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

June 30, 2017

Metal mayhem

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:02 pm

June 30, 2017

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro

Director: Michael Bay

Ten years since the first Transformers film and the franchise is showing no signs of slowing down or even pausing for breath. Michael Bay’s eardrum-shattering, butt-numbing, mind-scrambling movie series about highly advanced giant alien robots continues to put CGI over story, and action over characters. As a result the films remain an incoherent orgy of special effects and explosions.

Fifth installment Transformers: The Last Knight unfolds over an excruciating 2 hours and 28 minutes although the convoluted plot, one-dimensional characters, and uninspired acting makes it feel an awful lot longer. I won’t deny there’s a real thrill in watching these hulking machines pummel each other with all their might, but the excitement wears out quickly in the absence of a compelling story.

To be fair, the new film opens with some promise. We’re in medieval England and a bloody battle is underway. King Arthur, Lancelot, and their armies are fighting back against a barbarian invasion with little luck…that is until a Transformer intervenes. It’s a bold idea.

But then we cut to Michael Bay’s singularly cynical version of present day where Mark Wahlberg, back as Cade Yeager, is hiding out in the desert trading pithy one-liners with various Autobots. On the Transformers’ home planet Cybertron, meanwhile, Quintessa, a giant iron lady in the shape of a floating squid, is torturing Optimus Prime and brainwashing him into destroying Earth. Somewhere in England, Anthony Hopkins, hamming it up as an eccentric lord, is pacing up and down his castle. All parties are connected by the search for a mystical staff that links the Transformers’ origins with that chapter from medieval history.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the film, and as usual it’s accompanied by dizzying special effects, a deafening background score, and such zip-zap editing that it’s impossible to remember or register anything even a few minutes later. Wahlberg spends most of the film looking confused, as if wondering whether any paycheck could be big enough to embarrass oneself in this manner, while Hopkins – wait, Sir Anthony Hopkins, lest one forget – appears to have decided to at least have fun with the part, having cashed his check.

There is the perfunctory female lead too, in this case Laura Haddock playing an Oxford professor who exists precisely to look sexy in high heels while ducking and dodging the metallic mayhem.

Speaking of which, the film’s real stars, the Transformers themselves, are so lacking in charm and personality that it’s hard to be invested in them or their fate. Oddly, the big draws – Optimus Prime and Megatron – get limited screen-time in this outing, which amounts to giving Robert Downey Jr only 20 minutes in an “Iron Man” film. Why would you do that?

But perhaps it’s silly to expect logic from a franchise and a filmmaker who’s shown scant regard for viewers’ patience, taste, and common sense, choosing instead to bludgeon them repeatedly and exhaust them into submission. This movie made me pray for a world where this franchise was dead and buried.

Transformers: The Last Knight..? Naah, what about The Last Transformers. It’s got a much better ring to it. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Coma get this!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:01 pm

June 30, 2017

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff

Director: Michael Showalter

“Write what you know!” It’s the first bit of advice – not to mention, the most common refrain – that budding novelists and screenwriters will hear from experts, mentors, and just about anyone who’s caught them contemplating a blank computer screen. It’s a tip that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon took very seriously when they sat down to write their first film.

The resultant effort is a crackling romantic comedy titled The Big Sick that’s sharp, funny, deeply affecting, and feels a hundred per cent authentic. Nanjiani and Gordon who co-wrote the script, are married in real life, and the film is a personal story based on their own relationship and the terrible health scare Gordon suffered. It also examines the struggles of cultural differences and provides an unvarnished account of the Chicago stand-up scene.

That’s a lot to pack into a single film, you might think. And it may have been for a less skilled team. But Nanjiani and Gordon, along with director Michael Showalter, under the guiding eye of producer Judd Apatow, have pulled off that rare thing – a laugh-out-loud comedy with a genuinely emotional center.

Nanjiani, who you might recognize from his role as peevish computer coder Dinesh in the HBO show Silicon Valley, plays a slightly younger version of himself, a rookie stand-up comic from a traditional Pakistani family now living in Chicago. He meets, dates, and subsequently falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), but their relationship hits a dead end because he can’t muster up the courage to stand up to his family who’re insistent that he marries a Pakistani girl. In fact, they’ve broken up when Emily becomes critically ill and is put in a medically induced coma.

