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

August 16, 2019

Postcard to the past

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 12:18 am

August 15, 2019

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butter, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is many things at once: it’s stylish, nostalgia-soaked, frequently indulgent, and for a good part frustratingly inert. Yet it’s endlessly fascinating. The film is both a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, and also a daring blend of fact and fiction.

Set in the year 1969, the film allows Tarantino to reference that period’s music, fashion, cool cars, movie stars, and headlines. It’s powered by the filmmaker’s dark humour and explosive violence, and yet there’s something distinctly different about this ninth film of his – it’s unmistakably sentimental. Now there’s a word you don’t usually associate with him!

Ironically it’s got two of the biggest movie stars playing has-been Hollywood types. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a once popular star best known for television Westerns, now crippled by alcohol and self-doubt. His most loyal, and possibly his only friend is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s also his driver and all-round handyman. The men share a close bond. A voice-over describes Booth as “a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife”. When Dalton gets teary that his career is over, Booth gives him his aviators and a pep talk. “You’re Rick fucking Dalton,” he reminds him.

Both actors are in very good form, each offering funny, emotionally complex, layered performances. DiCaprio plays Dalton as always on edge and anxious, while Booth appears quiet and confident. Pitt plays him as a man of a few words. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Booth is fired off the set of The Green Hornet when he gets into a fistfight with an especially vain Bruce Lee.

Faring better than them is Sharon Tate, starlet and wife of film director Roman Polanski who is Dalton’s neighbour in the Hollywood Hills. Margot Robbie is lovely, if a tad underused, as Tate; she radiantly channels the 26-year-old innocent whose star is on the rise. In a charming scene that alas plays out too long, Tate slips into a cinema and takes in the enthusiastic responses to her latest film.

But we already know how the actress’ life was tragically cut short, while eight-and-a-half months pregnant, at the hands of cult leader Charles Manson’s ‘followers’. So naturally we spend a good part of the film waiting to see how Tarantino will wrap up things. I’m not going to spoil anything for you on that front, except to say that it’s outrageous, unpredictable, and oddly satisfying.

But despite so much going on, the film’s pacing is problematic. You will find yourself getting especially restless in the first hour where very little actually happens. There is a sliver of a plot, but at times it seems as if Tarantino has merely strung together a collection of entertaining scenes and moments that feel complete unto themselves, but never key to the fabric of the story.

Also the film has plenty (and I mean plenty!) references to old films and television shows that the filmmaker presumably loves. We get long scenes of movies within the movie, which are tiring ultimately as they amount to little more than Tarantino indulging his inner geek.

Yet, all said and done, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a violent, often funny, but always heartfelt valentine to a specific time and place. Robert Richardson’s artful photography, the evocative production design, and fleeting appearances by legendary characters of the day transport you to a bygone era of Hollywood glamour that proves hard to resist. The film may not be Tarantino’s best, but it’s a laidback, change-of-pace offering that delivers many unexpected pleasures.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 2, 2019

Barbs and blows

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:35 pm

August 02, 2019

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby

Director: David Leitch

Over the course of eight films the Fast & Furious franchise has delivered moments of such jaw-dropping ridiculousness, the makers had to know they needed more than just crazy stunts to justify a spin-off. Don’t get me wrong; Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is crammed with crazy, ridiculous stunts (a motorbike practically flies into the top of a double decker bus, in another instance a mid-air chopper is tethered to a string of cars while navigating the edge of a cliff), but the film leans just as heavily on the sheer charisma and the winning chemistry of its leading men.

Reprising their roles from the original franchise, Dwayne Johnson plays Luke Hobbs, a former federal agent, and Jason Statham is Deckard Shaw, a British soldier turned mercenary. You might remember they fought on opposite sides in the last film, and, while they still don’t particularly like each other, they reluctantly join forces this time to save the world.

