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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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Review: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land

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Twenty Decembers ago, Woody Allen’s underrated Everyone Says I Love You had the director dance with the striking and cherubic Goldie Hawn on the banks of the Seine, by moonlight. As Allen clumsily kept pace, Hawn began suddenly to float — as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and her black dress just happened to be cut from magic carpet. In a film about divorce and infidelity and many layers of lies, this achingly poetic moment — where the ex-wife takes flight during a nostalgic dance and turns into a gliding goddess — is one of my absolute favourites from Allen’s oeuvre, for its unashamed romanticism and for the way it makes my heart soar, sing, yearn to dance.

Every single bit of La La Land feels as magical as that singular burst. It is a film that tapdances on air.

Damien Chazelle starts his exuberantly splashy musical with gridlock. An unbroken opening shot, choreographed with Broadway precision, shows us young men and women — young aspirants — cavort from traffic-jammed car roof to car roof as they sing of dreams and sun, wearing primary colours and priming us for the technicolor pop of the film. It is a gorgeous sequence, certainly, but what struck me most was the thoughtfulness of the visual decision: the reason this is a showily single-take opening shot is because traffic is impossible to fly or cut away from. But that doesn’t mean you can’t jump onto the roof of a car and warble.

Then, as the colourful stars-to-be leap back into their unmoving vehicles — the song providing no escape, merely respite — the sun-drenched world is identified as winter. This, we are told, is not merely a hot day in Los Angeles but, in fact, La La Land, and that is a place more unreal than you expect.

Mia is an actress. Which is to say she is a barista at a cinematically located cafe who goes to auditions and somehow — remarkably — never catches an important eye. In a city full of them, she is another girl behind the wheel of a Prius. Sebastian is a struggling pianist with the lofty dreams of resuscitating jazz itself by opening up his own club. He drives a defiantly vintage convertible, goes the wrong way, and honks like a foghorn operator. They are blue chalk and blue cheese, exotic and far from ordinary, archetypes but the kind you wouldn’t expect to go as well together.

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With all the charm of an old-world musical — Chazelle swigs from the same hipflask passed around in the day by Jacques Demy, Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli — La La Land is a film that could easily be described as a throwback or a homage, yet despite hat-tips and references, it is very truly — and very irresistibly — its own thing. This is a musical about loving musicals, just like it is a film about a boy who loves jazz and a girl he teaches to love jazz, rather than a film about jazz itself. In this, it is so deliriously stunning that most will fall for it regardless of tolerance for jazz or musicals. It’s a screen romance for the goddamned ages.

Part of the film’s virtuosity lies in the apparent lack of it. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the film’s magnetic leads, and while they are both superb performers with rare and vintage chemistry, neither is a song-and-dance performer on the scale of the old musicals La La Land loves.

Gosling, in particular, is visibly laboured while dancing the first time, yet this amateurishness serves the character brilliantly, as we see him concentrate hard on his steps as he tries to impress this girl who casually, cruelly — and yet alluringly — just called him George Michael. The two have just strolled away from a party together and found themselves a bench with a knockout view, and the resulting song is enchanting. The standout bit is when Stone casually pulls out black-and-white tap shoes from her bag to match the ones Gosling wears, while he playfully kicks some dirt her way. These are characters who know they’re in a musical, and the giddiness this gives them is infectious.

That said, the film knows when to kill the music. The record playing in the background runs scratchily dry just when the conversation takes a turn for the brutal. There is an astonishingly irony-free scene where Sebastian talks over jazz music while talking about people who talk over jazz music, and this is almost immediately countered by a scene where background jazz takes over and talks over people. (Not just any people, mind you, but people sitting around a dinner table proclaiming a home theatre better than a real one.) Finally, in the film’s spellbinding climax, music takes over everything. Including our dreams.

Chazelle, who made the compelling and mercilessly paced Whiplash a couple of years ago, is the most worthy kind of nostalgist: an actual artist. La La Land is a dreamy rhapsody, a picture made with both affection and originality. The writing is note-perfect. Mia, who invokes Kenny G to needle her boy, finds herself in an experimental, improvisatory film — like jazz, really. Sebastian, a possible stand-in for the director, uses words like “shanghaied” to romanticise his own frequently hairy struggle, and wonders why we consider romantic a dirty word. Later, as a successful jazz band beckons, Sebastian is realistically asked how he intends to ‘save’ jazz by clinging to the past. He doesn’t know, though he might stubbornly say he does.

