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

June 28, 2019

Rough play

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:55 pm

June 28, 2019

Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Ali Haji, Shaan Grover, Mohammed Ali Mir, Hardik Thakkar, Muskaan Jaferi, Soni Razdan, MK Raina

Director: Vandana Kataria

When the gentle hero of the film Noblemen, Shay Sharma, names his injured bird Phoenix, you feel that there could be a deeper significance at play here. Perhaps the young Shay, constantly bullied by his seniors at his hill station boarding school, will be able to rise like a Phoenix.

But the film goes into brutal territory as debutante director Vandana Kataria uncovers the dark face of school bullying. And yes, while Noblemen does tackle sensitive themes like abuse, homophobia, fat-shaming, hero-worship, and drug addiction, it becomes a one-note, depressing story with not a sign of redemption. Despite competent performances you feel bogged down by the relentless despair that the protagonist is confronted with, until the film takes an altogether bizarre plot diversion.

The students of Mount Noble High are putting together a production of The Merchant of Venice for the school’s 50th Founder’s Day event. Shay (Ali Haji), a sensitive soul, has been selected for the lead role of Bassanio by drama teacher Murali (Kunal Kapoor). But this puts Shay in the line of fire from his seniors, namely Baadal (Shaan Grover), who wants to play Bassanio, and his friend, football champ and most feared bully Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir). The two are determined to make Shay back out of the play, but Shay hangs onto the role because his ailing mother (Soni Razdan) has promised to come for Founder’s Day.

Kataria has perceptively picked up the rhythms of boarding school-life and the feeling of friends becoming family. Shay has two pals, Gunzu (Hardik Thakkar) and Pia (Muskaan Jaferi), who have his back. But there’s not much anyone can do when Arjun and Baadal start targeting Shay, hitting at his weaknesses, be it Gunzu or his beloved bird Phoenix.

The film explores complex emotions, as Shay – who’s nursing a crush on his teacher Murali – is mercilessly picked on by homophobes, even before he’s come to terms with his own sexuality. But the track between teacher and student is weak and overly complicated. Murali doesn’t know where to draw the line – surely it’s inappropriate for an adult to undress before minor students and ask them to take their clothes off, even if it is for an acting exercise on loosening inhibitions.

The bullying is tough to watch, especially when Gunzu is paraded naked or when Shay is brutally attacked. There’s also the constant sneering and jeering from Arjun and his sidekicks that makes the film a tad monotonous.

What deserves mention, however, are the performances, and the dose of reality. Kunal Kapoor makes the most of a slimly defined character, and the young actors all infuse their parts with sincerity. Mohammed Ali Mir as the detestable Arjun and Ali Haji as Shay stand out for their sheer commitment to their complex characters.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Noblemen. It makes you think hard about bullying, but saddled with a screenplay that doesn’t quite lift off, it is at best moderately engaging.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Caste away

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:42 pm

June 28, 2019

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Ashish Verma, Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Nasser

Director: Anubhav Sinha

There are moments in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 that are so disturbing they feel like a punch to the gut.

One of these is the image of a worker, a manual scavenger emerging from a filthy, open sewer, extricating lumps of waste that are clogging the drain. His face and body covered in sludge, he goes back in seconds later to complete the job…one he is condemned to by virtue of his jaat.

In another scene an entitled bully admits to beating up three female factory workers who demanded a pay hike of three rupees. Asked why he beat them, he answers coolly: “Unhe unki aukaat dikhane ke liye”. And what is aukaat? “Aukaat wohi hai jo hum dete hain.”

There is a lot of talk of aukaat and jaat in Article 15. The film’s title refers to the provision in the Indian Constitution that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth. Yet it’s no secret that even today across much of India caste remains the enduring marker of identity, and the singular cause of conflict and violence. After taking a sledgehammer to confront Islamophobia and intolerance in his last film Mulk, Anubhav similarly rips the door off its hinges in this brazen indictment of a centuries-old caste system and the oppression and atrocities it endorses.

Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan Ranjan, a newly minted IPS officer posted to a small town named Lalgaon in the armpit of Uttar Pradesh. Ayan represents the educated, urban Indian – idealistic, progressive, woke, but uninformed when it comes to the ‘real issues’ of the other India; the ‘real’ India. Inspired by true events of the horrific Badaun case from 2014, in which two teenage Dalit girls were gang-raped and murdered, their bodies hung from a tree, the film places Ayan in charge of the investigation, which in turn leads to righteous anger about caste atrocities, and self reflection on who he really is and what he stands for.

