Tag Archives: Movie Review

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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Movie Review: Running Shaadi (2017)

runningshaadi2 Stars (out of 4)

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Running Shaadi‘s problematic characters and convenient solutions hamper this romantic-comedy, at the expense of its likeable lead actors.

Amit Sadh plays Bharose, right-hand-man to a bridal shop owner in Amritsar. Bharose is in love with the boss’s daughter, Nimmi (Taapsee Pannu), who falls in love with him in return after he helps her out of trouble. The trouble is an unplanned pregnancy following a fling with a fellow student at her high school. Bharose takes Nimmi out of town to get an abortion, at her request.

This scene is important not only because it depicts abortion as a routine medical procedure, but because the filmmakers refrain from using it to define Nimmi’s character. Too often, movies and television shows insist on portraying female characters as torn by the decision to have an abortion, as if they’d never considered the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy before. Nimmi has the procedure and moves on with her life, and Bharose’s feelings for her don’t change because of it. Kudos to writer-director Amit Roy and his co-writer Navjot Gulati for their progressive handling of the subplot.

Throughout Running Shaadi, female characters assert control over their romantic and sexual lives. Nimmi does as well, and in doing so ditches Bharose in favor of her new, more sophisticated college classmates.

Disenchanted with romance, Bharose enlists his tech-savvy roommate Cyber (Arsh Bajwa) to create a website to assist couples wishing to elope: RunningShaadi.com. (Days before the movie’s release, a court order required the filmmaker to mute every utterance of the words “dot com,” which is hugely distracting.) They develop elaborate escape plans and enlist a lawyer to facilitate the paperwork for marriages across caste and religion.

Where RunningShaadi.com’s service falls apart is that it doesn’t handle the fallout from the marriages, which clearly wouldn’t require elopement if the couples’ families approved in the first place. Bharose knows that family disapproval is a huge, sometimes dangerous problem, but he’s possessed of naive confidence that he can smooth out any disagreements. Something tells me that parents willing to shoot their own children rather than see them marry partners of their own choosing aren’t interested in reconciliation.

Bharose’s naivete is tied to a personal belief that he doesn’t express to his clients: he doesn’t really approve of elopement, as evidenced by his reluctance to utilize his own company’s services when faced with his own romantic difficulties.

Most of Bharose’s romantic troubles are caused by Nimmi, who is not an easy woman to love. She repeatedly does stupid things to endanger herself, Bharose, and Cyber. She’s also not especially nice to Bharose, calling him “illiterate” to emphasize the class divide between the two of them. Pannu does what she can with Nimmi, but our sympathies always lie with Bharose, thanks to Sadh’s charming performance.

It’s hard to feel the romance between Nimmi and Bharose, because Cyber is with them all the time. Even during romantic song numbers, the couple gazes longingly into each other’s eyes as Cyber looks on in the background.

As the film progresses, the main characters take less and less of a role in solving their own problems, instead letting happenstance provide convenient solutions. In key regards like the main plot, the central romance, and the resolution, Running Shaadi is ultimately unsatisfying.

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Movie Review: Irada (2017)

irada3 Stars (out of 4)

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A case of industrial espionage exposes an ecological crisis, awakening a federal investigator’s sense of justice in Irada. Debutant writer-director Aparnaa Singh’s movie survives early missteps to culminate in a satisfying, performance-driven second half.

The investigator, Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), doesn’t appear until the movie is more than thirty minutes old, which is one of the problems with Irada‘s first half. Only after Arjun arrives does the story really take shape, as it is his emotional journey that drives the narrative.

Instead, Irada opens with Parabjeet Walia, a character played by Naseeruddin Shah, the film’s other marquee star. Retiree Parabjeet trains his daughter, Riya (Rumana Molla), for the Air Force entrance exam, coaching her through swimming sprints in the local canal. A medical emergency reveals that Riya has cancer, likely from exposure to toxic canal water polluted by the local chemical factory.

While seeing a father watch his previously healthy child succumb to cancer is obviously affecting, Singh cuts corners with character development. We endure training montages when we should be getting to know more about the father and daughter and their relationship. Only much later do we learn that Parabjeet himself was a career military man, explaining Riya’s distress at her inability to follow in his footsteps. It’s as though Singh is so familiar with her characters’ backstories that she forgot to share them with the audience.

In fact, when we see Parabjeet again a year after Riya’s death, he has become a writer and part-time investigative journalist. He’s published a book, likely of poetry given his fondness for speaking in couplets, though the contents aren’t specified. He’s also become an authority on the shady corporate dealings of Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar), wealthy owner of the chemical factory.

