The Big Sick


Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in happier times.

(2017) Romantic Dramedy (Amazon/Lionsgate) Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, David Allen Grier, Ed Herbstman, Linda Emond, Shenaz Treasurywala, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kuhoo Verma, Mitra Jourhari, Celeste Arias. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

The path to love is a rocky one. There is so much to overcome to make a relationship work. Sometimes there are situational things, other times cultural things and any other numbers of things that can conspire to keep two individual people from making that permanent connection.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic struggling to make it. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. He was born in Pakistan and came to Chicago as a boy. His parents, both conservative traditionalists, wish to arrange a marriage for their son and his mother (Shroff) in particular manages to arrange for young single Pakistani women to “drop by” whenever Kumail visits their suburban home. But it is a white woman, Emily Gardner (Kazan) that Kumail falls in love with.

Things go well for awhile until she realizes that he has avoided introducing her to his parents and in fact hasn’t even told them about her. He tries to explain to her that their relationship doesn’t have a future; if he did marry her, his parents would likely cut all ties to him. The two break up but shortly thereafter Emily gets very sick to such a degree that doctors put her into a medially induced coma in order to fight the infection that is ravaging her body.

Kumail calls her parents and they fly in to sit vigil on their comatose daughter; feisty Beth (Hunter) and low-key Terry (Romano). They are both aware that their daughter and Kumail have broken up and are frankly surprised when Kumail offers to stay with them, Beth downright hostile. Nonetheless Kumail comes every day to wait with them as the days stretch on and Emily comes no closer to being cured.  Kumail begins to bond with the parents as his own attitudes towards love and marriage begin to shift.

This is based on the actual courtship between Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon  who co-wrote the script with her husband. While some events are fictional (the real Emily and Kumail never broke up prior to her illness), the main points actually happened and thus there’s an air of authenticity to the relationship between the onscreen Kumail and Emily that is refreshing.

The movie strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humor without leaning overly much in either direction, so as the kids today put it, you get all the feels. The performances from Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are all top notch; Kazan spends half of the movie in a coma (well, her character does anyway) but she lights up the screen in the time that she’s awake.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are the cultural differences. When Nanjiani talks about arranged marriage, he quips “Or as we call it in Pakistan, marriage” and it’s truly hard for an American to wrap one’s head around the concept. The family dynamic in Kumail’s onscreen family is fascinating and I wish they’d spent a little more time with them, but as it was I think the movie was just beginning to edge into the “a bit too long” category.

This is everything you’d want a romantic comedy to be and more. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and one well worth seeking out to stream or even buy. This is a couple you can root for, a movie that avoids clichés or at worst turns them on their heads. It is a movie that reminds us that even the most ingrained of cultural ideas can be overcome for the sake of love and that’s a very powerful message in a time when it feels like we’re divided so much by cultural differences.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a perfect mix between comedy and pathos. The performances by Romano, Nanjiani and Hunter are outstanding. The film captures the hyper-competitive camaraderie between stand-up comics nicely. This is a perfect conversation starter for cultural issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses a little bit of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nanjiani’s real life wife Emily Gordon (whom Emily Gardner is based on) can be seen in the final comedy club scene sitting near CJ and Mary.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: (500) Days of Summer
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Lipstick Under My Burkha


lipstick-under-my-burkha(2016) Dramedy (M-Appeal) Shshank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha, Aahana Kumra, Vikrant Massey, Ratna Pathak, Korkona Sen Sharma, Jagat Singh, Sushant Singh, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava

miami-film-festival-2017

India is a modern democracy but in many ways they are still catching up. Women are certainly starting to demand freedoms and consideration they’d never dream of asking for even a decade ago. Indian women have always been considered to only aspire to happy homemaking. That’s not quite true anymore.

Four women leading separate lives in the rural city of Bhopal (yes, the same Bhopal where Union Carbide’s gas leak killed so many – it is referenced only briefly that the husband of one of the characters died in that tragedy) are all looking to break out of the molds they’ve been placed into. First there’s Usha (Pathak), known to everyone as Auntie; she’s a canny businesswoman who’s been a widow for most of her adult life. She spends most of her time with the children but she has a secret obsession nobody knows about; erotic romance novels, in particular one called Lipstick Dreams.

Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is unwillingly engaged to an earnest but essentially colorless guy in an arranged marriage. She has a thing for her Muslim photographer whom she is having sex with at nearly every opportunity and wants to run away with him to the big city where they can start on their own fresh. Then there’s Shirin (Sharma) who is a married mother of three whose husband travels a lot for work. When he’s at home, the sex is almost painful for her and he seems to be utterly incapable of pleasing her or caring to. She has managed to build a sales career without his knowledge because she knows if he knew about it he would forbid it but there’s a promotion on the horizon and there would be no way to hide it from him then. Finally, there’s Rehana (Borthakur), the teenage daughter of strict Muslims who attends college, changing from her Burkha into Western clothes on her way to school and back into the Burkha on her way home where she works in the family business – ironically sewing Burkhas. However she wants to be a more typical teenage girl, hanging out in discos, flirting with boys and doing all the things forbidden her by her conservative parents. And of course, they find out all about it.

Usha gets involved with a swimming instructor who brings out her inner sensuality and she does something unthinkable for a woman her age – heck, for any Indian woman, while Leela is caught between the lover she wants and the wealthy young man who wants her. Shirin makes a discovery about her husband that could change everything and when Rehana gets arrested at a demonstration, the wheels get rolling on an arranged marriage for her. Will these women ever be free to lead the life they want?

Feminism is very nascent in India but it is slowly beginning to take hold. This isn’t the first feminist film to come out of the Sub-Continent, but it just might be the most potent. Shaking up societal norms is part of cinema’s function and this film fulfills that in about every way possible. Some in India have objected at the eroticism displayed in the film. While by American standards it’s fairly tame, it is surprising to see something from India that is this forthright about sex.

I’m not trying to condescend Indian society – certainly our own culture has plenty of problems, particularly now. It is somehow comforting to see Indian women – artists and ordinary women – rising up and demanding fair treatment. It reminds me a little bit of the years that NOW was a political force. I hope that this kind of movie is just a taste of things to come.

REASONS TO GO: A gutsy examination of the role of women in modern Indian society. There is a frank scene of female sexual desire in a 55 year old actress which some may find shocking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit more erotic than some might be used to from Indian cinema.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly frank sexual content and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: India’s Film Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing scenes of sexuality and female empowerment, sparking outrage throughout India.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Wolves

Meet the Patels


Now that you've met the Patels...

Now that you’ve met the Patels…

(2015) Documentary (Alchemy) Ravi Patel, Geeta Patel, Champa V. Patel, Vasant K. Patel, Meredith Philpott, Audrey Allison Wauchope. Directed by Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel

Finding one’s soul mate is hard enough in this modern world. Add to that the pressure of one’s family to get married and have kids and it falls under the category of “how is this even possible?”

Ravi Patel is an actor and filmmaker who was born in the United States to Indian parents. He characterizes them as the happiest couple that he knows and they certainly seem to be very loving and very happy together. But they are concerned; their son is approaching his 30th birthday and isn’t married which in Indian culture is, as his sister Geeta puts it, Red Alert.

Ravi’s two year relationship with pretty red head (and completely Caucasian) Audrey Wauchope has just ended; he was so hung up on his parents approval that he never told them that he was dating an American girl, fearing that they wouldn’t accept her. Now single, he realizes he wants that extended family that he sees all around him; the family gatherings, the kids, the home, everything. So, figuring that since an arranged marriage worked for his parents, he would allow them to play matchmaking since the American method of dating wasn’t working for him.

He is set up on Biodata, a matchmaking website aimed at Indians. His parents are eager to set him up with a Patel – no, this isn’t an incest thing but more of a cultural thing, indicating that their hometowns are near the village where his parents grew up. This would make the odds better that they shared Ravi’s values as passed down by his parents.

Many of the candidates live all over the country and Ravi, being a struggling actor, doesn’t exactly have an endless bank account. However his father is very well off and offers to purchase air fare for a cross-country dating tour. His sister Geeta tags along to record everything, as she has from the beginning.

When the dates prove to be unsuccessful (we are never told whether Ravi or the women he is meeting are the ones who are not interested in second dates), he goes to a wedding at his parents behest where they try to hook him up. He goes to a Patel convention (apparently that’s a thing) and does a speed-dating thing there. Nothing seems to work. To complicate matters, things are heating up again with Audrey whom Ravi never really got over and when his parents find out, the curry is going to really hit the fan.

This is as much a family home movie as it is a documentary and a romantic comedy as much as it is a home movie. The screening I attended at the South Asian Film Festival in Orlando was largely attended by Indian families who laughed loudly at some of the cultural things (like parents calling multiple times during a date) that American audiences might not get. However, having parents that exasperate their children (and vice versa) is pretty much universal and the love and affection in this family is clearly universal. This is a family everyone is going to be charmed by.

