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

November 28, 2014

Libaas, unreleased since 26 years, finds an appreciative audience at IFFI

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 10:38 pm

Libaas, written and directed by one of India’s most well-regarded poets and filmmakers Gulzar, was screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa in November, 2014, over 26 years after the film was originally made. Unreleased theatrically, the festival screening of Libaas was attended by appreciative audience.

(This story first aired on CNN-IBN)

Justice league

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:38 pm

November 28, 2014

Cast: Sanjay Dutt, Emraan Hashmi, Randeep Hooda, Kangana Ranaut, Neil Bhoopalam, Angad Bedi, Neha Dhupia, Arunoday Singh

Director: Rensil D’silva

There’s some good ol’ fashioned earnestness at the core of writer-director Rensil D’silva’s Ungli, but the film is so steeped in naiveté and trades in such simplistic solutions, it’s as if you’re listening to a Class V moral science lesson. Best known for co-writing the screenplay of Rang De Basanti, D’silva borrows that film’s controversial vigilante justice resolution and uses it as the bedrock of this story. Except that the tone here is deliberately comedic, and taps into a wish-fulfillment fantasy that many will likely relate to.

Incensed by a personal tragedy, and disillusioned by a system that does little to protect the basic rights of a citizen, four friends – crime reporter Abhay (Randeep Hooda), medical intern Maya (Kangana Ranaut), computer engineer Goti (Neil Bhoopalam), and car mechanic Kalim (Angad Bedi) – turn into masked vigilantes by night, dispensing their unique brand of justice to errant folks. There’s an unmistakable thrill in watching the gang stuff wads of notes down the throats of corrupt traffic cops, or strap explosives on the chests of bribe-seeking government servants. But even as their legend grows, and they’re dubbed the ‘Ungli gang’ after their preferred symbol, upright cop ACP Kale (Sanjay Dutt) is assigned to bust their heroics. Emraan Hashmi’s in the film too, as Nikhil, the sort of truant junior police officer who fakes a bomb scare at a women’s hostel so he can get some cozy time with his girlfriend. Recruited by Kale to help him, Nikhil infiltrates the gang, but expectedly he finds himself conflicted when it’s time to give up his new friends.

It all moves along predictably in D’silva’s lazy screenplay, which is stuffed with pointless subplots including a romantic track between Hooda’s slick TV journo and a female colleague (Neha Dhupia) who’s following the Ungli gang story. The dialogues in the film are particularly corny, so much so that every other gem uttered by the actors has a reverse effect on the viewer. Lines intended to choke you up will have you chuckling in your seat, while that steady supply of smart-alec one-liners will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief. Pray how do you keep a straight face when Dutt looks somberly into Hashmi’s eyes and says, “Aansoo se sirf whisky dilute hoti hai”?

The film comes entirely undone in its second hour as the plotting gets more and more harebrained. You’re expected to believe that Dutt’s greying veteran cop is shaken up on discovering that his seniors in the force aren’t evangelical angels but corrupt thugs in khaki. Basic logic takes a serious beating in scenes where a high-stakes fixer (played nicely by Mahesh Manjrekar) allows anyone who’s making a cash deposit with him to take a tour of his loaded private vault. This is escapist, masala Hindi filmmaking so we’re not meant to bat an eyelid when the Ungli gang outsmarts practically the entire police force in a scenario so improbable you exasperatedly throw your hands up in the air.

Of the cast, only Randeep Hooda makes any impression as the practical-minded leader of this vigilante gang. Kangana Ranaut surprisingly goes missing midway through the film, only to show up in the end again, but with little to do. She’s the token female member of a gang that wants you to know they believe in inclusion.

The only bits that do work in Ungli are the seemingly unscripted lighter moments between the friends, and of course the scenes in which everyone from political bullies to sadistic auto-rickshaw drivers are brought to task in imaginative ways. The film’s overarching theme – of making offenders accountable – will no doubt resonate, but there had to be a more intelligent way to tackle the same idea.