The film’s best bits are the ones that explore how Kumail deals with her illness, and her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) who show up to be by her side in hospital. All three actors bring such incredible honesty to these delicate scenes depicting the bond that develops between them…tentatively.

Honesty, in fact, is the biggest strength of this film, which deftly avoids clichés of the genre and goes to uncomfortable, sometimes dark places in its pursuit of truth. It boils down to the intuitive, masterful writing once again that Nanjiani and Gordon effectively demonstrate how humor serves as the perfect antidote to sorrow and despair.

The scenes between Kumail and his family also bristle with an all-too-familiar spark. Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff are especially good as his parents who’re convinced they know what’s best for their son, while unknowingly widening the gap between them.

There is a lot to enjoy and appreciate in The Big Sick, from its terrific dialogue to its wonderfully astute observations on love, friendship and family, and the lengths we will go to for each. The performances are extraordinary too, by Kazan, who is real and lovely despite her limited screen time, and Nanjiani, who digs deep to reveal a depth of emotion that you’re frankly unprepared for. From the way his character handles racist heckling, to his identity as a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in America, to the competitive yet unshakable friendship between struggling comedians, he puts it all on screen with amazing sincerity.

This is a film that raises the bar for romantic comedies hereon. It’s a film I know I’m going to watch again soon, to savor the company of its characters. Don’t miss The Big Sick. It’s a real gem. I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 23, 2017


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:19 pm

June 23, 2017

Cast: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Om Puri, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Zhu Zhu, Matin Rey Tangu, Brijendra Kala, Yashpal Sharma

Director: Kabir Khan

There’s a whiff of a promising idea at the heart of Tubelight, a film built on good intentions and a flimsy conceit. It’s intended as an uplifting tale about the “taakat of yakeen” (or the power of self-belief), but it’s weighed down by a wafer-thin plot, cloying sentimentality, and a central performance so labored, so contrived it’s painful to watch.

Salman Khan has made a career – and achieved dizzying heights of success – playing parts that have barely required him to break a sweat. Ironically, one of Bollywood’s most controversial stars found his groove playing various iterations of the mild-mannered, pure-hearted simpleton, most notably in Kabir Khan’s entertaining and emotionally impactful Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tubelight, which Kabir has officially adapted from the American film Little Boy, about a tiny-built eight-year-old who becomes convinced that he can bring his father home from the trenches of World War II through the sheer strength of his faith, remodels the central role to accommodate the 51-year-old superstar.

Salman plays Laxman Singh Bisht, a slow-witted but endearing fellow in the mould of Forrest Gump. He’s a child trapped in a man’s body; naïve enough to cheerily embrace the idea that faith can move mountains…literally. Laxman lives happily with his protective younger brother Bharat (Sohail Khan) in a small town up in the hills in North India. Frequently mocked by the local bullies for his lack of sharpness, Laxman is nevertheless loved by the townspeople…much in the same way that we tend to love the three-legged stray that has wandered into our street.

The film is set in 1962, although the only effort by way of attention to detail seems to be ensuring that there are no mobile phones in sight. When Bharat enlists in the army to fight in the Indo-Chinese war, Laxman is heartbroken. As the war rages on and uncertainty looms over his brother’s fate, Laxman must put his faith to the test.

These are bold ideas and they rest completely on Salman’s ability to portray the character without a hint of artifice. And he tries. Which is the kindest thing I can say about his performance. Far from pulling off naïve and innocent, Salman comes off sounding and behaving like a patronizing adult goo-goo-gaa-gaa-ing to a baby. In the more intense, emotional scenes, he’s clearly out of his depth, and you watch transfixed as he struggles like a non-swimmer, flailing arms and all, who’s been thrown into the deep end.

On the upside, there’s a charming subplot about the friendship between Laxman and a little boy named Guo (Matin Rey Tangu); their scenes together are the film’s best moments. Guo and his mother Liling (Chinese actress Zhu Zhu) are Indians of Chinese origin, and their arrival in town during the Indo-Sino war is met with anger and violence. Kabir, who has co-written the film’s screenplay, seizes the opportunity to address racism and question our notions of patriotism and nationalism.

The director surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of dependable actors who don’t disappoint. The late Om Puri, Brijendra Kala, Yashpal Sharma, and particularly Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub are all in good form. To be fair, poor Sohail Khan has very little to do but he delivers without any major hiccups.

