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

December 23, 2016

Benefit of bout

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

December 23, 2016

Cast: Aamir Khan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Sakshi Tanwar, Zaira Wasim, Suhani Bhatnagar, Girish Kulkarni, Ritwik Sahore, Aparshakti Khurrana

Director: Nitesh Tiwari

A national level wrestler forced to forego his dream becomes obsessed with training his daughters to accomplish what he couldn’t – winning gold for the country.

Dangal is a fine film that works on two levels. It’s the kind of inspiring sports movie that gainfully employs all the tropes of the genre to deliver a rousing experience for the viewer. It also makes a strong feminist statement about girls being just as good as boys (if not better) in what has traditionally been the stomping ground of men.

That predominantly male bastion extends not only to the contact sport in question, but also to Haryana where this true story is set; a culture so steeped in patriarchy that neighbors volunteer helpful tips towards producing a male heir to parents who’ve birthed multiple daughters.

The film is interested in the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, former wrestler and father of four girls from a small village named Belali, who coached his eldest daughters Geeta and Babita towards triumph on the world stage. Aamir Khan, grizzled, potbellied, and seldom cracking a smile, practically disappears into the character of Mahavir, a hard taskmaster who puts the girls through the wringer, ignoring their protests and those of his wife.

Mahavir is in equal parts determined and unmistakably selfish, practically robbing the girls of their childhood, denying them normal pleasures in his obsession with discipline and his quest for excellence. It’s a tricky area to explore and a braver film might have gone down that road, but given that this is practically a biopic, the script steers clear of raising uncomfortable questions. What we get is one line, late in the film, where Mahavir acknowledges that the only fault of his daughters is that their father is a madman.

Co-written and directed by Nitesh Tiwari, Dangal scores big on authenticity. The rigorous training the girls are put through, the sniggering from a chauvinistic society, the clashes with sports authorities, and the thrilling, nail-biting bouts all ring true without a hint of artifice. There are layers too, if you seek them. One of the best bits in the film is a scene in which Mahavir and Geeta wrestle. On the face of it, it’s just that – father vs daughter. But simmering beneath the surface is so much more.

It’s these layers, tucked away but easily sought, that separate Dangal from your standard sports movie. The script digs deep to give us genuinely affecting moments like Geeta’s discovery of her own feminity, and her first brush with boys outside the akhada, not to mention her sheer amazement over the effect a romantic Hindi film can have on a hostelful of girls.

Very often I find my fellow critics say when they’ve loved a film immensely that they’re willing to overlook its occasional bumps. I am too, but I’ve discovered that with near-perfect films, the smallest flaws stick out like a sore thumb and nag me endlessly. The same is true here. I couldn’t get over the shoddy characterization of the National Sports Academy coach (played by a grossly underutilized Girish Kulkarni) who is portrayed as a one-note villain. I also couldn’t for the life of me buy into a twist in the film’s final act which came off as completely unconvincing. And don’t even get me started about the shrewd manner in which they tug – no wait, milk – our patriotic sentiments by throwing in the National Anthem in the end.

But frankly, Dangal succeeds despite these missteps, and a big reason for that are the performances. Tiwari, who previously co-directed Chillar Party and helmed Bhootnath Returns, once again draws winning, spirited performances from his younger actors, in this case from Suhani Bhatnagar and particularly Zaira Wasim who play the younger incarnations of Babita and Geeta respectively.

A word here also for Ritwik Sahore who plays their cousin Omkar, and the source of much amusement in the film, courtesy his role as a reluctant sparring partner for the girls in their growing up years. Aparshakti Khurrana plays the older Omkar, and he’s terrific too, bringing humor in unlikely places.

Sakshi Tanwar as Mahavir’s wife, and Sanya Malhotra as the older Babita are well cast and look their parts to the T. A chunk of the heavy lifting is taken care of by Fatima Sana Shaikh, who plays the older Geeta with just the right balance of youthful innocence and steely grit. Your heart goes out to Geeta, and her conflict is entirely palpable when she must choose what approach to take when she reaches the Commonwealth Games.

But at the heart of the film is an incredible performance by Aamir Khan, who doesn’t just play Mahavir he becomes him. There isn’t a hint of vanity in Aamir’s portrayal of this overweight, ageing man, and you understand what drives him and you forgive him his methods. Underneath the tough exterior, Aamir imbues Mahavir with a tenderness that occasionally slips through.