The way to save the musical, on the other hand, has to be a grand flourish. This, the best in decades, is just the ticket. Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (of American Hustle and Promised Land) shoots the vivid and timeless sequences with smitten eagerness, as if constantly trying to take in something magical, swooping up to grab a palm tree one moment, sideways to sneak in a wry smile the next. The production design is coded in solid and primary colour, with the protagonists even wearing white shirts when happy and optimistic (though Seb’s stay beneath his slim-cut suits) and then, when things take a turn, one of them is seen in a lot more black. We even go from classic white piano keys to hard black ones on a keyboard that looks digitally sinister. Bright colour constantly and mesmerisingly surrounds these vital monochrome decisions, of course — including the fiery scarlet of a keytar wielded by a man who, instantly regretting it, refers to himself as a ‘serious musician.’

The music itself, by Chazelle’s friend and collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is swooning and melancholy and pretty, utterly perfect for the film and liable to be stuck in our freshly-shanghaied heads a fair while. Stone’s clear, insistent vocals have a bit of a Hepburn quality, while those by Gosling are approachable in their simple mumble, vocals we can attempt to imitate without feeling foolhardy. When they sing, the rest of the film fades away and both actors burn even brighter under that singular gaze.

Excellent actors, they are in crackerjack form even when merely toying with the acoustic oddness of the word ‘Boise’, saying the name of the place over and over just to play with the sound, grinning moonily at each other while we gaze up at them. He, who can do anything, is amazing as he makes ferret-like faces for a photographer. She, holding oceans of vulnerability in her mammoth manga eyes, imbues each word and glance with meaning. These are actors we are fortunate to see peak before our eyes.

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In one unforgettable scene, the two are at the Griffith Park Observatory, its attractions apparent from a shot that swirls up its roof in kaleidoscopic fashion. She impishly plays with a bright red switch, he hurriedly polishes its handle with the handkerchief he obviously carries, and then the kerchief floats upwards. This is an echo of so many musicals — specifically Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in The Belle Of New York — but the real prestidigitation lies in the quick moment when Stone, before taking off against a backdrop of simulated space and thunderstruck by the unreality it all, looks directly and knowingly at the camera, as if to share her whoa with us.

It may be this confident awareness that makes La La Land a cinematic triumph. It cycles through seasons knowing they look all the same, and — when it signals Winter a second time — the reason the sky appears too good to be true is because it is. As is the finale, which pulls the rug out from under our feet in a fantastical way few films ever dare, distilling the film’s essence while, again, letting the music do all the talking.

This is a sublime cinematic experience, a rare joy that — to quote a song I always hear in Sinatra’s voice — left me Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered. It is a film so special I had to watch it twice before writing about it, and you know what, La La Land? Everyone says I love you.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, December 16, 2016

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Review: Ron Howard’s Inferno

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Tom Hanks is not Nicolas Cage.

This, for the most part, is a good thing. Academy Award winners both, Hanks and Cage first made their bones with off-kilter comedies where Hanks played the wonderful regular guy gone a bit wonky, while Cage played the wonky guy with just a touch of regular. As they moved into serious cinema and became distinctive actors able to shoulder challenging projects, Hanks grounded himself by excelling in roles demanding verisimilitude while Cage flew off into determinedly weird parts and genres. Prestige found one while toupees found the other. And both fit into their own worlds: Cage couldn’t have pulled off Forrest Gump, Hanks would have scuppered Adaptation.

I talk to you about these two actors I love simply because Hanks has crossed the line with Inferno — Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name — and stepped firmly into Cage territory, by making a sad, schlocky mess of a movie with an inane plot, daft storytelling and bad hair. This is a simplistic, silly mess that tries desperately to appear intelligent by invoking the name of Dante Alighieri a dozen times — when all it really wants to do is be a National Treasure goof. It emerges as neither, because Howard and Hanks treat the material as if it makes sense instead of embracing its B-movie heart, as a modern-day Cage movie would. This could have been a glorious so-bad-it’s-good entertainer, but thanks to its self-seriousness, Inferno emerges merely bland and undercooked. There’s nothing to this film.

The plot is admirably loony — that of a mad scientist (!) trying to heal the world by culling half its population — but the clues, hidden here in Botticelli’s famed Map Of Hell painting, are too easily solved, without either clever deduction, dramatic fuss or even preposterousness. Everybody in this film rushes from clue-spot to clue-spot as if at a scavenger hunt for slow children, and nothing comes close to making sense. The scientist has, exasperatingly enough, offed himself and instead of having detonated his apocalyptic world-halving virus, he has absurdly left clues so that his followers can find it and set it off. GK Chesterton this ain’t.

