2016: Weeks 22 to 25

The Nice Guys

I grew up during the 80’s and 90’s, and if it isn’t obvious already, movies were a big part of the process. Sure, I watched everything I was expected (and allowed) to watch, but there were also movies like the ‘Lethal Weapon’ series, ‘Predator’, ‘Monster Squad’ and ‘The Last Boy Scout’, which left a lasting impression on me. Even then, I noticed one name repeatedly come up in these movies that I loved – Shane Black. A largely unsung hero of Hollywood, his name rarely features amongst the upper echelons of film making. Yet in addition to writing the aforementioned decade defining films, he more recently wrote and directed the effervescent ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, and the so-so ‘Iron Man 3’. It’s easy to recognize his films, featuring whip sharp, hilarious and rapid fire dialogue, interesting characters and engaging plots. And here’s the good news – his filmography notwithstanding, his latest, ‘The Nice Guys’, is his best yet.

In it, he casts Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a thug for hire and  and a private investigator respectively, working a case in 70’s L.A that involves a missing woman named Emilia. Without giving away the plot, they grudgingly work together, stumbling and stammering their way through an ever-escalating conspiracy to finally uncover the truth. On paper, this shouldn’t work. You’d be excused for thinking you’ve seen this movie a thousand times before. And yet, this is one of the most entertaining films you’re likely to see this year. The intricate plot aside, the real joy is seeing Gosling and Crowe handle Black’s dialogue and characters, in a manner that elevates it to art. Their chemistry is unbelievable, timing, impeccable and repartee, seemingly effortless. This is a winning comedy duo – Crowe playing the hulking and brutish straight man, is a perfect foil for Gosling’s anxious and awkward but street mart detective. In fact, I had no idea Gosling had such a gift for physical comedy. In one of the best scenes in the film, Gosling’s character is confronted by Crowe’s, as he sits on a toilet. To watch him juggle his cigarette and gun, while trying to keep the stall door open, is worth the price of admission alone. The other surprise, performance wise, is Angourie Rice as Gosling’s young daughter. Clearly a natural, her performance anchors the other characters and a plot that are largely committed to a brutal cynicism, with much needed innocence. In fact, this is perhaps the most endearing aspect of the film. In 70’s LA, where the porn industry is just as legit (and perhaps more morally grounded) than established corporations, we are presented with this trio, that while not beacons of good values, are constantly striving to do the right thing. They don’t always succeed, but this need is the vulnerable core underneath the film’s decadent wrapping paper. Amongst the rest of the cast, it was so much fun to see Keith David back in the fray as a ruthless thug sent to kill the detectives – his violent fight scene with Crowe, a real throwback to the scene in ‘They Live’, where he goes toe to toe with the late, great Roddy Piper. The movie also owes a lot of its charm to its 70’s setting, which is brought to vivid life with amazing cinematography, set design and costumes. But this is a movie from the brains behind films such as ‘Lethal weapon’ and ‘Kiss Kiss Bang’, so the action is top notch as well. In the climatic shoot out, Gosling and Crowe (and a multitude of other actors) are shown jumping out of windows, on to cars, throwing grenades, dodging bullets and chasing film canisters through a hotel. The choreography and staging is so well done, that you never lose track of the action, but more importantly, Black retains the high stakes, character nuance and humor he’s worked so hard to build up to that point. If I was nitpicking, I’d say that the mid-section could’ve done with a slight rewrite. For a mystery, the film blows its load way too early and while the last act is really entertaining, it could have perhaps done with a little more intrigue and whodunit till the very end. On an unrelated note, here’s a really cool piece of trivia – Margaret Qually, who plays Amelia is Andie MacDowell’s daughter, and Jack Kilmer, who plays Chet the ‘projectionalist’, is Val’s son.

You’re likely to watch a whole bunch of gigantic superhero movies this summer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, if you’re looking for a smart, hilarious, action film with fantastic writing and performances, look no further. This might just be the best summer film of 2016. Watch ‘The Nice Guys’ today, and I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.

