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Review: Sam Mendes’ Spectre

spectre1The Aston Martin DB10 is a profoundly poetic machine, a sonnet on wheels and — because this is a James Bond motion picture — a sonnet that has several switches added on to it. One of these levers is labelled, minimally and with delicious promise, ‘Atmosphere,’ and the mind boggles at the possibilities. Is it a button that emits enough nerve-gas to choke a Nordic village? Is it a quick-change camouflage button? A button that rockets Bond and his wheels up, up and away? Or is it even more fantastically surreal? Is it something that plunges Bond himself into a better, more fun film, one of those classic Connery escapades where wit and muscle flowed frothily?

Director Sam Mendes needed one of those. He needed something to take his Bond film, Spectre, a grandly mounted and earnestly over-stuffed film, and give it some zip, some flair. He needed heady, champagne-flavoured magic. Instead, all the ‘Atmosphere’ button does here is turn on the stereo.

Thing is, well-dressed spies can’t quite cut it anymore. 2015 alone has given us two immaculately-clad secret agent comedies — Kingsman and The Man From UNCLE — both armed with the right accents and jawlines and cheekbones and gadgets, and both of which commit to gags with more loony glee than is possible for a Bond film. This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007, and while Sam Mendes tries to give him old-school punchlines laced with a few grams of innuendo, it jars coming from Craig’s hitherto tortured, brooding Bond. Rog Moore he (thankfully) ain’t, but it feels creepy to watch Craig pour a smile onto a feeble pun.

Spectre starts off almost too beautifully. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — who shot the sublime Her and the gigantic Interstellar — kicks things off with a long, muscular tracking shot that takes us through Mexico’s dance of the dead, the dia de muertos. It’s mesmerising how well Hoytema manages to keep the main characters in focus by manipulating them seamlessly toward the middle of the frame, forcing us to look at them even as they wear masks just like the distracting crowd around them. Somewhere in the middle of this beautiful instrumental sequence, Bond shimmies up a staircase shaking his bottom with Beyonciffic grace, and later, even more gracefully, Sam Mendes lets him fall from perilously high onto a… couch. It’s a glorious sight gag and a gorgeous start (even though the background score is a tad on-the-nose) and the rest of the film, post sofa, can’t quite measure up.

This is more of a problem because there is a lot of film to go. At 148 minutes, I’m not certain Spectre is the longest Bond film of all time, but — and here’s the rub — it certainly feels like it, and it doesn’t help that Mendes exhausts his bag of tricks very early on. The pre-credits scene, the banter with M, the Aston sequence, the villain’s reveal, the Monica Bellucci cameo… all those marvellous switches are flicked on in rapid succession, leaving barely anything for the tedious last hour of the film.

spectre2“Cameo?”, you might here ask, outraged, and I must sadly confirm that there is hardly any Bellucci in this picture. She looks sensational, as always, but why cast Le Grande Bellezza and not spend more time on her? Why give Bond — and us — such a fleeting taste of the goddess, a taste made even more fleeting by Indian censors? Mr Mendes is the real monocled villain of this piece, perhaps, making sure both Bellucci and this picture’s other fine actress, Lea Seydoux, get silly, stereotypical lines — about where Papa kept his Beretta 9 millimeter, for instance — while Bond gets the zingers. Craig appears game for anything, ridiculous lines and all, but they don’t fit him or this dark and gritty Bond world. Ralph Fiennes is a fine, very likeable M, Naomie Harris is a sterling Moneypenny (sorry) but the great Christoph Waltz is wasted in the big villainous part. He acts well but is, again, given too little to do — a peculiar problem for a seemingly unending film.

What fills up Spectre, then? References to old Bond movies, mostly, checked-off as if this was Mendes’ version of Die Another Day, a joyless, doggedly determined hat-tip to vintage pleasures. Mendes cannot ever be as artless as that clunker, of course, and there is both sophistication and elegance to be found in Spectre — whenever Hoytema gets to shoot exotic, tangerine-tinged top-shots of exotic cities like Tangiers, for example, or one great hand-to-hand fight on a train — but these moments are few, far between and not fanciful enough. Even the Sam Smith song, Writing’s On The Wall, is a caterwauling falsetto more suited to this adorably geeky new Q than to 007 himself.

