Tag Archives: 3 Stars

Movie Review: 102 Not Out (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A centenarian father tries to loosen up his grumpy, geriatric son in 102 Not Out, a funny, poignant take on parent-child relationships.

102-year-old Dattatraya Vakharia (Amitabh Bachchan) announces to his 75-year-old son Babulal (Rishi Kapoor) his intention to become the world’s longest-lived man, breaking a record held by a Chinese man who lived to 118. Dattatraya claims that the current record holder said in an interview that “old, boring, unenthusiastic people are more injurious to health than cigarettes.”

That description fits Babulal to a tee. He’s cautious and cranky, and nothing makes him happy — a perfect foil to his fun-loving, curious father. Dattatraya believes the best way to protect his own health and beat the record is to remove Babulal’s negative influence from his life. Dattatraya hands Babulal a brochure for an old folks’ home and tells him to pack his bags.

When a flustered Babulal protests, Dattatraya offers him a way out. Babulal can stay if he agrees to perform a series of tasks determined by his father, designed to shake Babulal out of his routine. To make the agreement official, the tasks are logged and witnessed by Dhiru (Jimit Trivedi), a 30-something pharmacy delivery man Dattatraya adopts as his sidekick.

Fulfilling Dattatraya’s conditions initially brings the three men closer together, but as they get closer to the heart of Babulal’s unhappiness, Dattatraya’s unorthodox prescriptions threaten to drive a permanent wedge between them.

Director Umesh Shukla’s picturization of Saumya Joshi’s play touches on a number of interesting themes, some of which seem in opposition to one another. Dattatreya demands that Babulal change, but he also wants Babulal to accept people as they are — chiefly Babulal’s absent son, Amol. While he’s busy wishing for a more gratifying relationship with Amol, Babulal ignores the fact that there’s a young man, Dhiru, who’s happy to accompany him on Dattatreya’s quests.

One aspect that could’ve been explored further is the idea that, even though Babulal is himself a grandparent, Dattatreya has sole claim to the maxim “father knows best” so long as he lives. Babulal just mentions it once, grousing about Dattatreya’s luck that his own father died while Dattatreya was young enough to enjoy the perks of being the head of the household. The story offers only two options for parent-child relationships — total deference to the parent or estrangement — and it would’ve been interesting to see if the characters could reach some middle ground.

The comfortable rapport Bachchan and Kapoor have developed after more than four decades of experience working together peeks through in small gestures, like the grin on Babulal’s face as Dattatreya lip-syncs old movie tunes to him. Trivedi fits in perfectly with the veteran duo.

102 Not Out is brief enough never to lose momentum, the story flowing between comedy and drama as it addresses family dynamics that are often times as comical as they are dramatic.

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Movie Review: Beyond the Clouds (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A complex blend of heartbreak and hope, Beyond the Clouds examines the role family bonds play in making poverty survivable, while showing us that the concept of family needn’t be limited to blood relations.

Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first Hindi picture takes place in Mumbai. An arresting opening sequence filmed by cinematographer Anil Mehta follows Amir (Ishaan Khattar) as he receives a bag of drugs from a car on a highway overpass. The camera sweeps down as he crosses under the roadway, and then it turns to watch Amir and his friend Anil (Aakash Gopal) speed away on a motorbike.

Amir and Anil are small-time drug runners, young and brash enough to overestimate the amount of power they really have. The don they work for, Rahoul (Shashank Shende), decides to put them in their place after Amir shows up at Rahoul’s brothel unannounced. He sets them up to be nabbed in a police raid.

During the course of a thrilling police chase, Amir happens upon his estranged older sister, Tara (Malavika Mohanan), and then hides out at her house. The encounter gives them a chance to hash out the reasons for their estrangement, perhaps setting the stage for a healthier relationship going forward.

Their reunion is short-lived. Tara is arrested the next day for seriously injuring her employer Akshi (Goutam Ghose) during an attempted rape. It falls on Amir to nurse his sister’s assailant back to health so that Akshi can testify to his part in the assault, the only way to free Tara.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Beyond the Clouds is its depiction of how tenuous even modest notions of comfort and security can be on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder, especially for women. Amir’s association with illegal drugs can bring his wild lifestyle to a halt at a moment’s notice. And his rising of the ranks of Rahoul’s organization comes at the expense of drug addicts and women forced into prostitution.

Then again, Amir is more morally flexible than the average Hindi-film hero, able to pivot from making silly faces at a child to threatening a paralyzed Akshi with a knife without blinking an eye. It’s less a factor of his youth than his having grown up reliant upon such flexibility to survive. Khattar does a creditable job in his debut film.

