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

September 30, 2016

What lies beneath

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:30 pm

September 30, 2016

Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Anupam Kher, Bhumika Chawla, Kiara Advani, Disha Patani, Herry Tangri

Director: Neeraj Pandey

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is like a calendar of events from the life of India’s most successful cricket captain. This happened, that happened, this person helped him, that person encouraged him, he won this match, he fell in love with that girl. It’s really a hagiography. Never an insightful character study of a fascinating and largely impenetrable personality. If you’ve always wondered what lies beneath Dhoni’s calm veneer, or what’s going on in his head when the chips are down, be warned this film doesn’t answer those questions.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t work. Special 26 director Neeraj Pandey’s film is a rousing drama. Mostly because our protagonist’s journey from a small-town boy with big dreams to India’s star wicketkeeper-batsman is an inspiring one.

Pandey’s recreation of life in small-town India feels authentic, as do his characters. The early portions, in particular, are pure gold. A young Mahi is ‘discovered’ on the school football field by the cricket coach (Rajesh Sharma), who spots his potential. His father (Anupam Kher) insists that he focus on his studies, because a job will help him more than sports. Yet, he finds supporters in his mother and sister, and a bunch of loyal friends who believe in him. Before long, “Mahi maar raha hai” becomes a common refrain in his native Ranchi as he repeatedly whacks the ball out of sight, enthralling the growing crowd, and graduating to bigger things.

Sushant Singh Rajput is riveting as Dhoni; he’s got the body language and the cricket down pat. He makes the character’s frustration palpable, as you watch him trapped in a job as a railway ticket collector in Kharagpur. He makes you root for him as he pursues his goal single-mindedly, refusing to be swept away by small successes or discouraged by obstacles and failures.

It’s a terrific performance and the key to staying invested in the film even when it trudges down a frankly boring and predictable path in its second half. There are two romances and they come in quick succession (one with Disha Patani’s Priyanka, the other with Kiara Advani’s Saakshi), but these relationships offer little by way of a glimpse under Dhoni’s inscrutable surface. Neither do we get a sense of his strategy as Team India’s captain, or his relationships with the other players. It’s a shame Pandey never really addresses the controversies associated with Dhoni (barring a fleeting mention of two), or any of the brickbats that came his way, choosing instead to stick to a wholly reverential portrait.

Clocking in at nearly 3 hours and 10 minutes, the film is overlong and far from perfect. But climaxing with Dhoni’s incredible performance in the 2011 World Cup, Pandey pushes all the right buttons and leaves you, your chest swelling with pride.

So even though your head knows this is far from a no-holds-barred, warts-and-all biopic, your heart is happy to settle. Much of the credit for that must go to the finely executed cricket scenes, and to the film’s terrific ensemble of actors led by Sushant Singh Rajput who does some of his best work here.

I’m going with three out of five for MS Dhoni: The Untold Story.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 23, 2016

Out of tune

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

September 23, 2016

Cast: Ritesh Deshmukh, Nargis Fakhri, Dharmesh Yelande, Luke Kenny, Mohan Kapur

Director: Ravi Jadhav

Ever cast even a cursory glance at the fellows who pound their drums in Ganpati processions? Or those that play at navratri pandals? Probably not.

With Banjo, Ravi Jadhav, director of celebrated Marathi hits Natrang, Balak Palak and Timepass, makes a strong case for recognising small-time street musicians as bonafide artistes who have the potential to create vibrant, original music.

It’s a promising idea, but the script (written by Jadhav and Kapil Sawant) is too simplistic and steeped in cliché.

Tarat (Ritesh Deshmukh) is the leader of a ragtag group of musicians from a Mumbai slum who perform at local events and religious celebrations. The men in the group all have day jobs: one is a car mechanic, another a newspaper delivery boy, the third plays alongside his father’s shehnai at weddings. Tarat, meanwhile, is an extortionist working for the local corporator, taking care of his dirty business.

But the group lands the opportunity to show the world what they’ve really got when Chris (Nargis Fakhri), a singer from New York, seeks them out to form a band and compose songs for a US-based music competition.

