Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: Half Girlfriend (2017)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Half Girlfriend is a tiresome retread of a familiar Bollywood setup. The world within the film exists for the manipulation and satisfaction of the male lead character, regardless of the toll it takes on the woman he pursues.

Just as in another problematic movie from earlier in 2017 — Badrinath Ki DulhaniaHalf Girlfriend tries to justify its outdated formula by having its main character hail from a state with a bad reputation regarding gender equality. Half Girlfriend‘s Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) is from Bihar, a state that borders Badrinath’s Uttar Pradesh. Neither movie is interested in actually addressing the causes or consequences of inequality in either state, just in appropriating a regressive mindset so that the female lead can be treated as a prop rather than a real person.

Lest we dismiss Madhav as some uneducated hick, the story — based on a book by Chetan Bhagat and adapted for the screen by Tushar Hiranandani and Ishita Moitra — emphasizes that he’s the son of a royal family. He lives in a mansion with his mother (played by Seema Biswas), who runs a school in their small town.

Yet, Madhav is so privileged and insulated that only after he graduates with a degree in sociology from St. Stephens College in Delhi does he ask his mother, “Why don’t any girls attend our school?” How did he not notice that earlier?!

As with so many Bollywood heroes before him, it’s Madhav’s job to bend the universe to his will. That primarily takes the form of him forcing everyone to engage with him in Hindi, even though instruction at St. Stephens is conducted exclusively in English. No matter how high the stakes, Madhav steadfastly refuses to apply himself enough to become proficient in English. The movie rewards him at every turn by having English speakers claim to have understood Madhav’s “heart,” if not his words.

Then there’s Riya (Shraddha Kapoor), with whom Madhav is smitten on first sight. “Such a beautiful girl plays basketball?” he wonders, insultingly. He’s apparently never heard of hoops legend/fashion model Lisa Leslie, which is surprising since Madhav’s a b-ball nut and a big fan of “Steven Curry.”

The basketball in Half Girlfriend is absolutely terrible, by the way. The camera only shoots the actors from the shoulders up since apparently neither of them learned how to dribble for their roles as college athletes. (Frankly, their entire performances in Half Girlfriend lack commitment.) Also, a scene in which Madhav wildly airballs dozens of attempted half-court shots is unbelievable. That’s a shot serious basketball players practice for fun from an early age.

Once Madhav decides that he wants beautiful, popular Riya for his own, he follows her everywhere, memorizing every detail she posts on Facebook. They strike up a friendship on the court, but she’s clearly not interested in him romantically. She pulls her hand away whenever he tries to touch it. Well, she tries to, but Madhav literally won’t let her go.

Madhav’s roommate Shailesh (Vikrant Massey) — who is otherwise the voice of reason in the film — says that the only way to know Riya’s feelings for sure is to “get her in the room.” In case that didn’t sound rapey enough, Madhav locks the door once Riya is inside. When Riya resists Madhav’s attempted seduction (the author writes euphemistically), he gets violent with her. Riya refuses to talk to him after that, triggering a sad musical montage of Madhav screwing up in a basketball game because he’s too upset to concentrate. Boo hoo.

Madhav’s violence toward Riya renders a romance between them unsatisfactory. However, because we know the beats of the male-entitlement Bollywood romance storyline, we know that Riya won’t be able to rid herself of Madhav that easily.

Half Girlfriend is monstrously unfair to Riya. Every man in her life is abusive to her in some way.  While Madhav claims to love Riya, he refuses to accept a relationship with her on her terms; he wants to possess her. Rather than protecting Riya, the older women in her life insist that she tolerate the intolerable and put a man’s needs before her own. Riya is utterly alone. If told from her perspective, Half Girlfriend would be a horror movie.

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Movie Review: Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Meri Pyaari Bindu (“My Sweet Bindu“) puts a clever spin on a familiar story in a way that allows its talented lead couple to shine. Debutant screenwriter Suprotim Sengupta is one to watch.

Bollywood is awash in stories about a man who falls for a woman — often based on the woman’s appearance alone — who then makes it his mission to win the woman’s affections in return. These one-sided romances are often portrayed as a matter of destiny: the woman simply doesn’t realize that she’s meant to be with the man, so he must convince her. Meri Pyaari Bindu also tells a love story from a man’s perspective, but he is not some hero of destiny. He’s just a guy.

Abhi (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a successful — if slightly embarrassed — writer of pulp horror-romance novels living in Mumbai. He’s spent three years struggling to write a love story of literary merit. His concerned parents dupe him into returning to Kolkata in order to shake his writer’s block and force him to interact with the outside world once again.

