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

April 29, 2016

Enter the Tiger!

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

April 29, 2016

Cast: Tiger Shroff, Shraddha Kapoor, Sudheer Babu, Sunil Grover, Sanjay Mishra, Shifuji Shaurya Bharadwaj, Sumit Gulati

Director: Sabbir Khan

First introduced to us in the film doing a handstand, but using only his index finger and his thumb to lift the weight of his body, Tiger Shroff demonstrates why he was indispensable when it came to playing the lead in Baaghi. As action films go, director Sabbir Khan’s latest is a relentless punch-‘em-up…that rare kind of movie that refreshingly relies not on guns and explosions, but on good ol’ fashioned hand-to-hand sparring to deliver the thrills.

Tiger, who possesses the flexibility of a gymnast yet routinely loses his shirt to reveal abs of steel, is perfectly cast as Ronnie, a rebellious drifter and martial arts enthusiast who lets his fists fly each time he’s in a bind. The action scenes in Baaghi are some of the best you’ve seen recently, a cocktail of traditional Indian and Asian martial arts that the film’s leading man pulls off with remarkable ease.

It’s the plot of the film – cobbled together from various sources including The Karate Kid and The Raid: Redemption – that could’ve done with more work. Ronnie, who is packed off by his dying father to a kalaripayattu academy in Kerala, meets Sia (Shraddha Kapoor) on the train heading there, and pretty soon they are in love.

Back at the academy, Ronnie is disciplined and rid of his cockiness by a Mr Miyagi-like trainer who polishes his rough edges. But when his guru’s villainous son Raghav (Sudheer Babu) makes a play for Sia, Ronnie sets off to Bangkok and singlehandedly takes on an army of Raghav’s henchmen.

Packed into a frankly overlong 2 hours and 20 minutes, this flimsy plot makes room for way too many song situations squeezed between the impressive pow-wow scenes. Shraddha Kapoor, looking pretty and dancing well, is basically reduced to a damsel-in-distress caricature, aside from a few kicks and punches she’s allowed to deliver herself. Sanjay Mishra shows up as a blind Bangkok cabbie in a comedy track that doesn’t belong here. The film is powered purely by the sheer energy and the tireless spirit of its leading man Tiger Shroff, who’s still raw when it comes to emoting but seizes your attention when he’s flaying his arms and legs about the screen.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Baaghi. It’s certainly an improvement on Tiger’s debut film Heropanti, but script problems persist.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Black hole

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

April 29, 2016

Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, Arundhati Nag

Director: Matt Brown

The Man Who Knew Infinity is the biopic of Indian mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan, whose groundbreaking formulas continue to be used by scientists to analyze black holes even today. The film feels safe and conventional, and frankly a tad boring. Which is a shame, because it’s such an extraordinary story.

Dev Patel stars as Ramanujan, a self-taught maths genius employed as a lowly clerk in 1914 Madras when he sent samples of his theories to Cambridge professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) who recognized his talent and invited him to come study in England. Confronted with prejudice from snooty dons on campus, and missing his wife terribly, Ramanujan battled racism and isolation in chilly Cambridge, where he nevertheless stayed five years and produced a staggering volume of original work. On being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he returned home to India, where he died at the age of 32.

Director Matt Brown offers a reverential portrait of our protagonist, but struggles to convey the magic of numbers. Although much noise is made about Ramanujan’s revolutionary theories and ideas, we’re provided very little evidence of this. There is repeated talk of prime numbers and partitions, and we watch as crusty professors are bewildered by his ‘intuitive’ deductions. But ask me what I learnt about his achievements, and I’m still blank.

The best thing about the film, however, is the slow-burning friendship between Hardy and Ramanujan, who start out as mentor-protégé but evolve into equal partners with time. Jeremy Irons does a great job of softening Hardy’s edges, investing the famously authoritative veteran with a degree of warmth. Dev Patel, although miscast as Ramanujan (Whose idea was it to hire a British Asian actor with Gujarati roots and a London accent in the role of a late 19th century Tam-Brahm?) nicely communicates the excitability and the passion of the man. There’s an unmistakable earnestness in Patel’s performance that’s hard not to appreciate.