Fan

I’m just going to come out and say it – I’m not a Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) fan. In all the years that he’s been around, I’ve enjoyed just 4 of his movies – DDLJ, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, Swades and Chake De. Of course, his performance is just one of the thousand things contributing to the final product, but in India where stars are critical to a film’s success, SRK is larger than life. This is not news, but what is an epiphany to me, is that SRK’s presence trumps every other aspect of a film he’s in. So, in a sense, he is the movie. In fact, there is very little reason to watch his films, if you can’t identify with his performance, which remains largely consistent despite the character he’s playing. But he isn’t being an actor for his own sake. He’s a star – he perhaps now, having been at this for years, knows what his legion of fans want from him. They don’t want a ‘Raj’, or ‘Rahul’, or ‘Aditya’. They want ‘SRK’. And he largely delivers. It is perhaps this belief that made his latest, ’Fan’, at least intriguing for me. Could it be that SRK finally addressed his demigod status in a manner that was introspective and insightful? Nothing wrong with hoping I suppose.

For the most part – actually the first half, I was quite impressed with ‘Fan’. The film’s director Maneesh Sharma, and SRK do a great job of developing Gaurav, the fanatical fan of Bollywood superstar, Aryan Khanna (also played by SRK). Defying my expectations, SRK as Gaurav is even nuanced. In his quieter moments, you get a sense of his wide eyed gullibility, the small town aspirations, not yet dulled by big city realities. As a consummate Aryan Khanna impersonator, he is loved by his friends and family – a largish fish in a small pond. His dotting parents only fuel his fire with their unconditional love and support. It all feels incredibly real and organic. The character and the environment are as real as one could hope for, and while you may not share his mania, you immediately identify with Gaurav. To add to this, Gaurav’s look is astonishingly real – a mix of prosthetic and CG to ensures that he looks just different enough from Aryan, while allowing SRK to emote suitably. In a memorable scene from the film, Gaurav finds himself amongst the throng of fans outside Aryan’s house. He is at first lukewarm, being jostled around, but on finally seeing his idol, is unable to control his emotions and lets out a guttural scream. The chaos around him, perhaps mirroring his emotional state. Gaurav then approaches the gate to enter the house, with the sense of entitlement that only a true fan could have, and is turned away by security. The scene is just melodramatic enough, to promise that most difficult of Bollywood high wire acts – nuanced commercial cinema. It all looks really good up to this point. As if SRK has finally turned the camera on his fans, capturing their obsession with what is essentially a long distance and even one-sided love affair. He loves his adoring fans, but not enough to let them get too close. He is human after all, and not the demigod everyone seems to think he is.

And then, it all goes downhill.

Aryan Khanna is SRK, for all practical purposes and to be fair, his portrayal isn’t a complete whitewash. Aryan can be short tempered and arrogant, but these are of course, lesser crimes than being an obsessed sociopath. He is apparently also superhuman; Able to ride his motorcycle through crowded city streets and performing wheelies on a whim should he feel the need to kick ass. He is also immensely resourceful – able to singlehandedly track and visit his stalker’s home and family in the hopes of resolving this problem by himself. Meanwhile, Gaurav comes completely unhinged, but in doing so, turns into the world’s most proficient burglar/spy, able to escape from Madam Tussad’s, enter an exclusive industrialist’s wedding and even break into Aryan’s house to threaten his wife. What happened to the tempered first half of the film? My guess is SRK couldn’t help himself. He got cold feet and gave in, thinking that his hardcore fans may not have taken to his latest avatar, or even his ‘little’ film. It’s a terrible shame, but in doing so, perhaps he’s made his most personal film yet – a true love letter to his fans. One where he sets out to make an insightful and illuminating film about stardom as he sees it, but eventually exposes a chink in his armor and turns in a tame, clichéd and even ‘filmy’ narrative that he thought his fans would prefer. An all-out masala film, may have been just as good as the one promised in the first half of the film, but it is this lack of conviction that brings the film down. In trying to be everything to everyone, SRK and the film never really commit and it ends up being a bipolar mess. There was a real opportunity here but as always, the house wins. I really should’ve known better.

