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

November 29, 2019

Tragedy recreated

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 1:00 pm

November 28, 2019

Cast: Dev Patel, Anupam Kher, Armie Hammer, Jason Issacs, Nazanin Boniadi

Director: Anthony Maras

There’s a scene in Hotel Mumbai that immediately brings to mind another film…a very different film. The head chef of the Taj Mahal Hotel gathers his staff minutes after it has become clear that the property is under attack from armed assailants. He tells his staff that they have a choice: they can stay, risk their lives and help the guests to safety, or they can escape through the rear door and return to their families. As the staff contemplates their choice, one elderly manager steps ahead, explains that he’s been with the hotel for over 30 years, that this is his life. So he’ll stay. That scene reminds you of a similar moment in Titanic. Like that film Hotel Mumbai goes through the paces of a disaster movie. Yet it falls short. There are some chilling moments and strong performances, but it doesn’t have the throat-choking impact that you’d expect to feel from a film that recreates one of the most horrific tragedies of our times.

As you’re probably aware, Hotel Mumbai is based on the 26/11 terror attacks of 2008 in which 10 Pakistani terrorists laid siege on Mumbai and killed hundreds of innocent people. Soon after we see how the men arrived in tiny boats from the sea, the attacks unfold at CST railway station, near Metro Cinema, at Cama Hospital, and at Leopold Café. But the film focuses primarily on the incidents at the Taj, revealing in some detail how four men wreaked havoc on the luxury hotel, its terrified guests and heroic staff.

Australian director Anthony Maras reveals an eye for detail and leans towards reality as he sets up the characters, especially the backstory of Arjun, a poor waiter, played by Dev Patel, through whose perspective the film unfolds. The events are rooted in fact, yet the only real-life character on screen is the hotel’s head chef Hemant Oberoi, played by Anupam Kher, presented as a figure of nobility and courage. Other characters are inspired from the stories of real victims and survivors. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi play a young couple enjoying a romantic dinner at the Shamiana while a nanny takes care of their infant in the suite upstairs. Jason Isaacs, in the role of a blunt Russian guest who’s holding a secret, provides some pithy relief.

The cold-blooded shooting scenes, and the parts where the guests are hunted by the terrorists (all four enacted credibly) evoke dread and claustrophobia. But it’s in the little details that the film falters. Background characters are crucial to this kind of film, but little effort appears to have gone into portraying them as anything but stereotypes. Despite its best intentions the film also fails to truly dig into the hearts and minds of those trapped between life and death. What was going through them, knowing that they were mere moments away from losing their lives? Even with the terrorists, we see how they’re goaded and galvanised into carrying out these dastardly acts by a voice on their phones invoking the Lord. A scene in which one of the men calls his father to check if money has reached his family hints at what they were promised in exchange for their commitment to the cause. But what was it actually like for these very young men, pulling the trigger and sending innocent men, women, and children to the grave? The film offers none of that insight.

Hotel Mumbai isn’t cheap or exploitative in its recreation of the tragedy. Yet it never goes beyond the obvious. The truth is that watching live news broadcasts of the hotel burning, and of guests escaping through windows and exits were far more horrific than any film that attempts to duplicate it. The events of 26/11 left many of us permanently scarred. It’ll take an extremely smart, sensitive, and insightful film to help us make any sense of it. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Hotel Mumbai. This is not that film.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 22, 2019

Laboured lunacy

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:53 pm

November 22, 2019

Cast: John Abraham, Anil Kapoor, Arshad Warsi, Pulkit Samrat, Ileana D’cruz, Kriti Kharbanda, Urvashi Rautela

Director: Anees Bazmee

When a film’s title so brazenly announces its sensibility (or the lack of it), any criticism about its nonsensical nature feels pointless. So Pagalpanti, directed by Anees Bazmee is just that – nearly two-and-a-half hours of brainlessness. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that Bazmee, who has also co-written the film, doesn’t try anything fresh or original. If you are going to make a mad film, pull out all the stops for heaven’s sake. Pagalpanti never does. Don’t get me wrong – it’s way too long and there’s a lot going on. But it feels like a lazier, cheaper, recycled version of Bazmee’s earlier films.

John Abraham stars as Rajkishore, who is the walking-talking embodiment of bad luck. Misfortune follows him everywhere. He can’t hold down a job for this reason, and any business he touches inevitably burns to the ground. One such failed enterprise in partnership with his friends Jaggu (Arshad Warsi) and Chandu (Pulkit Samrat) ends up with the trio deep in debt and left with no choice but to work for gangster brothers-in-law Raja (Saurabh Shukla) and WiFi (Anil Kapoor).

