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

May 30, 2014

Bright lights, big pity!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:40 pm

May 30, 2014

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha, Manav Kaul, Sadia Siddiqui

Director: Hansal Mehta

Deepak Singh, the character Rajkummar Rao plays in Hansal Mehta’s Citylights is one you recognize immediately. The small-town poverty-stricken Indian, desperate to make a better life for his family. The hopeful migrant who shows up in the big city, determined to change his fate. It’s a narrative only too familiar, and yet Mehta infuses genuine feeling into this shopworn premise.

It’s hard not to be overcome with empathy as Deepak and his wife Rakhi (newcomer Patralekha) spend their first night in Mumbai crouched by a dumpster, duped out of their only savings. Hope dies quickly for the young couple, who discovers it’s going to be a struggle to put a roof over their little daughter’s head, and food on the table. Subsequently Rakhi takes a job as a bar dancer at a shady establishment, and Deepak flits between odd jobs until he’s hired as a guard at a security firm.

Deepak and Rakhi are a portrait of quiet desperation in a film that is anything but quiet. Every poignant moment is emphasized by a manipulative background score, and songs that insist on ‘telling’ you how you should feel. It’s a shame because the story itself is inherently moving, and the actors’ committed performances touch all the right chords.

Rao, who recently won the National Award for his work in Mehta’s excellent film Shahid, is a chameleon who doesn’t just “play” characters, he “becomes” them. Patralekha shows promise too. But if neither actor commands the screen, it’s because of the limited scope of the story, and the fact that there’s little room to eschew the scenery. Manav Kaul fares better as Deepak’s supervisor Vishnu, whose generosity towards the new hire hides a selfish plan.

The film chugs along slowly to reveal its thriller leanings, but by then, the relentlessly grating music and the absence of an urgent dramatic conflict have worn you out. There are also unforgivable lapses of logic that are startling. Who’d have thought you could walk in for a job interview at a company plying armored vehicles carrying safe deposit boxes and be hired without so much as a thorough background check? Or that bullets fly freely on the streets in Mumbai, with never a cop in sight, or even after?

Citylights, an official remake of the British-Filipino hit Metro Manila, isn’t a bad film by any measure, but it does feel repetitive and long, even at a running time of less than two hours. Technically too, the film offers no surprises. In the original film, because the protagonist was a fish out of water, the audience discovered the city of Manila and its seedy side along with him and through his eyes. But Mehta shoots Mumbai through the same jaundiced lens as dozens of films in the past.

Where Citylights succeeds is in telling the story of ordinary people living below the poverty line…people we seldom cast a second glance at…people who sometimes have to resort to desperate measures just so they can keep their children alive. It’s a good film, but not without its flaws. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired at CNN-IBN)

Witch perfect

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:39 pm

May 30, 2014

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple

Director: Robert Stromberg

Putting a revisionist spin on one of its own animated hits, Disney places the wicked witch front and centre in Maleficent, revealing the real reason she put a curse on the innocent princess in Sleeping Beauty. Decked out in flowing robes, sculpted cheekbones, red lipstick, and a pair of horns that ominously snake out of her head, Angelina Jolie is the slinky embodiment of evil. But this is a film determined to redeem the misunderstood villainess rather than condemn her.

Turns out Maleficent wasn’t always bad. She was a good fairy once who fell in love, and got her heart broken. An act of betrayal – by who else but a greedy, ambitious man (Sharlto Copley) – unleashes her fury, and she casts a spell on his baby girl. At 16, Aurora (Elle Fanning) will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a death-like sleep. Still, it is clear early on that Maleficent doesn’t hate the girl, or the young woman she grows up to be. To her own surprise, she learns that she can’t help but protect the princess, growing up in an isolated cottage.

Robert Stromberg, two-time Academy Award-winning production designer for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, makes his directing debut here, giving us a visually overwhelming 3D world flooded by digital effects of varying quality. The expansive vistas are gorgeous to look at, as are some flying sequences, and a majestic fire-breathing dragon. But the trolls and gremlins inhabiting these fantasy lands – and particularly the trio of pixies looking over the young princess – come off as creepy rather than cute.

Jolie is riveting every time she’s on screen, bringing humor where needed, and cold hard glassy stares to convey rage. At one point, she bursts into a piercing scream at the loss of her wings; it’s impossible not to be moved. But trapped in a film unsure of what it wants to be, the actress is its only strength. For Maleficent is beset with an overly busy plot, pacing issues, and abrupt changes in tone. Her own character suffers from a sort of script schizophrenia – one moment she’s raising hell, playing up to her wicked witch persona, the next moment she’s all gooey and soft over Aurora’s kindness. The romantic angle, between Aurora and the prince whose true-love kiss will break the curse, feels slapdash and underdeveloped, and the obligatory climatic action has little awe or wonder.

