Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: Cargo (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Cargo on Netflix

Some movies win you over on charm alone. That’s not the only thing that Cargo has going for it, but it’s more than enough to make this an endearing film.

Cargo is set in the year 2027, in an alternate timeline where a truce between demons and humans governs the world. As part of the truce, for the last seventy-five years, demons have handled humans’ transitions after death from a number of large spaceships orbiting Earth.

One of those ships is Pushpak 634-A, piloted by the demon Prahastha (Vikrant Massey). As one of the six original astronauts sent to space to handle Post Death Transition Services, Prahastha has been happily alone for seventy-five years. (Although they look like humans, demons age more slowly, apparently.) He’s not pleased when Ground Control sends him an assistant: an eager young astronaut named Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi).

All demons have a magical ability, and Yuvishka’s is the ability to heal injuries. This is a particularly useful skill, since one of the steps in prepping dead humans for reincarnation is repairing injuries and ailments, and all of the equipment Prahastha has on-hand is outdated and falling apart. His main control center is a desk with a bunch of knobs, a printing calculator, and a CRT TV monitor.

The low-tech equipment that went into its design makes sense within the context of the story — the ship is almost eight decades old, after all — but it’s also a reminder that Cargo was made on a minimal budget. Props are used so thoughtfully that the film has a distinct, pleasing visual style. One may notice the absence of high-tech effects and CGI, but Cargo is so well designed that it never feels like it’s missing anything.

The staging and props evoke nostalgia for science fiction films and shows of the 20th century, which is appropriate since Cargo hews more closely to the tone of the original Star Trek series than to contemporary sci-fi. There’s nothing grim or dark about Cargo. It’s about the exploration of the human condition, not a battle against an existential threat. The focused story muses on life, death, and what comes after through the experiences of its two leads. Prahastha writes letters to a woman he used to love, but he never sends them. Yuvishka thought that becoming an astronaut would finally make her feel like she mattered.

Greeting and processing dead people as they arrive on the ship just reminds Prahastha and Yuvishka of what’s at stake, both for mortals with short lifespans but for themselves as well. Many of the dead ask if they can speak with a loved one for a final time. Others wonder what the point of their life really was. Prahstha and Yuvishka collect the belongings from each person, waiting until after they’ve moved on to launch those belongings into space. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.”

Cargo‘s plot is tertiary to its atmosphere and characters, moving at an unhurried pace that allows the audience to get to know the crew of Pushpak 634-A and enjoy spending time with them. Massey and Tripathi work beautifully together and are so comfortable to be around. Writer-director Arati Kadav achieved something really special with her debut feature. Cargo didn’t overstay its welcome, but it also left me wanting more.

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Movie Review: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Director Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi — based on the life of the woman nicknamed “The Human Computer” — opens with a note: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Rather than organizing the narrative as a sequential depiction of the highlights of Shakuntala’s career, the most pertinent episodes of her life are woven into a story about the challenging relationships between mothers and daughters. Events in Shakuntala Devi jump between time periods and settings, the earliest being Shakuntala’s childhood in Bangalore in 1934 and the latest being London in 2001, when her daughter Anu threatened to file criminal charges against her over unfair business practices.

When Shakuntala was around five years old (played by Araina Nand), her family realized that she had a unique affinity for numbers, solving complicated equations entirely in her head despite having no education of any kind. (Scientists and Shakuntala herself were never able to fully explain how her arithmetic abilities worked.) Her father Bishaw (Prakash Belawadi) made little Shakuntala the poor family’s breadwinner, putting his pig-tailed daughter onstage to solve math problems submitted by audience members. Local shows around Bangalore turned into performances elsewhere in India, before Shakuntala finally moved to London on her own.

Though her anger at her father for depriving her of a normal childhood and education was always apparent, Shakuntala — played as an adult by Vidya Balan — harbored a simmering contempt for her mother (played by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up to Bishaw on her daughter’s behalf. That resentment drove Shakuntala to become rich and famous and informed her own style of parenting — and not necessarily for the better.

