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

November 25, 2016

Crash repair

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

November 25, 2016

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Ali Zafar, Angad Bedi, Ira Dubey, Yashaswini Dayama

Director: Gauri Shinde

Early on in writer-director Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, the protagonist, a 20-something-year-old named Kaira (Alia Bhatt), points to the jacket she’s wearing – one she’s had since Class 10 – to defend herself in an argument with her friends who insist she’s incapable of having a long term relationship.

Kaira is what one might describe as emotionally stunted. She clearly has commitment issues, she can’t decide what (or who) her heart wants, and she puts up a wall the moment any of the young men in her life seek genuine attachment. Plus there’s a stack of unresolved issues with her parents.

It’s a tricky part to pull off for any actor, let alone one as young as Alia. Kaira, after all, is not an easily likeable character – she’s moody, makes bad decisions, and can be unmistakably selfish – but Alia’s natural, unaffected style of performing and her go-for-broke approach keeps you invested in her. Alia’s performance, in fact, may be the best thing about this indulgent film that has little by way of plot and way too much talking.

Shah Rukh Khan, although marvelously restrained and charming as hell, probably won’t earn points for authenticity from real-life shrinks who’ll likely scoff at his unconventional methods in the role of Jehangir Khan, a therapist Kaira seeks out in Goa. Over long walks on the beach and cycling sessions, Jehangir dispenses wisdom, the kind you could get for free on bumper stickers. At one point he tells Kaira: “Don’t let your past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future.” On another occasion he says, simply, “Har tooti cheez jodi jaa sakti hai.”

Gauri’s previous film, her directing debut English Vinglish, felt authentic and was powered by emotions that were real and relatable. The problem with Dear Zindagi is that so much of it – particularly the first half – feels superficial and even contrived. The banter between Kaira and her friends is hokey and often forced. Her parents and relatives are stock caricatures who go on about marriage and about getting a ‘real job’. We know Kaira is a cinematographer on the rise and she has ambition, but her career, her talent, and the obstacles she faces professionally are never adequately explored.

Despite that, Alia soars. Her work here is the film’s one true treasure. The piece de resistence is a breakdown scene during a therapy session with Jehangir that she nails with such precision, you’re practically reduced to a puddle.

The other admirable thing about the film is its attempt to root out the stigma attached to mental health and the shame associated with therapy.

But these are small gifts in an overlong, disappointing film that misses its mark. I’m going with two out of five for Dear Zindagi. Honestly, it’s a slog.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Pros & cons

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

November 25, 2016

Cast: Ranvir Shorey, Neha Dhupia, Dev Chauhan, Vidushi Mehra, Anant Raina

Director: Munish Bhardwaj

Gordon Gekko, the protagonist in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, famously declared that, “Greed is good.” That mantra is turned on its head in writer-director Munish Bhardwaj’s Moh Maya Money, in which greed destroys the comfortable lives of a middle-class Delhi couple.

Aman (Ranvir Shorey) is a smooth talking broker who aspires to become the king of the real estate market someday. Nothing wrong with that ambition, except that he cheerfully scams his own company and his boss to feather his nest. Divya (Neha Dhupia), a senior producer at a news channel, is his unsuspecting wife, who we find out has secrets of her own.

Their lives unravel when Aman’s boss catches him swindling the firm and fires him from his job. Left to return an obscene amount of money – that he doesn’t have – to a dangerous thug, Aman seeks Divya’s help in committing a white-collar crime. Before they know it, they find themselves stuck in a quagmire of guilt, corruption, murder, and betrayal.

Bhardwaj sets up a recognizable milieu and his characters speak like real people. We’re pulled into the lives of his protagonists, and we can sympathize with their tragic errors as the narrative alternates between their perspectives. But in its second half the film stumbles. Even as the noose around their necks tighten, the writing never feels urgent enough. The same characters who felt refreshingly real initially start talking and behaving like characters in a film, and logic is left by the wayside. As a result, it’s hard to remain invested in them as their situations worsen.

For the most part, the film benefits from its fine performances. Ranvir Shorey is terrific as Aman, a man who continues to push his luck long after he ought to have learned that what goes around inevitably comes around. Neha Dhupia doesn’t disappoint either as the wife caught between her husband’s lies and her own. In smaller roles, both Dev Chauhan as the goon who wants his money back from Aman, and Vidushi Mehra as the pregnant woman Divya befriends, do impressive work.

Moh Maya Money is both a cautionary tale about a middle class desperate to get ahead in a capitalist society, and an occasionally chilling noir that unfolds in a busy metropolis. The actors make the most of the material, which is frankly compelling for a good part of this film. The tragedy, alas, is that it could have been so much more. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Let’s talk!