Hanks, as Robert Langdon — basically an incontinent Indiana Jones — is a bumbling professor who appears to have lost his memory after a blow to the head, and while it is indeed pleasing to see the actor bring alive a character who remembers the order of Dante’s circles of hell while forgetting the word for coffee, it is also dull. Even less cognisant of the film’s genre is Felicity Jones, who, as Langdon’s comrade in crisis, shuttles around with an annoying urgency and — while a fine actress otherwise — fails spectacularly in her shrill attempt to create an intriguing leading lady in the genre. (If in the mood for a genuinely fun film about hidden ciphers and professors on the run, I recommend a 50-year-old Stanley Donen lark called Arabesque, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. You’re welcome.)

Also in this film is our very own Irrfan Khan, an actor who can do anything but, cast here as a smarmy, omniscient Bond villain type, he isn’t given quite enough of a challenge. Save for correcting his assistant and pointing out which of his own questions are rhetorical (all of them), Khan’s character — called ‘The Provost’ —  is basically a pro wasted.

I’m not saying Nicolas Cage could have rescued this film. Far from it. I’m just saying he might have given us some moments to grin at. This one is just a yawn. Should you try it out? I infer: no.

Rating: 1.5 stars

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First published Rediff, October 14, 2016

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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: Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters

Hang on to your hats, ghosts. There’s a brand new gunlickin’ gunslinger in town and she ain’t in the mood for prisoners.

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One other thing she ain’t is alone. Dr Jillian Holtzmann has friends alongside her on screen in the new Ghostbusters — wearing proton packs of her own dangerous design — but, more importantly, she and the fine comediennes rocking the boat in this warmly silly reboot are giving company to cosplaying girls everywhere who have wanted goofy heroes like this for so, so long. This is a gleefully dumb summer feature, unapologetically silly and often too smitten with its own leads — in short, it’s what a big dumb shaggy-dog blockbuster should be. Only with ladies rocking the jumpsuits this time.

The original Ghostbusters, from 1984, is a deliriously daft film raised occasionally to sublime heights by Bill Murray finding his groove. An actor finding his brilliance is a thing that happens gradually, over many a moment in many a movie, but Murray seemed to roller-skate into magnificence almost entirely at one go, and most of us watching Ghostbusters were privy to that bit of magic. Ivan Reitman’s film is fine — it’s crazily enjoyable and gets better with each viewing, and if you didn’t see it in the eighties, well, you’re never going to love it the same way — but the actors were what made it sparkle, and the characters remain unforgettable. (I’m an Egon man, myself.)

Director Paul Feig understands that, and while his reboot celebrates women as well as the spirit(s?) of the original, it never tries to replicate the sparkle those gents conjured up. This film doesn’t mimic the superb silences and slow-burn, rolled-eye jokes of the old film. Instead, it lets these wonderful ladies try on the suits and situations and let their hair down their own way. It turns out to be giddily, infectiously fun and frequently forgettable. This is not a film trying to be brilliant; instead, it stays simple while it breaks ground. It is as if Feig has made it his mission statement to tell the world — with films like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy — that hey, women are allowed to be juvenile too.

Like in the original, the plot is flimsy and peppered with gags. Like in the original, characters who believe in ghosts are laughed out by respectable naysayers. Like in the original, there is a Mayor who gets very hands-on with what our heroes are upto. Like in the original, Slimer is around, big and green and disgustingly infatuated with hotdogs — only this time he is, rather unnecessarily, in 3D. (The 3D is a waste in Ghostbusters simply because Feig lays it on a bit too thick and the climax gets especially tedious and shouty, when all we really want is more of Kristen Wiig giggling at their sexy receptionist.)

Speaking of which… we need to talk about Kevin. A picture-perfect specimen of manhood and doltishness, Kevin the receptionist can barely handle picking up the phone, but is kept around (and shamelessly, repeatedly objectified) because of the way he looks. Played by Thor star Chris Hemsworth, this sounds like a simple dumb blond gag — a gimmick even — but because of the way Feig and Hemsworth commit to the sheer imbecility of the eye-candy-only character, the result is as hilarious as the jibe is well-deserved.

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Kevin’s bosses are Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Dr Erin Gilbert (Kirsten Wiig), the aforementioned Dr Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty (Leslie Jones). Each actress picks a flavour and sticks with it, and the cast mostly breezes through it. McCarthy, Feig’s muse, has the straightest role but she’s the one who makes exposition appear momentarily reasonable, and has a great, great line about soup; Wiig is awkward and only eventually enthusiastic, but she sounds wrong and tragically stupid whenever she uses Ghostbustin’ jargon; and Jones, broad and reckless, creates a character who knows New York — and is thus the only one with street smarts.

