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

January 25, 2018

Let’s talk about sex, doctor!

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 6:02 pm

Could you discuss sex with your grandfather? Perhaps you could, perhaps not. And yet, millions of Indians have anonymously asked Dr Mahindra Watsa, 93-year-old sexologist, confused, explicit, and often absurd questions about sex in his popular newspaper column Ask The Sexpert.

That’s also the title of a beguiling documentary about Dr Watsa, directed by Vaishali Sinha and currently streaming on Netflix. In the film, the sensible doctor reveals that he has worked on propagating sex education in India for more than 40 years. But it was his Mumbai Mirror column and, these questions on sex that he answers every day with a rare combination of wisdom and wit that catapulted him to fame.

The film observes Dr Watsa closely – how he reads questions with a magnifying glass in hand, peering at the computer screen in his sea-facing apartment in Mumbai. But it’s his non-judgmental personality that endears him most to the viewer; the fact that very little actually shocks him. Questions, both odd and agonized, are tackled by him gently. It’s an attitude the therapist carries forward to the patients he sometimes attends to at home. The film captures these sessions without revealing the faces or the identity of his patients. Yet you can feel their emotions and sense the issues tangled up in this one act – the act of sex.

Through its protagonist, this film – Ask The Sexpert – also shows the urgent need to discuss a subject that many still consider taboo. It’s especially heartening to watch Dr Watsa dispense advice that is respectful of women’s rights. The film also gives a personal glimpse of the doctor, through his relationships with his family, friends and colleagues. It’s an enjoyable documentary that’s totally worth your time — here’s a man devoted to helping India comprehend sex. And in doing that, he’s quietly nudging us into a more progressive, empathetic society.



Fired up!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 1:25 am

January 23, 2018

Cast: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Jim Sarbh, Aditi Rao Hydari, Raza Murad, Anupriya Goenka

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Padmaavat, or the film formerly known as Padmavati, fits nicely within the impressive canon of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. After all, the legend of Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s obsession for the unattainable Queen of Chittor, the wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh, Rani Padmavati, and her preference for death over dishonor, has all the sweep, melodrama, and tragedy that have become Bhansali’s mainstay.

Expectedly he delivers a film that is richly cinematic, but whose story – as it turns out – has little of the emotional complexity that powered his last film Bajirao Mastani. Based on a 16th century poem of the same name by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmaavat is a pretty straightforward tale of a ruthless man’s single-minded pursuit of possibly the most beautiful woman that exists – a woman he is told he cannot have. Except that early on in the film, we’re already aware of his misplaced sense of entitlement. “Allah ki banayi hui har nayaab cheez par Alauddin ka haq hai,” he says.

Ranveer Singh breathes life into the character of the barbaric, power-drunk Alauddin, giving us a villain for the ages. Shrewd, oversexed, unrelenting, and eccentric, his Alauddin is a portrait of menace, and the most compelling character in the film. He plays the part with the sort of grotesque flamboyance that makes it hard to look at anyone or anything else when he’s on the screen. Sporting unkempt waist-length hair, kohl in those piercing eyes, facial scars, and the sex-appeal and swagger of a badboy rockstar, he’s both fascinating and repulsive at once. Alaudddin finds a loyal ally in Malik Gafoor (Jim Sarbh in good form), who indulges his perversities and reveals an equally cruel heart himself. Some of their moments together are pure gold.

In comparison, the romance between Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) and Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), whom he takes as his bride shortly after he falls prey to her beauty and her arrow, is vanilla at best. The couple spends too much time besotted by each other, staring moonily into each other’s eyes, making you almost grateful for Alauddin’s rude interjection when he wages war on Chittor and Ratan Singh in a bid to claim the beauteous queen.

Bhansali stages spectacular war scenes, striking just the right balance between grand scale and intimacy. In one sequence, a cloud of dust fills up the screen when rival armies charge into each other, making it impossible to see what’s going on on the battleground. The image that follows, of a character emerging from the cloud of dust, is all you need to know about the severity of the battle, and it quickly establishes the brutality that the character is capable of.

There is opulence and poetry in virtually every frame of the film, and Bhansali applies the same ‘lavish’ approach to staging the controversial jauhar scene in the climax. It’s a tricky choice, treating that sequence as ‘beautifully’ as he does, given how these customs ought to be viewed today. Particularly ironic, given all the pre-release protests against Bhansali and the film for diminishing Rajput pride. If anything, he’s guilty of ‘prettying up’ a horrific, regressive practice.