Anu was born from the marriage of Shakuntala and Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), a government employee in Calcutta. Their relationship developed after Shakuntala was already internationally acclaimed, having added a magician’s showmanship to her performances. She tried being a stay-at-home mom for a while, but soon the road beckoned. She took young Anu with her, assuming that a life of travel would make the girl into an independent explorer like her mother. That’s not how it worked out.

Being disappointed by men is a recurring theme in Shakuntala’s life. Whether it’s their frustration at not being “needed” by her or, as in the case of Paritosh, a refusal to give up his job and follow her on the road, her paramours’ commitment to traditional gender roles only hardened her resolve to break them. Yet the film is clear that Shakuntala shared equally in the blame for her failed romantic relationships. She never found a way to integrate her career and home life. She also hated to lose, which led to young Anu being used as a pawn in the war between her parents.

As Anu grows up, we see how Shakuntala’s stubbornness and inability to compromise impacted their relationship. Anu (Sanya Malhotra) turns out to be just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to be nothing like her, just as Shakuntala was determined not to be like her own mother. Through conflict — including the above mentioned criminal charges — Shakuntala and Anu come to some important realizations about accepting our loved ones for who they are and learning to see our parents as more than just our parents.

Malhotra has the challenge of playing Anu when she is a married woman, but also when she’s a young teenager living in London. As a teen, Malhotra’s performance risks being overshadowed by her unflattering (but authentic) early 1990s attire. She’s more effective as Anu grows up and is forced to truly reckon with her mother as an adult.

If the goal was to portray Shakuntala Devi’s best and worst qualities, they couldn’t have found a better performer than Balan to do so. Balan makes Shakuntala feel like someone you’d love to know but hate to live with. She’s also effectively portrays Shakuntala across multiple decades.

From the vantage point of 2020, the idea of going to watch someone solve equations on stage sounds quaint, but Balan imbues with her character with such charisma and flair that she successfully translates Shakuntala’s appeal for a contemporary audience.

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Movie Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

The Personal History of David Copperfield is tiring to watch. It’s mentally draining to spend two hours trying to determine what emotional reaction the filmmaker intends to inspire in the audience. It’s physically exhausting as well, following the frantic movements of handheld cameras while other shots tilt up at such a sharp angle it’s as though you feel your own neck straining. One needs to be well-rested before attempting to watch this film.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell update the Charles Dickens novel with Dev Patel in the title role, narrating David’s life story to an audience in a theater. His tale follows the ups and downs of his life, starting with his happy childhood (young David is played by Jairaj Varsani), his fall into poverty, rise back to prosperity, and so on.

Much attention is paid to the colorful characters in David’s life, but with so much emphasis on their eccentricities that they never quite manage to feel like real people. David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood, is played by Tilda Swinton. She’s introduced in one of the film’s earliest scenes smashing her nose up against a pane of glass. The message to the audience is: “You love when Tilda Swinton plays wacky characters, so here she is again!” Same for Peter Capaldi as chronically indebted Mr. Micawber and Hugh Laurie as befuddled Mr. Dick, who is obsessed with Charles I.

Besides Patel, Iannucci deliberately included other non-white actors in key roles, differentiating his film from the multitude of movies about Victorian England with all-white casts. But Inannucci doesn’t take this step toward inclusivity far enough to make his cinematic world feel truly multicultural. Of the twenty or so characters besides David with a significant number of speaking lines, only five are played by people of color. Except for David’s friend Agnes Whitfield (Rosalind Eleazar), the characters with the closest personal connections to David are all white.

The pace of the narrative forces David to speed through many of the significant events of his life before they’re able to make much emotional impact. Highs give way to lows and back to highs, all covered in a layer of wackiness that keeps the audience at an emotional distance.

Such briskness keeps David from evolving as a character as well. Things happen to him, he reacts, and then the story moves on to something else. Patel is fine in the role as it’s written, but David’s quirks — he frequently mimics the speech of the people around him — seem to substitute for character growth.

Working in the film’s favor are some nice performances, including a small but impactful appearance by Gwendoline Christie as David’s stepfather’s stern sister. Laurie as Mr. Dick and Eleazar as Agnes are charming. A delightful scene in which both of them have a picnic with David and Aunt Betsey provides a welcome respite in an otherwise exhausting film.