I couldn’t explain the rest of the plot even if I tried, because there isn’t one. Set for no good reason in London, this is a busy film, and every few scenes we’re introduced to new characters. There are rival gangsters (Zakir Hussain and Mukesh Tiwari) plotting to take down Raja and WiFi, there is an uncle and a niece (Brijendra Kala and Ileana D’cruz) in pursuit of Rajkishore for the money he owes them, there is Raja’s pampered daughter (Kriti Kharbanda) who falls for Chandu, there’s also Urvashi Rautela playing a woman whose job is to pretend to be a ghost in order to scare away trespassers from her boss’ property, and – believe it or not – there’s even a character played by Inaamulhaq that’s modelled on fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi.

For the most part the script finds the flimsiest of reasons to cram as many characters in a scene as possible. The jokes are pedestrian, and the gags have no novelty whatsoever. A chandelier falls on a character’s head, cars fly in the air, ram into each other, or simply explode, straight out of a Rohit Shetty film, and at one point, inspired no doubt from Total Dhamaal, that other brainless comedy from earlier this year, a bunch of lions wander into a scene. It’s clear that Bazmee will try anything. He even throws in a patriotic angle for what it’s worth. The stink of desperation can be smelt from a distance.

Of the cast, expectedly Saurabh Shukla, Anil Kapoor, and Arshad Warsi – all actors with solid comic timing – make the most they can of the mediocre material. A word also for John Abraham who sportingly plays along with the ‘lunkhead’ stereotype. In one bit, he rattles off a long dialogue without a hitch, even as others in the scene are visibly surprised and break into cheers. It’s a small moment that works because the actor owns the joke.

These are small mercies in an overlong, derivative film that fails to exploit the potential of what its own title promises. The madness feels laboured, where’s the inspired lunacy? I’m going with one-and-a-half of five for Pagalpanti.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Ice, ice, baby!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:52 pm

November 22, 2019

Cast: Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Evan Rachel Wood, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K Brown, Alfred Molina

Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

When Frozen came out in 2013 it not only captured the hearts of little girls everywhere (and plenty not-so-little adults), it also went on to earn Disney a whopping $1.3 billion, making it, at the time, the highest grossing animation film ever. So you’ll understand there was no way they were just going to let it go (see what I did there?)

Frozen II has a lot going for it. Returning directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee stage the drama on a larger canvas; the animation itself is much better this time around. And we’re reunited with all the characters we loved in the earlier film – spunky royal sisters Elsa and Anna, sassy snowman Olaf, Anna’s lovelorn beau Kristoff, and Sven the reindeer. There’s also a clutch of catchy power ballads from returning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. And yet there’s no mistaking the fact that this sequel doesn’t pack in the same joy of discovery that the earlier film did.

Here’s where the problem lies: Frozen, with its empowerment message for girls, and its ‘happily ever after’ ending felt wholesome and complete, especially after Elsa came to accept her ‘ice powers’ as a gift rather a curse. Frozen II is forced to come up with new conflicts for Elsa and Anna. The film is densely plotted and complicated in its first hour, although the basic premise – of Elsa heading out into the dangerous unknown to learn the truth about her powers – has a lot of potential.

The odds were always going to be stacked against the sequel of such a beloved, monster hit. The pressure on Frozen II to be bigger is visible in nearly every frame of the film. There is some gorgeous animation on display, especially the scenes in which Elsa must navigate torrents of water in order to get to her mystical destination. Then there is the pressure to create a song that tops Let It Go. Idina Menzel, who returns as the voice of Elsa, handsomely belts out Into the Unknown, which could likely become the anthem of this film. Olaf has a lot more to do, and if, like me, you’re a fan, you won’t complain as he continues his nebbish shtick.

To be fair, the new film takes some warming up to (pun unintended) before you become invested in the story. But there’s a lot to like here, particularly these characters who’ve grown with us and evolved nicely. Whatever niggles one might have with the film, they’re minor ones. Frozen II is a perfectly respectable stand-alone film; it just falls short of Frozen-level greatness. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Until we meat

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:51 pm

November 22, 2019

Cast: Lima Das, Arghadeep Barua, Neetali Das

Director: Bhaskar Hazarika

For anyone that’s harbouring a taste for the unusual, the excellent Assamese film Aamis may be the best thing on the menu. Directed by Bhaskar Hazarika, the film explores appetites, cravings, desires and morals, until it all blends into a dangerous, thrilling cocktail. Watching the two people at the centre of this film exchanging meals that they’ve lovingly cooked for each other, I was reminded fleetingly of The Lunchbox. But in a clever twist, Aamis moves far away from that tender romance.

