Tag Archives: Sonakshi Sinha

Movie Review: Total Dhamaal (2019)

1 Star (out of 4)

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The good thing about watching Total Dhamaal on DVD is that my DVD player has a 1.5x speed option. Sitting through this at normal speed would be unbearable.

Total Dhamaal is a reboot of the Dhamaal franchise that began over a decade ago. It features some of the same actors but has nothing to do with the earlier movies. It’s an unofficial adaptation of the 1963 Hollywood comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Mad World henceforth), with disparate duos racing across the country in search of stolen loot.

The pilfered cash belongs to corrupt police commissioner Shamsher “Don” Singh (Boman Irani). Thieves Guddu (Ajay Devgn) and Johnny (Sanjay Mishra) brazenly steal Don’s money, only for their getaway driver Pintu (Manoj Pahwa) to run off with the suitcase full of cash himself.

After a series of interminable character introductions, Pintu is fatally injured in a plane crash in the middle of nowhere. He tells a bunch of motorists who come to check on him that he hid the money in a zoo hundreds of miles away. Those passersby include all the folks we met in the boring setup portion of the story: unhappily married couple Bindu (Madhuri Dixit Nene) and Avi (Anil Kapoor); good-for-nothing brothers Adi (Arshad Warsi) and Manav (Javed Jaffrey); and disgraced firefighters Lalaan (Riteish Deshmukh) and Jhingur (Pitobash Tripathy). Guddu and Johnny show up as well, but Pintu dies before confessing the exact location.

The duos hem and haw before agreeing that the first pair to find the money can keep it for themselves. Guddu and Johnny use trickery to get a head-start, but they run into Don and his sidekick Abbas (Vijay Patkar) along the way, who then join the pursuit as well.

There are some genuinely funny performances, which is not surprising given the caliber of the cast. Bindu’s withering stare when Avi’s “shortcut” gets them lost in a jungle is a highlight, as is the interplay between the crooked cops Don and Abbas. But director Indra Kumar’s poor storytelling gives his stars few opportunities to shine, weighing them down under a bloated plot and dull, repetitive jokes.

As obviously cribbed from Mad World as the film is, it’s baffling that Kumar and his writing team of Paritosh Painter, Ved Prakash, and Bunty Rathore didn’t use more of the original’s plot structure. In Mad World, the dying man’s revelation about the hidden money is the film’s opening scene, and the characters involved in the race are developed on the road. In Total Dhamaal, the deathbed confession doesn’t happen until forty minutes have elapsed, after all of the main players have been introduced in boring vignettes from their regular lives. These sequences are pointless because there is zero character development in Total Dhamaal, and it means that the road race only takes up about a third of the total runtime. The final third takes place at a zoo run by Prachi (Esha Gupta) that’s in danger of being demolished. The zoo’s monkey security guard is played by Hollywood monkey legend Crystal.

In order to pay his veteran cast, Kumar cut costs elsewhere. There is a remarkable amount of CGI used in the movie, even in the car chases. Almost all of Total Dhamaal was shot inside a studio, giving the movie a lifeless, artificial quality. While some footage of actual animals was used during the zoo sequences, for safety’s sake, there’s obviously a lot of compositing at work.

Total Dhamaal‘s great sin is that it isn’t funny. Jokes are extremely simplistic — often consisting of a man being kicked in the behind or almost hit in the crotch — but they are dragged out forever, as if it were possible for the audience to have missed something. The jokes also follow a formula: Character A notices danger over Character B’s shoulder and warns Character B three times before B finally turns and sees the trouble approaching. Then they both scream. This formula repeats multiple times, and it never gets any more clever. Scenes jump from one character duo to the next without any attempt at graceful transitions.

Sonakshi Sinha’s cameo in the song “Mungda” is the best part of Total Dhamaal, so I’ll just embed the song video below and save you the trouble of watching the movie.

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Movie Review: Mission Mangal (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Mission Mangal (“Mission Mars“) got worse the more I thought about it. While in the theater, I rolled my eyes at the film’s outdated takes on gender roles, but I found it generally enjoyable. Upon further reflection, the enormity of the opportunity missed to present an inspirational, empowering story feels too big to ignore.

In 2014, India became the fourth country to reach Mars, and the only one to do so on its first try. Photos of sari-clad women engineers in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) gained global attention, forcing people around the world to challenge their preconceptions of what a scientist is supposed to look like.

