Mary Kom, 2014

The girl can act. It’s true. Priyanka Chopra seems to have given her all to bring the character and story of Mary Kom, an Indian boxing legend, spring to life on the silverscreen. Were it not for her convincing portrayal, I probably wouldn’t have really become aware of, let alone appreciate, the struggle of this woman in a male-dominated society and in a country that places little value on the beauty and power of sports in general, and sports played by a woman, in particular.

In addition to offering us a lively account of Mary Kom’s life and struggles to make her name in the sport of boxing, the film is also a window into the northeast corner of India – into the beautiful place and people that call the state of Manipur, home.

Although having been born and raised in India, I have had practically zero-exposure to anything Manipuri, and looked on in amazement at the portrayal of poverty-stricken rural life in Manipur. It matters not that the movie might have been shot in neighboring Imphal; what matters is the accurate portrayal of the life of the people in a land that has all but forgotten them.

Another sad fact that was illuminated is the callous attitude of the Indian government’s policies and practices that do little to build and support athletes and sports infrastructures in a country of a billion people. Is it not a shame that so little emphasis is placed on nurturing the children and youth of the land to seek out their potential to possibly excel in so many individual and team sports?

And so, in light of all this, to see a young woman rise up against all odds to make her family, her state, and her country proud, is indeed a cause célèbre – one that will, I hope, make young girls everywhere sit up and take notice, and perhaps give themselves permission to dream and hope for a more equitable, brighter, and vibrant future in the field of sports.

Ms. Chopra certainly is the star of the film, and rightfully so, although her husband in the story does a fine job of supporting her professional ambitions even as he more than shares all parenting responsibilities. Another note to self: I wonder if the average Indian male is paying attention…

Sure, there’s a touch of melodrama, Bollywood-style, but hey, so what? If that adds to the appeal of the story and brings in the masses, why ever not?

And as a far sidebar, I enjoyed very much the beautiful vistas of the Manali area – a most beautiful part of Himachal Pradesh, another state within India, that rivals the Swiss Alps in beauty and grandeur with the great Beas flowing right through the city.

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Magic in the Moonlight, 2014

This latest Woody Allen offering is charming in its simplicity. Especially in an era where motion pictures are anything but simple in style, scope, cinematography, special effects, sound effects, etc. Perhaps a little too simplistic, but refreshing nonetheless.

A classic theme of faith vs. reason forms the underlying current of the storyline, and we are treated to lovely vistas of the French Riviera in evening light that include vintage cars and elegant costumes, all of which of course, pale in the glow of the young American woman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, played by the lovely Emma Stone. Colin Firth is the consummate Englishman actor, but one can’t help wonder if a girl as young as Stone might truly fall in love with a man his age. Or is that how art reflects life given the well-known personal life of the director, Mr. Allen?

I suppose there have been more remarkable films of Mr. Allen than this one; and for all you know, this one might very well seem like a recycled one, but all flaws notwithstanding, there is a sweetness to it, and for someone like myself who is willing to intentionally turn a blind eye to such thematic matters, it is time well-spent.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey, 2014

I suppose every foodie will be drawn to a movie such as this – one that seems to celebrate food in all its fragrant and vibrant glory – but there is always more to it than meets the eye, which can be quite a feat sometimes especially when what meets the eye at first is a barrage of all the clichéd sights and sounds of creating food. Think breaking eggs in slow-motion and chopping vegetables with the finesse of a knife-wielding magician.

This is essentially a feel-good foodie film that requires a high tolerance for watching actors chewing carefully crafted morsels of food and then going into ecstasies without describing how it tastes besides “mmmm, it’s delicious.” Along the way, we get to see a cultural fusion of foods and a cross-pollination of French and Indian spices and seasonings.

Food is never food, we get that. But if food is really love, then, the chemistry is lacking a little bit with the younger pair, but Om Puri and Helen Mirren seem to do a somewhat better job in creating some sparks while getting to know each other.

On a technical note – because that’s how foodies can be sometimes – when was the last time you saw sea-urchin on a menu in an Indian restaurant? And that too, eaten raw, like oysters? Also, a friend pointed out (yes, one of Indian origin) that the pairing of cauliflower with sweet potato in an Indian household was unheard of. This, prior to the aforementioned fusion/cross-pollination of Indian and French cuisines.

Notwithstanding these technicalities, it is still a fun film to watch on a Friday night. Which is what yours truly did last Friday.

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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, 2012

I suppose this is what is called the ‘romcom’ genre, i.e., romantic comedy, only this is bordering on the sci-fi as well, but regardless of what genre this is classified in, it is most certainly an entertaining, funny, and poignant movie about what would happen if you knew the planet would be decimated in three short weeks.