The film is handsomely mounted, and the scenes shot at Trinity College Cambridge are particularly impressive. But because the film never truly succeeds in conveying Ramanujan’s accomplishments, it remains a mostly superficial affair. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Apocalypse now!

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

April 29, 2016

Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

It’s hard to discuss 10 Cloverfield Lane in any detail without ruining it for you. Yet, this much can and should be said: the film has little in common with 2008’s Cloverfield, despite the involvement of producer JJ Abrams. For starters, this is not a found-footage monster movie, but a sly thriller with riveting performances at its heart. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its share of scary moments.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has just decided to leave her boyfriend when she’s involved in a terrible car accident. When she awakes, she finds herself held captive in an underground bunker built by a hulk of a man named Howard (John Goodman). He tells her that he saved her life, that America has been attacked and the atmosphere outside is toxic, and that she will only make it alive if she stays here with him. Naturally she’s skeptical, but another survivor locked in with them, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), corroborates Howard’s story although he appears equally wary of the big man’s volatile mood swings.

What follows is a tense, twisted, mood piece in which each of the three paranoid survivors variously trusts and suspects each others’ moves and motives. Is Howard eccentric or delusional? Is he their savior or captor? Can Emmett be trusted? The answers to these questions are revealed over the course of the film’s nail-biting 1 hour 45 minutes running time, and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg knows exactly how to evoke a sense of claustrophobia and impending doom.

While the horror that unfolds in the film is largely of the psychological kind, you’ll be glad to know the script throws up multiple twists that you probably won’t predict. Winstead and Gallagher play their parts with conviction and credibility, but the tour de force performance comes from Goodman who skillfully walks the tightrope between creepy and misunderstood, keeping us guessing about his intentions till the very end.

Evocative of Hitchcock in the manner that tension mounts throughout, 10 Cloverfield Lane ends on a surprisingly underwhelming note. It’s the one significant complaint in an otherwise impressive film that keeps your pulse racing. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

April 22, 2016

Problem child

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

April 22, 2016

Cast: Swara Bhaskar, Ria Shukla, Ratna Pathak Shah, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Suri

Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

It would be incorrect to label director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut film Nil Battey Sannata as merely a coming-of-age tale. Yet, perhaps many can identify with the character of a rebellious teenager whose mother fervently hopes that her child will clear the tenth standard and scale great heights, even when it’s evident that the kid is not at all academically inclined…and happily so.

This sensitively written and directed film follows Apeksha (Ria Shukla) as she finally grows up, but it’s as much the journey of Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) and the sacrifices she must make so she can realize her dreams of giving Apu a better future.

Chanda is an uneducated domestic help who lives in a basti in Agra, supplementing her income by working in a shoe factory, a pickle shop, and at the dhobi ghaat. All her hopes are pinned on her flighty daughter, who studies at a government school. Apu is a typical backbencher, with an aversion to books. She couldn’t care less about being pulled up and punished, whether for coming late to assembly or for being a poor student. Besides which, it looks clear that Apu will never be able to pass in Maths, her weakest subject.

Chanda is at her wit’s end, trying to straighten out her stubborn child, who announces that she’s happy to become a ‘bai’ like her mother. It’s Chanda’s no-nonsense, yet sympathetic employer (Ratna Pathak Shah) who comes up with the novel idea of the mother going back to school, so she can motivate her daughter to study.

Tiwari injects just the right dose of humor and empathy into Nil Battey Sannata. The film is directed with a light touch, yet realistically – you can see the careful details that have gone into creating the world that the characters inhabit, and the conversations they have. The film subtly addresses prejudices and makes a strong case for educating girls, but does so without preaching. The portions at the school are the most entertaining, thanks in no small part to Pankaj Tripathi, who plays the idiosyncratic school principal and maths teacher, whom the students love to make fun of.  A scene in which Ratna Pathak Shah’s character appeals to him to admit Chanda in the same class as Apu sparkles with humour.