Links

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at Wikipedia
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield at IMDb

Movie Review: Gunjan Saxena — The Kargil Girl (2020)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Gunjan Saxena didn’t set out to be the Indian Air Force’s first woman combat pilot. She just wanted to fly. While the movie based on her life — Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl — shows some of the key events in her pathbreaking career, it focuses more on how her extraordinary willpower and the support of her devoted father helped her make history.

Gunjan grew up in the 1980s wanting to be a pilot. A clever song sequence shows young Gunjan (played by cute Riva Arora) wearing aviator sunglasses and playing with toy planes to the tune of “Mann Ki Dori.” Lyrics like, “From the moment I saw you, I just can’t get you out of my head,” describe first love, but it’s love between a girl and an airplane.

Her father, Anup (Pankaj Tripathi), believes his daughter can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. He’s determined to help her, even over the objections of Gunjan’s mother Kirti (Ayesha Raza Mishra) and Gunjan’s older brother Anshuman (played by Aaryan Arora as a kid and Angad Bedi as an adult.) Mom and brother claim to want to save Gunjan from heartbreak in a world that limits the options for girls and women, but their attitudes just reinforce those limitations.

As she grows up, Gunjan (played as an adult by Janhvi Kapoor) proves herself an overachiever, topping her classes and doing whatever is required to reach her goal. Joining the Air Force’s first class of women pilots turns out to be the quickest way for her to get in the air. When Gunjan fails the Air Force fitness exam by being seven kilograms overweight, she and Anup train using a diet and exercise routine movie superstar Rekha mentioned in a magazine.

The relationship between father and daughter is the heart of Gunjan Saxena. First-time writer-director Sharan Sharma took the advice of his co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra, who previously wrote great family-oriented films like Dangal, Panga, and Chhichhore. Sharma told First Post that, given the volume of excellent source material, “the biggest difficulty in a film of this nature is deciding what should not go into it.” Given how delightful Tripathi and Kapoor are together, focusing the story on their bond was clearly the right move.

Gunjan Saxena is only Kapoor’s third lead role, and she proves herself completely capable of carrying a feature film. She makes it looks easy, whether the challenges facing Gunjan are physical or emotional.

Whatever Anshuman’s motivations were for warning Gunjan against being a pilot, he was right that not everyone would be pleased about her choice. She realizes that after she becomes the first woman at her assigned Air Force base. From petty annoyances like not having a dedicated restroom to outright hostility from some of her fellow soldiers, she faces the extent to which some men will go to exclude women from certain spaces. A scene in which Gunjan’s commanding officer Dileep Singh (Viineet Kumar) finally tells her why he doesn’t think she belongs is heartbreaking. Kapoor handles the scene with grace and finesse.

The film’s action sequences when Gunjan is called into service during the Kargil War are well-executed and thrilling. The cinematic license Sharma takes with events ramps up the excitement and emotional resonance.

There’s a lovely scene in which Gunjan discusses the meaning of patriotism with her father, asking whether the desire to fly is sufficient reason to join the Air Force. Anup — a career military man himself — replies that patriotism isn’t measured by who shouts slogans the loudest, but by whether one does their duty to the best of their ability. It’s a fitting way to distill the real Gunjan Saxena’s approach to her life and a fine way to describe Janhvi Kapoor’s portrayal of her.

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Movie Review: Virus (2019)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Virus on Amazon Prime
Buy the DVD at Amazon

Watching the 2019 Malayalam movie Virus a year after its release and several months into a new, unrelated global pandemic, the film seems like an unheeded warning. Had I watched when it released last summer, I’d have known what the initials PPE stood for, well before the first American reports of shortages of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare providers.

Virus is a fictionalized account of a 2018 outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala. The film was conceived and completed quickly, releasing almost exactly one year after the month-long outbreak was formally declared over. Though names and circumstances have been changed for the film, details of how the virus was transmitted and how many people became infected track closely to the facts of the actual outbreak.

The movie opens with a doctor receiving a now chillingly familiar call that the hospital has run out of ventilators. The action then rewinds a mere three days, when medical professionals encounter the first patients exhibiting alarming symptoms: vomiting, delirium, fever, headache, seizures, trouble breathing, and sky-high blood pressure readings.

