Tag Archives: Netflix

Movie Review: Extraction (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Extraction on Netflix

An Australian mercenary is hired to rescue the kidnapped son of an Indian drug lord in Extraction, a Netflix Original action movie that stars some well-known Hindi-film actors opposite Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, a former solider turned mercenary. The only reason Tyler is still alive is so that he can continue punishing himself for not being there for his wife and son when the little boy was terminally ill.

Tyler gets an opportunity for redemption when a fellow merc, Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), hires him to execute the toughest part of a rescue mission: freeing 14-year-old Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) from the goons holding him in Dhaka at the behest of Bangladeshi crime boss Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli).

Ovi’s father is Ovi Mahajan Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi), a drug kingpin incarcerated in Mumbai. Young Ovi is a pawn in a long-standing feud between his father and Amir, and the boy’s kidnapping is meant to humiliate Mahajan Sr. Ovi says that his dad ignores him and dismisses his intellectual pursuits, so the boy’s kidnapping reinforces his feeling that he’s an object and not a real person to anyone involved in his dad’s line of work.

That changes when he meets Tyler, who makes it his mission to save Ovi even after it’s revealed that they’ve been double-crossed. The appearance of Mahajan Sr.’s right-hand man Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) further complicates things. Tyler could just hand Ovi over to Saju, but what if he was part of the kidnapping plan? As far as Ovi is concerned, Saju is just the guy who scolds him when his dad’s not around, so maybe he is safer with this stranger.

This clash between Tyler and Saju sets up Extraction‘s selling point: a ten-minute long chase/fight sequence that is made to look like it was filmed in a single shot. It’s extraordinary. Seeing a Hindi-film veteran like Hooda turn in a phenomenal action performance against Thor himself is a huge thrill for Bollywood fans. Hooda’s long been one of my favorite actors, and his turn in the international spotlight is well-deserved.

It’s unfortunate that Tripathi (another of my favorites) is only in one scene. But Painyuli shows the same skill he did in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero to make Amir low-key menacing, ordering someone’s death as nonchalantly as he’d order lunch. Jaiswal’s Ovi is likeable and sympathetic.

Extraction‘s story is basic — Tyler has to get Ovi from Point A to Point B without the kid dying — but the film weaves a theme about fathers and sons throughout the story. Tyler wishes he’d been a better father to his little boy. Ovi wishes his dad saw him as a real person. Saju attempts to rescue Ovi not for Ovi’s sake but because Ovi Sr. threatens the safety of Saju’s own young son. Tyler’s former colleague, Gaspar (David Harbour), mentions how his perspective on being a killer has changed now that he has his own family.

Even Amir is a twisted version of a father figure to a group of homeless boys who work for him. As neglected as Ovi feels, being ignored while living in a cushy mansion is a world apart from the abuse suffered by the boys in Amir’s employ, whom he murders and maims at the slightest displeasure. Yet he’s the only hope for a better life for a street kid like Farhad (Suraj Rikame), who’s willing to do anything Amir asks to finally feel a sense of power for once in his life.

Concerns about a “white savior” narrative are unavoidable in a film where Chris Hemsworth goes to Bangladesh to rescue an Indian teen, and Extraction doesn’t do much to challenge such concerns. While Tyler kills his share of Amir’s henchmen, most of the dead are Bangladeshi police officers or soldiers who presumably don’t know their commanding officers take orders from a drug lord. If you’ve already seen one-too-many films where a white character kills a bunch of non-white characters like it’s no big deal, you may want to skip Extraction.

If you do watch it, the film does demonstrate that exciting action sequences need not be solely the province of theatrical releases. Getting to see Randeep Hooda punch Chris Hemsworth is novel enough to make Extraction worth watching. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking from the narrative.

Links

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.

Links

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.

Links

Movie Review: Music Teacher (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Music Teacher on Netflix

Music Teacher is a melancholy exploration of the consequences of blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Beni (Manav Kaul) is a middle-aged vocal instructor and part-time lounge singer in Shimla, where he lives with his mother Madhavi (Neena Gupta) and younger sister Urmi (Niharika Lyra Dutt). He dreamed of being a playback singer for the movies, but his father’s death called him back from Mumbai years ago, before he could land any film gigs.

Adding salt to Beni’s still-open wound is the success of one of his former students, Jyotsna (Amrita Bagchi), who herself is now a popular playback singer. Beni must confront his jealousy and anger toward her when Jyotsna returns to Shimla for a concert after eight years in Bollywood.

But is the story Beni’s been telling himself about Jyotsna’s fame and their falling out true, or does he view the past through a lens that paints her as the villain (corroborated by his mother’s hostility toward her)? He reexamines the narrative as he tells it to his new neighbor, Geeta (Divya Dutta), a lonely wife who’s been ditched by her husband and banished to Shimla to care for her ailing father-in-law.

The present and past timelines in Music Teacher are differentiated by the color of Beni’s sideburns: black in the past, grey in the present. It’s subtle and easy to miss at first. Beni himself was more upbeat when he first meet Jyotsna, as opposed to the terse curmudgeon he’s become since she left. Their relationship was about more than music, but both had different dreams for the future.