The film’s villain is Brixton, a cyber-genetically enhanced soldier, played by Idris Elba, who calls himself Black Superman, although as the film progresses he becomes more machine than man. Brixton has been ordered to recover a deadly virus that could wipe out half of humanity, but it’s just his luck that rogue MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected it into her body.

The plot, expectedly, is preposterous, but it’s good to see the actors having fun with it. Johnson and Statham alternate the blows and punches with name-calling and banter. While there’s no question they can pull off even elaborate action scenes with ease, their sharp comic timing is a surprise reward. I especially enjoyed a scene in which Statham single-handedly vanquishes a corridor full of bad guys even as Johnson looks on pretending to be unimpressed.

Hobbs & Shaw signals a departure from the early Fast & Furious instalments. It’s true; we’ve come a long way from the scrappy street racing origins of the 2001 film starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on family. A plot turn designed to shoehorn this running theme takes us to the island of Samoa for the film’s big finale, where amidst teary reunions and emotional unburdening there are more chases and explosions.

To be clear, the film doesn’t skimp on action. There are some impressive set pieces like one staged at a London skyscraper that is intense and thrilling. It must be said here that director David Leitch has no problem holding a shot so we can appreciate and enjoy the action, unlike in other blockbuster films where breakneck editing frequently makes it hard to follow who is doing what to whom.

While the film is focused on its titular heroes, there’s enough for the other characters to do. Kirby, best known for playing the feisty Princess Margaret in The Crown, proved she can kick ass just as good as the next guy in last year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout. She brings more of that here, holding her own with the boys. Elba too appears to be having a blast as the tortured bad guy, even if the part itself feels woefully underdeveloped. There’s also clutch of unexpected cameos that provides a clue into what’s to come in further sequels.

Hobbs & Shaw is pure popcorn entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a tad long at 2 hours and 16 minutes, but its winning cocktail of action and comedy, and the screen-burning appeal of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham seldom leaves you bored. I can’t think of two other actors who could’ve made such flimsy material work.

I’m going with three out of five for Hobbs & Shaw. It’s what the word ‘time-pass’ was invented to describe.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

July 19, 2019

Jungle awe!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 1:05 pm

July 19, 2019

Cast: Voices of Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen (In Hindi: Shah Rukh Khan, Aryan Khan, Ashish Vidyarthi, Asrani, Sanjay Mishra, Shreyas Talpade)

Director: Jon Favreau

Anyone asking why we needed a new version of The Lion King only has to look as far as the film’s stunning opening sequence to reconsider that question. Herds of animals – zebras, elephants, antelope – stride across the screen majestically against a wide African vista in what appears to be footage culled from a wildlife documentary…except that it’s not. This incredible sequence, like the rest of the film, is a marvel of modern technology, of computer-generated photorealism. The birds, the beasts, the sceneries, and frankly everything you see on screen has been conceived and crafted through advanced, sophisticated visual effects. It’s amazing how far cinema has come!

In terms of plot, director Jon Favreau sticks closely to the original 1994 animation film. You know the beats: jealous lion Scar, plots to kill his brother, the Lion King Mufasa, and his little nephew Simba so he can claim the throne. It’s a dark story, especially by Disney standards; one that involves a child watching his parent die violently in front of his eyes, the cub being hunted by ravenous predators, and being manipulated into running away from his home. There are echoes of Hamlet, but the overarching themes are those of bravery and learning responsibility.

Favreau, who employed similar technology to remake The Jungle Book in 2016, assembles a first-rate voice cast to dazzle the viewer: James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, and Beyonce among others. But I decided to watch the Hindi dubbed version, which is in no way short of star power. Shah Rukh Khan, aptly cast as the noble Mufasa, brings commanding authority to the part. In a clever move, the superstar’s son Aryan is recruited to play Simba, nicely modulating his voice to convey the cub’s coming of age. Ashish Vidyarthi too is in excellent form as the mangy, sinister Scar, delivering his lines with a growl. But it’s the sidekicks who get some of the best moments in the film, namely Zazu the hornbill, is voiced with fitting humour by Asrani, and also the warthog-meerkat duo Pumbba and Timon who steal every scene they’re in, thanks in no small part to the tapori approach of Sanjay Mishra and Shreyas Talpade who voice them. A word here for Mayur Puri who’s done a terrific job with the Hindi script and dialogues, never reducing the film to a mere ‘translation job’.

