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Review: David Ayer’s Suicide Squad

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Remember how the iPod changed the way we shared music? We used to carry around a tape or a CD and play someone a track or two, but when we started easily (and indiscriminately) lugging around our entire vaults, the temptation to jump from one track to another got too intense. We’d play a slice of one and a riff from another, skipping restlessly from song to song in order to spread what we felt was awesome — and show off our discovering ears — as widely as we could.

Watching David Ayer’s Suicide Squad feels exactly like being trapped in an elevator with an enthused iPod-wielding kid. This is less an actual movie and more an assemblage of moments, moments mostly to do with popular music appropriated around shots of spectacle, with every single damned scene trying to hit a crescendo of cool and the film, thus, failing to find any peaks at all.

(This montage-y, music-video method of filmmaking would hurt a great deal less if Ayer’s playlist was less obvious — and less literal — for here the filmmaker underscores the entry of a badass with Sympathy For The Devil, a getting-together of seven villains with Seven Nation Army, and the return of a character with Eminem’s Without Me, a song that keeps repeating the words “Look who’s back.” It’s plain moronic to have Freddie Mercury trilling “Mama, I just killed a man” while serial killers and psychopaths try to look forlorn.)

Suicide Squad is a promising comic book idea, that of an exploitative government program to rehabilitate supervillains by turning them into an expendable, nothing-to-lose team sent into the stickiest situations. It is the kind of unlikely, motley crew story that should end up, if not somewhere striking between Ocean’s Eleven and The Holy Mountain, then, at the very least, somewhere goofily enjoyable like The Italian Job remake. The idea, of course, is basically The Dirty Dozen done with metahumans or whatever the comics are calling them nowadays, but Ayer’s film gets the fundamentals horribly wrong.

What Suicide Squad does get right is Harley Quinn, one of the coolest women in comics. It could have done without the many, many leering shots of her spandexed and barely-covered posterior — and how I wish they would have stuck to the classic Harley costume — but the looney-tune lunacy of the character is animatedly captured by the striking Margot Robbie. Robbie, who enters the film confessing boredom and asking to be played with, is marvellously off her rocker, contorts her mouth into distractingly anime grins, and creates a character that is all sass and unpredictability — and, of course, undying romance for her peculiar paramour.

Where, indeed, would Ms Quinn be without Mistah J? (The film takes its time spelling it all out for us. The first half-hour of this movie is entirely dossiers-and-flashbacks, clumsily thrown at us as if we had walked into something called Backstory Brigade.) In a film supposedly about all-star bad guys, there’s only one we all know. The Joker is among the most iconic villains in all of fiction, and here we have Jared Leto take a stab. His take — as a preening and tattooed gangster who doesn’t shake hands — slithers and hisses, but doesn’t deserve mention alongside the greats before him. His immensely-discussed ‘insane preparations’ for this role seem flummoxing: he went method on the sets and harassed his co-stars with used-condoms for this? A role Johnny Depp or Jim Carrey could knock out in their sleep? Please.

There is, though, one gorgeous shot these two raving, reckless romantics share. They take turns diving heedlessly into a vat of acid, for love. A fall with grace.

That is the only grace you’ll find in Suicide Squad. Will Smith, as the assassin Deadshot and the de-facto leader of the team, is in fine form as he negotiates terms-for-hire — including a clause saying that when his daughter is sent to an Ivy League college and if her grades aren’t great, he needs the government to “white-people that thing” — but despite his effortless swagger, the coolness of Smith’s character is often undercut by nobility.

That, actually, is a perplexing problem running through this tone-deaf film: the idea that these slimy villains would suddenly, overnight, bond like brothers and start prizing their unlikely new friendship over all else. The film starts with Viola Davis as the smugly all-knowing Amanda Waller, the government operative putting together this secret task force, and after that elaborate introduction, we see the guys go on one mission. One mission. There is no sense of urgency as these guys banter around changing into costumes old and new as a city is being torn up, and later, before the messy and inane Ghostbusters-y climax, they sit around at a bar hardly bothered about any ongoing damage. If the nihilism on display is to be applauded, it is also instantly squandered when these villains — armed by ninja swords and bad, bad dialogue — start celebrating the very idea of being buddies.

The only way this film is dark is because it’s set at night.

