Avengers: Endgame — The Spoiler-Free Review

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What is an epic? To silence any doubters, Avengers: Endgame features a grand sequence modelled on one of cinema’s most iconic and revered scenes. A man wearing a red cloak commands torrential waters to make way, unmistakably invoking Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. And even this massive shot is easy to miss. Capping off 21 films of varying quality and candied spectacle, Endgame feels monumental. This is the big tent, the big finish, the Cecil B De Marvel. Thou best not blink.

Even from the House Of Ideas, this feels preposterous: An interconnected ‘cinematic universe’ spread across more than ten years and double that many films, tying into one another regardless of aesthetic/genre/protagonists, hurtling toward the same conclusion. The lazy comparison parallells the Marvel films to a 22-episode season of (monstrously loud) television, but the truer one is that of a comic-book crossover event, where different artists and writers grapple with varied characters across surroundings, style, and many, many books, to build to the same glorious splash-pages. The ambition is daft, given how promptly, and inexorably superhero movies can crash. And it is mad-scientist crazy to start with Iron Man, a hero barely known outside the pages.

Yet here we are. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Endgame is a triumph of storytelling that not only sticks the landing, but makes the journey worthwhile. The mastery lies in the way it makes all the films before itself count. All of them.

I detested Avengers: Infinity War. It was relentlessly dour, lacked imaginative flair, and tried to manipulate the audience’s emotions in the most blatant and soap-operatic of ways. The final moment — where half the universe’s population crumbled to dust with a snap of the fingers — played out like a gimmick instead of the elegy it deserved to be, because we saw characters ‘die’ while knowing they would get their own movies next summer. As a film, it rang shallow, exploitative of its now-hardcore audience. The gasps felt as canned as a laugh-track.

It may now be said Endgame almost required Infinity War to be mediocre — a tedious assignment comic-book writers fight not to get, one they have to get done with before the final push — because all that portentousness needed to be out of the way. It has been given meaning now. Quite simply, Endgame shows how little it matters if we, the viewers, consider The Snap to be inconsequential, a mere sleight of cosmic hand. What matters is what it puts the characters through. As with affairs of the heart, the wrung mean more than the wringer.

Endgame opens with a minor hero who sees his world vanish, and we see the consequences of that ghastly snap ring out across the world. Families and futures, loves and lives have all been halved. Solemn tributes to those evaporated in the event stand like monoliths in city centres, like bricks turned on their sides, looking like a cross between the Holocaust memorials in Berlin and the freestanding blocks of Stonehenge.

The Avengers are not as we know them. Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow, sobs into hastily made peanut-butter sandwiches. Thor’s ethereal kingdom of Asgard is now a fishing village. The gloss has fallen off the world.

Yet the Marvel spirit lives on, indomitably. For a movie this emotional and with stakes so towering, Endgame is astonishingly thrilling and clever. It is dead serious, even profound, but irrepressible and witty, propelled by the buoyancy of the very best comic books. And by an abiding love of the movies we have held all these years. This feels as if it was made by people who care about the characters as much as we do.

This is Marvel proclaiming that ‘fanservice’ is not a dirty word. Loyalists are rewarded for their attention. Endgame repeatedly harkens back to the films that have come before — sometimes predictably, always affectionately — even looking back at some clumsy, unloved ones. There are self-aware nods to the comics and intelligent shifts in perspective: for our heroes, yes, but also for us. One scene, for instance, takes us back to one of the grooviest Marvel music moments, but lets us witness it from afar, showing a self-declared hero groove to a track he can hear but others can’t, making him look as silly as he is. This may be a film about Earth’s Mighty Avengers, but its heart and its heroes, as one character is derisively called, are regular-sized.

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The actors are key. Over the years, some of us have groaned at seeing the finest actors end up in Marvel movies, consigned to spandex and silliness instead of worthier drama, but this is where it pays off as these extraordinary performers demonstrate just how much they have made us care — and how much they care. The core Avengers performers Scarlett Johannson, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo do the lifting in Endgame, and while one would usually complement them on making it look effortless, here it works the other way around: it is impressive how heavy they make it feel. We knew there would be many moving pieces, we didn’t realise they’d be this moving.