The original Lion King, you might remember, was a musical, and the remake revisits classic numbers like Circle of Life, dubbed Zindagi dor si and belted out with full lung-bursting power by Sunayana Sarkar. Sunidhi Chauhan and Armaan Mallik bring their velvet voices to the desi version of Can you feel the love tonight? and Armaan puts a playful spin on Hakuna Matata.

But the film truly works because it’s an unmatchable sensory experience. Little things like the movement of the fur on an animal’s back, or the cloud of dust that rises when a paw hits the ground, are rendered in minute, amazing, authentic detail. A stampede sequence is one of the big eye-popping set pieces in the film. Meanwhile other characters like Scar’s hyena army, or Simba’s childhood friend, the lioness Nala, also get considerable screen time.

If you loved the original animation film from 25 years ago, there’s a chance this remake might feel redundant, since it doesn’t put a fresh spin on a beloved story. But it’s hard to deny the thrill of watching these gorgeous creatures realise the same story in the closest we may ever come to watching a live action version of the film.

I found myself transported to Pride Rock, reliving many of my favourite moments from the earlier film. The chief reason to give this film a chance is to marvel at the sheer artistry at display. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for The Lion King. Did you know hyenas were called lakkad bhagge in Hindi? You’ll chuckle each time Sanjay Mishra’s Pumbaa takes a wry shot at them.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

July 5, 2019

Suit up!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:59 pm

July 05, 2019

Cast: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Samuel L Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice

Director: Jon Watts

Spider-Man: Far From Home isn’t a great movie. It isn’t meant to be. Put in the unenviable position of coming out right after Avengers: Endgame, which marked the big, bold finale of the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Far From Home is a welcome change of tone and pace. It’s meant to be a fun adventure, a relatively low stakes affair. And it is.

When we first meet him in the new film, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) just wants a break. Can you blame him? The world has changed since the events of Endgame. His mentor, Tony Stark, is dead. It’s little surprise that Peter wants no part of whatever job Nick Fury is trying to recruit him for. He’s focused instead on a school trip to Italy where he hopes to reveal his romantic feelings to MJ (Zendaya).

 Of course, things seldom go according to plan when it comes to Peter, and his hopes for a drama-free vacation are quickly dashed when Venice is attacked by a shape-shifting ‘Elemental’ made of water. The suit must come out and Spidey must save the day, which he does, with the help of a newly arrived superhero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who sports a cloudy fishbowl for a helmet and claims to have come from a different earth.

There’s a lot going on in the film. The memory of Tony Stark aka Iron Man feels omnipresent even though he’s six feet under. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is getting ‘friendly’ to Happy (Jon Favreau), but it’s not making Peter very happy. There’s also plenty of slick CGI action, including a big climatic battle at London’s Tower Bridge. But the film’s best bits are the ones that remind us that this is basically a teenage drama. It’s the interactions between Peter, his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), obnoxious Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), nice girl Betty (Angourie Rice), and of course spunky MJ, that hold this film together. Awkward moments, shy kisses, even a seemingly straightforward attempt to snag the perfect seat on their overseas flight is mined for laughs.

Tom Holland is terrific as Peter Parker, infusing this teen from Queens with a vulnerability and goofiness that feels completely genuine. Holland brings earnestness to the part of a young boy grappling with his great powers and responsibilities, and makes you care when the odds are stacked against him, or he’s confronted with a particularly difficult decision.