A film like Tubelight which espouses the power of faith and belief through the uncorrupted eyes of a man-child needed a lightness of touch that is conspicuous by its absence here. Tubelight is well intentioned but overtly manipulative and doesn’t so much tug at your heartstrings as it punches you in the face demanding that you care. It’s also over-long at nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes, and excruciatingly slow and boring in parts.

It’s a crushing disappointment on all counts. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 9, 2017


Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:30 pm

June 09, 2017

Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Kriti Sanon, Jim Sarbh, Varun Sharma, Rajkummar Rao

Director: Dinesh Vijan

Raabta, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and Kriti Sanon, is one part lighthearted rom-com, one part deathly serious reincarnation saga, and all parts ridiculous.

This is a movie so singularly pointless, you have to wonder how the writers and the director tricked the financiers into thinking there was a story here worth telling, and why the actors preferred going to shoot every morning instead of sleeping longer hours.

The premise is fairly basic: unfinished business in a previous life reconnects three people in the modern day. That’s it. There’s no deeper layer, it has nothing profound to say. Oddly, it’s not even as emotionally charged as films of this genre tend to be. The whole theme of rebirth is so superficially and simplistically justified, it makes Karan Arjun feel like Inception in comparison.

The film, directed by Dinesh Vijan, opens in Budapest where Sushant’s character Shiv, a self-described ‘player’, makes the moves on anything and everything in a skirt until he encounters Saira (Kriti), with whom there is an instant and lasting connection.

Sushant is basically playing the Saif Ali Khan role in every Yash Raj/Dharma film from the early 2000s, except that Sushant is never as smooth, and his Shiv comes off as a tad creepy instead of charming. Kriti’s character Saira runs a chocolate shop, and she is plagued by nightmares of drowning from, as it turns out, her past life. The other thing she brings with her from that previous life is her tendency to switch boyfriends faster than Taylor Swift.

There’s also Jim Sarbh, who was so good as the hotheaded leader of the hijackers in Neerja last year. Here he’s cast as Zakir, a millionaire businessman whom Saira is briefly drawn to. Jim plays Zakir with just enough mystery and a hint of eccentricity, until the last act when he goes full psychopathic villain on the lovers.

I’d rather not tell you too much about these characters and the dynamics of their relationship in their previous incarnation, but you’ve probably seen the trailers and you know that they’re styled like tribal-warriors with really cool hairstyles. My heart bled for poor Rajkummar Rao, who is buried under layers and layers of prosthetics to play a disfigured old man in this portion of the film. My only question to him: Why?

Sushant and Kriti have good chemistry together and some of their early scenes are fun. But they’re not playing particularly likeable characters so it’s hard to care for what happens to these people beyond a point. It’s a shame because Sushant has proved himself to be a really competent actor. Although, to be honest, even Denzel Washington couldn’t save this film.

The only thing I can unconditionally recommend in Raabta is its music. There’s a bunch of really good songs shot across Budapest that are a welcome respite from the asinine drama.

This is the kind of movie that film critics must endure so you don’t have to. I’m going with one out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Sister act

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:29 pm

June 09, 2017

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Shruti Haasan, Ninad Kamat, Herry Tengiri, Gulshan Grover, Ranjeet, Darshan Jariwala, Gautam Gulati,

Director: Ajay Pannalal

Some movies fall in love with their title and take it so literally, you have to wonder if the title was conceived in order to best serve the story or in fact the other way around. Behen Hogi Teri is based on the tenuous premise that all boys in this Lucknow neighbourhood are raised to regard all the girls in the area as their sisters. But one such fella, Gattu (Rajkummar Rao), is hopelessly in love with his spunky neighbour Binny (Shruti Haasan). “Knicker ke zamaane se mohabbat hai,” he tells us.

The film, directed by debutant Ajay Pannalal, is a romantic comedy that arises from the unenviable situation that Gattu finds himself in – watching the girl of his dreams get engaged to another man because he can’t seem to declare his love for her. What works, charmingly, is the real, lived-in flavor of Lucknow, complete with nosy neighbours, bickering parents, and dialogues that evoke genuine chuckles. The film’s supporting cast does a swell job too, particularly Ranjeet and Gulshan Grover as neighbourhood goondas who become embroiled in the story, and Herry Tangiri who plays Gattu’s cheeky best friend Bhura.