When the lights come back on in the end, it’s unlikely that much will stay with you, apart from Jolie’s scorching presence. She deserved better, and so did we. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Maleficent.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Blood simple

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:38 pm

May 30, 2014

Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra

Director: Gareth Evans

The Raid 2, like its 2011 predecessor, is not everyone’s cup of tea. That film about a squad of Jakarta cops who fight for their lives against a seemingly never-ending stream of heavily armed gangsters holed up on every floor of a fortress-like apartment block, established Gareth Evans as one of the most inventive action directors of our time, and also raised questions about the videogame nature of the relentlessly brutal action on screen. Anyone who enjoyed that film, however, will require no persuading at all to check out its sequel.

The Raid 2 picks up right where the earlier film left off. Sole surviving cop, Rama, once again played by charismatic martial arts expert Iko Uwais, reluctantly agrees to go undercover to flush out corrupt cops colluding with the Mob. Rama gets himself thrown into prison, where he saves the life of a fellow inmate, the son of a Mafia boss, who welcomes him into his ring after they’re released, giving Rama exactly the access he needs for his operation.

There’s a little too much talking in the film’s first half, and way more plot than was required here. But as soon as a mass brawl breaks out in a rainy, muddy prison yard, you’re reminded exactly why you’re a fan of these movies.

The violence, expectedly, is often stomach-churning. Breaking free from the confines of the building complex from the first film, Evans takes the action into the streets this time, staging impressive set-pieces in warehouses, noodle bars, and even the underground, often in long single takes, his camera bobbing around his actors, following their every punch and move. A female gangster in a little white dress and oversized sunglasses unleashes a bloodbath in a subway train, armed with a claw hammer in each hand. A speeding car chase sequence will leave you feeling rattled and out of breath. Honest confession; I found myself turning away as heads were being bashed into the concrete and necks and bones routinely broken. But it was all strangely fascinating too.

If action films are intended strictly to deliver thrilling scenes of pulse-racing violence, then The Raid 2 delivers just that – with relish and energy. Dubbed into English from its original Indonesian version, it’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Asian characters speak with American accents, but an hour into the film, it’s not the dialogue you’re paying attention to.

I’m going with three out of five for The Raid 2. If you have the stomach for it, this is pretty good fun.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

“Our film is nothing like Shaitaan,” say actors and director of Fugly

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 11:27 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Fugly director Kabir Sadanand and newcomers Mohit Marwah and boxer Vijender Singh talk about putting stories of friendship on the screen. The debutant actors also talk about shaking a leg to the film’s title song with superstars Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

May 23, 2014

Hugh Jackman: “I’m not ready to hang up Wolverine’s claws just yet”

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

In this interview with Rajeev Masand recorded in Singapore, X-Men star Hugh Jackman talks about reuniting with the cast of the original trilogy while making the latest film in the franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past. The 45-year-old Aussie also reveals his own time-travel fantasy.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Not-so-special effects

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:43 pm

May 23, 2014

Cast: Rajnikanth, Deepika Padukone, Nasser, Jackie Shroff, Shobana

Director: Soundarya Rajnikanth Ashwin

Kochadaiiyaan, starring 64-year-old Tamil superstar Rajnikanth, isn’t likely to be mentioned in the same breath as James Cameron’s Avatar or Steven Spielberg’s Tintin film, although it was achieved using the same performance capture technology. The animation in Kochadaiiyaan is embarrassingly amateurish, but any comparison to those Hollywood blockbusters would be unfair, given that the budget of an Indian animation film is a mere fraction of what American studios spend on their products. Moreover, both Cameron and Spielberg perfected the technology over many years before embarking on their respective films.

What plagues Kochadaiiyaan then isn’t merely how it looks, but what it’s about. This mythological tale about an ancient warrior, Rana Rannvijay (Rajnikanth), the brave senapati of Kalingapuri who has unfinished business with the king of Kotaipattinam, is a typical saga of vengeance and honor. Rajnikanth himself also stars as Rana’s father Kochadaiiyaan in flashbacks, and Deepika Padukone is Rana’s childhood sweetheart Princess Vadhana, the daughter of Kotaipattinam’s king.

The plot bends and curves in all the usual ways, leaving little room for surprise or intrigue. This is kindergarten storytelling, and director Soundarya Rajnikanth (the actor’s daughter) throws in noisy set pieces and elaborately staged musical numbers to hold your attention when the narrative doesn’t. A tandaav performed by Rajni Sr is nicely done, as is a seaborne action scene involving galloping horses and life-saving dolphins. But it all gets pretty tiresome pretty soon, and even AR Rahman’s rousing score can’t save the day. The problem with Kochadaiiyaan is clear. The focus here isn’t on telling a compelling story, but on celebrating the legend with these larger-than-life incarnations. As a result, the film will likely appeal to all hardcore fans of Thalaivar, but may leave most others cold.