Keanu

I’m still surprised at the number of people who haven’t heard of Key & Peele. Their show is the funniest thing to come along in years and you can catch some of their best sketches on the Comedy Central YouTube channel. Broad, but bitingly smart satire on race issues, pop culture and man-children make up their repertoire and a lot of that can be seen in their first feature, Keanu’. In it, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play cousins who risk the LA underworld to retrieve a cat named Keanu, earlier adopted by Peele’s character. It should work, but is only partly successful. I wonder if it was my expectations that got in the way of enjoying the film. Sketch comedy tends to be shorter and with quicker pay-offs. With the benefit of a feature length, the duo take their time building the plot and tempering the laughs. In doing so, I felt the plot meandered and came apart at times. While their sketches are kinetic, the film lacks direction and momentum. Also, if kittens aren’t your thing, you should be prepared for lengthy sections devoted to how ‘cute’ the cat is. Having said that, the film did have its moments; Key in particular comes off really well as the more straight laced of the two, trying to fit into the gang, and a whole section involving his love of George Michael was hilarious. It’s too bad that these kinds of gags are few and far between.

I really wanted to like this, but it just felt a little flat to me – definitely a far cry from their sketch work. Still, it is their first film together, so I’ll just hold on to the hope that they’ll hit their stride in their next effort.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Did you watch 2012’s ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’? Did you like it? Well, doesn’t matter – here’s the sequel/prequel that you didn’t ask for.

In truth, it doesn’t feel fair to review this film. I’ve never seen it straight through – having tried twice, and fell asleep both times. From what I can tell, the convoluted plot involves 2 sisters who may or may not like each other, two ‘Huntsmen’ (or is it Huntspeople?) who aren’t allowed to fall in love, but do, and somehow it’s all connected to Snow White. The first film was at least visually interesting, but this is just … meh. I couldn’t find anything about it to keep me interested, and for the most part, I had trouble understanding the reason that the film makers chose to even bother with this story. It’s all just dull and boring, and not even a stellar but horribly underutilized cast save this.

The Voices

‘The Voices’ comes with huge pedigree. Marjane Satrapi, who wrote and directed the beautiful ‘Persopolis’ (based on her graphic novel of the same name), directs this one too. It may seem an odd choice that the person who wrote about her experiences coming of age in an increasingly oppressive Iran, chose to direct this film, about a serial killer in middle America. But the films have more in common than you may think. At their core, both are about the need for self-expression, the need to be oneself and break away from the norm, despite what society dictates. In that sense, Satrapi may have completed a duology of sorts, with ‘Persopolis’ and ‘The Voices’, acting as 2 sides of a coin – each taking diametrically opposite stances on the same basic human need.

In its first act, ‘The Voices’ provides very little warning of the carnage to come. Ryan Reynolds plays factory worker Jerry. He lives in an idyllic small town, is friendly with just about everyone, wears a pink uniform at the factory where he builds bathroom fixtures, and is involved with the planning of the office party where he takes part with gusto, in a conga line around the office. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Rogers & Hammerstine musical. That is until his pets, a dog named Bosco & a cat named Mr. Whiskers begin to speak with him. They are his conscience, his id and insecurities all rolled into one, and often play devil and angel in guiding his decisions. Nothing seems to faze the upbeat Jerry – even his killing of people closest to him. In fact, he keeps his victims’ disembodied heads in his fridge and they speak to him as friends would. Satrapi carefully manipulates viewers into a Jerry like stupor never allowing us to fully confront the horror of who Jerry is and what he’s done. And then, she completely lashes out at our complicities in an amazing scene, where Jerry who now is finally on his meds, sees his home as it is in reality – a hell hole, packed with decomposing food and animal waste, the furniture and kitchen drenched in blood and the head of his victim, once funny and vibrant, now a lifeless rotting shadow of its former self. His pets aren’t speaking to him anymore either, and he throws his meds downs a drain in horror. This is one of the most unsettling and perhaps most effective scenes depicting dementia that I’ve seen in a while, and anchors the narrative for the rest of the film, constantly keeping you on edge. I’d heard ‘The Voices’ described as a ‘dark comedy’. That doesn’t fully begin to describe the film. I also think it doesn’t do the film justice. What Satrapi has done is craft a film of incredible depth and nuance. It is genuinely unsettling and intense in its exploration of the psyche of someone like Jerry, to a degree of honesty that is rare these days. But this isn’t her film alone. Ryan Reynolds is phenomenal as Jerry (and Bosco and Mr. Whiskers). He plays him as a sweet guy who wants to fit in & do the right thing, but can’t help being compelled into the darkness and rage. At some level, that is sure to resonate with most of us, and perhaps that’s what makes his vulnerability that much more sympathetic, and at least to my horror, accessible. I’m not going to sugar coat it though – ‘The Voices’ is incredibly difficult to watch, and I found myself wincing at times. But that’s only because it refuses to pull its punches. This is cinema that deserves a fighting chance. It may not be for everyone, but it would be difficult to deny its gut wrenching impact.

