Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

January 21, 2011

Heartbreak hotel

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:56 pm

January 21, 2011

Cast: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan

Director: Sofia Coppola

In the opening scene of director Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a black Ferrari goes round and round the same dusty expanse. The impatient among you may dismiss this roughly 3-minute scene as monotonous and boring, but if you decide to stay with the film, you’ll be rewarded.

Somewhere focuses on movie-star Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) who is staying at LA’s famed Chateau Marmont hotel, the exclusive hiding place of the rich and the famous; the place they go to when they want to be alone and cut off from the world. Marco is nursing a sprained wrist. He spends his days hiding behind a pair of black shades, cradling a drink and smoking in the hotel verandah. We see him curled up in bed, barely awake as two private pole dancers go through their routine for him. On some days he’ll drive around aimlessly through Beverly Hills; on another day he returns to his room to find it’s been taken over by friends and turned into a party. High on drugs and booze, he nods off completely during an intimate encounter with a date.

Coppola, who directed the exquisite Lost in Translation, seems blessed with the extraordinary gift of being able to create compelling characters out of poor little rich kids. She gets you to care about her privileged protagonists who’re going through an existential crisis.

We never see Marco on a film set, yet we get a sense of his importance and obligations. He attends a press conference for a forthcoming film, where he dodges silly questions. He poses for photographs with a co-star with whom you can sense there is an uncomfortable history. And in a scene heavy with subtext, he sits silently as a special-effects team buries him under layers of latex to create a mask of an older character he’ll be playing in a future film.

Very little actually happens in this film, and the meditative, reflective tone is indicative of Marco’s life. He’s shaken out of his stupor when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (played by Elle Fanning) shows up for a visit. We make out that Cleo is one of those Hollywood brats: she knows how to dress for a movie premiere her father takes her to in Milan, and she’s hardly outraged the morning after when a strange woman in a bathrobe joins them at the breakfast table. Still, in a sense, Cleo is more of an adult than her father. She realizes that Marco needs help, and keeps him distracted through games and father-daughter outings.

It has been widely speculated that Somewhere is a slice of the director’s own early life; that Cleo and Marco are stand-ins for the film’s director Sofia Coppola and her famous father Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather. It has been said that Sofia’s fascination with hotels (as also seen in Lost in Translation) arises from all the time she spent stuck in them during her growing up years traveling with her father. Be that as it may – fact or fiction, autobiographical or not – it’s hard to deny that Sofia Coppola understands the human condition.

The film is a fascinating portrait of a life in Hollywood ravaged by excesses, and Stephen Dorff brings the right degree of melancholy to the part of the star who burnt out too young. Elle Fanning has an infectious energy and luminous beauty, and she shares a warm chemistry with Dorff that makes their scenes together seem perfectly natural.

This film unfolds at a leisurely pace, but it has a hypnotic, poetic quality that’s one of a kind. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. If you enjoy films that don’t spoon-feed you, chances are you’ll warm up to this one.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 17, 2011

Deol Dhamaka: Dharmendra, Sunny & Bobby!

Filed under: What's new — Rajeev @ 1:27 am

VIDEO!

In this interview, the Deol men – Dharmendra, Sunny and Bobby – talk about their new film Yamla Pagla Deewana, and also discuss their family dynamics. Three of Bollywood’s most reclusive stars speak candidly about their relationship with each other, and give us a glimpse of why they’re among the most loved families in the film industry.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 15, 2011

How Aamir’s wife Kiran reduced him to tears

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 1:11 am

In this interview Aamir Khan and his director wife Kiran Rao recount their uncomfortable first day of shooting for Dhobi Ghaat. The actor reveals his wife reduced him to tears on the sets of their film.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Deols deserve better

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:17 am

January 14, 2011

Cast: Dharmendra, Sunny Deol, Bobby Deol, Nafisa Ali, Kulraj Randhawa, Anupam Kher, Mukul Dev

Director: Samir Karnik

Clocking in at almost three hours, Yamla Pagla Deewana is an exhausting but occasionally enjoyable comedy that only takes flight after intermission.

The film’s harebrained plot involves Sunny Deol as Paramveer, an NRI in Vancouver, arriving in Benares to reunite with his father and brother from whom he has been estranged for thirty years. His search leads him to lovable con-artist Dharam (played by the actor’s own father Dharmendra), and his accomplice-son Gajodhar (played by Bobby Deol). Before you know it Paramveer has volunteered to make a trip to Punjab to help his brother win back his sweetheart from her hotheaded brothers who’re holding her captive.

