Tag Archives: English

Movie Review: Viceroy’s House (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Viceroy’s House isn’t wholly successful, but maybe trying to depict the fraught months leading up to India’s Partition in a movie less than two hours long was never a venture that could succeed.

The biggest hurdle director Gurinder Chadha and her screenwriter husband Paul Mayeda Berges set for themselves is in trying to portray events in a way that is, if not objective, then at least fair. Most of the key players — fictional and historical — are shown as having good intentions and understandable motivations (except for the Muslims who work for the viceroy, who all agitate for an independent Pakistan). Yet knowing now of the refugee crisis that immediately followed Partition and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, is the focus on good intentions even desirable?

Viceroy’s House begins with the installation of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as the last viceroy, tasked with turning over the subcontinent to Indian rule. Even with independence on the horizon, Mountbatten maintains his aristocratic lifestyle, timing his servants to make sure they can dress him quickly enough for his satisfaction.

Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their teenage daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are more aware of the value of softening the image of the British as rulers in favor of something more democratic. Edwina invites Indian guests to parties at the estate, asking the all-Indian kitchen staff to adjust the menu to cater to local tastes. When the sous chef complains in Hindi that all of his training is in English-style cooking, the Lady’s assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) translates his comments as polite assent to the request. It’s as though the movie itself doesn’t want its British characters to have to deal with the mess that their predecessors left, and as if the present viceroy’s family’s good intentions have wiped the slate clean.

In an effort to put the larger events in a more personal context, Viceroy’s House features a love story between Aalia and Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Lord Mountbatten’s grooms. They love each other, but he is Hindu and she is Muslim, in addition to being betrothed to a nice man, Asif (Arunoday Singh), as fulfillment of her mother’s dying wish. Jeet wants Aalia to follow her heart, but she has not only Asif’s feelings to consider but the well-being of her blind father (played by Om Puri). Would they really be safe in a Hindu-majority India? Jeet’s naive faith in both a united India and in the power of love to conquer all lead him to dismiss Aalia’s concerns as a lack of courage.

Casting Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat invites comparisons to his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Where the two stories differ is in their ability to entwine the lives of characters of different classes, thus providing a more complete picture of society at the time. Downton Abbey did so successfully through subplots like Lady Sybil helping Gwen the maid find a job as a secretary.

In Viceroy’s House, the Mountbatten’s lack such intimate connections to their staff. The wealthy Brits have ideas as to what might be troubling their servants, but they don’t know details. The whole feel of the film would have changed with better integration between the class-specific plots, such as Pamela learning of Aalia’s romantic problems and using her position to find a way for Aalia and Jeet to be together.

Where Viceroy’s House does succeed is showing the scope of the problems complicating the British departure from India. There are no easy solutions, and blood was already being shed when Mountbatten arrived. However, asking the audience to feel bad for Mountbatten — a representative of a white, foreign power that had been exploiting India for centuries — just because he personally didn’t create the problems he was asked to solve is a bit much.

The accomplished cast — which also includes Michael Gambon, Darshan Jariwala, Denzil Smith, and Neeraj Kabi — give laudable performances all around. Huma Qureshi is charming, and Arunoday Singh stands out in his few scenes. If the two of them can’t find quality parts in Bollywood, come to Hollywood, please!

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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: The Sense of an Ending (2017)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Ritesh Batra’s followup to The LunchboxThe Sense of an Ending — opens in Chicago area theaters on March 17, 2017.

The Sense of an Ending demands a lot of patience from its audience. Those who stay on board for the whole film are ultimately rewarded, but there are plenty of reasons to abandon ship.

As in director Ritesh Batra’s debut film, The Lunchbox, The Sense of an Ending centers on a grumpy, older, single man. However, Jim Broadbent’s Tony Webster is much harder to love than Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes. Liking a character is by no means necessary for enjoying a film, but it helps invest the audience in the story arc when that character (or his or her journey) isn’t otherwise compelling. With Sense, the challenge lies in enduring Tony’s less savory qualities in the absence of a clear endpoint for said arc.

Curmudgeonly Tony lives alone, having divorced his wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) long ago. Their only daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), is due to give birth to her first child, but she’s learned not to expect much from her father.