UHF

Do you look back fondly on movies from your childhood? Me too. In most cases, it’s best not to revisit them, and have your memories crushed. Case in point: Weird Al Yankovic’s “UHF”. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I loved it, but I did like it. A lot. I rewatched it last week, and bad news’s that it hasn’t aged well. Good news’s that its heart’s in the right place, and it packs in tons of gags. It’s all pretty hit and miss, though. Still, not a bad way to kill an hour or so.

Toy Story 3

What can I say about this, that hasn’t been said already? In a perfect world, every movie would be a Pixar movie, and “Toy Story 3” is Pixar at the height of their prowess. An alchemic combination of story, technique and emotion, this is a masterpiece for our times. ‘Nuff said.

The Brothers Grimsby

‘The Brothers Grimsby’ features Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen as siblings separated at childhood. They reunite years later, the former now a spy, and the latter, an alcoholic football hooligan who lives with his wife and children in a impoverished town in England called Grimsby. If you’re familiar with Cohen’s films, you should know what to expect. The man seemingly has no filter, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ‘Boart’ remans one of my favourite comedies, but ‘Bruno’ and to a lesser extent, ‘The Dictator’ push the envelope so far, and are so unfunny that the joke ends up being on Cohen. ‘The Brothers Grimsby’ suffers a similar fate. Apart from a few scenes, most of the jokes land like rocks, and no matter how far Cohen pushes your sensibilities and patience, it does feel a desperate, and worse – predictable. While Cohen and his director, Louis Letterier (‘Now you see me’, ‘Incredible Hulk’) escalate the gross-out stakes with each scene, they pay very little attention to the plot or even the jokes, so what you’re left with is a disjointed mess made up of really shocking set pieces. In fact, the film serves its audience several familiar gags (Like Red Foxx’s famous one about the snake bite), but they aren’t reinterpreted or updated, just repackaged in turd coloured wrapping paper. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this is a movie completely devoid of charm, but the focus is set on getting you to loose your last meal, rather than hold your sides laughing. A standout scene involves the brothers finding a hiding spot in the plains of Africa. I won’t go into the details here, but trust me -it has to be seen to be believed. I’m sure there’re guys that will lap this up, but it just wasn’t for me. What makes matters worse, is the knowledge that Cohen is capable of bitingly smart social satire. This has absolutely no evidence of that.

Te3n

‘Te3n’ is a remake of 2013 Korean film, ‘Montage’, but to director, Ribhu Dasgupta’s credit he turns in a film with enough character and personality to be its own beast. I’ve heard it described as slow and meandering, while the film could’ve done with some judicial editing, to cut its runtime down by 40 minutes or so, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a great mystery film that builds the stakes and intrigue at a simmer rather than a boil. The plot takes its time to get going, but when it does, it pays off with enough secrets and plot twists to keep you guessing. Holding it all together, are the two central performances by Amitabh Bhachan and Nawazuddin Sidiqui. Both are great, but Bachan deserves specific praise for his performance as John Biswas, a man nursing the unbearable burden of having lost his granddaughter to a kidnaper eight years prior to the events in the film. Stooped over but defiant, he turns what could have been a cliched character into a nuanced, real person and the unlikeliest detective to appear on an Indian cinema screen for a while. Similarly, I’ve enjoyed Sabyasachi Chakrabarty’s work ever since I discovered him in the Feluda series, and he’s quite good here too. Unfortunately, Vidya Balan fares far worse, wasted in a thankless role. Dasgupta owes a large measure of his film’s success to his decision to set it in Kolkata. Purposely staying away from the landmarks, he shoots his film almost exclusively in the by lanes, godowns and neighbourhoods of the city, with a cold eye. In doing so, he ensures his film, like its characters are constantly anchored, adding a sense of authenticity and urgency to proceedings.