There’s not a lot one can say about Jake Gyllenhaal and the character of Mysterio without slipping into spoiler territory, but this much can be said – the filmmakers exploit Mysterio’s trickeries in inventive, visually exciting ways, and the actor makes a meal of the part.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is relatively lighthearted and breezy even; a far cry from the intense stakes of most of the other films in the Avengers franchise. It’s not a great film because it’s never meant to be. It’s just a very good distraction – enjoyable and funny.

I’m going with three and a half out of five. Don’t miss the end credits. It changes everything.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 21, 2019

The Fantastic Fourth!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:10 pm

June 21, 2019

Cast: The voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves, Tony Hale, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael-Kay

Director: Josh Cooley

It’s been nearly 25 years since the folks at Pixar first made us fall in love with a clutch of inanimate, children’s playthings in Toy Story. Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang have more character, personality, and conscience than most living, breathing humans, and it’s impossible to resist their charm.

In Toy Story 4 the bulk of the charm is provided by a piece of cheap plastic named Forky. He’s a homemade toy assembled by Bonnie on her first day in kindergarten out of a plastic fork and some craft supplies. “I’m trash,” he declares repeatedly hurling himself into the bin, convinced it’s where he belongs. Crippled by low self-esteem, this neurotic fella steals practically every scene he’s in, delivering plenty laughs as he tries to escape Bonnie’s affectionate clutches.

Bonnie, you might remember, is the happy little girl Andy passed on his beloved toys to before heading off to college at the end of Toy Story 3. It seemed, at the time, like the most satisfying send-off to these characters that we’d come to love over the years; a bittersweet goodbye to an emotional saga.

Which is why you have to wonder if we really needed a new Toy Story film in the first place.

Well it turns out that four movies in, the Toy Story franchise continues to hit us right in the feels. Toy Story 4 is magical and wondrous, with beautifully rendered animation and heart-tugging emotions. It introduces new characters and bold ideas even as it rehashes some of the things that we most love about these movies.

Toy Story 4 is a road movie whose plot is set into motion when Bonnie takes a trip to a carnival with her parents in a rented RV, the toys in tow. The story follows a well-known rhythm, with the toys once again separated from their child. There are daring rescues of ‘lost’ friends, seemingly innocent toys with sinister intentions, confidence-lacking characters who just need to be told that they’re special, and the threat of being no longer loved and needed like new toys are.

Yes, we’ve been through these beats before, but the filmmakers somehow manage to infuse the familiar with the fresh. In this case it’s the setting where much of the adventure unfolds – a gorgeously realised antiques shop whose shelves packed with vintage artefacts hide some dark secrets. There’s also a bunch of new characters in addition to Forky – a chatty baby doll named Gabby Gabby who’s got a broken voice box, a group of creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies, a highly entertaining motorcycle stunt-driver named Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves), and my favourites, a pair of smart-talking soft toys Ducky and Bunny, who get some of the best moments including a hilarious end-credits sequence that you must stay for.

Also crucial to the plot is old favourite Woody, through whom the filmmakers reiterate the overarching themes of the Toy Story franchise – loyalty, sacrifice, and a toy’s real purpose. Tom Hanks continues to invest Woody with that earnest ‘Everytoy’ quality which makes him so darn loveable and relatable. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Woody’s old love, porcelain doll Bo Peep also returns for this outing. It’s Buzz Lightyear, however, such a beloved character in the earlier films, who’s relegated to the sidelines, as if he were an afterthought.

Like the previous films in this enduring franchise Toy Story 4 is crammed with gorgeous, thrilling adventure, and valuable life lessons tucked away discreetly. But what’s truly admirable is the absence of cynicism. Even in its fourth outing, never once does it feel like a cash-grab sequel; like it was made by profit-hungry executives focused on milking a successful brand. Toy Story 4 is all heart. It reaffirms one’s faith in the ‘humanity’ of these plastic playthings. It’s funny and emotional; there’ll be laughs, and a lump in your throat.

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

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 5, 2019

Sorry Bhai!