Packed with loud jokes, gratuitous item songs, a Priyadarshan-esque climax, and completely over-the-top fight scenes, this film knows exactly who its audience is and doesn’t shy away from wooing them. Fans of Sunny Deol are likely to cheer when the actor lets out that deafening roar in the film’s climax, which sends both the good guys and bad guys flying to the end of the room. It’s his Dabangg moment, and Sunny steps up to it sportingly. He is in fact the best thing about this loosely written film, that has at least a few good jokes that stick.

Like Poli the sardarni (played by Sucheta Khanna) who can barely speak any English but has studied everything there is to study about Canada, and hopes to marry an NRI someday.

Much of the real humor in this film is derived from the in-jokes. Bobby Deol gets to say: “Dharam, tu toh bahut bada kameena hai” at least a few times, and oddly it brings a smile to your face every time he says it. Or Dharmendra’s love for the bottle, another nudge-nudge-wink-wink moment that is hard to resist.

Alas, director Samir Karnik doesn’t know when to pull the brakes. The film hurtles along endlessly, and well overstays its welcome. The emotional scenes are cheesy, and Bobby’s romantic scenes quite needless.

It’s fun in parts but tires you out by the time it finally comes to an end. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Yamla Pagla Deewana. If you’re a fan of the Deols and you enjoy old-fashioned masala entertainers, give it a chance. But the Deols can do better than this!

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Old whine

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:11 am

January 14, 2011

Cast: Gul Panag, Purab Kohli, Siddharth Makkar, Tillotama Shome, Sameer Malhotra

Director: Alankrita Shrivastava

Turning 30 suffers from an incurable Sex and the City hangover, but it’s neither as smart nor as spunky as that popular television show.

Naina (played by Gul Panag) is two weeks away from her thirtieth birthday when the boyfriend she was looking forward to marrying dumps her for a loaded heiress. Things aren’t much better at work either, where her boss repeatedly promotes a colleague over her. Her two closest girlfriends try to distract her with spa treatments and lingerie shopping outings. A college sweetheart (played by Purab Kohli) shows up out of the blue and wants to rekindle their romance. But Naina can’t stop pining for her ex, whom she makes several desperate and embarrassing attempts to win back.

The film is unintentionally comical in its portrayal of the urban middle-class, and debutant writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava reduces most characters to caricatures because she appears unfamiliar with the world she’s set up and the people who inhabit it. An assembly line of stereotypes surround the protagonist including her happy-to-be-married friend who turns a blind eye to her cheating husband, the bohemian art gallery owner who reveals she’s a lesbian during a game of truth-and-dare, the bisexual copywriter who sleeps with the boss to get the best campaigns, and the photographer ex from London who’s sporting a different scarf around his neck each time we see him.

Turning 30 might have been less frustrating if it weren’t for the amateurish writing. The film is accompanied by a grating voice-over by Naina that’s so banal, you find yourself rolling your eyes each time she whines about her “man-less”, “jobless” life. The dialogues between characters is equally infuriating. When asked by a common friend how he feels about Naina, Purab’s character Jai says: “I can sink into her dimples.” When the lines aren’t corny, they’re plain embarrassing. On showing up at her ex-boyfriend’s engagement, Naina corners his fiancée and says to her: “Rishabh can be quite a pain in the ass. And I mean, literally.”

There is much swearing, and constant talk of sex, sagging breasts and vibrators. When Naina isn’t groaning about ageing, everyone from her domestic help and a masseuse to a colleague in the ladies room is advising her on how to prepare for her thirties.

Gul Panag approaches the film earnestly, but turns it into a charmless take on Bridget Jones’s Diary. Indeed, even Meryl Streep would find it hard to rise above such uninspired material. Purab Kohli, however, gets away unscathed, turning Jai into an eminently likeable fellow despite his puppy-like devotion to the confused protagonist.

The film takes a promising premise and fails to realize its potential because it’s trying too hard to be cool. I’m going with two out of five for writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava’s Turning 30. I think I can safely say I wouldn’t want to meet a girl like Naina when she’s nearing 40!

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 14, 2011

Missing its sting!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:59 pm

January 14, 2011

Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chau, Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson

Director: Michel Gondry

The Green Hornet should’ve been a better film. With the combined talents of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry and the writing and acting strength of Seth Rogen, this superhero film ought to have been smarter and funnier than it is.