With the blessing of corrupt politician Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta, who crushes every scene she’s in), Paddy is able to conceal his company’s polluting ways. The company disposes of waste through a process known as “reverse boring,” in which pollutants are injected into the ground where they can contaminate the local water supply. I’d never heard of reverse boring before Irada, and it’s not until the very end of the film that someone mentions that the process is illegal, which explains Paddy’s willingness to protect his secrets at any cost.

Paddy’s henchman, Jeetu (Rajesh Sharma), kidnaps an activist named Anirudh (Nikhil Pandey), triggering a series of events that exemplify the director’s tendency to forget that the audience doesn’t know her characters as well as she does. A journalist named Maya (Sagarika Ghatge) throws mud at Paddy during a speech. Someone watching the speech remarks that she and Anirudh are an item. This is followed by Maya wistfully remembering the romance she shared with Anirudh, in song form. We don’t know Maya or Anirudh well enough to care about them after seeing each of them in one brief scene, so a boring love song feels like time-wasting.

Arjun the federal inspector finally joins the story after Paddy’s plant explodes, the result of tampering from within. Ramandeep the politician wants Arjun to resolve the matter quickly, promising him a promotion if he does and reassignment to the dangerous hinterlands if he doesn’t.

Arjun’s character is initially all over the place. He condescendingly dismisses Maya’s offer to help, but he grills Jeetu based on minimal evidence. Arjun’s wall is covered in maps and photos linked together by pieces of string, in front of which he paces while blindfolded. Curse the BBC’s Sherlock for influencing every screenwriter since to make their detectives “quirky.”

In one unintentionally funny scene, Arjun deciphers a coded message about the explosion. He determines that the word “players” in the cryptic couplet refers to the number of competitors per team. He muses (incorrectly): “Volleyball has five players. Basketball has six players.” Cracking the code apparently depended on the solver not knowing the rules for sports, as Arjun arrives at the right answer.

When Arjun finally meets Parabjeet just before the midpoint, the movie gets really good, and it stays that way through the end. Parabjeet’s personal trauma opens Arjun’s eyes to the extent of the environmental tragedy, forcing the ambivalent bureaucrat to decide if it’s time for him to finally take a stand. Warsi and Shah are great in their scenes together, recreating their chemistry from the Ishqiya films.

With the story rolling, Singh gets great performances from the rest of her talented cast, including Sharma as the twitchy henchman and Ghatge, who handles the movie’s most thrilling scenes. It’s worth reiterating just how fun Dutta is as the entitled politician who’s too secure in her own power. Top-notch acting makes Irada worth a watch.

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Movie Review: Growing Up Smith (2015)

growingupsmith3 Stars (out of 4)

Growing Up Smith is a funny, relatable coming-of-age story about an Indian boy’s attempt to adapt to American small-town life.

Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is ten years old, living somewhere in Oklahoma with his family in 1979. Smith’s father, Bhaaskhar (Anjul Nigam, who co-wrote the screenplay), longed so much to come to the United States that he chose the most American name he could think of for his only son. Unfortunately, Bhaaskhar didn’t realize that “Smith” is a last name, not a first name.

The members of the family — father, son, mother Nalini (Delhi Belly‘s Poorna Jagannathan), and teenage sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) — enjoy life in their new country. Bhaaskhar loves his money-saving vegetable garden, and Asha likes the handsome boys, especially her classmate, Patrick (Paul Castro, Jr.).

Of all the things Smith likes about America — Star Wars, disco, John Travolta — his favorite is his pretty next-door-neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino). Amy happens to be one of the few townsfolk interested in the Bhatnagar’s Indian heritage. She doesn’t flinch when the family offers her a vegetarian meal (flinching being the standard Midwestern response to vegetarianism until approximately 2008, as I can attest).

Amy’s friendship helps Smith navigate the usual pitfalls of adolescence like bullies, but also culture-specific problems, such as his parents’ inability to appreciate the importance of Halloween for kids in the States. Amy’s working-class dad, Butch (Jason Lee), takes it upon himself to teach Smith how to be an American man.

Growing Up Smith is humorous yet tender in the way it deals with Smith’s problems. A clever and occasionally bombastic score by Michael Lira guides the tone of the film, hearkening back to earlier Hollywood coming-of-age comedies like A Christmas Story.