Hazarika, who has written the film too, presents us with daring ideas, frequently venturing into dark, even twisted territory. The result is a film that shakes you to the core, even while taking you on a tantalising visual journey.

Nirmali and Sumon are strangers drawn to each other over their shared love for eating unusual meats. Nirmali is a pediatrician in Guwahati; married, with a young son, and whose husband is often away for weeks in remote villages, researching diseases. When he is home, he’s a self-righteous bore, rarely listening to his wife, consumed by his “important” work in the villages. Nirmali is lonely and ripe for companionship when she meets Sumon, a PhD student younger than her, who’s researching meat-eating traditions in the North East.

The two set off on a shared culinary adventure. Over delicious meat dishes and conversations, they are drawn to each other. They quickly fall in love, but are mindful of how society may frown on their relationship. They can more freely explore their feelings in the food that they eat; in the meals that Sumon prepares. But their love for the forbidden takes them down a dark path. To reveal any more would be to spoil the suspense in this wildly unpredictable film.

What one must acknowledge is that Hazarika crafts a narrative that starts off like a sweet romance. Lima Das and Arghadeep Barua are first-time actors, and they bring a shy, fresh energy to their characters Nirmali and Sumon. But as Aamis freefalls into the bizarre, the music and the visuals take on more sinister tones. There is a lot of meat eating; the food shots are lovingly composed. The film suggests that just like we all have different tastes and appetites when it comes to food, we also have varied moral palates and desires. Nirmali, for example, is judgmental of her married friend’s casual affair, repeatedly stressing that she is yet to even touch Sumon. Aamis also looks at love under a microscope, revealing its tiny details, its beauty and its ugliness.

Both written and directed with extraordinary skill and insight, the film seizes your attention as it unfolds, and then leaves you pondering its themes long after the lights come back on. Be warned, it’s not for the squeamish; you’ll need a strong stomach to take it in. Still, I recommend that you make the time for it.

I’m going with an easy four out of five for Aamis. Bhaskar Hazarika reveals a solid filmmaking voice with this staggeringly original film that leaves you with many questions and yet delivers an incomparably satiating experience.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

An unlikely friendship

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:49 pm

November 22, 2019

Cast: Mu Ramasamy, Nagavishal

Director: Madhumita

In the charming new Tamil film KD, Karuppu Durai is an 80-year-old man, weighed down by sorrow. Just as he wakes from a coma, he hears his children planning to kill him through a form of euthanasia practiced in his village. It makes the old man leave his home behind and run away. But the day that Karuppu Durai becomes KD, he starts shedding his insecurities and his sadness and sets out to embrace life. It all has to do with meeting a street-smart, 8-year-old orphan Kutty, who nicknames him KD, and teaches him to be ‘jolly’ like him.

To watch KD is to be reminded of a whole bunch of such bittersweet films – Pixar’s animated gem Up, Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro, even the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer The Bucket List. The film’s premise is straightforward: an old man regains his zest for life when he takes a journey with a child who helps him tick off entries on his bucket list. But director Madhumita infuses a refreshing touch of originality to that familiar set up…like KD’s sheer gluttony for mutton biryani or his boisterous enthusiasm for Tamil superstar MGR. There’s a lively comic thread, especially through Kutty’s acerbic one-liners. This is a child who talks as if he’s far older than his years, and this is the rare instance where that isn’t irritating; it’s cute.

You’re also transported to scenic, rural Tamil Nadu and its village life, making you want to set off on a road trip yourself, not unlike the odd couple in the film. Madhumita lucks upon a terrific cast, with the excellent Mu Ramasamy playing KD, and Nagavishal playing the little tyke Kutty. The script does subsequently veer down a predictable path, but the tone remains upbeat. It’s one of those sweet, life-affirming, feel-good films that leaves you with a big smile on your face.

