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

December 28, 2018

Cop and bull!

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 9:23 pm

December 28, 2018

Cast: Ranveer Singh, Sara Ali Khan, Ashutosh Rana, Sonu Sood, Ajay Devgan

Director: Rohit Shetty

Movies are not fruits or cakes and ideally they shouldn’t be discussed in terms of “this half” and “that half”. But that’s especially difficult when writers and filmmakers treat the interval as an excuse to shift gears completely. Like Simmba, directed by Rohit Shetty, which, frankly, is two films for the price of one. Honestly one of those I wouldn’t pay to see anyway.

The first half of Simmba is a sporadically enjoyable comedy. Ranveer Singh announces his arrival as a bonafide ‘mass hero’ with the kind of entry until now reserved for the Khans, Devgans, and Kumars. In slow motion, he chases a bunch of goons through a dhobi ghat, background score swelling, water splashing, and brightly coloured clothes flapping as he lands kicks and punches that sends them flying.

Ranveer is ACP Sangram Bhalerao aka Simmba, a cheerfully corrupt police officer whose default mode is OTT. So even when he’s greasing his palms or swooping in to conduct a raid, he’s singing, dancing, hamming, and wisecracking his way into your hearts. There’s seldom a dull moment when he’s on the screen, and every dialogue that leaves his lips lands successfully. “Hello, bhai from another aai,” he declares, aligning himself with the film’s villain Durwa Ranade (Sonu Sood) who pays him handsomely for cheating helpless old men out of their land, and turning a blind eye to his drug operations.

His best moments, however, are the ones with head constable Mohile (Ashutosh Rana), an upright fellow who is sickened by his senior’s lack of conscience. The pair share a tentative relationship, and the makers mine genuine humor from their scenes, including a joke about drinking on the moon, and the silliest spin on the song Tu hi re from Bombay.

Until this point Simmba is lightweight but inoffensive. Ranveer has created a likeable lout in the titular character, gleefully embodying the cliché of the Bollywood hero while also clever enough to laugh at it. It’s a deliciously silly performance that will disarm even his toughest critics.

But, the film becomes something else in the second half. A ‘rape-revenge drama’. A popular genre in the 80s and 90s that one hoped one had seen the last of. But one can picture Rohit Shetty and his writers defending it – if rape hasn’t stopped, why should we stop making movies about it? That misguided logic yields a predictable plot turn. A young girl is raped; our hero grows a conscience.

Even this would be only mildly problematic if the makers didn’t strain for relevance. If they didn’t offer an irresponsible ‘swift-justice’ solution with the justification that “even women think it’s the best punishment”. Or parade a clutch of women to invoke the vigilante in us when they ask: “What would you do if it was your sister?” The scene that follows – a cringey encounter in a police station – perpetuates warped notions of masculinity.

For a film that claims to be committed to the cause of women, it’s ironic that the heroine of the movie has precious little to do. The spunky Sara Ali Khan, playing an orphan who runs a catering service across the road from the police station where our hero is posted, has perhaps five scenes in total, and four of them are in the first half.

Ajay Devgan gets more screen time in a special appearance; he shows up as Bajirao Singham – and before you accuse me of giving out a spoiler, let me remind you he’s in the film’s trailer!

There’s more, but I won’t ruin it for you, and it suggests that Shetty is interested in creating an Avengers-style universe of cop-superheroes who’ll show up in each other’s films. It’s not a bad idea. But let’s just hope the stories become better.

Simmba, a remake of the Telugu blockbuster Temper, is ultimately one part Dabangg, one part Singham, and many parts frustrating old-fashioned 80s melodrama. The best thing about the film is the conviction Ranveer Singh brings to it. He fills out the khaki uniform nicely, delivering both punches and punch lines with feeling. Even in the less satisfying second half, he breaks tense moments with an irreverence that’ll make you cheer.