Elsewhere too, the film becomes an ode to Rajput honor and valor, with multiple instances of characters bandying on about their values. As Ratan Singh, the virtuous Rajput king, Shahid Kapoor does a lot of posturing in the name of acting – some of it while baring his torso. Deepika Padukone gets a little more to work with, and she’s especially good in the film’s second half when her character slides into the driver’s seat, taking charge and showing the way.

But the film belongs to Ranveer Singh whose delicious performance is its biggest strength. The actor keeps you invested in the film even when it plods on for over two-and-a-half hours. I’m going with three out of five for the film and another half for his extraordinary performance, making it three-and-a-half out of five for Padmaavat.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 19, 2018

Cheat. Sleep. Repeat

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:04 pm

January 19, 2018

Cast: Sanjay Suri, Nora Fatehi, Zenia Starr, Pitobash Tripathi, Ayaz Khan

Director: Samir Soni

You might think of the film My Birthday Song as every unfaithful husband’s worst nightmare. It’s an intriguing tale of temptation and the price one might pay for succumbing to it. So it’s as much a cautionary tale as it is a thriller that messes with your head.

When the film opens, we’re at the 40th birthday party of advertising hotshot Rajiv Kaul (Sanjay Suri). A beautiful, mysterious woman (Nora Fatehi) stands out in the room full of revelers, and with his wife away Rajiv doesn’t hold back when the opportunity presents itself. Things, however, take a turn for the tragic soon after they move to the bedroom.

But the next morning, everything appears to be in order. There are no signs of what transpired earlier, and Rajiv is puzzled. Could it have just been a bad dream? Perhaps. Except that this cycle repeats itself. Another encounter with the same woman, another tragic accident.

Directed by actor Samir Soni, My Birthday Song delivers twist upon twist, keeping you invested for the entirety of its duration. The script (by Soni and Vrushali Telang) flirts with themes of infidelity, guilt, and the consequences of one’s actions, but just when you think you have it figured out, the rug is pulled from under your feet to reveal another layer.

Still it’s no watertight psychological thriller because the treatment betrays the rawness of a first film. Every move, every prophetic dialogue is delivered with the flourish of a big reveal, and the acting, sadly, is not up to the mark.

But to give credit where it’s due the script does take some bold leaps. There are echoes of David Fincher’s The Game, and the repetitive nature of the key incident harks to Groundhog Day. Yet this is nothing like those movies.

Wrapping up its business in a brisk 95 minutes, My Birthday Song kept me guessing until the end. It’s not a perfect film, but there’s enough to merit a single watch. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Murder, mayhem, Manali!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:02 pm

January 19, 2018

Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Mandira Bedi, Raima Sen, Sharib Hashmi

Director: Kushal Srivastava

The gorgeous snow laden landscape of Manali is the setting for Vodka Diaries, which starts out as a whodunit, quickly turns into a psychological thriller, before it finally reveals itself to be a waste of time.

Kay Kay Menon stars as local cop ACP Ashwini Dixit, who’s investigating multiple murders that have taken place over a single night and appear to be connected to a nightclub named Vodka Diaries. The deaths are gruesome, but the victims are barely-etched characters whom we meet fleetingly at best, never long enough to know or especially care for. Things get murkier when Dixit’s wife goes missing, and the line between reality and imagination begins to blur.

It’s a curious premise, but co-writer/director Kushal Srivastava struggles with tone and pacing from the start. Dixit’s relationship with his wife Shikha (Mandira Bedi) is established through ‘cutesy’ scenes in which they go over her frankly corny poetry and he manages to find crime references in them. The humor too is often badly timed and frequently misses its mark. Sharib Hashmi, who was so good in Filmistan, is cast as Dixit’s jocular deputy, but he’s saddled with cheesy one-liners that seldom land. Raima Sen plays a mysterious woman who pops up now and then, seemingly to help Dixit piece together the clues behind the strange turn of events.

As you may have guessed, not a lot works in this convoluted, far-fetched script. Before long Dixit, once the pursuer, is being chased across snowy expanses, and lurking in dark corners of the crowded city. Clues and red herrings are sprinkled along the way, yet the big reveal in the end is underwhelming because the film isn’t ultimately true to its own logic – it simply doesn’t add up.

Doesn’t help either that Kay Kay Menon delivers a performance that is pure ham and cheese. His outbursts are unintentional comedy of the highest order, and I found myself cringing as I watched this talented actor try desperately to make the material work.

