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

March 13, 2020

Papa knows best

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:00 am

March 13, 2020

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Radhika Madan, Deepak Dobriyal, Kareena Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Kiku Sharda, Ranvir Shorey

Director: Homi Adajania

Angrezi Medium opens with a slate that defines a parent as “a strange creature with the profound ability to love its offspring irrationally”. It’s a fitting description, as pretty much anyone who’s raised a child will tell you, and an especially accurate one in the case of this film’s protagonist.

Irrfan Khan plays a sweet-shop owner in Udaipur named Champak Bansal, a single parent committed to raising his only daughter Tarika (Radhika Madan). Theirs is an affectionate, endearing relationship; the scenes between the two actors are charming and feel authentic. Tarika, who is just shy of 18, has wanted to go abroad since she was little, but Champak has somehow always managed to put it off. When she works hard to land a scholarship to a top London university, he finally relents. But he also unintentionally causes her scholarship to be revoked. Consumed by guilt over potentially shattering his daughter’s dream Champak vows to send Tarika to university, although he can ill afford the cost of a seat.

As many as four writers are credited with developing the story, and yet the script of Angrezi Medium is largely a mess of meandering subplots and contrived conflicts. Directed by Homi Adajania, the film’s first hour is especially a slog. Champak and his brother Gopi (Deepak Dobriyal), who runs a rival sweet-shop across from his, are at loggerheads over the rightful use of the family name for their respective businesses. Their acrimony spills into a legal battle that has little bearing on the film’s main plot, and hence feels needless and distracting even if it is played out strictly for laughs.

The incident that leads to the film’s pre-interval cliffhanger is also a stretch. The writers choose convenience over logic to create one obstacle after another in Champak’s way, and by the time the lights come on at intermission Angrezi Medium feels like it has fully lost its way. But then something surprising happens in the film’s second half – it’s the reason film critics don’t give up on films mid way – the humour becomes sharper, the dialogues start to crackle, the Irrfan-Deepak chemistry hits its stride, and despite the still sloppy screenplay the rock solid ensemble of actors vastly improves this average film.

Pankaj Tripathi shines even in a single-scene cameo as a Dubai fixer tasked with helping Champak and Gopi to enter England illegally. When they balk at each of his risky suggestions, he says to them, exasperatedly: “Yeh koi saree shop nahi hai, ‘Koi aur option dikhao!’” Radhika Madan has a natural presence on screen, and Kareena Kapoor plays a perennially angry London cop whose first encounter with Champak and Gopi is flat-out hilarious. In smaller roles, Kiku Sharda, Ranvir Shorey, and Dimple Kapadia round out the cast nicely.

However the heavy lifting is up to Irrfan Khan and Deepak Dobriyal, who play off each other so well it’s like watching a perfectly synchronised dance. Deepak, who is supremely talented but vastly underrated, brings little moments of physical humour to complement the rat-a-tat verbal exchanges; he is one of the film’s big strengths.

And yet it’s impossible to overlook the script’s old-fashioned, and frankly outdated worldview when it comes to parent-child politics. We’re in 2020 and Indian parents – certainly according to this film – will continue to emotionally blackmail and guilt their kids into doing exactly what they want. Indian kids don’t fly the nest; independence is frowned upon. Somewhere in this mix the writers even find room for some ‘mera bharat mahaan’ messaging.

If you can overlook those problems there are some pleasures to be had, chief among them the joy of taking in Irrfan’s performance. It’s an effortless job – ‘makkhan’ as they say in Hindi – a performance so light on its feet, it never feels like acting. He invests Champak with genuine humanity, despite the uneven script. You can’t help feeling especially appreciative knowing that he made the film while critically unwell.

In the end I feel like Angrezi Medium is one part clunky, and one part enjoyable. It’s not a perfect film – far from it – but I will admit I came out with a smile. I’m going with a generous three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

February 21, 2020

Sons and lovers

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:00 am

February 20, 2020

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manu Rishi, Maanvi Gagroo

Director: Hitesh Kewalya

Smack in the middle of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Ayushmann Khurana’s character Kartik says to his boyfriend’s homophobic father that gay people have to fight every day, but there is no fight harder than the one with your family.

There is unmistakable dignity in the way that the same-sex relationship at the centre of this film has been treated. When we meet the flamboyantly filmi Kartik and his boyfriend Aman (Jitendra Kumar), they are already in love and living together in Delhi. It’s just that Aman hasn’t come out to his family back home in Allahabad. Considering the theme, the dialogues are sensitive and the repartee between the characters frequently crackling. When Aman does open up about his love for Kartik to his scientist father (Gajraj Rao) and his straight-talking mother (Neena Gupta), he talks of dopamine, oxytocin, and of his hypothalamus. Aman explains his feelings in chemical terms, but it nicely captures the sheer splendour of love.

