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

July 31, 2015

Secrets and lies

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:39 pm

July 31, 2015

Cast: Ajay Devgan, Tabu, Shriya Saran, Rajat Kapoor, Kamlesh Sawant, Ishita Dutta

Director: Nishikant Kamat

One of the big downsides to being an avid movie watcher in this age of information overload is that it’s hard to go into a film knowing virtually nothing about it. Trailers tend to give away too much. And between the innumerable promotional interviews, and all those “experts” weighing in on social media, the joy of discovery sitting there in a dark cinema hall is often lost.

Which is why I will advise you this: go in to watch Drishyam knowing as little as you can about the film. In fact, you might want to stop reading this review right about now. I will try, nevertheless, to reveal as little of the plot as I can.

As you may already know, this Ajay Devgan starrer is a remake of the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name starring Mohanlal, which was recently remade in Tamil as Papanasam starring Kamal Haasan. Nishikant Kamat, director of the terrific Marathi film Dombivli Fast and the mediocre Bollywood film Force, helms this Hindi version and seldom deviates from the original blueprint, which is a good thing for the most part.

Devgan stars as Vijay Salgaocar, a middle-class family man, living with his wife (Shriya Saran) and two young daughters in a small town in a non-touristy part of Goa. Theirs is a happy unit, even if Daddy would rather spend his time watching movies in the small office he owns than take them to the city for shopping outings.

Early on we get a sense of Vijay’s ordinary life: the modest restaurant he eats at, the regular folks that are his friends, the local cable TV business he runs, a corrupt cop he often locks horns with, the practical knowledge he’s acquired from his obsessive love of films, and repeated reminders that he couldn’t even clear Class Four in school.

Like in the Malayalam original, this exposition takes up a chunk of the film’s first half. But to give credit where it’s due, Kamat gets to the real plot comparatively sooner. An unfortunate incident pits Vijay and his family against another family…that of Meera Deshmukh (Tabu), a powerful and ruthless Inspector General of Police, and her husband (Rajat Kapoor). Both Vijay and Meera will go to great lengths for the safety and protection of their respective children, and therein arises the film’s conflict.

Jeethu Joseph’s terrific original script isn’t fashioned as a whodunit – because we know who did it – but in fact as a battle of wits, a cat-and-mouse chase. There’s a real thrill in watching one side concoct an elaborate web of lies, and the other side work systematically towards finding the chinks in their story. Because the script so brilliantly subverts the right/wrong template, there are moments where you’ll find your loyalty towards the ‘good guy’ wavering.

The film’s second half moves briskly, save for the unnecessary songs that act as speed bumps in the narrative. The suggestion that Vijay’s entire strategy is plotted around ideas that came to him from watching movies is never adequately illustrated by Kamat. And in sticking too faithfully to the original, he repeats some of the indulgences and mistakes of that film.

But so strong is the plot of Drishyam that very little of this ultimately matters. You’re riveted as the drama unfolds, even if you may have guessed one or both of the delicious twists in the final act.

It helps that Kamat has a trio of dependable actors in key roles. Kamlesh Sawant is appropriately despicable as Inspector Gaitonde, the vengeful cop who revels in the violence he is encouraged to inflict on Vijay’s family. Ajay Devgan, in a part that offers no scope for showy histrionics, is nicely understated as the desperate parent who must constantly think on his feet. But the film belongs unquestionably to Tabu. Never reducing the role to a stereotype, she brings multiple layers to a complex character, evoking both contempt and ultimately sympathy through a carefully nuanced performance.

When was the last time you enjoyed a film for its gripping plot, its compelling story? Drishyam, with its refreshingly original screenplay and its many moments of tension, is just that. Kamat’s Hindi version pales in comparison to both the original Malayalam film and the Tamil remake, but the plot nevertheless keeps you hooked till the end.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. Now forget everything you just read and go watch the film.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

On the ropes

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:38 pm

July 31, 2015

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, 50 Cent, Oona Laurence

Director: Antoine Fuqua

What’s it about great actors that they all fall for the boxing movie? The lure of that coveted Oscar? From Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro to Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Christian Bale…some of Hollywood’s most solid talents have undergone startling transformations to play pumped-up pugilists on screen. Jake Gyllenhaal joins the ranks with Southpaw, but the film’s script feels like a compendium of every boxing-movie cliché you can possibly think of.

