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

March 31, 2017

Spy (not so) hard!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:32 pm

March 31, 2017

Cast: Tapsee Pannu, Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpai, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa

Director: Shivam Nair

Although she showed up only for a brief cameo, most notably facing off against a terrorist in a Kathmandu hotel room, Tapsee Pannu’s ass-kicking special agent Shabana Khan was easily one of the best things in the Akshay Kumar starrer Baby. The prospect of revisiting that character in a film that puts her front and centre of its story is an appealing one no doubt. But as it turns out Naam Shabana – never mind how you describe it; as a prequel, a spin-off, or an origin story – is a plodding bore of a film.

It’s a shame because there’s so much potential here. What there isn’t, unfortunately, is an adequately fleshed out plot.

Tapsee returns to play Shabana, a solemn-faced Muslim girl with a dark past. We first meet her as a college student and martial arts enthusiast living with her mother in Mumbai. Since the film is set a few years before the events of Baby, we learn why and under what circumstances she is recruited by a top-secret, off-the-grid intelligence agency that has been tracking her for some time.

The first half of the film moves at a snail’s pace, as writer Neeraj Pandey and director Shivam Nair spend way too much time on set up and backstory. Tapsee is terrific in the action sequences; her kicks and blows feel real. The film is on solid ground when she’s throwing punches, but little else is as compelling.

Midway through the film it becomes your standard espionage thriller about a crack team tasked with pinning down a most-wanted international arms dealer. Shabana, yanked out even before she’s completed training, is embedded in the mission because presumably the agency doesn’t have anyone more experienced or more skilled to do the job. It all makes very little sense.

But looking for logic or common sense is setting yourself up for disappointment. A big twist involving the identity of the chief bad guy can be spotted from a mile away. And while you can always count on Akshay Kumar to bring some flair, unexpected humor even, to dull proceedings, his presence as a safety net for our more-than-capable protagonist is both puzzling and a little insulting.

The problem at the root of this film is that it literally offers nothing new, other than the idea of a woman who knows her way around a fight. The plot is predictable from the word go, and yet it unfolds over an excruciating two-and-a-half hours. Familiar faces from Baby – Manoj Bajpai, Danny Denzongpa, Anupam Kher – show up to pad out the narrative, and cast in a negative role Malayalam star Prithviraj Sukumaran brings an appropriately menacing presence.

The star attraction though is Tapsee, but strictly when she’s in action-heroine mode, letting her fists and her feet do the talking. Her performance through the rest of the film is strictly one-note.

I’m going with two out of five for Naam Shabana. I’ve seldom been this bored.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Upward climb

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:31 pm

March 31, 2017

Cast: Aditi Inamdar, Rahul Bose, S Mariya, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Heeba Shah, Gyanendra Tripathi, Arif Zakaria

Director: Rahul Bose

There’s not a lot to complain about in Rahul Bose’s moving biopic of Poorna Malavath, a 13-year-old Adivasi from a small village in Telangana who became the youngest girl to summit Mount Everest. It’s an inspiring story of overcoming the odds and finding one’s purpose in order to take on – pun intended – a Himalayan challenge. But admirably, Bose, whose second directorial outing this is, scratches beneath the surface to give us a sense of the real achievement behind the headline.

The film’s best moments are the unguarded ones between cousins Poorna (Aditi Inamdar) and Priya (S Mariya), who’re desperate to escape the lives that have been decided for them. Priya, the less fortunate of the two, is married off while she’s still a child. Poorna somehow manages to make her way to a government-run school where, by sheer chance, she happens to attend a rock-climbing camp. It’s a moment that will change her life forever.

The film ticks all the boxes of a standard sports drama; it’s a bonafide underdog story. There are rousing speeches, training montages, and last-minute conflicts. Yet like so many inspirational films about child protagonists, it’s never cloying or patronizing. It helps that Inamdar has incredible earnestness, and never drains the character of her innocence even in her proudest moments. But not everything is perfect. Bose himself, who takes the role of Poorna’s mentor, IAS officer Praveen Kumar, is saddled with bumper sticker dialogue and offers a performance that comes off as a just a wee bit affected. Meanwhile, the naysaying government officials (Dhritiman Chatterjee and Heeba Shah) stick out like cardboard caricatures.