A fictional story inspired by that real-life feat, Mission Mangal feels less revolutionary that the actual event. The contributions of women engineers are viewed through a patriarchal lens that insists on centering male characters. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the man playing the film’s main male protagonist — Akshay Kumar — is also one of the movie’s producers.

Kumar’s female co-lead is Vidya Balan, whose character Tara is introduced first. She bustles about the house on the morning of a rocket launch, praying for success, cooking breakfast, and trying to rouse her teenage children. Her husband Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) asks her to bring him a cup of tea instead of getting up to get it himself, despite knowing how pressed she is for time.

The launch goes awry, due to Tara’s misjudgement in her role as Project Manager. Her boss Rakesh (Kumar) takes the blame and is reassigned to a project considered doomed from the start: getting an Indian satellite into orbit around Mars. Rakesh tells the head of ISRO (played by Vikram Gokhale) that he suspects it’s his superior’s way of telling him to finally retire, marry, and start a family, but Rakesh loves India and science too damned much to do that. The conversation is a message to the audience that Rakesh will undergo zero character development during the course of the film.

Eager to make up for her mistake, Tara joins Rakesh’s Mars team. Their first problem is how to get the satellite out of Earth’s gravitational pull using a minimal amount of fuel. Tara cracks it by equating it to cooking: oil stays hot enough to fry food even after the gas is turned off, meaning their rocket need only burn fuel in intervals, not continuously. The ISRO board approves, and suddenly the project doesn’t seem doomed after all.

Rakesh and Tara round out their team with various specialists, including four women who each fill a spot on the film’s limited spectrum of possible female life options. Eka (Sonakshi Sinha) is single and eager to move to the United States. Kritika (Taapsee Pannu) is married to a soldier. Varsha (Nithya Menen) is married and pregnant. Neha (Kirti Kulhari) is initially described by Rakesh as attractive — gross, he’s her boss — but she is de-sexualized as soon as her colleagues learn that she is Muslim and divorced. She becomes a surrogate daughter to one of the two men on the team, Ananth (H. G. Dattatreya), whose own adult son lives abroad. There’s also Parmeshwar (Sharman Joshi), a superstitious virgin who gets too much screentime.

As the team’s timeline and budget shrink, they must innovate ways to get their satellite to Mars cheaper, lighter, and faster than any space organization has done before. We see how their careers and personal lives intersect — except for Rakesh, who only exists when in the presence of his colleagues.

Tara’s work-life balance subplot is the most developed and the most frustrating. Tara is responsible for managing her household by herself. Her husband Sunil is emotionally disconnected from his children. He refuses to do tasks he considers beneath him, such as waiting in line to pay an electricity bill. The film doesn’t challenge his behavior, instead presenting it as just another problem for Tara to work around. His position as head of the family is unquestioned, despite his unfitness for the role and his disinterest in it.

Sunil’s behavior fits with an overall viewpoint on gender parity that — despite its progressive veneer — makes Mission Mangal feel as though it was written by a Tim Allen sitcom character. Sunil doesn’t pay the electric bill and the family loses power, and it’s treated as a joke, instead of either a failing that jeopardizes the family’s quality of life or a deliberate act of negligence to get him out of having to do it in the future. He’s gotta be a good guy at heart since he lets his wife work, right?

This attitude infects the workplace as well. Rakesh views Tara’s ingenuity as cute, making her demonstrate their propulsion idea by frying bread in the boardroom. When she suggests using parts from an abandoned ISRO project as a way to save money, Rakesh grins to his boss and says, “Women, sir. They don’t waste anything.” There’s a needless fight sequence in which the women engineers hit some goons with their purses that is not as funny as the filmmakers think it is.

Kritika’s and Varsha’s husbands are supportive of their wives’ careers, but they appear only in cameos (by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Purab Kohli, respectively). They aren’t in the movie long enough to balance out the more regressive characters — which includes Parmeshwar, who spends the whole time hitting on his colleague, Eka.

Maybe things would’ve felt more balanced if there had been more than one woman (Nidhi Singh Dharma) on the writing or directing staff. The story moves along at a decent clip, and the characters are well-acted. The space travel elements are explained in novel ways for a general audience, and Mission Mangal‘s computer-generated effects are decent. Still, the source material is too good to result in a film this mediocre.

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Movie Review: Khandaani Shafakhana (2019)

1.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Khandaani Shafakhana is like a half-finished topiary. The general shape is there, but it needs a lot more trimming.