Most of the film’s tepid first half wastes away with Chris searching for her banjo band, unaware that her guide into the slums, Tarat, is the one she is looking for. Predictably, this motley crew must overcome many obstacles before they hit it big as original musicians. Now, tick off every cliché that comes to mind: sleazy club promoter, jealous rivals, fallout between friends. Just when things are finally looking up for the band, an ugly incident involving Tarat’s ‘other job’ threatens to derail their success, until our hero finally resolves to turn his life around.

To be fair, the film touches upon interesting themes like the power of performing from one’s heart over performing for one’s supper. There is also the group’s desperate need to feel respected. But these ideas are only briefly flirted with, even as the script takes familiar and formulaic turns.

There is wit in the dialogue, especially in scenes depicting the musicians as fish out of water in posh places. And there’s genuine feeling in those bits where we learn about the simple dreams that these men are nursing. But alas the film’s weaknesses far outnumber its strengths.

There is literally nothing original or unpredictable about how the story unfolds. Jadhav knows his characters and their world but fails to set it up dramatically. The acting is serviceable at best, but watching Nargis Fakhri on screen, you still feel like she’s in the wrong profession. There isn’t a moment on screen – not one – that she looks or sounds convincing.

Part of the reason you stay in your seat nevertheless is the entirely hummable music score that Vishal-Shekhar have come up with. And a word for Riteish Deshmukh, who appears to be the only one here making any effort. From the body language to the cockiness, his Tarat may be the sole interesting character in this ordinary film.

In the end, the notion of a film about an undervalued genre of musicians is more compelling than Banjo itself. It starts out from a promising place, but never make any leaps or strides. I’m going with a generous two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Breaking free

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

September 23, 2016

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Leher Khan, Sayani Gupta, Adil Hussain, Sumeet Vyas

Director: Leena Yadav

Set in a Rajasthani village, Leena Yadav’s Parched focuses on three women shackled by the misogynistic, patriarchal society that they’re a part of. These are women with gumption and grace, and yet, they are unable to break free from the suffocating chains they’re put in by the men in their lives. It’s when a fourth woman, a child bride, enters their lives that the three best friends rebel against tyranny and forge their own destiny.

Writer-director Yadav tells their story with a generous dollop of bawdy humour and many moments of genuine pathos. Beautifully shot, and embedded with sharp wit, the film’s key strength lies in the astute characterisation of the four women. Tannishtha Chatterjee is effortlessly natural as Rani, a 32-year-old who has been widowed half her life. Rani struggles to discipline her loutish 17-year-old son, even as she empathises with her 15-year-old daughter-in-law Janaki (played with aching innocence by Leher Khan).

Rani’s confidante is Lajjo, who is regularly beaten up by her alcoholic brute of a husband because she cannot conceive. Radhika Apte plays Lajjo with an intriguing mixture of carefree spirit and vulnerability. Bijli, a travelling erotic dancer and prostitute, is an old friend of Rani’s and Lajjo’s. The two see Bijli as the bold, free one, but she, ironically, can’t escape the clutches of the men in her own life. Surveen Chawla as Bijli practically lights up every scene she’s in. She plays the character with spunky humour that barely conceals her deep-seated frustration over her plight.

Alas, you wish that Yadav didn’t tar all the men in the village with the same brush, except for a couple of characters here and there. The film is also over-indulgent with both exoticism and eroticism, leading viewers to feel as if they are stuck in an unwieldy loop.n

But for these hitches, it’s an entertaining ride. The three friends, parched both emotionally and sexually, will have you rooting for them and cheering as they find their feet and their freedom in the end. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 16, 2016

Pink is Gold!

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

September 16, 2016

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Andrea Tariang, Angad Bedi, Piyush Mishra, Dhritiman Chatterjee

Director: Aniruddha Roy Chatterjee

You’d really have to be cold, cynical, and possibly living in denial if you aren’t deeply affected by Pink. This powerful film, directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and produced by Shoojit Sircar, is a stinging indictment of the deep-set prejudices, unmistakable misogyny, misplaced male entitlement, and outright injustice that women across India must contend with daily, and particularly when protesting against unwanted sexual attention.

When a woman says no, it means no. It doesn’t matter how she’s dressed, whether she’s had a drink or two, whether she was flirting with the man earlier, and irrespective of her sexual history. The filmmakers drive home this point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and Pink is all the better for it.