Dangal is not a perfect film, but then few films are. It’s overlong at 2 hours and 41 minutes, and it’s both simple and simplistic in places. But it’s a solid and satisfying watch, a well crafted look at what went into the creation of two sporting champions. It’s a film that makes the heart swell…when it isn’t pounding from all the excitement of the bouts. I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 17, 2016

Force entry

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:08 am

December 16, 2016

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen

Director: Gareth Edwards

I made it a point not to read a single review before I went in to watch Rogue One this week. I wish you would do the same and mute my voice right about now.

I’m only joking. I’m not going to tell you anything that could be a spoiler.

What I will tell you is this. Die hard fans will be happy to note that Rogue One – which owes its premise to a single line from the opening crawl of the original 1977Star Wars – is a rip-roaring, do-or-die adventure in the best tradition of the space-age saga. In this film, directed by Gareth Edwards, a band of Rebel spies led by Felicity Jones’ character Jyn Erso, conspires to steal the plans of the Death Star, that devastating planet-destroying weapon invented by the evil Galactic Empire.

Jyn’s comrades on this mission include swashbuckling rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), renegade pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and a droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) who gets the film’s best lines.

Rogue One often feels like a gritty war movie, or a Western in the tradition of The Magnificent Seven. The group’s dynamic – how they unite, bond, and head into action – forms the bulk of the story, and the fact that most of the characters are new and unfamiliar to us brings a fresh perspective to the Star Wars universe.

We get the excellent Ben Mendelsohn as the villain of the piece, Orson Krennic, the Director of Advanced Weapons Research, although, as you probably know by now, a number of eerily familiar faces also appear in unbilled cameos.

That’s about all I can tell you as far as plot and characters go without spoiling the fun, which by the way, there is plenty of. But the action-packed thrills are balanced by more thoughtful moments and a big beating heart at the center.

Ultimately, and like the rest of the Star Wars films, its success is directly proportionate to how invested you are in its characters. Felicity Jones is a compelling heroine, and it’s hard not to root for the fighter monk. Rogue One links nicely to A New Hope, and climaxes in an extended battle sequence that is every bit as wrenching as Saving Private Ryan.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Rogue One. The Force is strong with this one. A very respectable Star Wars story.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Hitting the high notes

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 1:53 am

December 16, 2016

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt

Director: Damien Chazelle

La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a dreamy kind of musical. A gorgeous swirl of color and sound; a film so unmistakably buoyant it leaves you feeling like you’re walking on air yourself.

Because the only other thing I love as much as movies is food, I’ll offer an analogy. Think of it as a raspberry flavored meringue – light and airy, and with a sweet, lasting aftertaste.

I hope I’ve been able to tempt you into making time for the film, because you should. It’s one of those rare movies that evoke the nostalgia of classic Hollywood musicals from the 50s and 60s, while still reflecting an audacious and blazingly original vision.

Not surprising given that it’s the brainchild of the very talented writer-director Damien Chazelle, who made a terrific debut with Whiplash two years ago. As it turns out, both films couldn’t be more dissimilar. Whiplash was in equal parts a thrilling and wounding drama that masterfully put a sting on the traditional student-mentor template. La La Land is like a soothing balm to help us get by in these cynical times.

It has an infectious energy, and it grabs you from the moment in, with a spectacular all-singing all-dancing opening sequence staged in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. You’ll have a big silly grin plastered on your face as you watch passengers and drivers do backflips on the pavement and break into song from the rooftops of their cars.

Within moments we’re introduced to the protagonists. Emma Stone is Mia, a waitress in a coffee shop on a studio lot, but really an aspiring actress enduring the repeated humiliation of futile auditions. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a brooding pianist and jazz purist reduced to performing showtunes and carols at restaurants, although he dreams of running his own nightclub.

The film follows them as they meet, argue, flirt, and fall in love. Their romance blossoms through disappointments and small victories, and unfolds against a breathtaking fairytale version of Los Angeles. La La Land is as much a love letter to the city of angels, and we get beautiful moments that are hard to shake off. Like an impromptu Singin’ in the Rain-style duet while searching for their cars after a party in the Hollywood Hills, and a flight to the stars (literally!) while visiting Griffith Observatory.