Sonakshi Sinha stars as pharmaceutical sales representative Baby Bedi. Her job supports her mother (Nadira Babbar) and her loafer younger brother — the unfortunately named Bhooshit (Varun Sharma) — following her father’s death. Dad took out a loan from his greedy brother (Rajiv Gupta), and now Uncle wants to take possession of the family’s home and kick them out.

An opportunity arises in the wake of another death, that of Baby’s estranged maternal uncle Mamaji (Kulbushan Kharbanda). Mamaji was notorious for running a fertility clinic in a town where just saying the word “sex” is considered obscene. He bequeathed his clinic to Baby, on the condition that she hire a doctor and operate the clinic for six months in order to conclude his patients’ treatments. After that, she’s free sell the property, paying off her father’s debt and leaving her with enough money to start her own herbal medicine franchise. If she fails, the clinic goes to the medical school that kicked out her uncle decades earlier.

Returning to Mamaji’s clinic — inexplicably covered in cobwebs even though he’s only been dead a few days — brings back childhood memories of learning about traditional Unani medicine at her uncle’s knee. Her first meetings with patients to talk about their erectile dysfunction issues are profoundly awkward, but Baby realizes the positive impact of her uncle’s treatment on their lives. This reawakens her own dormant dreams of becoming a doctor and inspires her to destigmatize the topic of sexual health in her prudish Punjabi town.

Sinha’s warmth in the film’s thoughtful moments feels so natural, and her character builds endearing relationships. Sinha deftly guides Baby through a complicated journey as she considers what she really wants from life. Comedy might not be Sinha’s strongest suit, but the jokes in Khandaani Shafakhana are pretty subdued anyway. Nor are they especially bawdy.

The moderate tone does a world of good for Sharma, whose comic performances tend to be over-the-top. Annu Kapoor is funny as Mamaji’s lawyer, and Priyanshu Jora is adorable as a lemonade vendor hired by the lawyer to spy on Baby to ensure she fulfills her part of the deal.

Khandaani Shafakhana looks fantastic. Director Shilpi Dasgupta and cinematographer Rishi Punjabi tell their story through carefully framed shots, the best of which make a pensive Sinha look positively ethereal.

But Khandaani Shafakhana falls short of success for a few reasons. It’s overly long, first of all. By the time Baby hits her lowest point, I was ready for the whole thing to be done. The resolution to Baby’s crisis feels convenient and unrealistic.

Some aspects of the movie felt like they didn’t quite translate, not so much as a matter of language but culture. (The English subtitles are actually quite good, including a funny joke about one of Baby’s suitors being handsome “like Al Pacino.”) The film’s primary audience in India will likely be more familiar with the particulars of Mamaji’s Unani medicine than a Western audience, so much about it is left unexplained. But the characters periodically give each other meaningful looks, and I wasn’t sure what the meaning was supposed to be. This is not a good starter film for Bollywood newcomers.

Then there’s Khandaani Shafakhana‘s biggest problem — one that can hopefully be edited out of the version that makes it to Amazon Prime. Bhooshit is discussing one of Baby’s patients with her: a famous rapper named Gabru Ghataak (Badshah). Bhooshit speculates that, because Gabru is always surrounded by beautiful women, the reason for the rapper’s erectile dysfunction must be that he’s a “homo.” Bhooshit says the slur in English, so it’s not a translation error. He also repeats it several times, indicating that director Dasgupta and writer Gautam Mehra intended the scene to be humorous. It’s an unfortunate scene that can easily be excised from the movie without ruining the story flow. In fact, in a movie that’s already too long, axing it could help in more ways than one.

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Movie Review: Kalank (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Kalank (“Stigma“) is a middling extravaganza, neither as good nor as bad as it could have been. Lavish sets, impressive dance numbers, and a gorgeous cast make it an enjoyable enough one-time watch, so long as you keep your attention at surface level.

Set just before Partition, the story follows Roop (Alia Bhatt), a young woman forced to integrate into a wealthy Hindu family living near Muslim-majority Lahore under unusual circumstances. Her acquaintance Satya (Sonakshi Sinha) proposes a business arrangement: in exchange for funding dowries for Roop’s younger sisters, Roop will move in to Satya’s home and grow closer to Satya’s husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). Satya is dying from cancer, and she hopes Dev will marry Roop after Satya’s death. Roop insists that she’ll only enter the home as Dev’s co-wife — a prudent move since Satya otherwise wouldn’t be around to make sure her wishes are carried out after death.