The story poses interesting questions about raising children in a foreign country. Bhaaskhar regularly threatens to send his kids back to India when they act up, but how much of their misbehavior is due to their increasing Americanization, and how much is typical kid stuff they’d do no matter where they lived? Asha is skilled at getting away with mischief, simply shouting “Bye” on her way out the door to trick her folks into believing they already gave her permission to leave.

The time period in which the story is set also plays an important part. This is well before the age of cell phones and GPS, a time when parents had to hop in the car to track down their missing offspring. Not only are the Bhatnagars the only Indian family around, they aren’t even in regular contact with their own relatives. Smith describes a phone call to India as “an expensive and rare event.” Do Bhaaskhar and Nalini feel compelled to enforce a stricter set of culturally appropriate rules than if they had other Indian parents around to talk to? Smith and Asha are also deprived of peers who really understand their issues, such as their prearranged marriages.

These issues are only an undercurrent to a story that focuses on the antics of its charming junior protagonist. Akurati makes Smith impossible to dislike, barrelling down the street on his bicycle, wearing a helmet several sizes too big. The rest of the family is endearing, too, as is Sharbino as Amy. Lee’s performance is the only one that sometimes feels out of sync with the rest of the cast.

Just like its main character, Growing Up Smith is hard not to like. Here’s where to meet Roni Akurati and Anjul Nigam at one of the special screenings they are hosting around the country:

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Movie Review: Kaabil (2017)

kaabil0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Kaabil (“Capable“) is stupid and gross. The movie’s biggest problem is that Yami Gautam’s character exists solely to be raped, an act which serves as a catalyst to transform Hrithik Roshan’s character into an avenging hero.

Roshan plays Rohan, a blind voice actor. One of his producers wonders how Rohan is able to deliver his dialogue in sync with the cartoon characters he voices when he can’t see the footage, but the question is offered as praise rather than a legitimate plot concern writer Vijay Kumar Mishra and director Sanjay Gupta simply ignore.

Gupta and Mishra also elect not to explain what preexisting relationship Rohan has with Amit (Rohit Roy) — a politician’s sleazy brother — and his toady, Wasim (Sahidur Rahaman). Events of the second half of the film make no sense unless Rohan has extensive background information about the two men and their families, which we’re not given any reason to believe he would have. It would also go a long way to explain why Amit and Wasim terrorize Rohan and his new wife, Supriya (Gautam), in the first place.

Most of the film’s first half is the establishment of Rohan’s romantic relationship with Supriya, with whom he’s setup by a mutual acquaintance based on the couple’s mutual blindness. They’re both kind people, but Supriya emphasizes how much she values her job and her independence, and says she is loath to sacrifice either for marriage. If only she’d stuck to her guns.

Instead, Supriya marries Rohan, with whom she enjoys a brief period of happiness before Amit and Wasim rape her because of some unexplained animosity toward Rohan. Throughout her ordeal, the movie gives no consideration to Supriya’s feelings, focusing instead on how her assault affects Rohan. She tells her husband, “Now I am not the same person for you.” Rohan doesn’t contradict her, his silence confirming her worst fears. He later claims he needed time to process what happened. You’d almost think he was the one who’d been raped.

Not long after Supriya’s assault, director Gupta inserts an item number into the film. The audience is supposed to pivot from being disgusted by a rape to now being titillated by closeups of Urvashi Rautela’s thighs and cleavage while Amit sings. It’s repulsive.

Rohan’s revenge is built on a number of conveniences, including his aforementioned intimate knowledge of Amit’s and Wasim’s families derived from who knows where. Rohan is also a master of hiding in the shadows, which is pretty amazing considering that he’s blind! He’s been blind since birth, so he’s never so much as seen a shadow, let alone learned how to use them to conceal his whereabouts.

Kaabil is so dumb that it would be tempting to laugh it off, were it not guilty of creating a confident female character just for the purposes of turning her into a plot device. It’s a textbook example of the offensive “Women in Refrigerators” trope, explained brilliantly in the video below:

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Movie Review: Raees (2017)

raees2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Raees (“Wealthy“) stars one of Bollywood’s most charismatic actors, a fact that the screenplay takes for granted. The story of a gangster’s rise to power lacks emotional depth, relying on the audience’s familiarity with Shah Rukh Khan’s dashing heroes of the past to fill in the blanks.

Raees (Khan) spent his childhood running liquor for Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni), a dangerous job given that Gujarat is officially an alcohol-free state. As a young man, Raees wants to branch out into his own boozy enterprise with his best friend, Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), much to Jairaj’s resentment. A Mumbai don named Musa (Narendra Jha) helps Raees start his business after witnessing the Gujarati beat up a warehouse full of men while using a severed goat’s head as a weapon, all because someone dared to call the bespectacled Raees “four-eyes.”