In a smart storytelling move, we never actually see the incident that sparks off the chain of events in this film (not until the end credits, to be fair). We must rely on the snatches of conversations, accusations, and confessions made during the course of the film to piece together what may have taken place at a Surajkund resort one late evening between three young women who escaped to their south Delhi home visibly rattled, and three men raging with fury, one of whom is seriously injured.

The women in question – Meenal (Tapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari), and, as she’s routinely described, “the one from the North East”, Andrea (Andrea Tariang) – are what our society tends to describe as “modern, independent types”, which, as we know, is shorthand for educated, working women who wear dresses and shorts, may smoke and/or drink, and who hang out with male friends. That these “modern independent types” are automatically perceived as promiscuous and of loose moral character, therefore themselves responsible for triggering aggressive sexual behavior in men, is one of the many harsh realities that the film confronts head on.

The men too, are just as recognizable. Entitled brats with political connections who think nothing of openly intimidating girls that dare resist their advances. When Meenal files a harassment complaint against Rajvir Singh (Angad Bedi), he uses his clout to have her arrested for attempted murder and accuses the three women of soliciting him and his friends that night.

The film moves seamlessly from tense thriller to riveting courtroom drama post intermission, and Amitabh Bachchan playing Deepak Sehgal, a retired lawyer who has witnessed the girls’ ordeal from his flat across the road, signs up to be Meenal’s defence counsel. The scenes in court are stomach churning. It’s impossible not to cringe as the prosecutor (Piyush Mishra) repeatedly attacks the girls and their character, and they crumble before our eyes.

Pink is not easy viewing. It makes you uncomfortable and is a stark reminder that this could happen to any Indian woman anywhere, not just in Delhi. It works as much as a cautionary tale as it does a wake-up call. The writing, by Ritesh Shah, is excellent, and the performances are consistently terrific.

From actors in smaller roles – the girls’ landlord, the unsympathetic female cop, the instigating friend – to the central players, there isn’t a false note here. Angad Bedi is suitably menacing, and Tapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, and Andrea Tariang deliver natural performances as strong but emotionally vulnerable women, without a hint of affectation. Amitabh Bachchan uses his booming baritone to great effect, and despite such contrivances as his bipolar disorder, his ailing wife, and his habit of wearing an anti-pollution mask, he creates a fully flesh and blood character that you can’t stop yourself from cheering for in the end. A word here also for Dhritiman Chatterjee who is so good, so effective as the elderly judge.

I left the cinema, my mouth dry at the end of Pink. This isn’t just an important film, but also excellently made. It’s a giant leap for Hindi cinema, and easily the best film this year. I’m going with four-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Watery grave

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:33 pm

September 16, 2016

Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

The prospect of spending 90 minutes with Blake Lively and a shark might not be everyone’s idea of a perfect movie night. But as guilty pleasures go, you’ve got to admit The Shallows has a promising set up – beautiful young woman is trapped on a rock in the middle of a bay while a Great White circles ominously.

As it turns out, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra delivers a nicely paced, well-crafted thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat for the most part. It’s never as realistic or creepy as Open Water, but it does pack some genuine scares.

Gossip Girl star Lively plays Nancy, a medical student from Texas, still mourning her mother’s death when she arrives at the isolated Mexican beach that meant so much to her. The golden sand and perfect waves are a surfer’s paradise, until a shark decides to show up. Bleeding from a deep cut to her leg, and clinging on for dear life to a small rock, she must figure out how to avoid becoming the creature’s dinner.

To be fair, The Shallows feels closer in spirit to harrowing survival tales like 127 Hours or Buried over Jaws. Because frankly, the shark is incidental to the story. It’s really about this young woman’s indefatigable spirit to overcome her fate. And Lively, who is in virtually every frame of the film, rises to the challenge with a committed performance.

Doffing his hat to Spielberg, the film’s director shows us the shark only sparingly, and cranks up the tension using music and wide shots of the water in a foreboding fashion. There are logical loopholes aplenty, but it won’t matter after a point, once you’re invested in the protagonist and her unwillingness to play the victim here.

I’m going with three out of five for The Shallows. It’s a smart, crisp thriller that works despite its contrivances. Give it a chance.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 9, 2016

Math about you!

