Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Our true natures are hard to hide. They find a way of bubbling to the surface, even during trying times. Such is the lesson learned by Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, a movie about his real-life love story with his wife, Emily Gordon.

Nanjiani plays a version of himself in the movie, which was co-written by Gordon. “Emily” is played onscreen by Zoe Kazan. The film isn’t a strict biopic, as the action takes place in the modern day, and not when the couple met in the mid-2000s.

Kumail and Emily meet at a Chicago comedy club following one of his standup sets. As a busy grad student, she’s only looking for a one-night-stand, but love blossoms anyway. They make an adorable couple who genuinely like one another.

Yet Kumail’s family presents a huge obstacle to their future together, his parents having brought their traditional concepts of marriage with them from Pakistan when they moved to the United States more than a decade earlier. When Kumail’s dad, Azmat (Anupam Kher) refers to a cousin and “that white woman he lives with,” Kumail corrects him: “They’re married.”

Kumail’s mom Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) is so determined to find her son a Pakistani-American bride, she arranges a series of eligible young women to “drop by” when Kumail happens to be home for dinner. Emily’s discovery of the ongoing matchmaking attempts — and Kumail’s refusal to mention their relationship to his parents — crushes her.

Kumail’s unwillingness to be honest with his parents about his future plans doesn’t only weigh on him and hurt Emily. It keeps his parents from being able to accept their son for who he is: a  product of two national cultures.

All the women that Kumail’s mother parades in front of him are victimized by his indecision, as well. He dismisses the idea of arranged marriage, but these women don’t. Meeting them wastes their time and unfairly raises expectations. One woman, Khadija (Vella Lovell) — who herself is quite a catch — calls Kumail out for his self-centeredness. (If there are to be any other movies set in The Big Sick universe, I’d love to see a romantic comedy with Khadija as the main character.)

Kumail’s true nature can’t hide forever, especially not when he’s faced with a crisis. Days after an explosive break-up fight with Emily, she’s hospitalized with a an illness. It falls on Kumail to contact her parents — Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) — who aren’t pleased to meet the man who broke their daughter’s heart. Kumail’s awkward small talk results in an off-color 9/11 joke, because that’s who he is: a comedian.

The affection Nanjiani and Gordon have for each other and their families is evident in the script, delivered lovingly by a dream cast. Updating their story for cinematic purposes allows director Michael Showalter to set a pace that provides room to breathe but never feels slow. Best of all, The Big Sick, is very, very funny.

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Movie Review: Hindi Medium (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi Medium strikes a perfect balance between the academic and the emotional, humorously illustrating how the class system impacts education.

While the title refers to the language of instruction — Hindi versus English — the film’s lessons translate internationally. The story is as relevant to America as it is to India, so audiences worldwide can easily connect with the material.

Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Mita Batra (Saba Qamar) own a successful bridal store in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk neighborhood. Though they have plenty of money, overprotective Mita worries that their middle-class status will limit future opportunities for their preschool-aged daughter, Pia (cute Dishita Sehgal). Mita convinces her reluctant husband to move to a fancier neighborhood, hoping that will help Pia gain entrance to one of the city’s prestigious elementary schools.

While the family has the money to afford their lifestyle upgrade, they lack the cultural and social capital to take advantage of it. Raj’s local tastes in music and food embarrass Mita in front of the Continental types she wants to befriend. Kids ignore Pia because she’s not English-fluent. When the Batras ask the few influential people they do know for help, they’re told that personal recommendations are taboo among this set. Bribery? Don’t even think about it.

There are myriad codes and status signifiers that Raj and Mitra don’t know about and have no hope of mastering, even with the help of a professional school-placement coach (Tillotama Shome). On top of that is an absurd layer of bureaucracy instituted by the schools simply because they can.

The most damning indictment of the class system is when the coach shares with them a common placement interview question for parents: “How will you introduce the concept of poverty to your child?” The children at these elite schools are so privileged and sheltered that they’ve never encountered a poor person, even in a city as crowded as Delhi.