Mohanan is less successful in her depiction of Tara, who acts zombified in her conversations with Amir after she’s imprisoned. Yet, when Amir isn’t around, Tara seems well-adjusted to prison life, looking after Chotu (Shivan Pujan), the young son of an ill fellow inmate (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee). Tara’s relationship with Chotu embodies the movie’s theme that our “family” is made up not just of blood relatives, but also those we choose to care for.

Chotu is one of many examples in Beyond the Clouds of kids living in places distinctly not child-friendly because their mothers are poor and have no one who can help them. Dozens of little ones run underfoot in jail, an arrangement permitted in some Indian prisons for children under six years old. One worker at Rahoul’s brothel shoos her daughter out of their room when a client arrives. Amir himself becomes a reluctant babysitter when Akshi’s impoverished elderly mother and two daughters arrive from South India and mistake him for one of Akshi’s friends.

The surprising weak point in Beyond the Clouds is A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack. Though the tone of the film isn’t dour, Rahman’s score is still too upbeat for the circumstances. Nevertheless, Beyond the Clouds is a thought-provoking, heartfelt exploration of our shared humanity.

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Movie Review: Hichki (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Hichki (“Hiccup“) is an enjoyable if somewhat predictable parable about seeing the potential for greatness in everyone. It’s another interesting take on the Indian education system, following on the heels of last year’s terrific Hindi Medium.

Hichki focuses on two different barriers to academic achievement: disability and poverty. The disability aspect is addressed via the lead character, Naina (Rani Mukerji), a teacher with Tourette Syndrome. Tear-jerking flashbacks show her struggles as a small child, when she was the object of ridicule by her peers and scorned by her teachers for vocal tics and outbursts she couldn’t control.

As an adult trying to land her first teaching position, Naina spends more time explaining her neurological condition to the school board members and principals interviewing her than talking about her qualifications. The scenes illustrate just how much work remains to be done in educating the public at large about specific conditions and making the Indian education system more hospitable to students with various challenges, just as Taare Zameen Par did for dyslexia in 2007.

The one thing Naina asks for as both a child and an adult is to be treated as a normal person, and to that end, the movie quickly shifts away from her Tourette Syndrome as the central narrative focus. After the initial shock and some unkind jokes, the students in her class and her coworkers stop noticing her tics, showing just how unwarranted concerns over her being a distraction in the classroom were in the first place.

Naina is hired mid-semester to teach a notoriously rowdy class of poor teenagers who were only admitted to prestigious St. Notker’s — named for a German monk nicknamed “Notker the Stammerer” — when the private academy tore down the kids’ public school in order to expand their playground. The nasty head of the science department, Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), thinks neither Naina nor the kids belong at St. Notker’s. If the kids can’t pass their final exams in four months’ time, Naina and her students will all be kicked out.

Hichki tries to show what the students are up against — not just in the opposition they face from the school administrators, but also in the difficulties imposed on them by poverty. When Naina visits the slum where the kids live, she finds them caring for younger siblings, helping their parents at work or working solo, and waiting for hours in line to fill buckets of water from a tanker truck, since none of their homes have running water. Studying takes a backseat to the struggle for basic necessities.

Unlike Hindi Medium‘s progressive, leftist point-of-view regarding the inherent justice of public education, Hichki‘s politics are rooted in the neoliberal fantasy that the world is a meritocracy and education is the primary cure for poverty (as opposed to fair wages and access to public goods like clean water and sanitation). “You’re all masters of blaming your situations,” middle-class Naina chides her students.

The movie falsely presents all obstacles to education as equivalent. If Naina can overcome her neurological condition to become a teacher, these poor kids should be able to pass their exams. The film doesn’t acknowledge the many advantages Naina did have in coming from a middle-class family. Her mother had the time to advocate for her daughter’s education. Her younger brother owns a successful high-end restaurant. Even Naina’s father, who abandoned the family because he was embarrassed by Naina’s Tourette’s, uses his connections to land her a job in a bank. Despite her disadvantages, Naina has certain resources at her disposal that her students can only dream of.

Still, Hichki does push the idea that every kid has strengths, even if they’re hard to see at first. Naina uses some unorthodox methods to make the kids realize they understand concepts like parabolas and chemical reactions, even if they didn’t know they academic terms for them. The students flourish under the guidance of an adult who sees their inherent worth, and the story hits many familiar beats one expects from this kind of inspirational fare. (Thankfully, no one slow claps.)