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

September 09, 2016

Cast: Sidharth Malhotra, Katrina Kaif, Sarika, Ram Kapoor, Sayani Gupta, Rohan Joshi, Taaha Shah

Director: Nitya Mehra

Anyone who’s having trouble finding a reliable cure for insomnia needs only to head to the nearest cinema and settle down to watch Baar Baar Dekho. It’s a film so dull, so numbing, you’ll wish you’d brought your blanket. Described by its actors and first-time director Nitya Mehra as a high-concept love story, it’s really the cinematic equivalent of butter-free pav bhaji – promising on an idea-level, but frankly what’s the point of it?

It’s not even like the film’s premise is staggeringly original. The question of what you would go back and do differently if you could somehow see how your life was going to pan out, has already been taken up in films like The Time Traveler’s Wife and About Time. The key ingredient missing in Baar Baar Dekho is levity. It’s baffling how a film about time travel can be so singularly humorless.

That doesn’t mean you won’t laugh. I chuckled a few times myself, but they all involved Sidharth Malhotra’s character Jai, a math geek who says things like: “Mathematics meri zindagi hai”, and who goes on to research a paper in vedic mathematics at Cambridge before he’s offered to head the department at Harvard. You can’t make this stuff up.

Jai, as it turns out, gets cold feet before his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Diya (Katrina Kaif), who we’re told is a talented artist, although we never once see a paintbrush within a two-mile radius of her. After an argument between them one night, he wakes up every following morning at a different point of time in his future. He isn’t thrilled with what has come of his relationship with Diya, so now he must figure out how to go back and fix things.

The problem is that Baar Baar Dekho doesn’t give us much by way of life lessons that feels even remotely original or interesting. I don’t need to go to a movie to be told that relationships are more precious than careers, or that the only thing that really matters is the present. The characters in the film make these discoveries late in their lives; didn’t they have Moral Science as a subject in school?

The only takeaway I got from this film is that the future is all sleek shiny surfaces, voice and light-controlled gadgets, and the coolest crematorium that you can think of. Where do I sign up for when it’s time?

It’s a shame it’s the superficial stuff – the frills and the trimmings – that stay with you longer than the characters or their emotions. The film is gorgeously mounted like a spread straight out of Architectural Digest, shot at stunning foreign locations, and set to a slew of chartbusting tunes. Sidharth Malhotra and Katrina Kaif have faces and bodies that justify 50-foot marquees, but the passion is missing. Despite both their efforts to infuse feeling into the scenes, they’re let down by a script that is colder than the weather in England, where a chunk of the film is set.

For a film about romance and love, Baar Baar Dekho is curiously lacking the messiness of real relationships, and trades in quick-fix solutions to complex personal issues. At 2 hours and 21 minutes it’s way too long, and never once succeeded in making me care if Jai and Diya would end up happily ever after.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five. Baar Baar Dekho? No thanks, ek baar kaafi tha!

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Smooth landing

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:34 pm

September 09, 2016

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Ann Gunn

Director: Clint Eastwood


On a cold January morning in 2009, a US Airways flight lost power in both engines after being hit by a flock of birds just minutes after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia airport. Unable to make it back to LaGuardia or other nearby landing strips, the pilot decided the best option at his disposal was to land the plane on the Hudson River.

It was a grave risk, and Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully vividly recreates each unnerving moment of that death-defying operation. In fact, Eastwood returns to it multiple times during the course of the film, and in a harrowing opening scene we get a glimpse of how badly things could’ve ended. On the day though, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) pulled off the feat, miraculously saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board.

It is fitting that Sully became an overnight hero, and the film itself is a feel-good drama, an unabashed crowd-pleaser, a celebration of old-fashioned American heroism. But to be fair, Eastwood and his leading man take us beyond the headlines and the celebrations into the mind and heart of the protagonist.

Even as his flying career of 40 years and his reputation hangs by a thread while an investigation is underway to determine whether in fact Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) did the right thing, we watch as he grapples with what appears to be the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Hanks, his face a canvas of mixed emotions, considers aloud while on the phone with his wife (Laura Linney) whether indeed he could’ve averted the potentially unsafe water landing.