Admirably, writer-director Hitesh Kewalya doesn’t mine laughs from stereotyping gay characters in the way that mainstream Hindi films have done for as long as one can remember. Aside from an innocuous nose-ring that Ayushmann wears, there are no obvious markers of femininity. What’s especially refreshing is that the lovers or their relationship is never the source of comedy, it’s the extreme reactions by those around them to their relationship that is treated with humor. In that, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is not so much about homosexuality as it is about homophobia.

But the humour, as it turns out, is hit and miss. 2017’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan cleverly and amusingly beefed up the role of the extended family in what was essentially the story of a soon-to-be-married couple and the ‘problem’ they’re confronted with. This film too puts the family centrestage, but that overcomplicates the story. There’s a trying-too-hard quest for laughs that starts wearing thin. Aman’s folks argue incessantly and blame each other while trying to deal with the ‘situation’, until the story feels stretched and silly. The bullying relationship between Gajraj’s character Shankar Tripathi and his brother Chaman (Manu Rishi) is funny initially, but it works strictly as a side act and loses steam when it becomes the film’s main source of drama and laughs. A portion in which Tripathi stages a religious ‘rebirth’ ceremony to ‘normalise’ his son doesn’t land, and a subplot involving his invention of black cauliflower is a contrived metaphor.

The immensely likeable Gajraj Rao, trapped in a not-so-likeable character, is both one of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. In a very funny scene, Tripathi has a violent physical reaction when he spots his son in a clinch with his lover while the family is heading by train for a wedding. Tripathi is a real hoot when he’s nervous and vulnerable – like in his impromptu dance-off with Kartik – but there is little joy in the bits where he’s the standard-issue villain-dad.

Even the pairing of Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta as Aman’s parents, inspired no doubt by their wonderful chemistry in Badhaai Ho, is largely underutilised. There’s a naughty joke snuck in there about how she relieves her husband’s anxiety, but for the most part the bickering gets tiresome. Aman’s chacha and his hysterical chachi, played by Manu Rishi and Sunita Rajwar, are funnier. In one scene, to underplay the PDA that Aman and Kartik indulge in at their daughter’s wedding, the couple comes up with an explanation so far-fetched, it’s hard to hold back the laughs.

It’s interesting that Kewalya uses the classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge blueprint to stage this story of parental opposition in the face of true love and a couple’s longing for acceptance from the stubborn family. It’s a smart approach to push out the message that gay relationships are the same as straight ones; the conflicts are all too familiar. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan also ticks the boxes of an ‘Ayushman Khurrana social message movie’. The gay characters are self-respecting men dead against the idea of marrying a woman out of convenience. Parental denial is also addressed head-on, and frowned upon using clap-trap dialogues.

There are many zingers in the film, delivered with flair and timing by Kewalya’s cast. As Kartik, who wears his heart on his sleeve, ready to go to war for love, Ayushmann Khurrana gets the lion’s share of winning one-liners. He plays Kartik as confident and comfortable in his skin, but also a tad hyper. The film is respectful but never shy of depicting affection between its protagonists, and that’s especially worthy of praise in a famously squeamish, homophobic cinema. So many actors – Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil, Manoj Bajpai in Aligarh, Fawad Khan in Kapoor & Sons, Shabana Azmi in Fire, Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw, and others – paved the way so Ayushmann and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan could take the baton and run. The film’s ‘normal’ treatment of the gay character, and Ayushmann’s assertive performance is a victory in itself.

But while all the slow-motion entries and exits go to Ayushmann, the film’s secret weapon is Jitendra Kumar whose Everyman portrayal of Aman is one of the film’s big strengths. The actor, who has appeared in many web series including Kota Factory, has a warm, grounded presence that makes the character’s vulnerability all too authentic. Jitendra and Ayushmann have real chemistry; their little moments together bring depth to the film.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan isn’t consistent. The script spends too much time focused on the infighting within Aman’s family instead of staying with the leads. Despite that there is enough to enjoy and appreciate here. It takes a difficult subject and executes it with some flair. For that, I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 31, 2020

Top class!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:16 pm

January 31, 2020

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong

Director: Bong Joon-ho

It may be best to go into Parasite knowing as little as possible about the film while settling into your seat. Allow its slow burning brilliance to creep up on you, and thou shall be handsomely rewarded.