Has satisfaction ever seemed this exhilarating? I can’t remember when a film felt this larger-than-life as well as this personally crafted, like a film made exclusively for my truly believing self. I imagine this may have been how Star Wars fans felt watching The Empire Strikes Back the first time, every box ticked, every desire surpassed. I teared up half a dozen times, and not because of sadness, but overcome with the contentment of a comic-book moment done immaculately, goosebumpily right. Remember when The Joker did that magic trick with the pencil? Or when Mary Jane Watson told Peter Parker to go get ‘em? This may not be Marvel’s best film, but it boasts of more Moments than ’em all.

Here’s the thing: I knew what would come and guessed who would leave us, many of us did, and yet Endgame makes the audience feel fortunate. As viewers gratefully watch this film over and over, I hope it makes some of them realise how little spoilers matter. (Remember that the comic-books where Superman died were advertised, loud and proud, as the comic-books where Superman died.)

There is much to discuss and even debate about Endgame — not least its problematic desire for catharsis bloodlust, with an iconically friendly character disturbingly activating ‘Instant Kill’ mode on his suit — but this is a review without spoilers, and there is only that much nudging and winking to be done around details. There will be another piece in a couple of days where I dive into plot and character specifics, and I must compel myself to stop for now. I can do this all day, you know.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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Oscars 2017: The 9 Best Picture nominees, ranked

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The Oscar race has been run.

The votes have been cast and the envelopes are sealed. I’ve speculated enough about each category — actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and director  and made predictions, but let’s take a closer look at the biggest envelope of all. Regardless of who actually wins.

The 89th annual Academy Awards nominated nine feature films for the Best Picture award this year. Here, in ascending order, is my ranking of these nominees.

9. Lion

A sweet true story about a child finding his way home, this simple and linear Garth Davis film is single-handedly made special by wonderful child-star Sunny Pawar.

Read review here.

8. Hidden Figures

An inspirational film about the trials and tribulations faced by brilliant black women at NASA during the space race, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures proves that movies about math can be genuinely exciting.

Read review here.

7. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson returns to form with this powerful World War II film about a conscientious objector, played compellingly by Andrew Garfield.  A film both spectacular and sincere.

6. Manchester By The Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful study of grief puts the viewer through the wringer. A difficult but worthy film, Manchester By The Sea rests on the able shoulders of a striking lead performance from Casey Affleck.

5. Fences

Take a bow, Denzel Washington. This adaptation of the August Wilson play arguably features the best acting all year. The popular criticism that the film is too much like a stage-play rings shallow when you see how magnificently nuanced the performances are.

4. Moonlight

An exquisitely shot and evocative triumph, Moonlight is a fine and fractured narrative about a fine and fractured protagonist. This Barry Jenkins film is lyrical, poetic and intentionally slow — like the gaps between changing songs in a jukebox.

Read review here.

3. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a modern masterpiece, a visionary work of filmmaking that expands on a science-fiction short story by repeatedly asking the most elegantly logical questions. When the aliens ask to be taken to our leader, how will we understand them? This film, in a way a film about the very idea of language, tries to give us a way forward.

2. Hell Or High Water

Thanks to technology, neo-westerns look tastier, hotter and more textured than ever. And yet David Mackenzie’s Hell Or High Water — a mouthwatering film where every other frame can be hung up on the wall like a painting — stands head and shoulders above others in the genre, including the Coens’ No Country For Old Men. At once immediately thrilling as well as deceptively profound, this is a film to love.

1. La La Land

Speaking of love… Damien Chazelle’s throwback to old Hollywood musicals is an exultant magic trick, a film that shows us love and longing while giving us songs to soar with.

It’s all very well to draw a line of reference between Chazelle’s film and Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but — blasphemy and bad editorials be damned — the truth is that Chazelle’s film is a greater accomplishment and a finer film, working on more levels and giving us something that is both more satisfying as well as more challenging. Unravel it over and over again.

This is the film that deserves to define 2016.

Read review here.

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Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon

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She doesn’t want to sit on his lap.

Miss Julia is enraged, and all her billionaire boyfriend Russi Billimoria does — as the man in charge, her lover, her producer —  is slap the inside of his left thigh, inviting his tigress to clamber aboard so he can make it all better. She seethes while he smugly and knowingly slaps his goddamn thigh, like a particularly unctuous Krishna. Julia wants to defy him but dare not, and she cycles through her fury, before, in her own way, showing as much non-compliance as may be mustered. She does indeed go to him and allow herself to be patted down and placated, but she perches on his right thigh instead.

Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film, is his loudest and largest, a period drama that blasts off with an impressive, immersive war sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in something by Christopher Nolan. It is also, by some degree, his most accessible film, one that leans less on metaphor and symbolism and more directly on plot. The emotions are overt, the triggers are obvious, the fundamentals spoonfed to the audience more than Bhardwaj usually does, but the world he conjures is stunning. This is a barnstormer, but one made with superlative craftsmanship.

This is also Bhardwaj’s own gleeful riff on what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds — it is a film where the Indian auteur uses a thicker paintbrush to earn a grander canvas for him to draw out his own wishfully revisionist historical fiction. Subhash Chandra Bose’s revolutionary Indian National Army features prominently in this pre-Independence wartime saga, with Bhardwaj himself unforgettably singing the Azad Hind Fauj anthem, Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as rewritten by Bose.

That, however, is later. First, as movie posters of the day used to promise, come the “Thrills! Chills! Spectacle!”, and rightfully so. The year is 1943, and while Indian soldiers fighting under the British flag are being imprisoned by the Japanese Army, a young girl known for her stuntwork is making waves as India’s most popular cinematic attraction. Miss Julia is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition, a bright and beguiling cauliflower-haired sensation who swings from chandeliers, runs across tops of trains, and fights off pirates with swashbuckling flair. With her black eyemask and trim figure, she may as well be called the Lean Ranger.

It is this magnificent sideshow-attraction who swallows her pride (in a way that she probably can swords) for Russi, a one-armed magnate who was once, like her, an action hero doing his own stunts. He now finances the movies, and is seduced by the idea of an Army tour for his staggeringly popular Miss Julia, one where she can go boost Army morale and help protect his chummy camaraderie with the British.

The best laid plans, as we know, don’t belong in the movies. This seemingly innocuous idea leads to wartorn bloodshed and revolutionary chaos, even as a boy and a girl fall in love while another boy looks on. Sides are chosen and betrayed, and many a promise is broken. The film is shot exceptionally well by Pankaj Kumar, mounted on a grand scale with finesse we in India are not used to, and some of the shots — like one swirling up the inside of a grand old theatre, or the aerially shot war-sequences — are glorious. All this while Bhardwaj treats his film like a libretto, using songs with pointedly prickly Gulzar lyrics to underscore the narrative.

Billimoria is a terrific character, a posturing prince who can’t resist the grandiloquent gesture. Played by Saif Ali Khan, he comes across as an impeccably-heeled dandy intoxicated by his own insistence on his own power. Early in the film, Julia — repeating Billimoria’s creed that the British are the best bosses for India — is teased for being Russi’s parrot, and, much later, Billimoria declares his love for Julia by saying she is the one within whom his life is imprisoned — much like a parrot safeguarding an ogre’s life in an ancient tale.

This idea of helplessness in love is what drives the love triangle in Rangoon, which sees all concerned parties nonchalantly express their lack of choice and resign all agency in the matter. This may perhaps be why, even though the film has strong chemistry, the romance is less heady than it is matter of fact: we’re supposed to take the characters’ word for it. They are in love because they say they are, and who are they to answer why? The heart — bloody hell — wants what it wants.

‘Is there anything greater than sacrificing one’s life?’ the characters ask. ‘Yes,’ answers the film. ‘Yes. That who is worth dying for.’

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Living on the brink of death is Nawab Malik, a valiant Jamadar in the Indian Army with his focus unwavering from his mission. Until, that is, Julia enters and mud-wrestles his concentration to the ground. A righteous man drawn to an impossible lover — one who can throw knives and tantrums with equal panache — he is flummoxed by this woman who declares herself untouchable but whom he must hold close. Shahid Kapoor is perfect as Malik, duty-bound and clipped and proper even when barking orders in Japanese, giving this film a much-needed war footing.

Other castmembers worth applauding include Saharsh Shukla as Zulfi, Julia’s fiercely loyal make-up man who risks his life to save her bags, and Tony-winning British actor Richard McCabe as the shayari-spouting Brit commander, Harding. At one point, McCabe practices ghazals on a harmonium and, his mouth meticulously curling around beautiful words he loves so obviously, the scene reminded me of Chhabi Biswas and his singular obsession in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.