The second marriage proceeds and Roop moves into the Chaudhry family mansion with Satya, Dev, and Dev’s stiff father, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt). It would have been interesting to watch Roop and Satya negotiate their evolving roles in the household (as Bhatt’s character Sehmat did in Raazi) and learn more about nature of their tense preexisting relationship, but filmmaker Abhishek Varman sidelines Satya. Her illness progresses off-screen, and she and Roop have few interactions after their initial one. It’s unfortunate how small Sinha’s role in Kalank is given her prominence in the film’s marketing and the quality of her performance in her few scenes.

Dev tells Roop that he agreed to the marriage to make Satya happy, and that while he will never be mean to Roop, neither he will ever love her. Perhaps it’s because of the limitations of Dev’s nature, but Kapur’s one-note performance in the role is not one of his best.

In order to escape her stifling home life, Roop undertakes vocal music tuition from the famed courtesan Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit) in a working-class Muslim neighborhood. There Roop meets Gendry, er, Zafar (Varun Dhawan): a hunky blacksmith who’s the unacknowledged bastard son of — you guessed it — Roop’s father-in-law, Balraj. Zafar neglects to mention that to Roop so that he can use her to take revenge against the family that abandoned him.

Varman lays the melodrama on thick, with lots of longing looks, near-kisses, and simmering tensions between family members. It’s fun, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood for. The melodrama is enhanced by song numbers that are grand in scale and a delight to watch, especially when Madhuri Dixit takes the floor. The sets have a depth of field, and every rooftop and alleyway is populated with extras. Some settings do feel over-the-top for their location. Bahaar Begum’s brothel is apparently so successful that she can afford to stack chandeliers atop one another, and Blacksmith Alley’s festival budget tops the production costs of most Bollywood films.

Then again, I don’t think authenticity was Varman’s goal with Kalank — especially not with Karan Johar financing the film. Everything is big and glamorous, regardless of whether it makes sense. I’m not sure if the costumes are true to the time period, but they look fabulous. The cast members — particularly Dixit, Sinha, and Bhatt — look stunning under Devdas cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s lens.

Kalank gets its worst bang for its buck on an awful CGI bull-riding sequence involving Zafar that includes maybe one shot of an actual bull. I’m not sure why this made the final cut of the film, except that they must have spent a lot of money on it.

Kalank‘s larger-than-life relationship drama is set within a complicated political environment. While Roop is falling in love with Zafar behind her husband’s back, neoliberal Dev uses his newspaper to promote the economic benefits of bringing a steel mill to Lahore — a move that would decimate the local, Muslim-run blacksmith industry. Dev — who is also anti-Partition — thinks he’s just seeing the big picture, envisioning an India made prosperous by innovation. Never mind that only his family’s prosperity is assured by such advances, at the expense of a struggling lower class.

Dev’s main antagonist is Zafar’s friend Abdul Khan (Kunal Khemu, who’s excellent in Kalank), a politician responding to his base’s growing discontent. His own politics become more religiously divisive over time in part because of the mood of the neighborhood but also due to Zafar’s aggrieved goading. There’s an inevitability to the violent climax, and Khan admits he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to (not that he wants to, by that point).

Kalank‘s epilogue — featuring Bhatt in a weird direct-to-camera speech — suggests that all this trouble could’ve been avoided if we just set aside our differences and chose to get along. But could it? The plot makes a compelling case for the Muslims in the film to favor Partition by whatever means necessary. Things were already tough — huge festival budgets and extravagant brothel chandeliers notwithstanding — and likely to get worse, all so that the (Hindu) rich can get richer and the (Muslim) poor poorer. I’m not saying this applies to actual history, but in the terms the movie sets for itself, the angry mob’s response makes sense.

That said, it stinks to see another mainstream film depict Muslims as violent, except for those noble enough to sacrifice themselves to save innocent Hindus. And it stinks that this is another movie that wants us to sympathize most with characters who are wealthy enough to escape difficult situations without regard for the mess they leave behind.

In order to enjoy Kalank, one must ignore the politics undergirding it and allow oneself to revel in the superficial beauty of it all. I was able to do that while I was in the theater. Only afterward did the film’s unfortunate aspects start to weigh on me.