I’m going with two out of five for Ungli. It’s well-intentioned but utterly muddled.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

That empty feeling

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:37 pm

November 28, 2014

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Natalie Dormer

Director: Francis Lawrence

Not very much happens in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. The studio’s decision to make two films from the final book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy may have made sense from a business point of view – hey, it worked for Harry Potter and Twilight! – but dramatically, it’s a bad move. The filmmakers take roughly half an hour’s worth of plot and thinly spread it over two long hours, giving us a movie that feels half-baked and wanting.

Mockingjay – Part 1 sees Jennifer Lawrence’s renegade warrior Katniss Everdeen, newly rescued by the rebels of District 13, reluctantly join the uprising against the Capitol’s fascist leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Coerced by District 13’s icy resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) into being the star of a series of rousing propaganda videos, Katniss is the face of the revolution. But it’s not all posturing and delivering slogans, as Katniss finds herself wracked by traumatic flashbacks, and focused only on saving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who has been captured and turned into a mouthpiece for the government.

More yak-yak that fight back, the film unfolds largely in the bunkers of District 13, giving it a dull grey texture to match Katniss’ own somber mood. This movie’s most fatal flaw is that it leaves its leading lady to stand around like a spectator for most of its running time; she’s a passive heroine, far removed from the badass star of last year’s Catching Fire. Adrenalin junkies will have to make do with precisely one thrilling bit in which Katniss tries to bring down a swooping fighter plane with her bow and arrow.

In place of action, director Francis Lawrence offers big ideas, continuing the franchise’s tradition of satirizing the media. If the first film drew parallels to the manipulative business of reality TV, and the second was a biting comment on celebrity packaging, Mockingjay – Part 1 examines the staging and marketing of a televised revolution.

Jennifer Lawrence, delivering complexity and conviction, proves yet again that she’s a magnetic star with an arresting screen presence. It helps too that she’s surrounded by a first-rate ensemble that includes Moore, Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch), and particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who brings sly wit to his role as Plutarch Heavensbee, the former gamesmaker now serving as advisor to President Coin.

Leaving us with more question marks than full-stops, the film never feels like a stand-alone piece of storytelling in the way that the previous two movies were. It’s skillfully mounted and competently enacted, but you’re going to wish you didn’t have to wait a whole year to see how it all ends. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)


Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

November 28, 2014

Cast: Voices of John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Ken Jeong

Directors: Eric Darnell & Simon J Smith

Despite their sidekick status in the three Madagascar movies the quartet of wisecracking penguins became such stars by virtue of their comic antics, it was only a matter of time before some smart-alec studio executive came up with the bright idea of giving them their own spin-off movie. Too bad nobody thought it might be worth fleshing out these characters first.

The Penguins of Madagascar features bumbling foursome Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private in a frenetically paced plot that involves them being pursued by a vengeful scientist-octopus named Dave (John Malkovich). This eight-legged baddie, as it turns out, is nursing a grudge against our heroes for stealing the spotlight and rendering him redundant at Central Park Zoo back in the day. Now he’s invented an elaborate contraption that’ll turn every adorable penguin on the planet into a monstrous mutant. Even as Skipper and his friends race across continents trying to evade their obsessed stalker and simultaneously foil his nefarious plans, they’re one-upped by an international spy squad, led by wolf leader Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch), who swoop in and take it upon themselves to stop the purple mollusc.

Aimed primarily at the little ones who’ll be too distracted by the frenzied action scenes to notice the absence of a compelling or even coherent plot, this film doesn’t have the easy charm of the previous Madagascar movies. The protagonists themselves may be cute and cuddly, but they don’t possess the endearing neuroses of Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria. Sure there are a few clever sight gags, but most of the laughs here come from wordplay, mispronunciations, and cheeky puns. Ordering a lackey to nab the penguins, our octopus villain screams at one point: “Nicholas! Cage them!”

Expectedly, it’s Malkovich and Cumberbatch who get the best lines and ample opportunity to have fun with their (voice) parts. But for the latest installment of a much-loved franchise, The Penguins of Madagascar feels surprisingly underwhelming. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

November 21, 2014

Sweet nothings

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

November 21, 2014

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Ileana D’cruz, Govinda, Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Preity Zinta, Kareena Kapoor

Director: Raj Nidimoru & Krishna DK

Happy Ending, directed by Go Goa Gone’s Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, is a neatly packaged piece of fluff pretending to be smarter than it actually is. This is cotton candy trying to pass off as caviar. A predictable romantic comedy disguised as a cheeky comment on the predictable nature of romantic comedies. Get it?