The poor people from a nearby neighborhood already know that the system is rigged against anyone not from the upper crust, something Raj and Mita gradually realize for themselves. The couple finds a loophole when they learn that twenty-five percent of the spots at the elite schools are reserved for economically underprivileged students, who compete for spots via a lottery. The Batras decide to pose as poor temporarily in order to win one of the lottery spots, shifting house once again.

Writer-director Saket Chaudhary depicts the Batra’s behavior as reprehensible, but almost logical, using humor to ensure that the audience never loses affection for the characters. The Batra’s economic and social standing puts them in a uniquely desperate situation, especially within India where job inheritance within families is common. They’re successful enough to envision a broader future for their daughter beyond the walls of a Chandi Chowk bridal boutique, but doing so means breaking out of entrenched class hierarchy.

Chaudhary deserves kudos for the way he illustrates complex ideas like class and social capital, but particularly so for how he explains the importance of public schools — an ideal that mainstream American conservatives and liberals alike have forgotten, thanks to intense marketing by the for-profit charter school industry. The head of the local government school explains to the Batras that, when middle- and upper-class families put their children in private schools, it deprives the public schools of resources.

The director also makes an important point about poverty through the character of Shyam (Deepak Dobriyal), a kind neighbor who helps the Batras adjust to their newly “poor” status. “Living in poverty is an art,” he explains, as he and his wife Tulsi (Swati Das) teach Raj and Mita a whole new set of social skills appropriate for their diminished standing. Shyam insists that the poor don’t want charity, they want their rights. Just using the word “rights” scoffs at the idea that “opportunity” is enough.

Hindi Medium falls prey to some of the pitfalls of the Bollywood “issue movie” formula. There’s an awkwardly placed song number that interrupts the build-up to the climax, which is Raj giving a speech that no one has any reason to listen to. Chaudhary tries to invert the cliché with a twist on the requisite audience “slow clap,” but that’s trying to have it both ways.

Thanks to his immense talent, Khan comes out of this speech unscathed, the movie cementing his status as the thinking-person’s leading man of choice. Qamar handles Mita’s complexities beautifully, making even her most maddening qualities understandable. Yet another thing director Chaudhary does well is writing every character with their own goals and motivations. Having accomplished performers like Dobriyal and Amrita Singh (as the prep school principal) in supporting roles certainly helps.

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Movie Review: Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Meri Pyaari Bindu (“My Sweet Bindu“) puts a clever spin on a familiar story in a way that allows its talented lead couple to shine. Debutant screenwriter Suprotim Sengupta is one to watch.

Bollywood is awash in stories about a man who falls for a woman — often based on the woman’s appearance alone — who then makes it his mission to win the woman’s affections in return. These one-sided romances are often portrayed as a matter of destiny: the woman simply doesn’t realize that she’s meant to be with the man, so he must convince her. Meri Pyaari Bindu also tells a love story from a man’s perspective, but he is not some hero of destiny. He’s just a guy.

Abhi (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a successful — if slightly embarrassed — writer of pulp horror-romance novels living in Mumbai. He’s spent three years struggling to write a love story of literary merit. His concerned parents dupe him into returning to Kolkata in order to shake his writer’s block and force him to interact with the outside world once again.

The problem is Abhi’s obsession with “the one that got away”: Bindu (Parineeti Chopra), his childhood sweetheart. The mementos he finds in his parents’ home — most significantly a mix tape of old movie songs — prompt Abhi to write about his past with Bindu.

This version of the past is deliberately told from Abhi’s point of view, and it can’t be taken as a completely objective, even in his characterization of Bindu. In his recollection, the first thing she did upon meeting him was to hand him a pair of headphones, instructing him: “Listen to this. It will change your life.” The scene is a direct reference to Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, one of the most commonly cited examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope — a free-spirited female character written as a romantic interest for a stuffy or depressed male character. The fact that Bindu and Abhi are six-years-old when this happens highlights the absurdity of Abhi’s perception of Bindu as his own personal wake-up-call.

