Burning Bright

The White Tiger

by Hope Madden

Rarely do we root for the social climber. Certainly not the social climber who intentionally harms others of his station, unabashedly sucks up to his masters, and disregards the family he left in poverty. But Ramin Bahrani’s sly thriller The White Tiger does a lot of things you might not expect.

His own adaptation of Aravind Agida’s prized novel, the film shadows a cunning young Indian man as he fights to rise from the abject poverty of his caste.

A deeply impressive Adarsh Gourav is Balram, entrepreneur. Bahrani opens the film as a mustachioed, suave-looking Bahrani tells us his “glorious tale” of overcoming poverty and becoming his own master. And as much as that story takes some unexpected turns, it’s the tone Bahrani develops that is especially audacious.

The White Tiger offers a blistering class consciousness that makes the filmmaker’s 2014 film 99 Homes feel positively cozy with the effects of capitalism.

Bahrani eviscerates India’s caste system along with a cinematic history of romanticizing the adoration and martyrdom of the Indian servant. He takes a not-so-subtle jab as well at dreamy redemption tales like Slumdog Millionaire.

Balram worms his way into the service of his master’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), both back after years in America. Rao and Chopra represent a different and altogether more insidious look at class warfare—insidious because of its self-righteous and superficial beliefs in equality. Their performances are stellar and altogether slap-worthy.

Balram’s social climbing gets him only so far, and a sudden and violent shift in perspective leaves him fully aware of his own vulnerability.

Bahrani’s masterful direction makes the most of background to establish and reestablish Balram’s position and his thinking. And as utterly contemptuous as this film is concerning the wealthy and powerful, director and lead make you feel the depth and history involved in a servant’s culture of devotion.

We Can’t Quit You, Rom-Com!

Isn’t It Romantic

by George Wolf

Every time someone on your social media thread pokes fun at the latest Hallmark Christmas special, you can get some pretty good odds they set the DVR to record it.

Isn’t It Romantic is all about indulging those guilty pleasures, laughing with friends as we all point out the reasons we shouldn’t love something that we’re going to keep on loving anyway.

Romantic comedies, why can’t we quit you?

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a low-level architect at a NYC firm who chastises her co-worker Whitney (Betty Gilpin) about her love for predictable rom-coms like Notting Hill and 50 First Dates. As Whitney watches yet another one on company time, Natalie wags a finger and reminds us all of the romantic comedy playbook she’s soon to act out.

Fighting with a would-be purse snatcher, Natalie is knocked unconscious, only to awaken in a strange new world.

She’s glowing with full makeup in a lavish E.R., where sexy doctors are available at a moment’s notice and there’s voiceover narration for Natalie’s inner conflicts.

This can only mean one thing: Natalie’s living in a rom-com!

The screenwriting team has plenty of experience in the genre (How to Be Single, The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas), and rolls out the tropes with fun, familiar ease. Natalie is instantly pursued by the rich, handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth) while her friend-zoned buddy Josh (Adam DeVine) hooks up with supermodel/”yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) and best pal Whitney suddenly becomes an office nemesis.

Gay sidekick? Of course, honey! It’s neighbor Donny, who shows up at inexplicable moments and is brought to scene-stealing life by Brandon Scott Jones.

“How did you get here??”

“I just said ‘Gay Beetlejuice’ three times and here I am, Booch!”

Wilson, usually adept at scene-stealing herself, seems a bit uneasy in the lead, as her supporting actors all manage to make solid impressions while she struggles to find a confident tone.

Credit director Todd Strauss-Schulson for a finely whimsical pace, pop-up music montages that pop, and plenty of subtle backgrounds that reinforce the wink-winks (there’s a cute little cupcake store on every corner!)

While never hilarious, Isn’t It Romantic manages consistent charm and an effective running gag about keeping it all PG-13. Everybody knows you know how it ends and that’s the point, right? Here comes another musical number!

Hey, if you want rom-com critique with bite, revisit Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. If you’re fine pleading guilty to the pleasure, Isn’t It Romantic will be plenty enjoyable.

