Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

Movie Review: Stree (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A female ghost teaches the men of a small town to respect women in the hilarious horror comedy Stree, from the filmmaking duo Raj & DK.

Legend has it that, every night during a four-day holy festival, a ghost known only as “stree” — which translates as “woman” — steals any man wandering the town of Chanderi alone at night, leaving only his clothes behind. Residents write “Oh stree, come back tomorrow” on the walls of their homes, hoping to deter the ghost until the festival ends and she disappears until the next year.

Some of Chanderi’s young men doubt the story’s truth, none more so than Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a gifted tailor of ladies’ clothing. He and his cronies Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Janna (Abhishek Banerjee) attend a raucous guys-only house party where one of guests is snatched — right after Vicky pees on the outside wall, washing away the protective writing.

Earlier that day, Vicky met a beautiful woman (Shraddha Kapoor) in need of a new dress, falling in love “at first eyesight,” he brags in English. The woman — who never gives her name — says she’s only in town for the festival, so she needs the dress completed quickly. After the disappearance at the party, Bittu and Janna assume that this mystery woman is “stree”, driving a wedge between the friends right when their survival depends on them sticking together.

My chief complaint about one of Raj & DK’s earlier horror comedies — the 2013 zombie flick Go Goa Gone — is that the jokes dragged on too long, but Stree‘s jokes are crisp and well-timed (as was the humor in the duo’s 2017 action comedy A Gentleman). Perhaps it helped that the duo ceded directorial duties to Amar Kaushik, who does a wonderful job interpreting their screenplay in his feature debut.

The superb cast deserves a ton of credit as well. Rao is charming as a lovestruck dope, and Kapoor gets her character’s befuddlement at Vicky’s naiveté just right. Banerjee primarily works in films as a casting director, but he’s hysterical as Janna. Khurana is great as well, as is the always reliable Pankaj Tripathy as the town’s ghost expert, Rudra. Atul Srivastava — who plays Vicky’s father —  gets a stand-out scene opposite Rao. Dad tries to talk to his son about sexual responsibility, but Dad is so uncomfortable he resorts to euphemisms for everything. Sensing the discomfort, Vicky plays dumb, goading his father to explain exactly what he means by the advice: “Be self-reliant.”

The real surprise of Stree is how deftly it conveys its message of respect for women within such a funny movie. The men of Chanderi — young and old — are all losers in love, too immature to be able to form the kinds of romantic relationships with women that might actually lead to sex (without having to pay for it). It’s a legacy that’s haunted the town for centuries, when “stree” was murdered before her wedding night. Though Stree doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, there’s a narrative justification for it, since this is a story of men learning from one another how to stop objectifying women.

Two of the film’s song numbers help illustrate the men’s progress. “Kamariya” features Nora Fatehi in a more traditional item number, dancing at the house party just before the first man is snatched. The camera focuses on specific features and body parts as she performs in the living room among all the rowdy men. This kind of item number in which a woman dances at the center of a group of male audience members — as opposed to out of reach on a stage — is intimidating, yet the number ends with Fatehi escorted from the party by two bodyguards, letting the movie’s audience know that she was never in any danger. It’s an important cue that most other filmmakers neglect to include in similar numbers.

Contrast “Kamariya” with the closing credits song “Milegi Milegi”. The men in the audience are along the sides of the room while Kapoor dances in the middle of a group of female backup dancers. There are no closeups of specific parts of Kapoor’s body. When Rao joins in, Kapoor first manipulates his body to dance the moves she wants him to before he starts dancing alongside her. It’s a clever way to show the characters’ moral development while also making sure there are enough catchy tunes to fill out the soundtrack.

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Movie Review: Puzzle (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Puzzle opens July 27, 2018, in New York and Los Angeles and in additional cities throughout August.

An innocuous gift makes a homemaker question her life in the insightful drama Puzzle.

We meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she’s fulfilling all of the duties of a party host: serving drinks, picking up the pieces of a broken plate, even taking the time to glue the pieces back together. It’s when she lights the candles on a birthday cake only to blow them out do we understand that this is her party, and she’s not able to enjoy it.

Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman) and their young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams) take her efforts for granted, in part because she’s so good at running a household. She’s detail oriented and attuned to how long each task takes, starting the laundry before she runs to the grocery store so that it’s ready to go in the dryer as soon as she gets home, leaving just enough time to prepare dinner before the men in the family get home from work or school.

She finally loses track of time when she opens one of her birthday presents: a puzzle depicting a map of the world. Agnes flies through it, assembling the 1000-piece puzzle in hours (minutes, maybe) instead of the days it would take most people. She enjoys herself so much that she breaks up the puzzle and does it again, not realizing she’s forgotten to make dinner until Louie and Ziggy walk through the door.

Louie’s dismissal of puzzles as “childish” forces Agnes to pursue her hobby secretly. At a specialty shop in the city, she meets a man in search of a “puzzle partner”: Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy divorcee who is as worldly and intelligent as Louie is parochial and incurious. Robert’s fascination with Agnes and his encouragement of her independence makes her realize how little attention she’s given to her own wants and needs since she became a wife and mother.

Even as a more equitable division of household chores has become normalized, women are still responsible for the majority of housework (even when they are the primary breadwinner). As such, the depiction of Agnes’s plight will resonate with a lot of women. In the immediate term, it’s easier for Agnes to do everything herself rather than ask Louie and Gabe to help (Ziggy sometimes offers), especially since they’d just feign ignorance rather than try. Clean clothes are made dirty again and dinner needs to be cooked every night — an endless loop of mundane tasks that allows precious little time to question one’s purpose in life.

Louie isn’t abusive or mean, but his vision of how life is supposed to be hinges on a wife who accepts her role in it. When Agnes does start to question her part, her rebellion is staged on a small scale. There’s little in Puzzle that could be described as explosive, but the film’s message is impactful nonetheless.

Driving that is a well-constructed script, written by Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff, who wrote and directed the Argentine film of the same name upon which Puzzle is based. The dialogue is direct and memorable, particularly Robert’s explanation for why Agnes finds solving puzzles so satisfying: “When you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices.”

The film’s performances are likewise strong, though Macdonald’s precise dialogue delivery comes off as bit affected and takes some getting used to. Khan at first seems to channel Jeff Goldblum, but quickly makes the role his own. Weiler’s turn as Agnes’s unexpected ally Ziggy is sweet.

Keeping a tight focus on one woman’s evolution helps Puzzle to illuminate a particular aspect of modern gender dynamics. It’s as thought-provoking as it is enjoyable to watch.

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Movie Review: Veere Di Wedding (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Veere Di Wedding (“Friend’s Wedding“) released to higher expectations than usually precede Bollywood buddy comedies, yet its four female leads rose to the challenge, turning out a warm, relatable, and very funny movie.

Well, relatable if you overlook how obscenely rich the characters are, driving around in cars that cost as much as a house (at least here in the Midwest). The only speaking character who isn’t wealthy is a maid who appears in one scene, crying after being beaten by her abusive husband. Her wounds are addressed in a couple of lines before she’s forced to participate in the excitement of one of the rich friends’ upcoming nuptials. It’s one of the film’s few off moments.

The friend getting married is Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan), one of a quartet of lifelong buds that includes stuffy lawyer Avni (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), stay-at-home mom Meera (Shikha Talsania), and drunkard Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar). Reuniting in Delhi for the wedding gives the women a chance to cut loose, but also resurfaces buried conflicts, primarily between the adult children and their parents.

There isn’t really a villain in Veere Di Wedding. The conflict is driven by complicated family dynamics, a boundless well that keeps the plot moving and gives everyone in the audience something to identify with. Kalindi became estranged from her father (Anjum Rajabali) following her mother’s death. Avni’s mom (Neena Gupta) is desperate for her daughter to wed. Meera married a white man named John (Edward Sonnenblick) against her dad’s wishes. There’s tension in Sakshi’s household over demise of her short-lived marriage.

The family of Kalindi’s fiance, Rishabh Malhotra (Sumeet Vyas), is the most colorful source of drama, often literally so. Eager to fill the void left by Kalindi’s mother, Rishabh’s dad (Manoj Pahwa), mom (Ayesha Raza), and aunt (Alka Kaushal) take over the wedding planning, their tacky, kaleidoscopic taste in decor and attire sending Kalindi into a daze. Kapoor Khan’s glazed expressions as they parade garish garment choices in front of her are hilarious.