As Abhi’s recollections progress forward in time, it becomes apparent to both him and the audience that there’s more to Bindu than her carefree persona suggests. She has plans of her own that may not include Abhi. Both of them learn as they get older that holding on too tightly to dreams that cannot be will only hurt the dreamer.

It’s a risky move to establish Bindu as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, since it requires the audience to invest enough in her to enjoy the payoff as she is revealed to be a nuanced character in her own right. Sengupta successfully pulls it off, and in doing so tells an unconventional but totally relateable love story. Debutant director Akshay Roy shows a knack for commercial cinema in the way he interprets Sengupta’s tale.

Few actors do “exasperated” better than Khurrana, and he gets to deploy his best hangdog expression liberally in Meri Pyaari Bindu. He’s a fine match for Chopra, who gets a wider range of emotions to work with in the film, from spunky to defeated to resolute. Her performance during a scene in which Bindu faces harsh reality is particularly moving.

It’s refreshing to see a Hindi romantic-comedy that knows how to bend the rules of the genre to make something that feels new. Meri Pyaari Bindu trusts in the intelligence of its audience, and the audience is rewarded for watching it.

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Movie Review: Lion (2016)

lion3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Lion releases in theaters across North America on Christmas Day.

Lion‘s heart-wrenching international odyssey is carried on the tiny shoulders Sunny Pawar, the adorable star of this true story of a lost Indian boy’s attempt to find home.

5-year-old Saroo (Pawar) lives in a village in Madhya Pradesh with his preteen brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), baby sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki), and their mother (played by Priyanka Bose). Guddu and tiny Saroo do a variety of odd jobs — legal and otherwise — to supplement their mom’s wages as a laborer.

One night, Guddu takes Saroo with him on the train to look for work in a neighboring town, leaving Saroo asleep on a bench on the train platform. After Saroo wakes up alone, he searches for Guddu on an empty passenger train before dozing off in one of the seats. When Saroo wakes again, the train is moving, and it doesn’t stop for two days.

Saroo ultimately winds up in Calcutta, more than 1,000 kilometers from home. He doesn’t speak the local language, and he couldn’t explain where he was from even if he did because he’s just a little kid. As far as he knows, his mother’s full name is “Mom.”

His cleverness and adaptability help him survive on the street for months, staying fed and avoiding child traffickers. He’s so competent that it’s easy to forget that homelessness is just as new to him as the city and the language.

What makes this sequence so effective is that little Sunny Pawar is the picture of childhood vulnerability, with skinny limbs, chubby cheeks, and giant, brown eyes. His very being calls out to evolutionary parental instincts: “Protect me!” Yet, as Saroo, he’s overlooked by most adults as just another street kid. (A note at the film’s end states that 80,000 children go missing in India every year.)

Eventually, Saroo winds up in an orphanage that looks more like a prison. The staff do what they can to find the boy’s mom under the limitations of Saroo’s knowledge and communication technology circa 1986 (i.e. an ad in the local newspaper). When their efforts fail, kindly Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval) shows Saroo a photo of John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley: his new adoptive parents from Australia.

After a typical Tasmanian childhood, Saroo (played as adult by Dev Patel) moves to Melbourne for a course in hotel management, falling in with a group of international students that includes some Indians. Meeting them awakens buried memories of his birth family, inspiring a years-long quest to determine exactly where he’s from.

When Saroo starts his search in 2008, he has at his disposal the satellite images of Google Earth and tables of historic data on train speeds. Even if he’d wanted to look for his birth family at a younger age, the technology to do so wasn’t widely accessible.

Despite the cast’s star-power, most of the supporting roles feel peripheral to the story. That applies especially to Rooney Mara as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who exists just to be pushed away by Saroo as he becomes obsessed with his research. Wenham is solid in his few scenes, and Kidman shines in a monologue about why she adopted Saroo.

