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

October 28, 2016

Love hurts

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:37 pm

October 28, 2016

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Fawad Khan, Lisa Haydon, Imran Abbas, Shah Rukh Khan

Director: Karan Johar

Perhaps it’s fitting that Karan Johar, whose very first film addressed themes of abiding friendship and the pain of unrequited romantic love, should revisit those themes nearly 20 years later, armed with the maturity that comes with time and age. The result, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, is easily Johar’s best film since his widely polarizing extramarital love story Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna from 2006.

Operating well within the comfort of a world that is familiar to him – namely rich, good-looking NRIs disconnected from the trials and tribulations of us normal folk – Johar crafts a surprisingly sensitive, and for the most part genuinely moving drama whose biggest strength is unarguably the terrific performances of its two leads.

Bound by a shared love of cheesy Bollywood songs from the 80s, Londoners Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), a wannabe singer, and Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) become thick friends after an awkward hook-up attempt at a party, and in the wake of their respective breakups with meaningless partners (a scene-stealing Lisa Haydon in his case, a stiff Imran Abbas in hers). His friendship with Alizeh turns quickly into romantic attraction for Ayan, but her deep affection for him remains firmly platonic.

Over two hours and thirty minutes, Johar puts his protagonists through an emotional wringer, testing what’s between them with the appearance of exes (Fawad Khan), new lovers (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), and ultimately an un-vanquishable villain.

In many ways Ae Dil Hai Mushkil evokes the romantic complexities of Yash Chopra’s later films, while echoing the intensity of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar. But it’s got Johar’s stamp all over it, from the witty dialogue exchanged between the principals, the tendency to self-reference the filmmaker’s earlier hits (which can be exhausting sometimes), and his skill at mining laughs from seemingly serious situations.

There is maturity in the new film, a leaning towards the real and the relatable that has evaded some of the director’s previous films. Sure characters and spaces still look like they’re straight out of a fashion glossy, and the pressure on aesthetics is almost overwhelming. But this is Johar’s cinema, and while much has evolved and improved over the years, there is a lot that feels comfortably familiar. Music has always been integral to the director’s films, and Pritam contributes a bunch of winning tracks that are skillfully woven into the narrative.

The key to engaging with the film, however, is investing in its characters. Sporting a straight-off-the-runway look Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, although saddled with clunky lines in the role of an Urdu poet, leaves a lasting impression in her limited screen time. In one particular scene, a teary confrontation, she conveys volumes with minimal lines.

Anushka Sharma, playing a tricky part that could easily come off as selfish, grounds the character in sheer practicality, and does some of her best work here. It’s Ranbir Kapoor, though, who walks away with top honors, delivering a performance that doesn’t miss a beat. From comical to heartbroken to confused, his face is a canvas of complex emotions, and he makes his every moment on screen count. It’s an excellent return to form for the actor who’d been all but written off after a spate of failures recently.

Despite the occasionally mawkish undertones and the blatant attempt at emotional manipulation in its final act, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil gives you a hero that makes you care. I suspect you’ll be a slobbering mess at the end of the film, a puddle of tears when the lights come back on. Johar knows how to do that. It’s a skill that’s stayed with him even if his grammar has changed.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. Prepare yourself for a good cry.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Taken over…and over

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

October 28, 2016

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Erika Kaar, Abigail Eames, Sayyesha Saigal, Vir Das, Girish Karnad, Saurabh Shukla

Director: Ajay Devgan

Ajay Devgan’s Shivaay is basically Taken with a big helping of melodrama, and a lot of talking. A LOT of talking. Way too much talking.

Action films don’t usually have room for much dialogue. The fists or the bullets do most of the talking. But Shivaay isn’t merely content with being an action movie. It wants to tell the emotional story of the bond between a single parent and his child, it takes a half-hearted stab at addressing the murky business of international child trafficking, and at its core it’s intended as a showcase, a reminder if you please, of the charm and the appeal of its tough-guy leading man with the brooding eyes.

That’s too many agendas attached to a single film, and as a result Shivaay unfolds over a butt-numbing 2 hours and 52 minutes. Frankly, that’s as much time it would take to watch Liam Neeson rescue his daughter in the first Taken, and then his wife in Taken 2 – those are both roughly 90-minute films.