Gosling and Stone have excellent chemistry together, and they have credible singing and dancing skills. There are plenty of straightforward, dramatic scenes too, especially in the film’s latter half when their relationship hits rocky waters. It’s in these portions that La La Land tends to drag.

But that’s a minor issue in an otherwise enchanting and wondrous film that restores your faith in the power of cinema. Stunning both to look at and listen to, this is a charming film that makes you laugh, weep, and want to bring out your dancing shoes when the characters do. I’m going with four-and-a-half out of five. Don’t miss it at any cost.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 9, 2016

Kiss & sell

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

December 09, 2016

Cast: Ranveer Singh, Vaani Kapoor, Armaan Ralhan

Director: Aditya Chopra

Leaving the cinema at the end of Befikre, having spent two hours and ten minutes in the company of its shallow protagonists, I felt exhausted. Just flat out drained watching how much of an effort the film makes to appear effortless. How hard it tries to give the impression that it’s not trying at all.

Bollywood doesn’t do romantic comedies very well. What starts out light and frothy inevitably ends up in mawkish melodrama. Mercifully, writer-director Aditya Chopra avoids these traps, keeping the film’s tone consistently breezy and seldom seguing into rona dhona. Delhi boy Dharam (Ranveer Singh) and Paris-born Shyra (Vaani Kapoor) haven’t even known each a few hours before they’re swapping saliva and slipping between the sheets. But not for one moment does their shared chemistry burn up the screen. For all the kiss-kiss-wham-bam, the sparks are missing.

It’s been 12 years since the iconic sitcom Friends winded up, and god knows many of us are addicted to its reruns. But Chopra appears to suffer from an unhealthy obsession with the show, lifting scenarios and modeling his leads after those characters. In his very opening scene, he borrows from that famous break up between Ross and Rachel where he demands his shirt back from her.

But Dharam’s standup comic character is actually inspired by Joey from the sitcom – the stag who hits on every woman, and doesn’t believe in commitment. On the surface, tour guide Shyra seems tailor-made for him – she isn’t looking for a relationship, is always up for a dare, and the two decide early on that they’ll never say “I love you” to each other.

The pair lives it up in Paris, singing, dancing, wolfing down waffles and beer until they do fall in love. The problem is that the script doesn’t quite know what to do with them. They flit from one scenario to the next – French kissing endlessly, going through a breakup, becoming friends a year after the split, going on double dates, getting engaged to other people in a very Love Aaj Kal kind of way. But none of this ever seems to touch us. Dharam and Shyra just come across as fake.

What’s even more tiring is that the two strip down at the drop of a hat – to their underwear, to g-string bikins, to wrapped-up bedsheets, and in Ranveer’s case, even going bare bottom in one scene. They also must be the world’s most nimble-footed standup comic and tour guide – they hip-hop, tango, salsa and waltz like they’re competing in the finals of So You Think You Can Dance.

The typical Yashraj tropes are all here – eye-watering foreign locations, a conversation that links parathas to following your heart, Punjabi parents who watch benevolently, a Bollywood karaoke session, and yes, self-referencing the studio’s films endlessly. Just one moment in all this seems clever – when Shyra turns the palat scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on its head.

The rest of Befikre is sheer silliness, especially an Anees Bazmee-style climax scramble in a church. Vishal-Shekhar’s infectious tunes and the glossy cinematography are easy on the ear and the eye, but the film ultimately wears you out.

Ranveer Singh does everything he can to elevate the material with his unputdownable energy, at times running the risk of overdoing it. Vaani Kapoor (who might want to have a word with the cameraman for shooting her most unflatteringly) goes for spunky but it’s hit and miss.

What the film lacks is genuine feeling. Yes, even the frothiest of rom-coms need something real to keep you invested in its characters. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for Befikre. Aditya Chopra may have made one of Hindi cinema’s most enduring love stories, but this is a soufflé that sinks like a stone.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 2, 2016

Into the dark

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:10 pm

December 02, 2016

Cast: Vidya Balan, Arjun Rampal, Jugal Hansraj, Amba Sanyal, Kharaj Mukherjee, Naisha Khanna, Manini Chadha

Director: Sujoy Ghosh

Kahaani 2 opens on a chilling note when a woman, played by Vidya Balan, slips into a coma after being knocked down by a taxi while rushing to save her crippled daughter who has been kidnapped.

