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

February 28, 2014

‘Gulab Gang’ stars Madhuri Dixit & Juhi Chawla on rivalry, friendship and ego

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 10:45 pm

Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, who were professional rivals at their peak in the 90s, were cast together recently in Gulab Gang. The film, reportedly inspired by a real-life vigilante women’s group in North India, has Madhuri playing the group’s brave leader, and Juhi playing a scheming politician who clashes with her. In this interview with Rajeev Masand, both actresses speak about rivalry, friendship and ego.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Baby, boom!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:40 pm

February 28, 2014

Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Vidya Balan, Ram Kapoor, Vir Das, Purab Kohli, Rati Agnihotri, Ila Arun

Director: Saket Chaudhary

Early on in Shaadi Ke Side Effects, Sid (Farhan Akhtar) reveals his secret to avoiding confrontations with his wife Trisha (Vidya Balan): “When I’m in the wrong, I say sorry. When she’s in the wrong, I say sorry.” Later on in the film, when he senses that his wife has begun leaning on their neighbor (Purab Kohli) for the smallest of chores, he says: “I’m feeling a bit like Sehwag. I played two matches poorly and they’ve replaced me with a younger batsman.” Peppered with such gems, the film, co-written and directed by Saket Chaudhary, is funny and clever and surprisingly perceptive about marriage and parenthood, even if it does quickly run out of steam in the absence of any tangible conflict.

Sid, a struggling musician who earns his paycheck composing jingles, clearly isn’t ready to be a father when Trisha becomes pregnant. The birth of their baby daughter is the death knell for Sid’s social life, and for the intimacy he shared with Trisha.

Told from Sid’s perspective, it’s a familiar route that the script traverses…sleep deprivation, loss of freedom, new responsibilities, and a sense of failure. But Farhan and Vidya have refreshing chemistry, and the writers maintain a nice, irreverent tone even when touching upon delicate, complex emotions. In one scene, Sid gets embarrassed watching his wife become one of those parents who parades their child in front of friends, assuming they share her enthusiasm in watching the kid show off whatever new word she’s just learnt. And although Sid’s lack of affection for his daughter is genuinely baffling, there’s no question that the resentment he feels at having to compete with the baby for Trisha’s attention is palpably real.

Neglected and insecure, Sid heeds the advice of his brother-in-law (a hilarious Ram Kapoor), who insists that the foundation of a successful marriage isn’t built on honesty, “but on the little white lies that couples tell each other”. In carving out some ‘me’ time for himself, Sid begins leading a double life.

Unfortunately, the steady stream of laughs from the first half more or less dries up post intermission, when the writers struggle to come up with dramatic plot-points for a film that frankly has no story. Sid’s mid-life crisis – he buys a motorbike, and begins partying with his new “bro” Vir Das – feels far-fetched and contrived, as does a subplot involving a helpful maid (Ila Arun) who subsequently oversteps her boundaries. Even a half-baked attempt at a twist in the film’s final act can be guessed from a mile away.

Yet the film’s consistently crackling dialogue and terrific performances from its leads makes it enjoyable despite its obvious bumps. It is to Vidya’s credit that Trisha comes off as honest and identifiable, even though the script wholly sympathizes with Sid. Never slipping into caricature, she brings genuine feeling to a part that would’ve easily been reduced to a nag in the hands of a lesser actress. But Shaadi Ke Side Effects belongs to Farhan, who reveals incredible comic timing as he slips into the role of the self-obsessed man-child struggling to cope with change. Steering clear of melodrama even when the script falls prey to it, Farhan plays it effortlessly cool.

The film then is easy and breezy, although too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours. I’m going with three out of five for Shaadi Ke Side Effects. Predictable and occasionally misguided, but also hopelessly fun.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Drugstore cowboy

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:39 pm

February 28, 2014

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Dennis O’Hare, Steve Zahn

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Matthew McConaughey has hardly given us reason to think of him as someone tipped to win an acting Oscar. But the star of such syrupy rom-coms as The Wedding Planner, How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days and Failure To Launch appears to have reinvented his career with solid acting parts in films like Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club for which he lost nearly 50 pounds.