So, all in all a really solid watch. In a year of slim pickings form Bollywood (I watched the amazing ‘Waiting’ last year at the DIFF), this is the only standout so far for me.

How To Be Single

‘How to be Single’ has very little in the way of a plot. What it has are several subplots – none of which go anywhere. You could argue that in doing so, it avoids a thousand rom com cliches, but the truth is the whole ‘I’m going to date everyone to discover who I am’ plot line, has been done to death. There’s a lot of insufferable and self involved millennial navel gazing but the film isn’t completely devoid of charm. The performances are energetic, and Rebel Wilson, is well, Rebel Wilson. It’s harmless, but I wouldn’t recommend this, unless you had absolutely nothing else to do.

Warcraft 

Full disclosure: I have no prior experience with the game, ‘Warcraft’, on which this film is based. Still, I have years of experience with Saturday morning cartoons and the likes of D&D, and watching ‘Warcraft’ made me nostalgic for those days.

I wouldn’t say ‘Warcraft’ is a really good film, but it is clearly well intentioned. Unfortunately, it is also burdened with heavy exposition and a raft of uninteresting characters. Ironically, for a movie that traverses two worlds, the scope feels very limited and perhaps this is where my ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ analogy comes to play. For all its exposition, ‘Warcraft’ tells a criminally simple story with character archetypes that we’re all too familiar with. The battle scenes might be amazing, but the stakes are never real. To make matters worse, it takes itself so seriously, and with so little actually happening, it feels like you’ve watched the first few minutes of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, stretched out as a feature film. Lastly, the film seems slavishly devoted to the game, in its depiction of the Orcs. In doing so, they seem cartoonish, rather than organic and really take viewers out of the movie. Most frustrating is the fact that the film comes form the brilliant Duncan Jones known for clever fare such as ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’. It’s odd that he was unable to bring some of that ingenuity to this film. (The music score from Ramin Djawadi is really good though!)

‘Warcraft’ feels like a movie from another era, one where smaller fantasy films, with familiar archetypes may have satisfied viewers, but in post LOTR years, you really need to set yourself a high bar if you’re going to do any head turning with films like this. With Jones at the helm, it had the potential to be so much more than it ended up being. Shame.

 

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2016: Week 20 and 21

X Men: Apocalypse

It’s hard to believe that the X Men film franchise is now in its 16th year! I remember being excited about the first film way back in 2000. Back when the super hero genre was still in its infancy, it seemed amazing that we’d see characters like Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops on the big screen. Over the years, the sheen has worn, and my interest in this particular franchise has waned due to a few duds such as the standalone Wolverine films and X Men 3. Still, ‘First Class’ is amongst the best in the series, and ‘Days of Future Past’, was pretty good too. So, despite the poor reviews, I wasn’t going to skip ‘Apocalypse’. But my low expectations aside, I’m, surprised by just how much I disliked this movie.

Much of the blame needs to land on Bryan Singer’s doorstep. I rarely find passion or even sentimentality in his films. Instead, he always comes across as a consummate tactician; An efficient film maker who assembles scenes well, to ensure that his films and characters stay on plot. Unfortunately, this is the one thing missing in this film. I had trouble following the plot of the film or the main baddie, En Saba Nur’s nonsensical plan. In summary, he wakes up from a centuries-long nap, recruits 4 random mutants and destroys Cairo to build a pyramid which serves no real purpose, as his real plan (I think) is to merge with perpetual damsel in distress, Prof. Xavier to use his telekinetic abilities (I’m not sure for what). Speaking of which, what exactly are his powers? He is shown alternatively sending random strangers into walls, controlling people’s minds and giving mutants extra powers. (Surely he could do the same to himself?) Also, why does Magneto even join En Saba Nur? In a blindingly ironic scene, En Saba Nur transports Magneto to the Aushwitz concentration camp and ignites painful memories from his past there, to make the case for how he should join him in ‘destroying the world, and in its ashes, build a better one’. Wow, just wow. In the end, En Saba Nur and his cronies destroy an entire city killing millions, but it’s okay since Magneto has a change of heart half way through, to stop him. Ridiculous. All this happens, as we are reintroduced to some pretty critical characters from the X Men cannon like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Night Crawler, and a host of others who add, or matter little to the plot. That’s a shame because Singer also wastes a stellar cast. Jennifer Lawrence appears in a handful of scenes but adds nothing to the film. Similarly, James McAvoy is almost criminal in how he (seems to) phone in his performance. Oscar Issac too, is buried under campy latex and rubber to deliver a villain whose menace comes from awkward glaring and sneering, while delivering terrible dialogue. Amongst the new cast, Sophie Turner is given the most to do, and comes away slightly more successful than the rest. As Magneto, Michael Fassbender is perhaps the only member of the main cast that has anything real to do. His earlier scenes reminded me of the social issues that have always underpinned the X Men films, and lent them much of their relevance. Sadly, for the film and Fassbender, it’s a fleeting moment in an unnecessarily busy film. Similarly, a scene featuring Quick Silver rescuing mutants from the school shows us what could’ve been, by delivering more fun and imagination than the rest of the film put together.