And yet the film that shows such promise in the first half, limps towards a predictable finish. The plot wears thin, and some bits – like Chanda’s chance meeting with the kind local collector (Sanjay Suri) and their repeated encounters – come off as contrived in an otherwise convincing story. Good thing the performances keep you invested in the characters. Ria Shukla, as the feisty yet selfish Apu, has an undeniable screen presence, and succeeds in making you care for her even when she’s at her most petulant.

But at the heart of the film is Swara Bhaskar as Chanda who refuses to give up on her dream and her daughter. Not one note out of place, she grabs your attention, be it in shining hope or in crushing disappointment. Tiwari directs the film as a touching ode to motherhood, even if it does seem to labor the point towards the last half hour.

I’m going with three out of five for Nil Battey Sannata. Translated literally, the phrase means zero divided by anything equals zero. It’s commonly used to imply blankness, or the notion of knowing nothing. Ironic, considering the film leaves you feeling rewarded and just a little bit wiser.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

April 15, 2016

Creep impact

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

April 15, 2016

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Amin, Yogendra Tiku, Sayani Gupta, Waluscha DSouza, Shriya Pilgaonkar

Director: Maneesh Sharma

Fan, directed by Band Baaja Baraat’s Maneesh Sharma is constructed around an intriguing premise. Shah Rukh Khan plays a mega movie-star named Aryan Khanna, and also an obsessed fan of the star named Gaurav Chandna.

Gaurav, who hails from Delhi’s decidedly middle-class Indra Vihar neighborhood, spends his every waking moment worshipping at the altar of his idol. His walls are plastered with Aryan’s pictures, his parents indulge his obsession with the star, and his homage to the actor’s dance numbers wins him the top prize at the colony’s local talent contest each year.

Meanwhile Aryan, who is evidently modeled after Shah Rukh himself, was also once a middle-class Delhi boy whose meteoric rise in Bollywood is the stuff of dreams. Aryan lives larger-than-life in a sprawling home overlooking the sea, and he routinely shows up on his balcony to wave to the thousands of fans that have gathered for a glimpse of him below. These clips in fact, are real-life footage of Shah Rukh’s own interactions with his fans.

In playing both the superstar and the creepy lookalike fan who stalks him, Shah Rukh bravely goes for broke, unafraid to visit some pretty dark places. It’s a refreshing change from the actor’s recent films, which barely required him to break a sweat while playing to the gallery in roles that appear to have been created solely for the purpose of furthering his ‘wholesome hero’ image.

Having said that, it’s necessary to point out that Fan isn’t without its problems. There are moments in the film that defy logic and require complete suspension of disbelief. Like a scene in which Gaurav, who has made the trip to Mumbai to meet his idol, ends up doing something foolish in the hope of pleasing Aryan.

That incident and its repercussion leaves Gaurav bitter towards his hero, and determined to exact revenge. At this point, his resemblance to Aryan – which was barely noticed or commented on by anyone – becomes a key tool in his payback strategy. He manages to fool everyone from fans, to the London police, to Aryan’s own wife, on the strength of this plot contrivance.

There are other bits that jar as well. Why would a major movie star chase an offender through Delhi’s traffic clogged streets when he could put his men on the job? Questions like these pop up routinely through the second half, threatening to derail the film.

It’s Shah Rukh’s committed performance, however, that keeps you invested in the narrative and the characters. Gaurav, whose resemblance to Aryan is the stuff of computer trickery and prosthetics, may be the more fascinating of the two leading men, not least because Shah Rukh plays him as a curious mix of pathetic and creepy. But it’s Aryan, which is the trickier role for the actor to pull off, given that it’s basically a version of himself. I think it’s incredibly brave of Shah Rukh to play the superstar as conceited and stubborn, and as someone unwilling to take any responsibility for the situation. The role cuts dangerously close to the bone; Aryan Khanna is unapologetic about dancing at weddings for cash.

