Tag Archives: 3.5 Stars

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: A Gentleman (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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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)

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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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