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

November 25, 2016

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Too many films these days give away too much by way of plot in their trailers. So I decided to watch Arrival knowing as little as I possibly could about the film, and without having watched the trailer deliberately. All I’d read before going in is that the film’s title denoted the arrival of aliens on earth, and that Amy Adams is brought in to communicate with them. That much is about all you need to know, to help you decide if you want to watch the film.

You should, of course, want to watch it because it’s been directed by Denis Villeneuve, the very talented French-Canadian filmmaker who’s made smart thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario.

Arrival is what you’d traditionally describe as a sci-fi film, or an alien movie, although frankly it’s more than that. Much of the pleasure of this film lies in watching Amy Adams figure things out. She plays Dr Louise Banks, a top linguistics professor recruited by the US military after massive pebble-shaped spaceships show up mysteriously in different parts of the world. Louise and maths wiz Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are sent to the ship that’s docked in Montana, with the objective of establishing a dialogue with its other-worldly travelers.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to give away any spoilers. I’m not going to describe what the aliens look like, or why they’ve come. What I will tell you is that this film is the antithesis of the Independence Day type of films where aliens are immediately regarded as hostile and as enemies, and in which humans respond to their arrival by firing guns and blowing them up. That’s just lazy, and Denis Villeneuve is anything but a lazy filmmaker. Sure there are characters here that feel threatened and reach for their weapons, but Arrival is the kind of film that suggests empathy, patience, and grace might yield better results.

The film’s look and feel too is unlike your typical sci-fi blockbuster. It really unfolds like a drama about ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in this extraordinary scenario. There are moments of such beauty amidst nature, and repeated glimpses of a tragic back-story, revealed at a meditative pace and accompanied by such a haunting score (by Johan Johannsson), there are times you feel like you’re watching a Terrence Malick film.

It’s quite commendable that the screenplay (by Eric Heisserer), which conveys bold, complex ideas and offers new perspectives on time, communication, and memory, does so without resorting to jargon and without alienating the viewer. It’s genuinely accessible; this is not Christopher Nolan-style mind-bending stuff.

But to repeat what I already told you, the film’s greatest joy is in experiencing the awe and wonder of what is happening through Amy Adams and her sense of excitement and fear that plays out on the canvas that is her beautiful, expressive face. She is not only the heart and soul of this film, but also the eyes and ears of the viewer, as it is through her that we understand what the film is trying to say.

Clocking in at just under two hours, Arrival is that rare film that you don’t want to miss even a moment of. You literally don’t want to blink or look at your phone in the fear of missing out something small, something important. It’s an intelligent film and that’s not a bad thing.

Don’t read anything more about it. The joy of discovery is beyond everything else. I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 18, 2016

RAW Deal

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

November 18, 2016

Cast: John Abraham, Sonakshi Sinha, Tahir Bhasin, Adil Hussain, Narendra Jha

Director: Abhinay Deo

Much like last week’s Rock On 2, the truth is that Force 2 is a sequel the world could have done without. Delhi Belly director Abhinay Deo, taking over from Nishikant Kamat, brings a slick upgrade to the action, but it’s a mystery why none of the three credited producers thought of investing a little more towards a better script.

John Abraham returns as upright but reckless cop ACP Yashvardhan Singh whose fists do most of the talking, and whose shirt seldom stays on. When multiple RAW agents embedded in China are killed one after another, Yash is partnered with a local operative (Sonakshi Sinha) and tasked with ferreting out a mole in Budapest responsible for the intelligence breach.

The film is basically an extended chase scene with a smattering of plot thrown in. Some of the unending car, bike, and foot chase portions are genuinely thrilling, but after a point you begin to feel like you’re trapped in a video game because it’s so repetitive and relentless, and because you’re never truly invested in the characters.

Tahir Bhasin, who was so good as the creepy child trafficker playing cat and mouse with Rani Mukherji in Mardaani, is called upon to pretty much repeat that performance as a smirking mastermind always two steps ahead of the lawmakers.

Repetition, and specifically a lack of imagination, is what cripples this textbook thriller which borrows liberally from every other Hollywood film of the genre. The big reveal can be spotted from a distance, and logic and common sense are on vacation. Intended as a tribute to RAW agents who’re killed on duty and abandoned by the government when their cover is blown, the film reveals a facile, naïve understanding of covert agencies and their operations.

John Abraham, who doesn’t once smile in the film, lest one forget that his character hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death, efficiently delivers the kicks and punches, and some cold hard stares. There are moments that suggest he’s in on the joke – like the fight he pulls off, dressed only in a towel – but it’s a shame he’s willing to settle for such mediocre material.

Continuing what she started in Akira, Sonakshi Sinha takes another stab at action, but she’s weighed down by an underwritten role as the least convincing operative since Katrina Kaif in Ek Tha Tiger. It’s Tahir Bhasin, not surprisingly, who walks away with some of the best moments in the film, but this talented young actor would do well to seek out parts that require him to stretch his range.