The film is significant not only for what it’s saying, but also how it’s saying it. In one of the best scenes that’s played for laughs, Ayan asks his junior officers to reveal what caste they belong to, only to make the discovery that there is a hierarchy even within lower sub-castes.

The filmmaking too is solid. Anubhav and his cinematographer Ewan Mulligan create a strong sense of foreboding that hangs over Lalgaon, as if darkness and violence looms at every corner. The film is relentless in its commitment to disturb the viewer. Corpses are filmed in uncomfortable close ups, tension is built through slow building background score, and the search for a third girl who’s missing but who might still be alive is all consuming.

Anubhav assembles a crack team of terrific actors to fill out key roles. Manoj Pahwa as an upper-caste cop who warns Ayan not to upset the existing balance is in especially great form, as is Kumud Mishra also playing a cop, but who was born to a sweeper. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has a small but memorable role as a Dalit revolutionary, and Sayani Gupta plays a Dalit girl and his love interest.

There are, of course, bits that rankle. A track involving Ayan’s continuing exchanges with his girlfriend feels tacked-on but never urgent. Then there is the issue of Ayan himself, an upper caste Brahmin, positioned as the saviour of the oppressed and downtrodden. Admirably, however, Ayushmann Khurrana plays the part so elegantly, it’s a performance to marvel at. Never showboating, Ayushmman conveys Ayan’s arc from naive to angry to empathetic with such integrity and nuance that it’s impossible not to root for him. This is easily the actor’s most mature performance and among the best by any actor this year.

Article 15 isn’t just an important film, it’s a powerful one and it’s superbly made. It comes at you all kicking and screaming, but this is a film that justifies its tone. Don’t miss it. I’m going with four out of five. It’ll rattle your core.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 21, 2019

The Fantastic Fourth!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:10 pm

June 21, 2019

Cast: The voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves, Tony Hale, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael-Kay

Director: Josh Cooley

It’s been nearly 25 years since the folks at Pixar first made us fall in love with a clutch of inanimate, children’s playthings in Toy Story. Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang have more character, personality, and conscience than most living, breathing humans, and it’s impossible to resist their charm.

In Toy Story 4 the bulk of the charm is provided by a piece of cheap plastic named Forky. He’s a homemade toy assembled by Bonnie on her first day in kindergarten out of a plastic fork and some craft supplies. “I’m trash,” he declares repeatedly hurling himself into the bin, convinced it’s where he belongs. Crippled by low self-esteem, this neurotic fella steals practically every scene he’s in, delivering plenty laughs as he tries to escape Bonnie’s affectionate clutches.

Bonnie, you might remember, is the happy little girl Andy passed on his beloved toys to before heading off to college at the end of Toy Story 3. It seemed, at the time, like the most satisfying send-off to these characters that we’d come to love over the years; a bittersweet goodbye to an emotional saga.

Which is why you have to wonder if we really needed a new Toy Story film in the first place.

Well it turns out that four movies in, the Toy Story franchise continues to hit us right in the feels. Toy Story 4 is magical and wondrous, with beautifully rendered animation and heart-tugging emotions. It introduces new characters and bold ideas even as it rehashes some of the things that we most love about these movies.

Toy Story 4 is a road movie whose plot is set into motion when Bonnie takes a trip to a carnival with her parents in a rented RV, the toys in tow. The story follows a well-known rhythm, with the toys once again separated from their child. There are daring rescues of ‘lost’ friends, seemingly innocent toys with sinister intentions, confidence-lacking characters who just need to be told that they’re special, and the threat of being no longer loved and needed like new toys are.

Yes, we’ve been through these beats before, but the filmmakers somehow manage to infuse the familiar with the fresh. In this case it’s the setting where much of the adventure unfolds – a gorgeously realised antiques shop whose shelves packed with vintage artefacts hide some dark secrets. There’s also a bunch of new characters in addition to Forky – a chatty baby doll named Gabby Gabby who’s got a broken voice box, a group of creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies, a highly entertaining motorcycle stunt-driver named Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves), and my favourites, a pair of smart-talking soft toys Ducky and Bunny, who get some of the best moments including a hilarious end-credits sequence that you must stay for.

Also crucial to the plot is old favourite Woody, through whom the filmmakers reiterate the overarching themes of the Toy Story franchise – loyalty, sacrifice, and a toy’s real purpose. Tom Hanks continues to invest Woody with that earnest ‘Everytoy’ quality which makes him so darn loveable and relatable. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Woody’s old love, porcelain doll Bo Peep also returns for this outing. It’s Buzz Lightyear, however, such a beloved character in the earlier films, who’s relegated to the sidelines, as if he were an afterthought.