An important character who could have used more screentime is Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), another orphan from India the Brierley’s adopted after Saroo. Young Mantosh (played by Keshav Jadhav) arrives in Australia with a load of emotional and behavioral problems, probably as a result of whatever accident left all the scars on his head. The boys share a fraught relationship that boils over when Saroo’s search reminds him of the kind older brother he had before Mantosh.

Bollywood fans will recognize a number of actors like Bose, Naval, and Pallavi Sharda. Stars Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have small but memorable parts as well.

Patel’s performance is compelling, as Saroo’s life crumbles under the weight of trying to appease two mothers: one who’s still searching for him and another who’s afraid of losing him herself. The cocky young man who starts the program in Melbourne is gradually replaced by a shaggy haired, wild-eyed loner who hallucinates his long-lost family.

But Lion ultimately belongs to Sunny Pawar, who is quite skilled for such a young actor. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him.

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Movie Review: Force (2011)

force3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Force is a damned fun movie, successfully integrating Bollywood’s signature “everything under the sun” approach to storytelling into an exciting action film.

Force opens with a man we later learn is named Yash (John Abraham) being thrown out of a window and over a cliff’s edge. He scales the cliff, only to collapse — body riddled with bullets — at the top. Taken by his friends to a hospital, his consciousness wavers as a surgeon begins to operate. Yash remembers… a montage?

Specifically, it’s a song montage featuring a beautiful woman named Maya (Genelia D’Souza). The song’s lyrics list the qualities any Bollywood heroine must possess: “The looks and complexion, the gait and attitude.” Maya certainly fits the bill.

The flashback takes us through Yash’s unconventional meet-cute with Maya, scaring her as he beats up drug dealers by throwing a motorcycle at them. Maya assumes — as do we — that tattooed, beefed-up Yash is a thug himself. A series of misunderstandings reveal Yash to be an undercover narcotics officer.

Acting on tips from an informant, Yash assembles a team of officers to help him obliterate the local drug trade: the veteran, Atul (Mohnish Bahl); the rookie, Mahesh (Ameet Gaur); and the loose cannon, Kamlesh (Kamlesh Sawant).

Meanwhile, Yash struggles with his desire to let Maya into his life. Atul’s wife, Swati (Sandhya Mridul), chides him for using Maya’s safety as an excuse to push her away. Swati explains that the wives of police officers know what they are getting into, and that it’s okay for Yash to allow himself to love. Cue the requisite romantic song number featuring Maya in a formal gown atop a sand dune!

However, Yash and his crew don’t realize that their successful operation opened the door for a new gang to take the drug trade in a more violent direction. Aided by his brother, Anna (Mukesh Rishi, best known as Bulla from Gunda), the sadist Vishnu (Vidyut Jammwal) returns from faking his death abroad to make the lives of Yash and his crew into a living hell.

Jammwal’s martial arts background makes him such an asset in action films. His skills enable impressive fight scenes that don’t rely upon wires and stunt doubles. Note how much longer the camera lingers on Jammwal during action sequences as compared to the quick cuts when Abraham fights.

Director Nishikant Kamat does some smart work in Force — aided by cinematographer Ayananka Bose and editor Aarif Sheikh — especially when it comes to storytelling efficiency. For example, when Yash and his crew concoct their plan to take out the gangs, the dialogue is delivered as though it is part of one continuous conversation, yet the camera cuts between the various groups of people involved at different points in the plan’s development. The first shot shows Yash receiving partial instructions from his boss; the second features Yash conveying the next set of instructions to his crew; then back to the boss, and so on. The audience knows that everyone involved is up to speed, without having to hear the same instructions twice.

Most impressive of all is a haunting song sequence that juxtaposes a funeral with violent action. As a mournful hymn builds to a crescendo, the camera cuts between mourners crying next to a pyre and Yash’s crew taking bloody revenge. It’s absolutely riveting, one of my favorite Hindi film song sequences of all time.