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:10 pm

June 05, 2019

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sunil Grover, Jackie Shroff, Sonali Kulkarni, Kumud Mishra, Disha Patani, Nora Fatehi

Director: Ali Abbas Zafar

Bharat has been described by its makers as one man’s life story unfolding parallel to the journey of a nation. It’s a killer pitch, but one that makes the film sound deeper and more interesting than it actually is.

Salman Khan plays the titular hero whom we follow from the age of eight until a little after his 70th birthday. The film’s most moving scene comes early on when a family is separated during Partition, and a young boy makes a promise to his father.

Bharat is directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, who chipped away at Salman’s larger-than-life screen persona and extracted a winning performance from him as the flawed, vulnerable wrestler in Sultan. But this film, which is an official adaptation of the Korean hit Ode to my Father, musters none of the heft that it aspires for. The makers have nothing particularly insightful or meaningful to say about either the protagonist’s or the country’s journey spanning nearly seven decades.

As a result the film is unmistakably boring. It’s also excruciatingly long at close to three hours. The script has an episodic feel to it, and Bharat’s life unfolds like a highlights reel. Considerable VFX are employed to render Salman much younger than his years to play the character in his 20s and 30s. From a motorcycle stunt driver in a circus, to a blue-collar job in an oil refinery in the Gulf, to an adventure on the high seas in the Merchant Navy, Bharat’s every move is driven by that promise to his father. And that moving scene at the start of the film is repeated so many times in flashbacks that it loses its impact eventually.

What works in the film is the romantic track between Bharat and Kumud (Katrina Kaif), which is playful and occasionally funny, and develops nicely as the characters age. Katrina’s hair and make-up is questionable, but she shares an undeniable chemistry and comfort with her leading man, which gives this film some of its most charming moments.

Sunil Grover gets a chunk of screen time as Vilayati, Bharat’s trusted best friend from childhood who sticks by his side through his many adventures. Sunil has a natural flair for conjuring up comedy in the simplest of moments, yet the script puts him through cringey scenes of forced humour like one in which he loses his underwear during a medical examination.

There are many instances of cringey humour including one involving Somalian pirates who, as it turns out, love Amitabh Bachchan as much as we do. The makers are also not above indulging in overt manipulation, like a scene that segues into an unnecessary rendition of the national anthem. Or the full-blown sappy pre-climax centred on a television reality show intended to rectify the painful legacy of Partition.

More painful is watching a very young Disha Patani paired opposite a trying-to-look-very-young Salman in one of the early chapters of the film. Or Sonali Kulkarni, nine years younger than him, playing his mother. This might not seem like a big deal in the larger picture, but it’s reflective of an old malaise that Bollywood hasn’t been able to shake off yet.

On a scale of Insufferable to Awesome, Bharat ranks closer to the lower end, somewhere besides Tubelight and Race 3. There’s a lot going on in this film, yet very little is particularly remarkable. Salman plays Salman once again, and if you enjoy that goofy shtick then good for you, but it’s fast getting old. He’s most interesting playing a senior citizen, sporting grey with pride. Yet like a typical vanity project, while the film may portray Salman as ageing it has no bearing on his ability to go all ninja warrior on trouble-making henchmen.

In the end Bharat is exhausting and pointless. It exists only to add to the legend of Salman Khan as the selfless provider, the man who has a heart as big as his biceps. In Bharat, Salman Khan plays Bhai.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

April 26, 2019

High end!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 4:19 pm

April 26, 2019

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, Brie Larson

Directors: Joe Russo & Anthony Russo

How does one review a film whose every moment qualifies as a potential spoiler? Avengers: Endgame, which serves as the final brick in the 22 film floor-plan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first decade, is a fan event before anything else. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have painstakingly crafted a film that fires on all cylinders; a film explicitly designed to please die-hard loyalists of the franchise, and to win over anyone seeking a value-for-money big-screen experience. Because, frankly, this is what IMAX 3D was invented for.