Like the previous films in this enduring franchise Toy Story 4 is crammed with gorgeous, thrilling adventure, and valuable life lessons tucked away discreetly. But what’s truly admirable is the absence of cynicism. Even in its fourth outing, never once does it feel like a cash-grab sequel; like it was made by profit-hungry executives focused on milking a successful brand. Toy Story 4 is all heart. It reaffirms one’s faith in the ‘humanity’ of these plastic playthings. It’s funny and emotional; there’ll be laughs, and a lump in your throat.

I’m going with four out of five. Don’t miss it.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Toxic love

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:00 pm

June 21, 2019

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Arjan Bajwa, Nikita Dutta, Suresh Oberoi

Director: Sandeep Reddy Vanga

Exhibit A. There’s a scene in the new Shahid Kapoor starrer Kabir Singh in which a domestic help accidentally breaks a glass while cleaning the protagonist’s house. The next moment he’s chasing her down flights of stairs like a man possessed, capable of anything. This scene is played for laughs.

Exhibit B. In another scene the hero shows up at a young woman’s house for a planned hook-up, but even before they can get fully undressed she changes her mind and asks him to leave. Angered, he threatens her with a knife demanding what he was promised, until a radio suddenly comes alive, rudely interrupting his rage. Again, this scene is played for laughs.

Kabir Singh, which is a remake of the blockbuster Telugu film Arjun Reddy, is an unapologetic celebration of toxic masculinity. The ‘hero’, if you’d like to call him that, played here by Shahid Kapoor, is an obnoxious, entitled bully with anger issues. He’s a ticking time bomb who can go off anywhere, provoked by just about anything. He gets into violent scrapes on the football field, he has scant respect for authority, and zero understanding of consent.

Early on in the film, while he’s still a final year MBBS student on campus, he spots a girl that he likes and immediately marks his territory, warning the rest of the college that she’s off the market. The girl in question, a first-year student, Preeti (Kiara Advani), is never so much as asked if she likes him too. She isn’t asked when he repeatedly plucks her out of class and tutors her himself. She isn’t asked when he moves her into the boy’s hostel to be closer to him.

The protagonist – and the film, by association – is objectionable, but also oddly fascinating, particularly in its first half. What fuels such proprietary behaviour in some men? What makes them think any woman they desire must return the sentiment? You keep waiting for the film to answer these questions, but they never come. Because this is not that kind of film.

Director Sandeep Reddy Vanga, who also helmed the original film, lets his protagonist off too lightly, treating him as an errant child when what we’re actually dealing with is an alcoholic, abusive jerk. At some point the hero loses the girl, and he slips into an abyss of addiction, not unlike that patron saint of self-destructive romantics Devdas. But to treat Kabir as a romantic who’s paying the price for his intense love, is irresponsible, problematic messaging…and the film is built on that misguided notion.

Shahid Kapoor throws himself into the role, unafraid to come off as unlikeable. There are moments when he commands the screen. But the character is unlikeable, his actions are deplorable, and by the time we’re meant to forgive him it’s too little too late. It’s impossible that you won’t feel sorry for Kiara Advani’s Preeti, but the character offers the actress little to work with.

Kabir Singh is an unmistakably misogynistic film, but the sad part is that it’s exactly these troubling portions that the filmmakers peddle as intense love. Even more sad is that there will be many who’ll buy into it.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 14, 2019

Home alone

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 10:08 pm

June 14, 2019

Cast: Taapsee Pannu, Vinodhini

Director: Ashwin Sarvanan

Game Over opens with a heinous, gruesome killing that sets the bar for just how ugly things can get in this home invasion thriller. Let’s just say it involves asphyxiation, beheading, and immolation. It’s a murder so chilling that when the killer prepares to strike again, you’re terrified both for the victim and yourself.

Directed by Ashwin Sarvanan, Game Over is taut and clever, but also at times plain silly. Not content being merely a home invasion movie, it has elements of a psychological thriller, and nods to films like Edge of Tomorrow in which characters get multiple lives to move up levels in stories that are structured like video games.

Video games, as it turns out, have a key role to play here. Taapsee Pannu is Sapna, a video game developer battling anxiety issues and a crippling fear of the dark. Homebound since she suffered a traumatic experience a year ago, she has only a housekeeper for company, and what seems like a commitment to improve her Pac Man score.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict that Sapna will come in harm’s way. To raise the stakes, midway through the movie she becomes confined to a wheelchair in her big empty house that’s located in the middle of nowhere. Let the games begin.