Doctors at the hospitals in Kerala’s Kozhikode district are stumped. None of the standard treatments help, and cases quickly turn fatal. Finally, a neurologist hits upon the rare Nipah virus as a possible cause, and tests prove him right. This starts a massive operation to discover where the virus came from and who came in contact with the first known patient, all in the hopes of stopping the spread before it gets out of control.

The first half of Virus is almost overwhelming with the number of characters it introduces across multiple locations. One must surrender to the flood of doctors, hospital staff, their families, patients, relatives, experts, politicians, and bureaucrats introduced as the outbreak takes hold. Director Aashiq Abu never allows the audience to get totally lost, but rather gives us a sense of what the characters feel like, being bombarded with patient after patient before they have even figured out what’s going on.

All the information from the first half is organized into a clear picture in the second half of the film via the character Dr. Annu (Parvathy Thiruvothu), the junior member of the government’s team of contact tracers. She uses some lateral thinking and ace detective work to connect all of the cases back to one index patient. As she and the other contact tracers piece together the puzzle, everything that seemed overwhelming in the first half becomes easy to understand. It’s terrific storytelling by director Abu and writers Muhsin Parari, Sharfu, and Suhas.

They also add in enough personal information about key characters to put the outbreak in context of everyday life, supported by uniformly strong performances by the cast. Dr. Abid (Sreenath Bhasi) is distracted while working in the emergency room that first morning because his girlfriend (Madonna Sebastian) is going to marry someone else. The hospital’s hourly workers — led by Babu (Joju George) — threaten to strike over unpaid wages. Patient’s families worry about being stigmatized because of the virus. The story highlights that we don’t get to choose the timing of such natural disasters.

Yet the film does give hope that such disasters can be contained. Granted, such containment depends on functioning government entities like those shown in the movie, but which are in short supply in the United States at the moment. Watching the officials of various departments work together to solve problems in Virus has almost a fantastical quality to it for someone watching in the US right now. But, just like the actual Nipah outbreak, Virus shows us that victory is possible.

Note: The English subtitles on both the DVD and the Amazon Prime version feature some closed captioning, including notes on ambient noises, the emotional quality of the musical score, and even an indication when a character says something “mockingly.” I quite liked it.

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Movie Review: Bhangra Paa Le (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Bhangra Paa Le on Netflix

Though bhangra features in plenty of Hindi movies, it’s rarely the only dance style performed. Not so in Bhangra Paa Le (“Let’s Do the Bhangra“), director Sneha Taurani’s debut film, which is all bhangra, all the time.

This is established early on. As college stud Jaggi (Sunny Kaushal) fills out his university’s dance team, he rejects any dancer whose performance is too influenced by hip-hop or other Western dance styles. If you’re going to win a bhangra competition where top prize is a trip to compete in London, you need bhangra specialists.

While at a wedding, Jaggi spots an ideal candidate to fill the female-lead role on his team. He and Simi (Rukshar Dhillon) hit it off, but before he can ask her to join his squad, she asks him to join her university team. Realizing that they are rivals, they part ways — not on bad terms, but each determined to take the top prize.

Each has their own reason for wanting to win. By performing in London, Simi hopes to prove to her father (who abandoned her for a new life in the UK) that she’s doing just fine without him. Jaggi wants to honor his grandfather, Kaptaan, a bhangra legend in his hometown. Kaushal plays Kaptaan in flashbacks to grandpa’s days romancing a beauty named Nimmo (Shriya Pilgaonkar) before leaving to fight in World War II.

It’s a stretch to equate the struggles of a combat veteran with those of a college dancer, the way that Jaggi does. Yet, given Jaggi’s young age and comparatively limited life experience, it makes sense that he might make that connection. The characters in Bhangra Paa Le behave in authentic, age-appropriate ways. It’s one of the strongest aspects of the film.

It’s also a treat to watch both of the main characters evolve, even if Jaggi gets more of the narrative focus. While they have their ups and downs, there’s nothing mean-spirited about either Jaggi or Simi, so the drama never feels overblown. They’re two nice young people who deserve to succeed, even if they can’t both be victorious.