Whatever one makes of it, one must give both Rajnikanth and Soundarya props for effort. If the film doesn’t work, it’s not for lack of trying. I’m going with two out of five for Kochadaiiyaan. This one’s strictly for fans.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Tiger’s tune

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:41 pm

May 23, 2014

Cast: Tiger Shroff, Kriti Sanon, Prakash Raj

Director: Sabbir Khan

In a not-particularly-significant moment in Heropanti, the film’s leading lady is transfixed to her television set watching Maine Pyar Kiya. Ironically that love story from 1989, also featuring newcomers, still feels fresher and more sincere than many films made today, including this one.

Directed by Kambakht Ishq’s Sabbir Khan, Heropanti is a remake of the Telugu hit Parugu, and is modeled as a throwback to those old-fashioned films of the 80s in which a tough-as-nails hero could vanquish a dozen enemies without breaking a sweat. There’s a damsel in distress, a selfish control-freak father, and a never-ending supply of menacing uncles who exist only to keep the hero and heroine apart. The film ticks all the usual boxes, but to be fair Khan occasionally puts an interesting spin on rusty formulas, delivering what is at best a frustratingly inconsistent film.

Babloo (debutant Tiger Shroff) is picked up from the city with his two friends and locked away in a shed when a Haryanvi crime lord’s daughter elopes with their best buddy on her wedding day. The bulging-eyed village don, Chaudhary (Prakash Raj) won’t let the boys go till they’ve revealed the couple’s whereabouts. Inevitably, Babloo falls for Chaudhary’s younger daughter Dimpy (Kriti Sanon), complicating matters further.

This plot is sandwiched between numerous scenes of action, in which Tiger takes on multiple armed bullies, kicking, punching, whacking them into pulp even as he displays a whole range of impressive flips, cartwheels, splits, and somersaults. The same flexibility comes in good use for the film’s many dance numbers, but it’s in the dramatic bits that his rawness is exposed. There’s a little too much posturing and not enough genuine feeling when Tiger delivers the film’s clunky lines, almost always followed by an eager smile on those pink lips, as if awaiting a pat on the back for not fumbling his words. Still, Tiger is likeable and earnest, and deserved a better debut than this.

For Heropanti, with its regressive themes, sexist humor, and stock villains wears you out early on during its 2 hours 26 minute running time. As a constant reminder that Tiger is Jackie Shroff’s son, the signature tune from Shroff Sr’s own debut film Hero pops up in the background every five minutes. There is the odd scene of inspired humor – like one outside a court where Prakash Raj, on a desperate hunt for his runaway daughter, encounters another young couple that has eloped – but for the most part, the comedy here is unintentional. An otherwise fine actor, Prakash Raj sticks to hamming through his scenes in this film, particularly in the later portions where he reveals his insecurities to Tiger, and at one point asks him in all earnestness: “Tum mein aisa kya hai jo meri beti ko dikhta hai lekin mujhe nahin dikhta?”

Culminating in a Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge-inspired climax, the film’s conflict is quickly resolved, but not before someone conveniently rips the shirt off Tiger’s back for a glimpse of his rock-hard abs. Subtlety is not this film’s strength. Newcomer Kriti Sanon looks lovely and makes an impression despite her harebrained role. We’ll just have to see both these kids in better films to give them a fair chance.

I’m going with two out of five for Heropanti. We’ve been there, seen that, and bought the T-shirt already!

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Mutants on a mission

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 10:40 pm

May 23, 2014

Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Evan Peters

Director: Bryan Singer

It was never going to be easy to top Matthew Vaughn’s crackling 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class, which rejuvenated the flailing X-Men movie series with a clever 60s-set origin story. But Bryan Singer, returning to the Marvel mutant franchise that he kick-started, skillfully meshes its two disparate story strands, crafting an ambitious time-spanning tale that brings together key players from the original X-Men trilogy and their younger counterparts from First Class.

To be fair, anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan will do well to revisit the earlier films – or at least browse Wikipedia for a quick recap of what has already transpired – before settling in to watch X-Men: Days of Future Past. The new film finds a few surviving X-Men in a bleak, brutal future where mutants and their supporters are hunted down and killed by The Sentinels, an army of giant robots. Confronted with the threat of extinction, Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto make a last ditch bid for survival by sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 70s to seek help from their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) in order to alter a series of events that could change the future. Confused? Well, don’t be; it’s a lot less complicated than it sounds.

Singer, who knows how to stage impressive action sequences without ever skimping on plot or character development, gives us some thrilling set pieces, including the film’s opening Sentinel-attack sequence. There’s an element of genuine peril as the X-Men struggle to use their combined strengths to stop these formidable foes from crushing them.