But alas such delicious complexities are a very small part of this film. Instead, Eastwood pushes all the necessary buttons to stage a rousing rescue scene that’ll leave you with a lump the size of a golf ball in your throat. Just moments after the plane hits the water, and passengers begin to be evacuated, a private water ferry company and the New York Fire Department swing into action, offering a much needed helping hand.

The film benefits greatly from the casting of Hanks, who slips easily into the part of a man who expects no special acknowledgement for doing what he considers his job. The 60-year-old star holds the film together even when it’s clear there just isn’t enough plot here to make for a compelling film. The other starring attraction is the crash scene itself, filmed in IMAX, and suitably tense.

For these strengths specifically, Sully is worth a watch. It never raises prickly questions in the way that American Sniper did, but it’s a well-made film and relatively crisp at a little over 90 minutes. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

September 2, 2016

Kicking & screaming

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 8:33 pm

September 02, 2016

Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Anurag Kashyap, Konkona Sensharma, Amit Sadh, Nandu Madhav

Director: AR Murgadoss

The idea of a Hindi film heroine as an ass-kicking action star feels refreshing yet somehow timely and appropriate. But Akira, directed by AR Murgadoss is no Kill Bill. In fact, it’s like a Sunny Deol film from the 90s except that it fails to connect emotionally, and the social commentary is lost amidst all the over-plotting. Crucially though, Sonakshi Sinha, who makes an earnest attempt to deliver blows like it’s second nature to her, just doesn’t cut it as a martial arts expert.

She plays Akira, a young girl from Jodhpur, trained early on in self-defense, who gets to put her fighting skills to the test when she moves to Mumbai and becomes accidentally embroiled in an elaborate cover-up by a group of corrupt cops. Anurag Kashyap is terrific as ACP Govind Rane, the scumbag leader of this group and the mastermind behind a major theft and multiple murders.

This remake of a 2011 Tamil film has so many wheels turning all at once, it’s positively head-spinning. The dense plot is packed with contrivances, and Murgadoss throws way too many characters into the mix. The film’s first half has potential, but post interval the action shifts to a mental asylum, and logic and common sense quickly goes out of the window. Akira is presented to us as a battering ram of sorts who can vanquish an army of bad guys even while heavily drugged. It’s never entirely convincing, even though there is some pleasure to be had in watching Sonakshi go all ‘Rowdy Rathore’ on her rivals.

When her fists aren’t doing the talking, Sonakshi is all cold hard stares and solemn brooding. The film never allows her to have fun with the part, and that’s a real shame. Konkona Sensharma, as a pregnant police officer committed to unearthing the truth, suffers on account of a half-baked part, and Anurag Kashyap’s Rane doesn’t get nearly as much screen time in the second half as he deserves.

Kashyap’s performance, in fact, may be the best thing in Akira, which is no doubt a brave attempt to recast the mould. But built on a weak script that’s sorely lacking in subtlety and nuance, the film is ultimately a bore. I’m going with a generous two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Home alone

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 7:42 pm

September 02, 2016

Cast: Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto, Jane Graves

Director: Fede Alvarez

For most part of its 88-minute running time, the terrific (and terrifying) home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe grabs your attention and refuses to let go. I can’t remember the last time I got through an entire film without once looking at my phone.

The movie follows a trio of teenage burglars – Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette) – who break into the home of a blind war veteran, believed to be sitting on the pile of cash he received as a settlement over the death of his daughter in an accident. As it turns out, the man (Stephen Lang) isn’t as helpless as the invaders had imagined. Having served in Iraq in his glory days, he knows his way around a gun and puts up quite the fight.

The cat and mouse chase that follows, largely within the confines of this house, is ripe with tension and relies in equal part on jump scares that you can see coming, and many moments of unexpected shock. Just when you think you know where things are headed, co-writer/director Fede Alvarez throws a creepy twist your way…and then another, until you’re sucked right back into the suspenseful plot.

That’s about all you need to know about the film going in, besides the fact that the script expertly flips your initial feelings about both the young criminals and the blind guy they set out to rob. It all unfolds briskly, unfortunately at the cost of character depth. But that’s a small price to pay for a relentlessly thrilling film that seldom lets up.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Don’t Breathe. Make sure you empty your bladder before the lights go down.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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