Mukerji’s warmth makes Naina a particularly lovable underdog, one whose own self-doubts are even more important to conquer than the doubts of others. All of the young actors who play her students do a fine job. Neeraj Kabi is too blatantly villainous as Mr. Wadia, but that’s more a function of how the character is written than Kabi’s performance.

Hichki isn’t revolutionary, but movies like it, Hindi Medium, and Taare Zameen Par are important reminders of the Indian education system’s need to better serve all of its students, no matter their challenges.

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Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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Movie Review: Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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First Vicky Donor, and now Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Ayushmann Khurrana is the go-to actor for reproduction-themed romantic comedies.

Khurrana plays a shy ad-man named Mudit who has his eye on Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar). His initial attempt to talk to her is interrupted when a performing bear tries humping Mudit’s leg, a comical introduction to the movie’s theme of frustrated sexual congress.

The couple winds up in a kind of hybrid love-marriage/arranged-marriage scenario in which their mutual attraction requires the approval of both families. Sugandha is troubled by her family’s desire to rush her to the altar: “Mummy, Mudit and I just met a few days ago.” “What a time you’re living in,” Mummy (Seema Bhargava Pahwa) replies. “At least you two got to meet.”

The addition of these interested parties into the relationship takes its toll on the couple before their romance can really begin. When Sugandha’s family leaves town, the lovebirds seize the opportunity to get frisky. Yet the pressure for things to go well — under the watchful gaze of portraits of Sugandha’s departed grandparents, no less — leave Mudit unable to perform.

Rather than work the problem out between themselves, Mudit insists that he solve his issue his way, enlisting his two buddies for help and freezing out Sugandha. This leaves her blaming herself for the issue, with her equally inexperienced friend Ginni (Anshul Chauhan) her only support.

The real source of trouble for the couple is their unwillingness to talk to each other, which is an unusual problem to have in a movie as dialogue-heavy as Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Many words are said with little forward plot movement and not a lot of visual dynamism.

That said, Sugandha’s mom gets plenty of funny lines, especially during a sex-ed lecture to her adult daughter themed around Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. “What happens if Ali Baba can’t get into the cave?” Sugandha wonders aloud. Soon enough everyone in both families knows that Mudit can’t get an erection.

Although geared at an audience old enough to understand the ins and outs of human reproduction, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is sweet and not overly graphic. Khurrana is adorable, and Pednekar beautifully portrays Sugandha’s self-doubt and frustration throughout the couple’s ordeal.  The film just needed less talking and more action (and get rid of Jimmy Shergill’s awkward cameo, please).

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Movie Review: Ittefaq (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A detective distills the truth from two conflicting narratives in Ittefaq (“Coincidence“), a fun, stylish thriller with a killer soundtrack.

The detective, Dev (Akshaye Khanna), is summoned from his sleep to an apartment belonging to a lawyer, Shekhar, who lies dead on the floor. Shekhar’s wife, Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), flagged down a police car, claiming a stranger, Vikram (Sidharth Malhotra), killed her husband. It so happens that they police are looking for Vikram as a suspect in the death of his own wife, Katherine (Kimberly Louisa McBeath).

Melancholy Vikram offers a different version of events, denying responsibility for either death. He further implicates Maya for acting suspicious when he knocked on her door asking for help following a car accident. Dev explains to one of his deputies, “I just feel like there are three sides to this story: Vikram’s, Maya’s, and the truth.”

Because Vikram is a famous author and a British resident, Dev’s superior gives him three days to charge the man or let him go. Dev’s digging turns up further secrets that Maya and Vikram would rather stay hidden, but are they really connected to the case or are they distractions? How much of this case really is a matter of coincidence?

Writer-director Abhay Chopra’s story keeps a steady tempo, wasting little time in a movie that clocks in well under two hours long. Much of the film takes place at night or in dingy jail cells, and even daytime scenes are dimmed by the monsoon. Cinematographer Michal Luka uses the darkness to great effect.

The real star of the Ittefaq is the superb score by American composer BT, hooking the audience from the movie’s opening car chase sequence. The music pulses as Maya tells her version of events, the soundtrack keeping viewers as off-balance as Maya feels in the presence of a dangerous stranger.

Both Malhotra and Sinha have good poker faces as they change their characters to the story’s demands, from grieving spouses when stating their own cases to the police to villains in each other’s flashbacks.

Ittefaq doesn’t work unless Khanna’s performance is spot on, and thankfully it is. He sidesteps common movie-detective traps like excessive yelling or quirkiness in a way that avoids drawing too much attention to Dev, despite him being the character with the most screentime. It would be fun to see Dev helm a series of murder mysteries, perhaps with even more input from his astute wife (played by Mandira Bedi).