Poorna’s triumphant ascent to the snowy peak is left to the final moments in the film. Bose chooses silences and quiet interludes over booming background music to highlight these bits, and it’s a wise choice. Because while Mount Everest may be the reward, it’s Poorna’s journey overcoming poverty and patriarchy to find her wings that the film is actually about. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Scenes from a marriage

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:30 pm

March 31, 2017

Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajadhosseini

Director: Asghar Farhadi

There is no black and white in Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s films, and seldom will you find a villain. Much like life itself, the characters in his films are ordinary people, and Farhadi puts them in testing situations, leaving you to watch as small, usually domestic issues build up to massive, life-changing events. If you’ve watched A Separation or About Elly, you would know that ambiguity is key to his stories, and there are no easy pay-offs. What you’re rewarded with in the end is usually an honest, powerful study of complex human emotions.

The Salesman, his latest, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last month, is about a youngish couple whose relationship is put under severe strain in the wake of a traumatic incident.

Opening with a moment that can only be viewed as a metaphor for their own marriage, part-time theatre actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) must quickly move out when cracks begin to appear in their flat as a result of a nearby construction. Not long after, in the apartment they rent out from a friend, Rana is attacked while she’s in the shower.

The specific nature of the attack is never made clear, and like the protagonists, we piece together the jigsaw with the small bits of information that are fed to us sporadically. Like the revelation of the identity of the previous tenant and how that may be connected to the attack on Rana. What we know for sure is that the couple is deeply affected by the incident, although their way of dealing with it couldn’t be more different.

To give away any more about the plot would be to ruin the experience for you so I won’t go into any detail, except to say that what begins as a slow-burning drama that might occasionally make you restless, skillfully turns into a tense thriller. Farhadi explores themes of shame, masculinity, revenge, and forgiveness while sitting back and watching as your loyalties shift between characters.

Emad and Rana are working in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman from which this film get its title, but the thematic parallels are a bit tenuous. The performances are solid, particularly Shahab Hosseini’s excellent portrayal of Emad as a man who gives in to obsession and risks losing everything.

I’m going with four out five for The Salesman. I strongly recommend that you make the time for it. Farhadi is one of the great observers of human nature, and although this film is a bit dry in comparison to his previous gems and not quite the masterpiece that A Separation was, it is nevertheless a compelling, strong piece of work that will leave you pondering the many delicate questions it raises.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 24, 2017

High spirits

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:00 pm

March 24, 2017

Cast: Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh, Suraj Sharma, Mehreen Pirzada

Director: Anshai Lal

A big fat Punjabi wedding is temporarily interrupted by the arrival of a ghost in Phillauri. It’s a promising film that tosses around some ambitious ideas but it’s also weighed down by pacing issues and occasional script contrivances.

Just days before he’s meant to tie the knot with his childhood sweetheart, Canada-returned Kanan (Suraj Sharma) appears to have developed cold feet. Add to that the fact that as a result of performing a precautionary pre-wedding formality, he’s accidentally married a spirit. Anushka Sharma, playing the ghostly apparition, floats around the place visible only to the young man. Naturally all sorts of mayhem ensues.

The film cuts between this track, and the past, in which the ghost’s back-story is revealed. Turns out she has some unfinished business from nearly a hundred years ago. At the time, she was a young woman named Shashi, living not too far from Amritsar in the rural town of Phillaur under the watchful gaze of her strict older brother who had no idea that she wrote poetry or that she had fallen for a reformed lothario and folk singer (Diljit Dosanjh).

Despite some nice moments between Diljit and Anushka and the distinctly earthy songs, this track unfortunately ends up feeling like a slog because it offers little by way of surprise or intrigue. You’d much rather stay in the present day, where Kanan, still being stalked by Shashi’s ghost, and confused about his feelings on getting married, is causing much stress to Anu (Mehreen Pirzada), his pretty bride-to-be, even as the rest of their extended families – particularly a scene-stealing, whisky-loving beeji – try to calm his nerves.

Director Anshai Lal and writer Anvita Dutt mine laughs from the absurdity of the contemporary track, while giving us two interesting female characters who couldn’t be more dissimilar. Although separated by a century, Shashi is feisty, strong-willed, and possesses a flair for the creative. Anu, meanwhile, so blinded by love, reveals nothing by way of spine or self-respect. The film then is centered on the idea that love – or the pursuit of love – is the only honest, enduring emotion even as everything else is susceptible to change.

