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Review: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures

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The coffee is in a different pot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Chris McKay’s The Lego Batman Movie

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There are many Batmen.

Detective. Dark Knight. Dancer.

Father-figure. Fascist. Flirt.

Teacher. Troublemaker. Terrorist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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Review: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, February 17, 2017

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DJ Caruso’s xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars

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First published Rediff, January 13, 2017

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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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