Ever since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May where it won the top prize, the prestigious Palme D’Or, this staggeringly original offering from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has dazzled critics and cinephiles with its sheer storytelling artistry. What begins as a dark satire about the class divide in contemporary South Korea segues masterfully into a cunning thriller with endless twists and surprises.

The film is primarily about two families. The first, the Kims, are dead broke and live in a dingy basement apartment, barely scraping by folding pizza boxes, and desperately trying to connect to whatever free WiFi they can steal. The other family, the Parks, are a wealthy lot who live in a sprawling home, immaculately maintained, with an overlooking lawn.

You could say that both families inhabit entirely different worlds; it’s hard to imagine their orbits intersecting. But then the son of the poor family somehow lands a job tutoring the teenage daughter of the rich folks. Before long his sister, employing similarly questionable methods, gets hired by the Parks as an art teacher for their young son.

That’s about all you need to know as far as the film’s plot is concerned. What I will tell you is that there’s an unsettling uneasiness that hangs over the film throughout…as if you know something bad is about to happen anytime. The suspense builds dramatically even as the layers are peeled one by one to reveal the sly heart of this extraordinary film and the messy humanity of its characters. Bong carefully and stingily parses out information about the characters, forcing you to stay alert to the tiniest details.

Although set in South Korea the film’s themes feel unmistakably universal – economic inequality, the resentment over the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the privileged class’ apathy towards the less fortunate. There are moments that bristle with discomfort. Particularly a scene in which the wealthy couple discuss how the poor smell. “Like a rag that has been boiled,” Mr Park coolly tells his wife. It also asks you to consider who the ‘parasite’ of the film’s title actually refers to.

I found myself thinking about the film long after it was over. Bong, who made his name with cult favourites like Memories of Murder and The Host, has tackled class conflict previously in his English-language film Snowpiercer. But the elegance and the ensuing unforgettable horror of Parasite is in a league of its own. Hardly surprising that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and is up for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

In his acceptance speech at the Globes, the filmmaker declared: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Take his advice. If you’ve never watched a foreign film before, start with Parasite. It’ll blow your mind.

I’m going with a full five out of five. It’s the best film I’ve watched recently.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 17, 2020

At the heart of war!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:42 pm

January 17, 2019

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong

Director: Sam Mendes

The protagonists of Sam Mendes’ World War I film 1917 are two young British soldiers who’re assigned an important mission that will require courage, grit, and sheer physical resilience. Yet the film’s hero is as much its cinematographer Roger Deakins who pulls off the brilliant and audacious trick of shooting the entire two-hour film as if it were one continuous, unbroken shot.

The ‘one-shot film’ and the ‘made-to-look-like-a-one-shot-film’ have been successfully done before, several times in fact. Most notably the Oscar-winning film Birdman which, barring one exception, gives the impression of having been filmed in a single shot. None of these films, however, have the scale or the ambition of 1917.

Blake and Schofield, two young soldiers, are sent by a general across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message warning a British battalion about walking into an enemy trap. If they fail, or don’t get to the troops in time, 1600 soldiers could lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. So off they go, through eerily abandoned trenches, war-torn villages, past empty fields and farmhouses, into raging rivers, and between weaving lines of countless soldiers, even as they encounter traps, piles of corpses, German soldiers, fighter planes, and bombs.

The camera follows them throughout, seemingly in real time, giving us an intimate experience as they’re worn down by stress, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, fear, and death. In staying so close to the two soldiers for the entire duration of their mission, and in listening to them talk about food, and rats, and winning medals, the film feels personal and ‘small’. You realise that the story of these two boys is one of many stories involving those affected by this enormous tragedy. It helps that the boys in question are played by relatively lesser-known actors. Dean Charles-Chapman as Blake, and George MacKay as Schofield vanish into their roles. Drawing us into the story, their faces evocatively convey the futility of war, the horrors of combat, and the fear of death.

But the truth is that the story is slim, as if stripped down to aide the single-shot visual approach. As a result there are times when the film feels like an obstacle race, or a game with challenges to overcome on every level in order to move on to the next. It’s hard to explain but it feels simplistic in its depiction of war.

Having said that it’s still a visually wondrous experience. What Deakins and Mendes have pulled off is incredible by any measure; this is the kind of film that the big screen was invented for. It’s also emotional and moving in parts. Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather, who fought in the war, as we learn from a closing slate. How can you not appreciate why this episode from history means so much to him?

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for 1917. There is a lot to admire and be awed by in this almost war classic.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 10, 2020

His-tory, whose story?