As Raees’s illegal empire expands, he draws the attention of a straitlaced cop, Inspector Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who makes it his mission to put Raees out of business. This sets up a cat-and-mouse game that is never quite as clever as one hopes.

The nature of the criminal operations in Gujarat and Mumbai makes it difficult for Raees to keep his promise to his mother that no one should ever be harmed for the sake of business. Granted, most of the people Raees kills tried to kill him first, but he willingly puts his employees in danger during one fiery political protest. There’s some retroactive rephrasing to imply that what Mom really meant was that no innocents should be harmed, but that’s not what she said (at least according to the English subtitles).

This distinction is important, because Raees goes from emphatically rejecting violence to shooting up a room full of crooks without batting an eye. Raees himself doesn’t seem bothered by the morality of his actions, and no one holds him to task. It’s as though writer-director Rahul Dholakia expects Khan’s ardent fans to see him in the role of Raees and thus assume that his character’s actions are justified, no matter what they are.

In many gangster dramas, the role of the protagonist’s conscience often goes to his love interest, but Raees’s wife Aasiya (Mahira Khan) is a willing bootlegger. Mahira Khan is something special, teasing Raees with an irresistible smirk. She’s one of the film’s highlights, and she does a fine job in her musical numbers.

The movie’s showpiece song sequence to the tune of “Laila Main Laila” is eye-catching, juxtaposing Raees’s brutality against Sunny Leone’s shimmying. The best dancing in Raees, however, is Siddiqui’s Michael Jackson impersonation, a scene that is far, far too brief.

Khan, Siddiqui, and Ayyub are all good in Raees, but they could have been even better with a script that did more to develop their characters.

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Movie Review: OK Jaanu (2017)

okjaanu3 Stars (out of 4)

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OK Jaanu (“OK, Darling“) is a straightforward, contemporary romance. No twists, just two attractive people falling in love. The movie works because it knows what it is.

OK Jaanu is a Hindi remake of the 2015 Tamil film OK Kanmani (which I haven’t seen), and from what I understand, it’s pretty faithful to the original. OK Jaanu‘s director, Shaad Ali, got his start as an assistant director under Mani Ratnam, who directed OK Kanmani.

The Hindi version stars Aditya Roy Kapur as video game designer Adi and Shraddha Kapoor as Tara, an architect. At a mutual friend’s wedding, they discover a shared disdain for marriage. They both have plans to leave India in short order: Tara to Paris to continue her architectural studies, and Adi to the United States to “give Zuckerberg a run for his money.”

Allow me a nerdy digression. Mark Zuckerberg is the creator of Facebook, but he’s not a game designer. It would’ve been more accurate for Adi to say he was heading to America to become the next Mark Cerny or Will Wright. (Yes, I know how geeky I sound.)

Adi’s flirty friendship with Tara blooms into a full-blown love affair, though they refuse to utter the word “love”–since their romance must end once they expatriate. The sequence leading up to the consummation of their relationship is very sexy without showing much skin, other than a brief glimpse of Kapur’s shirtless back. The camera pans around the bedroom, letting the sounds of a thunderstorm and A.R. Rahman’s stirring score fill the audience’s imagination.

Adi’s and Tara’s belief that their fling is temporary and free of emotional strings is met with a collective, “We’ll see about that,” by the elder members of their social circle. Their landlord, Gopi (Naseeruddin Shah), recognizes in them the same fondness he and his wife, Charu (Leela Samson), shared in their younger days. As Gopi cares for Charu as her Alzheimer’s progresses, Adi and Tara see a depth of love that they might experience if they were willing to commit to each other.

The main characters’ family situations are a bit confusing, which is unfortunate given that those relationships exist in the story to explain why Adi and Tara are both so biased against marriage. At other times, scene transitions fail to clarify where the characters are geographically.

The lead actors are pretty good, and Kapur’s smile is a killer. However, the characters themselves never really won me over, despite multiple “Having Fun!” montages of the duo and their friends standing in moving convertibles or driving a moped through a cafe. Adi’s and Tara’s first conversation is over cell phones during the middle of a church service, which seems more rude than charming.

Where OK Jaanu redeems itself is in showcasing characters who are open and unapologetic about their sexual desires, all within a narrative that is strongly pro-monogamy. It’s a nice blend of modern and traditional.

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