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There are too many characters and Ayer gets the juggle catastrophically wrong. Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress gets a neat black-hand-under-her-own-hand gimmick and embers flickering around her face that look good in 3D, but she also gets bizarrely varied accents during the finale, turning her into an increasingly bad joke. Jay Hernandez plays Diablo, a fire-summoner frequently (and somewhat confusingly) referred to as ‘a gangbanger’ to make him seem menacing, but he only ends up being unbearably emo. Karen Fukuhara’s Katana — one of the most lethal characters — here skulks around with her Soultaker blade only to repeatedly be told not to do anything. (When this girl gives up and chooses drink over duty, the slump of her shoulders is one we can relate to.)

Naturally, Batman shows up, growly and Afflecked and saved by a girl who I fervently hope is not named Martha. (Bats also features in a stunningly unnecessary mid-credits sequence, so if you do ill-advisedly go to theatres for this one, you may as well wait up.)

At one point in the film, Smith’s Deadshot shrugs off military jargon and says he wants it translated for “those of us who can’t speak good-guy.” Right about now, it’s becoming depressingly clear that the studios in charge of the DC Comics characters can’t speak good film.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, August 5, 2016

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Review: The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War

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“War, what is it good for?”

Despite the existential disgust expressed by Edwin Starr in that song all those years ago, there exist far too many affirmative answers to that question: it’s good for gunrunners, media outlets, separatists, posturing Presidential candidates and, clearly, for Marvel Studios — whose superheroes have never, ever looked better.

Why, though,  are earth’s mightiest heroes fighting each other in the first place?

The idea of critiquing collateral damage from battles in superhero movies, considering all the computer-rendered rubble and skylines toppling in 3D, is almost as old as the genre itself, with examples on every level of the quality spectrum — from The Incredibles to Batman V Superman — and the new Captain America film deals with the politics of this crisis. A Superhero Registration Act is proposed, with a United Nations squad to control if and when to deploy super-powered heroes. Considering that the Avengers can’t get through breakfast without an argument — or without some philistine pouring coffee grounds in the garbage disposal — it isn’t surprising that this leads to debate, but nobody quite anticipates an impasse this formidable.

Ding! In the red tights stands Tony Stark, Iron Man, the billionaire egomaniac who, after his own significant fumbles in the face of adversity, seems all too keen to relinquish responsibility and make superheroes answerable to a neutral body who, he trusts, should know better than, say, Earth’s Most Impulsive Heroes. In the star-spangled corner stands Steve Rogers, Captain America, a soldier who once socked Hitler and who feels that heroes should take responsibility for their own actions and, given governments and their contrary agendas, “obeying orders” may not always be the best course of action.

Heavy stuff to chew on, and while naturally avoiding the obsessive level of discourse favoured by the comics in Marvel’s Civil War series ten years ago — an eleven-issue series called Frontline, for example, featured two journalists locked in deep conversations about ethics, responsible reportage and the greater good — this film, after a fantastic opening action scene, does indeed feature a lot of serious talk.

Yet, preposterous as it may seem, this approach works wonderfully, thanks to the eight years and twelve films Marvel has released before this. Over the course of the last few years, characters — like Cap himself — have grown from stereotypes to heroes with fully-fleshed personalities with well-defined conflicts, paranoia and neuroses. Marvel’s men and women have always had issues, and we’ve seen their powers and weaknesses gradually come to light as they’ve struggled with inner demons and vanquished old fears — sometimes to replace them with new ones. We’ve met (most of) the gang, and this is the film where all those years of setup really pay off.

Here’s the deal: All the old Marvel films — Even the ones you’ve loved. Even the great superhero sandwich Joss Whedon made us. All the films before Captain America: Civil War are prologue.

We’ve seen earlier Marvel productions nail some or the other aspects of superhero movies, but this new film, by Joe and Anthony Russo, ticks all the boxes in astonishingly fine fashion. Every character’s presence is justified, every comic-trope used is deployed perfectly, and there is so much goddamned personality to the choices this film makes. Rarely do all the stars align this masterfully in a franchise, and, as a lifelong Marvel fanatic, I finally feel the way I imagine Star Wars fans would have done the first time they watched The Empire Strikes Back.

The film opens with a clothesline in Lagos, delivered by a metal wing. The badassery continues as Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow kicks serious butt, with the cinematographers keeping us perched close to the action. We’re following along because we can’t look away, and the action setpieces in this film are remarkably clear and, mostly set in broad daylight, free of shadowy ambiguity. The coherence is jawdropping, a result of the Russos calling in directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch — helmers of the kinetically ingenious, near-lyrical ultraviolence in John Wick — to help them shoot the fight scenes. It shows. Each sequence contains not merely a couple of gasp-worthy moments but also moments that define each individual superhero’s strengths and chinks. It’s all striking, a joy in IMAX 3D, and the big airport scene it all builds up to is a giddy masterpiece.

