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

March 30, 2018

Plot without purpose

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 7:00 pm

March 30, 2018

Cast: Tiger Shroff, Disha Patani, Manoj Bajpayee, Randeep Hooda, Deepak Dobriyal, Prateik Babbar, Darshan Kumar, Vipin Sharma

Director: Ahmed Khan

A distraught young woman reaches out to her ex-boyfriend for help in tracing her kidnapped daughter, but her husband, and everyone that knows them, insists the couple had no child at all. So is she imagining things, or is there more to it?

That intriguing premise, of Baaghi 2, is buried under an avalanche of mediocrity – needless romantic backstory, too many songs, corny humor, an entirely pointless item number, cringey performances, frequent lapses of logic, and a disappointing reveal. Even Tiger Shroff’s built-like-a-tank physique can’t rescue this movie from its own gargantuan stupidity.

Tiger stars as Ranveer Pratap Singh aka Ronnie, committed army officer and lean, mean, killing machine, who’s been weeding out the bad elements in Kashmir when he gets a call from Neha (Disha Patani), urging him to come to Goa immediately. In attempting to uncover the mystery of her daughter’s existence and possible disappearance, Ronnie finds himself in contact with all manner of colorful Goa characters including a used-car dealer with a ‘side’ business (Deepak Dobriyal), a hippy, chillum-smoking cop who loves taking selfies (Randeep Hooda), a sympathetic DIG (Manoj Bajpai), and of course Neha’s husband (Darshan Kumar), and her drug-addict brother-in-law (Prateik Babbar).

It’s hard to feel anything other than sheer frustration watching Baaghi 2, given how the filmmakers have squandered the potential of the central idea. This remake of the 2016 Telugu hit Kshanam is weighed down by a flawed script, and frankly by ‘mis-direction’ on the part of director Ahmed Khan. What could easily have been a tight suspense story is stretched into an overlong, one-size-fits-all 90s potboiler with equal helpings of romance, comedy, action, and melodrama. Turns out, it’s a recipe for a mess. And don’t even get me started on Jacqueline Fernandez’s ‘updated version’ of Ek do teen! It’s one of those zero-impact things that made me want to crawl under my seat out of embarrassment for her.

But of course much of the film rests on the shoulders of its able-bodied leading man, and Tiger Shroff doesn’t disappoint…not in the action portions, he doesn’t. We get scenes in which he pummels bad guys to a pulp, dangles from a rope while spraying bullets, and at one point, leaps off a cliff into a helicopter hovering mid-air. There’s a real thrill to some of these moments, but the action scenes seem to go on and on until you’re all worn out. His acting, however, is still raw, especially in the emotional and dramatic bits, although he brings an earnestness that is mildly endearing.

Of the remaining cast, Disha Patani is easy on the eyes but little else, and the generally charming Prateik Babbar is in full ham-and-cheese mode. Even Manoj Bajpai is largely wasted. Only Randeep Hooda has fun with his role as the Jack Sparrow-resembling policeman that goes by the moniker LSD.

But any and all promise is ultimately short-lived, as the script comes undone in the end with a twist that is underdeveloped and underwhelming to say the least. It’s so lazy, in fact, that it’s not even true to the film’s own logic.

I’m going with two out of five for Baaghi 2. It’s got its moments, but that’s all there is.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 23, 2018

Against all odds

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:13 pm

March 23, 2018

Cast: Rani Mukerji, Neeraj Kabi, Sachin Pilgaonkar, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Harsh Mayar

Director: Siddharth P Malhotra

There is nothing original, nothing surprising, nothing even remotely unpredictable in Hichki. This Rani Mukerji starrer about a teacher who employs unconventional methods to get through to her class of tough, rebellious kids is formula filmmaking to a T. Even the fact that the teacher in question has Tourette’s – a neurological disorder that causes her to break into loud, involuntary noises – works as a trigger to push the cliché that who better to recognize the potential in a bunch of misfits than someone who’s been misfit all her life.

Yet it’s a testament to the winning performance of its leading lady that the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of that predictability. Despite borrowing ideas from a slew of films including Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and Taare Zameen Par, director Siddharth P Malhotra somehow manages to give us characters that we care for, and a story that offers comfort in the familiar.

After being passed up for jobs routinely because school authorities are skeptical of her ability to handle students given her condition, Rani’s character, Naina Mathur, a trained and qualified professional, finally lands a job at a fancy school. But she’s assigned to a class comprising students from the nearby slums; a clutch of unwelcome, disinterested kids who earned their seats due to the Right to Education mandate, but who’d rather spend their time betting, smoking, picking fights, or playing pranks to drive their teacher away.