But jokes aside, the length wouldn’t be such a problem if the film itself wasn’t so derivative and boring. Yes, some of the action is pretty impressive – dizzying car chases shot with hand-held cameras, and visceral free range fights – but it’s all in service of a plot that’s entirely predictable and seldom compelling.

Ajay Devgan, who has also directed the film, plays Shivaay, a desperate father who must literally scale mountains to rescue his mute eight-year-old daughter when she’s kidnapped on a trip they take to Bulgaria.

That simple but potentially promising premise is buried under so much idiotic backstory involving Devgan’s character and the little girl’s mother, you can’t decide whether to laugh or to cringe. By way of indulgences, there are supporting characters who are rewarded with way more screen-time than they deserve. (A bathtub song for the young lady at the embassy who helps our hero track his daughter???) And then there are absolutely unnecessary characters that serve no purpose whatsoever. (Yes, Girish Karnad, I’m looking at you!)

Shivaay himself is a curious fella: a daredevil thrill-seeker who leaps off cliffs and mountains, routinely refers to himself in the third person, and appears to talk only in punchlines. Despite the shallow writing, Devgan infuses the character with genuine humanity and makes his pain at being separated from his child fully palpable. He’s equally convincing in ‘superhero’ mode, flying into a mad rage when provoked, landing punches and kicks at the speed of lightning, even driving without foot on pedal, and surviving both bullets and stabbings.

What Ajay Devgan the star deserved, was a sharper director and a better script. In the end, there’s little else to Shivaay than the eye-watering locations (both in the Himalayas and in Bulgaria), and occasionally poignant moments between Devgan and the little girl who plays his daughter. Everything else is noise. Way too much noise.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

October 21, 2016

Out of reach

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

October 21, 2016

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Robert Knepper

Director: Edward Zwick

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is both the title of the new Tom Cruise film, and could also work as the punchline for this review. Because frankly it’s an underwhelming action movie that lacks the suspense and the high-adrenalin thrills that have come to characterize the Top Gun star’s favorite genre.

Cruise plays a former military policeman-turned-vigilante who’s off the grid but tends to show up when he smells trouble and lets his fists fly. It’s a role he reprises from the moderately successful 2012 film “Jack Reacher”, which was based on a Lee Child novel. In this film, also adapted from one of the books in the author’s series, our titular protagonist is determined to clear the name of his longtime military contact.

No sooner has Reacher shown up for a potentially romantic dinner with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), than he learns she’s been framed for espionage and imprisoned. Of course he kicks and punches a bunch of people while breaking her out of prison, and then they’re on the run. But not before they pick up Samantha (Danika Yarosh), a 15-year-old girl who may or may not be Reacher’s long-lost daughter, and is thus a target for the same bad guys who’re on their tail.

It’s a serviceable plot at best, but the action is nothing to write home about. In the previous film, Christopher McQuarrie staged some memorably brutal fight sequences, but “Last Samurai” helmer Edward Zwick, who’s on directing duties here, brings such a generic, anonymous style to the fights and chases that very little of it leaves an impression. Even the villains here are your stock bad guys; sneering assassins and military bigwigs with none of the menace that Werner Herzog brought to the last film.

Cobie Smulders is beautiful, but she has virtually no chemistry with Cruise. Good thing she’s more than just the romantic interest here, playing a woman as tough and self-reliant as Reacher.

Cruise meanwhile, his signature hundred-watt smile replaced by gritted teeth during most of the film, is as earnest as you expect him to be, dutifully going through the paces. There are stray moments in the film that remind you just why he’s still such a magnetic movie star, but this film does little to add to his wattage.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

October 14, 2016

Dante’s cheek!

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

October 14, 2016

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones

Director: Ron Howard

Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, the third film based on the Dan Brown novels, once again relies on the credibility of its leading man, Tom Hanks, to make up for its occasionally puzzling and frankly preposterous plot. It’s a handsomely mounted film with intriguing twists, but even Hanks probably can’t help rolling his eyes at all the script contrivances.

When a tech billionaire (Ben Foster) obsessed with over-population kills himself after creating a plague to drastically reduce humanity’s numbers, someone’s got to find the virus and save the world. Our trusted Harvard professor and internationally renowned symbologist Dr Robert Langdon (Hanks) is pretty beat, having survived a wound to his head and currently suffering from temporary amnesia. Still, with some help from a pretty English doctor (Felicity Jones), Langdon dashes around Florence, Venice, and Istanbul, using clues from Dante’s epic poem and various works of sixteenth century art to decipher the location of the deadly virus, while simultaneously being pursued by all manner of suspicious elements.