I suspect this film will polarize viewers. There will be those who will enjoy the broad-strokes storytelling and gladly submit to the overt manipulation. Others might have a problem with the clunky messaging. No points for guessing which lot I belong to.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Simmba. The film leaves a lot to be desired, but a star is re-born.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 21, 2018

Long and short of it

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:02 pm

December 21, 2018

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sheeba Chaddha, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, R Madhavan, Abhay Deol

Director: Anand L Rai

Early on in Zero the novelty and the curiosity of watching Shah Rukh Khan play a vertically challenged fellow wears off…much to the film’s advantage. Bauua Singh of Meerut is all of four feet and six inches – we get it. But admirably Bauua doesn’t indulge in self-pity, and the filmmakers don’t make a play for your sympathy.

Bauua, in fact, is cocky, motor-mouthed, and charming in a rough-around-the-edges sort of way. He may be short in height, but he’s seldom short of confidence. It’s a great character, and in the hands of director Anand L Rai, writer Himanshu Sharma, and Shah Rukh himself, Zero opens with promise. They set up an authentic, textured world with characters that feel real. Bauua’s parents (Tigmanshu Dhulia and Sheeba Chaddha) are fed up of his wastrel lifestyle, never holding back for fear of hurting his feelings. His best friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) meanwhile worships the ground he walks on.

The film switches gears when Bauua meets and falls for Anushka Sharma’s character Afiya, a brilliant scientist with cerebral palsy who’s confined to a wheelchair. Their meet-cute is a series of incidents where he refers to her as a “kati patang”, says things like “inse hilne ke alawa hota kya hai”, and in a moment straight out of a Farrelly Brothers-style black comedy he challenges her to lift a pen off the floor.

It made me question whether making jokes about someone’s disability is ok if the person making the joke is disabled or differently abled himself. The answer, I suppose, is in the fact that Afiya falls for him too despite his coarse manners.

Anushka, who can usually be trusted to deliver a competent performance, strains to portray Afiya’s condition convincingly. I don’t claim to be an expert on palsy but the acting is awkward and seldom consistent, and watching it made me cringe. Katrina Kaif does a lot better in the film’s other key role, playing Babita Kumari, a superstar actress whom Bauua has adored on screen for years. When we meet her, Babita has had her heart broken, and as a result she’s angry, permanently intoxicated, and, believe it or not, prone to kissing strangers on the highway. Katrina really gets into the part, bringing Babita’s pain and cynicism to the surface in a nicely realised performance.

It’s easy to see what the makers of Zero might have been going for – a story of three ‘damaged’ individuals, and how they end up healing each other. But that idea is buried under the weight of an overwrought screenplay that packs in much more than your patience can handle. By the time the second half kicks in, Zero feels like an entirely different film from the one we were promised.

Where’s the small-town, real world charm that has been the strong suit of this writer-director pair since Tanu Weds Manu? How did we land up at a space research facility in America? Why is this film competing with Om Shanti Om to set a record for maximum cameos? These and a dozen other questions were swimming in my head as the film hobbled towards its climax, clocking in at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes. The problem isn’t just that the film is too long. It’s that there are so many scenes that are completely incoherent.

It’s a shame Zero comes undone, because the ambition and the effort is visible. Shah Rukh Khan is especially entertaining in the first half while the script stays on track. But in the end it feels as if the makers threw everything at the wall and decided to see what sticks. Unfortunately, very little does. I’m going with two out of five for Zero.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 14, 2018

Life itself

Filed under: Have you seen this? — Rajeev @ 8:50 pm

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a film of great beauty and genuine feeling.

It couldn’t be more dissimilar to his other films, and yet, like some of his best work it has that incredible, immersive quality that transports the viewer to another world. Previously he’s taken us to space (Gravity), to a magical school for wizards (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), we’ve even spent some time in a post-apocalyptic future (Children of Men). But Roma, inspired by memories of Cuarón’s own growing up years, is an authentic, evocative portrait of Mexico City life in the early 70s.

Shot in stunning black and white, and much of it in long single takes, the film is essentially a domestic drama about an upper middle-class family living in a spacious home in the Roma neighbourhood that’s thrown into upheaval when the father leaves. Cuarón’s focus though is on the family’s live-in maid Cleo, a character who the filmmaker has revealed is based on his own childhood nanny and housekeeper.

