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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

~

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

~

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.

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First published Rediff, April 27, 2016

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Review: Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book

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This isn’t your daddy’s Jungle Book.

That applies whether I’m your daddy’s age and grew up on an oft-looped VHS tape of Disney’s 1967 animated classic, or if you’re my dad’s age and cherished the leatherbound Rudyard Kipling book which promised darker truths – though I choose to believe that Bare Necessities may well be as deep as life gets.

No, Jon Favreau’s new film is – ideal for these times low on imaginative fuel – a hybrid. Here’s a reboot that runs refreshingly on the spirit of both Disney’s film and Kipling’s classic, making for a rollicking and dramatic ride. There are no harrumphing Hathis, no brown smurfette who proves climactically irresistible – a moment that always hurt me bad. There is, instead, a stunning new world, a phenomenal young Mowgli, and a narrative that sucks you in, hard. And yeah, it uses Bare Necessities to perfection.

Visually, it’s hard to find a parallel to what Favreau has accomplished with The Jungle Book, but here, I’ll take a shot: think back to Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller’s 1995 film, Babe. That had a photorealistically rendered talking pig, and now – more than two decades later – we have the resources and the budgets to summon a world of woodland creatures who smirk and wink, a jungleful of relentlessly industrious gibbons and snarky squirrels. So yes, a George Miller film on steroids: now that’s saying something – and boy, does Favreau deliver.

The scale and the detailing is astonishing to behold, so closely feeling like childhood dreams of talking tigers that they promise to turn you, o jaded member of the audience, into a half-panted pre-pubescent with an awestruck, floorbound jaw. Therefore, with you as a breathless part of the narrative instead of a distanced bystander, the thrills that approach are made more urgent, more elemental. Just like the sound of a child on all fours, face to the clouds, howling like a topper in a classroom of wolves.

Which, of course, he is.

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This child, Neel Sethi, is an exceptional find, a scrappy and adorable one who gets the messy and marvellous Mowgli vibe just right. Favreau’s film gives Mowgli a less assured but more charismatic personality than in the old cartoon – to me it felt like the ethos had moved from that old Disney cartoon to a 90s cartoon like Disney’s Aladdin, the new Mowgli being a lot more “riff-raff, street rat” – and he’s terrific. The all-star cast voicing the animals in this film is a mouthwatering one, and the thought of this talented runt matching them — while acting almost entirely in green-screen, mind you — is an incredible one. This may be the finest performance by an Indian actor in a recent foreign film.

That cast, though. My God. Stripped of his characteristic self-aware irony, Bill Murray is superbly affecting and emotive as Baloo the bear, rejuvenating a character all kids deserve to have around. Christopher Walken’s King Louie – here a gigantopithecus instead of an orangutan – is absolute Walken, demanding fire one minute and, another minute, looking askance at the use of stolen words. (Baloo, on the other hand, has no trouble calling the monkeys ‘Bandarlog,’ or, in the film’s finest line, referring to something Mowgli considers sacred as something, well, not. Wait for it.) Lupita Nyong’o, as wolfmother Raksha, conjures up tremendous intensity, particularly when telling Mowgli that he’s hers (“You’re mine to me,” she commands), while Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa has but one crucial moment and, man oh man, when it comes to hisses, nobody does it better.

As all these films now do, The Jungle Book is filled with amusing vocal cameos, but few feel as perfect as the late Garry Shandling, that bristliest of comedians, showing up as an annoyed porcupine.

It is, however, the king of the jungle who leads the pack. I fall deeper in love with Idris Elba’s voice with each syllable, and his Shere Khan is a creature of magnificence. With all the swagger of the villain in a Western, this commanding Bengal Tiger arrests our attention in the strongest fashion, with Elba snarling out each carefully-chosen word in a ready-to-pounce way that makes it feel it may be the listener’s last. What immortal hand or eye, indeed.

The story is familiar – the tale of a reluctant man-cub being escorted to a village – but thanks to the overwhelming visuals and the compelling narrative, I found myself trying to will the next scene on, wanting hungrily to know what happens next. There is much magic to be found in this film, from the moment we see a giant snakeskin discarded imperiously over a swathe of forest, to one where a little boy with cherry-red pyjamas reaches out to prod a panther’s gums.