Yet, as you may imagine, it isn’t all fun and quips and mid-air backflips. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier of the previous films, continues to be haunted by his past, something Tony Stark sums up immaculately well by calling him the Manchurian Candidate. Ah, see? The seams are showing but in less obvious ways. Stark’s references are now dated, his ego bruised after the failure of Ultron, his lady Pepper has left him, at least for a while, and there is a desperation to his actions — even in the way he hits on Peter Parker’s “unusually attractive aunt.”

Robert Downey Jr has brought a lot to the Iron Man role, but while most films have stressed on his insouciance, this one shows us how bruised the wisecracker really is. It is a compelling, highly flawed character and this is the kind of performance that allows RDJ to dig deep and show off his solid acting chops. It is, thus, weird — and wonderful — to see him take a break from the action by sharing a couch with Marisa Tomei, who he once starred with in a lovely little film called Only You. He marvels at how good she looks, she — sexy as ever — tells us aunts “come in all shapes and sizes”, and Peter Parker gulps awkwardly, wondering what the heck is going on.

Oh yeah. That kid. You know Spider-Man is in this film, right? Well, he is and he’s phenomenal. Played by 19-year-old Tom Holland, this new fresh-faced Spidey is the whippersnapper we’ve always wanted and never quite gotten, and I refuse to spoil any of his moments. Suffice it to say that when this globetrotting film, which writes names of locations in boastfully large white type — in Futura, as if paying tribute to Wes Anderson, of all people — well, when the word “Queens” shows up across the screen, buckle up, because you’re in for something, well, Amazing.

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Like the directors, leading man Chris Evans, seemed bland during the first Captain America movie and winningly earnest in the second, but by this time, it feels impossible not to admire this version of the character. He is a big blue boyscout, sure — and there is a highly Superman moment involving his bicep and a chopper — but Cap is old-school in the best way. You might not care as much for his best buddy Bucky — I know I don’t — but Evans makes it clear that he cares, and that it’s personal to him. And willingly we believe. Similarly old-school is a new addition to the squad, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, a character so irresistibly magnetic he’ll immediately soar to the top of your list. Seriously, I can’t wait for his film to come out.

That’s what Captain America: Civil War does, using characters old and new with tremendous flair. Fan-favourite Avengers Thor and Hulk don’t show up, but I daresay they aren’t missed. (A hero I personally would have liked to add to the roster would be a composer as rollicking as this film is, one who would make use of the film’s many storytelling beats and the crescendo it builds up to. A certain Elf Man, if I may.) Johannson is, as always, a superlative Black Widow, here torn between Team Cap and Team Tony, but I’m particularly impressed by how well the Russos have used traditionally less-cool characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye finally feels life fun, while Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man has a delightful part, a guy utterly star-struck by Captain America only to later make everyone else gape at what he can do. Together, these two losers have my top comic-book moment of them all as Ant-Man, perched on the tip of Hawkeye’s arrowhead, slips through Iron Man’s fingers.

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Films about characters with rich and textured histories have a tough call in terms of clueing in new viewers and catering to True Believers, but the Russos manage this with an admirable lightness of touch that makes it clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the right hands. These guys get it, the characters and the spirit of the comics. Captain America: Civil War is a great ride even if you don’t read the comics or haven’t seen any of the older films.

Let’s lay it down in terms Captain America would approve of: You can applaud a home run even if you don’t watch baseball. If you do, you know how special it really is.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, May 6, 2016

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Review: Tim Miller’s Deadpool

deadpool1You’re wrong about Deadpool, you know.

Yes, you. I can see it as you start reading this review, smiling as you think you know what you’re in for. Think again. There are many kinds of films you may expect — as did I — but Deadpool, true to character, confounds. This is not an immature work consisting exclusively of pottymouthed juvenilia. This is not a work of subversion meant to restructure our concept of the superhero universe. Despite fanboy hyperbole, this is not the cleverest of superhero movies — and certainly not the most violent. Instead, in keeping with a pansexual protagonist and his frequent friskiness, it lands somewhere in the middle. Why choose a sphere when you can ream the damn venn diagram?

One thing I can say for sure is that you’ve never seen something like Deadpool.