The problem is Abhi’s obsession with “the one that got away”: Bindu (Parineeti Chopra), his childhood sweetheart. The mementos he finds in his parents’ home — most significantly a mix tape of old movie songs — prompt Abhi to write about his past with Bindu.

This version of the past is deliberately told from Abhi’s point of view, and it can’t be taken as a completely objective, even in his characterization of Bindu. In his recollection, the first thing she did upon meeting him was to hand him a pair of headphones, instructing him: “Listen to this. It will change your life.” The scene is a direct reference to Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, one of the most commonly cited examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope — a free-spirited female character written as a romantic interest for a stuffy or depressed male character. The fact that Bindu and Abhi are six-years-old when this happens highlights the absurdity of Abhi’s perception of Bindu as his own personal wake-up-call.

As Abhi’s recollections progress forward in time, it becomes apparent to both him and the audience that there’s more to Bindu than her carefree persona suggests. She has plans of her own that may not include Abhi. Both of them learn as they get older that holding on too tightly to dreams that cannot be will only hurt the dreamer.

It’s a risky move to establish Bindu as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, since it requires the audience to invest enough in her to enjoy the payoff as she is revealed to be a nuanced character in her own right. Sengupta successfully pulls it off, and in doing so tells an unconventional but totally relateable love story. Debutant director Akshay Roy shows a knack for commercial cinema in the way he interprets Sengupta’s tale.

Few actors do “exasperated” better than Khurrana, and he gets to deploy his best hangdog expression liberally in Meri Pyaari Bindu. He’s a fine match for Chopra, who gets a wider range of emotions to work with in the film, from spunky to defeated to resolute. Her performance during a scene in which Bindu faces harsh reality is particularly moving.

It’s refreshing to see a Hindi romantic-comedy that knows how to bend the rules of the genre to make something that feels new. Meri Pyaari Bindu trusts in the intelligence of its audience, and the audience is rewarded for watching it.

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Movie Review: Baahubali 2 — The Conclusion (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

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The whole reason I go to the movies is for the rare opportunity to watch a film as engrossing and magical as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Together with its predecessor, Baahubali: The Beginning, the Baahubali films are works of tremendous artistic achievement.

As the subtitles of the Baahubali (“The One with Strong Arms“) films suggest, they combine to form a single narrative and don’t work well as standalone films. There’s a tiny summary of the events of the first film at the opening of The Conclusion, but only enough to refresh the memories of those who’ve seen the original. It’s inadvisable to watch The Conclusion without first watching The Beginning (which is readily available for purchase/rent in the US via iTunes, Amazon, etc.)

With The Beginning having established the origin of the present-day hero, Shivudu (Prabhas), the prowess of his Herculean father Baahubali (also Prabhas), as well as the specific tragedy that tore apart the kingdom of Mahishmati, The Conclusion fills in the details of what led to the tragedy. As in so many epics, it was a fight over a woman.

That woman is Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who appears in The Beginning after suffering decades of torture at the hands of the king of Mahishmati, Ballaladeva (Rana Daggubati), Baahubali’s brother. The Conclusion shows Devasena in her youth, a beautiful princess with fearsome battle skills.

Baahubali meets Devasena as he and Kattappa (Sathyaraj) travel the countryside in disguise. When Baahubali falls for Devasena, it is as much for her strong will and sense of justice as for her looks. On the other hand, Ballaladeva decides to marry Devasena after merely seeing her portrait, without even laying eyes on her in person.

In The Beginning, the female warrior Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia) waas ultimately sidelined by Shivudu after he literally washes the grime of battle from her so she will comport to his idealized vision of pristine loveliness. The women in The Conclusion have more agency and are accepted on their own terms. Devasena won’t take guff from anyone, no matter their rank. Queen regent Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) is the embodiment of power, her eyes flashing with rage when the honor of Mahishmati is threatened. It’s gratifying to see two such authoritative female characters in a movie whose title refers specifically to physical strength. (Avantika rejoins the fray in The Conclusion in a satisfying return to her former martial glory.)

There is, of course, plenty of physical strength on display in the film. Prabhas is a physical specimen, and Daggubati looks like a titan. A shirtless battle between the two hulks is as satisfying as it is inevitable. Legendary fighter Kattappa is no slouch either, as showcased by Satyaraja’s nimble moves.

One newly introduced character in The Conclusion is particularly memorable. Devasena’s brother-in-law, Kumara Verma (Subbaraju), is in many ways a stand in for the audience as one of the few mere mortals in this world of demi-gods. He’s pompous and cowardly, and primarily the butt of jokes in the film, yet he rises to the challenge in a critical moment, proving Baahubali’s assertion that courage is more important than strength.