The last Avengers film, Infinity War, is still fresh in one’s memory for its sheer audacity in letting the bad guy win. In obtaining all six Infinity Stones, Thanos had defeated the Avengers. Then he did the unthinkable – he snapped his fingers and wiped out half the world’s population, including many of our favourite superheroes. They literally turned to dust. There’s no way to get those images out of one’s head.

But what does that mean going forward – particularly in terms of the surviving Avengers? When Endgame opens Tony Stark aka Iron Man is floating somewhere in space, his oxygen fast running out, his spirit defeated. Steve Rogers, or Captain America as we know him, the noblest of the Avengers, is also plunged in grief. But as the film’s trailer makes it clear – they aren’t going to just sit around and accept their fate. As Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow says: “We owe it those who’re not in the room, to try”. But try for exactly what? Revenge on Thanos? Reversing his cruel deed?

No, don’t worry, of course I’m not going to say. What I will tell you is that watching Endgame is an exhilarating experience. It’s a real adrenaline rush. The writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have plotted a shrewd screenplay that contains thrilling moments cleverly linked to events from previous films. These are unquestionably some of the best portions of Endgame. It also illustrates what Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has been saying all along – that there’s always been a ‘grand plan’; that these films don’t exist in isolation, they’re intricately connected through ideas, characters, and events.

The events in Endgame, for one, alternate between somber, thrilling, and emotional. Reunions and goodbyes can be teary affairs, and there are both in this film. More than once I found myself choked. But the film also delivers on that most important comic book component – fun. There are plenty laughs to be had, and the bulk of them involve Thor, who’s gotten a little thick around the waist since we last saw him. The god of thunder thighs steals every scene he’s in.

The film has substantial roles also for both Ant Man and Hawkeye, who did not appear in Infinity War. Meanwhile Bruce Banner appears to have made peace with his alter ego The Hulk, and Captain Marvel is also a winning presence. There are also several cameos by significant characters from the previous films.

Is Avengers: Endgame the best film in the MCU? Perhaps not. Is it the busiest? Without doubt. There’s so much going on in the film, especially in its big action centrepiece, you’ll be straining to keep up with the pace. The film’s tone shifts so skilfully between dramatic and comic, there’s seldom a dull moment. At three hours and one minute sure it’s long but I suspect you’ll be happy to stay in the company of these folks.

And when it’s time to bid farewell to old friends, you’ll be fighting back tears. What more do you want from a film? I’m going with four out of five for Avengers: Endgame. Watch it on the largest screen you can find.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

April 23, 2019

Clunk factor!

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:32 pm

April 17, 2019

Cast: Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sonakshi Sinha, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Kunal Khemmu, Kiara Advani, Achint Kaur

Director: Abhishek Varman

Kalank is a doomed story of love, set in the time of Partition. It’s mounted as a grand multi-starrer; a timeless tragic epic that runs 169 minutes long, and is crammed with exquisitely choreographed songs, grandiose sets, and gorgeous costumes. But Madhuri Dixit’s character could as well be talking about the film when she says to a young singer, “Awaaz achchi hain, bas namak kam hain.” It’s true; director Abhishek Varman brings the razzle-dazzle, but the passion is missing.

You could blame it on the tired telling of a moth-eaten tale, set in 1944 in the fictional town of Husnabad on the outskirts of Lahore. Good thing it’s fictional because the geographical landscape is mind-boggling. One minute we see Venetian-type canals with giant lotuses, or streets straight out of a Rajasthani town. Is this ‘Bhansaliville’, a mish-mash of the sets from Saawariya and Ram-Leela? But then suddenly there’s a romantic scene in what I could swear looked like Ladakh, and then we’re transported to a Gladiator-style arena in what appears to be Afghanistan. It’s bewildering, but location is the least of the film’s problems.