Set for no particular reason in Los Angeles, the film stars Saif Ali Khan as Yudi, the author of a best-selling novel who has failed to live up to the promise he showed at the time of his breakout debut five-and-a-half years ago. Cash-strapped and nowhere close to starting his second book, he reluctantly agrees to pen a “kickass” script for an ageing Bollywood star, Armaan (Govinda), who wants to reinvent himself.

The chief conceit here is that even as Yudi struggles to write the sort of tried-and-tested rom-com that Armaan is insistent on, his own life has begun to closely follow the blueprint of one of those typical ‘romedies’. Notoriously allergic to commitment, Yudi is enjoying a platonic friendship with Aanchal (Ileana D’cruz), a hot new writer on the block who churns out sappy romantic fiction but wants no emotional attachments either.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this film is headed. The writers stick faithfully to the rulebook of rom-com plotting and give us one over-familiar scenario after another. The road-trip, the shared hotel room, the teary goodbye, the dash to the airport – it’s all there! Which is a shame, because originality and unpredictability were the very strengths that gave the directors’ previous films (particularly Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone) an edge over Bollywood’s usual fare.

Some of the more enjoyable moments in Happy Ending are between Yudi and his best friend Montu (Ranvir Shorey), who looks forward to their occasional drinking binges if only to escape his ball-busting wife. Kalki Koechlin is terrific as Vishaka, Yudi’s clingy former girlfriend to whom he hasn’t quite been able to convey that they’re broken-up already. The film is stuffed also with a pair of starry cameos by Kareena Kapoor and a sweetly understated Preity Zinta, both playing Yudi’s exes. You’ll have much less patience for his alter ego Yogi (also played by Saif), an overweight slob who shows up repeatedly to dispense words of wisdom to our often-conflicted protagonist.

As you can see this is a busy film, with multiple characters and as many narrative threads. Still there are chunks where not much happens; you’ll find your interest waning in the long-drawn scenes where Yudi and Aanchal are supposedly warming up to each other. Unfortunately the romance between them feels forced and entirely contrived, and it certainly doesn’t help that Saif and Ileana’s chemistry is colder than an iced popsicle. There are more sparks in the scenes between Yudi and Armaan, not only because Govinda still has sharp comic timing, but because the writers do a bang-up job of spoofing the bizarre business of Hindi-film making.

It’s easy to see why Happy Ending doesn’t work after all. This is a film that wants to be many things all at once – a rom-com between a fading star and the next big thing, also a clever satire on Bollywood. It’s overlong at 135 minutes, and on occasion dreadfully boring. Saif Ali Khan can still pull off goofy humor better than most others, but how many times does he have to play the same part before we can all agree that he’s too old for this schtick?

I’m going with a generous two out of five for Happy Ending. You’ll only be truly happy at its ending.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Cheap laughs

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:34 pm

November 21, 2014

Cast: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner, Rob Riggle, Laurie Holden, Rachel Melvin, Steve Tom

Directors: Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly

As many as six writers are credited with putting Dumb and Dumber To on the screen, and still there’s no mistaking that stench of desperation and creative exhaustion that the film so badly reeks of. Sure I found myself laughing intermittently while watching this sequel to Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s much loved 1994 hit Dumb and Dumber. But that’s mostly out of a sense of loyalty and respect for Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels who sportingly embrace the film’s ultra-lowbrow humor and throw themselves into whatever ridiculous, disgusting scenario the Farrellys have plotted for them.

Like in the first movie, dimwitted best friends Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) set out on a road trip, this time in search of the grown daughter that Harry never knew existed, but who might give him the kidney he desperately needs.

As anyone who’s watched the Farrelly Brothers’ better films will agree, there’s usually a layer of sweetness and warmth that tends to offset the innumerable shit and fart jokes that their movies invariably trade in. But Dumb and Dumber To is surprisingly mean-spirited. Gays, blind people, and an ageing Kathleen Turner are frequent victims of hostile gags and cruel one-liners. Not to mention the particularly creepy running joke about Lloyd’s interest in Harry’s young daughter.