This is weird. It feels as if the high-schooler from Superbad who was so good at drawing penises got a chance to make The Mask. The humour is feral and vicious and relentless, like an insecure stand-up comic desperately trying to be noticed at a roast. Everything gets filthy fast, and while the jokes might not all land, they come at you in ceaseless bursts of mostly juvenile shock humour: let’s call it a frat-a-tat-tat attack.

That works great because, if you’ve read the comics, you’ll know that Deadpool is annoying. Oh, I love him to bits, the pop-culture skewering freak, the perpetual smasher of the fourth wall, but to the larger Marvel Universe — to everyone around him — he’s a pest. There’s a reason nobody likes Deadpool (except Deadpool), and Ryan Reynolds nails the character’s self-made forcefield of farce. He jokes all the bloody time because, like a comedic shark (or, I daresay, Don Rickles in spandex), he can’t stop, he’s propelled by his own idiocy. Therefore, when the testicular jokes feel like they’re getting a bit much, well, they’re meant to. (Just like Wolverine, nudge nudge wink wink.)

That, however, is just part of it. Director Tim Miller and writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese take an unconventional hero and spin out a conventional superhero backstory — a doomed cancer-patient given a new, mutated lease of life — but the genius of Deadpool lies in the audacity of its storytelling. The film’s structure, which consists unprecedentedly of two primary scenes and a whole lot of flippantly-narrated flashback, is extraordinary. All genre rules are told to sod off. There is no world to be saved. The villain never seems like much of a threat. A hero who can’t be hurt — and who slices his own arm off while talking about 127 Hours. It’s pretty damned insane to consider this movie got made. (A verbose and narcissistic leading man whose story is told over two scenes? Are you kidding me, two scenes? What is this, the Marvel version of Steve Jobs?)

deadpool2Reynolds is smashing, visibly eager to keep things dirty, going on about Hugh Jackman’s cojones and Liam Neeson’s parenting skills, frequently looking at you and me to keep us up to speed: in a moment of brilliant self-awareness, he even breaks the sixteenth-wall. He’s matched by equally randy love interest Vanessa (Morena Baccarin of Firefly), a mindmeltingly foxy character who knows what she wants — especially on International Women’s Day — takes no nonsense, and is refreshingly far removed from a damsel in distress. Her final line, on discovering her beau’s grotesquely disfigured face, is a peach.

That’s it, tiger. I’d tell you more about the characters and quote my favourite lines, applaud the Monty Python references and all that jazz, but consider my lips stitched together. This is unmistakably a comic-book film, and some fun new X-Men show up, but you don’t need to know any more than the fact that this film really earns its exclamation marks. Discover all that rude cheek on your own and revel in the surprise. And, like dick-in-a-box, it’s all surprise. Wham!

Rating: 4 stars

PS: The Indian censors have cruelly sliced off many a swearword in this delightfully profane film and replaced shots of nudity they think Indian adults can’t handle. My suggestion to you, my rightfully outraged friend, is to look up the postal address for the Central Board Of Film Certification and mail them an envelope full of talcum-powder, marked ‘Anthrax?’ Don’t forget the question-mark, now, it’s what makes it ‘funny.’ Deadpool would agree.

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First published Rediff, February 12, 2016

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Review: Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man

Some superheroes have the same problems we do.

The tiny Ant-Man and his equally puny adversary, Yellowjacket, rattle around waging war locked inside a briefcase and one of them trampolines against an iPhone’s home-button while saying the words “I’m going to disintegrate you.” Siri, confounding in that sweet, untimely way of hers, decides to obey an unsaid command and plays Disintegration, by The Cure. Bravo.

Over the last few years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has buffed the superhero story into a squeaky-clean template, but the blockbuster goalposts keep moving. At a time when we’re coming alive to the cheeky action stylings of Kingsman and the exposition-free awesomeness of Mad Max Fury Road, can an Ant-Man movie drop our jaw and make us say wow? No. So, no, we don’t care if honey, you shrunk the superhero, and no, we don’t fear a supervillain best sized to ruin picnics. The wow simply will not happen.

The good thing is that Marvel knows it, and thus hands us a surprisingly slack and refreshingly modest superhero film. Paul Rudd, who we love ever since he crushed on his blonde stepsister in Clueless two decades ago, is the incredibly unlikely man in the suit. The entire film is a deliciously old-school heist picture — the kind of heist film where Roy Ayers’ Escape theme from Coffy kicks in every time plans are being hatched, in fact.