Sarvanan and his co-writer Kaavya Ramkumar trade in interesting concepts like ‘anniversary reaction’ and ‘memorial tattoos’ to add unpredictable layers to the template of the classic home invasion film. Some of these concepts are genuinely fascinating; others are employed in far-fetched ways.

Taapsee, the odds stacked against her character, makes Sapna easy to root for. Her anguish is palpable, her body weak. For much of the film Taapsee is the only person on screen, and she powers through the film – including clunky laughable scenes – with complete sincerity, and a fighter’s spirit. Interestingly, like the characters she played in some of her best films, Pink, Manmarziyaan and Badla, in this film too she’s unwilling to play the victim. Even with both her legs in a cast, and stuck in a wheelchair.

Game Over has some genuinely suspenseful moments, one terrific jump scare, but also a ridiculous sentimental track that sticks out like a sore thumb in a brisk thriller. The makers have some interesting things to say about violence towards women and the residue it can leave. There’s a lot going on, but barring its leading lady’s impressive performance, it’s simply hit and miss.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five. It’s ambitious but rough around the edges.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

June 5, 2019

Sorry Bhai!

Filed under: Our FIlms,Their Films — Rajeev @ 2:10 pm

June 05, 2019

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sunil Grover, Jackie Shroff, Sonali Kulkarni, Kumud Mishra, Disha Patani, Nora Fatehi

Director: Ali Abbas Zafar

Bharat has been described by its makers as one man’s life story unfolding parallel to the journey of a nation. It’s a killer pitch, but one that makes the film sound deeper and more interesting than it actually is.

Salman Khan plays the titular hero whom we follow from the age of eight until a little after his 70th birthday. The film’s most moving scene comes early on when a family is separated during Partition, and a young boy makes a promise to his father.

Bharat is directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, who chipped away at Salman’s larger-than-life screen persona and extracted a winning performance from him as the flawed, vulnerable wrestler in Sultan. But this film, which is an official adaptation of the Korean hit Ode to my Father, musters none of the heft that it aspires for. The makers have nothing particularly insightful or meaningful to say about either the protagonist’s or the country’s journey spanning nearly seven decades.

As a result the film is unmistakably boring. It’s also excruciatingly long at close to three hours. The script has an episodic feel to it, and Bharat’s life unfolds like a highlights reel. Considerable VFX are employed to render Salman much younger than his years to play the character in his 20s and 30s. From a motorcycle stunt driver in a circus, to a blue-collar job in an oil refinery in the Gulf, to an adventure on the high seas in the Merchant Navy, Bharat’s every move is driven by that promise to his father. And that moving scene at the start of the film is repeated so many times in flashbacks that it loses its impact eventually.

What works in the film is the romantic track between Bharat and Kumud (Katrina Kaif), which is playful and occasionally funny, and develops nicely as the characters age. Katrina’s hair and make-up is questionable, but she shares an undeniable chemistry and comfort with her leading man, which gives this film some of its most charming moments.

Sunil Grover gets a chunk of screen time as Vilayati, Bharat’s trusted best friend from childhood who sticks by his side through his many adventures. Sunil has a natural flair for conjuring up comedy in the simplest of moments, yet the script puts him through cringey scenes of forced humour like one in which he loses his underwear during a medical examination.

There are many instances of cringey humour including one involving Somalian pirates who, as it turns out, love Amitabh Bachchan as much as we do. The makers are also not above indulging in overt manipulation, like a scene that segues into an unnecessary rendition of the national anthem. Or the full-blown sappy pre-climax centred on a television reality show intended to rectify the painful legacy of Partition.

More painful is watching a very young Disha Patani paired opposite a trying-to-look-very-young Salman in one of the early chapters of the film. Or Sonali Kulkarni, nine years younger than him, playing his mother. This might not seem like a big deal in the larger picture, but it’s reflective of an old malaise that Bollywood hasn’t been able to shake off yet.

On a scale of Insufferable to Awesome, Bharat ranks closer to the lower end, somewhere besides Tubelight and Race 3. There’s a lot going on in this film, yet very little is particularly remarkable. Salman plays Salman once again, and if you enjoy that goofy shtick then good for you, but it’s fast getting old. He’s most interesting playing a senior citizen, sporting grey with pride. Yet like a typical vanity project, while the film may portray Salman as ageing it has no bearing on his ability to go all ninja warrior on trouble-making henchmen.

In the end Bharat is exhausting and pointless. It exists only to add to the legend of Salman Khan as the selfless provider, the man who has a heart as big as his biceps. In Bharat, Salman Khan plays Bhai.

I’m going with two out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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