While the movie drags a bit in the middle as we watch Ravi get more and more frustrated with his lack of success, the end of the movie in which Ravi and his family reach an understanding is actually very touching. This isn’t one of those documentaries that’s going to change the world or our understanding of it, although the insights into Indian culture are fascinating. However, it is the kind of movie that will put a smile on your face and remind you that there is nothing better in this life than your family, however you chose to define it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever combination of documentary and rom-com. Heartwarming look at Indian family dynamics.
REASONS TO STAY: Gets a little bit monotonous in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly dirty words and thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Faster Horse

Outsourced (2006)


Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

Josh Hamilton is a colorful character.

(2006) Comedy (ShadowCatcher) Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Matt Smith, Asif Basra, Sudha Shivpuri, Bhuvanesh Shetty, Jeneva Talwar, Suarab Agarwal, Larry Pine, Ketan Mehta, Dipesh Shah, Urmi Mukherjee, Bharat Sarjerao Adhangle, Arjun Mathur. Directed by John Jeffcoat

 

We Americans don’t really mix well in other cultures. Perhaps it’s because most of us are descended from people who have fled from other places – heck, even the aboriginals had to cross a land bridge to get here. We are woefully ignorant of cultures that are different than ours, particularly those from places that are far away from where our ancestors started out.

Todd (Hamilton) works for a Seattle-based novelty manufacturing company whose telemarketing division is being laid off – in fact, he’s given the task of laying them off. Then he’s shipped off to India, tasked with training his own replacement. How bad does that suck? But it has been a reality of business for some time now.

In India he finds a call center that might be modern in some ways but it is woeful compared to their American counterparts as are the operators. The young man Todd is training, Purohit (Basra) is eager enough to learn and is quite courteous and in a lot of ways like Todd himself, a good guy. The two men begin to bond, Todd lost in the Indian culture that surrounds him, Purohit lost in the American culture that he has chosen a career selling.

Purohit needs this job because the salary will allow him to finally marry the girl of his dreams. Todd also finds himself falling for a pretty operator named Asha (Dharker) who is sensible, whip-smart and a bit more inclined towards Western customs than many of her peers. However, she has been committed by her parents into an arranged marriage since she was four years old.

However, the corporate commitment to an Indian workforce is about as solid as thin ice. Already they’re thinking of outsourcing the outsourced work to China. In order to save the jobs in India, Todd will have to commit his crew to a higher bar than he’s ever set which might just net him a career move that will take him into the executive level he’s been waiting for. But what does he really want – a life or a career?

This is one of those movies that came and went, getting almost zero distribution. It hung around long enough to inspire an NBC sitcom that ran a couple of years later for a season. Some may remember the sitcom which had a small but fiercely loyal following. In my opinion, the show which did have its charms was not quite so charming as this. The movie has a surprising amount of heart.

Part of the reason the movie works is the believable chemistry between veteran character actor Hamilton and Bollywood star Dharker (best known in the states for playing Queen Jamillia in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). They make a cute couple in every sense of the phrase.

Part of making a successful fish out of water cultural clash movie is that you need to have a really solid understanding of both cultures involved and quite frankly that’s where this movie falls down a bit. It plays too much to the American stereotypes of India, from Bollywood dance numbers to arranged marriages to the general sanitation issues. Now I haven’t been to India myself but I do know that the country is a lot more than that. I suppose when dealing with American audiences you have to paint with broad strokes, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity to give us a better understanding of India and her culture. Even watching a couple of random Bollywood films would give you more insight.

Still, I can understand the filmmakers decision to go this route. They wanted to make a movie that was sweet and funny and romantic and on those scores they get high marks. This isn’t a movie that will give you a thirst for visiting India, learning more about their culture or even heading to your local Indian restaurant. It is a pleasant diversion however and there’s nothing wrong with that.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet-natured and requires little effort to enjoy. Hamilton and Dharker make an attractive couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit condescending towards Indian culture; plays to stereotypes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexual content but nothing too overbearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffcoat was inspired to write the film based on his own experiences in India and Nepal.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video as well as a translation of Hindi dialogue from a few scenes in which no subtitles were provided (which was supposed to help illustrate the confusion that Todd felt).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703,042 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking it wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life of Pi

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dev Patel toasts his participation in an early favorite for the best movie of 2012.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lillette Dubey, Sid Makkar, Seema Azmi, Diana Hardcastle, Lucy Robinson, Paul Bhattacharjee. Directed by John Madden

 

Everybody ages. Not everybody gets to grow old and it’s for damn sure that not everybody grows as they age period.

A group of seven British retirees find themselves on a bus for the airport taking them to India. They’re not on a holiday or a tour – they are moving to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a budget-priced retirement facility which claims in their advertisements that they have all the amenities needed so that they might spend their golden years in comfort and luxury.