The idea of running out of time seems to bring out the best and the worst in most people, and the fact of the matter is this: what might seem like the least likely in normal circumstances takes on an aura of most common and acceptable form in such dire circumstances. For instance, would a young bohemian woman really fall for a middle-aged guy who lives in her building – unless she knew the world was coming to an end and her own boyfriend was using her as a human shield? I guess so…

Well, such are the sagas that we witness even as the clock is ticking and apocalypse is almost upon them. But still, circumstances notwithstanding, there is sweet poignancy in seeing and realizing that even the end of the world cannot obliterate the better qualities of human nature: qualities such as the desire to protect and provide for another; to sacrifice for another; to comfort and assure another. Oh, wait: is that what is called love?

Steve Carrell and Kiera Knightly offer strong performances, and despite stretches of unevenness in plot and script, it is still a sweet film, and one that I would recommend.

One of the songs that served as a backdrop was one that my husband picked up on as an old pop song from the Seventies. I told him I was barely a toddler in those days and had no recollection of it, but it did have a lovely melody, and I reproduce it here for us all to enjoy:

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014

Although I am far from a big fan of the genre, I do like my fair share of sci-fi every so often, and Guardians fits the bill this summer. The characters are all new to me, but that was no drawback at all in getting to like them.

There’s action galore – hello, it’s an action movie – and plenty of special effects to impress. There’s good humor and dry wit interspersed throughout, with several pop cultural references.  I often wonder how non-American audiences will pick up on these gems, but even if they fall by the wayside, there are other universally recognizable themes of sacrifice and love that transcend cultural, nay, galaxial barriers.

The movie has a Star Warsy feel to it, if you like that sort of thing. I’d give it three and a half stars, and in good faith will hope that a sequel, if it comes, will be perhaps just a bit better than the first.

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Hercules, 2014

Dwayne Johnson makes a perfect lead for this amiably tongue-in-cheek adventure about the mythical Greek hero, with his combination of block-bulk and genial, self-deprecating charm. And Mr. Johnson also makes for an interesting alternative to the classic Greek-god or Nordic looks that one may typically associate with Hercules.

So, what do demi-gods do for a living? Well, when they’re not being self-tortured for crimes they may or may not have committed, they assemble an impressive yet motley crew of comrades and become hired mercenaries. Hercules is essentially a hired gun to be paid his own weight in gold if successful in his mission. And so, we stand in awe of his many feats in addition to his reputation for the extraordinary that precedes him everywhere he goes. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of the Gladiator movie, and overall the film delivers in the realm of massive fight scenes and epic battles.

But just when you’re marveling at the intricate military prowess that Hercules commands, you’re taken by surprise every so often by some off-the-wall humor that is more reminiscent in the Mel Brooks-style. What the F, Hercules, I mean, seriously, did you just say that?!

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Edge of Tomorrow, 2014

You might call this a futuristic time-loop sci-fi fantasy, but what it really is, is essentially a video game. Or at least it feels like it.

The time-loop is an interesting vehicle for presenting action — did I mention, lots of it, — a hint of romance, and all the humor of repetition as a learning tool to showcase the ageless Tom Cruise.

I must admit I didn’t get into the movie as some others did, but it was quite fascinating to see all the special effects, especially since it was presented in 3D. 

Bottomline:  You wouldn’t miss a thing if you chose to wait for this one to come out on DVD, or even skip it altogether.  The one thing that somewhat appealed to me the most is the tagline of the movie:  Live. Die. Repeat. 

If only it were that simple.

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Million Dollar Arm, 2014

Baseball is big in the USA, as is cricket in India, and the crux of this movie’s storyline is that a smart sports agent goes recruiting in India for fresh talent.  Only, it so happens that he finds two young men who don’t even play cricket but know how to pitch a baseball with speed and style and technique and all that.  This is their story — of being found, and of making it big in a foreign land by playing a foreign sport.

I suppose all sports enthusiasts would appreciate the overall plot and the whole American recruitment strategy in a third-world country.  And then there are people like me who would care more about the looks of Jon Hamm and make mental comparisons to his role in Mad Men.

Disney put together a good team in Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton and the two Indian boys.  The bonus feature of the film is the shots and frames of various landscapes in India that range from rural settings and congested urban areas, including the grandiose Taj Mahal also, of course.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West, 2014

A one-man show is what this is, and the man is Seth McFarlane.  Writing, directing, producing, and acting in a Mel-Brooks style satire-cum-comedy, one finds oneself laughing and simultaneously feeling embarrassed for having laughed at a lot of the liberally sprinkled crude humor throughout the movie.

If you’re seeking something meaningful, sensitive and intelligent, this isn’t the movie for you.  But if you’re up for some mindless fun, then by all means, go for it!