Virtually unrecognizable in the film if it weren’t for his signature drawl, McConaughey literally gets under the skin of Ron Woodroof, a beer-swilling, coke-snorting, sex-crazy Texan cowboy in the mid 1980s, who reacts with typical homophobic disgust when he’s diagnosed as HIV positive. After doctors give him only 30 days to live, an angry Woodruff becomes determined to prolong his life by any means necessary. This includes driving to Mexico and getting his hands on non-FDA approved drugs. Based on true events, the film sees Woodroof set up a business selling these black-market drugs and vitamins to the sick, with the help of transgender drug addict Rayon (an excellent Jared Leto).

The film’s best moments are the ones between Woodroof and Rayon, who go from antagonistic business partners to a pair of considerate co-workers committed to a noble cause. Woodroof’s own transformation – from a self-absorbed hateful redneck to a determined man of the people – is the heart of this film, and it’s nicely unsentimental. He sets up the Dallas Buyers Club motivated strictly by profit, but subsequently transforms the enterprise into a sort of crusade against an apathetic system and a possibly corrupt pharma industry.

Jennifer Garner is well cast as a sympathetic doctor who risks her career to stand by Woodroof in his selfless mission. But the film belongs to McConaughey. Not particularly likeable at the start of the film, he tackles the part with such fearless honesty that you’re rooting for him as the cracks in his tough exterior begin to show. It’s a performance screaming Oscar!

Directed without much fuss by Jean-Marc Vallée, this is a poignant yet inspiring film that unfolds like your standard biopic. Yet it’s riveting each time McConaughey is on screen. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Dallas Buyers Club.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

An exercise in Payne

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:38 pm

February 28, 2014

Cast: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Director: Alexander Payne

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne, is one of my favorites of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. It’s the kind of movie we don’t often see at the cinemas because it’s utterly simple, and because it’s about real people who’re utterly ordinary.

Set in the present day, yet shot in beautiful black and white, the film stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a near-senile ageing alcoholic, living in Billings, Montana. When Woody receives one of those junk-mail flyers claiming he’s won a million dollars, he becomes determined to travel 800 miles north to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize money. He’s not allowed to drive, and his crabby, exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) won’t take him. Instead of arguing, his good-natured grown-up son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him there, seeing it as a chance to mend their fractured relationship. Their road trip across the American Midwest forms the core of this movie.

Striking the perfect balance between sardonic humor and serious drama, Payne delivers a keenly observant film that feels genuine and authentic. Nebraska benefits also from his strong sense of place and his sharp eye for nonprofessional actors who inhabit smaller roles. While the relationship between father and son is at the heart of the movie, Payne finds plenty of other relationships to explore.

Midway through their journey, the pair stops at Woody’s old hometown, where they encounter family and friends from the past. There are Woody’s many brothers, an old flame, David’s greedy cousins, and a former business partner who has designs on the old man’s supposed jackpot. The trip also becomes an opportunity for David to learn more about his father.

Like in his previous films – The Descendants and Sideways, to name two – Payne finds humor in unlikely places. He also knows exactly how and when to jab at old wounds. What you get as a result is a bittersweet film about the unpredictability of life and the incongruity of family dynamics. Nebraska unfolds leisurely, but the pace is nicely suited to this delicate, melancholic tale that evokes the nostalgia of a time gone by.

For all its strengths, the film is ultimately a showcase of some fine acting. Forte does very well as the permanently sad-eyed David, who wears an expression of frustrated ambition. And as Woody’s foul-mouthed wife, Squibb delivers moments of unexpected raunchy humor. But the film belongs to 77-year-old Dern, who delivers a bruisingly honest, riveting performance as the dazed protagonist.

I’m going with four out of five for Nebraska. It’s a quietly moving film that’ll stay with you. I couldn’t shake it off for days.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 21, 2014

George Clooney on directing himself: “You can’t do too many takes on yourself”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 11:20 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Hollywood star and film director George Clooney talks about his new film, The Monuments Men, in which a group of ageing art experts go to the frontlines of World War II to recover important works of art stolen by the Nazis.  Clooney explains what it’s like to direct himself on the set, and also discusses his recent film Gravity that received 10 Academy Award nominations.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Ladies in pink

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 11:10 pm

Dressed in pink sarees and wielding lathis to dispense justice, the Gulabi Gang, a vigilante group of women in Bundelkhand in Northern India, have fascinated filmmakers ever since the group was founded in 2006 by Sampat Pal. Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang comes on the heels of British documentarian Kim Longinotto 2010 film Pink Saris, and only weeks from now we’ll see Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla in Gulab Gang, a Bollywood feature reportedly inspired by the crime-fighting crusader group.