Their interest is that the Hotel is inexpensive enough that they can all afford to live, as they all (with a couple of exceptions) have some sort of financial difficulty. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) discovered when her husband passed away that he was deeply in debt and she was forced to sell her home in order to pay them off. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) Ainslie lost their life savings when their daughter’s internet company which they had invested in failed. Muriel Donnelly (Smith), a retired domestic, is going to India for a hip replacement surgery which is the only place where she can afford one. Madge Hardcastle (Imrie) is out to find herself a rich husband who can support her needs. Norman Cousins (Pickup), a ladies’ man, wants one last one-night-stand to tide him over. Finally Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson) who is a retired high court judge, grew up in India and seeks to find a lost love.

The hotel that they arrive at is far from what the advertisements claimed; it is ramshackle, without working phones and is old, decrepit and in need of much repair. Sonny (Patel), the manager, is highly enthusiastic and likable but lacks business know-how. He is desperately trying to get a local businessman to invest in the hotel in order to get it solvent; his mother (Dubey) wants him to come back to Delhi so that she can arrange a proper marriage for him. Sonny however only has eyes for Sunaina (Desae), a call center employee.

The new residents all react in different ways to their environments. Evelyn takes a job at the call center as a consultant to help the employees, including Sunaina whom she forms a friendship with, how to speak to elderly British sorts. She needs the work in order to afford to live at the hotel.

Graham disappears most of the day, rarely talking about where he’s been and what he’s done. He recommends places for the others to explore, which Douglas takes him up on. Jean prefers to stay in her room and read, complaining about everything and everyone. Muriel, whose racially insensitive views made some uncomfortable, begins to come around after her successful surgery and befriends a maid of the Untouchable class. When she gives her some advice on how to better sweep the pavement, the maid is very grateful, despite Muriel’s discomfort.

In fact, all of the residents are being profoundly touched by their surroundings and by each other. Some will find exactly what they’re looking for; others will be disappointed and others will be surprised. All will be confronted by their own mortality and their own shortcomings – and all will be changed by their experiences, and by India.

Madden, best known for directing Shakespeare in Love, assembled a tremendous cast and wisely lets each of them get their moment to shine. The movie is not so much about aging but about living – about never being too old to change and grow. It’s kind of a cross between Bollywood (without the songs and dance), Ealing Studios comedies, and On Golden Pond. While the movie certainly is aimed at an older audience, there is plenty in it for non-seniors to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that the script (by Ol Parker) is well-written and full of some wonderful lines not to mention a great deal of wisdom.

Each character gets at least a few scenes to shine in; most remarkable are Dench, Wilkinson, Nighy, Smith and Wilton. Imrie and Pickup also fare well in their moments. Dench does a voiceover (which is the vocalization of the blog she’s writing) that is actually non-intrusive and well-written rather than a lot of Hollywood voice-overs which tend to be the writers showing off how well they can turn a phrase. Wilkinson and Nighy are two of the most consistent actors in Hollywood; Nighy often gets parts that are kind of far-out, but here his character is a decent man, worn down from years of living with a shrew. Wilkinson’s characters tend to run the gamut from amoral executives to care-worn fathers but here he is a lonely man, haunted by his past and the repercussions of his decision not to protest an obvious injustice. The inner decency of Graham shows through at every moment; he’s a judge that I would want hearing my case, a man who wins the respect of pretty much all of his compatriots.

This is a movie that you can fall in love with. It allows Indian culture to shine through without over-romanticizing it; you get the sense of the drawbacks of Indian culture as well (the congestion, the poor infrastructure and yes, the smell). However it counterbalances that nicely with the overall accepting nature of the Indian people, the beauty of the temples, palaces and countryside and yes, the people themselves – Patel and Desae make a magnificent couple.

I went in expecting to like this movie but not to love it but I wound up appreciating every moment of it. None of this rings false and to my way of thinking, you get to view the world through the eyes of people who have largely been discarded and marginalized by the world at large. Some of them do indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity but for the most part they find their niche in the world and inhabit it, much like anybody of any age. I know younger people might find the subject matter of seniors trying to fit into the world uninteresting to them but for those who don’t reject the subjects of India and the elderly out of hand, this is a movie you’ll find tremendously rewarding.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances. An unsentimental but affectionate look at India. Great one-liners.

REASONS TO STAY: Younger people might find the pace boring and the subject uninteresting.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there, and some of the content is a bit sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel that Jean is reading is Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, who also wrote These Foolish Things on which this movie is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are pretty much positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

INDIA LOVERS: The area around Jaipur is shown with equal parts crumbling, decaying poverty and ancient beauty. The countryside is equally inviting and for those who haven’t considered visiting India, this acts as a pretty compelling reason to go.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Wild Grass

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan


Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

Katrina Kaif comforts Imran Khan who has a pathological fear of lightbulbs.

