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

February 26, 2016

Lonely hearts

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

February 26, 2016

Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi, Sumit Gulati, Dilnaz Irani

Director: Hansal Mehta

Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta, is based on the true story of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was suspended from his job as a Marathi professor at Aligarh Muslim University after he was publicly exposed for being a homosexual. Two men barged into his home with cameras, filmed him in bed with his male lover, and the story was leaked to newspapers. Weeks later after his suspension was revoked following a court battle, Siras was found dead under mysterious circumstances.

The incident occurred six years ago, in 2010, but the film’s themes – the violation of one’s privacy, imposing one’s morality on others, intolerance, and society’s tendency to persecute the already marginalized – are as relevant today as ever.

Aligarh arrives at a crucial time when the conversation around Article 377 has gained momentum in the mainstream, and the contentious issue of criminalization of homosexuality is being vociferously debated at the highest levels. Yet the film itself is about more than just the ‘gay issue’. Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani offer a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be lonely and ageing, and an outsider for more reasons than one.

His hair and stubble greying, his shoulders drooping, Manoj Bajpayee beautifully imbues 64-year-old Siras with melancholic reserve. He’s a man content sipping whisky in his modest flat while a Lata Mangeshkar song fills the air. Siras writes poetry and is full of deep thoughts. He doesn’t like labels, and balks when he’s described as gay, insisting that his feelings cannot be summed up by a three-letter word. He isn’t looking for a fight when he’s unfairly suspended, but encouraged by activists he takes his case to court, keen to get his job and his home back, and his dignity restored.

Ashish Vidyarthi is terrific as the lawyer who takes up Siras’ case, vanquishing the public prosecutor determined to shame his client by arguing that it is unconstitutional to employ ‘morality’ to deny a person his basic rights. Yet it’s Rajkummar Rao’s charming portrayal of Deepu Sebastian, the intrepid young journalist who urges Siras to fight for his cause that is another of the film’s big strengths. Deepu is the perfect foil to Siras: a young, eager beaver, easily adaptable in an ever-evolving world. The two men form a tentative friendship, and their moments together are some of the best bits in the film. A scene in which they lunch together at a local restaurant is warm, even funny, and subtly reveals that no one is above prejudice…even victims of other people’s prejudice.

Aligarh is an important film, and it’s powered by sensitive writing, nuanced direction, and masterful performances from its central players. The image of Siras, a grown man blushing when he’s described as handsome, or when a gathering of gay men hail his poetry, stays with you long after you’ve watched the film. Its deliberate pace occasionally makes you restless, and you long to know more about Siras than the plot lets you in on. What kind of professor was he? Did he have any friends? How did his ‘shaming’ impact his family in Nagpur?

Crucially though, the tragic climax never pierces you in the manner that it ought to. The emotional wallop is missing.

Mehta eschews melodrama throughout the film, but in blunting this key moment in Siras’ story, the filmmakers deny the viewer a chance to bring one’s feelings to a boil. Sometimes a good cry is a way of saying I care.

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

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

To suffer for art!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

February 26, 2016

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

At a crucial point in The Revenant, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio slices open a newly dead horse, empties it of its bloody entrails, and curls up for warmth inside its carcass, gripping the flesh tightly around him. It’s a rare moment of respite in Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s relentlessly brutal saga of survival and revenge.

DiCaprio suffers for his art in Iñárritu’s film, which chronicles the unimaginable ordeal of real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass, who was savagely mauled by a bear and left for dead by his men in the frozen wilderness of 1823 America.

Although it’s the result of some terrific digital trickery, that grueling 5-minute bear attack scene – all blood and claws and drool – could alone turn away the weak hearted. And that’s even before you see Glass being buried in the earth while still alive, setting his throat on fire to prevent infection, chomping on raw bison liver, and riding off the edge of a cliff.

Miraculously, Glass survives all of it, and he somehow makes the journey through the punishing landscape, dragging his battered body through snow, across rivers, up rocks and mountains, driven by revenge. In his sights is Fitzgerald (a deliciously menacing Tom Hardy), the man responsible for abandoning him to die and for forcing him to watch as his young son is murdered in front of his eyes.