To be fair, Gyllenhaal is as intense as you might expect in the role of Billy Hope, a left-handed champ with a big house, a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), and a loving daughter (Oona Laurence). Too good to last, eh? A scuffle with a rival leads to tragic consequences and sends Billy into a spiral of drugs and alcohol. Before he knows it, he’s lost his home, all his money, and custody of his daughter. No prizes for guessing what happens next. Yup, it’s a long trek down Redemption Road.

In the hands of a lesser actor this would be the stuff of cringe-inducing soap opera, but Gyllenhaal hurls himself into the part with great intensity and commitment. He brings a hulking physicality to the boxing scenes, and conveys Billy’s internalized struggle to reform with unmistakable sincerity. Another winning performance comes from Forest Whitaker, playing a hard-nosed boxing coach who “rescues” Billy when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Director Antoine Fuqua shoots the boxing scenes in long takes and gives us full body shots that look painfully real. What a shame that it’s all in service of a plot that’s utterly predictable from start to finish. Melodramatic and manipulative, this is no Raging Bull.

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

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Game over!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:37 pm

July 31, 2015

Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox

Director: Chris Columbus

Don’t bother too much with the plot of Pixels – the filmmakers certainly didn’t – in which a bunch of nerds, played by Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, are called upon by the President of the United States (Kevin James) to save the earth when aliens attack disguised as giant versions of 80s video game characters.

It’s a slim premise, but Home Alone director Chris Columbus employs nifty special effects to liven up the proceedings. So a gargantuan Pac-Man chomps his way through New York City, and a menacing Donkey Kong hurls barrel after barrel at Sandler and his crew, who must fight back using the skills they acquired in those video game arcades as teenagers. Meanwhile the lovely Michelle Monaghan shows up as a military scientist and obligatory love interest for Sandler. And even the Taj Mahal disintegrates into a heap of shiny bricks.

Sounds like fun? It is, but only sporadically.

I’m going with two out of five. It’s an improvement on most of Sandler’s recent comedies. But that’s faint praise.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

July 24, 2015

Pritam: “I stopped enjoying my work”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 9:12 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, Bollywood’s hit-machine, music composer Pritam talks about the one-year sabbatical he took from work at his peak, about his comeback with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and about living with the copycat jokes. Pritam, who is currently composing the score for the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Dilwale, Karan Johar’s next directorial venture Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and Aamir Khan’s new film Dangal, is in an enviable position, but insists that he can’t take his eye off the ball.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Straight from the ghat

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:37 pm

July 24, 2015

Cast: Richa Chadha, Sanjay Mishra, Vicky Kaushal, Shweta Tripathi, Pankaj Tripathi, Bhagwan Tiwari, Nikhil Sahni

Director: Neeraj Ghaywan

Death looms large in first-time director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. The film, whose title means ‘crematorium’, unfolds in the holy city of Varanasi by the banks of the Ganges, on whose ghats dozens of cremations take place side by side every day, the flaming pyres barely separated from each other by a few feet. Featuring two parallel stories, each quietly devastating, Masaan is as lyrical as it is heartbreaking, concerned as much with love as it is with loss.

The first story features Richa Chadha as Devi, whose sexual encounter with a lover in a seedy hotel room is busted by cops. The senior officer on the case proceeds to extort money from her father (Sanjay Mishra) for burying the scandal. The old man, a former teacher who now runs a small shop selling odds and ends at the ghats, finds his moral compass wavering faced with the pressure to meet the policeman’s demands.

In the second story, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a low-caste Dom whose family cremates dead bodies by the ghats, falls in love with Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), a girl from an upper caste family. Their innocent, awkward romance unfolds over long bike rides, and an appreciation for poetry.

The protagonists of both stories represent a younger, technologically savvy generation that’s unwilling to be constricted by societal barriers of gender and caste in their pursuit of happiness. Chadha plays Devi as a strong-willed young woman, neither afraid nor apologetic for her actions, only wracked by guilt over the way things turn out for her lover. Shaalu, while revealing that her parents will never allow her to marry Deepak, reassures him that she’ll elope with him if pushed against the wall. An engineering student, Deepak himself is searching for a way to escape his lineage…a life shoveling corpses.