Played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who was working as a schoolteacher when Cuarón cast her in the film, Cleo spends her days busy with household chores. She’s constantly pottering about, preparing meals, doing the laundry, cleaning dogshit from the driveway, or tending to every need of the four kids who are clearly attached to her.

If you ever had a loving nanny in your childhood that you remember fondly, chances are that you’ll recognise the relationship immediately. Cleo is very much a part of the family, and yet always the help. In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the family gathered in the living room watching television. Cleo is among them too, one of the kids nestled in her lap as she partakes in this simple pleasure…that is until she’s told to clear away the plates.

Cuarón also gives us a glimpse of Cleo’s life outside the home. She endures her own upheavals including an unreliable boyfriend and a devastating personal tragedy. The events of the film unfold against larger events in Mexico’s social and political history to give the film heft.

But that’s too much information already. What you must know about Roma is that asks us to contemplate themes of class and dignity of work, while pointedly asking us to introspect on what makes a family, and what is love after all?

In both the performances of his actors, and the look and feel of the film, Cuarón aspires for – and successfully achieves – absolute realism. From its very opening shot of a tiled floor being washed to its deeply moving final moments, watching Roma feels like watching life unfold. There’s never a false moment.

You’ll be surprised by how another family’s life can feel so personal to you.


(Roma is now streaming on Netflix)

Spider swag!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 8:39 pm

December 14, 2018

Cast: Voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Liev Shreiber, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage, Lily Tomlin

Directors: Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr, Rodney Rothman

Everyone’s favourite web-slinger has thrice been rebooted for the screen. Do we really need another Spider-Man origin story?

The answer, of course, is no. But you’ll be happy to learn that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse isn’t focused on the Peter Parker story that’s been at the centre of every one of these movies until now. No sir. The new film asks us to consider the existence of other ‘spider people’ in the world. What if Peter Parker wasn’t the only one of his kind?

It’s an interesting idea and it’s what drives this comic book movie that looks and feels like an actual comic book. Into The Spider-Verse pops with bright colours, thought and speech bubbles, panels and split-screens, hyper-real action scenes, lots of irreverent humour, and first-rate animation. In short, it’s a sensory overload; a riot of sound and design. You won’t complain.

The protagonist here is Miles Morales, a mixed-race Brooklyn teenager who acquires special powers when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. Turns out Peter Parker as we know him is already around, but Miles watches him die trying to stop the film’s villain Kingpin from opening a portal to alternate dimensions. That portal brings in other ‘spider folk’ like Gwen Stacy, a jaded Spider-Noir, a Japanese anime schoolgirl named Peni Parker, and even Spider-Ham, a pig. There’s a running gag in which each of these characters narrates his or her backstory, and it’s one of the smartest ideas in the film.

Even as the gang tries to figure out how to vanquish Kingpin so they can return to their respective dimensions, Miles seeks a mentor in Peter B Parker – not the Peter Parker we know, but one from a different timeline – who’s divorced, depressed, greying, and plumper. Reluctantly he teaches Miles how to be a superhero, and to embrace the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra.

To be fair there’s a lot going on in the film but it all unfolds coherently and is powered by a sort of kinetic humour that is the secret ingredient here. Hardly surprising given Phil Lord and Christopher Millar, those geniuses behind The Lego Movie, are credited as co-producers. It also helps that the filmmakers assemble a terrific voice cast for the roles, including Nicolas Cage as Spider-Noir, Liev Shreiber as Kingpin, and a terrific Jake Johnson as Peter B Parker. The humour is complemented nicely by a genuinely relatable track involving Miles’ relationships with his strict father and with his cool uncle. It gives the film emotional heft.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is a bold and ultimately rewarding attempt to expand our favourite web-slinger’s movie universe. It’s a real blast of originality and creativity, and I recommend that you don’t miss it. I’m going with four out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Son shine!

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

December 14, 2018

Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

In Ben is Back, Julia Roberts plays a mother named Holly caught in a terrible dilemma.

It’s Christmas Eve when Ben (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly arrives home. He’s back from a de-addiction facility, only 77 days sober, and his family watches him warily. Holly is overjoyed but there’s a cautious side too, one that hides her jewellery and medicines, putting temptation away. Ben’s sister plainly distrusts him, while his stepdad Neal is just fed up paying for Ben’s treatment by taking out a second mortgage.