Like in the original, one Ghostbuster is much more memorable than the rest. A lot of this film’s players have come from Saturday Night Live, but Kate McKinnon is one of that show’s finds — I implore you to look up her Hillary Clinton sketches — and in this film, as she describes potato chips as “salty parabolas,” she is unstoppable. Wearing a lopsided bouffant that looks styled in Pisa, her Holtzmann is a thing of loony energy and joyous abandon, a nutcase who would rather go nuclear than go home. She’s jawdroppingly good and I can’t wait to see her again.

Some people who have an issue with women taking on roles originally written for men. The film addresses this fantastically by having the leading ladies read out (and get repulsed by) comments from online haters, but anyone who can’t enjoy these women having a good time — without even pretending to be Venkman and Stantz — for such dimwitted reasons doesn’t deserve to laugh with this film. It may not be a classic, but the laughs it earns are all its own.

As you may have imagined, the original Ghostbusters all have cameos in this new film. Yes, even the late great Harold Ramis. We see him as a bronzed sculpture at Columbia University, smiling at this new film and, in many ways, that is the single greatest cameo. For it lets Egon Spengler live on as both ghost and bust.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, July 29, 2016

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Review: Duncan Jones’ Warcraft

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War? Check. Craft? Check.

We, however, expect more from fascinating filmmakers like Duncan Jones than literally delivering what is promised on the label — and not even doing that memorably enough. Sure, this is a loud movie with giant battle sequences and much swordplay, and the production design is significantly trippy. Yet this is mostly a bloated, highly undistinguished bit of mythmaking, stuffed to the gills with clichéd characters and motivations. There is some sharpness in the way a few action moments are choreographed, but overall this is a lacklustre enterprise, tragically lacking in wit.

There are orcs — hulking creatures with fangs that grow unattractively upwards from their lower teeth — and there are humans, and both these sides battle it out through giant portals. That’s basically it, and while I’m certain gamers obsessed with Warcraft will bring much backstory into this experience, those of us who don’t play this particular title really have no business being here. We’re not worthy, thank god.

The first problem is one of inscrutability. Jones valiantly hits the ground running, showing us, in quick succession: a pregnant Orc, an Orc-baby who has the soul of a deer fed to him, a human King who looks like an uncharismatic Kenneth Branagh… and so on. Dozens of tongue-challenging names are bandied about — names with apostrophes where vowels should be — and most of them come to us by way of deep, digitally altered voices. This lack of exposition is ambitious; clearly Jones wants us to wrangle with the material and catch up to the narrative, but the story and characters are unwieldy and too plot-heavy. A Mad Max: Fury Road this ain’t, and unravelling this knotty tapestry doesn’t seem particularly rewarding. Especially when one ends up straining to tell the Orcs apart. (By the end of the movie I discovered one of them wears a kilt, so he’s either a Scottish Orc or really into Braveheart cosplay. Who truly knows?)

Visually, the film does create another world and the attention to detail is lavish and immersive, but this is 2016, and we need more than mere costuming and spectacle. Scale cannot define a giant film like this anymore, and while it’s all very well to have elaborately-upholstered wolves and impractically grandiose armour, the set-pieces seem disappointingly generic. I felt at times as if I was watching a giant film made in Telugu, for example, and dubbed into English: so wooden were the lines and so familiar the mythic tropes. There are good dads and helpless sons, for example, on both ends of the portal, and babies set afloat in rivers and sent to their survival. We’ve seen it all before, and, truth be told, we’ve had it all told to us more engagingly.

It is an efficiently made film, certainly, but there is no panache to render it interesting. Save for Paula Patton’s green-skinned half-Orc, the characters are painfully bland and the actors playing them dull. There are a couple of action moments that stun — one involving an attack by a shield formation is particularly nifty — but a good minute or three does not an entertainer make. It doesn’t even seem compellingly video-gamey, which is most tragic. There is a fine scene involving dropping a heavy character onto another, but even that genuinely clever flourish is lost as the film drags interminably on.

I’m a massive admirer of Jones’ work, and loved both his previous films, Moon and Source Code. Warcraft is, on every level, a disappointment, especially since you see what he’s trying to do — the kind of man-woman parity he’s aiming for, mostly unseen in a film of this scale — but then you see, frustratingly enough, that the film itself is a mediocre casing for any grand idea or deft nuance. It’s mostly swallowed up by badly mumbled gibberish, like the villain in the climax chanting what sounds (a lot) like saying Eddie Izzard’s name over and over again.

