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

May 25, 2018

Love letter to cinema

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:21 pm

Ask any purist and he or she will tell you that classics ought not to be fooled around with; they’re best left as they are. But that’s not what you’ll come away thinking when you watch Bioscopewala, a smart, moving adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala. The film is a tribute to the beloved short story about Rehmat Khan, an Afghani pathan, who forms a tender bond with a five-year-old in Kolkata who reminds him of his own daughter back home.

Director Deb Medhekar uses that through-line to pole vault into this contemporary version, turning the Kabuliwala into a Bioscopewala (played by Danny Dezongpa), who befriends the young Mini, even while introducing her to the magic of cinema through his bioscope.

There are layers within this film that we peel one by one as the story unfolds. It begins as a grown-up Mini (Geetanjali Thapa) is grappling with a sudden tragedy. Her father, famous photographer Robi Basu (Adil Hussain), has died in a plane crash, on his way to Kabul. Mini, now a filmmaker in France, is struggling to get his last remains and do the last rites, even as she works her own demons over the estranged relationship she shared with him. In the midst of all this, she finds that she now has custody of Rehmat Khan, released from prison and suffering memory loss. Mini is determined to get to the bottom of Khan’s story – where he came from, how he landed in jail, and the family he left behind.

Medhekar, who has co-written the film with Sunil Doshi and Radhika Anand, encourages us to piece together the story like a jigsaw puzzle, much like Mini does. Like in the classic, the overarching theme in Bioscopewala is a father’s love for his daughter, and it’s one that tugs at your heart.

But the film is also a love letter to cinema and a powerful statement against fundamentalism, as revealed in flashbacks to Rehmat Khan’s run-ins with the Taliban back home in Aghanistan. There is a hat-tip to feminism too in a plot-point involving Tisca Chopra’s character Waheeda, and her brush with ‘burkha boxing’. It might seem like a lot to pack into a film that runs only a little over 90 minutes, but Bioscopewala is tight and nicely holds these elements together.

Then there are the extraordinary performances from Geetanjali Thapa, Adil Hussain, and especially Danny Denzongpa who returns to the screen, playing Rehmat Khan with both heart and heft. After all these years, he still commands your attention with those intense, piercing eyes, even when he isn’t saying a word.

Make time for Bioscopewala, it’s a deeply affecting film, imbued with a lingering love for cinema.



Attack of the groans!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 7:12 pm

May 25, 2018

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo

Director: Ron Howard

I can think of many words to describe the new standalone Han Solo movie, but let’s just go with ‘colossally disappointing’ for now. Set up to reveal how our favorite scoundrel got his name, where he met Chewbacca, and how he came upon the Millennium Falcon, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a busy yet unmistakably underwhelming entry in the beloved sci-fi franchise.

A big part of the problem is the film’s decidedly ‘safe’ approach. Lately blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, and most recently Avengers: Infinity War benefited greatly from raising the stakes or even just going down a new, unpredictable path. “Solo” is a linear, traditional affair – robust perhaps, but far from daring. Which is especially ironic, given that it’s the origin story of the roguish rebel celebrated for breaking all the rules.

The other hiccup is Alden Ehrenreich, the 28-year-old actor trusted with embodying the young Solo. Ehrenreich dutifully attempts to channel the wry wit and the cocky swagger Harrison Ford brought to the iconic swashbuckling hero, but he comes up short. Han, as immortalized by Ford in four films over nearly 40 years, was arrogant, sardonic, and likeable all at once. Ehrenreich mostly just smirks.

We first meet a young Han on the planet Corelia where he and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are tragically separated. Three years later, working for the Empire, he falls in with a tough crew of hustlers led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). A mission goes wrong and they end up indebted to criminal boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), even as, along the way, Han makes new acquaintances and reconnects with old contacts.

Densely plotted, by veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, the film ticks every box to include elements from across genres: science-fiction, western, romance, comedy, thriller, buddy movie – you name it! As a result, the film often feels over-packed and overcomplicated. Another problem is how dark the film is…and I mean literally. From an opening speeder chase through a dingy tunnel, to several key moments – including the first time we lay eyes on the Millennium Falcon – much of “Solo” is shot in such low lighting, I found myself wiping my 3D glasses repeatedly to make sure they weren’t covered in a coat of dust.

