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

January 31, 2014

Two times nothing!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:34 pm

January 31, 2014

Cast: Abhay Deol, Preeti Desai, Rati Agnihotri, Lilette Dubey, Darshan Jariwala, Jayant Kriplani, Anish Trivedi, Yashika Dhillon

Director: Devika Bhagat

The two protagonists in One By Two – a software guy (Abhay Deol) and a dancer (Preeti Desai) – don’t meet until the very last scene of the film. It’s an unusual and even a fascinating idea to construct a movie around, but writer-director Devika Bhagat can’t seem to come up with a compelling enough screenplay to beef up that idea.

Abhay’s character Amit, still heartbroken from having been dumped by his girlfriend, spends all his time moping, or fantasizing that she will return to him soon. Meanwhile, Preeti’s character Samara, is frustrated from her dancing career going nowhere. We watch as their lives run parallel, which means we get repeated split-screens and far too many instances of ‘missed connections’.

One of the problems with this film is that it plays out like a sitcom. There’s enough chick-lit philosophizing to make you barf, and supposedly adult characters who behave like overgrown teens. So Amit is comfortable enough around his buddies to break wind when his tummy rumbles. But when the same gag is repeated thrice over, you know they’ve run out of ideas.

There’s an excruciatingly stupid subplot involving Amit and his friends hacking into the software of a dance reality show in order to sabotage the producer’s job, because he’s dating Amit’s ex. Inevitably, Amit’s meddling with the software will have a consequence on Samara, who’s got her hopes pinned on winning that show.

Neither of the two is having much luck at home either. Amit’s mother (Rati Agnihotri) is desperate for her son to get married, and takes it upon herself to fix him up with a prospective bride. Samara, for her part, the illegitimate daughter of a married big shot, is keen to reconnect with her estranged daddy, while caring for her alcoholic mum (Lilette Dubey). You see, there’s a lot going on here, and yet, nothing that drives the film’s plot. There’s no conceivable reason why we in the audience, should care for these two to end up together. Other than the fact that they’re both not particularly likeable people and hence probably deserve to be together.

Abhay Deol has very little to work with, and not enough charisma to salvage this flawed material. He’s pretty good in one scene in which he shocks a roomful of guests by belting out a rebellious track on his guitar, dressed only in his boxers and a vest. Preeti Desai, his real-life girlfriend, is easy on the eye, but has a long way to go in the histrionics department. Her dancing skills too, are average at best…unforgivable in a film that relies so heavily on them.

One By Two tries hard to break the mold of Bollywood rom-coms, but seldom offers scenarios or characters that are refreshingly original. A feisty young girl whom Amit dates on his mother’s insistence steals the film in only a couple of scenes. She’s got what the film badly needed – oodles of spunk.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for Devika Bhagat’s One By Two. To quote a song from this very film: I’m just pakaoed!


(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Original sin

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:32 pm

January 31, 2014

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt

Director: Steve McQueen

There are enough scenes of brutal violence in 12 Years a Slave to make your skin crawl. But few are as disturbing and as genuinely shocking as one in which a black slave is left hanging from a tree, grunting from suffocation, his toes barely touching the ground. Behind him, children play and other slaves go about their chores, fearing for their lives if they even look his way. The camera lingers on this wide shot for several minutes as if to emphasize the sheer helplessness of these people.

Directed by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave takes an unflinching look at a shameful chapter in American history. This is slavery examined with searing honesty, far removed from the Hollywood sugarcoating of Gone With The Wind, or the revenge-fantasy approach of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, on whose autobiography the film is based. An educated free black man in 1841, living with his family in Saratoga, New York, Northup is kidnapped, sold, and sent to work at a Southern plantation, where he barely survives a dozen years of inhuman torture and bondage. Solomon’s first owner is a relatively compassionate man (Benedict Cumberbatch), but then he’s sold to the sadistic cotton-plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), from whose savagery no one is spared, not least the female cotton-picker he’s obsessed with (Lupita Nyong’o).