There is but one moment of brilliance, and this I mean literally: it is when a Guardian wizard burns up a young apprentice’s magical research, a visually arresting shot that holds the promise of Fahrenheit 451 intensity. It boils over, alas, in but a second, the rest of the film unfit to fry an egg.

Rating: 1 star

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First published Rediff, June 10, 2016

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Review: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

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The Nice Guys reminded me of a terrific Playboy joke.

I don’t mean a specific joke (not that I could quote it here) but I have a feeling you know what I’m talking about: one of those things that’d make us guffaw and pause while leafing through a faded, ‘vintage’ back-issue, which is to say something smart and snappy involving cheeky wordplay, actual ingenuity and (more often than not) a woman named Little Annie Fanny. Speaking of Harvey Kurtzman’s work, actually, this film feels like an old Mad Magazine strip. One of the more ribald ones.

Shane Black’s new film is essentially a 70s romp about — get this — “a porno where the plot is the point”, and, given such a fantastically, exaggeratedly Shane Black of premises, the film doesn’t bloody disappoint. The circuitous plot spins around the narrative like a yoyo gone berserk, keeping things tight but loopy, with enough room for many a corpse and for Black to embrace the madness with tremendous slapstick flair. It’s a goddamned treat.

Ryan Gosling, as a frequently drunk private dick, is at his absolute goofiest — call it Raising Arizona Nic Cage level wild — as he stumbles through the proceedings frequently drunk and constantly imperilled. Alongside him is Russell Crowe, a paunchy enforcer good with his hands. These two make for an even unlikelier pair than Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer in Black’s masterful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and play off each other with electric élan, both visibly liberated to be cutting loose from their usual worlds: Gosling from his brooding art-house films and Crowe from whatever garbage he’s done recently. (When was the last time we saw Crowe in something remotely good? I can’t even remember.)

Crowe is stellar here as Jackson Healy, dour and tough and lovably, quaintly sincere. He starts off narrating the film like a Raymond Chandler sleuth, and while this affectation sadly vanishes, he does look like a grizzled old romantic, wishing he mattered more, could do more, and even, perhaps, be a detective. Gosling’s Holland March is that very thing, though Healy’s version of a sleuth would likely solve more murders and cheat nearsighted old ladies much less. The two characters collide and one breaks the other’s arm — the Shane Black version of a meet-cute — leading them to an unlikely, riotous adventure.

The stakes are high. The Nice Guys may share the vibe of a spoof, and, to a large extent it plays out like one, but Black’s characters are real and fleshed out — from March’s relationship with his wisecracking daughter to Healy’s powerful backstory (which might be best heard with coffee) —  and the plot contrivances may be outrageous but escalate rapidly, like a particularly foulmouthed Hardy Boys story. There are activists playing dead and porn producers who aren’t pretending at the same, and smartmouthed young kids who boastfully suggest they have a screen-friendly anatomy. It might be a parody, but within the film, everyone’s playing it straight — and nobody’s named Shirley.

The blood, thus, is real, and so is the wit. Black doesn’t aim too high with the film — the Chandler-touch fades away early, as I said, and this is but a farce merely disguised in noir clothing — yet as a boisterous comedy, The Nice Guys swaggers out all guns blazing, gags flying recklessly and precariously all over the place. Visually, French veteran Philippe Rousselot keeps the action coherent even at its most frantic, shooting the silliest of action set-pieces with classical thriller precision, making even the childishly coincidental events appear urgent and compelling. Black doesn’t overdo the 70s groove, though Led Zeppelin’s Misty Mountain Hop lingers on in my head despite not featuring on the soundtrack, for reasons those of you who have watched the film know well.

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It’s a barrel of laughs, even though the film itself never quite lives up to the jawdropping opening scene, where a young boy sneaks a dirty magazine from under his parents’ bed only — after a ludicrous, lovely, fearsome turn of events — to see the centerfold he was staring at come to life. Like the girl-sawing prologue in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or ‘the robot story’ from the same beautiful film, this too is a magical sequence, and I, for one, would love to see Black — eternal lover of Christmas — someday make a film starring children.

Then again, maybe his goals are nobler: to make adults feel like children as they chortle through something frantic and joyous and just so damned nice. Little Annie Fanny would be proud.

Rating: Four stars

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First published Rediff, June 3, 2016

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