Jain’s film is a deeply affecting work that reminds us of the vulnerability of women in rural India, and shines a light on the efforts of this group to protect, educate, and empower their gender against cruel husbands, corrupt politicians, and an orthodox, regressive mindset.

Sampat Pal is an enigmatic figure, comfortable in the spotlight, empathetic to the helpless, and tough when she needs to be. The camera follows her closely as she is summoned to a village where a family claims their daughter-in-law set herself on fire. The teenage girl’s charred body is revealed only fleetingly, and while Sampat is evidently sad, she isn’t shocked. This is not the first time she’s seen something like this.

Within moments, she has figured out that there are no signs of a fire having broken out in the hut; the roof and the walls are in perfect condition. The girl’s tongue, sticking out of her mouth, and her posture suggest that she struggled before dying. Sampat openly accuses the family of lying, and insists that a police investigation will find the husband guilty of murder. She approaches the police herself, urging them to look into the case. She also tries to persuade the dead girl’s father and uncle to file a complaint and demand a probe, but the men are unwilling. “It had to be in her destiny to die,” they tell Sampat. In a poignant scene later, the dead girl’s blind mother calls Sampat home and decides to lodge a complaint.

A woman’s life isn’t worth very much in these parts. It’s a truth that’s reiterated again, when Husna, a member of the Gulabi Gang, is revealed to be shielding her brother after he stabbed their sister to death for remarrying. Sampat, who has dropped in to visit Husna with another member, asks her politely but firmly to disassociate herself with the gang. In an exchange with Jain (who remains off-camera) after Sampat has left, Husna says she cannot condemn her brother – women who bring dishonor to their families by marrying for love must be prepared to face the consequences.

In another village, local Gulabi Gang members are staging a hunger strike outside a police station, demanding that the authorities take the village leader to task for murdering an activist. Suman Chauhan, a senior Gulabi Gang member from that district, campaigns for the women in her gang who will contest local elections. When one of the women loses in an important constituency, Suman chides villagers who promised to vote for her, but voted for the oppressive leader instead. “You shouldn’t have lied,” she tells them disappointedly.

Not everything about the film is grim and hopeless, however. Jain reveals a keen eye for humor when she captures Sampat and other members practicing self-defence. Or the time Sampat is recruiting new members to the gang. None of the women have birth certificates, and although their faces reveal wisdom and maturity of many years, each insists she’s 40 or younger.

Sampat’s efforts to seek justice for the girl who was burnt to death yield positive results. It’s clear she has a voice, and the authorities take her seriously. But in a telling scene at the very end of the film, Jain makes a case for more awareness. As Gulabi Gang members huddled together at a railway platform prepare to head to their village, a man, oblivious of who they are or what they do, his curiosity piqued by their pink sarees and the lathis they carry around, enquires about the group from another passenger. On being told, he asks dismissively: “But have they achieved anything?”

The film, which I strongly recommend that you watch, is a testament to their courageous work and the difference they have made.

Road, trip

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:08 pm

February 21, 2014

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt

Director: Imtiaz Ali

At one point in writer-director Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Alia Bhatt’s character Veera, who has been kidnapped and taken hostage in the back of a truck, pops in an English music CD and begins gyrating to a tune in the middle of an empty road. Like us in the audience, her kidnapper Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) is dumbstruck. He stares at her in disbelief.

Veera, after all, is unusually cheerful for a rich brat who has been whisked off at gunpoint, slapped around by louts, and transported far away from her home. She’s also developed feelings for Mahabir. It’s a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, but the message of the movie is especially disturbing in a society grappling with women’s safety. Think about it.