Naina has her work cut out for her. She’s got to win over the students, find an alternate way to teach them, plus she’s got to convince the school authorities – particularly an elitist colleague (Neeraj Kabi) – that the misfits from Class 9F don’t deserve to be written off without giving them a fair shot.

It’s a film overstuffed with good intentions and multiple messages. Some of these are communicated with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Like a scene in which Naina visits the slums where her students live, a revealing exercise which puts things into perspective for her. Other ideas, like the stigmas and the embarrassment attached to a condition like Tourette’s are conveyed, frequently without the crutch of dialogue, through the relationship between Naina and her father (Sachin Pilgaonkar).

You could argue that conflicts are resolved a tad conveniently, and that everything ties up too neatly in the end. It makes for rousing montages and a bunch of lump-in-your-throat moments. But make no mistake this is broad-brushstrokes filmmaking. Surprisingly, it works. And much of it is because Rani Mukerji is in solid form, cutting a convincing portrait of an empathetic young woman who knows what it’s like to be unfairly given up on. She never turns Naina into a victim, while portraying her condition with great sensitivity. Watching her bring the character to life is one of the film’s great joys.

Hichki is inconsistent but well-intentioned. More than once I found myself tearing up during the film. That kind of manipulation, I’m willing to live with. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Jaeger bomb!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:01 pm

March 23, 2018

Cast: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Cailee Spaeny, Burn Gorman

Director: Steven S DeKnight

I’m one of those who thoroughly enjoyed the first Pacific Rim movie from 2013. In the hands of Guillermo del Toro, that giant robots-versus-giant sea monsters smackdown was an undeniably entertaining affair – a blockbuster with personality, an action movie with gravitas. It’s taken five years for them to make a sequel, but Pacific Rim Uprising has neither del Toro in the driver’s eat, nor much by way of originality, flair, or that giddy sense of fun he brought to the previous film.

Basically it’s a lot like a Transformers movie, but just a wee bit more coherent.

Set ten years after the events of the last film, in which ‘jaeger’ robots vanquished the ‘kaiju’ monsters that had entered our world through a crack in the ocean floor, Uprising stars John Boyega as Jake, the bad apple son of Idris Elba’s character, General Stacker Pentecost who sacrificed his life trying to protect humanity in that epic battle.

Now because Jake seems determined to get as far away as he can from his father’s shadow, you know it’s going to fall upon him to embrace his destiny and emerge the reluctant hero when the kaiju return…angrier, stronger, and seemingly indestructible.

The plot is nothing more than a collection of clichés that reunites Jake with his half sister (Rinko Kikuchi), an old rival (Scott Eastwood), and a teenage hacker (Cailee Spaeny), and they’re thrown together as a team to save the planet. Those deadly kaiju don’t show up till pretty late in the film, and predictably the action is set-piece after set-piece involving lots of noise and lots of special effects. But unlike the Transformers movies, whose breathless editing makes it hard to tell who’s doing what to whom, the sequences here are often spectacular to look at and take in, particularly the impressive climax at the top of Mt Fuji in Japan.

Television veteran Steven S DeKnight directs without much surprise or risk, but he deserves credit for showing restraint and not going all Michael Bay on us. Some interesting ideas are explored – which I’ll allow you to discover for yourself – but the film never aims for greatness. It seems content at being merely serviceable.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Pacific Rim Uprising. It’s better than a Transformers film, but that’s hardly praise.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 16, 2018

Mission man

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:29 pm

March 16, 2018

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Saurabh Shukla, Ileana D’cruz, Amit Sial

Director: Raj Kumar Gupta

Raid, starring Ajay Devgan, is loosely inspired by the story of one of the most dramatic Income Tax raids, which occurred in the mid 80s in Lucknow, and took two full days to complete. It has some powerful moments, but it’s so thin on plot and sluggish in pace that by the end of it you’ll feel the film took just as long to unfold.

Devgan plays Amay Pattnaik, the sort of upright and incorruptible government servant whose unwavering honesty is ‘rewarded’ with repeated transfers to different postings. Amay, who is an officer in the Income Tax department, has been transferred some 49 times in seven years, we’re told. The actor plays him – like he plays all of his ‘serious’ roles – with a quiet sort of confidence. Amay isn’t easily excitable, not even when he’s discovered one more stash of unaccounted wealth, or when it’s literally raining gold biscuits from a fake ceiling.