However, the film is truly and irreparably crippled by its languid pace. At nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, Phillauri is way too long, and just doesn’t have enough plot to merit that running time. The film’s second half is stronger than the first, but ends in a climax that is sure to polarize viewers. I thought it was bold and original, and it worked for me, although I wish the special effects team – which until this point had done a good job – hadn’t gone beserk trying to show off in the film’s final moments.

All four leads put in strong performances, but Suraj Sharma’s flair for physical comedy is a refreshing revelation, and Diljit Dosanjh is impressive, particularly in the intense bits. Anushka Sharma, who’s also produced the film, brings a nice old-world charm to Shashi. She shines both in the dramatic portions and the comedic ones.

Phillauri isn’t a consistently smooth ride. It’s uneven and bumpy and unforgivably slow in portions. But a lot of it works and some of it flies. In a landscape where original ideas are hard to come by, I’m willing to settle for that.

I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 17, 2017

(Home)bound for glory

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:47 pm

March 17, 2017

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Geetanjali Thapa

Director: Vikramaditya Motwane

From his debut in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha, in which he played a misguided shop attendant who makes a sex tape with an unsuspecting young woman and sells it to get out of a debt, to his role as a poor migrant in City Lights who turns to desperate measures to provide a better life for his family, Rajkummar Rao has brought nuance and layers and unmistakable grace to the various iterations of the ‘everyman’ that he has built his career playing. Few actors have revealed such a gift for taking categorically nondescript men and turning them into memorable characters.

Which is why it makes perfect sense that Vikramaditya Motwane chose Rao to play Shaurya, an Average Joe stuck in a flat without food, water, electricity, or a functioning mobile phone. Because watching him go through that ordeal, you know this could happen to anyone.

Trapped is Motwane’s third film, and unlike Udaan and Lootera it’s a stripped-down character piece more reliant on plot and performance over craft. It’s a genre film, a survival drama to be specific, but Motwane and his writers put an interesting spin on things.

Rejecting the classic template wherein these stories are set against isolated, abandoned landscapes – think Cast Away, 127 Hours or Buried – the struggle for survival here unfolds in an apartment in an unfinished high-rise located in the heart of Mumbai’s busy Prabhadevi neighborhood. A big part of the film’s thrill comes from watching Shaurya make multiple, desperate attempts to draw the attention of those going about their lives only a few hundred feet below.

The film then is as much an allegory about the city. A concrete jungle where one is well and truly on one’s own, despite being surrounded by thousands of people at any time.

Rao effectively conveys the multitude of emotions that Shaurya is overcome with, and his transformation under the circumstances is utterly convincing. In purely physical terms, his frame has become gaunt, his ribs are starting to show. But there is more going on here. The transformation is internal too. The desperation has led to fearlessness, the timidity is gone. A furry foe becomes a Wilson-like figure, a companion with whom feelings are shared. Rao keeps it all within the realm of honesty and believability, making the viewer feel as if you’re trapped with him.

Although it’s only 103 minutes in running time, it’s true the film feels long and stretched, as movies of this genre – centered around a single character – usually do. Nail-biting moments, unfortunately, are too few. Yet despite its occasional shortcomings, Trapped is a wholly involving drama that you become quickly invested in. The bulk of the credit for that goes to the film’s incredible leading man who delivers his finest work here.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 10, 2017

Ladies first

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:24 pm

March 10, 2017

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Sahil Vaid, Rituraj Singh, Shweta Basu Prasad, Aparshakti Khurrana, Gauhar Khan

Director: Shashank Khaitan

Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt’s last film together Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania was powered by their incredible, crackling chemistry. It was a sweet film at best, a decidedly desi, middle-class take on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge set in the Indian heartland. A familiar tale of young love and parental opposition, but elevated by the sheer likability of its two leads and the fact that they played off each other so well.

Which is why it’s surprising that their new film Badrinath Ki Dulhania keeps them apart for a chunk of its running time.

Badri (Varun) is a young fella from Jhansi, a lovable simpleton who wears his heart on his sleeve. He falls hard for Vaidehi (Alia), a spunky girl from Kota whom he meets at a wedding and to whom he promptly proposes marriage. But she’s got big career ambitions, and laughs in the face of his tenth-pass qualifications. She has no interest in marriage.