The film’s supporting characters don’t get the same kind of development as the leads, appearing and disappearing as the story requires. The story itself feels a bit disjointed, not because of the World War II flashbacks, but because Jaggi returns home in the second half–abruptly shifting the tone of the film from a modern youth picture to a rural family drama.

Of course, the main reason for anyone to watch Bhangra Paa Le is the dancing, which is overall really good. The movie does a nice job showcasing the dance form’s ability to express a range of emotions, using songs with different tempos and sentiments as a base for a varied choreography palette. Viewers who are only interested in the dancing will not be disappointed.

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Movie Review: Baaghi 3 (2020)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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The trailer of Baaghi 3 promises “One Man Against the Whole Country.” Could we be in for a biting commentary on the Assad regime in Syria? Of course not. Baaghi 3 is a brainless film with no intention of challenging its audience — except in its willingness to stay until the end of the movie. At showing I attended, I was the only one who did.

Baaghi 3 is the latest in the Baaghi series of films, which have no connection to each other except that they star Tiger Shroff playing a character named Ronny (or in the case of this latest movie: “Ronnie”). The characters aren’t even the same guy, as Ronny/Ronnie’s backstory reboots with each new movie. Shraddha Kapoor played a character named Sia in the original Baaghi, and she returns to play a different character this time, now named “Siya.”

Ronnie 3.0 is the thuggish son of a cop (played by Tiger’s real-life dad, Jackie) who was fatally injured in the line of duty when Ronnie was young. On his deathbed, Dad tasked Ronnie with the care of his older brother Vikram, who is as close to an ambulatory potato as a person can be. Even as adults, whenever Vikram (Riteish Deshmukh) is in trouble, he yells “Ronnie!”, summoning his brother with a gale of wind to beat up the bad guys.

Jobless, ability-less Vikram is made a police officer because of nepotism, despite him being afraid of everything. Ronnie acts as his henchman, breaking up an international human trafficking ring while Vikram gets the credit publicly. The federal government notices and sends Vikram alone to Syria to facilitate the extradition of a terrorist — the most absurd thing to happen in a movie full of absurd stuff. Vikram is immediately kidnapped, forcing Ronnie to head to Syria to rescue him with the help of his girlfriend/sister-in-law Siya.

Siya fits into the story as part of a subplot to get Vikram married, off-loading his daily management from Ronnie onto an unsuspecting woman — in this case, Siya’s sister, Ruchi (Ankita Lokhande). Ruchi’s other purpose is to get pregnant in order to give more weight to Vikram’s predictably doomed trip to Syria. It’s a transparent emotional ploy that doesn’t work.

The “country” Ronnie takes on is actually a large terrorist outfit run by Abu Jalal Gaza (Jameel Khoury) that operates within Syria’s borders. Gaza’s agents in India and Pakistan kidnap families, forcing men to become suicide bombers by threatening their wives and children (yet another transparent emotional ploy). This seems like a risky and convoluted business model considering that Gaza only seems interested in blowing up targets within Syria. It’s painfully obvious that no one who worked on the story gave much thought to the whys or hows of the movie’s bad guys.

There’s nothing fun about Baaghi 3. It feels out-of-date, with goofball sound effects for the film’s dorky jokes. Poorly executed action choreography means Ronnie’s punches repeatedly fall short of his intended targets. Potentially novel battles in which Ronnie faces down helicopters and tanks are underwhelming. A ropes sequence set in a scrapyard feels like a macho knock-off of the song “Rewrite the Stars” from The Greatest Showman.

Shroff and Deshmukh have zero chemistry as siblings, although they both show themselves to be proficient at yelling. Vikram’s entry into the police force ushers in a subplot promoting extrajudicial police murder, which is not surprising given Baaghi 3‘s support of violence as character development. It’s not fatherhood that makes Vikram into a “real” man but rather when he finally kills people himself, instead of letting his little brother do it for him.