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Opening April 17: Kalank

The Karan Johar-produced period drama Kalank hits Chicago area theaters on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. The stellar cast — which includes Madhuri Dixit, Sonakshi Sinha, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Aditya Roy Kapur, and Sanjay Dutt — is directed by 2 States helmer Abhishek Varman.

Kalank opens Wednesday at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC Niles 12 in Niles, Century 12 Evanston in Evanston, Regal Round Lake Beach 18 in Round Lake Beach, AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington, AMC Rosemont 18 in Rosemont, Marcus Addison Cinema in Addison, Regal Cantera 17 in Warrenville, AMC Naperville 16 in Naperville, Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, and AMC Woodridge 18 in Woodridge. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 46 min.

MovieMax carries over Kesari and The Tashkent Files.

Other Indian and Pakistani movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend (all films have English subtitles):

Movie Review: Welcome to New York (2018)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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Note: This is a review of the 2D version of the movie.

Welcome to New York has plenty of laughs for the hardest of hardcore Bollywood fans, packaged in an enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy.

When I say “hardcore,” I mean it. It’s not enough to be familiar with the biggest Bollywood hits of recent years. Welcome to New York requires an appetite for industry gossip, knowledge of awards shows, and a fondness for Karan Johar–particularly his talk show, Koffee with Karan.

The extremely meta setting for Welcome to New York is the 18th International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which were held in New York City last year. As in real life, Johar plays the host of the awards show. His actual co-host, Saif Ali Khan, is replaced in the film by Riteish Deshmukh, playing a self-deprecating version of himself who bemoans his underpaid, B-list status.

In order to boost viewership in India, awards show organizers Gary (Boman Irani) and Sophia (Lara Dutta) create a talent contest, giving two winners the chance to perform onstage during the show. Sophia uses the contest to sabotage the show and get back at Gary, choosing the two worst entries among all the submissions as the winners.

Those winners are Teji (Diljit Dosanjh), a small-town repo man and wannabe actor, and Jeenal (Sonakshi Sinha), a feisty fashion designer. Whisked away to New York, the two must overcome their differences to navigate their flashy new surroundings and make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, an angry Karan Johar doppelgänger named Arjun (also played by Johar) plans to kidnap his lookalike before the awards show. Teji accidentally foils one kidnapping attempt, thinking he’s playing a version of the Rapid Fire Round from Koffee with Karan.

The plotlines aren’t well-integrated, but it hardly matters, given how silly the movie is. Teji’s and Jeenal’s budding friendship is sweet to watch, and Dosanjh and Sinha are both effortlessly likeable. Dosanjh’s Teji gets most of the fish-out-of-water jokes, such as when he calls Jeenal’s terrycloth robe a “coat that looks like a towel.” Their characters have some amusing interactions with Aditya Roy Kapur and Sushant Singh Rajput that play off of people’s mistaken tendency to conflate actors with their roles.

When it comes to playing a role, no one in Welcome to New York does so more enthusiastically than Karan Johar, who plays the most outrageous version of himself imaginable. He’s vain, snarky, and snobbish, and he’s hilarious. He gets to spout lines like, “You are a traitor, Riteish Deshkmukh.” The payoff to subplot in which Karan advises Rana Daggubati on his career after Baahubali is worth the price of admission alone. Lara Dutta and Boman Irani being as great as always is a nice bonus.

The most disappointing element of Welcome to New York is its music. Songs range from forgettable to annoying, and there’s precious little dancing to speak of.

Casual fans may find Welcome to New York too “inside baseball,” but Bollywood junkies will see their obsession pay off in a multitude of self-referential gags. The actors seem like they had fun making the movie, and that quality translates to an enjoyable experience for the audience.

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Movie Review: Ittefaq (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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A detective distills the truth from two conflicting narratives in Ittefaq (“Coincidence“), a fun, stylish thriller with a killer soundtrack.

The detective, Dev (Akshaye Khanna), is summoned from his sleep to an apartment belonging to a lawyer, Shekhar, who lies dead on the floor. Shekhar’s wife, Maya (Sonakshi Sinha), flagged down a police car, claiming a stranger, Vikram (Sidharth Malhotra), killed her husband. It so happens that they police are looking for Vikram as a suspect in the death of his own wife, Katherine (Kimberly Louisa McBeath).