Yet Veere Di Wedding is careful not to make too much fun of the Malhotra family. Kalindi herself says that she knows how important the pomp and circumstance are to Rishabh’s family, rejecting Rishabh’s offer to tell his family to back off.

That’s what’s amazing about this movie: the characters are so nice. The four friends will do anything for one another. Rishabh and Meera’s husband John are loyal and supportive partners, as are Kalindi’s uncle Cookie (Vivek Mushran) and his boyfriend Keshav (Sukesh Arora). Conflict is borne from hurt feelings and stubborn grudges, not from any inherent malice. The resolution to a subplot involving Kalindi’s well-intentioned stepmother Paromita (Ekavali Khanna) is especially touching.

That good nature makes Veere Di Wedding a joy to watch. Hype over the film’s bawdy language and (tame) masturbation scene is overblown. It’s important that female movie characters be given as wide a range to inhabit as male characters, and Veere Di Wedding does so in an uplifting, unthreatening way. It’s a welcome change to see topics such as sexual compatibility and the changes that happen to a woman’s body following childbirth discussed from a female perspective in a mainstream Bollywood film. Farah Khan’s choreography of the song “Tareefan” — in which white men are treated as eye candy instead of white women — is noteworthy, too.

What gives Veere Di Wedding lasting appeal beyond its present cultural significance is that it really is charming, thanks to the performances by the lead quartet. Kalindi’s bewilderment in the face of her in-laws stands in contrast to Avni’s stuffiness, which is at odds with Sakshi’s constant insobriety. Even maternal Meera goes wild on the dance floor. Kapoor Khan, Kapoor Ahuja, Bhaskar, and Talsania each bring something different to the table, and their efforts combine to make a movie that’s a real treat.

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Movie Review: Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi cinema loves a vigilante, that one good man who fights against a corrupt system. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero takes that template in a fresh, contemporary direction, addressing problems that are uniquely Indian but tie in with struggles being fought around the world.

After the government crushes their political opposition group, young activists Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyali) and Siku (Harshvardhan Kapoor) take their fight for justice to YouTube. Wearing paper bags over their heads, they confront lawbreakers for infractions like public urination and traffic violations, while their videographer buddy Rajat (Ashish Verma) records the encounters.

Years of small-scale victories but no systemic change take their toll on the trio, emotionally and also physically when the occasional video subject decides to fight back. Siku and Rajat are ready to move on, accepting a broken social contract as an annoying inconvenience in their otherwise comfortable middle class lives. Unemployed Bhavesh resents his friends for quitting before the fight is won.

Things come to a head when Bhavesh uncovers evidence of a scam to divert water from the municipal supply. He doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle, but he’s willing to take risks to find them. Siku’s too preoccupied with a potential job transfer to Atlanta and how that will affect his relationship with his girlfriend Sneha (Shreiyah Sabharwal) to care.

India’s water infrastructure problems are uniquely complicated, and basing the story’s big crime around it roots the film in a specific place. Yet the characters’ frustrations are relatable to anyone who isn’t rich.

It’s an especially interesting choice by writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane — whose impressive resume includes Udaan, Lootera, and Trapped — and his co-writers Abhay Koranne  and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to set up a class conflict within the main trio. Siku is an engineer and Rajat a journalist, so they have options that Bhavesh does not. Bhavesh sympathizes with the underclass because he’s a member of it. Champions of workers rights across the globe face the same challenge: how to motivate members of the middle class for whom matters like access to water or healthcare are merely academic, not an urgent need.

Much of the press leading up to the film’s release focused on Harshvardhan Kapoor, the son of a prominent acting family, in his second movie after a disastrous debut (at least from a box office perspective). He’s perfectly fine in this, as are Verma and Sabharwal. The movie’s villains are likewise well acted, although I found their relationships a little complicated due to my unfamiliarity with job titles within the Indian bureaucracy.

The real surprise is Priyanshu Painyuli as Bhavesh. He pivots easily from Bhavesh’s exuberance during happy times to his simmering rage when things start to fall apart. Bhavesh is frequently lit in red to emphasize his righteous anger and revolutionary spirit, and Amit Trivedi’s dynamic score sets the perfect tone.