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:55 pm

January 10, 2020

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Sharad Kelkar, Kajol, Luke Kenny

Director: Om Raut

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior stars Ajay Devgan as the valorous hero of the film’s title, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s trusted lieutenant Subedar Tanhaji Malasure, who, according to legend, never backed away from a fight. Yet it’s Saif Ali Khan, playing the film’s villain, who appears to be having more fun.

Saif plays Udaybhan, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s Rajput general, who sports black robes, a thick beard, a deceptive smile, and an unending appetite for cruelty. Let’s just say he’s cut from the same cloth as Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji.

The film, directed by Om Raut, is set in the year 1670, and focuses on the Battle of Sinhagad between the Marathas and the Mughals. History has it that Tanhaji abandoned his son’s wedding to defend the Kondhana Fort near Pune from Udaybhan and his troops.

The filmmakers stick to the broad strokes of the story, but details appear to be cheerfully exaggerated and fictionalised. Characters, communities, and empires are reduced to archetypes. The Marathas are all noble, swaraj-worshipping warriors; the Mughals are opportunistic, deceitful, invaders.

Over nearly two hours and fifteen minutes the stage is set for a sprawling epic that is frankly less historical and more action saga. It is also the best way to enjoy this film. Tanhaji is first introduced in the film swooping down on the enemy in a ravine, his men and him vanquishing them with strategy and sheer daring. It’s a stunning entry.

The film is mounted on an extravagant scale, with massive sets, big action set pieces, booming background music, and elaborate costumes. There is more than a whiff of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and particularly Padmaavat in the film’s lighting and colour tones. The cinematography by Keiko Nakahara is sweeping, very much in keeping with the overall brief of aesthetics.

The action scenes are especially effective, and further enhanced if you choose to watch the film in 3D. Sequences depicting the guerilla tactics employed by the Marathas to scale the fort are excellently executed, and the final battle between Tanhaji and Udaybhan is nothing short of spectacular. With a deadly cannon aimed in the direction of Shivaji’s Rajgad Fort, the two men face off in a bloody fight to the finish.

Of the cast, Kajol shows up in the role of Tahaji’s wife Savitri, and the scenes between them benefit from the actors’ easy chemistry. Sharad Kelkar nicely channels Chhatrapati Shivaji’s nobility, and Luke Kenny is an inspired casting choice for the role of Aurangzeb.

Ajay Devgan brings unmistakable earnestness to the role of the honourable warrior. It is to his credit that even while mouthing heavy dialogues loaded with repeated use of words like “bhagwaa dhwaj”, he roots the hero in a kind of relatable humanity. The scene-stealer, however, is Saif Ali Khan who sinks his teeth into the role of Udaybhan. His sadistic general is a man who throws cold water on sleeping prisoners, and in one scene sends a poor guard falling to his death after screaming in his face.

It must also be said that Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior speaks directly to our hyper-nationalistic climate. The history is dubious, the politics problematic. It feeds into what seems to have become Bollywood’s preferred stereotype of the enemy: all savage, brutal, ruthless ‘outsiders’.

If you can look beyond that, you’ll appreciate the robust filmmaking, the visceral battle scenes, and a delicious performance by an actor who’s seldom got his due. For some that will be enough. I’m going with three out of five for Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 20, 2019

End of an affair

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:13 pm

December 20, 2019

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams

Director: J J Abrams

How do you wrap up a saga 42 years in the making? How do you deliver a finale that does justice to eight films before it? What film could satisfy both younger fans that latched on to recent instalments in the franchise, and those that have stayed faithful since first watching the Rebels destroy the Death Star when Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is intended as the answer to all those questions.

Directed by JJ Abrams, who kicked off the third trilogy with The Force Awakens in 2015, the new film ticks off all the things that we’ve come to love about this series – epic space battles and thrilling lightsaber duels, numerous hat-tips to previous episodes, a clutch of unexpected cameos, and some genuinely emotional moments involving key characters. Still there’s no way that the film will make all Star Wars fans happy. It’s just the nature of the beast…and a long tradition of nitpicking.

Because Star Wars to the true fan is more than a series of films. It’s a feeling, a collection of memories; it represents belonging to something bigger. There’s a sense of genuine ownership.

Speaking as one, I suspect that fan is unlikely to suffer convulsions over The Rise of Skywalker. This film never goes anywhere near the kind of bold swings that Rian Johnson admirably dared to take in 2017’s The Last Jedi. No, Abrams relies on nostalgia and big emotions to deliver the film’s most crowd-pleasing moments. If anything, The Rise of Skywalker is an exercise in pandering. The strain to cram in everything in the hope of pleasing everyone results in an especially bloated first hour.