Beni’s challenge is to realize how his own actions led him to his present unhappy state, and then either chart a new course or find a way to accept things the way they are. He’s spent his whole life waiting for his big break, thinking it could only come in the form of a show business career. He never considered that loving Jyotsna could be a life-changing opportunity in its own right.

Kaul plays Beni as more sad than angry, although the sense of having been wronged is what keeps him in stasis. Kaul convincingly portrays Beni as a decent guy who blew his big chance and never learned how to cope with it.

Bagchi is touching as Jyotsna, both in flashbacks as a young woman desperate for love and in an impactful present-day sequence in which she hints that the lessons she’s learned have been hard won.

While Jyotsna embodies all of Beni’s opportunities lost, Dutta’s Geeta represents the idea of accepting life’s hardships and finding pleasure where one can. Were Beni further along in his emotional journey, maybe he and Geeta could be happy together, damaged but at least not alone.

Though Music Teacher‘s story focuses on Beni’s growth, there’s an interesting theme about the lack of control women have over their own lives. Geeta is the most obvious example, fulfilling the edicts of a husband who lives in a distant city and no longer loves her. But Beni himself has undue influence over the lives of the women in his family. He selects a groom for his sister Urmi, and while we can assume that he wouldn’t make her marry against her will, he clearly has veto power when it comes to groom choice. Beni’s insistence forces Jyotsna to make a choice she doesn’t want to, and the repercussions destroy their relationship.

The men in Music Teacher don’t deserve the power they have. Geeta’s husband — who doesn’t even appear onscreen — is a bad guy for ditching her and offloading the care of his sick father onto her. Beni is guilty of myopic self-interest and a tragic lack of foresight, and loneliness is the consequence. Music Teacher is a big improvement over writer-director Sarthak Dasgupta’s first film, 2007’s The Great Indian Butterfly. There’s a lot to relate to and appreciate about this cautionary tale.

Links

TV Review: Ghoul (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Ghoul on Netflix

Ghoul pulls no punches in its depiction of the dangers of state-sanctioned religious intolerance. The show’s monsters are scary, but not as terrifying as the vision of the future presented by writer-director Patrick Graham.

The miniseries comprises three episodes, each with a runtime between 40-45 minutes (excluding closing credits). In all, Ghoul is about as long as a feature film. I appreciated the built-in breaks, which occur at logical points in the plot. This is a perfect kind of storytelling format for a streaming video platform, and I won’t be surprised to see it become more common as filmmakers adapt to changing audience viewing habits.

Graham keeps the scares to a minimum in the first episode: “Out of the Smokeless Fire,” establishing a world where every day is a nightmare for those on the wrong side of new societal divisions. A fascist Indian government cracks down on homegrown terrorism by outlawing certain religious texts and practices, burning books and whisking away citizens believed to harbor anti-nationalist sentiments for “re-education.” The only people targeted in crackdowns are Muslims, although the show doesn’t specifically identify the government as Hindu nationalist.

Naive patriotism inspires Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) to enlist in the military, despite being the daughter of an Islamic scholar (played by S.M. Zaheer). She’s convinced that the government’s harsh tactics truly are about national security and not religious oppression, as her father believes — so much so that she turns in her own father for re-education. Soon after, she’s posted at a secret government prison to aid the interrogation of notorious terrorist Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), who is captured in the show’s opening, half-dead and surrounded by the corpses of his followers. But why would the military assign Nida, a junior interrogator, to such a high-profile case?

The last two episodes draw from any number of horror films in which the characters are trapped in a remote location with a monster, their terror turning them against one another when their survival depends on them working together. Few of the soldiers and prisoners get any meaningful character development other than Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), whose idea it was to bring Nida in, and Lieutenant Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), Dacunha’s skeptical second-in-command.

Although the relative anonymity of the other soldiers signals their expendability, it also highlight’s the shows message that any agent of a fascist government is liable for its crimes. Not every soldier in Dacunha’s prison personally tortured prisoners, but all of them knew about it and did nothing to stop it. The jail’s cremation room is a stark visualization of the parallels to Nazism present throughout Graham’s screenplay.

When Ghoul‘s namesake creature finally appears, the story becomes quite scary, playing on the fears of those within the prison. Several of the soldiers, including Dacunha, are haunted by the way engaging in torture has warped their sense of morality — not enough to stop torturing people, unfortunately — allowing the monster to play on their guilt. The scares in Ghoul are more psychological than surprise driven, and there’s a considerable amount of blood.

Nida is plagued by her own guilt, and she has no allies in her new surroundings. Apte is compelling in the lead role, showing both Nida’s grit and vulnerability. Bravely, the series doesn’t downplay her commitment to the totalitarian government. She’s willing to follow orders until the moment she’s absolutely convinced that she’s been duped. Nor does Ghoul try to make Dacunha more sympathetic than he should be. Kaul depicts Dacunha as conflicted, but unquestionably a bad person. Ghoul knows which way its moral compass points, and it’s not afraid to show it.