Expectedly the film’s biggest strength is leading man Rajkummar Rao who plays Gattu with real feeling. He’s an unlikely hero; a drifter who floats through life, his only purpose to claim Binny. But he’s clever, slipping out of tangled situations, manipulating others with his innocent ways. Rao imbues Gattu with an innocence and simplicity that feels authentic despite his machinations.

Where the film slips up is in its writing. The plot, which starts off on a curious note becomes especially convoluted in its second hour. The laughs are now few and far between, and the screenplay takes forever to come to the point. A big part of the problem is Binny: both the character and the casting. She’s supposed to be the neighborhood patakha, but Binny is impenetrable and occasionally off-putting. Doesn’t help that Shruti Haasan comes off stilted. It’s hard to see why Gattu is so besotted by her.

But if you must, watch Behen Hogi Teri as proof of the fact that solid actors can sometimes elevate ordinary material. Rajkummar Rao grabs your attention, even in scenes where he has no lines to speak. He has impeccable comic timing too – just watch him in the scene where he must give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Binny’s grandmother, or where he consoles his humiliated buddy who’s just been slapped by Binny’s brother.

I’m going with two out of five for Behen Hogi Teri. You’d wish the makers had trimmed its flabby bits; there was potential here.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 2, 2017

About a boy

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:58 pm

June 02, 2017

Cast: Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Ranvir Shorey, Gulshan Devaiah, Tilottama Shome, Om Puri, Tanuja, Arya Sharma, Jim Sarbh

Director: Konkona Sen Sharma

The word ‘slow’ in a movie review is more often than not construed as overlong, sluggish, and boring. Let’s face it, it’s a bad word especially when used to describe a film’s pace. A Death in the Gunj, directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, is a keenly observed drama, rich in atmospherics, brilliantly performed, and yes, it has a slow-burning rhythm. But it’s never boring. The unhurried pace, in fact, is entirely fitting for the world she transports us to.

This is the sleepy town of McCluskieganj, near Ranchi, and we’re in the late 1970s, a time before the Internet and mobile phones. A sturdy Ambassador packed with family and friends makes the eight-hour drive from Calcutta to the remote, rural home of the Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja).

The guests include Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), the elderly couple’s son, a cocksure young man, his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), and their precocious eight-year-old daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). They’re accompanied by Nandu’s cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey), and by Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin).

Family reunions and celebrations can be tricky affairs, and Konkona, who reveals a deep understanding of human nature, layers these scenes with unspoken complexities, egos, and tensions. On the surface, everyone seems to be having a good time. Well, perhaps not everyone.

As often tends to happen in group situations, one person – usually the mildest – is singled out and routinely victimized by attention-seeking bullies in a display of misguided machismo. The victim here is Shutu. Reserved and always on the edge, he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes and pranks, particularly the aggressive alpha male in the group, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), a friend of Nandu.

It’s hard to go any deeper into detail about the dynamics within the group without ruining the experience for you. But I will tell you that you quickly become invested in the characters as they reveal themselves over alcohol and heartbreak, or when they’re pushed against the wall. A lot happens over the course of the week – old connections are rekindled, excessive drinking leads to bad decisions, a key character goes missing, and it all builds up to an explosive climax that the film’s title alludes to.

It’s easy to see why you’re drawn to these people and why their world feels so immersive. The performances across the board are natural and understated, but a few actors deserve special mention. Kalki Koechlin is mercurial as the temptress hiding complex feelings in her heart, and Ranvir Shorey imbues his sadistic character with just enough humanity to never slip into stereotype. At the center of the drama, however, and standing out for his abundant talent and undeniable presence is Vikrant Massey. As the troubled young Shutu, he makes you want to reach out so you can assure him that it’s going to be okay. It’s a genuinely heartfelt performance, and I suspect this young man is going to go places.

The film is richer also on account of its remarkable technical accomplishments, especially Sirsha Ray’s brown and yellow-soaked frames, and an evocative background score by Sagar Desai that never feels invasive or disturbing.

A Death in the Gunj benefits from Konkona Sen Sharma’s perceptive, assured direction. It’s one of the best films of the year, and one that you’ll find hard to shake off in a hurry. I’m going with four out of five and a strong recommendation not to miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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