Starting out originally as an American radio series in the 30s, then a 60s TV show, The Green Hornet recounts the adventures of newspaper heir and masked crime-fighter Britt Reid, and his trusted sidekick Kato.

Rogen, the sclubby star of films like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express is an interesting choice to play a superhero, but the film itself can’t seem to decide if it wants to parody the genre or celebrate it. Asian star Jay Chou takes the part of Kato, a martial arts genius and tech-wizard who worked for Britt’s dad, and who becomes Britt’s unlikely comrade in his vigilante adventures. Both men compete for the attentions of Britt’s research assistant Lenore Case (played by Cameron Diaz), and in one of the film’s funnier scenes Britt makes a rude reference to her age. “You’re kinda twilight…” he says, and when she thinks he’s talking about the vampire movie, he corrects himself: “Well no… then kinda Cocoon.”

Sadly there aren’t enough smart jokes like these to go around.

Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar playing a steely Nazi in last year’s Inglourious Basterds is grossly underutilized as the film’s villain, LA crime lord Chudnofsky, who does little else but stand around and tell everyone how scary he is.

With Gondry in the director’s seat, The Green Hornet does come with a few inventive action scenes like Kato’s slo-mo, speed-shifting approach to fighting or the Kato-vision sequences. The climax in Britt’s newspaper office is also pretty good fun, but Gondry’s best contribution to the film is a fantastic animated montage of comic-book style action in the end.

The film on the whole is only marginally engaging, and 3D serves little purpose when you look back. I’m going with two out of five for The Green Hornet. Watch it if you must.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 7, 2011

Reality bites

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:28 pm

January 07, 2011

Cast: Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan, Myra Karn, Rajesh Sharma, Neil Bhoopalam

Director: Rajkumar Gupta

No One Killed Jessica, directed by Rajkumar Gupta, is a loud, overdramatized account of the Jessica Lall murder in 1999 and the events that followed. Drama is inherent to this story, in which the prime accused was acquitted by the court for lack of evidence, then sentenced to life imprisonment when the case was reopened seven years later following a collective public outcry. Yet Gupta paints in broad strokes, delivering a simplistic, Bollywood-ised version of real events.

So Vidya Balan plays Sabrina, Jessica’s elder sister, as a dowdy figure, robbed of any personality, focused on seeking justice for the death of her sibling. And Rani Mukherjee is the smoking, swearing TV reporter Meera Geti, who leaves a man halfway through an amorous encounter when she receives a call about a big breaking news story. Both are what you’d describe as ‘signpost’ characters; they might as well be wearing their character sketch around their neck.

With the exception of a few powerful scenes that leave you with a genuine lump in your throat, Gupta goes for full-on melodrama that doesn’t always ring true. Courtroom scenes in which lawyers bellow at witnesses, or newsroom scenes in which Meera railroads her boss and barks at junior reporters, are written with the sole purpose of eliciting an applause.

The film opens with the news of Jessica’s death reaching her sister, and quickly flashbacks to the incident where the model bartender was shot at point blank range for refusing a drink to a politician’s son after the bar had been closed. The court case follows, where the accused is allowed to walk free, because witnesses have been intimidated or paid off. The only compelling character in this track is a cop (played by Rajesh Sharma), who in one of the film’s best-directed scenes tells Sabrina he accepted a bribe to not hurt the accused while recording his statement.

The film’s parallel track involves Rani’s character Meera, a star reporter who initially has no interest in the Jessica story, then goes after it when she’s convinced justice has been denied, and spearheads a campaign to undo the damage.

No One Killed Jessica has a disclaimer that describes the film as “a hybrid of fact and fiction”. Indeed, the film may work as a masala entertainer, but for the most part, the director’s treatment is too exaggerated and bombastic for a ‘true story’. Virtually every single supporting character is a cardboard caricature, and watching those courtroom scenes in which witnesses are called to testify, is nothing short of sheer torture because of the amateurish acting that’s up on display.

One character whose representation in the film I found particularly offensive was the mother of the accused, who shows up on three separate occasions and almost in a cutesy sing-song voice tells her husband that no matter what, he must protect their son. It’s almost unbelievable that the director goes for such insensitive humor in a film of this nature.