Like they did with Birdman, Iñárritu and his trusted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employ long, unbroken takes to great effect, particularly in the film’s visceral action scenes, which feel urgent and immersive as a result. Lubezki, who shot the film only in natural light, captures both the beauty and the treacherous nature of the expansive wilderness, which is as much a character in the film as the cast.

Yet despite its strengths, The Revenant never feels like much more than a simple revenge drama. It’s evident that Iñárritu is striving to communicate bigger ideas, but his exploration of such themes as spirituality, man’s relationship with nature, and empathy for Native Americans is surface-level at best.

At a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, the film feels too long and often repetitive. It’s visually and emotionally unrelenting, and requires that you come armed with patience – a lot of it. In many ways, the best thing about The Revenant is DiCaprio and his unwavering commitment to the material. It’s a largely wordless performance, and yet the 41-year-old star, buried under a mound of facial hair and furs, succeeds in conveying the character’s anguish and determination through the powerful emotions in his eyes, and the grunts and groans as he pushes his body to breaking point. It’s exactly the kind of performance that the Academy loves, so it’s hardly any surprise that he’s the frontrunner for Best Actor this year.

I’m going with three out of five for The Revenant. Iñárritu’s muscular filmmaking must be applauded, even if the film itself is as exhausting as it is thrilling.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 19, 2016

Courage under fire

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

February 19, 2016

Cast: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tikku, Shekhar Ravjiani

Director: Ram Madhvani

There is no question Neerja will leave you with a lump the size of a golf-ball in your throat. Based on the tragic true story of 23-year-old airhostess Neerja Bhanot, who lost her life helping passengers escape from Palestinian terrorists on a hijacked Pan Am flight in 1986, this is a respectful tribute that pushes all the right buttons.

Working from a script by Saiwyn Quadras, director Ram Madhvani wastes little time in setting up the drama. In a middle-class residential colony in Mumbai, we’re introduced to Neerja (Sonam Kapoor) as she spends time with her doting family hours before she must leave for her flight. These scenes are intercut with the terrorists in Karachi obtaining and readying their ammunition as they prepare to storm the plane.

Even when the action moves on board the doomed Flight 73, the filmmakers keep us invested in Neerja’s life with her family. We learn, through flashbacks, how her parents (Shabana Azmi and Yogendra Tikku) supported her through a bad marriage. We’ve already seen, how they approve, almost wordlessly, of a new partner (Shekhar Ravjiani) who evidently makes her happy. We witness the anxiety that her job causes them, and their sheer helplessness on learning that her flight has been hijacked.

Madhvani creates a palpable sense of fear and foreboding in the scenes in which the armed terrorists take charge of the flight, often clashing among themselves. Using jerky handheld camerawork to establish urgency and claustrophobia in the narrow cabin, the filmmakers give us harrowing moments of tension and violence. Meanwhile, Neerja, summoning the strength that her father repeatedly pressed her to draw on, finds it within herself to stand up to the oppressors.

Sonam Kapoor, her sing-song delivery only reiterating the character’s young age, throws herself into the part, and aside from a few weak instances, successfully conveys Neerja’s inner journey from fear to finding courage under fire. The actress has never been better.

Expect to be fully moist-eyed in the scene following Neerja’s death, when her family receives the coffin bearing her corpse. Commendably Madhvani keeps it mostly silent, allowing the actors’ performances and the moment itself to shatter your heart.

Yogendra Tikku is perfectly cast in the role of Neerja’s father, effectively offering a glimpse into the welled-up emotions of a concerned parent. Shabana Azmi owns practically every scene she’s in, adding little realistic touches to make the character her own. Even in the film’s overlong climatic speech scene, which borders on the mawkish, she gnarls at your insides as she speaks about losing her daughter.

There are a few things, however, that don’t work. A badly placed song in the second half (even if only in the background) doesn’t serve well. Also you wish the film were tighter and crisper, particularly post interval. The feeling that you’re being manipulated – rather than feeling genuinely invested in what’s going on – pops up a few times too. But these are minor complaints in what is evidently a well-intentioned, heartfelt film that remembers a real hero.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Neerja. Don’t forget to carry a handkerchief; you’re going to need one.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Press power!