Never an easy watch, the film’s unforgiving brutality inevitably inspires a deep sense of shame. McQueen refuses to cut away as men and women are lashed till the skin is peeled off their backs. Every piercing wail, every cry as a mother is separated from her children, prompts you ask aloud: How could anyone be so heartless?

The film is particularly effective because of its remarkable cast, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose eyes alone convey volumes of pain and repressed anger. Michael Fassbender, terrific as his relentlessly cruel owner, evokes memories of another spiteful villain, the Nazi concentration camp commander Amon Goeth as played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.

Nicely shot and paced, the film works because it breathes with reality. McQueen drives every scene to the core of its emotions, and their cumulative emotional effect is devastating. I’m going with four out of five for 12 Years a Slave. It’ll leave you shocked, ashamed, angry and overwhelmed.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Monster problem

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:31 pm

January 31, 2014

Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Kevin Grevioux

Director: Stuart Beattie

The story of Frankenstein’s monster has had many incarnations on screen, but perhaps none as clunky as I, Frankenstein, in which the stitched-up soulless creature is presented as a superhero of sorts.

Aaron Eckhart stars as mad scientist Victor Frankenstein’s doomed creation, Adam. Not long after burying his creator, our permanently brooding protagonist finds himself at the centre of an ages-old war between two clans: the gargoyles led by Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto), and the demons ruled by Naberius (Bill Nighy). As the film fast forwards 200 years ahead into far more technologically advanced times, we watch as Adam foils Naberius’ plans to take over the world by giving life to an army of corpses who will vanquish the angelic gargoyles.

What’s particularly embarrassing here is the seriousness with which everyone concerned approaches this ludicrous plot. Poor Aaron Eckhart deserves a medal for keeping a straight face through the sheer stupidity of this enterprise, while only Bill Nighy, who’s appropriately over-the-top as the snarling Demon Prince, seems like he’s in on the joke. To be fair, the special effects aren’t bad at all, but fatigue does set in when you’re watching scene after scene of gargoyles and demons smashing into building, swinging clubs at each other until they disintegrate into sparks and flames.

At one point, a well-meaning female scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) catches a glimpse of our monster hero in all his shirtless glory, and sexual attraction is thick in the air. By now, it’s impossible to take this film seriously.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for I, Frankenstein. It’s silly beyond belief; doesn’t deserve your time.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Parineeti & Sidharth on rivalry and competition in the movies

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 9:20 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Hasee Toh Phasee stars Parineeti Chopra and Sidharth Malhotra talk about competition and rivalry in the big bad world of movies.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 24, 2014

Sonu Nigam: “Singers are as much kings in their own territory as movie stars are”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 10:45 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Sonu Nigam – easily one of the finest singing voices in India – reveals why we don’t hear much of him in Hindi film music these days, and also explains why big movie stars like Salman Khan and music company honchos like Bhushan Kumar shouldn’t be petty about letting singers receive the royalties they rightfully deserve.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Joy? No!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:38 pm

January 24, 2014

Cast: Salman Khan, Daisy Shah, Tabu, Danny Denzongpa, Nadira Babbar, Genelia D’souza, Ashmit Patel, Aditya Pancholi, Mahesh Manjrekar

Director: Sohail Khan

Salman Khan goes into messiah mode as he rescues innocent children from a terrorist outfit, returns a kidnapped baby to its harrowed parents, writes an exam paper for a handicapped student, and repeatedly takes down swarms of bad guys who dare stand in his way. He’s ‘being human’ – make that ‘superhuman’ – in director-brother Sohail Khan’s well-intentioned but frankly naïve drama Jai Ho.

Salman plays Jai, the neighborhood good Samaritan who shows up at a moment’s notice each time someone’s in any sort of trouble. But after a tragedy that occurs because of people’s general apathy towards each other, Jai encourages everyone he’s helped to repay three strangers with kindness, and to keep this “madat ki chain” going so as to make the world a better place.