Force balances its darker elements with lighter ones, too. D’Souza is bubbly in the very best sense of the word, and her character gives Yash plenty of reasons to smile, bringing out Abraham’s softer side as a result. Swati, Atul, and the other members of the crew are sympathetic and well-developed, fleshing out the world in which Yash lives.

And then there’s that fight scene where Yash’s and Vishnu’s shirts simultaneously rip off for no good reason. Who wouldn’t be charmed by that?

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Movie Review: Angry Indian Goddesses (2015)

AngryIndianGoddesses3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A great opening sequence, compelling characters, and an unexpected climax make Angry Indian Goddesses a treat from start to finish.

Director Pan Nalin finds an inventive way to introduce the film’s six main characters, showing each woman encountering some form of sexism. Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande), a maid, is catcalled on her way to work. Housewife Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) overhears men commenting about her physique at the gym. Singer Mad (Anushka Manchanda) gets heckled during a performance. Jo (Amrit Maghera), an actress, is chided by her male director for not acting sexy enough as a damsel in distress.

Some of the sexism the characters experience has to do with traditional concepts of femininity rather than sexual harassment. A client mansplains how to shoot an ad for fairness cream to experienced photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias). CEO Su’s (Sandhya Mridul) employees expect her to show more compassion to her opponents in a land dispute.

As the background music builds to a crescendo, the women reach their boiling points, the camera cutting from woman to woman as each explodes in rage. It’s fun and satisfying, calling out to the desires of women to get really angry in a society that often demands that we repress those urges, lest we be viewed as unladylike.

Particularly satisfying are the responses of the women who are sexually harassed. Pammy tells off the muscly bro ogling her and drops a weight on his foot. Mad leaps off the stage to attack her heckler. Lakshmi grabs her harasser’s testicles and squeezes. The catharsis of the opening sequence alone makes Angry Indian Goddesses a worthwhile watch.

The characters are a group of old friends who gather at Frieda’s house in Goa, where Lakshmi works as a maid. Frieda is getting married, though she won’t say to whom. Her refusal to disclose the identity of her betrothed and the group’s patience with her deflections are the only unbelievable parts of the film.

As the pals reconnect, it becomes clear that their friendships aren’t as close as they once were. Frieda’s relocation to Goa is itself a surprise, as is Mad’s depression over her stagnant music career. Lakshmi’s legal troubles also affect the dynamic in the house.

After several days, the group is joined by Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a friend of Frieda’s who also happens to be the source of the land dispute troubling Su. Nargis’ integration into the group is awkward, though perhaps that’s to be expected given her enmity with Su and lack of connection to the other women.

If Angry Indian Goddesses were to just be a movie about a group of women reevaluating their lives and relationships while on vacation, that would be enough. The performances are that good. But that’s not where the story goes. Nalin steers the narrative toward a thrilling climax, providing a novel payoff that enables the characters to fulfill a wish expressed by Nargis: that women be allowed to author their own stories.

Narrative focus is nicely balanced between the characters, giving opportunities for all of the performers to shine. There are no duds in the bunch, and it’s nice to discover actresses who — unlike Chatterjee — don’t have many lead roles to their credit.

The one who steals the show is Pavleen Gujral as Pammy. Pammy is the most traditional of the friends, wearing a sari to a beach vacation, and Gujral portrays her as funny, challenging, and relatable. Gujral doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page yet, but I’m hoping that changes as offers flow her way following her winsome performance in Angry Indian Goddesses.

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Movie Review: A Flying Jatt (2016)

AFlyingJatt3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A Flying Jatt is a throwback to a time when superhero movies could be colorful and silly instead of grimly serious. It’s so much fun.

One nice feature of genre films is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Drawing on classic examples like Christopher Reeve’s Superman films and Michael Keaton’s Batman allows writer-director Remo D’Souza to add specific cultural influences to a formula that is proven to work. For years, filmmakers have tried to create an Indian superhero from scratch, but none has been as successful as D’Souza is here.

