The Front Row Review of Heropanti

Heropanti is designed to do exactly one thing - make us like Tiger Shroff and that it does exceedingly well. The film is a showcase for Tiger's talents - he is an incredible acrobat who does backflips in dance sequences and effortlessly leaps offs walls in action scenes. He is a smooth dancer. His body seems chiseled out of granite - director Sabbir Khan makes sure that Tiger drops his shirt often so we have ample time to ponder his abs. In places the dialogue delivery is off and his startling pink lips are awkward. But he has a very solid screen presence. Can Tiger act? I don't know. Is he a star? Absolutely.

The rest of this film however, is unintentionally comical. Heropanti, a remake of the 2008 Telugu film Parugu, is purposefully loud masala. Every moment is full blown melodrama. The screechy pitch is accentuated by ear-shattering background music. There is no room for subtlety, irony or even a quiet moment. This love story set against a feudal Haryanavi backdrop just blasts on and on. The disjointed narrative brims with low IQ, high testosterone men brandishing weapons. The women are puppets who either simper or scream. At one point, Tiger, playing Bablu, instigates the girl he loves, Dimpy played by Kriti Sanon to make her own choices. Which is great, only here empowerment is translated as a night out in a mini-skirt, dancing and alcohol. There's lots of bloodshed and a few melodious but clumsily placed songs. And most narrative loopholes are solved because characters happen to eavesdrop on key pieces of information or randomly bump into each other in New Delhi.

But above the train-wreck, Tiger stands tall. He earns Heropanti two stars. I can't wait to see what he does next.

The Front Row Review of Godzilla

Godzilla made me aware of exactly how much disbelief I am willing to suspend in a monster movie. As it turns out, I'm happy to be invested in a scaly, yellow-eyed 355-foot tall CGI lizard. But I only do one monster at a time. So the MUTO were a deal-breaker for me. In case you're wondering, MUTO stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism - here it means monsters that look like overgrown grasshoppers.

Yes, the new Godzilla movie isn't just about Godzilla - in fact he only shows up after an hour or so. First we have to deal with the deadly MUTO who need radioactive energy to stay alive and so attract Godzilla, who needs to defeat them. Or something like that - I didn't fully get it. Basically, director Gareth Edwards creates an impressive looking lizard and then gives him creatures to battle with. You can imagine the level of mayhem these fighting giants cause - buildings are destroyed, cars and trains get flung about, there's a tsunami and one point, the MUTO is gobbling a bomb.

Meanwhile the film's incredible cast, which includes Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins try to imbue some emotional heft into the increasingly cheesy narrative. For the first 15 minutes, in which Cranston and Binoche play a husband and wife torn apart by the creature they never see, Godzilla has a surprising un-popcorn movie texture and depth. And then, just like that, we descend into non-stop digital sound and fury, punctuated by silly dialogue like: He is at the top of a primeval ecosystem.

Still, Godzilla himself has weight, literally and figuratively. Can someone give this force of nature the film he deserves? I'm going with two and a half stars.

The Front Row Review of Million Dollar Arm

Generally speaking, sports movies are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. You don't go to them looking for something new. They exist to provide that familiar but always fabulous feeling of watching an underdog triumph over adversity. They exist to make us believe in happy endings. They exist to make us feel good.

Based on a true-story, Million Dollar Arm, is about a sports agent J B Bernstein, played by John Hamm, who is deserted by his last fat cat client. So he concocts a crazy scheme to pick out pitchers from the last untapped market - India. He picks up two poor boys and transplants them to LA, where formulaic fish-out-of-water scenarios are played out. But eventually, Bernstein creates the first Indian baseball players to be signed on to a major league. In turn, the boys help Bernstein become a better man.

Director Craig Gillespie tells this story with enough verve and schmaltz to melt the hardest heart. There were moments in this film when I groaned audibly because it was so corny - at one point, the boys set up an Indian-style date for JB, complete with his girl in bindi and lengha. But what keeps Million Dollar arm afloat are the performances - first there's the delectable Jon Hamm who imbues JB with a humanity that makes us forget what a jerk he really is. Then, there's Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma playing the bewildered wannabe baseball players. Suraj's smile lights up the screen. There's Alan Arkin as a grumpy baseball scout and above all, Pitobash Tripathy as the smiling, over-enthusiastic Amit, JB's baseball-obsessed, volunteer assistant. These men and Lake Bell as JB's neighbor Brenda, make the predictable plot palatable. Sadly when it comes to India, Gillespie resorts to the usual poverty, traffic, crowds stereotypes but you can't complain about lack of layers in a film as standard as this.