The story pits him against Saurabh Shukla’s character Rameshwar Singh aka Tauji, one of those well-connected businessmen who has links with politicians, the police, and with local goondas. When Amay receives a tip that Tauji is hiding close to 420 crore rupees, he shows up at his sprawling home with an army of fellow officers to raid the premises and ferret out the undeclared riches.

Director Raj Kumar Gupta, who’s helmed films like Aamir and No One Killed Jessica, knows a thing or two about building tension. The initial portions of Raid play out nicely as Amay and his team pat the place down, even as Tauji and his extended family of siblings, their spouses, and offspring flare their nostrils at the gall of the officer and the inconvenience he’s causing them. Writer Ritesh Shah mines humour from a colourful cast of supporting players, giving them whippersnapper dialogues and moments to shine. The most memorable character of this lot is Tauji’s ageing, toothless mother, played by a terrific Pushpa Joshi, who steals every scene she’s in with just the right claptrap line.

The film stays on course for as long as it remains within Tauji’s mansion. Repeated scenes between Amay and his wife (Ileana D’cruz), and a spectacularly ill-timed romantic song reveal poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers. In the second half, especially, when a key character leaves the premises to knock on political doors, the narrative further loosens. From this point on the conflict feels contrived. Tauji’s last-ditch effort – let’s just say it involves a mob attack – feels far-fetched and hints at a bankruptcy of ideas.

The standout performance in the film comes from Saurabh Shukla, who’s excellent as the entitled Tauji, confident that no one and nothing can touch him. Watching his character slowly unravel, as he discovers what his family has been up to behind his back, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bad for him.

In the end Raid left me very frustrated. It’s promising and delivers many rousing moments, but it runs out of steam well before the finish line. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Big ideas

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:16 pm

March 16, 2018

Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West, Christopher Læssø

Director: Ruben Östlund

The Square, the new film from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, opens with a scene in which the film’s protagonist, the charming curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is engaged in an interview with an American journalist. She points to a particularly convoluted passage on the museum’s website and asks if he would be so kind to explain. He tries, but it’s obvious he has no idea what it means either.

Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the recently held Oscars, The Square is a pitch-black satire on the pretensions of the modern art world. Östlund seizes the opportunity to poke fun at the faux intellectualism of its practitioners and patrons, and he specialises in a brand of humour that is oddly discomfiting.

It’s evident – from a scene in which a man with Tourette’s repeatedly yells out obscenities during a masterclass at the museum, or one involving a fight over the disposal of a used condom – that Östlund is straining the fine line between what’s funny and what makes us cringe. Nothing demonstrates that better than the film’s most unsettling sequence in which a performance artist, imitating an ape for the entertainment of rich patrons at a fancy fundraiser, runs amok.

To be fair, it’s an intelligent but overstuffed film that’s bursting with ideas and subplots, although the main focus is on Christian, the afore-mentioned museum curator, and his wavering moral compass. After he’s robbed of his phone and his wallet while trying to help a stranger in the street, he tracks the phone’s whereabouts using a locator app and leaves threatening letters for all the residents of the building where the stolen items might be. Bad decision.

He makes a series of bad decisions, in fact, that have real consequences, and Danish actor Claes Bang, who plays the part, embraces the film’s absurdist humour with real flair. He’s terrific as the flawed hero, and oozes leading-man charm.

I’ll leave you to discover the pleasures of “The Square” for yourself, but anyone who’s watched Ostlund’s last film, the terrific Force Majeure should have a good idea what to expect. That film, which raised questions about masculinity and cowardice, was triggered by a man’s split-second reflex to escape to safety instead of looking out for his wife and children when confronted by a sudden avalanche. In comparison The Square is a more bloated film whose parts are greater than the whole.

Nevertheless it’s fresh, and thought-provoking, and provocative in the way that few films are. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for The Square. At over two hours and thirty minutes it demands patience. But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 12, 2018

Twisted tales

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:25 pm

March 09, 2018

Cast: Renuka Shahane, Pulkit Samrat, Masumeh Makhija, Sharman Joshi, Richa Chadha, Himanshu Malik, Aisha Ahmed, Ankit Rathi

Director: Arjun Mukherjee

That one never really knows one’s neighbors – no matter how long one has been living next door to them – is my big takeaway from 3 Storeys. The film unfolds in and around a busy Mumbai chawl whose residents live cheek-to-jowl in matchbox-sized flats, and we get three separate stories involving the lives and secrets of some of them.