It is also rather unmistakably a heist film mostly for children, and thus a film that is never clever enough to be genuinely surprising or enjoyable. There are moments of fleeting fun — including toys blown up to larger-than-life size, and Michael Douglas digitally retouched to look so young you feel Sharon Stone must be contorting her legs somewhere nearby — but this film, while passably entertaining and pop-up-book thrilling in 3D, is by no means anything special even though it sufficiently sets up a potentially endearing character (or two).

Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed, was originally an Edgar Wright project before that terrific director was taken off the project. It’s all rather heartbreaking, and while the script still retains his flourishes (and screen-credit), the overwhelming feeling is one of squandered promise, despite the scene-stealingly good Michael Peña. Ant-Man slides around the grooves of a record spinning frantically in a nightclub, which is all swell, but it’s all a bit been-there-done-that, a bit Eega, even. It’s a pretty watchable light movie, but ah, it could have been a Wright movie.

Rating: 3 stars

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First published Rediff, July 24, 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

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First published Rediff, April 23, 2015

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My first review ever: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2

The thing about spiders is: We don’t like them. Either creepily hairy or disconcertingly spindly, they refuse us even the common decency of being stealthy, commonly wallowing in out discomfort as they slothfully crawl in and out of sight. Their web spinning abilities, while nothing short of awesomely miraculous, strike us, at best, as icky. A testament to their unpopularity can be seen even the popularist Disney universe — where unsavory creatures are given the chance to blossom into heroes, arachnids are singled out as mustachioed villains. The magnificent, unparalleled symmetry of the web is unfairly, undeniably, shadowed by the perception of the spider as icky.

Herein lies Peter Parker’s essential dilemma. Straddling dual lives, each of which is a full, hectic battle in itself: the conflicting, constant, workaday life of the average superhero; and the more demanding, exhausting life of a young student working to put himself through college while trying to deal with love. The latter is a life we’ve all been familiar with, and the former is essentially what we go through in terms of mental battles, nightmares and trauma poured into lycra and sporting ridiculous monikers. As he swings from the Empire State Building and scoops up almost-alight kiddies to safety, the public still isn’t sure whether to actually like him: he’s a spider, darn it.

spidey2Spiderman Two opens with possibly the most brilliant recap of events in recent popcorn history: Danni Elfman’s striking score, cobwebs set against blood red, framing stunning Alex Ross illustrations of events gone by in the first film. By the time the credits end, we are reacquainted with a story we have not forgotten, and thirsty to see more. And Sam Raimi delivers. From the first shot, the film lays on Peter’s life being an actual embodiment of Murphy’s Law: Everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

After a breathtaking opening with Spiderman flying across madly to deliver Pizza in time, swinging in surreal CGI arcs with fabulous élan, there is a shot of Peter Parker struggling to exit the broom closet — brooms falling sequentially like persistent dominoes as he merely, clutzily attempts to just push them together long enough to squeeze himself out of there. This shot, of a superhero fast enough to dodge bullets and fists with unreal panache, being just a geeky little nervous kid, is worthy of standing applause and sets the tone for the film. Despite genetically arachnid superpowers and a rocking costume, Spiderman is well and truly human.

Cinematically, this is truly a commendable effort. New York is highly stylized, very affectionately — a visual ode to a beautiful city, loyal enough to evoke memories of the great Allen himself. Often, celluloid hats are tipped to masters of cinema obviously inspirational to Raimi, an eclectic selection of influences from the aforementioned Woody (I swear I could see a couple of Manhattan-style framings in there) to Martin Scorsese (as Spidey swings over the Goodfellas boroughs). The screenplay, contributed to by novelist and comic-book lover Michael Chabon, with dialogues crafted superbly by the award-winning Alvin Sargent, is outstanding, and forms a terrific core for Raimi to work around, but that shouldn’t take anything at all away from the director — this is totally Sam’s film.

When Peter Parker manages to get to the theatre on time, despite all odds, he is foiled by a snooty usher, played to utter, frustrating perfection by Bruce Campbell, reprising his cameo status in the franchise [he played the cocky wrestling announcer in the first part, plucking ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ name out of thin air and throwing it around Pete’s neck] — a time when Raimi fans will nudge each other excitedly and yelp, ‘The Chin! The Chin!,’ referring to the nickname for the actor from the cult Evil Dead series. Sam Raimi, one of those Tarantinoesque movie geeks with a love for self-indulgent referencing, gives movie buffs enough to obsess about for months: a particularly obvious place to start would be to be the operating room scene with the dismembered arm and the chainsaw, a direct doff to Evil Dead II.