This is essentially pitched as the brainy version of a James Bond or Jason Bourne film, but to be fair, Inferno is more accessible and packs more thrills than The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. A clutch of wrong choices, however, derails the film’s breathless pace, particularly a forced romantic track between Langdon and a World Health Organisation director (Sidse Babett Knudsen).

Langdon himself emerges an increasingly stiff protagonist, although Hanks’ everyman charm rescues the character from sinking into an abyss of complete dullness, particularly in a scenario where he doesn’t have access to his most valuable weapon: his fast-thinking brain, which is compromised from the amnesia and the disturbing visions he’s consumed by. Thank god for Irrfan Khan though. The Lunchbox star, cast as the head of a shady consulting group, is the only one here who appears to be having any fun at all, delivering cheeky lines with a straight face and generally disrupting everyone’s best laid plans. Irrfan stands out from among a sizeable ensemble cast, and is one of the best things in this average film.

There’s a lot of running around ancient historic landmarks and the illusion of urgency. But the big problem with Inferno is that it never really creates a palpable sense of danger despite all the chases and gunshots. You know Langdon will crack the mystery in time, and you know everything will turn out just fine. But it never keeps you at the edge of your seat, worried that he’s cutting it too close.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Inferno. It unfolds at a crisp two hours, and despite its shortcomings there’s enough to enjoy. You might want to give it a chance.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

The lives of others

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

October 14, 2016

Cast: Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Hayley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Alison Janney, Lisa Kudrow

Director: Tate Taylor

The Girl on the Train, adapted from the runaway bestseller by Paula Hawkins, is a reasonably gripping suspense thriller that never quite hits the high notes of 2014’s Gone Girl, to which it will inevitably be compared. That film, based on the book by Gillian Flynn, benefitted enormously from the moody, ominous tone set by David Fincher and his signature creepy atmospherics. This one must settle for The Help director Tate Taylor’s faithful but frankly unremarkable approach.

Emily Blunt plays Rachel, the lonely alcoholic ‘girl’ from the film’s title whose life has spiralled out of control since her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), whom she still calls and stalks repeatedly, much to annoyance of his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). While commuting every day from the suburbs to New York’s Grand Central, she stares wistfully at the home she once shared with Tom, and into the home of another seemingly perfect couple whose lives she has become obsessed with.

So when she spots Megan (Hayley Bennett), the beautiful young woman of that house, kissing a man who is not her husband, Rachel takes the betrayal personally. Blind with booze-fuelled rage, she decides to confront her, only to wake up the next day, bloodied and bruised, and to the news that Megan has gone missing. As desperate as she is to know what happened, Rachel also begins to suspect herself, afraid that one of her drunken blackouts may have gone worse than usual.

Director Tate Taylor’s strictly functional treatment is a far cry from the tense stylings of Fincher’s direction, but he successfully translates the novel’s fiendish twists and its intertwining plotlines to recreate that compelling narrative on screen. Sift through the red herrings, though, and it’s not hard – for those like me who haven’t read the book – to solve the mystery at its core.

It’s a good thing then that the film is held together by a remarkable, albeit harrowing performance from Blunt, who is never afraid to plumb the depths of Rachel’s misery and degradation. The other actors are in good form too, particularly Bennett as the doomed Megan, Luke Evans as her husband Scott, and Alison Janney as the officer conducting the investigation.

Violent, dark, and never easy to watch, The Girl on the Train puts its women through the wringer, and leaves you to negotiate its deceptive, unreliable narrators and time jumps. It’s not a perfect movie but a very watchable one. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

October 7, 2016

She’s got the moves!

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

October 07, 2016

Cast: Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo

Director: Mira Nair

Roughly 15 minutes into Mira Nair’s new film Queen of Katwe, and your defenses are down. Good luck trying to resist the charms of this uplifting true-life drama.

A young girl from the slums in Uganda discovers that she’s a chess prodigy, and with help from her coach she pursues her dream of becoming a champion and moving her family out of abject poverty.

Sports films tend to stick to a predictable template, and this one too follows the beats of many an inspirational underdog story. But it’s also an unusually affecting film that transcends the familiar formula.