If you do decide to watch the film, you’d do well to take a cue from the film’s title and go in comfortably inebriated to get through the brain scramble that it is. I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five for Vodka Diaries.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Thrills on wheels

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 7:00 pm

January 19, 2018

Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Liam Neeson, now 65, still packs the charm, particularly in the sort of high-concept thrillers that he’s been leaning towards post his reinvention as a slick ass-kicking action hero in 2008’s Taken. The Commuter is his fourth film with Spanish-born director Jaume Collet-Serra, and like their previous collaborations – Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night – it builds and expands on his image as a righteous do-gooder who’ll go to great lengths to protect those close to him.

Set aboard a Metro-North train plying from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, the film follows Neeson’s character, an insurance salesman named Michael McCauley, as he’s fired from his job and then faced with an intriguing proposition from a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) on his way back home. She offers him $100,000 dollars to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger on the train. No sooner does he consider the offer that Michael finds himself drawn into a conspiracy, his wife and son threatened for life if he doesn’t follow orders.

It’s a slim premise but it works for the most part because it involves Liam Neeson doing things that the fans want to see Liam Neeson doing – which is, pacing up and down the compartments, looking somber while checking tickets, interacting with suspicious characters, and basically getting into both verbal and physical confrontations with passengers and authorities alike. It’s fashioned as – what else but – a race-against-time thriller and the filmmakers keep the pace so brisk you’re fully invested in the outcome, although on close inspection turns out the film’s high concept is impossibly ridiculous to say the least.

There’s a one-shot fistfight in the movie that’s particularly riveting, and nods to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train that are fun to spot. But it all becomes a bit of an overblown mess in the end with crashing train carriages and Neeson leaping off them to save the day. He gives a typically bankable performance that rises above the film’s flaws, and never lets the energy dip.

Clocking in at a crisp 100 minutes, The Commuter is a well-executed if old-fashioned thriller that doesn’t skimp on suspense or visceral action. Just don’t expect anything more. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 12, 2018

Fire up the presses!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:35 pm

January 12, 2018

Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Zach Woods, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons

Director: Steven Spielberg

With its themes of fighting to uphold the freedom of the press, and the importance of honest, uncompromised journalism, it’s not hard to see why Steven Spielberg’s new film “The Post” feels especially relevant today even though it mostly takes place during one week in 1971.

It’s the riveting true story of The Washington Post’s decision to defy threats from the Nixon Administration and to go ahead and publish the leaked Pentagon Papers that exposed the dirty secrets of the US government with regards to America’s role in the Vietnam War.

Like Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film from 2015, The Post is about the excitement and the thrill of reporting a big story. It’s a procedural that authentically captures the daily stresses and strains of the news gathering business, and Spielberg skillfully evokes drama and a sense of urgency from the roar of the presses, the sight of reporters banging away at their typewriters, and bundles of newspapers being flung out of trucks at the crack of dawn.

Tom Hanks stars as The Washington Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee, a veteran newspaperman determined to publish the Pentagon Papers because it’s correct journalism, and because he realizes it’s an opportunity that could put the newspaper in the big league. But it’s Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, his publisher, who’s currently in the process of taking the company public in order to raise more funds for the paper, who stands to lose everything if they were to report the story and take on the White House.

It’s the push-pull dynamic between editor and publisher that’s at the heart of this film. But frankly this is as much a feminist story. Streep’s character is basically a socialite thrust into a role she inherited from her late husband. She’s surrounded by a Board comprising men who undermine her opinion and reek of condescension. They advise her against publishing the Papers, and yet she risks it all to do the right thing. It’s one of the most rousing moments in the film, and Streep plays it as a moment of reckoning; the moment you know that Graham has finally grown into her role.

Layered and consistently compelling, The Post is a celebration of a woman’s rise to her full potential, and a tribute to the power of fearless journalism. You’ll find that in these times of “fake news” and “paid news” and political leaders trying to muzzle the media, it’s an inspiring reminder of the need for a free and fair press.