In the first, a cranky old widow (Renuka Shahane) finds a prospective buyer (Pulkit Samrat) who agrees to shell out an unreasonable sum of money for her tiny apartment. Over coffee, however, the layers peel, leading to a shocking conclusion.

The second story is focused on Masumeh Makhija’s character, the miserable wife of an abusive alcoholic, who runs into an old lover, and finds herself recapping how her world came undone.

In the third story, a pair of young lovers, a Hindu girl (Aisha Ahmed) and a Muslim boy (Ankit Rathi), elope to escape their angry parents who’re dead against their relationship.

One of the overarching themes of the film, and true to each of the individual storylines, is the unshakeable baggage of the past. In each case, the past is either a trigger or a burden that weighs down the characters. Director Arjun Mukherjee, working from a script by Althea Kaushal, delivers a sting in every tale, but barring the one in the first story, the twists are fairly predictable.

The acting, meanwhile, is hit and miss. Renuka Shahane is in good form, Masumeh Makhija hits the right notes, and in a small cameo Richa Chadha is expectedly alluring as the mysterious young widow who’s got everyone talking. But the rest of the ensemble underwhelms. The filmmaking too is strictly serviceable; there’s no distinct voice or directorial signature to be spotted anywhere. The makers fail to create a wholly believable world or provide a convincing slice of life in a Mumbai chawl.

At less than two hours though, the film is never a slog. There was potential here to create a compelling drama about the dark secrets that ordinary folk bury out of sight. But at best it’s a half-baked experiment with a few shining moments. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for 3 Storeys.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Croft services

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:06 pm

March 09, 2018

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Daniel Wu, Dominic West, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Walton Goggins

Director: Roar Urthaug

There’s a scene in the new Tomb Raider film starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, in which she pins down an attacker, locks him in a stranglehold, and chokes him till his body goes limp in death. Presumably it’s the first time she’s killed anyone, and it’s her emotional state immediately after overcoming her enemy – disturbed, confused, possibly even regretful – that makes it clear why Vikander’s portrayal of the character feels so different from Angelina Jolie’s more than 15 years ago.

Jolie, who twice slipped into the iconic tank top, first in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and then in Cradle of Life two years later, is regarded as the perfect live-action personification of the beloved video game character. An ass-kicking superwoman who knows her way around a pair of guns, and who can be as tough as any of the guys, often without breaking a sweat. Vikander’s version of Croft gets wounded, feels pain, and puts some effort into making those incredible leaps. In other words she’s human and vulnerable.

It’s an approach that serves the film well, raising the stakes just a wee bit when the shit hits the fan after Croft sets off to find her father, who went missing seven years ago after leaving her to find an ancient mythical tomb on a faraway island off the coast of Japan.

Fans of the video game might have a little more patience with the doozy of a plot that involves solving complicated Japanese puzzles or cracking riddles to get past obstacles in the way of the protagonist’s mission. Having traveled from London to Hong Kong, where she hires a boat owned by a drunken sailor (Daniel Wu) to take her to the island of Yamatai, she learns that the Crofts aren’t the only ones searching for the tomb. That’s the cue for a string of action set pieces.

But who are we fooling? That’s exactly what we’re here for, and Norwegian-born director Roar Urthaug stages brutal, realistic sequences that Vikander pulls off nicely, striking just the right balance between wide-eyed first-time adventurer and slick, confidence-oozing wonder woman. This movie marks the making of Lara Croft as we know her, and Vikander makes her coming of age entirely convincing.

The cast is rounded off by solid actors like Dominic West in the role of Richard Croft, our heroine’s father; and Kristin Scott-Thomas as the caretaker of his businesses, who will likely have a larger role in this film’s sequel if there is one.

The key to becoming invested in the film – despite its overall familiarity and lack of any genuine surprise or originality – is Vikander’s natural performance, and her commitment to the physical requirements of the role. She’s the reason “Tomb Raider” isn’t a complete waste of time. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 2, 2018

Girl, interrupted!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 4:00 pm

March 02, 2018

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein

Director: Greta Gerwig

In a scene in Lady Bird, the protagonist, Christine McPherson, a 17-year-old high school senior played by Saoirse Ronan, is in a changing room trying out prom dresses while carrying out a conversation with her mother through the door. “Do you like me?” she asks her mum. Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, replies that she loves her very much. Christine comes out of the booth, fixes her piercing eyes on her mother and asks, “Yes, but do you like me?”