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

February 19, 2016

Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Shreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a film set in a newspaper office or a news channel, and cringed at how poorly researched it was. Few films accurately capture the rough and tumble of a busy newsroom like Spotlight does. From the thrill of meeting a deadline to the horror of being scooped by a rival, to the sheer frustration of watching a lead go cold, co-writer/director Tom McCarthy depicts the highs and lows of the reporting profession with remarkable understanding.

Set in 2001 and early 2002, this skillfully crafted old school journalism drama recounts the yearlong crusade of The Boston Globe’s investigative team to expose the story of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church.

The film, however, is not so much about the scandal as it is about the effort to uncover it. McCarthy fashions Spotlight like a tense thriller, with Michael Keaton playing Walter Robinson, leader of the crack team of reporters (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) who attack the assignment with bloodhound-like obsession…doggedly digging for evidence, combing through records, and relentlessly coaxing potential sources to cooperate. Liev Shreiber plays Marty Baron, the taciturn new editor who initiates the investigation.

Some of the film’s powerful moments come from victims who open up to the reporters. Yet McCarthy refrains from painting the church as the sole, all-responsible villain, rightly dividing the blame between multiple parties, including the slow-to-act media. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” a character points out bluntly.

Spotlight is meticulous and riveting, and offers a potent reminder that investigative journalism is critical to a fair and just society. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Ruffalo deserving special mention as the chief reporter deeply committed to breaking the story. McCarthy casts solid actors like John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup in key supporting roles, and they’re in equally good form.

This is that rare film that appeals to both the head and the heart. In these cynical times, it’s comforting to be reminded of the power of solid, honest journalism. I’m going with four out of five. Nominated for 6 Oscars, Spotlight is my favorite of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 12, 2016

Valley girl

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:38 pm

February 12, 2016

Cast: Aditya Roy Kapur, Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Rahul Bhatt, Aditi Rao Hydari, Akshay Oberoi, Talat Aziz

Director: Abhishek Kapoor

Ambition and beauty occupy virtually every frame of director Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor, which is based on Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel Great Expectations. Shot exquisitely (by Anay Goswami) and mounted lavishly, the film unfolds leisurely in a seemingly timeless world.

Kapoor (who has co-written the film with Suprateek Sen) moves the story from Victorian England to snow-swept Kashmir, where nine-year-old Noor becomes instantly besotted with the snooty, aristocratic Firdaus the moment he sets eyes on her at the estate of her mother Hazrat Begum (Tabu). Although the children become close friends, Noor is repeatedly made aware that Firdaus is out of his reach.

Fifteen years later, now chiseled and frequently shirtless like an Abercrombie model, a grown up Noor (Aditya Roy Kapur), who has blossomed into a promising artist, lands a scholarship to an art residency in Delhi from a mysterious benefactor. Even as he’s experiencing his first brush with success, he meets Firdaus (now played by Katrina Kaif) again, and realizes she still makes his heart beat faster. But the knockout redhead keeps sending mixed signals, ultimately insisting on an icy distance between them as she prepares to marry a Pakistani politician (Rahul Bhatt) chosen by her mother.

I found myself completely invested in the story and the characters during the film’s first hour, but the screenplay isn’t as surefooted post-intermission. The tense political climate of Kashmir is merely referred to in passing, never exploited to serve the story in the way that, say, Haider did. In a clever scene that sadly never translates as powerfully as it was intended to, Noor chants a potent political slogan to allegorize the love triangle between him, Firdaus, and her Pakistani fiancée. Other than that it would appear that the film is set in Kashmir purely to milk its aesthetic beauty.

It’s in the second hour again that we come closer to understanding Hazrat Begum, who represents the fascinating Miss Havisham character from Dickens’ classic. Tabu is mercurial as the bitter, lonely old crone who sets Noor up for heartbreak, and her descent into madness is chilling. The writing isn’t always consistent – one moment she’s in a wheelchair attached to a drip, next thing she’s all perfectly coiffed and outfitted, showing up at a London art event – yet Tabu largely humanizes a character that has long slipped into caricature.