Let’s face it – the story, by Shibani Bathija, is passé. Varun Dhawan is a bastard – no really, I mean it. His character Zafar was conceived outside of noble union, and he’s reminded of this fact every single day and by practically everyone he meets on the street. “Woh najayaz,” someone will say. “Woh haraami,” another voice utters. When it isn’t someone else saying it, Zafar frequently addresses himself this way. But wait, I’m digressing.

A seething Zafar, who is a blacksmith in the city’s red-light district Hira Mandi, wants revenge for being rejected at birth by his rich father Balraj Chaudhury (Sanjay Dutt). He burns with angst against his mother, famed courtesan Bahar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), for the shame he has to bear for his illegitimacy. When the opportunity presents itself, he decides to exact vengeance by seducing Roop (Alia Bhatt), the second-wife of Balraj’s ‘legitimate’ son Dev (Aditya Roy Kapur). The architect of Roop’s and our own misery is Satya (Sonakshi Sinha), Dev’s dying wife, who coerces Roop to marry her husband.

Varman, who has also written the film’s screenplay, tries desperately to stoke this dramatic saga right up to the bloody climax of Partition riots. There are some high-energy moments like the confrontation between former lovers Balraj and Bahar, or the electric undercurrents between Zafar and Roop. But not every idea lands. A clumsy CGI duel between Zafar and an angry bull sticks out like a sore thumb. A dance number featuring Zafar and Dev with Kriti Sanon making a cameo is entirely gratuitous. The verbose dialogues, by Hussain Dalal, are a real mouthful, and seldom roll off the actors’ tongues with ease.

For all its picture-perfect imagery and gorgeous lighting, the terrific dancing by both Alia Bhatt and especially Madhuri Dixit, and for all the beauty poured into every frame, the film ultimately comes off stuffy and over-crowded. It’s too ‘designed’ and leaves very little room for the characters to breathe. Every turn choreographed, every moment timed, watching Kalank ultimately feels like staring at a family photograph in which everyone’s sucking in their stomachs and holding their breath.

Of the cast the ones that leave an impression are Varun Dhawan who somehow embraces the melodrama and makes you care for Zafar, and also Madhuri Dixit who uses her eyes to great effect in communicating her character’s inner turmoil. Alia Bhatt is especially solid in her scenes with Varun, but her character is unfairly burdened with much of the heavy lifting. Kunal Khemmu also makes his presence felt with a convincing turn as Zafar’s friend and the leader of a group of fundamentalists growing increasingly resentful of the Hindu population in their parts.

Just shy of three hours Kalank is ultimately tiring and heartbreaking even. You can see the talent on screen. If only there was a sharper script to harness it. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

March 15, 2019

Picture imperfect

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:01 pm

15 March, 2019

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Jim Sarbh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Sachin Khedekar

Director: Ritesh Batra

One instant photograph – it’s what brings two strangers together in Ritesh Batra’s new film, that’s titled, simply, Photograph. The photograph in question may be instant, but this is a film that takes its time, leisurely setting up its story, taking us into the worlds and the lives of both its protagonists. There are captivating moments, winning dialogues, and little touches that bring a smile, but sadly the film never comes together to offer a fully satisfying experience.

Six years after his terrific debut The Lunchbox, Batra tells another Mumbai story about two unlikely strangers who are linked by a strange quirk of fate. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a photographer at the Gateway of India; a migrant from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, who sleeps in a cramped room with four other men. Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) is a brilliant student preparing for her CA finals. She belongs to an upper middle class Gujarati family in Mumbai. Both are what you might describe as ‘lonely souls’; they’re surrounded by people, yet lost in a crowd. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet their orbits intersect when Rafi convinces her to let him take her picture. Miloni, who is introverted to a fault, disappears without paying him.

But serendipity, that beautiful thing, links the two together. Rafi uses Miloni’s photo to concoct a story for his grandmother, who is emotionally blackmailing him to get married. The girl in the picture is his fiancee, he lies. Her name? The strains of an old Lata Mangeshkar song float into Rafi’s room. “Her name is Noorie,” he writes.