Varun Grover’s nuanced script and Ghaywan’s assured filmmaking offers us a real insider’s look at the city, much more textured and authentic than the typical ‘touristy’ portrayal of Varanasi that most Hindi films tend to offer. Avinash Arun’s evocative camerawork, and stirring tracks by Indian Ocean (exquisitely worded by Grover) draw you into this compelling world where modernity and tradition are in constant clash.

Masaan puts its characters through the wringer, and yet, admirably, melodrama is at its minimal. Raising pressing questions about sexual repression, gender and caste inequalities, repentance and redemption, the film leaves you pondering its many themes. I was a tad disappointed by the contrived final scene – a neat tying-up of loose ends – that belies the very larger truth of the film, that not all stories have happy, hopeful endings.

But those are minor quibbles in an otherwise deeply affecting film that is brought to life by its remarkable cast, particularly Sanjay Mishra, Richa Chadha and terrific new-find Vicky Kaushal.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Masaan. There are multiple layers to this well-observed drama; kudos to the filmmakers for putting it on screen.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Small wonder

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

July 24, 2015

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer

Director: Peyton Reed

If, like me, you’ve been slowly tiring of the big, bloated superhero adventures that all seem to end with entire cities being reduced to rubble, then you’ll be happy to know that Ant-Man feels a lot more intimate than the typical Marvel blockbuster. And the stakes are relatively lower too. Think about it – the first action sequence in the film takes place in a bathtub.

Ant-Man, while less popular than Iron Man, The Hulk and Thor, has been a regular character in the comics since he first showed up in 1962. He has the unique ability to shrink at will and cause all sorts of trouble for the bad guys. No wonder the smart folks at Marvel decided that Ant-Man needed his own movie.

Designed as an origin story of the undersized superhero, the film, directed by Peyton Reed, stars the very likeable Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, an expert thief coming off a three-year prison stint. While hoping to go straight and reconnect with his young daughter, he’s tempted into one last job by his best friend (a scene-stealing Michael Peña). Turns out that the safe they crack belongs to atomic scientist Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and the mysterious bodysuit inside gives Scott the ability to shrink to the size of an insect, and also to command an ant-army through a mind-controlling device.

After much persuasion, Scott teams up with Pym and the scientist’s no-nonsense daughter Hope (an impenetrable Evangeline Lilly) to steal one of Pym’s creations from greedy industrialist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who’s assembling a weaponized version of the Ant-Man suit.

Humor, woven intricately into its script, is the key strength of this film. From the many in-jokes directed at other Marvel superhero movies, to the sheer hilarity that ensues the first few times Scott puts on the suit, there’s a lightness of touch to Ant-Man that’s rare in Marvel movies…except perhaps in Guardians of the Galaxy. A lot of that is due to Rudd, who can be relied on to bring the funny. He’s decidedly unheroic, and that’s part of the charm.

But criminally, Ant-Man spends way too much time on exposition and back-story. For a movie about a superhero character, we get repeated indoor scenes with Douglas rambling on about one thing or the other. And too much screen time is given to a subplot about the unresolved issues between Pym and his daughter.

The film really gathers steam in its second hour, when Scott embraces his powers and sets out to pull off the heist he’s been training for. It all culminates in a cleverly executed climax on a toy-train set. Nice change from those world-flattening finales of The Avengers movies!

I’m going with three out of five for Ant-Man. There’s plenty laughs and some neat special effects. But what the movie needed was real edge, and a willingness to take bold risks.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

July 17, 2015

Tabu: “It will take hundreds of years for gender equality”

Filed under: Video Vault — Rajeev @ 9:27 pm

In this interview with Rajeev Masand, 2-time National Award-winning actress Tabu talks about reuniting with her Vijaypath co-star and childhood friend Ajay Devgan for the Hindi remake of Drishyam. The actress also weighs in on the gender and age biases in Bollywood, and discusses life after Haider.