As far as the central performances go, Vidya Balan plays her character one-note, and seems to forget to invest any personality into Sabrina. Sure one doesn’t expect to see her play Sabrina as a bubbly, lively woman, but she needn’t have been so dull either. Vidya shines in the one unpredictable scene she’s allowed, in which her character breaks into a giggle during a tense moment in court. Rani Mukherjee, despite being saddled with a cliché of a character, is more cinematically engaging, and knows exactly how to command the screen with her presence.

But the star of No One Killed Jessica is Amit Trivedi, the film’s music and background score composer, who gives the film its soul. His pulsating track Dilli is possibly the best opening-titles number in recent memory, and he infuses life and pace into even somber scenes with his rich background compositions.

No One Killed Jessica isn’t a bad film; it’s just a disappointing one from a filmmaker who showed such promise with his debut film Aamir. This one falls short.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for director Rajkumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica. It reminded me of a Madhur Bhandarkar film. If you’re a fan of simplistic storytelling, you won’t complain.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Bump in the night

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:25 pm

December 07, 2011

Cast: Brian Boland, Sprague Grayden, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Director: Tod Williams

Paranormal Activity 2 spooked me more than the first film, although both movies are constructed around the same central conceit: we’re watching home video and surveillance footage throughout, and all the action is confined to a single home.

The previous film featured a young couple, Katie and Micah, who installed a camera in their bedroom to record strange goings-on while they slept. And although very little happened during the roughly 90-minute running time of that film, it did contain a few jump-in-your-seat moments, including a shocking climax that alone justified a watch.

Paranormal Activity 2, you might say, is a prequel to the last film. Set in a suburban home in California, it focuses on Katie’s sister Kristi from the moment she returns home from the hospital with newborn baby Hunter. When there’s a break-in at their home, Kristi and her husband Brian install surveillance cameras throughout the house. Pretty soon, as you may have guessed, things begin to go bump in the night.

The new film raises the stakes in two clever ways. This time there are more occupants in the house apart from the couple: there’s a baby, a teenage daughter from the husband’s previous marriage, the family’s trusted dog, the baby’s nanny, and Katie visits quite frequently herself. Also, bugging the entire home with cameras widens the visual scope of this movie. So now they can write a scene in the kitchen where all the cupboards and drawers suddenly open at once, or repeated scenes of a pool-cleaner snaking its way out of the water.

The masterstroke, however, is using the baby. Nothing’s more scary than watching the door of a little child’s room slam shut suddenly, or the sight of a toddler crawling around an empty house that has been taken over by a spirit. There’s another particularly terrifying scene involving the baby but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself – you’ll know which one when you see it!

Like the previous film, most of the scares in Paranormal Activity 2 are concentrated in its final act. But the ending of this film is comparatively less frightening than the last one, and that’s a disappointment. It doesn’t quite leave you with the same bang!

Still, there’s something to be said about a horror film that doesn’t use eerie music or special effects to scare you. Watch it at a late night screening; it works as a collective experience.

I’m going with three out of five for Paranormal Activity 2. Go for it if you enjoy a good scare.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Secrets & lies

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:00 pm

January 07, 2011

Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, David Andrews

Director: Doug Liman

As far as political dramas go, Fair Game starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, is a pretty good one, even if it is a little dry. The film looks back at the Washington scandal that erupted in 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war.

CIA agent Valerie Plame (played by Watts) is trying to halt nuclear proliferation. Her husband Joe Wilson (played by Penn) is a former US ambassador and expert on Africa, who’s sent to Niger by the CIA to check out allegations that Saddam Hussein had purchased large quantities of weapons-grade uranium there. Wilson finds no such evidence. Yet, when President Bush, in his State of the Union address, cites the non-existent uranium story while building a case for the invasion of Iraq, Wilson decides to correct the facts. He writes a piece in The New York Times, straightening out Bush’s lies. And then as retaliation, the administration leaks the fact that Plame is a CIA agent, thus putting her and many of her contacts, as well as her operations, in danger.

Clearly and crisply told, this story – based on separate novels written by Plame and her husband Wilson – shows the damage this incident did to the couple’s careers and the pressure it put on their marriage. The film works as a disturbing account of power-abuse, and in fact it raises important questions about truth and the price that must sometimes be paid for telling it.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts are remarkable actors, and their compelling performances ground the film in reality, and make it eminently watchable even when the screenplay occasionally flounders. What’s missing in Fair Game is a sense of urgency; the movie works as a political drama, but never quite gathers the pace of a thriller. It’s engaging, but never riveting.

I’m going with three out of five for Fair Game. Director Doug Liman tells an important story that deserves to be heard.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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