Badri pursues her relentlessly, and because Vaidehi is amused – although still not interested – we’re meant to regard this stalking as cute. Subsequently through a series of conceits, the film separates these protagonists, and the bits where they’re not together are a real drag. The film’s second half is less surefooted than the first, particularly when the plot moves to Singapore and the writing loses its bite. There are multiple scenes here that feel pointless and puzzling. Chief among these is a scene in which Badri is accosted by a gang of masked men, presumably gay, who feel him up and rip his shirt in passion.

Writer-director Shashank Khaitan evidently bites off more than he can chew. Badrinath Ki Dulhania isn’t merely interested in being a breezy rom-com. Admirably, it’s also a critique on the dowry system, and makes a strong case for a woman’s right to choose career over marriage. Unfortunately some of this is communicated in a tone that’s too heavy-handed, and as a result you’re easily bored.

The film’s supporting cast is very good, particularly Sahil Vaid as Badri’s best friend Somdev, but it’s the leads who’re left to carry the film. Despite being saddled with a character who doesn’t always behave responsibly, Alia imbues Vaidehi with honesty and vulnerability that makes it hard to hold a grudge against her. It’s Varun, however, who gets the complete arc, going from an entitled young man to one who understands and appreciates women. He plays the part with the just the right goofiness and innocence, and wins you over completely.

Badrinath Ki Dulhania has its heart in the right place, but its writing is often clumsy. There is a lot to appreciate here, but it’s also overlong and made me restless. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Monkey business

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 7:40 pm

March 10, 2017

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, John C Reilly, Toby Kebbell

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Making sure not to repeat the mistakes of 2014’s largely underwhelming Godzilla reboot, the makers of Kong: Skull Island waste little time in introducing the viewer to their hulking star attraction.

The year is 1973, and there’s an expedition out to explore a mysterious island in the South Pacific, recently discovered by satellite. Just moments after showing up, this fleet of military choppers ferrying a team of scientists and soldiers begins dropping bombs to map the terrain and immediately come face-to-fist with the big, hairy ape who is not pleased about the intrusion.

As far as plot and characters go, Kong: Skull Island breaks very little new ground and hardly makes a compelling case for why we needed yet another King Kong origin story. Frankly the film’s big themes – man’s tendency to destroy what he doesn’t understand, and the revenge of Mother Nature – feel overused and over-familiar. Worse still, some genuinely talented actors are completely underutilized. But then you turn to the 100-foot tall beast on the screen, and the answer is staring you in the face.

Visual effects and CGI are much more advanced today than they were even a decade or so ago when Peter Jackson’s thrilling but bloated King Kong movie came out. Which means we get the most realistic and lifelike version of the skyscraper-sized primate, and his sheer size and anger evokes genuine fear in the comparatively matchstick-tall human characters. As it turns out, he’s not even the scariest creature on Skull Island.

The film is most robust when it’s focused on Kong, or on the giant critters that our explorers encounter along the way. In many ways this is a good old-fashioned monster movie whose finest moments are the ones in which the beasts engage in deadly, jaw-dropping duels.

The humans, sadly, are no match for them. Tom Hiddleston, in action-hero mode is completely bland, and it’s a mystery why Brie Larson would follow up her Oscar-winning turn in Room for a thankless role here as an anti-war photographer. There’s none of that classic sexual tension between woman and ape either. Meanwhile, Samuel L Jackson’s war-hardened chopper commander is a clever nod to Colonel Kurtz in a film that’s packed with Apocalypse Now references and imagery. But it’s only John C Reilly who manages to squeeze in a few laughs as a crazy World War II castaway living among the natives.

Kong: Skull Island is handsomely mounted, but it hits its stride when it sticks with the action. Every kind of creature steps up to take a swipe at Kong, and those are the most thrilling bits in the film. Stay on the till the end-credits for an easter egg scene which reveals how this film links to a larger ‘monsterverse’ planned ahead.

I’m going with three out of five. It’s a rumble in the jungle out there, and you won’t be bored.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 3, 2017


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:34 pm

March 03, 2017

Cast: Vidyut Jammval, Adah Sharma, Esha Gupta, Freddy Daruwala, Shefali Shah, Adil Hussain

Director: Deven Bhojani

Commando 2 is the kind of movie where we’re introduced to the hero with a close-up of his bulging bicep, even before we see his face. Vidyut Jammval is the impressive action star in this thriller, but for all the kicks, the back flips, the sliding through tiny spaces in the nick of time, and the slow-motion flying-in-the-air stunts, this film lacks punch. It takes superhuman strength to stop yourself from nodding off to sleep, because Commando 2 just goes round and round in convoluted circles.

