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

August 30, 2019

Logic be damned!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:54 pm

August 30, 2019

Cast: Prabhas, Shraddha Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Jackie Shroff, Chunky Pandey, Mahesh Manjrekar, Mandira Bedi, Arjun Vijay

Director: Sujeeth

Saaho, which stars Prabhas in his first screen outing since the Baahubali films, took almost two years to complete, cost roughly Rs 350 crores to make, clocks in at nearly three hours, and leaves you with the kind of pounding headache that’ll take the better part of the day to recover from. At one point in the film Chunky Pandey, who plays a nostril-flaring crime boss named Devraj, threatens someone, saying, “I will put you through a lot of pain.” He might as well be speaking to the audience.

Written and directed by Sujeeth, Saaho is the sort of film that pretends to be smarter than it actually is. It has a convoluted plot that’s crammed with twists and turns, and secret identities and big reveals. Yet, when stripped to the bone, it’s ridiculously silly. Jackie Shroff plays Roy, the head of a crime syndicate in a fictional land named Waaji, who is killed the very night he lands in India. Let’s just say the issue of his successor is a complex one. Closer home, meanwhile, the Mumbai police force’s star attraction Ashok (Prabhas) has been tasked with ferreting out a mysterious figure known only as Shadow (and played by Neil Nitin Mukesh), who’s believed to be the brain behind an ingenious theft of Rs 2,000 crores.

There’s a lot going on in the film, but not a lot of it is especially compelling. Any expectation of logic and any semblance of reality quickly goes out of the window after Prabhas’ character is introduced running up every floor of a chawl, vanquishing criminal elements and miscreants including – wait for it – a python, and in another flat, a deadly black panther.

I think it’s fair to say that the mantra of this movie is ‘anything goes’. The action jumps from one part of the globe to another without explanation, Ashok never misses an opportunity to shake a leg with fellow crime-fighter Amritha Nair (Shraddha Kapoor), and the crime syndicate appears to have a roster of heavily tattooed, imaginatively hairstyled henchmen who show up anywhere and everywhere to make trouble. The McGuffin in this story is something called a Black Box that Shadow has his sights on, and as you may have guessed, it is of course linked to the Roy empire.

Now I don’t want to be the party pooper who’s looking for logic in a dumb action tentpole. To be fair we don’t ask these questions of a Fast and Furious film or a Mission Impossible movie, or even from the Race franchise in Bollywood. But the truth is that Saaho isn’t content with being a dumb action tentpole with slick set pieces – it insists on sweeping you into its plot, which is more than you can offer given how singularly harebrained it is.

Literally the film’s only saving grace is its leading man who sportingly goes along with what’s expected of him. He is both tough guy and gentle giant; he is both romantic hero and rock-hard-abs-sporting-action-star. It’s a shame the film does little justice to his enormous presence and his unmistakable sincerity. In one bizarre yet oddly fascinating sequence he leaps, shirtless, into the open sky, as it turns out to rescue his damsel. Any actor who agreed to do that scene without questioning its relevance or logic deserves your sympathy.

Others like Shraddha Kapoor, Chunky Pandey, Mahesh Manjrekar, Mandira Bedi, Tinnu Anand, and Neil Nitin Mukesh barely register despite reasonable screen time. You can hardly be blamed. The impressively staged but ultimately exhausting action sequences take up the bulk of screen time, but they can’t salvage this soulless film that has all the depth and emotional wallop of a video game.

I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 23, 2019

Later, alligator!

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:30 pm

August 23, 2019

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper

Director: Alexandre Aja

If, like me, you watched with a combination of fear and fascination those videos circulating on WhatsApp of alligators that strayed into residential areas of Vadodara and Karnataka during recent flooding, then you might be the best audience for Crawl. This slickly made ‘creature feature’ is a man vs beast survival story that offers jump scares and cheap thrills to make up for its non-existent plot.

Despite warnings to stay indoors during a brutal Florida hurricane, university student and former competitive swimmer Hayley sneaks her way into the storm’s path to check in on her father, who lives alone at the other end of town and isn’t responding to any of her messages. She finds him bruised and unconscious in the cramped basement below their old family home, and pretty soon she’s trapped there with him and a big scary alligator, even as the house begins to flood.

It’s a pretty basic premise but one that yields some genuinely thrilling moments. Father and daughter struggle to keep themselves safe from an increasing number of threats. It turns out there isn’t just one set of sharp teeth out there, there are more. Good thing there’s always a handful of disposable background characters to be made a meal of.

Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja uses tiny spaces, malfunctioning essentials like phones and torches, and his imagination to deliver scenarios of nail-biting tension. In one scene Hayley is trapped inside the bathtub stall as the critter splashes around in the bathroom outside. In another she must tiptoe across the kitchen counter even as the room is rapidly flooding, unsure what danger lurks in the water.

The film moves briskly, clocking in at a crisp 90 minutes, but loses some steam when father and daughter decide to address unresolved issues from the past. It’s hardly the time or place for emotional unburdening, and even the father’s pep talks feel entirely predictable.

To be fair the film works despite these minor hiccups. Kaya Scodelario who plays Hayley, has a Sigourney Weaver-like tough chick vibe, and the digitally realised alligators are creepily realistic. What unfolds is trashy fun – no more, no less. If you’re in the mood for guilty pleasure, Crawl is not a bad way to spend an evening.

I’m going with three out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 16, 2019

Postcard to the past

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 12:18 am

August 15, 2019

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butter, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is many things at once: it’s stylish, nostalgia-soaked, frequently indulgent, and for a good part frustratingly inert. Yet it’s endlessly fascinating. The film is both a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, and also a daring blend of fact and fiction.

Set in the year 1969, the film allows Tarantino to reference that period’s music, fashion, cool cars, movie stars, and headlines. It’s powered by the filmmaker’s dark humour and explosive violence, and yet there’s something distinctly different about this ninth film of his – it’s unmistakably sentimental. Now there’s a word you don’t usually associate with him!

Ironically it’s got two of the biggest movie stars playing has-been Hollywood types. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a once popular star best known for television Westerns, now crippled by alcohol and self-doubt. His most loyal, and possibly his only friend is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s also his driver and all-round handyman. The men share a close bond. A voice-over describes Booth as “a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife”. When Dalton gets teary that his career is over, Booth gives him his aviators and a pep talk. “You’re Rick fucking Dalton,” he reminds him.

Both actors are in very good form, each offering funny, emotionally complex, layered performances. DiCaprio plays Dalton as always on edge and anxious, while Booth appears quiet and confident. Pitt plays him as a man of a few words. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Booth is fired off the set of The Green Hornet when he gets into a fistfight with an especially vain Bruce Lee.

Faring better than them is Sharon Tate, starlet and wife of film director Roman Polanski who is Dalton’s neighbour in the Hollywood Hills. Margot Robbie is lovely, if a tad underused, as Tate; she radiantly channels the 26-year-old innocent whose star is on the rise. In a charming scene that alas plays out too long, Tate slips into a cinema and takes in the enthusiastic responses to her latest film.

But we already know how the actress’ life was tragically cut short, while eight-and-a-half months pregnant, at the hands of cult leader Charles Manson’s ‘followers’. So naturally we spend a good part of the film waiting to see how Tarantino will wrap up things. I’m not going to spoil anything for you on that front, except to say that it’s outrageous, unpredictable, and oddly satisfying.

But despite so much going on, the film’s pacing is problematic. You will find yourself getting especially restless in the first hour where very little actually happens. There is a sliver of a plot, but at times it seems as if Tarantino has merely strung together a collection of entertaining scenes and moments that feel complete unto themselves, but never key to the fabric of the story.

Also the film has plenty (and I mean plenty!) references to old films and television shows that the filmmaker presumably loves. We get long scenes of movies within the movie, which are tiring ultimately as they amount to little more than Tarantino indulging his inner geek.

Yet, all said and done, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a violent, often funny, but always heartfelt valentine to a specific time and place. Robert Richardson’s artful photography, the evocative production design, and fleeting appearances by legendary characters of the day transport you to a bygone era of Hollywood glamour that proves hard to resist. The film may not be Tarantino’s best, but it’s a laidback, change-of-pace offering that delivers many unexpected pleasures.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Close encounter

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:17 am

August 15, 2019

Cast: John Abraham, Mrunal Thakur, Rajesh Sharma, Manish Chaudhury, Ravi Kishan, Nora Fatehi

Director: Nikhil Advani

Whatever else one may think of the film, you’ve got to hand it to Batla House that it hits the ground running. Within the first few minutes itself, director Nikhil Advani recreates the controversial 2008 Batla House encounter in Delhi in which two young men believed to be members of the Indian Mujahideen were killed, along with a police officer. It’s a solid opening.

Ritesh Shah’s script fashions itself as a Rashomon-style pursuit of the truth. The incident begs several questions: Was the Delhi Police telling the truth? Were the men who were killed Islamic terrorists or university students? Was the encounter staged by the cops?