‘First Class’ revitalized a tired franchise by reinventing the characters, and placing them in real world events in cool and interesting ways. The series needs more of that but instead, Singer’s chosen to rehash a tired old structure, and burden it with campy aesthetics (that Beast make up is just awful!), several unconnected characters and plot points that make it hard to care about anything at all. Bring back Matthew Vaughn!

Gods of Egypt

Gods of Egypt arrived on screens earlier this year, amidst accusations of ‘whitewashing’. Turns out that was the least of its crimes.

Alex Proyas is a seasoned film maker with reasonably good films under his belt. If you haven’t watched his ‘Dark City’ and ‘Crow’, do it now. Hell … even his adaptation of ‘I Robot’, while not wholly successful, is a fun ride. This brings us to ‘Gods of Egypt’, which is in a word, ‘odd’. Underneath it all, I suspect Proyas had an interesting idea and at least in the beginning, he seems sure of the kind of movie he is making. He establishes an intriguing start – a sword and sandal epic cross bred with the super hero genre. To this end, he populates his film with lots of cool eye candy – flying chariots powered by birds, Ra reimagined as an old man aboard a space station & the Gods as they appear in hieroglyphics, literally towering over men. So in many ways, this is a unique looking film. The ‘Gods’ are supernatural beings, juxtaposed against, and interacting with so called mortals. A class system exists, where the mortals are subjugated by vain and petty ‘Gods’, merely because the latter are physically more powerful than them. Unfortunately, this idea isn’t played out with any depth or consequence. The difference between the Gods and mortals while initially interesting, quickly wears thin, as it is all realized so literally. The Gods are taller, faster, and stronger than mortals, and oh yeah, they can also fly. That’s the extent of any real exploration here. All the characters are mere cardboard cutouts, with zero depth and motivation. As if compensating, the plot meanders with no real gravity or weight to support characters’ actions. For instance, we are repeatedly told that it is impossible for mortals to be resurrected from the dead, yet characters visit the underworld routinely, as if it’s a bus ride away. Similarly, none of the Gods live up to their purpose, and you wonder what was the job description and hiring process for someone like the god of wisdom, Toth who come across as an effeminate, condescending and ultimately, clueless weirdo or goddess of protection/war(?) Nepthys, who seems surprised when her wings are ripped off by baddie Set, when she turns her back on him to nonchalantly fly away from their confrontation. It’s all just lazy, and incredibly frustrating to watch. Proyas who seems intent on revitalizing the sword and sandal genre, gets his actors to perform as they would, had they been appearing in a genre film from the 50’s. They’re all hilariously over the top, delivering god awful lines. The usually excellent Chadwick Boseman and Geoffery Rush in particular misfire spectacularly. But this isn’t even the worst part.

I’m not averse to CG in films. When done right, it can elevate films, and deepen your engagement with the narrative. Not here. I assume, due to the lack of a cohesive plot or any semblance of character depth, that Proyas aimed to deliver a spectacle, and nothing more. He relies heavily on his SFX team to deliver, but honestly, this is the worst CG I’ve ever seen. From the cyborgy battle armors, to the playdoh elephants, to the flat, red sands in the dessert, it all reeks of an Asylum production. In the several scenes where characters are shown riding chariots, motion is depicted by employing rear projection effects that are so poorly delivered, that you can’t help but laugh out loud. I’ve played videogames where the cut-away cinematics have more authenticity than the scenes in this film. Criminally bad for a film of this scale and budget.