It’s nice to see a Hindi movie where the cops aren’t depicted as heartless monsters or incompetent fools, for a change. Any mistakes the officers under Dev make are honest ones. Ittefaq is pretty heavy on police procedural elements, for fans of that subgenre. For everyone else, it’s just a well-made movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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Movie Review: Nil Battey Sannata (2016)

nilbatteysannata3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars (out of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Commando 2 (2017)

commando23 Stars (out of 4)

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Commando 2: The Black Money Trail is absolutely bonkers. If one is willing to accept the movie on its own terms, it’s a helluva fun and goofy ride.

Part of making peace with Commando 2 is accepting that it is not Commando: A One Man Army. While that movie had some quirks as well, its narrative was a straightforward story of two lovers on the run. The threats to the lovers were immediate and directed by a single villain, while the danger in Commando 2 is borne out of distrust for India’s political system.

Carrying over from the first movie to the second is the commando himself, Karan (Vidyut Jammwal). No mention is made of his love interest from the original film, Simrit (Pooja Chopra), so I guess they broke up.

Karan now works for some elite secretive unit of the government, tracking money launderers overseas and killing them in encounters. He makes sure to have one of his sidekicks shoot him and plant the gun on the bad guy’s body, so as to not get tied up in court on suspicion of extrajudicial killings. Due process does not exist in Commando 2.

Following a scene of some shady dealings in Taiwan, Karan gets the most perfect introduction imaginable. Our first glimpse of him is a closeup of Jammwal’s bulging bicep. Director Deven Bhojani knows that his film’s greatest asset is Jammwal’s heavily muscled body and the wondrous things it can do, usually some combination of running, jumping, kicking, and punching. Karan’s solo assault on a Taiwan high-rise is a great way to start the movie.

(While Commando 2‘s camera spends a lot of time lingering on Jammwal’s chiseled bod, let’s take a moment to appreciate how impossibly handsome he is, as well. I found it very upsetting whenever the bad guys punched him in his perfect face.)

As soon as Karan recovers from his bullet wounds, his boss (played by Adil Hussain) tasks him with bringing to justice the most notorious money launderer of all: Vicky Chaddha (Vansh Bhardwaj), who was recently apprehended in Malaysia with his wife, Maria (Esha Gupta).

However, Chaddha has so much dirt on India’s rich and powerful that the whole government could be brought down if he names names. Delhi’s Home Minister (Shefali Shah) assembles a team of morally flexible police officers to bring Vicky and Maria back to India and recover the laundered funds, before quietly dispatching the married couple. Karan weasels his way onto the team, which consists of brutal lead officer Bakhtawar (Freddy Daruwala), obligatory computer hacker Zafar (Sumit Gulati), and vain gun-for-hire Bhavana (Adah Sharma).

Materialistic Bhavana’s broadly humorous character feels out-of-step with the movie’s tone until one realizes that her entrance signals a shift from fairly serious to absolute mayhem. There are twists upon twists as Karan and the bad guys both claim to know that the other side knows what they have planned, thus necessitating a whole new plan to throw the other side for a loop. The story was clearly written starting at the end and working backward, so trying to make sense of it while it unfolds is a recipe for a headache.

Once one accepts these new conditions, one is free to enjoy Commando 2 in all its silliness. Not only is Karan an unrivaled martial artist, he’s a tech wizard, too. In a “high-tech forensic lab,” he analyzes the audio from a security camera video and concludes: “That means that the church is on the banks of a river, and there’s a bird sanctuary nearby.”

Since Karan is part of a team, he has to share some of the fighting duties with Bakhtawar and Bhavana, who acquit themselves well. There’s a cleverly choreographed scene in which Karan and Bhavana beat up a gang of assassins, he with a lead pipe and she with an iron chain. Never mind that the fight takes place in an airplane graveyard situated immediately next to a glamorous shopping mall, or that they are fighting a bunch of white ninjas on stilts.

As tough as he is, Karan does have a weakness for women. He gets all googly-eyed when Maria saunters into the room in a catsuit, one of the many sublimely-tailored outfits she wears that leave not an inch of fabric to spare.

Such a weakness is a nice addition to Karan’s character, humanizing him and giving Jammwal license to have a bit of fun. His incredible stunts would be enough, but Jammwal is too good of an actor to limit him in such fashion. Gupta is always terrific as the bombshell, and even Sharma is likable in spite of her character’s chatterbox tendencies.