A letter arrives from the estate of the recently deceased Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer, in flashbacks), mother of Tony’s former college girlfriend, Veronica (Freya Mavor, in flashbacks). Sarah bequeathed to Tony a diary belonging to Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), Tony’s college best friend who killed himself shortly after graduating.

Untangling this complicated scenario makes up the bulk of the story, as Tony tries to explain the past to Margaret in the hopes of figuring out why Veronica (played in the present by Charlotte Rampling) won’t hand over Adrian’s diary to Tony. Revisiting his younger days forces Tony to accept that the narrative he’s told himself about his life isn’t totally accurate.

Viewer stamina becomes a requirement during tedious flashbacks to Tony’s university days (during which his character is played by Billy Howle). Tony, Adrian, and their friends over-estimate their own cleverness, as is the wont of many university students. Listening to them smugly drone on about whether one can actually know anything about history is annoying. If Tony was a jerk as a young man, and he’s still a jerk as an old man, will we really care what happens to him?

By the end of the movie, I did. But much of that was due to how much I liked Margaret and Susie, his ex-wife and daughter. If both of them are interested in gaining insight to this previously undisclosed part of Tony’s life, there must be something worth redeeming. I was happy every moment Michelle Dockery was on-screen.

Besides, I’m a sucker for stories that hopefully suggest that we’re never too old to change. If Batra wants to make that his field of study, more power to him.

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In Theaters: March 17, 2017

After a super start at the North American box office, problematic romantic-comedy Badrinath Ki Dulhania carries over for a second week at the following Chicago area theaters: AMC River East 21 in Chicago, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, Muvico Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville, and AMC Loews Woodridge 18 in Woodridge.

MovieMax also holds over Commando 2 and both the Hindi and Telugu versions of The Ghazi Attack. Other Indian movies showing at MovieMax this weekend include Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam), Chowka (Kannada), Maa Abbayi (Telugu), Aby (Malayalam), Nagaram (Telugu), and Maanagaram (Tamil).

With no new Hindi movies opening locally this weekend, Bollywood fans may want to check out the second film by the director of The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra. The English-language drama The Sense of an Ending opens in the following Chicago area theaters on Friday, March 17: River East 21, Century Centre Cinema in Chicago, Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park, Century 12 Evanston in Evanston, Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 15 in Lincolnshire, and AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18 in Skokie. It has a runtime of 1 hr. 48 min.

Streaming Video News: July 15, 2016

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions to the catalog. The Hindi-dubbed version of the 2015 Telugu historical epic Rudhramadevi is now available for streaming, as is the 2014’s Margarita with a Straw, an important drama about a disabled college student’s exploration of her sexuality. For everything else new on Netflix, check Instant Watcher.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime with one new addition — the 2004 English-language flick Indian Cowboy: A Love-Love Story.

Movie Review: Song of Lahore (2015)

songoflahore4 Stars (out of 4)

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The documentary Song of Lahore chronicles the surprising journey of an ensemble of classically trained Pakistani musicians to their performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The film is as touching as it is educational.

Since the Mughal era, Lahore had been internationally renowned for its music. Movie studios employed orchestras to record film scores during the golden age of Pakistani cinema, until a military coup in 1977 shuttered the studios and banned most public musical performances.

Even when restrictions eased in the 1990s, young people turned toward rock ‘n roll and away from traditional music. The Taliban’s rise in influence again drove musicians out of the public sphere.

Fearing the loss of his culture, Izzat Majeed established Sachal Studios in Lahore as a place for musicians — not just players of traditional instruments like tablas and sitars, but guitarists and violinists as well — to jam together. Ignored by local audiences, Majeed made a bold suggestion: “Let’s try to understand jazz.”

What makes the suggestion especially audacious is that the membership of the Sachal Ensemble skews old, as evident by the high number of white-haired members. The notion of ditching fifty years worth of training in a particular style in order to learn a new one is remarkable and inspiring.

Majeed himself was introduced to jazz in 1958, when his father took him to a performance by Dave Brubeck as part of the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program. One theme that’s repeated throughout Song of Lahore is the way politics can shape culture. During the Cold War, the United States used jazz as a weapon against communism.

Famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis appreciates the historical connections between American jazz and traditional music in Pakistan. Jazz was born out of the persecution of African-Americans, he explains, just as the Sachal Ensemble perseveres in a country where musicians face violence from Islamic extremists.

A YouTube video of their infectious rendition of Brubeck’s iconic hit “Take Five” garners the Sachal Ensemble international interest and an invitation to perform with Marsalis’ big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The second half of the film focuses on that performance and the rehearsals leading up to it.

Even though the performance is assured to happen, the rehearsal scenes are tense. The Ensemble seems unsure whether to look to Marsalis for cues or to their own arranger and conductor, Nijat Ali. When they ultimately take the stage in front of a packed house, their performance provokes tears of both pride and relief.

Directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken keep their story focused, giving some social context but prioritizing this particular moment in the lives of these musicians. Showing the rough patches during rehearsal with Marsalis’ band highlights the practical difficulties of their mission.

Of course, all of the music in the film is tremendous.

Song of Lahore is a wonderful example of not only the power of perseverance but of adaptability. When passion compels you to do something, find a way to get it done.

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Movie Review: Brahman Naman (2016)

BrahmanNaman3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Brahman Naman was a part of the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

“Right now, we could have been in between the thighs of whores losing our virginity, but here we are trading electoral trivia.” “That’s all we have, Ajay: trivia.” Brahman Naman paints a hilarious portrait of the lives of some sex-obsessed college quiz masters in 1980s Bangalore.

Naman (Shashank Arora) leads the university’s quiz team, which includes his right-hand-man Ajay (Tanmay Dhanania) and their pal with a broken leg, Ramu (Chaitanya Varad). Onstage, they rule the school with a mastery of arcane knowledge and British literary quotations. They recruit a timid younger student named Randy (Vaishwath Shankar) to fill out the team.

Offstage, however, the guys rank low in the social pecking order, a fact made painfully obvious by their foil, Ronnie (Sid Mallya), the handsome captain of the cricket team. Naman’s plan to humiliate Ronnie by distributing pictures of the jock’s genitals backfires when proof of the captain’s endowment entices even more of the university women into the athlete’s arms — and out of reach of the desperate quiz team.

And I do mean literal pictures of genitals. There are a lot of penises in Brahman Naman, as well as plenty of breasts, bodily fluids, and some inventive methods of masturbation. This is not a tame Bollywood sex comedy. (The dialogue is entirely in English, too.)

Naman and his friends armor themselves in condescension, convinced that their superior brainpower will yield future rewards, both fiscal and romantic. Thus, Naman regularly humiliates the one woman who is actually attracted to him — Ash (Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy) — because of her acne. Ash is sweet and cute and deserving of someone far better than Naman, a fact he slowly realizes over the course of the film, as a tiny seed of understanding grows within him.

As rotten as Naman often is, it’s hard to dislike him, because the source of his bad attitude is so obvious. His intellect and status as a member of the respected Brahman caste hold no sway with the ladies in town. He wants to have sex, but he’s also terrified of it. He feels equally entitled and unsure.

Writer Naman Ramachandran’s delightful script is brought to life by director Qaushiq Mukherjee (better known as Q). The story is peppered with strange asides, in the form of Naman’s daydreams and quiz questions for the audience. Ronnie is introduced with a few-seconds-long montage of him catching balls and doing other crickety things, establishing him as a classic ’80s teen movie villain.

The eclectic soundtrack plays an important role as well. My favorite moment is when Naman’s crush, Rita (Subholina Sen), walks by, and Ramu cries, “Oh, no! Not again!” Before my brain could complete the thought — “Aren’t those the lyrics to…” — Rod Stewart’s song “Infatuation” kicks in. Rita walks by in slow motion while Naman gawks. The music drops out abruptly, and we’re left with Ramu singing, “Infatuation. Infatuation.”

The cast is something special. Arora’s magnetism — the selling point of the movie Titli — makes Naman the most charming of anti-heroes. The rest of the supporting cast is amazing as well, including Biswa Kalyan Rath of “Pretentious Movie Reviews” as a frenemy with outlandish tales of sexual conquest.

Brahman Naman is a real treat, with great characters and visual flourishes that make it a must-see movie.

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