So, an interesting kernel of a film, ruined by bad writing, bad CG, and bad performances.

Where to Invade Next?

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore has a signature style. He mixes wry, observational humor with harsh truths to make compelling cases. You may not agree with his politics, but you have to admit that as a film maker, few make a more compelling argument than him. A large part of his appeal is his ability to intelligently boil down complex issues to basic, thought provoking ideas on which to build his debate. His latest, ‘Where to Invade Next?’ is no different.

The title is misleading, given Moore’s famously leftist leanings. If like me, you assumed that this was going to be a denunciation of America’s foreign policy, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Instead, Moore travels Europe looking for countries to “invade”, and steal from them ideas that he thinks will improve the lives of Americans. What he encounters are ideas that run a gamut of issues like education, diet, law enforcement, politics, work life balance and the like. In doing so, he uncovers startling revelations about the approach some of these countries take. For instance, in France, students in public schools get a state sponsored, balanced 4 course lunch of impeccable quality. Not only that, it costs the French government a fraction of what it costs the Americans to do the same. Similarly, in Slovenia he is informed that higher education is essentially free. In fact, several America students have now moved there to complete their education as they are unable to bear the cost of doing this, in their own country. In Norway, the prison system is built on the principal of ‘rehabilitation’, rather than ‘punishment’. So much so that, the prisoners are educated on being ‘good neighbours’, by being provided their own accommodation and facilities, and responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning for their fellow inmates. In Portugal, the police stress on the importance of ‘human dignity’ above all else. In Tunisia, he interviews women who recall how the move by the Islamist government to curb women’s rights was thwarted by public dissent and in Iceland, how women in power and in leading companies, have helped safeguard the public interest. If it all sounds cold and calculated, it isn’t. To see the empowering effect of public good in these countries is incredibly moving. The idea that people live and care not just for themselves, but society in general is beautifully translated and I found this basic theme to be universal, applicable to numerous situations in India, for instance. Admittedly, there are some broad (and borderline naïve) generalizations and Moore glosses over some of the real problems plaguing the countries he visits. He does point out though, that he is there ‘to pick the flowers, not the weeds’. As if to cement his argument, he finds that most of the ideas he ‘discovers’ are in fact, rooted in traditional ideology and thinking from America, long since forgotten.

Ultimately, this is a hopeful film; One that only Moore could deliver with such clear eyed and unapologetic optimism, sensitivity and humor. ‘Where do we invade next?’ is a real gem that will raise several questions and debates amongst viewers, no matter what your nationality. Most importantly, it will make you want to be better than you are. What else could you ask for?

Pele: Birth of a Legend

A by the numbers, clichéd, and dull biopic.

Given the subject matter, it should have been so much better. As if to add insult to injury, the film comes from Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who are behind sunch amzing documentaries as ‘Two Escobars’, ‘Favela Rising’ and ‘Youngstown Boys’ – all of which I recommend you watch immediately, rather than this film.   Seu Jorge as Pele’s father is decent enough, though.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was something of a cultural phenomenon when it was released in 2002. It introduced us to the charming and funny Nia Vardalos, and a cast of characters who felt familiar, and well, like family.

Its taken 14 years to get to the sequel. They shouldn’t have bothered.

I get it – films such as this, are a genre all to themselves. They’re harmless, and even meant to shamelessly pander to the viewers’ need for happy resolution, with a few heart warming chuckles along the way. In fact they can be quite endearing, and your enjoyment of them, is wholly dependent on your ability to embrace them with that belief. Here’s the burn though – what happens when the film is so lazy that it fails to meet that most basic expectation? In ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’, the family (of mostly returning cast members) are a bunch of stereotypes. There’s the loud aunt, the matriarch who serves no real purpose other than whinge, the husband who is the cool, calm observer of all this madness, the daughter awkwardly dealing with her heritage, and of course the heroine, who sacrifices her needs in the interest of her family. There is no real plot to speak of – just a collection of bad scenes you’ve seen in a thousand movies such like this before. It’s all so sickeningly boring. In fact, I’d challenge you not to be able to predict the rest of the plot in minute detail, just minutes after you begin watching it.