Melancholy Vikram offers a different version of events, denying responsibility for either death. He further implicates Maya for acting suspicious when he knocked on her door asking for help following a car accident. Dev explains to one of his deputies, “I just feel like there are three sides to this story: Vikram’s, Maya’s, and the truth.”

Because Vikram is a famous author and a British resident, Dev’s superior gives him three days to charge the man or let him go. Dev’s digging turns up further secrets that Maya and Vikram would rather stay hidden, but are they really connected to the case or are they distractions? How much of this case really is a matter of coincidence?

Writer-director Abhay Chopra’s story keeps a steady tempo, wasting little time in a movie that clocks in well under two hours long. Much of the film takes place at night or in dingy jail cells, and even daytime scenes are dimmed by the monsoon. Cinematographer Michal Luka uses the darkness to great effect.

The real star of the Ittefaq is the superb score by American composer BT, hooking the audience from the movie’s opening car chase sequence. The music pulses as Maya tells her version of events, the soundtrack keeping viewers as off-balance as Maya feels in the presence of a dangerous stranger.

Both Malhotra and Sinha have good poker faces as they change their characters to the story’s demands, from grieving spouses when stating their own cases to the police to villains in each other’s flashbacks.

Ittefaq doesn’t work unless Khanna’s performance is spot on, and thankfully it is. He sidesteps common movie-detective traps like excessive yelling or quirkiness in a way that avoids drawing too much attention to Dev, despite him being the character with the most screentime. It would be fun to see Dev helm a series of murder mysteries, perhaps with even more input from his astute wife (played by Mandira Bedi).

It’s nice to see a Hindi movie where the cops aren’t depicted as heartless monsters or incompetent fools, for a change. Any mistakes the officers under Dev make are honest ones. Ittefaq is pretty heavy on police procedural elements, for fans of that subgenre. For everyone else, it’s just a well-made movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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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: Force 2 (2016)

force23 Stars (out of 4)

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John Abraham’s Inspector Yash returns for Force 2, a more straightforward action flick than its romance-heavy predecessor. Intriguing international locations and a solid cast make this a fitting follow-up to 2011’s terrific thriller.

Five years after the murder of his wife Maya (Genelia D’Souza), Yash is drawn into another conspiracy. Someone is assassinating agents of RAW (India’s CIA, essentially) working in China, using information from within the organization to locate targets.

One of those agents is a childhood friend of Yash’s who managed to send an encoded message to his buddy before his death. The leak within RAW works at the Indian embassy in Budapest. The call to action jars Yash out of his vivid hallucinations of Maya and back into reality.

RAW isn’t about to let Yash tear apart Hungary on his own personal revenge mission. He’s assigned to work under the supervision of agent KK (Sonakshi Sinha), who has contacts in Budapest.

There’s some back-and-forth about the superiority of investigation methods preferred by each law enforcement branch — patient data collection by RAW versus gut feelings by the police — but this ends quickly. KK showcases her reliable instincts and Yash his observation skills, even if some of his investigation methods are unorthodox. KK describes her hair-triggered partner as “a bit wayward.”

Maya’s presence in the story — if only in Yash’s mind — precludes a romance between Yash and KK, allowing their relationship to develop based on professional camaraderie and trust. Abraham and Sinha have a nice rapport, and it’s satisfying to watch their characters learn that they are more effective working together than independently.

For as important a character as KK is, it would’ve been nice to see more of her backstory. At one point, I thought a subtitle read that the film’s villain was her fiance. It’s never mentioned again, so maybe I misread it. Subtitle pacing is a periodic problem, and some crucial voiceovers aren’t subtitled at all.

Sinha acquits herself well in the action sequences, and her character’s casual wardrobe in the second half of the film is killer. Abraham looks great at all times (one of the perks of his being a producer on Force 2).

Undoubtedly, the most compelling performance is by Tahir Raj Bhasin, who plays the villain Shiv Sharma. Bhasin has a threatening stare that he uses liberally, whether Shiv intends to convey his murderous intent overtly or disguise it behind a benign expression. There’s always something chilling about him.

Director Abhinay Deo of Delhi Belly fame has fun with the action scenes. He has Yash swing KK around as a weapon in one close-quarters fight. During a ballroom shoot-out, Deo films the events from Yash’s perspective as if it were a first-person-shooter video game. It’s really well-executed.

Though not as uniquely memorable as Force, Force 2 is still fun, violent action fare. I’d be happy to watch a third Force film.