Director Peter Hedges uses just the 24 hours that Ben is back at home to piece together a tense drama. We learn of a horrific past and perceive the dangers that still lurk around for Ben, and by association his family. Is Ben lying or telling the truth? Will he slip back into addiction? When the family dog is abducted Holly and Ben set off to find him, and from this point on the film heads in a direction you hadn’t anticipated. It’s still suspenseful and moves briskly, but all bets are off. Holly worries for Ben, yet she drops her guard often and it’s frustrating to watch.

Thankfully, these rough edges are glossed over through solid performances from both Julia Roberts and especially Lucas Hedges, who happens to be the director’s son. The young actor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Manchester By The Sea, brings unmistakable vulnerability to the part of Ben, tortured by his addiction. Julia Roberts as Holly soldiers on; she’s determined to see her son through this, doing whatever it takes. You can feel her desperation, even as she sacrifices her own morals to save him.

I’m going with three out of five for Ben is Back. It’s a heartbreaking film about addiction and how it affects families. Doesn’t say very much that’s new, but benefits considerably from its central performances.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

December 7, 2018

Iceberg up ahead!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:00 am

December 07, 2018

Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Sara Ali Khan, Nitish Bharadwaj, Alka Amin, Pooja Gor, Nishant Dahiya

Director: Abhishek Kapoor

I timed it. The ship hits the iceberg precisely an hour and 38 minutes into Kedarnath.

To be fair, there isn’t a ship or an iceberg in sight in director Abhishek Kapoor’s love story. But Kedarnath, set against the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013, is basically Titanic beat for beat.

Kapoor and cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray transport us to the pilgrimage town located in the cradle of the majestic Himalayan range. The camera pans and swivels to give us a real sense of the location: the steep route to the shrine, the raging Mandakini river, the bustle of locals and small businesses for the convenience of an unending stream of devotees. These details are special, chiefly because the plot is so run-of-the-mill.

Trouble is inevitable when Mukku (Sara Ali Khan), the daughter of a Hindu priest, and Mansoor, a porter, fall in love.

Mansoor is Muslim by religion, but the holy town of Kedarnath is in his blood. He cheerfully carries on the family tradition of ferrying devotees up to the temple on his trusted mule, or frequently on his own back. Their romance builds slowly and nicely, but the conflict comes off as trite. This isn’t just a matter of she’s-Hindu-he’s-Muslim, there’s also a villain in the form of the fiancé whom she’s been promised to by her unsympathetic dad. This track is especially regressive, given the dynamic between her fiancé and her older sibling.

There are token noises made about what rampant commercialisation and expansion can cost the environment, but like most plot points in this film they go nowhere. The writing in fact, is inert. Sara and Sushant have a delicate chemistry, and yet there’s little heft to their romance.

Sara Ali Khan, who frequently comes off as a spitting image of her mother, actress Amrita Singh, is especially confident for a debutant, and imbues the character with a feisty, rebellious heart. The girl she plays however is hard to read, and that might have something to do with the clunky, inconsistent writing.

Sushant Singh Rajput invests Mansoor with an honest-to-goodness sincerity, playing him as something of a male Pollyanna for the most part. But it’s such a one-note character, there’s not a lot he can do with it.

Kedarnath hits its stride when the metaphoric iceberg strikes. Or specifically, with the cloudburst, the floods, and the landslides. Horrific images of three and four-storey buildings coming down like a pack of cards as the ground gives way to the strong currents are still fresh in most of our minds when someone mentions the events of 2013. The filmmakers recreate some of those images to good effect. Visuals of homes being washed away and families being ripped apart are especially chilling because you know this actually happened. The effects are serviceable, but the emotions run high. It’s in these final 20 minutes or so that the film genuinely makes you ‘feel’. The awe, shock, horror, and heartbreak are well earned.

Kedarnath ultimately falls short of living up to its promise, but I was happy to visit its world. The imagery is overwhelming, even if the writing feels laboured. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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