The makers shrewdly attempt to cash in on hot-button issues like demonetization and farmers’ suicides, but to be entirely honest this is a bargain basement version of an Abbas-Mustan film with a simplistic plot and logic-defying twists.

Commando Karan (Vidyut) and a motley team are put together to bring back a famed money launderer by the name of Vicky Chaddha who is hiding out overseas. The idea is for the Indian government to get hold of crores of rupees in black money, and to use it for the good of the country before slimy businessmen and slimier politicians (Shefali Shah) can get their hands on it.

The team heads to Bangkok in pursuit of Chaddha, but this plot is more twisted than a pretzel and you wish you had Commando Karan’s energy to just keep up with what’s going on. His team includes the usual computer nerd (Sumit Gulati), a hard-nosed cop who switches sides in an instant (Freddy Daruwala), and a motor-mouth encounter specialist (Adah Sharma) who’s so ditzy you can’t help chuckling at some of her low-IQ one-liners. Esha Gupta, whose endless supply of sexy gowns and accessories is way more entertaining than her trite dialogues, plays the token vixen with mysterious motives.

Director Deven Bhojani ought to have cut the flab out of this movie and made it, metaphorically speaking, as tight as his leading man’s abs. Vidyut does a crazy, eye-popping number of stunts – including one in which he slips effortlessly through a cubby hole – but the action feels overlong and repetitive since it’s in service of a frankly underwhelming plot. And while Vidyut may flex his muscles like few can, his acting chops need work.

I’m going with a generous two out of five for Commando 2. This film gets tiring very quickly.  Sadly, it feels as pointless as a demonetized 500-rupee note.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Escape claws

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:32 pm

March 03, 2017

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Logan, starring Hugh Jackman in his ninth appearance on screen as Wolverine, is both the most violent and possibly the most poignant film in all of the X-Men series. Jackman has insisted this is his last outing as Marvel’s adamantium-clawed mutant, and if in fact that’s true, it’s a pretty high note to go out on.

Unlike every recent film in this genre that has ended in a CGI orgy of world-flattening destruction when superheroes go up against super-villains, director James Mangold opts for an intimate, personal story that is more interested in exploring these characters’ human-scale vulnerabilities. The violence too, is not without consequence, and nowhere is that more evident than the state we find our protagonist in when the film opens, roughly a decade into the future.

Grizzled, weary, and evidently in pain from the toll that getting into scrapes all his life has taken on his body, Logan aka Wolverine is a shadow of his former self. His legendary self-healing powers are much diminished, and he’s drinking heavily even as he’s trying to stay under the radar working as a limo driver ferrying drunk girls to bachelorette parties and the like. Only occasionally – and only when pushed to the brink – do the claws come out. When they do, let’s just say you don’t want to be standing too close.

It turns out that the future is a dark time for mutants. There aren’t many of them left, and those that are, aren’t in great shape. Like Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in solid form), whose health has deteriorated to such an extent that he’s dependent on a full-time caretaker, and a high dosage of drugs to help with the earthquake-inducing seizures he’s prone to. Logan has him hidden safely in an outpost on the Mexican border, until trouble comes calling in the form of a young mutant girl named Laura (an excellent Dafne Keen), who has similar powers as Logan, but who needs to be protected from an evil scientist with nefarious plans.

Stripped to the bone, the film explores themes of family, sacrifice, isolation, and embracing who one truly is without fear or shame. This is that rare comic book movie that eschews spectacle for the sake of genuinely heartfelt moments. The relationship between Logan and Charles is one of the film’s key strengths – a father-son dynamic, complete with mutual affection, and also irritation. Structured for the most part as a road movie, it really allows us to understand who these characters are at this point in time.

The action in Logan is visceral and brutal to the point that you’ll want to turn away each time our protagonist’s claws make contact with another body. Bad guys are impaled, their faces are ripped into, and you’ll see the claws coming out at the other end. Brace yourself.

This is a rock solid character-driven comic book movie, the best in recent years. Hugh Jackman gets under the skin of Logan and he’s so good, it’s almost a shame he’s giving up the part just as he’s hitting it out of the park. But it’s a fitting send off, and rest assured you will choke up.

I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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