late-night radio show host. She finagles a meeting with the station manager, Maria (Neha Dhupia), who gives Sulu a shot, if only for the chance to laugh at the frumpy, naive housewife. However, Sulu’s sultry delivery is just what Maria is looking for, and a new radio star is born.

Triveni’s story — which he wrote and directed — takes a long time to get to this point without advancing the characters’ development. The plot meanders, never lingering long enough to develop any of the potential themes — topics like Sulu’s self-worth, women’s financial independence, or the challenges of a two-income household — beyond a surface level examination.

Even if one assumes that Triveni is leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, he doesn’t give them enough information to do so, chiefly because the characters don’t have meaningful conversations. Sulu doesn’t take her husband seriously, and she has no friends to confide in. Without substantive dialogues — or even internal monologues — it’s hard to infer what is important to the characters, and there’s only so much meaning we can derive from their actions alone.

Triveni also takes for granted the notion that a family’s ability to function is ultimately a woman’s responsibility. When complications arise concurrent with Sulu’s new job, it’s implied that, even if the problem’s aren’t specifically Sulu’s fault, they are her responsibility to fix. Nevermind that Ashok’s work situation was hardly ideal or that Pranav was already a junior pornographer before Sulu started her radio gig.

As is the case with every movie starting Vidya Balan, she is Tumhari Sulu‘s greatest asset, always fun and engaging. Yet, Kaul’s performance enables Balan to be her best. During Sulu’s and Ashok’s happier moments, the pair are adorable together — an unexpected delight, given that Kaul usually plays villains. Dhupia is a great choice to play a hip radio station manager, but her character is too easygoing to be convincing, given the competitive nature of that industry.

Songs are weirdly integrated into Tumhari Sulu, and the inclusion of random parkour stunts into one of them almost hints at an insecurity about whether the film itself is exciting and cool enough to grab the audience’s attention. Perhaps a co-writer for Triveni would have mitigated some of the burden on Balan’s and Kaul’s shoulders.

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