As I left the cinema having watched the film, I found myself conflicted about my feelings. There is so much to admire here, but it’s evident the filmmakers think they’ve made a smarter film than they actually have. Still, Fan works for the most part. And anyone who – like me – had grown tired and disappointed with Shah Rukh’s unwillingness to step out of his comfort zone will have reason to be a fan again. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

April 8, 2016

Welcome to the jungle!

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

April 08, 2016

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

For many that are roughly the same age as me, I would imagine The Jungle Book is one of the first movies one remembers watching as a kid. That “cartoon film” (as one described animation back in the day) about the coming-of-age of “man-cub” Mowgli who lives in the jungle with his friends Baloo and Bagheera is still imprinted on my mind. I can sing The Bare Necessities from memory, and my favorite scene – the one in which Kaa the snake lulls Mowgli into a hypnotic sleep while coiling around him – still gives me a kick.

How do you remake a film that has meant so much to so many people? Good thing director Jon Favreau has the answer. In refashioning Disney’s seminal hit in live action, using the latest computer effects and a whole ensemble of Hollywood A-listers to provide voice-work, Favreau creates an entirely immersive world and a visually stunning film that brings something new to an old story.

That’s evident from the moment the film opens, with a thrilling sequence in which Mowgli – climbing onto trees, leaping across branches – races with the wolves. It’s all executed so well, I couldn’t tell where the digital trickery ends and the real animals, waterfalls and mountains begin.

12-year-old Neel Sethi, who was picked from over 2000 kids, is an excellent find in the role of Mowgli. He brings a playful innocence to the character, then summons up vulnerability and inner strength when the going gets tough. You know the story: orphaned as a kid, Mowgli is raised as one of her own by mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) who protects him when feared tiger Sher Khan (Idris Elba) saunters back into the jungle and demands that the boy be turned over to him. It’s wise panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) who decides that Mowgli must return to his own kind.

Unfolding as a rollicking adventure, this new Jungle Book evokes a genuine sense of awe and wonder, particularly in its impressively staged set pieces. I was at the edge of my seat during a scene in which Mowgli is pursued by Sher Khan, and which culminates in a bison stampede in a ravine. Another scene in which he escapes the clutches of monkey lord King Louie (Christopher Walken) even as the latter’s temple palace crumbles around him is sheer CGI brilliance.

The effects, in fact, are first-rate stuff, and marrying them with terrific performances from Sethi and the voice-cast, Favreau gives us moments of unexpected emotion. Best of luck trying to hold back your tears during the poignant goodbye between Mowgli and Raksha, the latter, who like the other animals in the film happens to be an entirely digital creation.

The crisp, smooth voice of Kingsley is a fitting match for Bagheera, who is the conscience of The Jungle Book. Elba is a more sinister Sher Khan than the one in the animation film, and Scarlett Johansson’s silky voice is employed to good use as Kaa who urges Mowgli to “Trust in me”. But it’s hiring Bill Murray for the part of slacker bear Baloo that is genius casting. Murray gets the spirit of the wisecracking bear just right, and when he breaks into The Bare Necessities with Mowgli, you’ll want to cheer.

Much has been made of the Censor Board slapping a U/A certificate on the film, a controversy that in my opinion is unjustified. The new Jungle Book is darker than the 1967 film, and there are moments in it that might scare very young children. Closer in tone to Rudyard Kipling’s books on which it is based, it certainly feels different from the earlier film, which was an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. Favreau for his part allows room for only two songs, keeping barely two verses of each. Later in a terrific end-credits sequence we get the full version of King Louie’s I Wanna Be Like You, and Johansson’s sexy crooning of Trust in Me.

The screenplay (by Justin Marks) seldom deviates from the original film, although I wish it hadn’t left out Colonel Haathi, and had given the elephants a little more screen time. Surprisingly, we get a different ending this time – a happier one, as if to compensate for the film’s darker, realistic tone.