If only that car-switch worked. (“How was it, M?” “Long, James. Long.”)

Rating: 2.5 stars


First published Rediff, November 20, 2015

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Ten most excellent movies about time travel

back-to-future-ii-marty-mcfly-hat-2Which is the greatest movie about time travel? That may be one of the most rhetorical questions in cinema, as it causes the brain to flood instantly with images — of lightning bolts and Chuck Berry guitar riffs, hover-boards and clock towers, fishy-themed school dances and bullies covered in manure. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the Back To The Future trilogy stands tall across the cinematic
space-time continuum, a brilliantly conceived and loopy trilogy that gets dark when you least expect it and features the best, most cheerleader-worthy heroes of all. Great Scott!

Now, on October 21, 2015, the day “in the future” Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to in Back To The Future II — a day naturally christened Back To The Future Day — I tip my psychedelic baseball cap to that all-time classic and type at 88 miles an hour to list my ten other favorite movies about time travel.

Watch them if you haven’t already, rewatch the ones you have. I promise you they’re all pretty neat. (Just don’t buy any sports almanacs along the way.) In no particular order, here they are.

12 Monkeys

Few visionaries play as fast and loose as Terry Gilliam, and the former Python shows off some of his most lucid, mind-bending genius in this film set in a frightening 2035 version of Philadelphia. Earth is contaminated with a virus and Bruce Willis must travel to the 90s to try and stop it. A chaotic and twisty affair, Gilliam’s film is a terrific trip made essential by committedly loony performances from Willis and a young Brad Pitt.


Nacho Vigalondo’s festival-conquering Spanish indie may be the lowest budgeted film on this non-linear list, but it doesn’t skimp on the smarts. There are a fair bit of paradoxes and contradictions flaunted in the actual mechanics of the narrative, but this film – about many versions of a man who has/hasn’t killed his wife – is tremendously compelling and hits dramatic notes very cleverly and effectively.

Time After Time

None of the movies based directly on HG Wells’ stunning, dystopic classic The Time Machine are actually worthy enough, but Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 take on Wells himself is hugely entertaining. Malcolm McDowell plays Wells, who invents the time machine before writing about it, but it is hijacked by his friend, a certain Jack The Ripper. The result is a romp set in 1979 – the time of the film’s release and one that confounded both Wells and The Ripper but not the audiences – and while it may fall a fair few notches short of brilliant, it certainly is the kind of time travel movie I’d wanna make.


Shane Carruth’s devastatingly dense and elegantly constructed film takes on a simple time travel idea – two engineers who find a way and decide to make some money – and then Shallow Grave-s that idea all the way to scarytown. The film intentionally piles on the confusion like a grand act of misdirection, Carruth showing us a film that looks too soundly logical to be, actually, not. It isn’t as smart as it sounds but it pulls the wool over our eyes so beautifully that it emerges, in fact, smarter still.


The idea is pure genius. Rian Johnson’s film has a time-travelling hitman take on his own younger self, and even as the thrills pile on, Johnson astonishingly enough manages to make every choice appear rational and relatable. Looper isn’t as much about the ‘how’ of time travel as it is about the ‘what then?’, making for a truly slick and riveting film, bolstered by top-performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis playing, well, the same guy.

TimeBandits1_468x307Time Bandits

Ah, joy. Another Terry Gilliam film but far from dystopic, Time Bandits is an adventure doused liberally in wish-fulfillment and hope. (What else can you say for a film where John Cleese shows up playing Robin Hood?) The all-star cast — in their all-star historic roles – is great but even greater is Gilliam’s boundless imagination as he looks at time-travel through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy and giddily infuses the genre with magic.

Safety Not Guaranteed

To be fair, there isn’t much time travel to see here. Colin Trevorrow’s nearly-mumblecore film focuses instead on the complete and committed belief in the idea of time travel. There is skepticism, there is doubt, there is a hint of romance and more than a hint of lunacy, but then the idea of buying into lunacy is so much more appealing than real-life. It’s almost as if we, along with Trevorrow, make the impossible happen by sheer force of will.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The first of the tubular Bill & Ted films, this Stephen Herek cult classic stars Keanu Reeves as Ted, Alex Winter as Bill and all of space and time as the supporting cast. In a phone booth that takes them through history’s greatest hits, our two intrepid and slackjawed heroes try to save all of mankind while also ensuring that they do not themselves flunk a history paper. Punctuated by many a stunning air-guitar riff, this ride is as rad as they come.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

An underrated but beautiful film about a girl with a time machine inside of her, this hilarious British comedy is set at a pub and, quite appropriately, best watched with buddies and beer. Gareth Carrivick’s film has a significant Edgar Wright hangover and he doesn’t have the panache, but his cast – headlined by Chris O’Dowd and Anna Faris – is lovely and the film bubbles along very nicely indeed.