I’m going with four out of five. Don’t miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


Tripping up

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:34 pm

January 12, 2018

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Shobita Dhulipala, Akshay Oberoi, Kunal Roy Kapur, Deepak Dobriyal, Vijay Raaz, Shenaz Treasurywala, Neel Bhoopalam, Amyra Dastur, TriNyari Singh

Director: Akshat Verma

There are moments of such inspired lunacy in writer-director Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandi that you’ll find yourself laughing till your sides hurt. One of those involves a wannabe cowboy accidentally shooting himself in the crotch while imitating Feroz Khan’s moves on screen. Another involves an awkward but hilarious moment of honesty when one of the film’s protagonists, tripping on a psychotropic drug, tells a transgender person that he’s curious to know what she’s packing below the waist. “I want to see your Australia, your southern hemisphere, your Cape of Good Hope,” he says.

A similar sort of outrageous humor powered Delhi Belly, which Verma scripted. But Kaalakaandi is especially thin on plot and purpose.

Unfolding over a course of a single night in Mumbai, the film follows three separate narrative threads. In one, Saif Ali Khan’s character is informed by his doctor that he’s dying, and only has a few months to live. Having stayed off alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs all his life, he decides to throw caution to the wind and drops acid in the midst of running errands for his younger brother’s wedding.

In the second track, a young woman (Shobita Dhulipala), all packed and ready to fly out to Boston in a few hours, heads out to a friend’s birthday party with her boyfriend (Kunal Roy Kapur), only to be trapped at the nightclub when the police orders a drug raid.

And in the third track, a pair of small-time crooks (Deepak Dobriyal and Vijay Raaz, both terrific) returning from a job with bags of cash for their gangster boss, hatch a dangerous plan that could make them rich overnight.

Things start out promisingly enough, but only the track starring Saif Ali Khan has real meat to it. It’s also the funniest of the three, and features a winning supporting character in Sheela, a transgender prostitute (Nyari Singh), whom Saif befriends. The pair outwits an overweight constable and set off an unlikely friendship that is as genuine as it is funny. This track also features Akshay Oberoi as Saif’s younger brother, whose visit to an ex for one last booty call doesn’t go according to plan.

Some of the other supporting characters include Shenaz Treasurywala’s ditzy party girl and Neel Bhoopalam’s legendary gangster-with-one-glass-testicle. Both are good in these roles, but their characters deserved more screen time. As you may have guessed, the three disconnected narratives do meet eventually, but the link feels tenuous and forced. Despite its relatively crisp running time of under two hours, the film runs out of ideas post intermission and seems to go around in circles. There’s a big sangeet celebration that sticks out like a sore thumb, and too much existential bak bak that nearly put me to sleep.

Of the cast, Saif Ali Khan gets the best-written role, and he’s in top form, unfettered and clearly having a good time. He embraces the madcap requirements of the role, throwing himself into it completely. It’s a shame the film can’t keep up with him.

I’m going with two out of five for Kaalakaandi. The humor is hysterical but never consistent. And sadly there’s not a lot more to it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

The love punch!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:33 pm

January 12, 2018

Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Jimmy Shergill, Zoya Hussain, Ravi Kishan, Rajesh Tailang

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Mukkabaaz, directed by Anurag Kashyap, is a film about many things at once. On the surface it’s a ‘boxing movie’, your classic underdog template. It’s also a heartfelt love story, a ruthless revenge saga, and pretty ballsy social and political commentary about our times. That’s a lot to stuff into a single film, and as a result it’s overlong and occasionally rambling. Yet, set in a world he knows inside out, and populated by characters that are authentic and rooted firmly in the landscape, the film sees Kashyap on solid ground.

Low-caste Bareilly boy Shravan Kumar (Vineet Kumar Singh) is the ‘mukkabaaz’ of the film’s title, an amateur boxer with ambitions to reach the national finals and become the Mike Tyson of Uttar Pradesh. Committed to making sure he doesn’t achieve his goal is the film’s villain, and the thorn in Shravan’s side, Bhagwandas Mishra (Jimmy Shergill), a gangster-politician and the head of the local boxing federation.

Mishra is the living embodiment of the cancer that plagues so much of India. An upper-caste Brahmin who exercises his superiority and power through violence and oppression. In Mishra’s book, belonging to a lower caste is a crime, and he revels in humiliating and exploiting those below him in the social order.

The far-reaching consequences of the caste system extend to the nature of the work handed down to Shravan when he lands a job in the railways department, and to possible opportunities in the sporting field. The film lifts the lid on the rampant corruption in Indian sports, the politicization of the selection process, and the pathetic training facilities and conditions that hamper the growth of many a promising athlete. Kashyap also seizes the opportunity to address the climate of religious intolerance, giving us scenes that depict the misdeeds of vigilante ‘gau-rakshaks’.