Yet it remains the stuff of childhood lore. Favreau has borrowed enough from the animated film to make his story sprint strongly through his fantastically-foliaged new world, but us old fans will always want more. I, for instance, could really have done with four Liverpudlian vultures nudging each other and wondering what they’d like to be doing, but ah – the films of Favreau are all about keeping hope alive, and there is much room for such plans to come together in the sequel.

Take the kids you know (and the kid within you) and go watch The Jungle Book. Trust in me.

Rating: 4 stars

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First published Rediff, April 8, 2016

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Review: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

Some kids are just better at playing with action figures.

You may have the exact same toys, and all kids construct action setpieces while dhishooming at the mouth, but there are some who bring actual artistry to the table as they mesh their Transformers together to form monstrous new ones or catapult their GI Joes alongside speeding plastic trains. Even their sound effects are more elaborate, more of a performance, more thought-through, more impressive. You try to up your game and, to an extent, do, but in the end it’s best to sit back and marvel at something special, at a dramatically daring imagination.

Nobody — but nobody — plays with action figures better than George Miller.

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Before Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance, nobody ever thought of rampaging inbred cultists swooping down on escaping heroes from giant bendy stilts, swinging in like furious upside-down pendulums, or pogo-sticks that, robbed of their bounce, now resemble grasshopper antennae. Now, after the already immortal imprint in our heads of the masterful madness Miller unleashed, it feels like the simplest, most obvious idea in the world: rubber-band your Iron Man to a drinking straw, kids, because what fun can a chase be without a Polecat or two?

Cinema exists to evoke. That is its primary purpose, and Mad Max: Fury Road breathlessly, relentlessly, gloriously takes over our brains as we watch, its blistering narrative so propulsive, so revolutionary, so damned smart that it could rip our eyelids off. It is an audacious concept, a two-hour chase scene, cinema as climax instead of building up to one, and Miller — through fiery visuals, progressive thought, compelling if barely defined characters, exquisitely elaborate choreography, and lean, brave screenwriting — evokes a feature-length feeling so few films are able to sustain for more than a few minutes: urgency.

This is owed, most greatly, to the film’s absolute and inspirational level of clarity. Unlike in most cinema that relies too heavily on computer generated effects, Miller’s new film decides to use mostly practical stunt-work, and, this combined with the intricacy of the action setpieces, makes the audience constantly aware of the sprawling epic unfolding on screen. It brings us into the action instead of whizzing past us, and the jaw drops — both involuntarily and often. It is also a film where exposition and backstory are all but expunged, and this audacious form of storytelling, where filigree-nosed bastards appear and die with nary an explanation of their origins, feels not just refreshing but also, I daresay, realistic. In a situation as frenetic and dire as Mad Max: Fury Road keeps us strapped in, perpetually on the run, verbal introductions and liner notes seem most extraneous: all we need to know is that his limousine is bad news.

FRD-27348.TIFMad Max himself, meanwhile, isn’t talking too much. Far removed from the loonier, more unpredictable — more mad, without a doubt — Max of the original 70s films played by Mel Gibson, the new Max Rockatansky is a surlier, silenter leading man. But is he at all a leading man? Played by the chameleonic Tom Hardy, this ‘hero’ spends a large part of this film with his mouth muzzled and stuck in front of a chasing vehicle, like a filthy, oversized hood-ornament. He does what needs to be done, and knows when it’s best to leave the last bullet in the hands of someone with better aim. It is Charlize Theron’s armless (but not, I assure you, harmless) Imperator Furiosa who takes charge of this film, and — in a moment that says it all — tells Max not to breathe so she can use him for a cushion.

Furiosa works (at least initially) for the dictator Immortan Joe, a Hell’s Angel who looks like the burly love-child of Betaal and Ghost Rider, who keeps his masses parched of water, which is called Aqua Cola in this dystopic desert world. The world-building is breathtaking, a result of John Seale’s masterful cinematography that shows off insane levels of art-directed detail while never compromising on the nightmarish scale of the badlands, and Margaret Sixel’s beautiful, berserk editing that, when we least expect, cuts to close-ups of shiny chrome gear-knobs, and away from wide-shots of spiky cars about to explode in a cloud of scarlet and sweat. This is a fever dream of a film, and o, how it throbs with life. (Thanks, in no small measure, to Junkie XL’s teeth-gnashingly metal-and-mayhem score.)