Tiger Shroff plays Aman, a martial arts instructor with low self-esteem. He’s lived in the shadow of his heroic, deceased father for so long that he feels no one can see him for who he is. That goes for both his disappointed mother (Amrita Singh) and Kirti (Jacqueline Fernandez), a chipper fellow teacher with whom he’s secretly in love.

Aman’s mom and Kirti aren’t his only problems. The school’s music teacher, Goldie (Sushant Pujari, without the curly hair he sported in ABCD), is trying to woo Kirti. More importantly, an industrialist named Malhotra (Kay Kay Menon, with a perm) wants to tear down the colony where Aman’s family lives, including a sacred tree bearing a Sikh Khanda symbol.

Aman isn’t as religious as his mom, so he’d rather sell their land to Malhotra to avoid a confrontation. Mom’s refusal prompts Aman to visit the tree one rainy night to beg God to protect his mother. There he finds a large Aussie named Raka (Nathan Jones of Mad Max: Fury Road) poised to take down the tree with a chainsaw at Malhotra’s behest.

The two men engage in a fight, during which Raka slams Aman against the tree’s Khanda symbol. Lightning strikes, imbuing Aman with superpowers and launching Raka far away into one of Malhotra’s piles of toxic waste. Raka emerges from the sludge hand-first — a la Jack Nicholson’s Joker — as a monster who feeds on pollution.

In keeping with his character development, Aman doesn’t automatically embrace his superhero status. His brother, Rohit (Gaurav Pandey), is the first to fully understand what has happened to Aman, triggering a funny scene in which Rohit and Mom take turns stabbing a sleeping Aman just so they can watch his wounds heal immediately.

Mom and Rohit enthusiastically select a costume for Aman and study old Superman films for tips on proper flying techniques. However, Aman is still the same timid guy he always was, scared of dogs and too nervous to fly more than a few feet above the ground. Televised reports of his successful hostage rescue are equal parts inspiring and embarrassing.

Ultimately, it’s Rohit that makes the point to both Aman and the audience that real heroes are those who stand up to evil without superpowers to protect them. This is a family-friendly film, so messages about bravery and environmental stewardship are made explicit for the benefit of kids. D’Souza lays the environmentalism on pretty thick, but it fits with the tone of the film.

D’Souza delivers on his vision for A Flying Jatt, turning limitations into strengths. Fight scenes that rely heavily on slow-motion and harnesses emphasize the movie’s retro vibe. A Flying Jatt doesn’t have a big Hollywood budget, but it doesn’t need one.

I was unimpressed by Shroff in his two previous films, but he’s really good in this. His physical gifts are on display again — both in terms of his impressive martial arts skills and abs — but he’s also funny and vulnerable. It took a well-written character to allow Shroff to show his charming side.

Pandey’s endearing performance is essential to the film’s success. Rohit not only guides Aman through his hero’s journey, but he has motivations of his own. Envious of his brother’s abilities, Rohit dons the Flying Jatt costume — only to have their mother mistake him for Aman and break a coconut on his head.

Instead of the sexy characters Fernandez often plays, Kirti is cute, her playful punches among the only things that still hurt Aman after his transformation. Kirti wears glasses, which in a typical movie would require removal via a makeover sequence, so that she could finally realize how pretty she is. In A Flying Jatt, the only time she takes them off is for dance numbers, which is more a practical matter than an aesthetic one. When Aman finally tells Kirti that he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, she’s still wearing her glasses.

For a movie aimed at a family audience, A Flying Jatt is a little long. The song “Beat Pe Booty” feels more appropriate for the closing credits than the run-up to the climax. Failing to pit Shroff against Pujari in a dance battle is a missed opportunity (but maybe there’s room for it in a sequel?).

D’Souza never disappoints as a choreographer, but he’s become a really good director as well. I loved the dance flick ABCD, and now he’s created a terrific superhero movie. The world needs the kind of fun films that D’Souza makes.

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