Batra leans on nostalgia to draw us into the story. Old Hindi film songs waft in and out of the narrative, Miloni hankers for a soft drink from her childhood, there’s a scene set in a post office, single-screen cinemas are mined for romanticism, and we see Rafi shopping at a ‘kirana’ – the kind of small local establishment that’s hard to spot in big cities these days now dominated by supermarkets. Plot wise, Rafi’s feisty grandmother (a terrific Farrukh Jaffar) is delighted that he’s settling down and arrives in Mumbai to suss out the girl. Rafi, in turn, seeks out Miloni and persuades her to go along with his lie until Dadi is in town.

This could be the plot of a Bollywood potboiler, but Batra’s treatment, and his two central players, are different. Miloni is stifled by her family who have picked out her life path. Going along with Rafi’s charade – as improbable as it sounds – is an act of rebellion on her part.

As it turns out a chunk of the problem with Photograph is Miloni’s character. She is charmless, in a sweet sort of way. There’s a melancholic streak to her, but her impassive personality is hard to wrap one’s head around despite Sanya Malhotra’s earnest effort to mould herself into the role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is more convincing, but the part barely stretches his acting muscles. The dynamic between Rafi and his cantankerous grandmother is more charming than the film’s ‘love story’, which makes it hard to stay invested in the journey as it unfolds slowly….very slowly.

That’s a shame because the film is shot lovingly and Batra traverses the city to distill its uniqueness: from its tiny hovels to its tea shops, the chatty cab-drivers and the rodent-infested cinemas. Trouble is, it’s all in service of a screenplay that feels too slight. The writing doesn’t pack the emotional urgency of The Lunchbox, and the characters aren’t as compelling. There is a delicate quality to the central relationship but it never takes flight. Batra keeps the story on slow-burn; how you wish he’d stirred things up from time to time.

In the end Photograph feels oddly out of focus. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

January 4, 2019

Bee plus!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:12 pm

January 04, 2019

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Pamela Adlon, Voices of Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett

Director: Travis Knight

I didn’t think there’d be a day the words ‘charming’ and ‘Transformers’ could appear in the same sentence, but lo and behold it’s happened! Bumblebee, a spinoff film and the origin story of the yellow shape-shifting Transformer, is, for the most part, yes, a charming affair.

It’s a very different film from the overlong metal-on-metal CGI orgies that Michael Bay has inflicted upon us since 2007. In the hands of director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson Bumblebee is essentially E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial but with a robot-automobile hybrid at the centre of the story.

Disguised as a rundown Volkswagen Beetle, hiding out in a junkyard, former Cybertron citizen B-127 is discovered by Charlie, a teenage girl with a love of old cars. The bonding scenes between girl and Autobot are fleshed out with great feeling. He’s like a scared puppy crouching in her garage; she comforts him, gives him a name, hides him from her folks and the big bad world out there.

The beats are familiar, but Hailee Steinfeld brings warmth and a touch of comedy as Charlie, and the giant robot has a cuddly pet-like quality that makes the whole relationship undeniably endearing in a Spielbergian sort of way. It’s all soaked in 80s nostalgia complete with Walkmans and Cyndi Lauper tunes. There’s also that distinct sense of an adventure away from the gaze of pesky adults.

But I hope I didn’t lead you into thinking there’s none of that crash-bang-boom mayhem that is the staple of the Transformers franchise. Two Decepticon assassins are hot on Bumblebee’s trail, following him all the way from his battle-ravaged planet, so that should give you an idea of what ensues. There’s also John Cena as a not-particularly-happy army man who has unresolved issues with our metal hero.

Nevertheless this is the most ‘family friendly’ film in the Transformers universe, and unlike the earlier instalments the action here is thankfully coherent. At its core it’s really a coming of age movie – the story of a troubled teenager whose life is changed by an unexpected visitor.

I was pleasantly surprised. I think you might enjoy it too. I’m going with three out of five for Bumblebee.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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