The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014

Offbeat, charming, zany, macabre, intriguing, clever, hilarious: these are some words that rush to mind to describe this gem of a movie. This is a story about a complicated slice of twentieth-century European history and culture set in the fictitious and fantasy realm of the Republic of Zubrowka — a geographical reflection of the various Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet sensibilities between the two World Wars — in a hotel that has a personality all its own thanks in large part to its intriguing owner and a charismatic concierge.

The charismatic concierge, M. Gustave, portrayed by the brilliant Ralph Fiennes, is a thoroughly ridiculous man as much as he is “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” Elegant at all times in the service of his hotel guests be it in the act of arranging for their comfort in their rooms in more ways than one, or in the training of the new Lobby Boy, Fiennes is consummate in his accent and delivery.

There’s also no doubt that this is a quintessential and decidedly black comedy where fingers are severed, cats are tossed out of windows, and prison guards are dispatched with bloody abandon. That all such moments elicit more laughter than horror is a testament to the director, Wes Anderson’s unique style and direction.

“Budapest” is pretty much an old-fashioned screwball comedy dressed up in sophisticated garishness. Thanks to Fiennes, as well as a long list of other fine actors such as Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Fiennes’ protégé Zero (Tony Revolori), this is a goofy and eccentric joy-ride dripping with dry wit all along.

If a movie can be elegantly zany, this tale of a concierge, his protégé, and the murder of a countess, is it.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2014

“Everyone has a part of themselves they hide, even from the people they love most.  And you don’t have forever, none of us ever do.” So says Aunt May to Peter Parker, aka, Spider-Man. That, in essence, captures the crux of the story of the superhero who’s always there just in the nick of time, and when late to family events and such, it is only for good reason, and not because he loves them any less. In fact, his great sense of love and loyalty actually compels him to sacrifice his love for the good of others. Now, what’s not to love about a guy like that? But some of his best moments are what he does as Peter Parker outside the suit.

The special effects are phenomenal as usual, which are now almost not quite as awe-inspiring as when the earliest of the modern movie series debuted about a decade ago.

Andrew Garfield dons the Spider-man suit very well, and his chemistry with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is not lacking in the least, perhaps in no small measure due to the real-life role of boyfriend that he is to her. Stone is like a porcelain doll, big eyes and all, and despite a somewhat clichéd supporting role that she plays, she only adds to the overall pleasure of the sights and sounds. Jamie Fox’s Electro is our latest villain, and the one other villain-guy looks like the spitting image of Leonardo di Caprio twenty years ago.

Minor gripes aside, this was a thoroughly enjoyable ride. A little too long, yes, but hey, what can you do when the world needs saving?

Summer Movie Season 2014 is off to a great start!

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Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, 2013

Are you ready for a joyride?  Well, then get on board, because this is one unabashed and artistically ambitious rendition of a spin of a timeless tale. Transposed to a bucolic setting in the colorful western state of Gujarat, this is a story that has all the melodrama, ribaldry and intensity of the classic Shakespearean tale of star-crossed lovers, in a Bollywood incarnation with more than just a hint of Baz Luhrmann.

But this is an adaptation that doesn’t hesitate to color outside the lines, and color it does — both boldly and vibrantly.  And if there was ever great onscreen chemistry, it may be found in the likes of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone.  The pair have a way of lighting things up even in the darkest of moods.  Singh is an incredibly talented young man, and as of now ranks number one on my list of Bollywood men who can dance!  But beyond that, the man gets under the skin of the character he portrayed — delightfully vulgar and yet lovelorn to the point of insanity and vulnerable to the wiles of the one he loves. 

And this was matched in full by his female love interest, Padukone, who is most definitely more than just a pretty face.  Hers is a performance that is at times exuberant, always impassioned, and seals her reputation as an exceptional acting talent.  Speaking of which, there is exceptional acting talent in full display also in the likes of Supriya Pathak in her role as the matriarchal lead. 

All in all, a grand adventure for the senses, culminating in that bitter-sweet beautiful and tragic ending that confirms what you knew all along:  it was never meant to me, but it was great believing in the dream while it lasted.

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Mr. Peabody and Sherman, 2014

The recent review published in this space by guest reviewer, Eric Schwister, offered a fine synopsis of the movie, and I don’t know if I could really add much more to it, but for the sake of going through the motions, here are some of my thoughts:

This is a story that provides a a fun alternative for kids to learn about history and a little science.  And the adults can have some laughs with some funnies and innuendos that go right over the kids’ heads.  Mr. Peabody is the parent we all aspire to be — thoughtful, caring, sensitive to his child’s needs, and yet, there is that discomfort of knowing that we might already be a lot more like him than we’d like to admit– at least in the area of shielding our children from life’s ills and pitfalls.

All things considered, this is a well-made heart-warmingly fun family film. Time-travel was never more fun since the Back to the Future series, and thanks to Mr. Peabody we now have an intriguing new way to tell someone we love them too. You need only say, “I have a deep regard for you as well.”

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