Less than ten minutes in, the film has got you by the nuts.

Directed by Sujoy Ghosh, who is making a habit of throwing Balan in front of speeding vehicles, Kahaani 2 is an entirely different film from 2012’s Kahaani, although it shares with that film its leading lady, a West Bengal setting, and a strong sense of atmospherics.

Balan plays Vidya Sinha, a middle-aged single mother living with her daughter Mini in Chandannagar, a small town on the outskirts of Kolkata. When sub inspector Inderjeet Singh (Arjun Rampal) begins investigating her accident, he chances upon her conveniently detailed diary, which provides a window into her life before arriving in Chandannagar. A time when she went by the name Durga Rani Singh.

Ghosh and co-writer Suresh Nair raise the stakes by giving us a story at whose heart resides complete and abject darkness. This is cold, creepy, uncomfortable material, and the makers navigate it both skillfully and with sensitivity. They deserve credit also for casting against type, particularly in the case of Jugal Hansraj and Amba Sanyal who have key supporting roles. Arjun Rampal is in very good form as a world-weary, laconic cop and he summons up a nicely internalized performance.

The first hour of Kahaani 2 moves briskly to reveal a Pandora’s box of secrets and lies. Cutting deftly between the past and the present, the breathless pace of the screenplay never lets up. Post-intermission, however, the warts begin to show. The writing becomes sloppy, and the contrivances pile up. Repeatedly you find yourself asking: “Is that really what this character would do?” The twists too can be spotted from a distance, and an attempt to deliver a Bob Biswas-type unlikely assassin fails completely.

But even as the film hobbles, its leading lady continues to take giant strides. Balan is first rate in a fully fleshed out role, offering a performance completely free of vanity, and full of genuine feeling. She powers Kahaani 2, glossing over its rough edges.

Despite its bumps, the film is seldom boring, but it’s hard not to mourn for what could have been. Kahaani 2 starts out with so much promise but peters out before the end. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for the film and an additional half star for Vidya Balan’s knockout performance, which makes it three out of five for Kahaani 2. There’s a lot to like here, but consistency isn’t one of its strengths.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

One for our times

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:03 pm

December 02, 2016

Cast: Voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Tudyk, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger

Directors: Ron Clements & John Musker

Between a dumb rooster, a treasure-hoarding crab, and the magical tattoos on a beefy demigod’s chest, it’s interesting that the scene-stealers in Disney’s latest animation adventure Moana all happen to be non-human. Which is not to say that the human characters are dull.

For one, the feisty 16-year-old protagonist of the film (voiced by newcomer Auli’I Cravalho) is a refreshing upgrade on Disney’s classic princesses who tend to have little ambition beyond finding a man to love. Although directed by old hands Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind enduring hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Moana owes more by way of DNA to 2010’s Tangled, about a rebellious Rapunzel, and of course Frozen, which turned girl power into box-office gold.

Set in the far-flung Polynesian islands, the film follows Moana, a teenager who has always felt a strong connection to the ocean, but is forbidden from venturing beyond the shore. When plants on her island begin to wither and food becomes scarce, Moana, takes matters into her own hands and sets sail in search of muscled demigod Maui, who must return an ancient jewel to its rightful place and thereby save her home.

The story is a fairly simple oceanic quest that really lifts off when Moana encounters – and proceeds to bicker incessantly with – the vain, arrogant Maui. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson who’s in great comic form, his beefy demigod gets some of the best lines. His animated tattoos are among the film’s visual highlights, as are the gorgeous blue waters that get considerable screen time.

There are a bunch of catchy numbers that emphasize the film’s themes of self-confidence and bravery, and Cravalho really has a great singing voice. But there’s nothing on this soundtrack that’s as infectious as Let it Go, that anthem from Frozen.

We don’t exactly get the most formidable villain in the smoldering lava giant whom Moana must go up against later in the film, but the makers throw up entertaining distractions in the form of Heihei, our heroine’s feathered sidekick, and a giant crab who belts out a song about shiny material pleasures.

Although it possesses many of the hallmarks of a classic Disney adventure, the film’s real achievement is in delivering a heroine for our times – smart, brave, independent, opinionated, and one who doesn’t need a romantic interest to feel complete. In doing that, it succeeds where so many other films spectacularly fail.

I’m going with three out of five for Moana. It’s worth your time.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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