The outrage that follows the incident suggests that the politicians, the media, and even others in the force had doubts about the police’s version of the facts. John Abraham stars as DCP Sanjeev Kumar, who is modelled after Sanjay Kumar Yadav, the real-life officer who led the Delhi Police Special Cell that conducted the operation. The film portrays him as a man haunted by guilt, crippled by post-trauma stress, troubled on account of his failing marriage. He is plagued by hallucinations, and plunged into an unfamiliar funk. At one point he hands over his dismantled gun to his wife, unsure if he can trust himself with it.

It’s a fascinating premise, and an especially unlikely character for John. To be fair he submits to it, delivering a quiet, restrained performance. But the film can’t decide what it wants to be – a melancholic character piece, or a thriller with chases and shootouts. The action scenes are appropriately tense and impressively staged, but the narrative is routinely slowed down by a clutch of unnecessary songs. ((pause))

Sanjeev’s wife, a television news anchor played by Mrunal Thakur, is a key figure in the story. But the film barely does any justice to her character, giving little room to the talented actress to breathe life into it. The other crucial role belongs to Rajesh Sharma, kitted out in a scraggly white wig as the prosecutor arguing against Sanjeev in court. This last act is gripping, not least because the script plays to the gallery with rousing monologues and clap-trap lines.

There is much to admire in Batla House but the film is ultimately betrayed by its own prejudices. In one scene Sanjeev wakes up from a nightmare in which he’s mobbed by men wearing skull caps. The film wants to be viewed as a complex search for answers, a nuanced, layered drama about an incident from the past whose central conflict is as relevant today. That sounds good on paper. In practice though the film is lacking in any complexity or nuance.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Batla House. It’s never a complete waste of time, but there was potential for so much more.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

Mars needs moms!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 12:16 am

August 15, 2019

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari, Sharman Joshi, HG Dattatreya, Vikram Gokhale

Director: Jagan Shakti

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the popular adage goes. But Mission Mangal upends that idea with the story of a space mission to Mars propelled predominantly by female energy. The film is a fictionalised account of Mangalyaan, the ISRO Mars program that was launched in 2013 and which features headlining roles for the scientists – most of them women – behind that ambitious endeavour.

The mission was a moment of pride in more ways than one. India was the first country to crack a Mars mission in its first attempt, and at a budget of roughly Rs 454 crores, a fraction of the cost of other international space missions. Mangalyaan’s story, then, is ripe for the big screen. It is the blockbuster cliché – the underdogs who beat insurmountable odds. Helmed by first-time director Jagan Shakti, Mission Mangal is helped along by the star power of Akshay Kumar, but it is elevated by smart filmmaking, and a clutch of winning performances led by the excellent Vidya Balan.

This is a movie about space, scientists, facts and physics, but there is no dearth of emotion. Some of it is trite and there is manipulative pop patriotism – the sort you expect from an Akshay Kumar film. Yet Mission Mangal is more restrained in tone than the star’s recent outings like Kesari, PadMan, and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. There are also genuine moments in the film when you laugh, and when your heart soars. Despite the formulaic arc, the makers deliver an entertaining account of a complicated mission.

Akshay plays Rakesh Dhawan, who heads the mission. This is a scientist who has dedicated his life to ISRO, with no time for distractions like love or family. After a failed mission, he is “demoted” to a Mars program, in the hope that he will take the hint and quit. In one of the film’s charming scenes he walks into a dusty office in a deadbeat building at ISRO that has been allocated for the Mars program. An optimist who’s always ready with a joke or an old Hindi song, he pretends that the barren space is the Red Planet. As a clay water pot releases a trickle, and a stray cat jumps in through the window, he jokes that there is both water and life on Mars.

Akshay’s character is clearly the leader, but the brains belong to Tara Shinde (Vidya), who comes up with the idea of chasing the Mars dream with a low-cost rocket and satellite. This brainwave comes from the practice of frying pooris on a no-flame, a concept she cheerily demonstrates to ISRO top brass. Cleverly, but also a tad simplistically, the film employs accessible (and frequently eye-rolling) theories and concepts to explain the science of the mission to a lay audience.

 And because desi films must have a videsi villain, we get NASA-returned Rupert Desai (Dalip Tahil), who assigns a ragtag bunch of juniors to the Mars program, unwilling to waste his best men for an impossible project. Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Kirthi Kulhari, Nithya Menen, Sharman Joshi, and HG Dattatreya make up the rest of the team, each bringing their respective backstory. Vidya’s is the best realised of the lot; she’s a wife and mother juggling domestic responsibilities with her consuming passion for science.