But to be fair, it’s not like the film gives you no joy at all. The movie finds its sweet spot once Chewbacca is in the picture, and we’re reunited with the Falcon. There’s also genuine pleasure to be had watching Han’s encounters with the slippery Lando Calrissian, played by a terrific Donald Glover. There are more than a few callbacks to the previous films, and expectedly, nostalgia plays a significant role in keeping you invested.

Ron Howard, who replaced original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller several months into the shoot, stages a number of impressive set pieces, with a raid on a speeding train through snowy mountains being the piece de resistance. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story never skimps on spectacle, yet fails to genuinely surprise you with anything bold or original. At 2 hours and 15 minutes it’s a trudge at best, not the exhilarating flight worthy of the best pilot in the galaxy. I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)


May 18, 2018

More of the same!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:12 pm

May 18, 2018

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Karan Soni

Director: David Leitch

Given that it takes such pride in being subversive, you’d think Deadpool 2 would be sporting enough to attach the tagline – More of the same.

It’s true. This sequel to the 2016 film starring Ryan Reynolds as the filthy-mouthed mutant superhero is filled with crude jokes, bloody violence, a string of pop culture references, multiple digs at other superheroes – particularly Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and a lot more of that breaking-the-fourth-wall and talking directly to the audience. It’s a winning cocktail that set the first film apart from everything else in the genre, and frankly one that delivers again. But gone is that giddy excitement of discovering something unpredictable and surprising.

Reynolds is back as Wade Wilson aka Deadpool, once a sadistic mercenary, now a heavily scarred vigilante who acquired amazing self-healing powers in a botched experiment. In the new movie, having recently suffered a major personal loss he commits himself to saving a young kid, a misguided angry mutant, from a bad guy named Cable, who arrives from the future, Terminator-like, with murderous intentions towards the boy.

Cable is played by Josh Brolin, so of course there’s a well-placed Thanos reference that’s sure to get the laughs. To fend off this time-traveling villain, Deadpool sets out to assemble a crack team of superheroes that he dubs the X-Force, except that – how does one put this? – turns out they’re neither super, nor heroes. The most useful of the gang is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose ‘superpower’ is being lucky.

Not all of the jokes land, but to be fair a lot of them hit the mark. Some of the especially outrageous stuff – I will say only two words: “baby legs” – can be polarizing depending on your threshold for filthy humor. What works, consistently, are the one-liners that fly so fast so furious, you’ve got to be alert or you’ll miss a bunch of them.

The action, again, is particularly violent. The filmmakers fully exploit their R-rating giving us several scenes of body parts being sliced and diced, frequently for laughs. To be honest though, you’ve seen so much of it in the last film that there’s a numbing indifference to the casual bloodshed here. However, director David Leitch, a longtime stuntman who last directed the Charlize Theron starrer Atomic Blonde, does stage one or two elaborate set pieces that pop.

On the whole, while it is frequently enjoyable and entertaining, there is no denying that Deadpool 2 feels like its been cobbled together from the leftovers of the previous film. Ryan Reynolds slips into the character like a glove, and his rat-a-tat repartee with Josh Brolin is terrific. But none of it feels fresh or new. If that doesn’t bother you too much, more than likely you’ll have a good time. I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

May 11, 2018

Spy high!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:34 pm

May 11, 2018

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Rajit Kapur, Shishir Sharma, Jaideep Ahlawat, Arif Zakaria, Ashwath Bhatt, Amruta Khanvilkar, Soni Razdan

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Two scenes, separated by well over an hour in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, are key to understanding the arc of the film’s protagonist, Sehmat, a 20-year-old Kashmiri girl played by Alia Bhatt, who is embedded in Pakistan to gather intel for the authorities back in India.