This isn’t likely to be a coincidence, for few things happen by chance in Bhardwaj movies. This one was originally conceived over a decade ago as an action movie about a Miss Julia — a Fearless Nadia-esque foreign superstar — who rode roughshod across Indian imaginations, and was set to star the one and only Uma Thurman. Now, many years on and in a different version of the film, with another actress having made the part entirely her own, Billimoria still calls Julia ‘kiddo’ — which just happens to be Thurman’s last name in the Kill Bill films.

Kangana Ranaut is Julia — jagraati Julia, Julia worth staying nights up for, announce the lyrics as we meet her — and the actress is extraordinary as she rides and throws and dances with aplomb in what is physically an immensely demanding part. Ranaut looks like she knows how to actually crack a whip instead of just hurl one around, and acquits herself admirably in old-world stuntwoman sequences, all the while playing the part with enough vulnerability and insecurity to mark Julia out as a confused girl who doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. Ranaut is lovely where she teases her friend in the back of a car or where she begs half-heartedly for mercy when pinned down by her lover, and despite so much going on in Rangoon, Bhardwaj and Ranaut make sure the film acts also as a coming-of-age story for Julia.

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That said, this isn’t the filmmaker at his finest. The film feels longer than it is, some of the songs interfere with the too-meaty plot, and the romance never feels as soul-stirring as I assume it was intended to. The climax is a bit of a tightrope walk that culminates in a fair few near-misses, and ends on a rather regrettable misstep.

Yet it is impossible to look away. Rangoon haunts in unlikely fashion and, while the director’s most straightforward picture, holds enough of its own marvels to justify multiple viewings. Like a song-and-dance troupe trampling all over a map of Europe to tell their own fractured, misguided jokes, or an old man cosily swilling wine after having faked his own death, Rangoon may be direct but it is never obvious. As the credits used to say back in the day at the close of a spectacular film, “Remember, it’s a Vishal Bhardwaj creation.”

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, February 23, 2017

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Review: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures

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The coffee is in a different pot.

The year is 1961, and nervous mathematician Katherine Johnson is an exceptionally bright woman assigned to NASA’s Space Task Group. Here, in a world of white men wearing detergent-commercial white shirts and grey pants and thin neckties, she feels like an anomaly. An anomaly who has to walk a couple of miles to go to the restroom for colored women, and one who — as mentioned — is given a different pot to drink her coffee out of.

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells us about the crucial contributions made by female African-American mathematicians at NASA during the Space Race, and, as the more effective of these films are wont to do, it does its eye-opening slowly.

It starts off shakily, for example. We see a young child picking out shapes from a stained glass door — “Isosceles, scalene, equilateral, rhombus, trapezoid,” are young Katherine’s first on-screen words — and drawing dodecahedrons before nodding determinedly from behind thick glasses. We are lectured on her prodigious mathematical talent, and the music swells in overwrought fashion as the opening titles begin. These montage-y starts to films always remind me of the “Previously on” sections on TV dramas, and that rarely bodes well. Over the next fifteen or so minutes, I became convinced I was watching a well-meaning film made without personality. Like a Ron Howard film, say, minus the secret sauce that makes his films so darned watchable.

Then, around the time Katherine discovered her coffee pot, I realised how strong this movie really is. It gives us a linear narrative with immensely predictable storytelling beats, certainly, but that simplistic unfolding lets us pay attention to the segregated details and the remarkable heroines the film celebrates. The actresses — the phenomenal Taraji P Henson as Katherine, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy and Janelle Monae (who is having a particularly amazing season) — are magnificent, and despite the schmaltz and simplicity of the narrative, their vibrance and character wins us over. I’d rather watch these immensely cool women perform mathematical heroics than Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game or Russell Crowe in Howard’s own A Beautiful Mind. Make no mistake, these minds are beautifuller.