Even though Bhavesh Joshi Superhero draws from Bollywood’s vigilante legacy, it makes the case that social movements aren’t a solo effort. They require a group of people working together. One person may sacrifice more than the others, but you can’t change the world alone.

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Movie Review: Raazi (2018)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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A young Indian spy marries into a Pakistani military family in the gripping period thriller Raazi, the latest in a string of hit performances by leading lady Alia Bhatt.

Bhatt plays Sehmat, a Delhi college student in 1971 summoned home at the behest of her father, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), to receive two shocking pieces of news. First, Hidayat reveals that he has just months to live. Second, as a spy himself, Hidayat has spent years cultivating a friendship with Pakistani Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), who hinted that the military is planning an attack against India. In order to uncover the plot, Hidayat fixed Sehmat’s marriage to Syed’s son, Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), so that she may act as a spy in her father’s stead.

The movie’s very title (“Raazi” translates to “Agree”) informs us that this isn’t an order but a plan that requires Sehmat’s consent. Hidayat’s fatherly instincts kick in, and he encourages her to go back to college just hours after his revelation. There’s also a sense from Hidayat and other characters of his generation that young people deserve to make their own choices — in contrast to their own youth when the buildup and aftermath of Partition forced them to act out of necessity.

Sehmat agrees to the marriage plan, assuring her father that she’s acting out of an inherited sense of patriotism, not obedience. She undertakes a month of training under Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who also wants to be sure that she’s doing this of her own volition. He’s hard on Sehmat because — even though there’s a plan in place to rescue her in case of trouble — she’ll be largely on her own, responsible for finding intel and relaying it to Mir in secret via a convoluted spy network.

It’s worth noting in relation to Mir that the film’s story — at least initially — is kind of confusing, at least for those whose history education focused on countries other than India or Pakistan. A lot of characters with secret allegiances are introduced right away, and there are mentions of separatist groups — which Mir may have been a part of, I’m not sure — that most of the audience will get, but that flew past white, American me.

After the initial information overload, the story itself and the relationships between characters simplify. Most of the action takes place at the spy training ground or in and around Sehmat’s in-laws’ house, and details of the brewing military conflict are less important than what’s happening to Sehmat. The 2017 multilingual film The Ghazi Attack deals with events in the same time period, and watching it beforehand gave me enough background information for me to walk out of Raazi feeling like I understood what happened.

Raazi is ultimately about its characters more than the military conflict. Sehmat not only faces challenges as a rookie spy but as a new bride as well, forced to integrate into a new family. Pure luck finds her married to a good man who is as surprised by their abrupt betrothal as she is. Iqbal’s compassion allows their relationship to develop naturally, and their romance adds a layer of complexity that Sehmat did not anticipate.

Every actor in this movie is terrific — from key players like Sharma as Sehmat’s kind father-in-law to the guy working at the flower stall and the sympathetic military wives — enabling Raazi to cast a spell that never breaks. Kapur and Kaushal are stellar, whether they are in the background of a scene or if they’re sobbing with the young woman they both love.

Alia Bhatt’s star power is beyond question. She effortlessly portrays Sehmat’s youthful inexperience and her fierce determination, provoking the same protective instincts from the audience that Sehmat inspires in her mentors in espionage. This is a wonderful performance by Bhatt in a thoroughly engrossing film.

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Movie Review: Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the book Tikli and Laxmi Bomb: To Hell with Patriarchy at Amazon

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb plays at the UK Asian Film Festival on March 21 and 22, 2018.

Two women spark a revolution among sex workers in Mumbai in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a wonderful indie film currently doing the festival rounds. The story imparts a tremendous amount of information about the dangers faced by sex workers in an organic and thoughtful way, via endearing lead characters.

The title refers to two types of firecrackers popular in India: one with a short fuse (“Tikli”) and another that burns slower but makes a louder bang (“Laxmi Bomb”). The nicknames are perfect for the main duo. Laxmi (Vibhawari Deshpande) is a long-time sex worker, tasked by her pimp Mhatre (Upendra Limaye) with showing the ropes to the new girl in town, Putul (Chitrangada Chakraborty). Putul earns the nickname “Tikli” after she stabs an aggressive customer.