For one, Nair’s depiction of African culture is rich and captivating. Katwe, the sprawling slum outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a rough neighborhood, but Nair makes the most out of the locations with plenty of vibrant colors. She also does a great job of bringing out the best in her cast.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona Mutesi, the nine-year-old protagonist and future chess champion, whom we first meet selling maize in the street to help support her family. Nalwanga, whom Nair discovered near Katwe, effortlessly conveys both the character’s shyness and determination, her wide-eyed fascination when she first stumbles onto the game, and even her crushing disappointment on the occasions when she realizes she has a long way to achieve her dream.

As her widowed mother Harriet, unwilling to let go of her pride while all along struggling to provide for her children, Lupita Nyong’o is nothing short of a revelation, capable of expressing multiple complex emotions with a single glance. Afraid initially that Phiona may be setting herself up for heartbreak in chasing a dream that’s out of her reach, Harriet is suspicious and dismissive, and Nyong’o conveys a mother’s protective instinct most naturally. Then there’s David Oyelowo, who infuses warmth and kindness and empathy into the role of Robert Katende, a soccer player turned missionary who sets up a chess club, notices Phiona’s talent, and grooms her for international tournaments. In the hands of less competent actors, the inspiring coach and the stubborn mother might have been reduced to stock caricatures, but Oyelowo and Nyong’o never let that happen.

There is humor in the interactions between Katende’s ragtag group of chess prodigies who travel around Africa and to Russia. And there are several metaphors about how the strategies of chess apply to life itself. To her credit, Nair never shies away from showing the hardships of poverty, homelessness, and a lack of food and education. The film is stronger, and its message clearer because of that.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Queen of Katwe. The blatant sports-movie clichés aside, this is a genuinely moving film with winning performances.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Love’s labour lost

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:33 pm

October 07, 2016

Cast: Harshvardhan Kapoor, Saiyami Kher, Anuj Choudhry, Anjali Patil, Art Malick, KK Raina, Om Puri

Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

There’s a lot to admire in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya, but coherent narrative and compelling characters are not among its strengths.

Based on the Punjabi folk tale of Mirza-Sahiba, the film, written by Gulzar, cuts between two timelines – the now, and the who-knows-where-and-when. In both timelines, newcomers Harshvardhan Kapoor and Saiyami Kher play the star-crossed lovers.

The track rooted in an unspecified Game of Thrones-style setting sees a scruffy warrior win some sort of archery competition against armor-clad horsemen, and make off with a visibly impressed princess. Unfolding largely in slow motion and without a single line of dialogue, this scenario ends tragically. Sticking faithfully to the original folklore, it prompts the question – why did she betray him?

The other track, which places the same story within the context of modern day Rajasthan, features a pair of 12-year-old sweethearts named Monish and Suchitra who’re separated when he flees the city after committing a heinous crime. Years later their love is tested again when she discovers he’s been working as a stable-boy at the estate of her fiancé, a prince (Anuj Choudhry).

Mehra, who blurred the lines between past and present so skillfully in Rang De Basanti, has trouble pulling off the same tropes in Mirzya. The story doesn’t sit convincingly in the present day portions, and key triggers come off looking contrived.

For a film inspired by a legendary romance, it’s a shame the lovers in Mirzya can’t quite set the screen on fire. Both Harshvardhan and Saiyami have potential individually, but they fail to muster up the passion required for the kind of timeless love story that this film so desperately wants to be.

There’s more heat between the dancers in the sensuously choreographed song sequences that pop up in the film at regular intervals. These highly stylized ‘music videos’, set to meaningful lyrics by Gulzar, and glorious folksy tunes by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, give Mirzya the feel of a true-blue musical.

The other highlight of the film is Polish cinematographer Pawel Dyllus’ exquisite lensing of both the stark Ladakh landscapes against which the fantasy track unfolds, and the breathtaking expanses of Rajasthan deserts and palaces amidst which the other track unravels.

Of the cast, British actor Art Malik, playing Suchitra’s police officer father, is a real hoot particularly in one hammy scene that’ll leave you chuckling uncontrollably. The beautiful Saiyami Kher has a striking presence on screen, and Harshvardhan Kapoor uses his piercing eyes to convey intensity. In the histrionics department, however, both are evidently raw.

In the end Mirzya is a misfire, despite its staggering ambition and its remarkable technical achievements. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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