Melfi’s unspectacular, solid storytelling consistently makes room for flavour — at one point the heat is illustrated beautifully by Pharell’s song, Runnin, which goes “Summertime in Virginia was an oven, all the kids eating ice cream with their cousins…” — and for inspiration. This was 1961, and the segregation — at a place like NASA, for God’s sake — was horrific. “Well, that’s NASA for you,” sighs a weary supervisor, played by the appropriately pale Kirsten Dunst. “Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”

It is this slowness that affects the entire space program, something noticed by Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group. Harrison is played by a gruff and wonderful Kevin Costner, an actor who constantly makes stakes seem to matter. The Russians lead the space race and he can’t stomach the idea that they might be smarter or more committed than his own men. They may, however, be less racist — and that is something he realises can surely get in the way.

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The film is about three women — even though Katherine’s is the story firmly at the centre — and thus serves also as a story of support and sisterhood, about the way determined people seek out and form their own little communities regardless of odds. Soon after the opening credits, we meet these three distinct ladies around a stalled automobile. Katherine’s trying to start the car, Mary’s perched on the trunk, checking her makeup, and Dorothy’s lying under the car, trying to make it go. The dynamics are very clear, as is their thrill when a policeman offers to escort them to NASA. Mary takes the wheel and sticks the car firmly on the heels of the cop car, and as the other girls wonder why, she explains the rarity — and importance — of a moment in 1961 with three black women chasing a police car.

Hidden Figures tells us a genuinely inspirational story in obvious fashion, and is buoyed by the performances all around. Henson is remarkable as Katherine, creating an unassuming, professional hero for the ages. At one point, a gent is perplexed that women get to do such “heavy” theoretical lifting at NASA, and she snaps into quickwitted anger. Women do work, she emphasises. “It’s not because we wear skirts,” she says, a half-smile appearing on her face as she realises the cleverness of her freshly conceived retort, “it’s because we wear glasses.” Bravo.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Chris McKay’s The Lego Batman Movie

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There are many Batmen.

Detective. Dark Knight. Dancer.

Father-figure. Fascist. Flirt.

Teacher. Troublemaker. Terrorist.

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939, the crimefighting vigilante has had a varied and sprawling mythology. With many a writer and filmmaker desperate to leave their own stamp on the shadowy character, the years have seen him turned into a simultaneous embodiment of both ridicule and high cool. Classic superheroes usually stick to their personality type, but Bats has often had his very disposition overhauled — enough to make him the most schizophrenic of superheroes.

The Lego Batman Movie takes this head on. Unlike other Bat movies that singled out aspects of his psyche, this delirious little film by Chris McKay aims for the entire utility belt and goes for them all. It’s frantic, it’s dynamic, it’s self-referential and clever and cheerful, but, most importantly, as Batman says, it bets on black. Like no movie before it. It’s every Batman.

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It also bets on Bojack. The film opens with the word “Black” said on a black screen as Will Arnett, who voices the superhero, speaks of important movies starting with black screens, wonders aloud why Warner wouldn’t just say Brothers instead of saying “Bros” on their logo, approves of the “macho” logo for RatPac production… all this before the film has started.

This moment feels like watching the opening of This Is Spinal Tap with the DVD commentary on — and that, to me, is the highest conceivable praise. Arnett, who miraculously brings alive Bojack Horseman on Netflix, perhaps the most messed up animated character in television history, is an overwhelmingly fine choice for this screwy part. Gravel-voiced and relentlessly self-celebrating, Arnett’s Batman is irresistible and imperious and oddly credible even when singing about how he does the sickest backflips.

This Batman sings as he works, glorifying himself as if he were also his own Bat-Minstrel, but — tellingly — he makes sure that even songs heralding his own awesomeness always leave room for a solo he obviously plays himself, be it a guitar solo or a beatboxing solo. This is a man who may be Elvis, but wants also to be every single Beatle.

He is also a man who, when faced by odds too towering, instructs his computer, quite simply, to “Overcompensate.”

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The film opens with The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) trying to assemble an all-star group of Bat-baddies, because he has a plan — a plan “better than the one with the two boats,” and the one with “the parade and the Prince music.” There is much mocking of gargantuan cinematic action set-pieces during this sequence as Lego blocks crash and tumble colourfully against each other, threatening to break Gotham City apart. Naturally, this plan is foiled by the adorable but insufferably smug Batman who then deals The Joker the cruellest blow.