Meanwhile, love becomes a driving force when Shravan loses his heart to Mishra’s mute niece Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), and their relationship powers his struggle, and also the film from sinking into an abyss of darkness. Sunaina cannot speak but she doesn’t let her disability silence her. Theirs is a romance that is sweet, occasionally comical, and ultimately selfless; it’s one of the strongest tracks in the film.

Equally charming are the unexpected bursts of humor that serve as respite from the relentless intensity. A scene in which a desperate, hopeless Shravan flips out on his friend for talking in English is one of the funniest moments in Mukkabaaz. To the writers’ credit, these ‘light’ scenes feel organic to the narrative, and never bunged in just to ease the tension.

The film benefits also from some fine acting. Ravi Kishan is in very good form as the Dalit coach in Varanasi who trains Shravan for state championships, and the actor conveys volumes of backstory through a restrained performance. Jimmy Shergill’s one-note approach to the role of the despicable bully is a result of underdeveloped characterization, but the opposite is true for Zoya Hussain’s terrific portrayal of the brassy Sunaina, a part that has more to work with.

At the heart of the film is Vineet Kumar Singh who conveys both Shravan’s physical prowess and his emotional vulnerability with confidence and conviction. He captures Shravan’s urgency and hunger with incredible zeal as he punches, pounds, and clobbers his way on his journey from brawler to boxer.

At 2 hours and 35 minutes, Mukkabaaz overstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, its narrative stretched by way too many background songs, and an inevitable sense of repetition and wallowing in the protagonist’s misery. Yet it might be Kashyap’s most accessible film since Gangs of Wasseypur, and his only crime here may be one of overreaching. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 5, 2018


Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 6:00 pm

January 05, 2018

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris,

Director: Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott’s new film All the Money in the World is based on the true story of the world-famous kidnapping of the grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty in 1973. It’s a fascinating story, not least because the miserly billionaire, who was the richest man in the world at the time, famously refused to pay a dime of the $17 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers to let the boy go.

Equally fascinating is the behind-the-scenes story of how Scott – the great director of films like Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, and The Martian – made a bold decision, only six weeks before the film’s scheduled release, to recast the central role of the wealthy baron that he’d already shot with Kevin Spacey.

Concerned that the film might become collateral damage when sexual abuse allegations against Spacey emerged in late October 2017, Scott replaced the House of Cards star with 88-year-old Christopher Plummer, reshooting his scenes in a mere nine days, adding an additional $10 million to the film’s cost.

Shrewd move, and one that appears to have paid off nicely. For not only is Plummer much closer in age to Getty than Spacey was, he’s also terrific in the role. He plays the tightfisted billionaire as affable, yet chillingly detached; a ruthless man with ice running through his veins. The sort of person that installed a phone booth in his mansion so his guests could pay for their calls.

Meanwhile Charlie Plummer (no relation to Plummer Sr) plays Getty’s 16-year-old grandson Paul who’s held captive after being picked up from the street in Rome, and Michelle Williams is Gail, the old man’s estranged daughter-in-law and the boy’s devoted but broke mother. Mark Wahlberg is cast as Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA man on Getty’s payroll, who is tasked with bringing back the boy without spending any money.

On the surface the film feels like a relatively lightweight entry in Scott’s canon of masterpieces given that its overarching theme – the corrupting influence of enormous wealth – is not exactly new. But the veteran filmmaker gives it the pace and the rhythm of an action thriller, and dials up the urgency in recreating much of the frenzy and the chaos that the Italian press created around the kidnapping.

At the same time, Scott maintains a tight coil of tension throughout, cutting between the parallel tracks of the terrified young boy being held by impatient captors, and the battle of wits between his stubborn grandfather and his desperate but determined mother.

Christopher Plummer digs deep to explore the heart of a man whose capacity for love is limited to money or the enduring assets he can buy with it. Michelle Williams brings a sort of quiet intensity and passion to the part of the resolute mother. Gail is a portrait of humanity and emotion, and in that she is a fitting rival to the pitiless Getty. Together, the two actors are the beating heart of this film.

Given Ridley Scott’s keen eye for detail and his virtually unparalleled visual aesthetic the film is evocatively shot and the recreation of both 1970s Europe, and specifically the grandeur of Getty’s world, is faultless. Even without having anything profound to say about wealth or greed, he delivers a consistently watchable film that benefits enormously from its two central performances.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for All the Money in the World.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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