Midnight In Paris

Paris is the time machine in this Woody Allen film about Golden Age thinking – the idea that a romanticized past is better than an apparently greyer present – which, basically, is a way for Allen to rebuff those stuck in the past, and who demand more la-dee-da classics instead of something different. Yet, ironically enough, with its crackling screenplay and rich literary texture, this strikingly cool film is, in every way, deserving of being ranked among Allen’s “older, funnier” films.


First published Rediff, October 21, 2015


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Column: That Sholay coin-toss and the role of chance in storytelling

It is temptingly easy to dismiss the cinematic coin-toss as a bit of chicanery, just another convenient plotting trope. Characters go down one road when they so easily could have strolled down another, and the road they choose is the one picked by the writers, with heads or tails (or neither) doing the rationalising for them.

Yet there is something classically timeless about relying on something so basic, so universal, so instantly echoed around the world — and making it work. The setup is simple, thrown up at will. The trick lies in the consequences; it’s all about sticking the landing. A really good coin-toss is hard to forget.

chigurh1One of the most memorable tossers in all cinema is Anton Chigurh, the villain in No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Played — in an Oscar-winning turn — by Javier Bardem and a jagged-fringed haircut, Chigurh is a nightmarishly calm killer who mows down the innocent, but pauses to flip a coin before it — as if to give them a last glimmer of hope. Or to not take all the credit for their death.

It is hard to imagine McCarthy, that grizzled Pulitzer Prize winner, being inspired by a Batman villain, but Chigurh’s methods do indeed quite mirror those of Two-Face, who has always been more fearsome on the page than the screen, played to cartoonish effect by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever and insipidly by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. Not that these didn’t have precedent; gangsters and mob bosses have tossed coins ever since George Raft started it all in the 1932 Scarface.

The entire act might not be as existential. It could, of course, quite simply be big bad kids toying with their food; a trivial amusement, a flick of thumbnail against coin before the actual ringing of the death knell.

It is also often said that the result of the toss matters less than what one hopes for as the coin is flipping through the air. This is why regardless of heads or tails, some villains end up pulling the trigger anyway.

Less bloodthirsty coin-tossing is par for the course in buddy-movies, often with some nudge-nudge wink-wink sleight of tongue as in Andaz Apna Apna, where Aamir Khan’s Amar hoodwinks Salman Khan’s Prem with a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” toss. By the time the slackjawed Salman figures out he’s actually won, a triumphant Aamir is long gone.

What makes us trust in this random 50:50 toss? The question was most profoundly debated in a 1953 Donald Duck comic where the phenomenon of using a toss to determine all decisions was dubbed ‘Flipism.’ Donald, after meeting the weird Professor Batty who tells him to trust in the coin and follow Flipism, loyally does what the tosses tell him, landing up in a world of trouble and blaming the coin. Yet others are more discreet in their use of the same. It is only at the end of Asimov’s wonderful short story The Machine That Won The War that we learn that the omniscient all-powerful computer wasn’t really being consulted because one of the protagonists had been tossing a coin to make all his final decisions.

Sometimes the coin doesn’t come up heads or tails. In Frank Capra’s classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington, for example, the only reason James Stewart’s Mr Smith gets to go to Washington is because a governor is trying to choose a senator between rival candidates Mr Hill and Mr Miller. He tosses a coin which lands on its edge, which leads him to drop both candidates and choose Smith.

sholaycoin2For Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, screenwriters Salim and Javed stole the trick from the underrated 1954 Western, Garden Of Evil, where Gary Cooper and Richard Windmark draw cards to see who will stay back and fight the Apaches pursuing them. Windmark, the ‘winner,’ stays and dies. In Sholay, Jai, played by Amitabh Bachchan — whose coin always comes up heads — stays, saves the day and eventually dies. Jai’s trick coin became the stuff of legend, the kind of thing that films of today would have merchandised like crazy.