Having said that the film is also a genuinely exhilarating adventure. Aided by the most sophisticated visual effects and by John Williams’ anthem score, Abrams stages truly stunning action scenes – there are laser-gun battles, speeder chases, inter-galactic dogfights, and one particular sequence in the second hour whose sheer scale and sweep makes your jaw drop. These set pieces are in service of a frankly standard issue plot.

The film opens with the discovery that the despicable Emperor Palpatine, who we thought was killed in Return of the Jedi, is somehow back and is threatening to resurrect the Sith and wipe out the Resistance. He dispatches Kylo Ren to kill Rey, the last Jedi Knight who he perceives as a threat. So Rey, along with Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and BB-8 set out to locate Palpatine’s hideout in order to stop the attack before it begins. Bring out the Millennium Falcon, please!

Some of the film’s best moments are the confrontations between Rey and Kylo Ren, particularly a sensational lightsaber match that takes place on the wreckage of the Death Star in the middle of a raging sea. One doesn’t exactly think of Star Wars as a ‘performance’ film, but Adam Driver brings the sort of commitment, consistency, and layering to Kylo as if he were making another Noah Baumbach film. It’s true of Daisy Ridley too, fully committed to the character of Rey as she finally comes into her own in terms of strength and spirit, even as a major sub-plot in the film concerns the revelation of her true identity and parentage.

Other pleasures include the moments spent with General Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher through unused footage from the first film. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio shrewdly tweak the script to fit pre-existing material featuring the actress into the narrative. It’s also no spoiler to reveal that Billy Dee Williams, now 83, returns as Lando Calrissian, who we last saw in Return of the Jedi.

Packed wall to wall with old and new characters, plus a handful of cameos thrown in expressly for the purpose of getting you all moist-eyed, the film also asks philosophical questions familiar to any Star Wars fans. Questions about lineage and legacy, about good and evil, about which side we belong to and whether that’s determined by one’s fate or one’s will.

Clocking in at 155 minutes, the film left me feeling exhilarated from its sheer energy, but also a tad melancholic for characters – no, make that friends – that one may potentially never see again. It’s a bittersweet takeaway as the curtains come down on what has been, for some of us, a significant part of our lives. The Rise of Skywalker may not be an extraordinary film. But it gets the job done respectably and respectfully. It’s a perfectly satisfying way to say goodbye.

I’m going with three and a half out of five. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, there’s enough visual wizardry to keep you entertained for the duration of its running time.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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

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)

November 8, 2019

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)

August 23, 2019

Later, alligator!

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

August 23, 2019

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper

Director: Alexandre Aja

If, like me, you watched with a combination of fear and fascination those videos circulating on WhatsApp of alligators that strayed into residential areas of Vadodara and Karnataka during recent flooding, then you might be the best audience for Crawl. This slickly made ‘creature feature’ is a man vs beast survival story that offers jump scares and cheap thrills to make up for its non-existent plot.

Despite warnings to stay indoors during a brutal Florida hurricane, university student and former competitive swimmer Hayley sneaks her way into the storm’s path to check in on her father, who lives alone at the other end of town and isn’t responding to any of her messages. She finds him bruised and unconscious in the cramped basement below their old family home, and pretty soon she’s trapped there with him and a big scary alligator, even as the house begins to flood.

It’s a pretty basic premise but one that yields some genuinely thrilling moments. Father and daughter struggle to keep themselves safe from an increasing number of threats. It turns out there isn’t just one set of sharp teeth out there, there are more. Good thing there’s always a handful of disposable background characters to be made a meal of.

Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja uses tiny spaces, malfunctioning essentials like phones and torches, and his imagination to deliver scenarios of nail-biting tension. In one scene Hayley is trapped inside the bathtub stall as the critter splashes around in the bathroom outside. In another she must tiptoe across the kitchen counter even as the room is rapidly flooding, unsure what danger lurks in the water.

The film moves briskly, clocking in at a crisp 90 minutes, but loses some steam when father and daughter decide to address unresolved issues from the past. It’s hardly the time or place for emotional unburdening, and even the father’s pep talks feel entirely predictable.

To be fair the film works despite these minor hiccups. Kaya Scodelario who plays Hayley, has a Sigourney Weaver-like tough chick vibe, and the digitally realised alligators are creepily realistic. What unfolds is trashy fun – no more, no less. If you’re in the mood for guilty pleasure, Crawl is not a bad way to spend an evening.

I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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