Force 2 isn’t unwatchable, and it won’t give you a migraine either. But it is a wildly inconsistent film that fills up the gaps between its many action sequences with ridiculous attempts at humor and drama. I’m going with two out of five. Hopefully this franchise ends here.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:20 pm

November 18, 2016

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterson, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, Zoe Kravitz

Director: David Yates

It’s been five years since Harry Potter handed over his wand, and Warner Bros is yet to find a franchise as globally successful and satisfying. The studio’s repeated attempts to create a Marvel-like cinematic universe for its DC Comics superheroes has been bumpy at best, so it’s hardly surprising that they went right back to JK Rowling to squeeze out some more magic from the Potterverse.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them evokes the same childlike awe and wonder that powered the Harry Potter films. This adventure, named after a classic Hogwarts textbook, is set in 1920s America, and while there’s no sign of Harry, Ron and Hermione, and no dazzling Quidditch matches to take one’s breath away, there is still a lot to enjoy here.

Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a shy wizard and writer who’s traveled the world rescuing and collecting a menagerie of enchanted creatures of every size, shape and personality. Soon after he arrives in New York, his suitcase comes into the possession of a down-on-his-luck baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who accidentally releases the critters into the city.

Newt tries to retrieve these ‘fantastic beasts’ with help from the hapless baker, a kind but tightly wound witch-cop named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and her mind-reading sister Queenie (a terrific Alison Sudol).

Alas this chaos couldn’t have come at a worse time. Tension between the wizarding folk and the No-Maj population (or the muggles, as we know them) is mounting as a result of the increasing number of violent incidents in the city. Could these be Newt’s magical animals wreaking havoc, or the work of a dark wizard rumored to be on the loose?

Frankly it’s a lot to take in and some of it feels rushed through. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films, maintains a nice whimsical tone, but you can’t help wishing he’d let you spend more time in the company of such creatures as the duck-billed Niffler who has a weakness for bling; the Bowtruckle, a cross between a grasshopper and a twig; and the rhino-esque Erumpent who has a killer sense of smell.

Also, as endearing as Redmayne is in the role of the film’s accident-prone protagonist, he can’t evoke the instant affection you developed for the kids in the Potter films. The villains too – chief among them Colin Farrell as the head of security at the American Ministry of Magic – are stock cinematic baddies.

But now I’m nitpicking. Fantastic Beasts is thrilling in portions, gorgeously mounted, and teeming with imagination. Rowling, who has the written the screenplay herself, creates a fully realized world of wizardry and wonder that still somehow succeeds in looking and feeling different from the Potter world.

Unlike the early Potter adventures, Fantastic Beasts, the first film in an intended five-part series, is darker, and more suited for older viewers who can grasp the film’s themes of segregation and xenophobia. A subplot involving a religious crazy (Samantha Morton) who mistreats kids and hunts witches might be especially disturbing for young kids.

Of the cast, Redmayne hits all the right notes between awkward and heroic, but it’s Fogler as wide-eyed No-Maj Kowalski, who practically steals the film. Despite a flabby middle portion that tends to drag, this is a charming film, one that I very much enjoyed.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Yes, a franchise is born.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 11, 2016

Off key

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

November 11, 2016

Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Arjun Rampal, Purab Kohli, Shraddha Kapoor, Shashank Arora, Kumud Mishra, Prachi Desai, Shahana Goswami

Director: Shujaat Saudagar

There was a time, not too long ago, that Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy were making such terrific music, you’d think they could churn out chartbusters with their eyes closed. Watching their music play out in Rock On 2, you have to wonder if in fact these songs were created while half asleep.

It’s such an underwhelming score, to be honest, that the only time you find yourself tapping your feet is when you hear snatches of the hit tracks from the earlier film. Which this sequel dips into quite frequently.

Nostalgia for 2008’s Rock On is something the makers of Rock On 2 lean on heavily. Bad idea. Because it only serves to draw attention to how much weaker the new film is in comparison. The easy, laidback vibe that powered the previous film makes way for a more labored tone and a plot that feels unmistakably contrived.

Picking up five years after they disbanded Magik, the new film, directed by Shujaat Saudagar, re-introduces us to the gang, who although still close, are doing their own thing. Joe (Arjun Rampal) has sold out for a cushy life, running a successful club and judging one of those mind-numbing reality shows. Adi (Farhan Akhtar), plagued by guilt over the suicide of a young singer he didn’t help, has retired to a village in Meghalaya where he helps run a local school and a farmers’ cooperative. Their respective wives (Shahana Goswami and Prachi Desai) are strictly fringe characters, and neither the men nor the plot has much use for them.