Laxmi can’t understand why Tikli won’t accept the way things are. Police hassle the women despite Mhatre’s bribes. Their supposed bodyguard A.T. (Mayur More) ignores their phone calls for help. Mhatre takes just enough of the women’s earnings to ensure that they aren’t destitute but can never rise above their current economic situation. World-weary Laxmi has learned to protect herself the best she can within the present constraints.

That acceptance doesn’t suit Tikli. She proposes breaking off from Mhatre and forming their own gang made up of women who will look out for each other instead of suffering abuse at the hands of those claiming to protect them. Laxmi resists until she discovers the extent to which Mhatre and his gang will go to keep the women subjugated. She, Tikli, and a handful of other sex workers set out on their own to change their fates.

As employees in an illegal profession, the women in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb are vulnerable to myriad forms of abuse. The film exposes its audience to many of them in a way that feels narratively consistent, without resorting to the lectures that ruin the flow of many socially conscious mainstream Hindi films. Each new setback the women face on their path to autonomy feels inevitable in retrospect, given the corruption and brutality built into the system.

It is to writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s credit that much of the violence against the female characters occurs off-camera. In the film, rape is used by men as a warning against insubordination and is thus carried out in front of other women. Their horrified reactions show us all we need to see.

Kripalani shares the credit for his enlightened directorial choices with his crew. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb‘s cinematographer, editor, and line producer are all women, as are the heads of costuming, makeup, and other key departments. Co-producer Sweta Chhabria says this deliberately chosen crew “helped the director and the film to lose its male gaze.”

Then there’s the talented cast. The two leads play off one another beautifully, Chakraborty’s impudent Tikli tempered by Deshpande’s pragmatic Laxmi. Divya Unny and Kritika Pande are great as two of the founding members of the gang, and veteran supporting actors like Suchitra Pillai and Saharsh Kumar Shukla help fill out the world.

The film was shot using natural lighting and handheld cameras, giving the film a raw quality appropriate for this view of life on the margins of society. Even with a big Bollywood budget, there’s little one would want to change about Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, so effective is its world-building and so well-organized is its story. Hopefully a successful turn on the festival circuit results in a way for the masses to see Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, because it deserves a wide audience.

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Movie Review: Secret Superstar (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

Uplifting songs and a goofy cameo by Aamir Khan cushion the hard-hitting elements of Secret Superstar, which carefully addresses domestic abuse in a film meant for families. It’s an impressive debut by writer-director Advait Chandan.

Right away, we sense that 15-year-old Insia (Zaira Wasim) has bigger problems than her upcoming music competition and her nosy little brother, Guddu (Kabir Sajid Shaikh). Insia’s mother Najma (Meher Vij) is the only person on the train platform wearing sunglasses when she arrives to pick her daughter up from a class trip. As Insia suspects, Najma is concealing a black eye, courtesy of Insia’s father, Farookh (Raj Arjun).

Though Farookh primarily reserves physical violence for his wife, his anger controls every member of the household. Insia is a talented singer and songwriter, but Farookh considers music frivolous. He’d rather she not even enter a singing contest she’d likely win, if it means having to travel to Mumbai for the final round.

Farookh’s job interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, provides Najma, Insia, and Guddu with a brief respite from his wrath. They use the opportunity to set up an online identity for Insia using a covertly purchased laptop. Insia’s songs become a sensation on YouTube, in part because she records them while concealing her identity under a niqab and posting under the intriguing moniker: Secret Superstar.

As fame and fortune become a real possibility for Insia, the unfairness of her reality intrudes. She’s her little brother’s protector, and her mother’s as well, to the degree that she’s able. The truth is her father would rather have his daughter live by his rules, even if it means forsaking money the family needs. Allowing Insia to pursue her dreams for her own sake would never occur to him.

Secret Superstar is particularly effective at depicting the fraught relationship between mother and daughter. Insia resents her mother for staying with an abusive husband and endangering them all. The girl is partially correct — Najma is better equipped for endurance than daring — but Insia’s immaturity limits her perspective. Najma is illiterate, giving her good reason to worry about her ability to care for her children on her own. Besides, Najma is a safer target for Insia’s frustration than the real perpetrator, her father.