The first occurs while Sehmat is undergoing training to become a spy. On being informed that the job can involve taking a person’s life, she’s momentarily taken aback. “Koi problem?” her trainer asks contemptuously. Her cutting response – a single line of dialogue, no more – is a nice reminder of her young age, and her innocence or naiveté perhaps in thinking that there might be room for basic humanity in the world she is about to enter.

The other scene, which comes much later in the film, is also hinged on a single razor-sharp dialogue. This one illustrates effectively how the same person has evolved, while at once answering that earlier question about room for compassion when the stakes are so high.

None of what I’ve just shared with you are spoilers in any way if you’ve watched the trailer of Raazi. To recap the plot, this is 1971 when relations between India and Pakistan are especially tense; war is around the corner. Persuaded by her father, Sehmat, a student of Delhi University marries into a high-ranking Pakistani military family to spy for India.

Based on a true story documented in the book Calling Sehmat by Lt Commander Harinder Sikka (retd), the film is a muscular thriller that is refreshingly ‘fuss free’. Director Meghna Gulzar, who has co-written the screenplay with Bhavani Iyer, steers clear of chest-thumping jingoism and impassioned patriotic monologues that have become a staple of this genre. Admirably, there is none of that “my-country-is-better-than-yours” muck-raking that so many similar films find hard to resist. There’s an inherent decency in both the film’s intentions and it’s characters, no matter what side of the border they’re from.

Sehmat’s efforts to settle into her new home and win the trust of the family in order to do the job she’s been recruited for, is the most compelling part of Raazi. Meghna dials up the tension as Sehmat puts her training to use, frequently landing in scenarios where her cover comes dangerously close to being blown. There is also the matter of her marriage with Iqbal (a nicely vulnerable Vicky Kaushal), which, again, plays out differently from what you might expect.

If there are speed bumps in the film, it’s the apparent ease with which our protagonist is shown to conduct her espionage right under the nose of a family of army men. There are other little details that rankle. The film demonstrates the quickest acquisition of singing skills since…forever. And a turning point in the film’s final act hinges on the discovery of a key piece of evidence, but that portion just feels convenient and contrived.

These are minor complaints in an otherwise gripping film. Meghna assembles gifted actors to infuse further credibility into the storytelling. Rajit Kapur and Shishir Sharma are especially strong as Sehmat’s father and father-in-law respectively, but Jaideep Ahlawat makes the biggest impression, bringing a winning dryness to the role of Sehmat’s handler Mir, a ball-busting agent in charge of her training.

It’s Alia Bhatt though who is the beating heart of Raazi. She plays Sehmat with zero affectation, giving us a fully realized character that feels entirely authentic. The film gives her great scope to flex those dramatic chops, and Alia delivers not only in the big emotional and breakdown scenes, but also in smaller moments, making every little head-turn count. It’s a solid performance – from the sheer rigor of her training to be a spy, to the grit she brings to the mission, Alia doesn’t miss a beat.

The film is admirable also because it’s a measured, mostly intelligent thriller that asks us to consider concepts of patriotism and honor without spoon-feeding us with manipulative background music or provocative dialogue. It’s well paced, and set to a thouhgtful score by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy that never distracts from the drama. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Raazi; a worthy follow-up to the director’s last film Talvar.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

May 4, 2018

Making of a murderer

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:34 pm

May 04, 2018

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Keval Arora, Rajesh Tailang, Blake Allan

Director: Hansal Mehta

In his new film Omerta, director Hansal Mehta seeks to dive into the mind of a cold-blooded terrorist, the real-life Omar Saeed Sheikh, played superbly by Rajkummar Rao. As the story unravels, we see how a highly-educated, British-bred Pakistani gets radicalized into becoming an icy murderous agent, currently serving life imprisonment in a Karachi prison for the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Omar, who was accused of having connections with Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 bombings, was one of three men released after the Indian Airlines Kandahar hijacking by the Taliban in 1999. Mehta, as you can see, has a fascinating subject at hand – a young man who becomes such an Islamic fundamentalist that he drops out of the London School of Economics and leaves his comfortable home in England to train in a terror camp in Afghanistan where he is shaped into a diabolical terrorist.