If there are any minor bright spots in Baaghi 3, it’s the true professionalism displayed by Jaideep Ahlawat as the kidnapper IPL and Vijay Varma as a helpful Pakistani expat in Syria in the face of utter absurdity. Shraddha Kapoor’s role is underdeveloped and superfluous, but she brings to it a weird charisma that I appreciated. Other than that, Baaghi 3 is a waste of time.

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Movie Review: Panipat (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Panipat on Netflix

Panipat: The Great Betrayal — director Ashutosh Gowariker’s attempt to cash in on Bollywood’s current historical action flick trend — is a slog.

Panipat is made for a Hindi-speaking audience well-versed in Indian history, and it poses several challenges for audiences outside that demographic. If Panipat were a book, it would come with several maps, some family trees, and an extensive glossary. Absent those supplementary materials — and with subtitles that leave many important Hindi words untranslated (at least in the Netflix version) — I’ll do my best to explain what happens using terms that I think are close, if not completely accurate.

The film opens in the mid-18th Century, with the Maratha Empire finally defeating the Nizam Sultanate after a two-year-long campaign, shoring up its hold on the midsection of what is now modern-day India. The Emperor’s wife, Gopika Bai (Padmini Kolhapure), worries that military commander Sadashiv (Arjun Kapoor) is so popular that the people will push for him to be made head of state over her son, Vishwas (Abhishek Nigam). She convinces the Emperor, Nana Saheb (Monish Bahl), to take Sadashiv off the battlefield and appoint him Finance Minister.

Being a soldier, Sadashiv only knows how to solve problems by force. He attempts to shore up the empire’s dwindling finances by sending threatening letters to all the ancillary kingdoms that are behind on their tax payments. This upsets a Mughal noble, Najib-Ud-Daulah (Mantra), who asks the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) for help.

With Afghan forces headed south, Sadashiv agrees to lead the undermanned, under-resourced Maratha army north to stop them, since no one else wants to. The Marathas and the Afghans make alliances with the neighboring kingdoms on their respective journeys, culminating with a decisive battle at the fort of Panipat.

Most of the film is a slow road trip punctuated by natural disasters. Before that are the film’s prettiest scenes, set at the beautiful Maratha palace. The decor is vibrant, the grounds are beautifully landscaped, and the architecture is grand. Designer Neeta Lulla’s costumes are stunning.

At the palace, Sadashiv marries his spunky childhood sweetheart Parvati (Kriti Sanon), who joins him on the excursion. Sanon gives the best performance in the film, but her character is a transparent attempt to appeal to a modern audience. Parvati is a commoner who marries a royal. She’s the empire’s first woman doctor! She fights with a sword! Sadashiv begs her not to kill herself if he dies in battle, just to make Panipat seem more progressive than Padmaavat.

Kapoor’s performance is not particularly charismatic, but neither is Sadashiv as a character. He’s inflexible to the point of causing many of the empire’s problems — first with his heavy-handed letters and later with his refusal to negotiate with Abdali. Sadashiv insists that he’s fighting to protect all of Hindustan from Muslim invaders, even though Hindustan at the time was not a unified nation but a collection of kingdoms, some of which were ruled by Muslims.

Sadashiv serves primarily to illustrate Panipat‘s pro-Hindu viewpoint. The contrast between Sadashiv and Abdali is almost comical. Sadishiv fights in the heart of the battle while Abdali stays safely at the back. The Maratha army follows Sadashiv and endures starvation because they believe in his cause, while Abdali’s soldiers flee and his throne is usurped in his absence. Even Kapoor’s acting is calm and resolute compared to Dutt’s over-the-top delivery.

Panipat portrays the Afghans as essentially cavemen. Unlike the light, bright Maratha palace, Abdali rules from a dimly-lit, windowless great hall. Servants wearing fur cloaks carry platters laden with hunks of roasted meat. When Maratha Prince Vishwas is caught in battle by an Afghan soldier, the soldier is shown in close-up snarling like an animal.

Besides being problematic, Panipat just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps in the name of historical accuracy, the plot favors comprehensiveness over economy. Seemingly every lesser kingdom and minor noble is given a shout out, no matter how insignificant their part in the events that are the focus of the film. The result is a sprawling cast of characters who blur together. By the time any of them does something that affects the plot, I’d already forgotten who they were.