What is most notable looking back at Sholay’s screenplay, however, is the fact that because Jai was cheating, it made all the tosses he’d seemingly ‘won’ over the course of the film all choices he had made instead of choices they’d stumbled into out of randomness. Therefore, despite Dharmendra’s Veeru stayin’ alive and getting the girl and the flashier songs, and Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur getting his hard-earned revenge by the final reel, the sequence of coin-based decisions ultimately makes it clear that Jai is the protagonist, the man who chose the way the story winded, and the true hero of Sholay.

And all because of how wisely he used a coin.


First published Rediff, August 18, 2015


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Column: Diamonds Are Forever


A column written to celebrate James Bond finally finding himself one helluva woman.


“I frequently wince at the word ‘cougar’ because of the way it has been appropriated by the media—like a polite, acceptable term for MILF—but it admittedly helps us look at these agile huntresses allowing for more grace than, say, we do when discussing sugar-daddies seeking blondes. On-top may well be the default position for women based on how naturally they hold relationship reins; their ever-indulgent seductions put fumbling male look-at-me flirtations rightfully to shame. And there is something ineffably sexy about a woman who knows better.”

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First published Vogue, August 2015

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Review: Pete Docter’s Inside Out

InsideOut1‘What is your favourite colour?’ I always found that a dashed impossible question. Purple leaps to mind because of how cool and wizardly it is; I’m partial to pretty girls in Yellow; Blue is the colour of ink and jazz and skies; and, like Ferraris, I look best in Scarlet — but then Holly Golightly made us realise how mean Red can be. There truly can be no one favourite colour, merely one best-suited for a moment. It’s as pointless as using one singular feeling to label a moment, a memory, a thought. At every given time, we’re a jumbled up mess, our feelings and emotions questioning and contradicting and second-guessing each other as they jostle for attention — and with Inside Out, Pixar’s latest and arguably finest film, we get a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes.

The film takes place inside the head of a little girl, Riley, an ice-hockey-loving 11-year-old moving with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. But woe is she, for San Francisco puts broccoli on their pizza. Disgust, a green glitter-haired sprite inside Riley’s head is appalled. Alongside her, astride a control bridge, are the red and inflammable Anger, the nerdy purple Fear, the despondent blue Sadness and — leading the pack — the giddily ebullient Joy, bright yellow and impossibly determined to keep Riley happy as can be.

This is a startlingly new landscape, even for the imagineers over at Pixar, and there is tremendous fun in watching these five emotions take turns at making Riley live and feel and react. Joy — voiced by the irrepressibly buoyant Amy Poehler — is an obvious favourite, not least because she looks a bit like Tinkerbell and because her motive is wanting Riley to be happy. So happy, in fact, that Joy chalks out a little circle and asks Sadness to stay within the lines. If you’re astonished by such an elegantly simple metaphor about Repression in an animated film, buckle up: this film goes deep. Significantly, psychologically, educatively deep.

Director Pete Docter has done something absolutely stunning here. Inside Out is certainly a candied Pixar adventure-comedy, wickedly witty and polished till it shines, and yet there is tremendous insight as the film intuitively and evocatingly zigzags through a brain. There are, for example, racks upon racks of bright coloured memories — like a giant gallery of M&Ms — of which some are fading and being forgotten, because of misuse and because they aren’t accessed often enough, but where some peculiar ones — a theme-tune to a gum commercial seen in childhood, say — are frequently tossed into the foreground of the brain, just for the heck of it, where it will persistently rattle around all day. There is Abstract Thought, which dices our characters into Picasso edges, and there is The Subconscious, “where they take all the troublemakers.”


Inside Riley’s mother’s brain.

Choo-chooing somewhere in the distance is a locomotive, a literal Train Of Thought, and seemingly holding the structure together, formed out of Riley’s core memories, are her Islands Of Personality, themeparks inside her head for the things most important to her: Family, Hockey, Friendship, Honesty and Goofball — the last working well when Riley needs to make monkey-sounds with her parents. Things, naturally, go wrong somewhere near the control panel, and while much can be said about the grand adventure taking place inside Riley’s head — but why give it away? — the most glorious thing about Inside Out is that it meanders away from obvious storytelling and gives us room to think about ourselves. I, for example, caught myself wondering what islands I’d have inside my head. (Despite making a film that necessitates repeat viewings to capture all the multitiered genius of its confections, Docter makes it a point to make us wonder thus, nudging us briefly toward other brains, dog-brains and cat-brains and father-brains and, best of all, a Cool Girl brain, where the emotions eventually confess that “Being cool is so exhausting.”)

Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dias, is a perfectly nice girl, but the fun characters all lie within her. Joy is almost unbearably bouncy, and Poehler — with her Leslie Knope infallibility in place — nails the crucial balance; Mindy Kaling is sneeringly spot-on as Disgust; Richard Kind is wonderful as Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who cries candy and can “blow a mean nose”; and the film’s most nuanced performance comes from Phyllis Smith, making Sadness so darned irresistible. Inside Out’s crowning achievement may be the parity it achieves, the way it illustrates how one emotion isn’t better than another, that each is important and makes a difference. Why, sometimes you need to heat Anger up just to use it as a weapon. Thus it’s unfair to aim exclusively for happiness. (Could it be the yellow M&Ms don’t taste better than the others after all?)

insideout3A staggeringly original film, Inside Out is a cinematic miracle. There has quite frankly never been anything like it before, and it is an essential film for lovers of the movies, children, parents and inner-children everywhere. It is insightful, intoxicating and incredible, and when I was done with it, scrubbed and sobbed and sated, I felt I’d been scribbled on by Pixar crayons. The detailing is exquisite — Joy, using a french fry to do a pole-vault pauses to lick her salty fingers right after — Michael Giacchino’s music is fantastic, and there is something in the film to speak to each of us. I, for one, was particularly captivated by the sound-stage on which dreams were being produced, like a live television show with scripts and actors and directors… And what critic dare rebuke a film he’d pick over a dream?

Rating: 5 stars


First published Rediff, June 26, 2015


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Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming


Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.


First published Rediff, June 22, 2015


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Review: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age Of Ultron

“So if I lift it, I then rule Asgard?” Tony Stark doesn’t even take his jacket off the first time he tries to lift Thor’s hammer, a laughable attempt to prove — in Thor’s baritone — “worthy.” The party scene in all the trailers shows Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ™ throw down over drinks as they play the weirdest party game of all: Who Dare Be God. And while this is classic caped camaraderie, the superhero backslappery that shone through director Joss Whedon’s first awesome Avengers film, the true punch lies in Stark’s second line, delivered solemnly by Robert Downey Jr: “I will be re-instituting Prima Nocta.”

It’s a throwaway gag, like all of Stark’s quip-a-minute lines. He tries, fails, and the line is forgotten. But the very idea of Prima Nocta — a mythic medieval rule about a king or high nobleman having the rights to sleep with a newlywed bride before the groom does — almost defines Tony Stark’s hubris, his absolute sense of entitlement, his testosterone-y bravado, his intensely desperate need to be racing ahead of those around him, to do more, to see more, to control more. It is also, surprise surprise, the last allusion you’d expect in a kid-friendly Disney film featuring a bunch of good-natured superheroes — one of whom even tut-tuts at the others for swearing.

And that, ladies and gents, is classic Whedon, mixing up genre, style and appropriateness to concoct something so delicious it’ll leave you giddy.

avengers3The film opens with a gobsmacking action sequence, one showing us every Avenger in action at the same time — stitched digitally together into a single-shot that instantly justifies the 3D glasses — and it never lets up. Unlike the first film which only really kicks into gear after the Beatles get together and start jamming, this sequel is the Magical Mystery Tour where the gang go from smash to smash, from one beautifully choreographed and clever set-piece to another. The action is constant — but that doesn’t, at all, mean you’re in for two and a half hours of things going CLANG! No sir, this is rock and roll revelry.

Because this is Whedon we’re talking about. Because in the middle of this mad comicbook epic, Iron Man and Captain America have a stare-down that is straight out of a Spaghetti Western, complete with the background score playfully riffing on Ennio Morricone. Because in a nightmarish sequence, a young Black Widow learns ballet and a tyrannical Julie Delpy, of all people, takes her apart. Because we see Banksy-like Iron Man graffiti all over a country that resents the Stark weaponry that tore it to pieces. Because Thor still corners the brilliant women-of-science demographic. And because — perhaps above all else, if you think about it — because it’s clear Tony Stark is getting older and a lot of his lines are now slightly pathetic bits of that’s-what-Stark-said innuendo.