(2011) Bollywood (Yash Raj) Imran Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ali Zafar, Tara D’Souza, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Arfeen Khan, Suparna Marwah, Parikshat Sahni, Kanwaljit Singh. Directed by Ali Abbas Zafar

 

We try to do the right thing by our family; when they need something, they get it no questions asked. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course, in trying to help sometimes we wind up doing more harm than good.

Luv (Zafar) is an Indian expatriate living in London as an investment banker. He has been dating fellow Indian ex-pat Piali (D’Souza) for awhile but he doesn’t really know what he wants out of life. He is habitually late for dates and is a bit miserly, despite being really well-off. She, on the other hand, has tried to be a traditional Indian girl for him and chafes at the restrictions. She wants to be free. He wants to be free. They break up.

Except Luv doesn’t really want to be free. He wants to settle down, have a wife and family but he feels like he won’t have a shot at it in London. He calls his brother Kush (Imran Khan) in Mumbai, where he is an assistant director (which director Ali Abbas Zafar was before directing this, his first feature film as a director) and begs him to find him a wife since the two of them have similar taste in women. Kush has a hit on his hands, but family comes first so he agrees to head home to Dehradun where his father, the Colonel (Sahni) awaits, bristling a bit because his son and not himself is arranging the marriage.

Kush auditions a number of ladies whose interests seem to lie more in Luv’s bank account rather than in him, but then Kush meets Dimple Dixit (Kaif) whom he knew in college; she’s outspoken, non-traditional and vivacious and Kush knows she’s the perfect woman. After a conversation via Skype, Luv agrees and the wedding is on.

Kush helps Dimple plan the wedding, taking her out on errands and assuring her that his brother is the right man for her but slowly the two find themselves attracted to each other and eventually fall in love. But what to do? To cancel the wedding would bring shame on both families but Dimple and Kush cannot be without each other. They must think up some kind of plot to turn Luv’s path in a different direction.

I have to say that I was charmed by this film. Kaif and Imran Khan, two of the biggest stars in India (roughly equivalent to Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks here) have some terrific chemistry together; they make an attractive couple even though they couldn’t be more different. Khan as Kush is easy-going, sensitive and sweet; Kaif as Dimple is a lot more of a hot pepper – bold, spicy and irresistible. She’s a bull in a china shop; he’s more of a teddy bear.

And yet it works really well. Zafar is also an appealing lead, insanely handsome and as pop stars go, surprisingly talented in the acting realm. All three of the leads could transition to American stardom which is something that hasn’t happened yet, a Bollywood star making it big in the States much as Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jacky Chan and Jet Li have. I think it’s bound to happen and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years stars such as these begin to appear in American productions.

The big knock on this movie in most of the reviews I’ve read has been that the story is somewhat derivative of other movies and that’s a pretty fair complaint. Quite frankly you aren’t going to see too many surprises in the script or storyline and I think you’ll be able to see where this is going pretty much from the very first few scenes. That’s all right though, because it’s pulled off with enough charm and warmth that I didn’t really mind that this felt like I’d seen it before.

Music is important in Bollywood films, and it’s pretty good here. While mainly made up of “American Idol”-esque pop with a bit of an Indian undertone, the hooks are pretty nice and a couple of the songs were really outstanding (keep your ears peeled for “Dhunki” and “Madhubala,” both of which I enjoyed thoroughly).  The dance numbers are no more and no less annoying than those you would find in a typical episode of “Glee.”

I must admit that my experience with Bollywood cinema is rather limited but I have noticed of late that the production values have improved as have the scripts. There are some terrific actors and actresses out there as well and quite frankly the product coming out of India is every bit as good for the most part as what is coming out of the United States (in general). As romantic comedies go, this one presents enough charm and chemistry to make it a worthwhile viewing; it is available to stream on Netflix at this time for those interested in watching it. There are other Bollywood-centric sites that have it for streaming as well, but not all of them have English translations so be aware of that. In any case, it holds up pretty well among most romantic comedies coming out from Hollywood and if you don’t mind the subtitles (about two thirds of the dialogue is in Hindi but there’s a good deal of it in English) you might find yourself succumbing to the charm of this surprisingly irresistible flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Upbeat and charming with attractive leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bollywood is an acquired taste. The plot stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and drinking but that’s about it; pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although they have similar names, the director Ali Abbas Zafar and the actor (and popular singer) Ali Zafar aren’t related.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19M on a $5.8M production budget; this is a Hindu hit!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words