It’s not a half-bad premise (happily ‘borrowed’ from the Kevin Spacey-starrer Pay It Forward, though the film itself is a remake of the Telugu hit Stalin), but one that’s abandoned midway to make room for the numerous action sequences that dominate this movie. Presumably because Salman must break bones, wring necks, and punch chests every few minutes, Jai Ho turns into a gruesome revenge saga of sorts. So when goondas affiliated to a political party are brutally thrashed by Jai for harassing his sister, matters spiral into a full-blown war with a corrupt Home Minister (Danny Denzongpa).

To offer respite from the wall-to-wall punch ‘em-ups, there’s the inevitable romantic track, with newcomer Daisy Shah. Alas, her chemistry with the film’s leading man is colder than a frozen popsicle. And while she makes up for her complete lack of acting chops with her impressive dancing skills, it’s a shame elevator music is more memorable than the abysmal songs in this film.

To be honest, very little stays with you when you leave the cinema, aside from the unpleasant aftertaste that comes from being shamelessly manipulated. From exploiting limbless little girls, to showing us beggar children being assaulted, the film stops at nothing in its attempt to move you to tears. If your heart does go out, it’s to the few good actors who’re wasted by being made to stand around and participate in this silliness. The abundantly gifted Tabu, in the part of Jai’s sister, oozes grace despite the thankless scope of her role. And it’s a pity Nadira Babbar as Jai’s mother, and Mahesh Manjrekar as a kindly auto-rickshaw driver, didn’t have more substantial parts. Only pint-sized Naman Jain (of Chillar Party and Bombay Talkies) gets a few light moments to shine, even if they do mostly involve a running joke about the color of a young lady’s innerwear.

Aside from them, it’s as if every out-of-work actor in Salman’s zip code was offered a walk-on part: Ashmit Patel, Yash Tonk, Vatsal Seth, Nauheed Cyrusi, Tulip Joshi, Mahesh Thakur, Aditya Pancholi, Sharad Kapoor, even Sunil Shetty. It’s a whole bouquet of stinking violets.

Naturally then, it’s up to Salman Khan to hold it all together. He roars and fights and even weeps on cue. In one scene, he kicks an ambulance into motion. Closer to the end, he rips the shirt off his back for a mano-a-mano with another muscled hunk. It’s a committed performance, but he deserved a smarter film.

For all the references to the aam aadmi and the solutions it offers to inspire change, this film ultimately is about the victory of a man who lets his fists do the talking. Muddled message there.

I’m going with two out of five for Jai Ho. It might have its heart in the right place, but the brain appears to be missing.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Making of a hero

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:35 pm

January 24, 2013

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris

Director: Justin Chadwick

Very often the problem with movies about great people is that they become such reverential portraits that they rob their subjects of their very humanness. That’s certainly true of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, based on the autobiography of South African leader Nelson Mandela. It’s an earnest, honorable effort, but does little to deepen our sense of the man, and ultimately never really crystallizes into anything more than a bullet-point biopic.

Over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film, directed by Justin Chadwick, dutifully chronicles more or less Mandela’s entire adult life, starting with his involvement in anti-apartheid activism as a young lawyer in 1940s Johannesburg. We watch as he is arrested and convicted of terrorist activities, spends 27 years in prison, and is eventually elected South Africa’s first black president. There’s no question that the film covers solid ground. It even captures facets of Mandela’s weaknesses – the womanizing that led to the collapse of his first marriage, the distance that grew between him and his second wife Winnie Madikizela, even the difficult relationship that he shared with his son. Yet you can’t shake off the feeling that the film is just skimming the surface of events that shaped the life of this great man. Mandela was an inspiration, so steadfast in his dream that he remained an icon until his dying breath. Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom reduces this towering figure to a cardboard cutout by merely listing his achievements without a keen sense of perspective.