Taking a clean break from the glossy romantic comedies he’s had great success with, Ali expands the road-trip motif that has run through most of his films into a full-fledged premise in Highway. Days before her wedding, while on a late night drive with her fiance, Veera witnesses a shootout at a gas station, and within minutes she’s abducted by a gang of thugs. The gang’s leader, Mahabir, in an attempt to escape the clutches of the law, takes off with her on a seemingly never-ending trek across North India…from Delhi to Haryana, to the deserts of Rajasthan, then to Punjab and all the way up to the mountains in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

Shot remarkably by Anil Mehta, whose camera captures not only the astonishing beauty of India’s landscapes, but also knows exactly when to stay on a moment – like that bit in which Veera, perched on a rock by a gushing stream, breaks into unbridled, involuntary laughter then into tears just as unexpectedly – the film looks and feels sharply textured and authentic. We get the bustle of roadside dhaabas and markets, the raspy-voiced tunes of folk singers dotting the open roads, and the sight of clouds wafting in the skies above one’s head. The film’s dreamy visuals are perfectly complemented by AR Rahman’s terrific tracks, and a minimal background score that’s never intrusive.

Swept away by emotion, seduced by these sights and sounds, and relieved to be out of her claustrophobic home in the city, Veera’s quick transformation from helpless victim to enthusiastic co-traveler is nevertheless unconvincing. Equally clunky is the catalyst that draws this unlikely pair closer. As it turns out, both Veera and Mahabir are haunted by deep dark secrets from their childhood, and unburdening their hearts proves cathartic. But a scene in which Mahabir flashbacks to a happy place in his memory is giggle-inducing.

It’s here, in the film’s inert second half, that it all comes undone. Ironically, even as the journey continues, there’s virtually no plot movement to keep you engaged. A few moments of humor aside, Highway becomes a slog. Blame it on the undercooked script, or the fact that Ali stretches the film’s overarching theme (finding one’s freedom in captivity) so thin that it’s reduced to an empty cliché.

But even when the material fails him, his leading lady seldom does. Bhatt, in only her second film role, is refreshingly natural as she skillfully nails the vulnerability and the tenacity of her character. Hooda, meanwhile, fills out the part of the brooding thug as if he were born to play it. There’s a simmering intensity to his performance that nicely balances out Alia’s fragility.

The film – a brave experiment on Ali’s part, who uses long stretches of silence, improv dialogues, and characters over plot to drive the narrative – doesn’t necessarily work. It’s meandering and indulgent in many parts, tiring you out well before it’s over.

I’m going with two out of five for Highway. A beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Art attack

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:05 pm

February 21, 2014

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Boneville, Cate Blanchett

Director: George Clooney

The Monuments Men, co-written and directed by George Clooney, sees a band of ageing art experts venture to the front lines of World War II to recover important works of art stolen by the Nazis. It’s a fascinating true-life story that has suspense, hidden treasure, and the ultimate villain – Hitler. Still the film requires nerves of steel to get through.

Clooney himself plays Harvard art conservationist Frank Stokes, who handpicks his team and then leads them to Germany to find such priceless artefacts as the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo. This Dirty Dozen-type team of academics and professionals comprises such terrific actors as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Boneville, while Cate Blanchett stars as a French curator who is first suspicious of the mission, then helpful in tracking down the pilfered works.

Despite excellent performances from the cast, and any number of enjoyable comic scenes, the film doesn’t quite work because it can’t seem to get a fix on the tone it wants to take, seesawing inconsistently between breezy and somber. There are moments of light humor (mostly in the exchanges between Murray and Balaban), and some poignant bits as the men risk their lives to save valuable pieces of art. What’s lacking throughout the picture is a sense of urgency, even when lives are in imminent danger. A scene in which Damon accidently steps on an explosive mine is never tense, instead schmaltzy. Things do pick up in the last twenty minutes, with our heroes hurrying to locate and rescue major artworks before the Germans can destroy them or the Russians can get their hands on them. But it’s too little too late by then.

It’s evident from the repeated speeches Clooney makes about the value of art and culture that he remains committed to directing popular films that still manage to say something important about the world. But while The Monuments Men has a noble message at its heart, it’s just not very satisfying as a whole. I’m going with two out of five. A crushing disappointment.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Matt Damon on being directed by his friend George Clooney

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 10:30 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Hollywood star Matt Damon describes what its like being directed by his friend George Clooney and explains the value he attributes to art. Damon, who stars in The Monuments Men, also names the one piece of art he’d save if the world was coming to an end.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 14, 2014

Vidya Balan on Farhan Akhtar: “He cracked me up all the time”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 11:45 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Shaadi Ke Side Effects stars Vidya Balan and Farhan Akhtar talk about chemistry, first impressions, and winning awards.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

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