(This interview first aired on CNN-IBN)

Let the waterworks begin!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:35 pm

July 17, 2015

Cast: Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Harshaali Malhotra, Sharad Saxena, Om Puri

Director: Kabir Khan

Bajrangi Bhaijaan gives us a Salman Khan very different from the one we’re used to seeing on screen. There’s no swagger in his step, no signature punchlines to deliver, and…gasp…he doesn’t once rip off his shirt. In a departure from his enduring image as a larger-than-life hero who lets his fists do the talking, the actor stars as a symbol of peace and love in this cross-border drama. The result, I’m happy to report, is that this may be Salman Khan’s most coherent film in recent years.

He plays Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, a devout Hanuman bhakt and small-town simpleton who resolves to reunite a mute six-year-old girl with her family in Pakistan after she accidentally lands up in India.

The little girl in question, played by Harshaali Malhotra, is a scene-stealer from the very word go. She has an angelic face and expressive eyes, and good luck holding back your tears each time she sheds her own. Director Kabir Khan gives us some charming moments between Salman and her, starting with the bits when it dawns on him that she is neither brahmin nor kshatriya like he’d assumed.

The film uses humor as a tool to address deep-set religious prejudices, like the one Pavan’s landlord harbors against his meat-eating Muslim neighbors, or even Pavan’s own discomfort about stepping into a masjid. There’s also, conveniently, a romantic track with Kareena Kapoor, who, in only a few well-scripted moments reminds us just how good an actress she is, but who sadly seems content playing a largely decorative role.

However, Bajrangi Bhaijaan really comes into its own post interval when the action shifts to Pakistan, where Pavan and the little girl encounter an assortment of locals…from kind-hearted, sympathetic men to suspicious cops. A terrific Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing bumbling TV reporter Chand Nawab, quickly becomes an ally, joining the duo on the long journey to the girl’s home in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The scenes between these three are some of the best in the film, and Nawazuddin coolly walks away with all the good lines.

Kabir Khan dials up the melodrama and delivers the most unabashedly manipulative climax that you can possibly think of. The film takes a simplistic view of the Indo-Pak problem and the Kashmir issue, and offers well-intentioned but frankly naïve solutions. In the last ten minutes, the makers aren’t merely content with drawing tears from your eyes, the film literally squeezes a lump out of your throat.

Despite its plot holes (too many to go into), and its rudimentary politics of the region, the film doesn’t derail because we’re served up likeable enough principal characters, and inspired actors in these parts. Salman Khan is genuinely endearing as the simple-minded Hanuman devotee who genuflects in reverence each time he spots a monkey. There’s an unmistakable earnestness in his performance as a man who demonstrates the importance of humanity over religion and nationality. And he’s complemented nicely by little Harshaali, whose smile will melt your heart.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is way too long at 2 hours and 35 minutes, and could have done with some serious pruning, especially in its first half. Nevertheless, it’s more engaging than such typical Salman Khan blockbusters as Bodyguard and Ready, if only because it has a sliver of a story, and its heart in the right place.

I’m going with three out of five. Don’t forget to take your handkerchief along.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

July 10, 2015

Hyderabad hues

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:37 pm

July 10, 2015

Cast: Prabhas, Rana Dagubatti, Tamannah, Ramya Krishna, Anushka Shetty, Nasser, Sathyaraj, Sudeep

Director: SS Rajamouli

Bahubali, directed by SS Rajamouli, is a big, sweeping epic that runs for close to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Spanning generations, going back and forth between the present and the past, alternating between vastly contrasting landscapes, it’s an ambitious work from a visionary filmmaker who skillfully blends a tale of old school palace politics with modern VFX to deliver a consistently watchable blockbuster.

Smuggled out of the kingdom of Mahishmati as a baby and raised by tribals in a village located at the foot of a waterfall, Shiva (Telugu star Prabhas) is the Bahubali of the film’s title, a human with god-like strength and valor. After repeated attempts to scale the mountains and climb up to the top of the waterfall, Shiva finally achieves his goal, only to encounter Avanthika (Tamannah), a female warrior and member of a rebel group.

Their frankly silly romantic track – in which he distracts her with a snake while tattooing her shoulder, or undresses her systematically while giving her a makeover – is the weakest link in the film, stretching out an already overlong first half. Avanthika leads Shiva to his destiny beyond the walls of Mahishmati, where despotic king Bhallal Dev (Rana Dagubatti) is installing a 50-foot gold statue of himself.