What matters is that Million Dollar Arm leaves you with a smile on your face and a swing in your step and that’s all it is designed to do. Besides it gave me a real kick to see the iconic Disney logo backed by A. R. Rahman’s music. I’m going with three stars.

The Front Row Review of Hawaa Hawaai

Writer-director Amole Gupte's forte is working with children. In films like Taare Zameen Par and Stanley Ka Dabba, he has presented children in all their heart-breaking vulnerability and complexity. Unlike the usual Bollywood kids, the ones in Amole's films never seem to be acting. It's as if they are just being and Amole happened to be around to capture their lives.

Hawaa Hawaii is about a young tea stall boy in Mumbai, who dreams of being a champion skater. Supported by his equally poor friends, he embarks on a mission to make his dream come true. The story is predictable but for me, the bigger problem was the heavy-handed telling of the tale. Hawaa Hawaii is Amol's most designed film. By that I mean, that the filmmaker is blatantly pushing buttons. The rough-edged innocence of Stanley Ka Dabba is seldom seen. Instead each point is underscored with a hammer. So it isn't enough that Arjun, played by Amol's talented son Partho, learns to skate simply by watching a teacher training rich children who can afford 25,000 rupee skates. The teacher Lucky, played by an over-wrought Saqib Saleem, must narrate the Eklavya story for us to make the connection. The pacing is languorous and the sub-plots are clumsy - especially a possible romantic angle for Lucky.

All of which is frustrating but what kept me invested is Amole's trump card - the kids. Partho, a National Award winning actor, has a genuine sweetness and a keen intelligence. But what really grabbed my heart were Arjun's scraggly friends - among them a rag picker, a garage mechanic and a spectacled skinny worker in an embroidery sweat shop. Gochi played by Ashfaque Bismillah Khan, Bhura played by Salman Chhote Khan, Abdul played by Maaman Memon and Bindaas Murugan played by Thirupathi Kushnapelli are all achingly good. I would love to see a movie on this gang and what happened to them.

So while Hawaa Hawaai isn’t entirely satisfying, I still recommend that you see it. It is a timely reminder of the intractable horrors that children in this country face on a daily basis. I’m going with three stars.

The Front Row Review of Mastram

Somewhere inside Mastram is the delicious tale of a writer who desperately wants to create literature but ends up writing soft-porn instead. Under the pseudonym Mastram, the timid bank clerk Rajaram , churns out lurid fantasies about his best friend and his wife, a delectable tuition teacher and an amorous nurse. Rajaram's fiction has men - from teenagers to senior citizens - panting with desire and he becomes a publishing sensation but the success frays his relationships.

Mastaram is a fictional biography inspired by real life events - the actual Mastaram books are hugely popular in North India but their author was never identified. The material is rich in humor and irony - Rajaram's publishers and readers don't want serious writing. They are hungry, as we are repeatedly told, for masala. But when they find out that he is Mastram, they hypocritically shun him. But instead of a layered film that explores Mastaram's peculiar predicament, debutant director Akhilesh Jaiswal creates a curiously inert narrative.

For one, the telling is routinely interrupted by clumsy dramatizations of the Mastram stories - so we get to see the best friend seducing Rajaram's wife as she kneads dough in the kitchen and the nurse with milk white legs slowly peeling her stockings off. Honestly, this was more information than I needed. Jaiswal creates an authentic small town milieu. The casting by Mukesh Chhabra is bang on - I enjoyed the supporting cast, especially the publishing duo that puts Mastram on the map. But Rajaram himself remains opaque. Rahul Bagga is an interesting actor but I never got a sense of who Rajaram really is.

There are so many ideas here about writing, sexual desire, fantasy, hypocrisy, the artist in the marketplace but they remain unexplored. Mastram is an opportunity lost. I’m going with two stars.

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