One of the big problems with this film is its overdependence on old gags. The lazy writers seem confident that we won’t complain if they stuff the film with jokes that we enjoyed the last time around. But I’m not paying three hundred bucks to watch Carrey blow mouth spray in the wrong direction again, or to watch the two men smell each other’s farts repeatedly. I’ll just rent the first Dumb and Dumber film for that.

Still, to be fair there are about six jokes that do work. Like one in which Lloyd and Harry have a telephone conversation with each other while seated on the same couch. Or the bit in which they send back their ‘funky’-smelling drinks in exchange for new ones. Even the scene where Harry introduces Lloyd to his cat Butthole – because, well, it has one – evokes a laugh, for the sheer sincerity with which Daniels delivers the line.

It’s that goofball sincerity, that endearing stupidity that made us fall in love with these two idiots 20 years ago, but those ingredients are in short supply in the new film. Don’t get me wrong – Jim Carrey still has that rubber-band elasticity that allows him to contort his face and body in ways that only he can, and Jeff Daniels with his frizzy mop cranks up the madness with an aggression we didn’t see the last time around. It’s the fact that they’re now both in their 50s and willingly submitting to this lousy script that makes you look at them with pity instead of affection.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out five for Dumb and Dumber To. It’s awful in so many ways you’d have to watch it yourself to realize just how low the bar has fallen. But please don’t.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Emraan Hashmi plays ‘Guess Whose Lips’

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 7:58 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Emraan Hashmi talks about the fickle nature of the film business. Once a star who was considered a hit machine, Emraan’s had a few bumpy years at the box-office. But he insists the chips aren’t down yet. He also talks about how his ‘serial kisser’ image is a cross he’ll always have to bear. Emraan even sportingly plays a round of ‘Guess Whose Lips’.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

November 14, 2014

Saif Ali Khan & Ileana D’cruz play ‘Never Have I Ever’

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 10:03 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Happy Ending stars Saif Ali Khan and Ileana D’cruz discuss their chemistry and the prickly issue of ageing. Saif also sportingly talks about the horror that was Humshakals, and both stars participate in a round of ‘Never Have I Ever’.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:41 pm

November 14, 2014

Cast: Ranveer Singh, Ali Zafar, Parineeti Chopra, Govinda, Alok Nath, Murad Ali

Director: Shaad Ali

Kill Dil, directed by Shaad Ali, starts off promisingly despite its hackneyed plot. The film stars Ranveer Singh as Dev, and Ali Zafar as Tutu; they’re a pair of hardened shooters who work for Bhaiyaji, a grizzled don played by Govinda. These trigger-happy killers banter relentlessly, even while pumping bullets into a terrified target, and it’s their hilarious, irreverent, and often crude one-liners that are the best thing about this film.

Too bad Ali traps these men in a script straight out of the 70s. Dev meets Disha, a feisty young thing, played by Parineeti Chopra, and he’s instantly smitten. Soon enough, he wants to give up his life of crime and go straight. After a string of botched interviews, he even lands a job as an insurance salesman. But predictably, this change of heart tests his relationship with Tutu, and gets Bhaiyaji all hot and bothered.

At just over two hours, Kill Dil is no slog to get through. But it certainly begs the question – why make this film today? Like Gunday, also produced by Yash Raj Films, this is a throwback to those masala potboilers of the past. I can’t speak for you, but I’m tired of these tributes. In the scene in which Dev interviews for the insurance salesman job, the camera lingers on a framed photograph of Nirupa Roy bearing the word ‘Founder’, even as Alok Nath, playing presumably the HR head, questions Dev about his qualifications. Lame joke!

There is mawkish sentimentality too, in a scene where Dev invites a poor kid to join Disha and him at their table in a modest dhaaba, and the kid invites another poor girl to join them. The scene is meant to show us that Dev is really a softie under that tough exterior, but what it does, is make you cringe.

The more enjoyable portions in Kill Dil are the humorous ones, most to be found in the first half. A scene in which Dev and Tutu head to the library to figure out what Disha meant when she replied to Dev’s SMS joke with an ‘LOL’ is pure genius. As is a scene in which the two hired hands negotiate the price of a set of bangles they want to purchase from a jeweler whom they’ve got gagged and bound on Bhaiyaji’s orders.