There are some contrived bits, like one in which the team happily takes up brooms and brushes to spruce up their office while humming an upbeat song. Or a needless fight in the Bangalore metro, scripted presumably to turn the cliché of women as victims on its head. In fact, the makers cram a lot into the film – there are token pleas for inclusion, religious tolerance, and gender equality. The film could’ve been crisper and sharper without these distractions, and might have come up at least 10 minutes shorter. But as frequently happens when you’re invested in a story or its characters, you’re willing not to sweat the small stuff.

There is some pandering at the end with a flashback of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory address in 2014. Perhaps the makers would’ve done well to have also included that the Mangalyaan project was announced in the year 2012 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Of the cast, Akshay Kumar is reliably strong, bringing irreverence and humour to the proceedings, as if to make sure the film never becomes ‘too smart’. There’s also sound acting from the other actors, particularly Taapsee Pannu and Nitya Menen, and plenty laughs from Kannada actor Dattatreya. But it’s Vidya Balan who truly stands out, diving into her role of the impassioned scientist with full commitment. Vidya makes it convincing that her character’s ideas are fuelled by day-to-day life examples.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal is enjoyable and entertaining. Even the jingoism doesn’t feel entirely out of place. Director Jagan Shakti delivers a space movie that lifts off and frequently soars. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

August 2, 2019

Barbs and blows

Filed under: Their Films — Rajeev @ 11:35 pm

August 02, 2019

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby

Director: David Leitch

Over the course of eight films the Fast & Furious franchise has delivered moments of such jaw-dropping ridiculousness, the makers had to know they needed more than just crazy stunts to justify a spin-off. Don’t get me wrong; Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is crammed with crazy, ridiculous stunts (a motorbike practically flies into the top of a double decker bus, in another instance a mid-air chopper is tethered to a string of cars while navigating the edge of a cliff), but the film leans just as heavily on the sheer charisma and the winning chemistry of its leading men.

Reprising their roles from the original franchise, Dwayne Johnson plays Luke Hobbs, a former federal agent, and Jason Statham is Deckard Shaw, a British soldier turned mercenary. You might remember they fought on opposite sides in the last film, and, while they still don’t particularly like each other, they reluctantly join forces this time to save the world.

The film’s villain is Brixton, a cyber-genetically enhanced soldier, played by Idris Elba, who calls himself Black Superman, although as the film progresses he becomes more machine than man. Brixton has been ordered to recover a deadly virus that could wipe out half of humanity, but it’s just his luck that rogue MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected it into her body.

The plot, expectedly, is preposterous, but it’s good to see the actors having fun with it. Johnson and Statham alternate the blows and punches with name-calling and banter. While there’s no question they can pull off even elaborate action scenes with ease, their sharp comic timing is a surprise reward. I especially enjoyed a scene in which Statham single-handedly vanquishes a corridor full of bad guys even as Johnson looks on pretending to be unimpressed.

Hobbs & Shaw signals a departure from the early Fast & Furious instalments. It’s true; we’ve come a long way from the scrappy street racing origins of the 2001 film starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on family. A plot turn designed to shoehorn this running theme takes us to the island of Samoa for the film’s big finale, where amidst teary reunions and emotional unburdening there are more chases and explosions.

To be clear, the film doesn’t skimp on action. There are some impressive set pieces like one staged at a London skyscraper that is intense and thrilling. It must be said here that director David Leitch has no problem holding a shot so we can appreciate and enjoy the action, unlike in other blockbuster films where breakneck editing frequently makes it hard to follow who is doing what to whom.

While the film is focused on its titular heroes, there’s enough for the other characters to do. Kirby, best known for playing the feisty Princess Margaret in The Crown, proved she can kick ass just as good as the next guy in last year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout. She brings more of that here, holding her own with the boys. Elba too appears to be having a blast as the tortured bad guy, even if the part itself feels woefully underdeveloped. There’s also clutch of unexpected cameos that provides a clue into what’s to come in further sequels.

Hobbs & Shaw is pure popcorn entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a tad long at 2 hours and 16 minutes, but its winning cocktail of action and comedy, and the screen-burning appeal of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham seldom leaves you bored. I can’t think of two other actors who could’ve made such flimsy material work.

I’m going with three out of five for Hobbs & Shaw. It’s what the word ‘time-pass’ was invented to describe.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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