Leading man Idris Elba has tremendous presence, and it’s put to good use as he conveys Mandela’s charisma. His early scenes stand out — the fiery speeches, his passion for Winnie, the anger that colors his activism, and his determined fight to earn dignity as a prisoner by demanding long pants instead of shorts. As an old man, Elba’s make-up is chalky and gets in the way of his resolute performance. Naomie Harris as the controversial, colorful character Winnie, is so spirited that she breathes fire into her part. Her outrage is palpable and you’re captivated in that one telling scene where she urinates in defiance on a cop’s shoes, even though she has been tortured for days. It almost makes you wish that this were the untold story of Nelson and Winnie – a marriage unraveling just as history was being written.

In the end, Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom offers a one-dimensional, vanilla portrait of one of history’s most relevant figures. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five. It’s a perfectly adequate summing up of Mandela’s life. Unfortunately, this real-life hero deserved so much more.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 18, 2014

Salman Khan: “The split (with Javed Akhtar) killed my father’s love for writing”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 12:43 am

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, a surprisingly candid Salman Khan talks about the professional split between his father Salim Khan and his writing partner Javed Akhtar in the early 80s. Salman reveals how the breakup affected his father and their family, and also talks discusses his own take on friendships in the movie industry.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Dirty picture

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:02 am

January 17, 2014

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anil George, Niharika Singh

Director: Ashim Ahluwalia

Director Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely is set in the Hindi movie business of the eighties…but not the one that features the Khans or the Kapoors. These are the C-grade horror and sex movies, a thriving industry of its own. The film opens with a dingy theatre packed with men watching one of those classic Ramsay Brothers horror flicks that we watched as children – the sort that had a chudail (witch) grabbing a man by his throat. When the movie stops abruptly, the audience starts heckling. Enter Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who quickly inserts a soft porn clip of a woman panting and moaning with a man all over her. The crowd cheers passionately.

Despite this enthusiastic response day after day, Sonu Duggal wants a change of scene. With those soulful eyes, he longs for something meaningful, aspiring to make a Bollywood song-n-dance romantic film that will get him out of this smutty-movie morass. His brother, and boss, Vicky Duggal (Anil George) is contemptuous of this plan, deeply entrenched as he is in the dirty business of making zero-budget skin flicks. Sonu meets Pinky (Niharika Singh) on a train by chance, and decides to make ‘Miss Lovely’, a respectable film with Pinky as the heroine. But the trouble is that he falls for his muse, and Pinky isn’t who she really seems.

Ahluwalia, who last made the call-center documentary John and Jane, intended to apply the same unscripted approach to telling the story of India’s adult movie business. However, when these pornographers refused to reveal their identities for the camera, Ahluwalia decided that a fictional feature may be the only way to explore the subject. Yet Miss Lovely retains a docu-drama feel, recreating that sleazy side of Mumbai with seedy-looking characters, cramped offices, cheap hotel rooms, and stark warehouses. The film has a consistently realistic feel, particularly because of its impeccable production design. There are strong performances from Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Anil George, playing the diametrically opposite Duggal Brothers, both simmering with frustrations. Miss Lovely captures a palpable sense of atmospherics, making you feel as if you are part of that era even if its world seems alien.

Alas, the picture falters because of its inconsistent narrative. Despite the fascinating premise at its core, the film sometimes feels like a slog, because of those long stretches that contain no dialogue and very little action. As a result it’s hard to be emotionally invested in the characters or their motivations, even though the film journeys to an explosive end.