Crucially, the script makes an unnecessary digression into Begum’s flashback, which simply does not work for reasons of inappropriate casting and a clunky voice-dub. Those portions alone temporarily yanked me out of the film because of how unconvincing they were.

The key to remaining invested in Fitoor ultimately comes down to whether the lead pair works for you. As far as I’m concerned, I was pleasantly surprised. Aditya Roy Kapur is unmistakably earnest, and nicely brings out Noor’s wide-eyed sense of wonder and his boyish innocence despite being repeatedly manipulated. The stunning Katrina Kaif, for her part, often singled out as a weak link in movies, is a shrewd choice to play the impenetrable Firdaus. For a character whose motivations and mind are meant to be hard to read, she reflects that mystery convincingly. Her Anglicized accent still jars, but when called upon to throw herself into it – like a scene in which she confronts Begum – Katrina doesn’t disappoint.

Kapoor ditches many of the overarching social themes of Great Expectations to focus on what is primarily the story of star-crossed lovers and a complex romance. Fitoor isn’t perfect, but it’s a skillfully made film that’s easy on both the eye and the ear. In these times of fast-paced, hyperactive storytelling, you can appreciate the film’s dreamy, moody pace. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Red alert!

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

February 12, 2016

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, TJ Miller, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand

Director: Tim Miller

Even the Joker saw it coming. “Why so serious?” he famously hissed, as if gazing into a crystal ball at the slew of humorless, deathly serious comic-book movies that were headed our way.

Let’s face it. Superhero films have gotten boring. With the exception of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which brought a sense of fun and irreverence back to the genre, the majority of them have become somber affairs. From facing up to their own personal demons, and learning to channel their powers or ‘mutations’ for the general good of mankind, to going up against much stronger villains hell-bent on world domination, the superhero template has been set…and seldom deviated from.

Enter Deadpool.

Smug, sarcastic, and self-aware, he’s nothing like the other guys. He’s a wisecracking antihero in a film that eschews the conventions of the genre. He routinely breaks the fourth wall to make jokes about the ridiculousness of superheroes and superhero movies. He dishes out bloody violence with glee. He’s got a filthy mouth, and he’s obsessed with sex. What’s not to love?

The flimsy plot sees military man-turned-mercenary Wade Wilson adopt the alter ego Deadpool after being subjected to a rogue experiment to cure his terminal cancer. Now disfigured and scarred, but also pumped with amazing healing powers and a thirst for revenge, our hero becomes obsessed with tracking down the man who ruined his life – that being sadistic bad guy Ajax (Ed Skrein), who subsequently kidnaps Deadpool’s prostitute girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin).

This revenge storyline, which also sees Deadpool team up with a pair of B-list X-Men, is standard-issue at best, and Ajax turns out to be a forgettable villain to say the least. But Reynolds and director Tim Miller make the proceedings fun by the sheer force of their enthusiasm for the material. The 39-year-old star, who kept pushing for an “authentic” Deadpool movie – after playing a bastardized version of the character, with mouth famously sewn in 2009’s Wolverine: Origins – grabs the part and sinks his teeth into it, embracing the character’s dubious charm and committing fully to the silliness.

That involves delivering quips at lightning speed, making frequent jokes about masturbation and oral sex, and riffing on everything including Reynolds’ own Green Lantern fiasco and the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ title he was bestowed with by People magazine. Plus we get a series of kinetic, blood-splattered action scenes occasionally played for laughs, and a romance that comes off as both funny and sweet without being cloying.

Far more daring, outrageous, and smart, compared to all those typical ‘the-world-is-going-to-end’ comic book movies, Deadpool is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. It’ll bring out the 15-year-old in you.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

Breaking ban!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:36 pm

February 12, 2016

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis CK, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Jay Roach

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston creates a compelling portrait of a fascinating man in Trumbo. He stars as Dalton Trumbo, the brilliant screenwriter of Roman Holiday, who in the 1950s was blacklisted from Hollywood for being a member of the Communist party but continued to work, and win Oscars under various pseudonyms.