There is so much detail to gape at, and so lovingly does Miller show it all off, the film oozing originality at every pore. This is a sequel of Miller’s own Mad Max films, sure, but you don’t need to have seen the old ones (dated but still enjoyable because, mostly, of Gibson) to enjoy this film because it doesn’t rely on any baggage. Like Max, this film travels light.

AP FILM REVIEW-MAD MAX: FURY ROAD A ENTFuriosa, on the other hand, doesn’t. Her big war rig is packed with five of Joe’s ‘wives,’ lissome and heavenly creatures who, despite their Pirelli calendar worthiness, are a ballsy lot on the run because they don’t want to be used. These ladies bring courage and vulnerability and unborn children to the narrative, and the images of these girls ready for revolution are what stick in the mind even more than claw trucks and altars made of steering wheels. This is a film about survivors and enablers, and by the time we get to the famed green place supposed to make it all better, the narrative is overrun by old biker women with wrinkled faces and sniper-eyesight. Max might make a suggestion or two, as might Nicholas Hoult as a chrome-loving cultie worshipping V8 engines, but in this film at least, this film where mother’s milk is the ultimate power-drug, Miller’s world belongs to the women.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a monumental achievement, a triumph of one man’s singular and staggering imagination. If ever there was a film that begged to be celebrated on the big-screen — heck, that begged viewing with 3D glasses — it is this one, a sensational ride that throws you, the viewer, into the deep-end and drags you along for a chained and scorched and unbelievable ride. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is the greatest action movie of all time. Not least because Miller lets his titular hero slink away into the crowd at the end. Kept alive at first merely because of utility — he is a ‘bloodbag’ marked a universal donor — Max has already moved on. As has Miller, the 70-year-old visionary poised to make at least two more movies in the same insane vein. Giving is in their blood.

Rating: 5 stars

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Also read: Why we should be glad Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t win Best Picture

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First published Rediff, March 11, 2016

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Oscar column: Why we should be glad Mad Max didn’t win Best Picture

What is better than winning Best Picture?

It sounds bonkers, I grant you, yet hear me out: At the Oscars, being on the inside of the Best Picture envelope isn’t as golden as it gets. The ultimate prize, the real ultimate prize, is being the film everyone roots for to be inside said envelope — and then not showing up. Not breasting the tape. Not being Best Picture, but instead losing in a way that inspires public outcry and cinephile heartbreak around the world.

Think about it. The King’s Speech will forever be remembered for being a middling film that got in The Social Network’s way. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with Forrest Gump — a schmaltzy but ingeniously-crafted and well-acted film, with a genuine touch of cheek — yet how many of us can forgive it for toppling the one and only Pulp Fiction? The English Patient robbed Fargo. And, in the most quoted Oscar flub in recent history, Crash beat Brokeback Mountain. Sure, Crash picked up the gold — after presenter Nicholson chose not to disguise his surprise — but who won? Who goes down in history?

The better loser, that’s who.

It’s a lesson we learnt most memorably with a young Italian boxer. That big lug Rocky Balboa lost the fight at the end of Rocky, but he won over hearts, both of the audience and The Academy, bizarrely beating all-time masterworks like Network, All The President’s Men and Taxi Driver at the 1977 Oscars. At the 88th Annual Academy Awards this week, no loss rang out as devastatingly as that of 69-year-old Sylvester Stallone. Sitting with crossed fingers in the front row, he was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor trophy in order to complete a remarkable full circle —  a true ‘American dream’ story from poverty-struck porn-performer to Oscar-winner — but alas, despite the Academy’s much-feted love for a redemptive narrative arc, such picket-fenced perfection was not to be.

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This is a terrific picture from Stallone’s first Oscars, the one where Rocky triumphed, where the actor, losing out on Best Actor, holds dead air while the film’s producers clutch their Oscars. This year was supposed to see him finally nabbing one he earned at the end of a long career. At long, long last.