Tobey Maguire has done for superheroes what Tom Cruise did for fighter airplanes a couple of decades ago: given them life. A wonderfully talented young actor, Tobey breathes – awkwardness, humour, charisma – lovingly into Peter Parker, making him as real a protagonist as any. A couple of years ago, there were doubts as to whether his shoulders were strong enough to carry the Spiderman legacy — now he has made the role his own. There was injury-led speculation that he might not have done the sequel, but he did, and we are blessed. Kudos, Mr. Maguire, thanks for coming back.

The cast is deliciously accurate: JK Simmons brings J Jonah Jameson right out of the pages of the comic, and steals the show whenever he appears with consummate ease and great one-liners; the fantastic Alfred Molina makes a splendid Doc Ock, balancing unerringly the diverse requirements of focused professor, warm mentor, and mad scientist; James Franco, while not in a stellar role as Harry Osborne, does what is needed for his character to come away more positively this time around; and Rosemary Harris tackles the role of Aunt May so well that the only trite bits of speech in the script, destined to otherwise appear jaded, take on the mantle of sincerity, and she wields a feisty umbrella.

Spiderman Two is a really good movie. Not just a good superhero movie, for it is the best by far in the genre, but simply a wonderful bit of Hollywood summer cinema, a classically entertaining film setting Raimi on par with the Messiahs of Mainstream, Spielberg and Lucas — storytellers pouring forth action/emotion on the screen, using CGI demons as metaphor and giving us glorious moments of celluloid joy. The synthesis between the animated Spiderman and Tobey is indeed excellent, but the highlights are Doc Ock’s arms, which slither into a menacing life of their own.

Comic-book lovers will freak over this movie, for it is the parting of the red sea and the dawn of hope —  A delectable smorgasbord of references, allusions, and the finest written dialogue ever in the genre, hosting hundreds of tiny in-jokes fans will spend ages dissecting gleefully. But even for one who has never read a comic book, this is a truly enjoyable experience, a tremendous popcorn flick with heaps of humour, action, romance, SFX and eye-candy, and the one thing that sets a good film apart, leotards or not: a story that is really good. I simply feel sorry for those who do not like this film, for they have become too cynical to appreciate a story with heart.

There are parts in this film where Sam Raimi outdoes himself so completely we are awed into disbelief. There is a sublime, delightfully mature shot where Peter is offered romance, cloaked in chocolate cake and milk, and a moment where he almost says yes to the pretty, nervous landlord’s daughter, Ursula Ditkovich [a not-so subtle salute to Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko]. There is a touching, excellent montage where ‘Raindrops are falling on my head’ is re-contextualised with unbelievable panache, appropriately on the freshest-faced young talent since Butch Cassidy himself. There is more, but one could go on forever. Watch it.

But the true applause — one would say standing ovation but Mr. Raimi has ensured knees buckling — must be saved for the surprises. Weaned on massive hype, teasers, trailers, and reports of varying accuracy, I was confident this film had nothing that would shock me. I have never been so wrong, and fell conveniently for Raimi’s ingenious red herrings. After momentarily reeling with massive plot twist after other, I began to glimpse into the larger picture. Like the Wilde play Mary Jane acts in, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Raimi too is scripting a story in three acts — the groundbreaking revelations and the shattering veneer at the end of Act Two [while bringing up questions galore for Three], therefore, integral to the scheme of things. Can’t believe we have to wait three years.

spidey2bThe best part about having a director with a sense of humour is letting his audience get sucked into traps. During a fight between Spidey and Doc Ock, Aunt May is tossed up the side of a building, and she sticks her brolly out and hooks a ledge. This is such a painful cliché that we groan and are almost annoyed at how obvious this is, and just when we begin to get jaded with the predictability of the movie, Aunt May slips off.

And lands on a ledge, one foot below her, safe as ever. The umbrella tenterhook turns out to be suspense that never was, the theatre of the anticlimactic. Brilliant.

The build-up of the film, like the thundering claw-beats of Doctor Octopus, thuds into the heart harder and incessantly faster throughout the two hours. I have never been entirely supportive of Kirsten Dunst as Ms Watson, always advocating a vivacious, drop-dead gorgeous, Heather Graham-type instead, but she carries off her glorified damsel-in-distress role well in this film, and screams magnificently, justifying Raimi’s love for her. And, when at the end of the movie, she says the words — and these are words my Spidey-worshipping heart is mouthing incredulously, lines before she actually says them — “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”, my brain has an orgasm, the theatre explodes with ecstasy, and Spiderman Two climaxes into greatness.

~

 

First published Rediff, July 27, 2004

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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

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