Meanwhile, KD (Purab Kohli) composes jingles for a living. It’s not quite the music career he’d dreamed of, but he remains cheery and upbeat presumably because he’s living off a fat inheritance. I don’t suppose it’s a spoiler to remind you that Luke Kenny’s character, Rob, who appears in a flashback song, has passed on since the previous film. But never once does anyone so much as mention him. Such friends!

By way of new additions, there’s Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor), a pretty young singer whose oppressive classical musician father (Kumud Mishra, one-note) has an allergy to modern music. Through a clunky plot twist that you can spot a mile away, Jiah’s track intertwines with our protagonists.

Arriving eight years ago, Rock On, written and directed by Abhishek Kapoor, was no classic band film. But it did give us endearing characters grappling with real conflicts. They were an amateur band that made up charming songs about things they knew – their dreams, laundry bills, and heck, even Sinbad the Sailor. Even if they didn’t exactly sound like rockstars, they had the attitude down pat. They exemplified the definition of ‘cool’.

The men we meet in Rock On 2 are older, more cynical, and dealing with existential issues. Perhaps that’s why in addition to the disappointing music, the other big problem with the film are its lyrics…most unremarkable, to put it politely. There’s none of the cheekiness, the mischief of that earlier work. Also, the novelty of listening to Farhan Akhtar’s raspy voice has worn off now, and although Shraddha Kapoor also croons on this album, there’s nothing here to write home about.

By the time the film inches towards a rousing climax in Shillong, it’s too little too late. There are occasional sparks of potential – like the celebrity-and-fan dynamic, and the rejection of fusion music by purists – but the script has little interest in digging deep. It has little interest in anything at all frankly, other than the character of Adi, who is at one point, portrayed as the sole messiah of a ravaged north-east community.

The performances are adequate at best, and the picture-postcard photography of Meghalaya is refreshing. But as you leave the cinema in the end, you can’t help missing the distinct sense of fun that the earlier film delivered…and yes, those infectious tunes.

I’m going with two out of five for Rock On 2. It’s an opportunity lost.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

November 4, 2016

Doctor will see you now!

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

November 04, 2016

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Now listen carefully, and name the film. An arrogant genius is brought down to earth by a terrible accident that becomes the first step towards his reinvention as a superhero. You’re thinking Iron Man, aren’t you? Well yes, but no. What you just heard is the premise of Doctor Strange, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To be fair, Doctor Strange is a somewhat different beast from the studio’s previous films – one with distinctive elements, particularly a unique and trippy visual aesthetic – even if it does seem awfully familiar at its core.

Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch slips comfortably into the role of gifted but cocky New York neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange, whose privileged, glamorous life screeches to a halt when a terrible car crash crushes both his spirit and his hands. Failed by traditional medicine, his relentless search for a cure takes him to the fictional Kamar-Taj enclave in Nepal to seek out the less conventional healing powers of a wise Yoda-like figure, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who helps him harness great magic and educates him in the bizarre truths of the parallel multiverse.

Staying faithful to the blueprint of previous Marvel films – and frankly most films in the superhero genre – a chunk of Doctor Strange is devoted to Cumberbatch becoming comfortable with his new powers. But it’s the film’s visual audacity that truly separates it from other properties in the canon. Never shying away from the character’s psychedelic roots in the comics, director Scott Derrickson pushes for an entirely bold look and feel characterized by kaleidoscopic mind-scrambling visual effects, including stunning sequences of buildings and entire cities bending and folding in on themselves Inception-style.

It’s all particularly thrilling when experienced in IMAX 3D like I did; the colors popping, the landscapes literally coming alive. It’s a good thing Cumberbatch skilfully grounds the spectacle, delivering a smart and consistently funny performance as the reformed-but-still-smug titular hero. Bringing warmth and gravitas to the part of the mumbo jumbo-spouting monk, a bald Tilda Swinton steals virtually every scene she’s in. But both Chiwetel Ejiofor as her trusted second-in-command Mordo, and particularly Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, the film’s villain from the Dark Dimension, never feel adequately fleshed out. The same is true of Rachel McAdams, grossly underutilised as a fellow surgeon and Strange’s ex.

Despite its hiccups, the film breezes through its less-than-two-hours running time and gives you enough reason to smile. The red Cloak of Levitation that claims our hero (yes, not the other way around) gets a few moments in the spotlight, including a bit where it takes on one of the villain’s henchman on its own. Benedict Wong, playing the earnest librarian at Kamar-Taj, is the secret sauce of this movie, offering some of the most genuine laughs through a mostly straight-faced performance.

In the end, Doctor Strange is entertaining despite its formulaic plot, but will need more than just good humour and snazzy CGI to justify a sequel. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

It’ll be interesting to see what he brings to the next Avengers film where he’ll join the rest of the gang for what we can only hope isn’t merely another round of world-flattening destruction.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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