I’m going with four out of five for The Jungle Book. It’s a stunning visual achievement, and one that reminds you why you fell in love with these characters all those years ago. Don’t miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

April 1, 2016

Gender bender!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:37 pm

April 01, 2016

Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Swaroop Sampat, Rajit Kapur

Dir: R Balki

In Ki & Ka, directed by R Balki, Kareena Kapoor plays Kia, a successful marketing manager at an FMCG company who is unapologetic about being focused on her career. Arjun Kapoor is Kabir, an MBA grad and the son of a rich builder, who has no interest in becoming one of those corporate drones. They meet on a flight (in a scenario so contrived it made me cringe), and after a few dates, they decide to get married.

Watching the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking its makers were the first people in the world to invent the idea of a stay-at-home husband. Kabir, who is devoted to the memory of his housewife mother, insists that a homemaker is an artist, and aspires to be one himself. Evidently Balki is utterly and completely in awe of his own ‘great idea’. Doused in a vat of self-importance, the film practically screams out at you to notice how cool and progressive it is…which, as we know, are two entirely different things.

Nevertheless Ki & Ka coasts along smoothly as the couple becomes comfortable in what we’re repeatedly reminded are reversed roles. As Kia continues to climb the corporate ladder and provide for them financially, Kabir devotes himself to housework, cooking and cleaning and sprucing up their home, which they share with Kia’s mother (Swaroop Sampat). His taste in design, however, is questionable given that he redecorates the flat to resemble a railway museum, complete with a miniature train that ferries breakfast from the kitchen to the living room table.

Like the case with each of Balki’s previous films (Cheeni Kum, Paa, Shamitabh), the script of Ki & Ka derails in its second half when it becomes clear that there’s little to the plot besides that interesting central conceit. There is no real conflict in the couple’s lifestyle choices so Balki manufactures multiple obstacles to keep the characters on their toes, and to keep you invested in them.

But the film’s second half feels especially labored and reinforces many stereotypes. Way too much product placement, the slackening pace of the screenplay, and the contrived nature of the drama quickly reduce the film to a slog. The only bright spot here is a lovely two-scene cameo by Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, who ponder on how things might have turned out had Mrs B not given up her career to be a homemaker.

Ki & Ka arrives with a curious premise, but Balki fails to flesh it out into an engaging film. I was especially pleased to see Kareena Kapoor sink her teeth into a solid role after what seems like an eternity. Arjun Kapoor deserves credit for taking a role that few male stars would, but both actors are let down by the inert writing.

I’m going with a generous two out of five for Ki & Ka. It feels longer than its two hours running time, and you won’t be able to shake off the feeling that it delivers very little in the end.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Third time’s the charm

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:36 pm

April 01, 2016

Cast: Voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, JK Simmons, James Hong, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson

Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni

I can’t think of another franchise that has delivered with such consistency as the Kung Fu Panda movies, which frankly seem to be raising expectations with each new installment. It’s a particularly commendable achievement at a time when it’s hard to approach any sequel without some degree of cynicism or fatigue.

In Kung Fu Panda 3, our roly-poly dumpling-loving protagonist Po (Jack Black) finds himself united with his biological father (Bryan Cranston), who persuades him to return home to their panda village in the mountains. But his lazy time with other pandas is interrupted by news that the villainous Kai (JK Simmons) has escaped the spirit realm to steal the ‘chi’ of every kung fu master in the land.

Although the film once again requires Po to dig deep within himself to realize his true potential in order to overcome the latest hurdle, that trusted blueprint allows the filmmakers to combine humor, genuine heartfelt emotion, and action in equal measure. I particularly enjoyed the good-humored and surprisingly touching subplot about Po torn between his love for his adoptive father-goose and the papa panda he never knew he had.

Jack Black continues to own his role as the bumbling but eternally optimistic Po, and the animation is gorgeous, blending influences from traditional Chinese art with a stunning palette of colors that make the images pop in nicely rendered 3D. The story may be slight – it’s never as inventive as some of Pixar’s best work – but this is a charming film with plenty laughs for both the young and the young at heart. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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