Sometimes that’s exactly what you need at the movies. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for KD.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 15, 2019

That stinking feeling

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:00 pm

November 15, 2019

Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Tara Sutaria, Ritesh Deshmukh, Rakul Preet Singh, Nasser

Director: Milap Zaveri

In interviews leading up to the release of Marjaavaan, Milap Zaveri has said it was born out of an angry place inside him. Having watched it I can tell you the anger is contagious. Marjaavaan is a lazy, cynical, cash-grab exercise disguised to look like a movie. It feels like it was made not from a script but from a checklist of Hindi film clichés and tropes from the 80s and 90s. Milap is credited as the writer and director of the film, but there’s little evidence of whatever writing or directing that’s supposedly gone into it.

Sidharth Malhotra stars as Raghu, the trusted right-hand man of a water-mafia don named Anna (Nasser) who took him in when he was abandoned as a child and raised him as his own son. This has led to a lifetime of resentment from Anna’s birth son Vishnu (Ritesh Deshmukh), a three-foot ball of hair and fury. Vishnu, who resembles a shrunken version of Chewbacca, has it in for Raghu; he’s constantly plotting to humiliate him or to eliminate him completely.

All of this unfolds in a basti in Mumbai, a sort of Wasseypur-like badlands where gang wars routinely break out in the street, innocent people are killed in broad daylight, and the police always shows up late. The characters in Milap’s films are ‘types’ and they have all the depth of a potted plant. So Raghu kills people on Anna’s orders but we’re never allowed to forget that he’s basically an empathetic and ‘progressive’ gangster who helps old women and stands for communal harmony. Rakul Preet Singh is Arzoo, your standard hooker with a heart of gold, which means she must stand on the sidelines and watch the man she loves, lose his heart to the ‘virtuous’ girl. Which brings us to Zoya (Tara Sutaria), a mute girl from Kashmir who wanders into Raghu’s orbit; the sort of angelic heroine who exists in a script only as a catalyst to trigger a change in the hero.

I could tell you what happens next, or you could just watch the trailer – they’ve given it away themselves. The second half spirals into a revenge saga with the sort of twists that your six-year-old could easily predict. Watching Marjaavaan, the stench of creative bankruptcy is hard to miss. There’s nothing fresh by way of story or treatment, only one good song stands out in an album crammed with lazy remixes, and throwback tropes like clap-trap dialoguebaazi get very tiring very quickly.

The weight of this mess is too much to carry even for Sidharth Malhotra’s pumped up shoulders. He’s earnest as Raghu, especially in the emotional bits, but action scenes in which he vanquishes ten bad guys at once look unconvincing. Salman Khan he is not.

I came away from Marjaavaan bored and exhausted. It’s literally a film with no perceivable merit, and one that begs two key questions: How did this film get made? And why are we being taken for a ride?

I’m going with one out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 8, 2019

Hair and now!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:59 pm

November 08, 2019

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam, Saurabh Shukla, Seema Pahwa, Javed Jaffrey, Abhishek Banerjee

Director: Amar Kaushik

Ayushmann Khurrana, who’s cornered the market when it comes to playing flawed, insecure men with confidence issues, continues his winning streak with Bala. This time he’s playing a young man dealing with premature balding, and the film uses that premise to make a case against judging people on the basis of physical appearance.

Ayushmann is Kanpur resident Balmukund Shukla aka Bala, thus named for his thick, lustrous hair at birth. In school his wavy tresses ensured his popularity with the girls; he even mocked his bald teacher in class. But karma appears to have caught up with Bala who, at 25, is losing hair every day, and growing more and more desperate. There’s no potential remedy he won’t try; no ‘nuska’ he won’t give a shot…including oils and eggs, and a mixture of cow dung and bull semen. When everything else fails, he reluctantly goes with a wig. Director Amar Kaushik mines these moments for big laughs, but Ayushmann conveys Bala’s vulnerability with heartbreaking precision. Even as you laugh, you can’t help feeling for him.

This is, in fact, the biggest strength of Niren Bhatt’s winning screenplay, which gives us scenarios and moments that are both entertaining and authentic.

Amar Kaushik, who last directed Stree, perfectly captures the sights and sounds, and rhythms and feels of Tier II towns: the accents, the family banter, the casual moments between friends, the obsession with Bollywood. In one of the funniest bits in the film, the three of them just hanging out casually, Javed Jaffrey and Abhishek Banerjee playing Bala’s two best friends, break into Amitabh Bachchan imitations. Terrific stuff.

The other masterstroke is Yami Gautam’s character Pari, a Tik Tok star and sometime model from Lucknow who briefly enters Bala’s romantic orbit. Yami plays her as a ditzy but always likeable figure, and gets two of the best moments in the film – one in which she learns Bala’s truth and responds with understandable shock and horror, and another in which she explains candidly why looks matter so much to her and why she can’t resign herself to Bala’s ‘shortcoming’.