Insia has two important allies. First is Chintan (Tirth Sharma), a nice boy at her school with a crush on her. Since he has a cell phone and she doesn’t, Chintan becomes Insia’s link to her second ally: movie music producer Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan). Blackballed by the industry following an adultery scandal, Shakti is in desperate need of a singer for his new film, and he hopes that Secret Superstar can put him back on top again.

Wasim played Khan’s daughter in 2016’s box office smash Dangal, and the affection the actors share is apparent in their scenes together. That bond helps to integrate Khan’s character into the story, where he serves as comic relief, while also being the only adult in whose presence Insia is truly physically safe. Her home is filled with violence, her school practices corporal punishment, and her tutor ignores the girl’s obvious terror and insists that Insia have her father sign a failed quiz. Shakti doesn’t just offer her hope for the future — he protects her in the present.

Everyone in the cast excels in their roles. Khan is funny and sincere. Sharma is gawky and adorable, and Shaikh is just cute, period. Arjun terrifies even when he’s not raising a fist. But Secret Superstar belongs to Wasim and Vij. Wasim has the presence of a much older and more experienced actress. The quality of the work she’s done in her first two films — which she completed before she even turned seventeen — is remarkable. Vij is likewise captivating and moving in her part, and she and Wasim work beautifully together.

The soundtrack of Secret Superstar — with songs written by Amit Trivedi and sung by Meghna Mishra — suits the film well in that it sounds lyrically and musically like it could have been created by a teenage girl on her guitar. In a clever bit of character-development-by-way-of-musical-arrangement, the song “Main Kaun Hoon” starts as an acoustic YouTube recording session in Insia’s bedroom, only to be re-orchestrated mid-song as she daydreams of performing onstage at an awards show. It’s clever and makes the music more dynamic.

Moviegoers squeamish about violence should know that little contact is shown, with director Chandan instead focusing on the aftereffects (both physical and emotional). Secret Superstar is not to be missed.

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Movie Review: Trapped (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Trapped infuses social commentary into a gripping survival drama about a man locked inside a high-rise apartment. Actor Rajkummar Rao is an ideal leading man for this film.

Rao plays Shaurya, a shy office worker. The film opens with shots of Shaurya at his desk as audio plays of his initial awkward phone calls to his pretty coworker, Noorie (Geetanjali Thapa). She finally agrees to dinner with Shaurya, only to tell him that she’s getting married in two months. Still, they date and fall in love to the song “Hai Tu” as the opening credits roll, an effective way to quickly encourage our fondness for the couple.

Noorie tries to break up with Shaurya, despite her feelings for him. Even if they eloped, they can’t live in Shaurya’s one-bedroom bachelor pad with his five roommates. Shaurya promises to find them an apartment before she has to leave for her wedding in two days’ time, an outrageous proposition on his limited budget.

Shaurya meets a broker (played by Yogendra Vikram Singh) who makes him an offer that is clearly too good to be true — a spacious apartment in a brand new high-rise for exactly the amount Shaurya says he can afford, and he can move in immediately. In his haste, Shaurya ignores obvious red flags, such as the fact that literally no one else lives in the 35-story building.

After a night in the apartment, Shaurya wakes to find his phone battery drained thanks to the building’s spotty electrical service. He gets just enough of a charge to receive a frantic call from Noorie, about to depart for her wedding. Shaurya leaves, ducks back in the apartment to grab his phone, only to have the wind slam the door shut, his keys dangling from the lock outside and trapping him within.

Thus begins Shaurya’s nightmare, his panic over being unable to reach Noorie giving way to the greater horror that he’s stuck, and no one knows where he is. He left his bachelor pad with the announcement that he was going to his parents’ place, not that his stoned roommates even noticed what with their favorite nature show host Hawk McNab (Patrick Graham) on the tube.

Hawk appears to Shaurya in a hallucination at one point, and the visit by the hyper-competent outdoorsman emphasizes how utterly ordinary Shaurya is in comparison. Unlike other survivor film protagonists, he has no special skills. Mark Watney may be millions of miles away in The Martian, but he’s still an astronaut. Nancy can treat her shark bite in The Shallows because she’s a med student. Shaurya is just a guy with one packet of cookies and an extra pair of underwear.