Grandstanding as Batman’s greatest enemy, the Joker is told that he’s nothing of the sort. “I’m fighting a few different people,” Batman admits, an ever-so-slight sheepishness in his growl. “I like to fight around.” We watch The Joker’s heart break and, while the relationship jokes might seem juvenile, this soon develops into the most mature and compelling take on the Yin and Yang dynamic between Batman and The Joker that has been put on screen. Alan Moore, bearded writer of The Killing Joke and full-time loather of DC cinema, would be proud.

The film bravely and brilliantly offers other perceptive insights — like the way Batman has, over the years, ruined Gotham City instead of fixing it — and while there is much here to laugh at, there is also a lot that cuts deep. Batman would relate.

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The jokes are superb. This is stellar writing, better even than the Deadpool movie and — quite honestly — superior to what Frank Miller, who changed Bat-mythology forever with The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns, did with the world’s greatest detective. This film understands its hero. It has a masterful grip on the character and doesn’t let go, even as the odds ratchet unprecedentedly higher. Voldemort and Sauron show up, for God’s sake. Yet, impressively enough, for once, all the unbelievable climactic excess feels great. It feels earned, because of a rollicking non-stop plot, because of great characters, and it feels — exactly — like the explosion that took place when you and your friends used to bring every single toy to the same living room. It’s glorious.

I don’t want to give away any of the film’s joyous details and gags, but suffice it to say that Robin (Michael Cera), Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) are all excellently written and voiced. (I’d have called her Batgirl but, after the way Barbara cuts Batman down to size, I dare not.) This is a movie you should stumble into as unprepared as possible, and while you have already almost read this review to the end, let me reassure you that — as Batman says, aghast at the thought that someone could consider all his adventures finite — “I haven’t told you everything.”

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a Batman film we can love. We each have our favourites — and to me Tim Burton’s Batman edges out Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with the deft animated film The Mask Of The Phantasm sandwiched between the two — but what The Lego Batman Movie underlines is the fact that, despite differences in opinion, this is a truly iconic character and we must revel in his absolute awesomeness. This is a film about how we all — Batman included, obviously — love something about the Batman, and it celebrates every bit of it. Even the shark-repellent. The magic lies in all those bricks coming together with a profoundly satisfying click.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

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The cinematographer shines the brightest in Moonlight. The film by Barry Jenkins is a soulful and evocative work of motion picture poetry, performed by fine actors and with a musical score that keeps things heartbreakingly dreamy, but what cinematographer James Laxton brings to the table is the most special of all. Based on Tarrell McRaney’s gorgeously named play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film features young black men, dominating black men, confused black men and romantic black men filled with yearning, and Laxton amps up the contrast ratio to make their skins gleam.

The film is shot as if the main character Chiron has a camera for an imaginary friend. It perches near his shoulder and, wordlessly, gives us a sense of what this blessedly silent protagonist might be feeling. The camera keeps pace with him, running when it needs to, but mostly — and importantly — floating around him, shooting him in slow-motion except it isn’t slow motion. It is, merely and exquisitely, soft.

Yet the world captured is a hard one and the skin we see brilliant and shining, lambent with a proud distinctiveness, while the glaringly high contrast bleaches out the over-sunny Miami backdrop even as it brings Chiron and his people into sharper focus. Poetry, like I said.

We get to know Chiron three times, across three age-demarcated chapters of his life — Little, Chiron and Black — and these are the three names he earns for himself at three distinct times. We see a confused young man come of age and find his way and lose his way and, gradually, grow into his own. He comes to accept not just the potentially blue colour of his skin but his own sexuality. It is achingly tender, and Jenkins lets the film wash over us in linear fashion, letting us sense and smell and feel Chiron and his awakening, letting us, too, long for a midnight swim.

It stretches, as some poems do, too long, and Jenkins is as besotted with the brittle world he captures and his fragile protagonist — played marvellously by Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, over the years — as he means for us to be. Each chapter opens with an immediate indication of where the narrative will head, and this constant narrative inevitability, married to the film’s languorous pace, makes for something both beautiful and dull. Jenkins lists Wong Kar-Wai as a lasting influence on his work, and while we see echoes of that masterful cinematic lyricist here, Kar-Wai’s rhymes are born almost entirely out of the unexpected. Jenkins creates moments you can picture before you see them, but they are, nevertheless, frequently worth a sigh.