I’m going with three out of five for Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely. Selected to play in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival in 2012, it’s an unconventional watch, yes, but it’s also refreshing to see a different kind of Indian cinema make its place in the world.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

January 17, 2014

The con is on

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:53 pm

January 17, 2014

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK, Robert De Niro

Director: David O Russell

From the opening minutes of American Hustle, you get a sense of the unconventional tone of this story. There’s Christian Bale, unrecognizable as the paunchy owner of a dry-cleaning business, doing an elaborate comb-over by gluing on strands of hair to his bald pate. Moments later, he’s a suave fixer. Nothing is what it seems in this 1970s New York City-based caper. As the tagline goes: Everyone hustles for a living.

Yet what keeps you invested in these characters is what’s going on with their hearts and lives, underneath their shiny facades and home perms. Every kooky person here is bouncing off the emotional grid, crazy in their own little way. Each, after all, is involved in a wild scheme inspired by a real-life sting operation that took place in the 70s. American Hustle is the fictionalized drama based on the Abscam scandal, an FBI operation that enlisted the help of con artists to nab crooked Congressmen.

One has begun to bank on director David O’ Russell as the go-to guy for an exhilarating time at the movies. After The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, he now gives us giddy fun with American Hustle, starring alumni from those two films. Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a New Jersey shyster whose legit business is dry-cleaning, but who dreams big by giving out phony bank loans and selling forged art. Into his life walks ex-stripper Sydney (a luminous Amy Adams), who is only too happy to fake a British accent and adopt the name ‘Lady Edith’ to help him rip off more people. The pair lives it up, flirting incorrigibly, dancing in ballrooms and loving it up in bed.

Complications arise when an over-enthusiastic FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper) forces them into a partnership to trap greedy Congressmen. The other thorn in their side is Irving’s jealous, unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who is unwilling to give her husband a divorce. In one laugh-out loud scene, Irving describes her as the “Picasso of passive-aggressive karate”.  Despite their misgivings, Irving and Sydney are roped into Di Maso’s elaborate plan to nail politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Unfortunately, the operation comes under threat because of Di Maso’s impatient ambition and Rosalyn’s big mouth.

Beneath the thrill of the tense FBI operation is the vulnerability of the four characters. This crackling screenplay feeds itself off their longing and comical awkwardness. Irving watches his life spin out of control when Di Maso falls deeply under Sydney’s spell, while she plays the FBI agent so she can get back at Irving for not leaving his wife. The sexual tension between Di Maso and Sydney virtually thrums, but you see her pain each time she throws wounded looks at Irving.

Director David O’ Russell gifts us fantastic moments in American Hustle – like that magical swish of laundered clothes forming a ring of dreamy love around Irving and Sydney. Or that hilarious running gag involving Di Maso’s boss (played wonderfully by Louis CK). The two constantly argue over budgets for the operation, even as his boss repeatedly cautions Di Maso with a half-finished morality tale on ice-fishing. The film has a nice air of unpredictability hanging over it throughout. What are the chances of a menacing mob boss (Robert De Niro in a scene-stealing cameo) breaking into Arabic in the middle of a tense negotiation? And what happens when the green-eyed wife and the bitter mistress finally run into each other in a washroom? Not what you’d expect.

American Hustle is filled to the brim with heightened emotions that seem to spill into its sexy soundtrack. The film is anchored, however, by its performances. Christian Bale is bang-on as the pill-popping con artist, on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the tension of this operation and the stress of juggling two women. Bradley Cooper plays the goofball in broad strokes. Quick-tempered and mercurial, he’s the player who inevitably gets played himself. It’s the women, incidentally, who get the juiciest scenes. Amy Adams is in moments all heart, and at other times a cleavage-baring vixen. Jennifer Lawrence aces it as the loose cannon Rosalyn, so clueless that she manages to set off fires with basic kitchen equipment. She’s all bluster, and Lawrence plays the part in seductive, side-splitting spurts.

O Russell knows how to you hook you to his quirky characters, but also laces his film with witty dialogues, and cinematography and production design that add real texture. I’m going with four out of five for American Hustle. It’s possibly the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long, long time, and like the perfect restaurant meal it leaves you keen to make a second visit soon.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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