It’s interesting that the working title of this film, directed by Greta Gerwig, was Mothers and Daughters. Because while Lady Bird is pitched as a bittersweet comedy on adolescence, it is at heart about a relationship you can easily identify with – the peculiar love-hate paradox that a teenage girl feels for her mum.

You understand the teenage angst and confusion that pours out of Christine. She wants everyone to call her Lady Bird (“It is given to me, by me,” she says emphatically about the name). Like many teenagers, she believes she is made for greatness. It is why she wants to leave her “boring” hometown Sacramento and study in New York once she’s done with high school. Her mother, more practical and realistic about her potential, might seem unsupportive, which explains their prickly co-existence.

The beauty of Lady Bird is that it covers regular high school movie territory in terms of plot, but Gerwig tells it with an honesty that frequently makes you laugh out loud. Lady Bird shuns her best friend Julie (a fantastic Beanie Feldstein), has an ally in her quietly supportive dad (Tracy Letts), and falls in and out of love with two wildly different boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet).

But this is essentially a tale of Christine growing up to understand her mother. It also shows that while you may leave home to find your destiny, a piece of where you came from stays within you. Saoirse Ronan brings a razor-sharp authenticity to the lead character, and by the end of the movie, you’re completely taken in by her. Metcalf is outstanding as her constantly aggravated martyr mother.

I have minor quibbles with Lady Bird – it feels typical in the beginning, and takes some time to find its groove. The protagonist frequently comes off as over dramatic and annoying, and the religious overtones are also dreary. But stay with it and it grows on you. It’s a keenly observed portrait of youth, and Gerwig casts a non-judgmental eye on the seemingly minor conflicts and dramas that make up every teenager’s life.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Lady Bird. In Gerwig it marks the arrival of a fresh new storytelling voice. The Oscar love is deserving.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

She’s got the chills!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 3:30 pm

March 02, 2018

Cast: Anushka Sharma, Parambrata Chatterjee, Rajat Kapoor, Ritabhari Chakraborty, Dibyendu Bhattacharya

Director: Prosit Roy

I’m a real sucker for horror films, but in Bollywood it’s a genre that hasn’t produced anything particularly memorable since Ramgopal Varma’s Bhoot came out 15 years ago. It’s true that it’s hard to make a compelling scary movie today when distractions like mobile phones have all but killed the immersive movie-watching experience. But it’s also true that tacky special effects, recycled storylines, and over-the-top acting have turned what are intended as horror films into unintentional comedies.

Pari, co-produced by and starring Anushka Sharma, is a competently made film that’s rich in atmospherics. Set in Kolkata during the monsoon it’s bathed in blue-green hues, and uses sound design shrewdly, both to deliver jump-scares and to ratchet up a strong sense of foreboding. First-time director Prosit Roy does a good job with the look and feel of the film, for the most part opting for starkness to establish a mood of cold dread.

I’ll try to keep the details to a minimum, but I can tell you the plot is set in motion after a road accident on a rainy day leads to the discovery of a young woman named Rukhsana (Anushka Sharma), chained in a cottage in the woods. Evidently she’s had little contact with the outside world, easily frightened and suspicious of virtually everyone and everything. For reasons I won’t give away, a shy fellow named Arnab (Parambrata Chatterjee) feels obliged to take her in, even as a mysterious professor (Rajat Kapoor) arrives from Bangladesh in desperate search of her.

The script, by Roy and Abhishek Banerjee, invokes satanic cults, disfigured women in black robes, witch-hunters, and plenty mumbo jumbo. There are disturbing scenes of brutal violence against women and animals, and enough blood is spilled to make even those with relatively strong nerves feel queasy.

A big problem with the film is its length. Roy spends too much time on set-up, and it isn’t until the chilling intermission point that the haze begins to clear. It also doesn’t help that the film becomes progressively bizarre and positively silly as it inches towards the end, complete with a laughable love triangle and a flat-out ridiculous climax involving a scene of childbirth.

But there is some genuinely creepy imagery in the film including a shot of a fake eye floating in a beaker. Another involves a woman leaning over a bucket of water in a bathroom. There are also multiple nods to the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. I’ll be honest, more than a few times I was startled in my seat. Roy uses these moments and a host of familiar tropes skillfully. There’s also Anushka Sharma, who’s in good form, making a meal of the part, clearly throwing herself into the paradox that is her character.

And yet Pari doesn’t come together in a coherent, satisfying way. There’s a lot going on in the film, including references to true historical events from the subcontinent, and an over-dependence on old wives’ tales about spirits and ‘ifrits’ and ‘jinns’. What starts out interestingly, ends in a mess. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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