But the problem is that the filmmakers aren’t content giving us merely one case study to make the larger point about our prejudice towards people based on their physical appearance. So they bung in the character of Bala’s dark-skinned childhood friend Latika (Bhumi Pednekar), who’s grown up mocked and bullied because of her complexion, which is hampering her marriage prospects now. You can’t tell if it’s a case of sheer ignorance or convenience that the makers equate the agony of balding for men with the experience of being a dark-skinned woman in India – however well meaning the parallel may be, it’s just not the same.

The decision to cast a lighter-skinned Bhumi over an actress with the required complexion reeks of hypocrisy, and discredits the film’s very message. And the decision to practically lather Bhumi in dark face and body make up is misguided and completely distracting. It’s a shame because she’s a very talented actress, and she turns Latika into a confident, spirited character. In fact, I wish there was more of Latika woven organically into the plot, simply because Bhumi plays her with such vim. Latika’s scenes with Bala benefit from the comfort and the ease that Ayushmann and Bhumi clearly share, possibly from having made two films together before. Unfortunately Latika exists only to drive home the message.

That, for me, is the film’s only black spot (pun unintended). For the most part Bala crackles with sharp dialogues, Ayushmann’s winning mimicry of Bollywood stars, especially Shah Rukh Khan, and of course the charming ensemble that includes Saurabh Shukla, a moustache-sporting Seema Pahwa, Dheerendra Kumar Gautam as Bala’s younger brother, and again, Abhishek Banerjee and Javed Jaffrey as his best friends.

Supported very ably by his two leading ladies, Ayushmann Khurrana cuts a sympathetic figure as another not-instantly-likeable loser. Watch how he tears into his father for passing down the baldness gene. Never understating the troubling blackface of Bhumi’s character, the truth is that the film is consistently enjoyable. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Bala.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Holiday cheer

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:58 pm

November 08, 2019

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh

Director: Paul Feig

Any movie starring Emilia Clarke, Mother of Dragons herself, and Henry Golding from last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, deserves at least a cursory glance, you’d agree.

Directed by Paul Feig, who helmed Bridesmaids and the female Ghostbusters reboot, Last Christmas might seem like your typical holiday romance from the packaging – all breezy and light-hearted on the outside, barely hiding a schmaltzy, gooey core – the truth is that you may be surprised by its ambitions.

The film is centred on Kate, a mildly damaged young woman in London who tends to alienate friends and disappoint her family with alarming regularity. She dreams of becoming a professional singer, but she’s stuck working at a year-round Christmas shop where she has to dress like an elf. Enter Tom, a charming, mysterious stranger who is as upbeat and selfless as she is cynical and selfish. Their budding romance is set against a gorgeous backdrop of the weeks leading up to Christmas. Frankly it’s one of the unexpected pleasures of this film; the walks down the small, quaint alleys of Central London, the discovery of secret parks somehow hidden from plain sight in the heart of the city.

To be fair, there are other pleasures to be had too. Namely the broad humour provided by Emma Thompson who plays Kate’s hilarious immigrant mother, and Michelle Yeoh as her boss at the Christmas shop who’s at the cusp of a new romance herself. The script (co-written by Thompson) gives both actresses many moments to shine, tapping into their sharp comedic timing. Other scene-stealers include a pair of female cops whose incessant bickering is the source of many laughs.

But the film isn’t merely content providing the warm, fuzzy feels of your standard holiday movie. It wants to say something about the mood of our times, and it’s never shy about revealing its politics. The script makes room to incorporate Brexit into its plot, to reflect on the anti-immigrant sentiment creeping into the UK, and to address the reality of homelessness. There’s also a same-sex relationship treated with the respect it deserves.

At the centre of the plot though is the romance between Kate and Tom, and predictably, her thawing from the deep disconnection born out of a health crisis she prefers not to discuss. The big twist in the end is one you might see coming – I did, from a mile away – but it still chokes you up when it arrives. The film’s title, derived from that evergreen George Michael song, is a hint.

Last Christmas may not be remembered as one of the great holiday rom-coms – it’s no Love, Actually – but it’s a perfectly satisfying one-time watch not least because it’s got a winning ensemble of actors who practically light up the screen, and because it delivers a healthy dose of humour and heart that’s hard to resist. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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