The film goes immediately downhill post intermission, hurtling towards a rushed, contrived and only-too-convenient climax. The narrative is punctured by way too many songs, and fine actors are wasted in thankless roles. Ali Zafar, charming as always, is horribly miscast, and appears a tad embarrassed stuck in this messy film. The abundantly talented Parineeti Chopra does her best to infuse some credibility into her role, but that’s difficult when you’re cast as a hard-drinking, perenially-partying rich girl who rehabilitates criminals for a career. Honest!

It’s a joy to watch Govinda on the screen after all these years, and the actor does well as the wisecracking crime-lord who nicely matches steps with the boys when they break into a dance. He has a killer maniacal laugh too, but you can’t help thinking he deserved a more meaty role. It’s Ranveer Singh though, who owns the film with his livewire performance as the boyish thug. Always ready with a quip, going through life without any filters, he gives us an endearing anti-hero in Dev, who stands out despite the film’s many flaws.

There’s not a lot of praise one can heap on Kill Dil except to say that it’s not an unwatchable film. The first hour goes by briskly, and you’ll even find yourself smiling along. If that’s enough for you, give it a shot. I’m going with two stars for the film, and additional half star for Ranveer Singh’s terrific performance, which makes it two-and-a-half out of five for Kill Dil.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

About a boy

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:40 pm

November 14, 2014

Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

Director: Richard Linklater

Life, as they say, is in the little details. Scrawling graffiti on the wall, poring over a lingerie catalogue, standing up to the bully in the school bathroom, going camping with dad, drinking beer for the first time. You get the drift. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, is all about the drift. This is a unique, terrific, intuitive movie about growing up; a coming-of-age film with a relaxed naturalism that you’ve literally never seen before.

Shot over a few weeks each year from 2002 to 2013 with the same principal cast, Boyhood follows the journey of Texan kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a wide-eyed moppet to a sensitive young teenager entering college. Like some of the director’s best films – Slacker, Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy – there isn’t much by way of plot in Boyhood. Mason and his sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelai) are raised by their mother (Patricia Arquette), while their largely absentee father (Ethan Hawke) checks in and out of their lives.

The film is little more than a long series of moments that come together to make the characters who they are. As Mason goes from 6 to 18, we witness a whirlwind of familiar experiences – parental discord, sibling rivalry, first love, even heartbreak – that shape him into the man he is to become. Seemingly ordinary moments feel recognizable as the film connects with our own experiences. This is Mason’s life we’re watching, but it could easily be our own.

Linklater cleverly sprinkles a bunch of pop cultural references into everyday conversations to give us a sense of passing time. Mason, who we once see dressed up in a Harry Potter costume going to a midnight book launch, has turned into a Star Wars nut a few years later. Significant events like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Obama’s first presidential campaign are also referred to, although fleetingly.

Where the film truly succeeds, is in making us forget that we’re watching a film. We’re seldom aware of Linklater’s camera, which, as it turns out, is everywhere…catching the tiniest and most insignificant moments and presenting them in all their honest glory. Mason’s simmering anger over losing his long hair is palpable as he sits there in the barber’s chair, his cheeks flushed, his eyes welling up.

It’s the film’s 165-minute running time that is the only indulgence here. Linklater, evidently disregarding the popular mantra “Kill Your Darlings”, appears too attached to the material to pare it down to a more ‘friendly’ length. Even those who love the film will likely agree that it plods on in its final act, making you wish you’d invested in recliner seats.

Nevertheless, Linklater’s writing is warm and insightful and the cast uniformly excellent, led by Coltrane who grows in confidence as an actor without ever compromising the film’s naturalism. The real scene-stealer though is Arquette, riveting as the struggling single mother with a poor taste in men, determined to make a better life for her kids.

Boyhood then is a true gem, and a bold, brave experiment that’s as intimate as it is expansive. It’s an emotionally affecting film with a big beating heart, and Linklater shows us that indeed life is in the little details. I’m going with four out of five. Don’t miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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