The joy of both Baahubali films — but especially the second one — is that they can be watched either purely for enjoyment’s sake or for the fun of parsing every minute detail, picking out all of the myriad influences. The story is borne out of traditions from across the globe, beyond its obvious roots in Indian religion, history, and mythology. The disguise sequence is Shakespearean. Song lyrics like, “Heart stealer, eternal enchanter” sound like epithets from Greek mythology like “Hector, breaker of horses.”

[The team behind the English subtitles deserves special kudos for their precise choices and linguistic flourishes, such as this memorable lyric: “The sky says ‘bravo’ with infectious esprit.”]

There are also modern influences. When Baahubali fights, he moves more like a video game character than a movie character. Large battle sequences clearly draw from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d argue that the Baahubali movies are the most effective cinematic fantasy epics since LOTR.

I’d further argue that the Baahubali movies succeed in that regard precisely because they were made with greater budget constraints than similar Hollywood movies. Huge numbers of extras in brilliantly colored costumes give a life to crowd scenes that is missing from most CGI-heavy contemporary fare. Director S.S. Rajamouli employs his resources in a way that achieves a consistency of look, which in fantasy films is more important than realism.

Most importantly, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad create a world of such detail and depth that one might forget that they did in fact create it. It feels real, like an alternative history of the world. It’s so easy to be swept up by Baahubali 2, to imagine a world of superheroes who believe in justice and mercy above all else. It’s wonderful.

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Movie Review: Noor (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Noor is almost a good movie. It looks nice, and the talented cast members make their characters relatable. The film just never comes together in a coherent way.

The challenge with Noor is condensing a book’s worth of material into a movie of less than two hours, a feat which director Sunhil Sippy and co-writers Althea Kaushal and Shikhaa Sharma can’t manage. The threads of the various subplots never tie together in a way I’m guessing they do in Saba Imtiaz’s well-regarded novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me, upon which the film is based.

Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) is a Mumbai journalist plagued in equal parts by self-loathing and a smug sense of superiority. She films human interest stories for an online news outlet, but she’d rather be reporting on more serious issues. Her disdain for her interview subjects is so obvious that any organization would be foolish to entrust her with any topics of import.

When Noor is not blaming her editor Shekhar (Manish Chaudhary) for consigning her to a Pulitzer-less fate, she’s complaining about how no one pays attention to her while simultaneously rebuffing everyone’s attempts to reach out to her. We have to trust that the patience shown by her buddies Zara (Shibani Dandekar) and Saad (Kanan Gill of Pretentious Movie Reviews) was earned during a time when Noor wasn’t such a self-pitying grump. She’s also obsessed with her weight, a hopelessly outdated gag used so often it seems malicious.

Things finally start going Noor’s way when she falls for Ayan (Purab Kohli), a handsome international photojournalist. Then she gets a lead on what could be a huge scandal.

“Could” is the operative word. All Noor has is an interview with one alleged crime victim, yet she wants Shekhar to publish it as proof of a widespread conspiracy. Shekhar insists that they wait, but not so that Noor can gather more evidence. He wants her to think about the potential negative impact publishing it would have on her interview subject.

That’s certainly one element to consider, but there’s a larger view of journalistic ethics that gets completely ignored. What Noor has is the first germ of a story, not a complete investigation. She has zero corroborating evidence, but none of the characters acknowledge that as a problem. Publishing what she has as unassailable proof of corruption is inviting a defamation lawsuit.

Movies about investigative journalism can be riveting — seeing how badly Noor handles it made me want to watch Spotlight again — but Noor never fully shifts into being the thriller it needs to be to deal with the can of worms it opens. Trying to integrate Noor’s low-stakes romantic troubles into the high-stakes crime narrative doesn’t work.

It’s a shame, because Sinha does a nice job humanizing a complicated character. Kohli is charming, and Gill is funny and adorable. Sadly, Zara is written as little more than a walking clothes rack, so we don’t get to see what Dandekar can do.

Sippy uses some clever techniques to depict Noor for the Millennial she is. When Noor speaks in hashtags, they appear written on screen next to her. Sippy positions his own camera over Noor’s shoulder and focuses on her iPhone screen so that we can see what she sees while she records her interviews.

While Noor is certainly watchable, the cloud of what-might-have-been always hovers over it.

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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: Naam Shabana (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.

Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.

The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.

By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.

Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.

Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.

A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)

Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).

Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.

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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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