What the director is interested in is the ticking of an insidious mind. We see how Omar meticulously plans the kidnapping of the four foreigners in New Delhi, casually striking up conversations, hanging out and winning their confidence. Mehta painstakingly builds up a portrait with details – like the glass of milk Omar drinks unselfconsciously while others lug beer, or the way he switches in a split-second from the friend playing chess, to a steely-eyed assassin. The film explores this again in the way he wins over Daniel Pearl, luring him as a helpful ‘contact’. One of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes is the one in which the journalist is killed. Mehta shoots this so skillfully, the violence here is both invisible and yet all-pervasive.

The screenplay jumps back and forth in time, going back to a young Omar, disturbed by the war crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims, and how he convinces his reluctant father that he must go serve his “brothers and sisters”. Omerta pieces together the protagonist’s story like a clever jigsaw puzzle, but it’s also true that we are never fully sucked into his life. There are portions that drag despite the film’s 96-minute run time because Omar’s motives don’t feel convincingly explored and the backstory involving his father is weak.

What works is the director’s chemistry with his leading man. Mehta reunites with Rajkummar Rao after their work together in Shahid and Aligarh. It’s expected of Rajkummar to sink his teeth into and slip under the skin of any character, and he does that with this deliciously meaty role. The inconsistent accent notwithstanding, the actor plays a sociopath with an iciness that will stay with you – watch that smile as he’s taken away in handcuffs, or the way his eyes bore into his victims.

I’m going with three out of five for Omerta. You might see it as the other side of the same coin that is Shahid. The making of a man deeply affected by similar incidents, but one who chooses a different path.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Goldien oldies

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:25 pm

May 04, 2018

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Jimit Trivedi

Director: Umesh Shukla

Let’s just face it Hindi cinema doesn’t know what to do with senior citizens. Bollywood is obsessed with youth, and older characters are usually relegated to the background. Occasionally a film like Piku will come along to remind us that there’s more to old people than just wrinkles and dentures, but you can count films with older protagonists on your fingertips.

102 Not Out, directed by Umesh Shukla and based on a Gujarati stage play by Soumya Joshi, is a father-son story with a twist. The twist being that the father, Dattatrey Vakharia, played by Amitabh Bachchan, is an evergreen 102-year-old with a zest for life, while his son, Babulal Vakharia, played by Rishi Kapoor, is a 75-year-old curmudgeon with a permanent scowl on his face, and forever anxious about his health.

The film pits father and son against each other, and on multiple occasions…some harmless and innocent, like Dattatrey’s attempts to draw Babu out of his shell; others more intense and with lingering consequences. The film is basically a three-hander, with Dhiru, the friendly neighborhood medicine delivery guy, played by Jimit Trivedi, starring as the poor third wheel, stuck between the sparring men.

It’s an interesting premise, and there’s a real thrill in watching seasoned actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor having a go at each other. Expectedly they’re the lifeline of this film, which is otherwise too shrill, too simplistic, and feels too much like a stage play. Shukla, who also adapted the Akshay Kumar-Paresh Rawal starrer Oh My God! from a theatre production, confines the bulk of the drama to the Vakharia home. Much of the humor is infantile, and the pitching way too loud. Especially Bachchan’s character, Dattatrey, who comes off as a tireless Energizer bunny without a volume button. Bachchan is great in the quieter moments, and his chemistry with his co-star is endearing.

Rishi Kapoor’s character Babulal is the one who gets the arc, and the actor makes the most of it. Both in scenes of comedy and high drama, he delivers a measured, affecting performance. The real joy of 102 Not Out is watching the two senior actors riffing off each other. Like a scene in which Dattatrey gets Babulal to write a love letter to his dead wife – it’s flat-out hilarious.

Ultimately the film glosses over the real messiness of old age, sticking to an upbeat, cheery take on ageing. To be fair though, they never claimed they were making Michael Haneke’s Amour. Despite its many shortcomings 102 Not Out has its heart in the right place, and a pair of actors clearly enjoying themselves on screen. Their infectious energy alone makes this film worth a watch.

I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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