Rajamouli gives us a terrific interval point, and the film moves briskly in its second half, when it goes into flashback mode to reveal a familiar story of family conflict within the royal household, and Shiva’s true identity. The piece de resistance of the film is a roughly 30-minute war sequence achieved through a combination of special effects and thrilling in-camera shots. You’re riveted by the action, and by the drama that unfolds on the battlefield, leading to an explosive finale. Prabhas and Rana, each flexing his tree trunk-sized biceps, puts up a great show.

Save for a few unconvincing bits, including an escape from an oncoming avalanche that looks completely fake, the VFX in Bahubali are more sophisticated than what we’ve seen in most Indian films. Art director Sabu Cyril employs them niftily to give depth and scale to his magnificent sets, and cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar gives us beautiful vistas combining the real and the computer-generated more-or-less seamlessly.

But the film’s secret sauce is Rajamouli’s expert handling of the simple but dependable screenplay, his ability to whip up rousing moments, and his skill at mining emotions from even clichéd scenarios. He is aided by an impressive cast who’re at the top of their game, including Ramya Krishna as just queen Sivagami, and Sathyaraj as Katappa, loyal senapati of Mahishmati. Rana Dagubatti has a strong presence, and invokes fear by simply bulging those eyes. Prabhas lets his hulking physicality do the bulk of work for him, but brings much by way of performance through his sheer intensity.

From the tropical landscapes of Avatar and the bloody battles of The Lord of The Rings films, to the images from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that it evokes, Rajamouli’s film hat-tips to its various influences without ever stealing from any. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Bahubali given that I watched a Hindi dubbed version of the original Telugu film. Rajamouli is indeed a visual storyteller, and he brings the curtains down on this first part of his two-film saga with a curious cliffhanger. I can’t wait for Part 2, which comes next year.

I’m going with four out of five for Bahubali. It’s exactly what a blockbuster should be. Hugely entertaining, without ever being dumb.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Chasing Amy

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

The name Amy Winehouse evokes myriad images: the beehive hair, the multiple tattoos, the bold eye make-up, those paparazzi shots of drug-fueled hangovers. British director Asif Kapadia’s captivating documentary on the singer-songwriter goes beyond the clichés to provide an intimate, layered portrait of the troubled artiste who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of just 27. Even if – like me – you haven’t been a fan of her music, this film will break your heart.

Drawing you in from its very opening moments, the film establishes her blazing talent through home-video footage recorded in 1998, of Amy as an impish teenager, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a friend, impersonating Marilyn Monroe’s famous performance. These bits, along with a wealth of private videos provided by her family and close friends, allow us a glimpse of the talented, intelligent, charismatic young woman before she hit the big-time.

The film’s narrative is a familiar one: her stratospheric rise to fame at a young age, exploited by those closest to her, a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, a life played out in full public view courtesy the relentless tabloid press, and then her death. One of the great strengths of this film is that Kapadia never forces his viewpoint; he mixes archival footage, home videos, and interviews skillfully to present the most wholesome view of Amy’s life and its unraveling. Sure some people come out looking bad – her husband Blake Fielder who reveals it was him who got her addicted to heroin and smuggled drugs to her when she was in rehab, her father Mitch Winehouse who is seen bringing along a camera crew to a private vacation that was meant to help her recuperate, her manager who allowed her to go on stage while she was high for a concert in Belgrade that naturally ended disastrously.

To be fair, the film isn’t as gloomy as it sounds. The younger Amy, before the drugs, was charming and unmistakably funny, as one private video reminds us. It’s footage of her pretending to be a Spanish maid as she shows a friend around a holiday apartment in Mallorca. And then there is the music. You’ll be spellbound as she belts out tracks in that big, blessed voice. Kapadia’s masterstroke is to put her lyrics on screen as she sings them, so we can see for ourselves how personal they are, and how reflective of her tumultuous life. The video recording of her duet with her idol Tony Bennett is one of the best bits in the film, also revealing her innate integrity to her craft.

Like the director’s terrific previous documentary Senna, on the life of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, Amy humanizes a fascinating figure that deserved a more thoughtful study than the headlines provided. This is, in fact, an even stronger film – a carefully observed portrait of an abundantly talented but potentially fragile woman singed by the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.


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