Perhaps this cast sprawl is less of a problem for the Indian audience for whom Panipat is obviously intended. I also understand if the English subtitles used in the original theatrical release chose to leave some Hindi words intact, as those subs are as much for moviegoers across India as they are for viewers outside of the country. I’m not sure if Netflix kept the original subtitles for its streaming release or created new ones, as is the practice of some streaming services.

But Panipat is a particular case where Netflix should have used the opportunity to make the film’s English subtitles as accessible as possible to its global audience. By not translating words like Peshwa, Gadir, and Wazir, it’s hard to understand the hierarchy of the region at that time. Even the geography is unclear, as Sadashiv seems to use Hindustan and the Maratha Empire interchangeably.

Again, maybe Indian audiences with the prerequisite cultural and historical knowledge found Panipat easier to understand than I did. As it is, it’s as uncompelling as it is inaccessible.

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Movie Review: Shimla Mirchi (2020)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Shimla Mirchi on Netflix

Sholay director Ramesh Sippy’s Shimla Mirchi spent five years on the shelf before it found a buyer, but the content feels even more dated than that.

The romantic comedy stars Rajkummar Rao as Avi, a grumpy single guy who’s been dragged along on his family’s annual vacation to Shimla. His mood changes when Naina (Rakul Preet Singh) sprints by him, fresh from a photo shoot at her friend’s bridal boutique. One look at Naina’s heaving bosom and toned abs, and Avi is in love.

It is important to note that, in Shimla Mirchi, “love” happens the instant a man sees a beautiful woman. It is also important to note that a woman’s most lovable attribute is her torso, hence why Naina wears crop tops almost exclusively throughout the film. Avi is frequently shown ogling her bare waist, because he’s in love.

Avi’s problem is that he gets tongue-tied whenever he tries to tell a woman that he loves her. (Could the problem be that his instinct is to introduce himself to women he’s never met with “I love you” before “Hi, I’m Avi”?) He takes job at Naina’s cafe in the hopes of getting to know her better. When he still can’t muster the courage to speak up, he writes her an anonymous love letter.

Naina’s not interested in her own beau, but she sees the letter as an opportunity to cheer up her mom, Rukmini (Hema Malini), who’s lonely after her husband Tilak (Kanwaljit Singh) left her for a younger woman. Naina readdresses the love letter to her mom and has Avi deliver it — leading Rukmini to believe that Avi is her secret admirer.

The high-concept story by writers Kausar Munir, Vipul Binjola, and Rishi Virmani yields a number of cute moments, as when Rukmini stops her dance practice to sneak after Avi, bells around her ankles jingling whenever she moves. When Naina realizes that Avi is way overqualified to work as her handyman, she jumps to the wild and funny conclusion that he’s involved in a nefarious international plot that inexplicably begins with the takeover of a small cafe in Shimla.

There’s a nice relationship between Naina, Rukmini, and Tilak’s mother (Kamlesh Gill), who lives with them. Naina has cut off contact with her father, and even his own mother thinks he’s a jerk. They want Rukmini to rediscover her sense of self-worth, and the film doesn’t even hint at trying to reunite the family.

Yet even the best elements of the film are good, but not great. The acting is fine, if uninspired. The story is cute but forgettable. Shakti Kapoor plays the quirkily-named Captain Uncle, who exists to move the plot along when the writers couldn’t think of a better way to do so.

Then there are the elements that make Shimla Mirchi seem like it came out of a time capsule. The mistaking of lust for love and the objectification of Naina’s body are the worst examples. Captain Uncle makes some racist jokes about East Asian languages. Avi has a friend, Jude (Tarun Wadhwa), who rotates through a series of indistinguishable white girlfriends who don’t speak but are always wrapping themselves around him. He ditches the last one when he spots a pretty Indian girl in Desi attire and immediately falls in love with her (naturally).

Shimla Mirchi feels like the product of a filmmaker who started his career back when times were different. When objectifying women was the norm. When you could crack racist jokes because there was no internet and few people outside your intended audience would watch your movies. There’s nothing outrageously offensive in Shimla Mirchi. It just doesn’t feel current.