But it’s not all action and explosions here. There are some unexpected moments of humor as Wolverine traverses through the past, the only one aware that so much is about to change. Days of Future Past is as much about the rocky relationship between McAvoy and Fassbender’s characters, who continue to clash over their differing ideologies on the coexistence of mutants and humans in the world. If Fassbender got the juicier part in First Class, then McAvoy is front and center this time as the drunken, self-pitying Charles Xavier. It’s a moving performance, and in one poignant bit he’s visited by Stewart’s older version of the same character.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, is key to the success of the mutants’ mission, and nicely conveys a deep inner conflict. But it’s Evan Peters, in a small cameo as the teenaged Quicksilver, who steals the film’s best scene – a slow-motion prison bust that’ll have you cheering in your seat. As Bolivar Trask, inventor of the killer robots, Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, however, doesn’t strike the fear and intensity you expect from the talented actor. And while Hugh Jackman certainly gets ample screen time, he allows the younger cast to do most of the heavy lifting here. If there’s a complaint, it’s that so many beloved characters show up but have little to do, including Halle Berry’s Storm and others from the original trilogy.

In the end, Singer succeeds in infusing a kind of popcorn blockbuster quality to a drama rich in emotion. Blessed with a solid cast, he gives us characters we actually care for. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for X-Men: Days of Future Past.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

May 9, 2014

Amole Gupte on the film that changed his life

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 11:50 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, an emotional Amole Gupte – director of such films as Stanley Ka Dabba and Hawaa Hawaai – talks about the black and white classic that changed his life. Gupte remembers first watching the film during his student years at the Film & Television Institute of India in Pune, and reveals that it continues to have a profound impact on his life even after all these years, and despite multiple viewings.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Dreams on wheels

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:44 pm

May 09, 2014

Cast: Partho Gupte, Saqib Saleem, Neha Joshi, Makarand Deshpande, Sanjay Dadhich, Razzak Khan, Anuj Sachdeva

Director: Amole Gupte

Hawaa Hawaai, directed by Amole Gupte, is about a poor fatherless boy who works at a tea stall, but nurses dreams of skating like the rich kids in the neighborhood. Like in his earlier film, 2011’s Stanley Ka Dabba, Gupte addresses themes of child labor, economic inequality and the purity of children who remain unaffected by it.

Arjun (Partho Gupte, the filmmaker’s son) looks on longingly as a swarm of children his age gather every evening to take skating lessons from ‘Lucky Sir’ (Saqib Saleem). Arjun’s friends – four young boys from the wrong side of the tracks like himself – comb a scrap-yard to collect useful bits that help them assemble a nifty pair of wheels for their buddy. When Lucky, himself an orphan, becomes aware of Arjun’s passion, he takes it upon himself to train the boy, determined to turn him into a champion.

Gupte Sr tells an uplifting story, but there is an underlying pathos here that gives the film emotional heft. Through the tragic back-story of Arjun’s father (Makarand Deshpande), the filmmaker draws our attention to relevant issues like the plight of farmers, and distress migration from rural villages to urban cities. What jars, however, is the melodramatic, soap-opera treatment of emphasizing every emotion. Taking a distinctly opposite approach to the one employed in Stanley Ka Dabba, there is a surprising lack of subtlety here and a tendency to exploit every possible plot point for lump-in-the-throat schmaltziness.

Yet, it is the heartwarming bond between Arjun and his friends, the mentor-protégé relationship between Lucky and Arjun, and the inspiring story of overcoming all odds to realize one’s dreams that stays with you. In a charming scene, Arjun’s four closest friends – a rag-picker, a garage mechanic, a worker in a zari factory, and a street-side flower-seller – make up stories to their respective employers so they can take an hour off work to go with Arjun to buy a pair of skates.

These kids in fact are the heart of this underdog story, and Gupte casts talented little fellas who steal the show. All four boys – Gochi (Ashfaque Bismillah Khan), Bhura (Salman Chhote Khan), Abdul (Maaman Memon), and Murugan (Thirupathi Kushnapelli) – a part of Gupte’s theatre workshop for underprivileged children, Aseema, have a natural ease in front of the camera, and pull off even tough scenes without a hint of self-consciousness. That’s true of Partho too, who last won our hearts as the protagonist in Stanley Ka Dabba, and who effortlessly conveys Arjun’s indefatigable spirit here. Delivering a performance free of all affectations, he gives us a hero impossible not to root for.

To be fair, the adults are in solid form too. Saqib Saleem hits all the right notes as the redemption-seeking skating coach, and Neha Joshi is perfectly cast as Arjun’s mother.

A slim story told with heart, Hawaa Hawaai is among those rare films about the hard lives of impoverished kids that’s never patronizing. Gupte deftly captures the innocence of children, and gives us some terrific moments that are genuinely moving. The occasional false notes notwithstanding, this is a movie that should be watched. I’m going with three out of five for Hawaa Hawaai. Strap up and zoom.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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