 

 





Quality Time

A Kid Like Jake

by Rachel Willis

What happens to parents when they’re confronted with the truth about their child? In A Kid Like Jake, the titular Jake is not the kind of five-year-old boy who likes trucks and cars, but rather princesses and fairy tales. His parents, Alex and Greg (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons), see it as a harmless phase. But when it seems possible it’s more than a phase, they’re forced to confront their own fears and prejudices.

Writer Daniel Pearle (adapting from from his play) and director Silas Howard address a topic that deserves attention. With a sensitive touch, they’ve crafted a film that is heartfelt and earnest.

The film’s main shortcomings occur during the first act. It takes the film a while to get to the meat of the issue, spending too much time on inconsequential details, including a montage of private school tours that has no real bearing on the story. Rather than focusing on this minutia, the film would have been better served if some of the ancillary characters were given more to do. Friends and family members are introduced (and played well by the likes of Octavia Spencer, Ann Dowd and Priyanka Chopra), but never satisfactorily weaved into the main drama.

As Jake’s parents, Danes and Parsons work best together when they’re at odds. The dialog during Alex and Greg’s most charged moments is impeccable. Their idyllic scenes, on the other hand, are shallow. The attempt at showing us a loving family is superficial, and it’s hard to root for people we never get a chance to know.

However, there are interesting dilemmas explored in the film. When Jake wants to dress as Rapunzel for Halloween, Alex instead brings home a pirate costume for him. Her rationale is that she wants to avoid weird looks or negative comments. She wants to “protect” her son. But as Jake acts out, it’s clear that her protection is misguided. Rather than defending her son, she’s part of the problem. Greg comes to this realization more quickly, recognizing his son’s change in demeanor as a sign he’s unhappy. It leads to confrontations that are uncomfortable, yet recognizable.

As for Jake, most of what we learn about him comes from exposition. This is likely a result of the transition from stage play to film. In some ways, it works, as Jake knows who he is. But in a world that needs greater representation for gender nonconformity and transgender men and women, it would have been nice to spend time with Jake instead of only seeing him through other people’s eyes.





Sexy Meddling Kids

Baywatch

by George Wolf

Did you hear about the lifeguards that fight crime?

“Wow, that sounds like a really entertaining but far-fetched TV show!”

So says Brody (Zac Efron), one of the new recruits on the super lifeguard team at Emerald Bay, and this very self-aware attitude is the main reason the big screen Baywatch works as well as it does.

Yes, the entire premise has always been a ridiculous excuse to ogle beautiful bodies, so director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) wisely chooses to have some fun with that and not be stingy with the slo-mo!

Dwayne Johnson is Mitch, head of the Baywatch team and all-around King of the Beach. He’s got Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C.J. (Kelly Rohrbach) as his veterans on the squad, while Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass) are rookies who just won their spots during open tryouts.

Then there’s Matt Brody (pinching his character name from two of the lead roles in Jaws is another clue this film’s tongue is in the right cheek), an Olympic swimmer nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” for the way his career flamed out thanks to gold medal partying.

Brody arrives thinking he’s God’s gift to Baywatch, quickly learns some humility, and joins the team just as they’ve stumbled onto another case. Could local business tycoon Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra from TV’s Quantico) really be the biggest drug dealer on the beach?

And she might get away with it, too, if not for these lifeguards and their sexy meddling!

Writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift come from the land of bad horror (Freddy vs. Jason, Friday the 13th reboot) but they’re able to tap into a witty and breezy R-rated vibe that tests some crude waters without ever diving in.

As often as the ladies flaunt buns and cleavage, Johnson and Efron’s suns out/guns out show gets even more attention, which seems only fair as their roles also have the most substance. It helps that the actors share an easy, likable chemistry and neither is above poking fun at their own image. Self-deprecation is usually endearing, and running gags involving Brody’s nicknames and a “mini-Mitch” aquarium decoration are consistent winners.

Hey, it’s summer, the perfect time for a trashy little novel to read by the pool. Baywatch fits that same bill, and ends up all the more fun for not trying to be anything else.

Verdict-3-0-Stars