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Movie Review: Street Dancer 3D (2020)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

While trying to piece together my thoughts for this review of Street Dancer 3D, I looked back at my reviews of the two films that precede it in director Remo D’Souza’s dance battle series: ABCD and ABCD 2. (Disney produced the first two films in the series and held onto the rights to the title ABCD 3 even after they stopped making movies in India.) Most of the things I want to write about Street Dancer 3D I’ve already said about the previous two movies. Great dancing? Check. Sexy performers? Check. Only Street Dancer 3D is more of a mess than either of the films preceding it.

D’Souza’s series features many of the same actors in all three films, and some in just two. None of them play the same characters, even if the actors play characters with the same name. The cast stays intact while D’Souza hits the reset button on the story.

This time around, two rival dance crews face off on the streets of London. The Indian-British crew “Street Dancer” is led by Sahej (Varun Dhawan), and the Pakistani-British crew “Rule Breakers” is led by Inayat (Shraddha Kapoor).

The endless bickering between the crews culminates in a food fight between the groups while they watch an India vs. Pakistan cricket match in a sports bar run by Ram Prasad (Prabhu Deva). The single stupidest thing in this whole movie may be that the main food used in the fight is that famous staple served as a main entrée at all sports bars… The one dish no Buffalo Wild Wings or Irish football pub should be without… Doughnuts? I’m talking regular yeast-raised, frosted, mass-produced, buy-’em-at-Dunkin’-by-the-dozen doughnuts like the one pictured to the right. I’m guessing the only reason the characters throw doughnuts is because they are cheap to buy, simple to procure in large quantities, and easier to clean up than burgers, pasta, or biryani — all of which Ram Prasad’s sports bar also serves.

Both crews want to compete in an underground dance competition with a £100,000 cash prize, but their odds aren’t good against the formidable, mostly-white London dance crew The Royals. Ram Prasad thinks the Desi crews would stand a chance if they worked together, but there are complicating factors beyond the groups’ nationalistic antipathy. Inayat wants to use the prize money to help homeless illegal immigrants from the Subcontinent living in London — which is a problem because Sahej is a human trafficker.

The film doesn’t fully acknowledge how awful Varun Dhawan’s character is. This was a problem with his character in ABCD 2 as well. Sahej is entitled and compassionless. He brings a quartet of Indian drummers to England, but refuses to help them in even a small way when he learns that they are now destitute. It takes him forever to admit that he played a part in their current condition, let alone that he is obligated to set things right.

This is but one example of Sahej’s disloyalty. As soon as he gets the chance to join The Royals, he jumps at it — abandoning Street Dancer and the members that aren’t invited into the colonizers’ crew. The whole reason Sahej participated in human trafficking was to earn the money to buy a studio for Street Dancer, the crew founded by his older brother Inder (Punit Pathak, who gives the film’s best dramatic performance) who is injured and can no longer dance. The film doesn’t acknowledge what a betrayal this is because Sahej’s vindication and victory are predetermined.

Films are often sold based on the popularity of their star cast, but I wish we could go back to the days of the original ABCD, which starred professional dancers who can act, not professional actors who can dance. To be fair, Kapoor holds her own on the dance floor and makes Inayat as sympathetic as the script allows. But casting Dhawan required compromises that hurt the movie. Because of Dhawan’s likeable persona, his character pays a very small price for causing a lot of harm.

Worse still is that Dhawan is the weakest dancer in the film. He’s one of the better dancers among Bollywood’s current leading men, but he’s a step slower and less crisp in his movements than the professionals around him. I found myself ignoring him and focusing instead on series veterans like Dharmesh Yelande, Sushant Pujari, Raghav Juyal, and Salman Yusuff Khan. Nora Fatehi — who plays The Royals’ ace, Mia — is riveting when she dances.

As expected, the dance numbers are the stars of the show. All of the performances during the underground competition are technically impressive and large in scale. I don’t blame anyone watching the film for tuning out during the plot bits and just watching the choreography. Yet it’s kind of a shame, since Street Dancer 3D really wants to be about something meaningful. It’s just not willing to put in the work to do so.

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