It doesn’t show, mostly. It doesn’t show because of Robert Downey Jr and his majestically timed dry delivery and his ever-arched eyebrows — you can hear them bend even when he isn’t on screen and a couple of syllables hit us from afar, over the colossal noise of cities falling to the ground — and the wonderfully infectious glee with which he plays Tony as if his last name were Snark. But Iron Man knows the good times can’t last, and that he’s falling behind. There’s even a tiny pang of resentment in his voice when he says Captain America is the boss, the team-leader. Maybe that’s what leads him — and fellow scientist Bruce Banner — to create something that could save the world from the aliens, something that could think better than humans can. But you know as well as I do, fellow moviegoer, that stories about artificial intelligence don’t end well.

Thanks to Whedon, this one doesn’t even begin well. Ultron, a sentient intelligence voiced with sinister coolth by James Spader, starts off attacking the Avengers and continues to wreak havoc throughout the film: to save humanity you must first destroy humanity, and all that jazz. The Avengers disagree and there lies our film, a stunningly paced rollercoaster ride with such constant crescendo-ing — guitar solo after guitar solo, those lovely action scenes are — that it flies by quicker than we expect. It almost feels short, this huge hulk of a film. One badass moment shows up to trump another, and another. And so it soars, occasionally held aloft even by characters who are, improbably enough, just a day old.

avengers2Chris Evans — following the excellent Winter Soldier — now wields the Captain America shield with impressive nobility; Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is underused but charming, mildly oafish but in the most awe-inspiring way; Jeremy Renner gets a lot to do as Hawkeye, from self-deprecatory monologues to pep speeches; new kids Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver are fun enough despite shaky Soviet-type accents, fittingly thunderstruck by the way the Avengers roll; and, finally, we have the film’s best performers, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, kicking ass in style, sure, but crucially making their characters work wonderfully together, two terrific actors playing off each other and even turning cliches — like an inappropriately timed bit of affection — into fantastic moments.

And, as in the first Avengers film, this movie lies in those moments. I won’t give much away for there is lots to discover here, big dramatic revelations as well as small nuggets to keep both casual viewers and hardcore fans very happy indeed, but there is one specific bit of casting I feel the need to single out here and applaud: for a certain portion of the film the Avengers spend time with a pregnant woman, and Whedon — oh TV-faithful Firefly-maker Whedon — casts the lovely Linda Cardellini in this role, in the goofiest of nods: who better to be surrounded by all these freaks and geeks?

Is this Avengers sequel, you and I both wonder, better than the first film? It might be and it might not. I like it more, but it doesn’t seem as universally inclusive as the first film miraculously was, but, hey, that doesn’t matter — neither of them is the the best Marvel film anymore. The goalposts have moved in the last three years, and the spaced-out weirdness of Guardians Of The Galaxy and the old-school political intrigue of Captain America: Winter Soldier — not to mention the grown-up grit of the Daredevil TV series — are where the bar now lies. The Avengers may not still be the best, but they are what let Marvel create the best and most ambitious comic movies. Just like Stan “The Man” Lee didn’t create everything amazing at the House Of Ideas, Whedon isn’t spearheading all that is special at the House of Mouse. But it is the house Joss “The Boss” Whedon built.

I called that first Avengers hit a hero-sandwich, and this is certainly dessert. I, for one, still haven’t been able to wipe the pixie-dusted grin off my face. It does what the best summer blockbusters do, the larger-than-life megamovies that drop our jaws in theatres: it indulges our fantasies and makes kids out of us again, kids who want to play with our toys and who have fun watching the director play with his. (If in doubt, just leave a giant hammer outside the theatre exit and see who doesn’t try to pull at it.)

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron may well be a mainstream milkshake of a film, but it is one of those madly indulgent shakes — featuring Snickers bars and dark chocolate sauce and gourmet coffee and spiked with a few swallows of something decidedly adult. Something that’ll keep you giggling and energised and awake far longer than it should.

As Tony Stark would say about thousand-year-old whiskeys, drink up.

Rating: 4 stars


First published Rediff, April 23, 2015

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