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Movie Review: Naam Hai Akira (2016)

NaamHaiAkira0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Naam Hai Akira is an endurance test, a fight to stay in one’s seat and finish the film instead of leaving the theater to do anything else. The movie is a disorganized, demoralizing disaster.

Naam Hai Akira (known as just Akira in India) is a remake of a Tamil film by Santha Kumar called Mouna Guru, a hit remade in two other languages besides Hindi. I haven’t seen the original, so I have no idea if it’s as messy as its Hindi remake. However, Naam Hai Akira is directed and co-written by A. R. Murugadoss, the man who screwed up Ghajini, his remake of the great film Memento. I’m inclined to place the blame on Murugadoss.

Murugadoss’s film swaps the gender of the film’s protagonist, a move that would seem progressive, if, again, the director didn’t screw it up so royally. Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) is first introduced as an adult, kneeling in the woods with a gun pointed at her head. Then the movie flashes back either three years or fourteen years — the movie contradicts itself — to Akira as a pre-teen in Jodhpur.

Little Akira witnesses a pair of young men throw acid in the face of a teen girl who rejects their advances. Akira reports them to the police, who let the men go because of their families’ political connections. After the men cut Akira’s face in retaliation, her father (played by Atul Kulkarni, who needs to play dad roles more often) enrolls her in karate class so she can learn to defend herself.

Ah yes, self-defense classes — the go-to solution to the problem of violence against women by those who don’t want to admit that men are the problem. It goes hand-in-hand with the notions that women can prevent rape by not wearing mini-skirts or by invoking God’s name when begging not to be raped.

Akira has to walk by an all-girls dance class to get to her all-boys-but-one karate class, just in case we’ve forgotten what society expects of girls. When she and her dad spot the same men harassing other women, Dad encourages her to beat the crap out of them. She uses her karate superpowers to do so, in the process splashing the bottle of acid intended for her onto the face of the main perpetrator.

Akira’s punishment for daring to confront sexual harassment is to spend the rest of her childhood in juvenile detention. The lesson of the movie is that violence is the province of men, and women who choose to use it will be punished and ultimately forced to martyr themselves to maintain a social order in which they are eternal, powerless victims.

There’s a lot of boring stuff that has to happen before we get to that completely depressing conclusion. As an adult, Akira is forced by her brother Ajay to move to Mumbai to live with him, his nasty wife, and their mother. This isn’t really clear, but it seems as though Ajay and Mom think Akira was wrong to stand up to those men years ago, and that her use of violence is a sign of some kind of mental defect. That’s the only way to explain what eventually happens, but again, it’s not clear at all.

This despite the fact that Akira is completely timid. She hardly speaks, and she consents to anything anyone asks of her. She only retaliates if someone physically attacks her first.

When the plot catches up to that opening scene in the woods, it takes a series of unbelievable mishaps before Akira even thinks about trying to escape. She just sits there — gun pointed at her forehead — while her would-be killers discuss the phone call they just got from their boss. They want to confirm the plan with him, but their cell phone died, so they leave one guy behind to guard Akira and another prisoner. They call their boss from a payphone, but then their van breaks down. Then they ride a bike back to the guy with the gun.

The whole freaking time, Akira just sits there, waiting to die. Only when the other prisoner makes a break for it does she try to get away. Never has an action hero possessed so little initiative or sense of self-preservation.

That scene is par for the course. Everything is spelled out in excruciating detail. In another sequence, one character says (in essence), “We need to file a missing persons report and name Inspector Manik in it.” Cut to a shot in the police station with Manik and his crooked coworkers, one of whom says, “They filed a missing persons report and named Manik in it.”

There’s a whole other storyline about a quartet of corrupt cops, led by a detective played by Anurag Kashyap, who’s one of the only good things about this movie (Akira’s wardrobe is the other). So much time is spent on the cops that Akira’s barely in half of the movie. When she gets mixed up in their crime by mistake, it’s because of moronic reasons that depend on everyone being as stupid as possible.

It’s hard to find the cops all that menacing anyway, since they are terrible at covering up their crime, foolishly involving dozens of people instead of just killing those who know and dumping the bodies in another jurisdiction. This is Corrupt Movie Cops 101.

Nothing happens in Naam Hai Akira unless by happenstance or plain idiocy, and all of it takes frigging forever. Sinha could be a fine action star, but she needs a better movie than this. Good grief, it’s so awful.

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