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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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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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Why I thought Prince was The Joker

1partyfingerWhen I was eight years old, I thought Prince was The Joker.

Allow me to explain this childhood delusion: The year was 1989. Tim Burton’s glorious and groundbreaking Batman movie was yet to hit our VHS libraries, and this was a time before teaser trailers and trailers teasing teaser trailers. All we had to go on with, before watching Jack Nicholson own the character, was a name and an audiocassette. And Jesus, what a soundtrack it was. Again, I was eight, sure, but there was something thrilling me beyond the Batman icon emblazoned across the cover as I looped that tape over and over, as I listened to Michael Keaton’s soft, sampled voice declaring himself the caped crusader only to instantly find that character eaten up by the magnificent howls of a singer cutting glass with his falsetto.

It’s one helluva soundtrack, with irresistibly saucy songs like Vicki Waiting, Scandalous, the smash-hit Batdance and my favourite, the absurdly groovy Lemon Crush. But what misled me into believing Prince was a mere abbreviation for The Clown Prince Of Crime was a music video — one of the few things that showed up before the movie — and this was for Partytime, the coolest supervillain song ever. In that phenomenal video, Prince wears purple — like The Joker — and half his face is painted white, half his mouth has loud lipstick and half his hair is sulphuric green. His energy is electric, his manic movements the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons, and — as he lethally spikes a punchbowl, swings off a chandelier and lights exploding cigars for Jessica Rabbit lookalikes — the spirit of Mistah J is entirely, deliciously captured by this performer. It’s magic.

I might never get over one particular moment from the video where Prince’s half-Joker literally makes a monkey out of Batman. He sidles elegantly over to a chimpanzee in a Batman tee-shirt and, shyly, hands him a banana. Prince shields his face with his hand and melts away coyly as the chimp accepts. The chimp peels said banana which turns out to be empty of fruit, with the word “PSYCHE” written in big, marquee capitals inside it. It is a nutty gag, cruel and pointless and juvenile and impossible not to love, wonderfully encapsulating all things Joker.

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Yet despite the pranks, what really comes through in that brief but vivid glimpse is the performer’s grace. And the way he, in those times without Parental Advisory stickers, held our kiddy hands and took us down dark alleyways with his songs. Vicki Waiting, for example, opens with an awfully ribald joke about organs and cathedrals, and gets far too dark and too damned sexy. Sexy.

It is the no-holds-barred sexiness of Prince’s vibe that tore into my imagination, taking me from that Batman album to his Love Symbol album. He was yet to turn himself into that very symbol, an unpronounceable (and pointy) yin-yang sign that would befuddle record labels and journalists and award-show presenters, but that white-hot album already held too many clandestine thrills. Not least of which was the instantly mythical Sexy MF, the song so perfectly, ear-scorchingly profane we had to listen to it a million times over, giggling while Prince entered our bloodstream and made us cooler without us even knowing it.

The Artist Formerly Forever Known As Prince.

He was a wonder, wasn’t he? That lopsided smirk. That thin moustache, equal parts John Waters and Jafar. That eternally flawless hair. That high, piercing falsetto, a voice that brimmed with love and anger and urgency, forever a cross between a tantrum and an orgiastic shriek.

Those words, words that sang of revolution and those songs that delivered it to us, always ahead of time. The way he made pianos cry out in bruised, purple pleasure. The way he struck up insanely melodic arpeggios in a way that still makes me wonder how fretboards didn’t dice up those furious fingers while he played like a guitar god.

The way he owned a goddamned colour.

Heartbreakingly enough, he’s gone now. And we owe it to that legend to go at least a little bit crazy, to go out on a limb, to leap without safety-nets and to hope the audience will catch us and carry us along on their shoulders. To look for our very own purple bananas.

3princepartytongueWe owe it to him to listen, like we always did whenever he commanded us, regardless of whether we were old fans or those who’d never heard him before: the mention of his name made our hearts snap their fingers, our ears perk up, our feet restless and our expectations rocket past the roof.

For his name is Prince, and he was Funky.

~

First published Rediff, April 27, 2016

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