Links

Movie Review: Love Per Square Foot (2018)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Watch Love Per Square Foot on Netflix
Buy the soundtrack at iTunes

Writer-director Anand Tiwari’s debut feature film Love Per Square Foot shows a lot of promise. Drawing from his own acting experience, Tiwari coaxes charming performances from his talented cast.

Two young strangers in Mumbai long for homes of their own. IT guy Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) is tired of living with his fussy parents, Lata (Supriya Pathak) and Bhaskar (Raghuvir Yadav). Loan officer Karina (Angira Dhar) wants financial independence, a feat her mother Blossom (Ratna Pathak Shah) never quite achieved.

Sanjay is being strung along by his sexy boss, Rashi (Alankrita Sahai), and Karina is dating Sam (Kunaal Roy Kapur), a nice guy she likes but doesn’t love. When Sanjay and Karina hit it off at a mutual friend’s wedding, they realize that they can’t achieve their dreams if they stay with their current partners.

In order to take advantage of a government-sponsored housing program for newlyweds, Sanjay and Karina decide to apply together. They only have to get married if they win an apartment via a lottery draw, and even then, their arrangement is based on business rather than affection. They’ll split everything 50-50, from the costs of owning the apartment right down to household chores. That they start to fall in love with each other during the process is just a bonus.

The story takes its time establishing the relationship between Sanjay and Karina, which is great because Kaushal and Dhar are adorable together. Fresh off of his chilling turn as a crooked cop in Raman Raghav 2.0, Kaushal transitions seamlessly into an ideal romantic leading man. Dhar is effortlessly likeable and cute in her first film role.

Tiwari’s storytelling style is concise, with characters resolving problems that would normally stretch over several scenes with just a sentence or two. It’s refreshing, but it also creates the need to continually manufacture new conflicts in order to keep the story going. Problems aren’t born out of well-integrated subplots but rather spontaneously generate, and the story drags.

The two ex-lovers are one well Tiwari returns to, with Rashi’s demands on Sanjay’s attention becoming increasingly outlandish and less believable. As a character, Rashi is one-note, which is too bad because Sahai shows some charisma in her first film role. Kapur’s Sam has fewer scenes, but the actor makes the most of them.

Tiwari relies even more heavily on the main characters’ parents to complicate matters, chiefly on the grounds of religious objections to the union. Sanjay is Hindu and Karina is Christian, though neither seems especially devout. The sudden parental religious objections feel obligatory — as though one can’t make a Bollywood romantic comedy without them — and they don’t easily fit with the central modern love story. Despite having wonderful actors in the roles, all of the parents are unfunny caricatures.

The rookie writer-director must perfect his story crafting, but overall, Love Per Square Foot is a fine debut — not just for Anand Tiwari but for Angira Dhar as well.

Links

 

Streaming Video News: July 26, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with several new additions to the catalog. The 2016 Malayalam film Munroe Island (aka Mundrothuruth) is now available for streaming, as are the Indian television shows Buddha Sutra, The Great Escape, Kissa Currency Ka, and Samagri, Sampatti Aur Sauda. Instant Watcher also has a link to the cooking show Ithihas Ki Thali Se, but the show isn’t available on Netflix just yet. Look for it to join the streaming catalog soon.

Streaming Video News: June 25, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with two new additions to the catalog. The reprehensible 2017 thriller Kaabil is now available for streaming, though I’d discourage anyone from actually watching it. Instead, watch the classic Mughal-E-Azam, which also just joined the streaming service (thanks for the heads up, Gaurav!). For everything else new on Netflix — Bollywood or not — check Instant Watcher.

Streaming Video News: June 21, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with a major new addition to the catalog. Aamir Khan’s 2016 smash hit Dangal is now available for streaming. If you’re looking for a movie the whole family can enjoy, Dangal fits the bill perfectly. The London-set Desi comedy Amar Akbar & Tony was also recently added to the service. For everything else new on Netflix (Bollywood or not), check Instant Watcher.

Streaming Video News: May 26, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with a major new addition to the catalog. Shah Rukh Khan’s 2017 gangster drama Raees is now available for streaming. It’s not my favorite SRK film, but it has its moments. For everything else new on Netflix (Bollywood or not), check Instant Watcher.

I also updated my list of Bollywood movies on Heera with two new additions, including another 2017 theatrical release — Commando 2! The plot is crazy, but Vidyut Jammwal action movies are always fun. The second new addition to Heera is 2016’s Dev Bhoomi: Land of the Gods. I’m not sure if Amazon’s deal with Cinestaan applies to the US as well as India, but the addition of Dev Bhoomi could presage the eventual addition of Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj to Heera. We’ll have to wait and see.

I made one addition to my list of Bollywood movies on Amazon Prime as well. The documentary Faith Connections — which director Pan Nalin made before Angry Indian Goddesses — is now available for streaming.