This allows the audience to more fully step into Shaurya’s shoes. His desperate escape attempts are almost frustrating for their lack of cleverness, but only because we’ve been trained to expect survival movie heroes who are smarter than we are. The fact that Shaurya lasts long enough to provide material for a feature-length film is testimony to will to live, which may be the most important survival skill after all.

Rao is perfect as an everyday man put in an impossible situation. His performance is balanced, with just a few fits of hysteria to punctuate the otherwise numbing boredom of the situation. Rao’s best moments are when yet another of Shaurya’s plans fails, and he simply sits there with tears welling in his eyes but never falling. He’s too defeated to even cry.

Trapped provides a fitting metaphor for a number of modern conditions: capitalism; the imbalance of the renter-landlord relationship; middle class aspirations; arranged marriage. Shaurya winds up stuck in a life-or-death situation, and for what? Eloping with Noorie would raise a whole host of new problems. Their happy-ever-after would still see them stuck in an endless capitalist loop, with Shaurya struggling to provide for Noorie on the insufficient income from his boring office job just so that their kids could grow up to do the same thing. Is that enough? Maybe we’re all trapped.

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Movie Review: A Gentleman (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the song “Bandook Meri Laila” at iTunes

A Gentleman delivers on its promise to be a funny, sexy action entertainer.

Strait-laced Gaurav (Sidharth Malhotra) wants nothing more from life than a nice house, a wife, kids, and a reliable car. While the wife and kids are still a work in progress, Gaurav is the proud new owner of the safest minivan on the market and a McMansion in the Miami suburbs. The dining room furnishings are from Pottery Barn and the kitchen Crate & Barrel, he proudly tells his guests.

Gaurav’s top candidate to fill the “wife” part of his dream is his peppy colleague, Kavya (Jacqueline Fernandez). She genuinely likes Gaurav, but he’s too boring for her taste. She wants a husband who suits her free-spending, fast-driving lifestyle.

While Gaurav gets advice from his married co-worker, Dikshit (Hussain Dalal), on how to appeal to Kavya’s wild side, the action shifts to Bangkok. A group of secret agents infiltrate the Chinese embassy, led by Rishi (also Malhotra), a dashing James Bond-type who’s a dead-ringer for Gaurav. This is the dynamic man Kavya has been dreaming of.

Following a botched safe-cracking attempt and subsequent motorcycle chase, Rishi and his crew — which includes his trigger-happy accomplice Yakub (Darshan Kumar) — return to headquarters to meet with their leader: The Colonel (Suniel Shetty). Rishi is tired of life as a extrajudicial assassin for Unit X, desiring instead a quiet family life in a home he can call his own — exactly the life that Gaurav has.

When his appeals to patriotism and personal loyalty don’t work, The Colonel offers to let Rishi go after one last job. Rishi and crew just need to intercept a package in Mumbai. Meanwhile, in Miami, Gaurav is chosen to deliver sensitive information in person to a client located — where else? — Mumbai!

Unlike previous films by the directing duo Raj & D.K. and their co-writer Sita Menon, A Gentleman is well-paced, allowing enough time to linger on details without ever feeling slow. The movie also establishes a sense of place, familiarizing the audience with the layout of Gaurav’s neighborhood and paying off that familiarity later on.

There are some great jokes in A Gentleman aimed at the US. Asked if she knows how to shoot, an exasperated Kavya says, “It’s America,” before cocking her gun like a pro. A laundromat owner named Jignesh (Amit Mistry) is tasked with finding someone, so he activates his spy network: the Desi Store Mafia Group, made up of the owners of Indian grocery stores and restaurants across Miami. My high school friend Ramya once lamented that there were no secrets within the local desi community, and attributing that to an organized business syndicate is pretty funny.

Malhotra and Fernandez suit this material, and not just because they are both gorgeous and fit for skimpy Miami attire. They bring energy to action scenes, heat to romantic sequences, and they share a nice rapport during lighter, humorous moments as well. It’s always a treat to watch Fernandez dance, and thankfully she gets a good soundtrack to dance to, including the Sachin-Jigar bop “Bandook Meri Laila.”

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Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the movie at Amazon or iTunes
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

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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