The film may sound like a dry history lesson, but Meet The Parents director Jay Roach allows a lightness of touch, delivering a simplistic but entertaining account of one of Hollywood’s darkest periods.

Cranston, sporting a permanently wry smile, is terrific as the beleaguered Trumbo, who drank too much, wrote in the bath, and largely neglected his family. Identified as one of the ‘Hollywood 10’ who was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names”, he was sent to jail and subsequently blacklisted by the major studios. Also in very good form is Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, the powerful gossip columnist who led the witch-hunt, bolstered by support from such heavyweights as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

Commendably, the film seldom slips into sentimental territory, while nevertheless reflecting how reputations were tarnished and lives were ruined by so much as the slightest suspicion of being a left-wing sympathizer. We get an inspiring protagonist in Trumbo, who decided that the best way to defeat his oppressors was by doing exactly what they said he couldn’t.

Of the many famous figures during that period, a young Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) emerges as a real hero, rejecting the Blacklist and publicly supporting Dalton Trumbo by hiring him to write the script of Spartacus. John Goodman shines as B-movie producer Frank King who pays Trumbo to bang out scripts despite the ban, and sticks by him (albeit for selfish reasons) even when things get rough.

At times the film feels overstuffed from too much history being condensed into 2 hours. But it’s consistently engaging, primarily on the strength of Cranston’s riveting, heartfelt performance, which has deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination this year.

I’m going with three out of five for Trumbo. It’s a worthy watch.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

February 5, 2016

Old wounds

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

February 05, 2016

Cast: Sunny Deol, Narendra Jha, Abhilash Kumar, Soha Ali Khan, Tisca Chopra, Nadira Babbar, Om Puri, Ramesh Deo

Director: Sunny Deol

Very little has changed in the last two-and-a-half decades or so, if you go by Ghayal Once Again. This throwback to the better Sunny Deol films of the 90s (particularly those directed by Rajkumar Santoshi) is yet another one-man-against-the-big-bad-world saga, but the formula’s gotten well and truly rusty now.

The spoilt kid of a slimy businessman callously kills an upright activist, and his powerful father expends all his energy protecting the wayward son. It’s the oldest cliché in the book, but Deol, who’s co-writer and director here, fashions a sequel to Ghayal around this shopworn premise.

He also reprises his role as Ajay Mehra, who was packed off to prison for killing the man responsible for destroying his family in that film. Now the leader of a vigilante group, Ajay comes to the rescue of a group of college students who find themselves in a bind after they stumble upon video footage of that influential businessman’s son committing cold-blooded murder.

The ensuing drama is predictable stuff, but it’s powered by thrilling action scenes that genuinely get your pulse racing. A car chase between the students who’ve got the video and the villain’s henchmen who’re after it, is impressively staged. As is a foot chase between our leading man and a bad guy, which culminates in a brutal hand-to-hand duel in a train compartment. Action director Dan Bradley keeps the pace brisk, and Chandan Arora’s slick editing keeps you invested in the outcome of these breathless sequences.

The same, alas, can’t be said for many of the characters in Ghayal Once Again. Most redundant in the ensemble is Soha Ali Khan, playing Ajay’s kind neurologist who’s also involved herself in his vigilante activities. Narendra Jha is suitably intimidating as business tycoon Raj Bansal, but it’s a part that all caricature. “Poore shaher mein red alert announce kar do,” he barks to his political ally, practically frothing at the mouth in pursuit of Ajay Mehra.

Melodrama reaches fever pitch, particularly in the final act, when a corny twist is revealed. There’s also a shrill female character who gets a little too much screen time to ham it up to the hilt. As far as our hero is concerned, Sunny Deol can still land a punch, his commitment to the part never wavers, and he directs his actors competently. But he deserves a better script…and so do we. By the time he flies into the frame on a chopper in the film’s overlong climax, you’re at the end of your patience and you really just want the film to end.

Ghayal Returns isn’t unwatchable – far from it. But it’s old-fashioned and evokes a distinct sense of déjà vu. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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