And yet Sly lost, despite having performed admirably well in Creed, and while my first reaction (as a fan with Gotta Fly Now coming out of my ears, now, even as I type these words) was that he run up the stairs (of course) to the Oscar stage and check the envelope in case bumbling presenter Patricia Arquette had done a Steve Harvey, the truth is that it adds up. Mark Rylance was great in Bridge Of Spies. Not as good as, say, Christian Bale was in The Big Short, but Rylance delivered a finely-tuned and nuanced performance, and was the best thing in that film. The loss makes sense. Stallone — and Balboa in the first film, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in the latest — lost the fight when the votes were counted, but boy, did they go the distance. How they made us cheer.

There is, every year, at least one field where we individually pray against all realistic odds. This year, I personally rooted — unrealistically and in vain — for an upset in the Best Cinematography field, for the invincible Emmanual Lubezki to be upstaged despite his spectacular, masterful vistas in the boastfully shot The Revenant. Instead, I longed for a reward for the thoughtful, sumptuous visual mastery shown by Ed Lachman in Carol. Shooting on 16mm film, Lachman is consistently poetic and evocative, telling a story while simultaneously mirroring the style of iconic 50s photographers like Saul Leiter.

lachman(It is a magnificently shot film, and I have a feeling Lubezki agrees. On the three-time winner’s sensational Instagram feed yesterday, three days after his win, standing next to the three consecutive Oscars, is featured Lachman, his face obscured by a camera that is shooting Lubezki. Bravo.)

The world cheered loudly for Leonardo DiCaprio who — 22 years after the first of his 6 nominations — picked up an acting Oscar for The Revenant, though this wait had been mythologised well out of proportion. Sure, he should have won for The Wolf Of Wall Street, but the Oscars rarely reward performances that effervescent, that electrifying. Also, the man is merely 41, and has several movies — several Scorsese movies, even — yet to tackle. This wasn’t the film he should have won for, and certainly not the film he deserved a standing ovation for. He strolled into the Oscars an odds-on favourite, yet the moment was made to feel like a struggle.

Meanwhile, after 500 films, Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers in the history of the medium, came forth and won his first competitive Oscar for The Hateful Eight. This, in the oddest and loveliest of ironies, came nine years after he’d won an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to the arts. Who says masters lose their touch?

Not George Miller, certainly. The world was firmly in Miller’s corner on Oscar night, hoping that the visionary 70-year-old would be heralded for one of the finest action movies of all time. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of enormous vision, rule-defying bravado and striking originality which flattens audiences with ingenuity, clarity and adrenaline. It is a progressive, modern, thematically strong, diverse, feminist statement wrapped up, quite miraculously, into a thrilling package. However, it isn’t as if a bad film won. A victory for The Revenant, jawdropping but hollow, would have felt catastrophic. Spotlight winning, on the other hand, seems right. It is a restrained, relevant, highly impactful film made with a crackerjack ensemble cast, based on a story that needs telling. (The Big Short, my personal pick of the Oscar bunch, was clearly too edgy and audacious and irreverent and, quite frankly, too clever to win a big Oscar — rather like the work of Charlie Kaufman. Way too cool for school.)

Speaking of which… Think, if you will, of The Doof Warrior.

Riding atop a truckful of gigantic speakers and standing on a massive amplifier, The Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road is a rocker in a scarlet onesie: a blind man wearing his mother’s face for a mask, playing a double-necked guitar made out of a bedpan that also doubles up as a flamethrower. Playing ragged riffs to appease the gods of war and increase fighter morale, he is, without any doubt, as insanely metal as a character can conceivably be. It’s gloriously nuts. Now, realistically speaking, does such a creature have any business belonging in a Best Picture winner?

Or ought he belong, instead, to a movie that — like a Lamborghini Countach pinup stumbled upon giddily in pre-adolescence — deserves to have its poster stuck up inside our brains forever? It’s our film to celebrate, and, hey: as worshippers of V8 engines would agree, chrome is way, way cooler than gold.

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First published Rediff, March 4, 2016

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My 2016 Oscar-themed pieces on the race for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. Plus, my top ten moments from this year’s ceremony.

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