Commando 2 isn’t as great as the first Commando, but it’s still really darned entertaining. I enjoyed watching it and would watch it again. That’s more than enough for me to recommend it.

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Movie Review: Rangoon (2017)

rangoon3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Vishal Bhardwaj explores the intersection of World War II and the Indian independence movement in Rangoon. The film starts strong but loses momentum and finesse as it progresses.

Aware of the potential to reach an international audience of WWII-movie buffs, Bhardwaj opens Rangoon with an efficient summary of the political climate in India in 1943, when the events of the film take place. The British still ruled India and thus employed hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight the Japanese in places like Burma and Singapore. As a counter to Gandhi’s non-violent protest methods, the rebel Indian National Army (INA) allied with Japan to engage in a guerilla war against the Brits in the hopes of forcing them to relinquish control of India.

In Rangoon, not every Indian is interested in taking sides. Mumbai movie producer Rusi Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan) and his family have prospered by cooperating with the occupying British, particularly Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). Staying on the Brits’ good side ensures access to rare materials like film stock, allowing Rusi build a successful studio around his mistress, gorgeous action starlet Julia (Kangana Ranaut).

However, such a dependent relationship allows for exploitation, and Harding threatens to cut Rusi off unless he sends Julia to Rangoon to perform for the troops. A last-minute bit of trickery by Rusi’s grandfather — who disapproves of his married, high-brow grandson carrying on a public affair with a low-class actress — finds Julia heading to Rangoon on her own.

Well, not entirely on her own. In addition to her acting troupe, Julia is assigned a bodyguard: gruff former prisoner of war, Officer Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor). When a Japanese attack separates Julia and Nawab from the rest of the traveling party, the bond they form over their shared survival instincts turns into a dangerous attraction.

Only under duress does Julia come to question what it means to be free, not only on a national scale but on a personal one. Rusi literally bought Julia from her mother at the age of fourteen, after watching the girl perform knife-throwing tricks on the street. He molded her into a superstar, in the process turning her sense of gratitude into one of dependence. While Julia longs for the material security and fame that Rusi can provide as a patron and potentially a husband, he makes it clear that he controls her fate so long as she is tied to him. The inequality of their relationship mirrors the exploitative relationship between Britain and India.

Major General Harding personifies Britain’s sense of inherent superiority but also its fascination with Indian culture. He prides himself on his Hindi vocabulary and uses it to assert himself — in his mind — as more Indian than native Indians. A sequence in which a kurta-clad Harding plays a harmonium and sings a classical tune is uncomfortable to watch, so effective is it at depicting cultural appropriation. McCabe is very well cast for the part.

Of course, Harding’s affinity for India only extends so far. After Julia and Nawab find their way back to the group — which now includes Rusi — the trip becomes more perilous as it heads further into INA territory. Harding and his second-in-command, Major Williams (Alex Avery), are quick to assert their race-based authority over Indian soldiers they deem suspicious, with Harding stating: “I’m white. I’m always right.”

That blunt line of dialogue exemplifies the story’s late shift from subtle character development to broad, obvious drama. Scenes are dragged out, as if hammering away at the same emotional beats will enhance their impact, even though it just slows down the film. It’s an unfortunate choice, as if the filmmaker lost faith in his audience’s attentiveness and sought to make sure they didn’t miss the climax. The result is a breaking of the spell he’d so carefully built for the first three-quarters of the movie.

With the spell broken, special effects deficiencies become impossible to ignore. The setting for the climax requires a lot of green-screening and CGI, and it’s clear that the budget didn’t allow for more seamless execution. Then again, the scale of the setting doesn’t make the ending more meaningful, so a less grand arena filled with more practical effects would have worked just as well. An early battle scene between troops in a confined area is particularly stirring, and a better example of what Bhardwaj can accomplish when he deploys his resources for maximum impact.

As always, Bhardwaj’s best asset is the music he writes for his films, and Rangoon does not disappoint in that regard. The numbers Julia performs for the troops are fun, and “Yeh Ishq Hai” perfectly suits the sexy chemistry between Kapoor and Ranaut.

Both actors are as reliable as ever, with Ranaut bringing vulnerability to a woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself. As a royal descendant himself, Khan plays an aristocrat perfectly. Satoru Kawaguchi gives a notable performance as a Japanese soldier Julia and Nawab encounter in their time in the wild.

Even though the film ends with more of a whimper than a bang, there’s a lot to enjoy about Rangoon. International audiences should appreciate the opportunity to see an aspect of World War II rarely covered by Western cinema. Given the deftness with which Bhardwaj incorporates music into his movies, Rangoon is a fine introduction to Bollywood.

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