The performances are mostly fine, led by Mahershala Ali as a tender crack dealer and Janelle Monae as his flawless girlfriend, yet as I write about them I realise how singular, just how one-note, each character is. This is, I believe, by design. Each supporting character in this film has but one role in Chiron’s life, and they each play that very part while the boy in the centre grows into a man, fed on those specific, vital aspects. He is a spectacularly quiet protagonist, internalising these notes around him and taking them all in. Like the film, he is made whole by fragments. Unfortunately, this approach also leads to some shortchanging for some of the actors involved, and Naomie Harris, as a strung-out junkie mother ends up playing her part in a melodramatic pitch jarring to the rest of Moonlight.

For Moonlight is, above all, a plea. It is a wish and a dream, telling us that nothing in life — and indeed, no life — is beyond bliss, and that all it takes is a bit of jukebox serendipity and, most important of all, the right shoulder to live on and nest in. The moon may or may not be a balloon, as ee cummings unforgettably wondered, yet all that matters is that everyone’s in love and flowers pick themselves.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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DJ Caruso’s xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage

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One has to feel at least a bit sorry for Vin Diesel. Diesel, following franchises like xXx and The Fast And The Furious represented a new kind of mainstream action hero: a lunkheaded leading man, a swiss-army-knife of brains and brawn. He’d rappel down the skyscraper, punch out a squad of guys, and get the last word in edgeways. However Diesel was always hard to watch if his script included more than three words of dialogue — with three words he is, as we know, immaculate — and was soon overtaken at his own game by such big-screen titans as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, a man with enough screen presence and swagger to make the universe giggle.

Now Diesel looks like the me-too player, and nowhere as cool as the big guy. If he was a rapper he’d be called Little Dwayne.

xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage is one of those obviously harebrained actioners, a film that isn’t scripted as much as enacted out with action figures. However, just like diverse communities are thrilled to see racially diverse Barbie dolls that represent them better, we here have Deepika Padukone stepping up as the edgy tough desi who wears dominatrix boots on a beach, shoots straight and — this must be said — talks like she wants a job at the Kwik-E-Mart.

Padukone always spoke differently from her peers. In an old profile, I had singled out the way she “pronounces her apostrophes,” and in her Hollywood debut, the actress — who has enough screen presence to drown in — turns up both the heat and the accent. Out West she’s evidently chosen to amp up her exoticity, and this might not be a bad move. Her character Serena is basically a Bondgirl.

Which is why it’s a shame this kickassery takes place in a film that exists purely in manservice, a film so beholden to its leading man that not just do dozens of women throw themselves voluntarily on the oaf, but bad guys have trouble slagging him off. At one point someone with a gun to his head insults him by calling him — um — “Hero.” Everything comes up Diesel so often in this film I was wondering what would happen if a Bollywood-pampered actor like, say, Ajay Devgn watched it, not least because Diesel and Padukone have a scene showing each other various lion tattoos. Playing SinghamSingham, basically.

The film is a string of stunts, and if you haven’t watched an xXx film before, dear, lucky reader, suffice it to say that it’s like one of Akshay Kumar’s endless string of Khiladi movies save for the charismatic hero and the annoyingly catchy songs. Diesel’s Xander is a daredevil who knows it all, having gotten his start zipping around being cool on a skateboard — like a follicly challenged McFly.

Now, he and various other talents apparently too cool for jailtime, must save the world and take orders from — you guessed it — Samuel L Jackson.

Starting up, I thought this xXx might actually be a breeze, thanks to the one and only Toni Collette channeling Posh Spice to play the villain, but she’s weighed down by a 3D film where unmemorable action sequences drown out her superbly sardonic eyebrow tilts. While on the 3D, it shamefully renders Donnie Yen’s blindingly cool fight scenes redundant, since even though the actor is doing ‘em for real, they feel computer generated and synthetic.

If you are a Padukone loyalist, watch it for her. Watch it for her on a bigger canvas than she’s been on, and for an Australian actress named Ruby Rose, who looks lethal the way only those with turquoise-tinged hair can, and for the two of them going down a hallway with guns in hand, badass girls going full metal Contra. There are times when director DJ Caruso’s camera seems to stare too long at Padukone, and at the intensity in her fiery eyes. Can’t blame him. It might not be a fine film, but our Badass Indian Barbie did good in this cheesy action-figure extravaganza. Diesel just gets in the way — probably because Padukone is electric.

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 13, 2017

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