I’d skip this, if I were you – genre fan, or not.  The below scene should be warning enough, and yes, the whole film is like this.

2016: Week 18 and 19

Captain America: Civil War

Comic book characters are based on archetypes, which is why so many DC & Marvel characters mirror each other. So, Captain America is very much Marvel’s version of Superman, in that he embodies the same personality traits of the latter. (or vice versa, depending on where your loyalty lies). The reason why Superman is my favourite superhero is his complete lack of cynicism. He doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body, and everything he does seems to be purely from his need to help others. While I can’t claim to practice what he preaches fully, I am drawn to his inherent goodness. These days more than ever, these values seem antiquated but that’s precisely why we should continue to aspire to them. In Zack Snyder’s ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman V. Superman’, Kal El is drawn as a conflicted character, looking for his place in the world – perhaps the only way Snyder saw fit to contemporize apparently old fashioned values. As I’ve said before, he’s been partly successful, though the character could do with a little more fleshing out. I believe this even more, having seen Chris Evans as Cap. ‘Captain America: Civil War’, is the third in the MCU’s Captain America series, and with the benefit of two (excellent) films behind him, Captain America is better than ever in ‘Civil War’. We now clearly understand that his good nature can’t be helped, and he’s raging against the machine precisely because of this quality. At least in contemporary cinema, it would appear that Cap is a better Superman than well …. Superman.

But ‘Civil War’ isn’t Cap’s movie alone. It’s a busy film with a large, ensemble cast. For the most part, everyone gets their moment in the sun, with the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan (who finally brings personality to Bucky), Anthony Mackie, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson turning in excellent performances. But the real stand-outs are Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Rudd as Ant Man and Tom Holland as Spiderman, who finally returns to the MCU after a few years of aimlessly wandering the Sony wilderness. Boseman portrays stoic regality effortlessly and Holland is Spiderman on a comic page brought to life. Both characters have upcoming solo films, that I’m now genuinely excited for. As I said earlier, Chris Evans as Captain America is by far, the best actor/hero combo in this genre today. He somehow portrays righteousness and principles without ever being sanctimonious and fake. It’s an incredibly difficult balance that was last delivered with this precision, by Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s ‘Superman: The Movie’. Beyond individual performances, all the actors bring easy chemistry to their interactions. They feel familiar, like we know each of them, and their relationships with each other. The banter has undercurrents of affection, frayed friendships, bruised egos and tension that have been simmering over the course of the past few films. This is a super hero movie though, and what would it be without knockdown, spectacular set pieces? Legend has it, Anthony and Joe Russo got their first MCU directing gig (the spectacular ‘Winter Soldier’), when Kevin Feige watched their episode of ‘Community’, featuring a paintball battle. Their ability to mix humor, performances and well-staged action made an impression on the Marvel brass, and this is evident in an airport battle scene in this film. A truly amazing sequence, it involves 10 or so super heroes battling each other, on the tarmac, then the terminal, then the hanger, then on the fuselage of a plane, then … well, you get the idea. If that weren’t enough, this is also where the Russo’s spring some of their best surprises, both visually and narratively. I’d say that this sequence alone, is worth the price of admission, and props up the movie, that has its fair share of navel gazing.

Speaking of which, for all its bluster, the mid-section of the film did feel a little tired. We get it – Cap & Iron Man don’t see eye to on the issue of hero registration, but the movie spends a sizeable chunk of its runtime with them philosophizing their points of view to each other, and others. Black Panther and Spiderman are amongst the best elements of the film, but they do feel shoe horned into a plot that could’ve done without them. Their presence is nowhere near as clumsy as the addition of Flash etc., in ‘Batman V. Superman’, but is arguably overkill given the focus of the story. Lastly, the MCU has a history of bad villains (Loki aside), and ‘Civil War’ is no different. Zemo’s (played by Daniel Bruhl) revenge is smartly structured, keeping you guessing his motives to the very end, but it is ultimately underwhelming, as is the subplot that arises out of his actions. I don’t want to spoil it here, but when you watch it, you’ll perhaps agree that his revelation is a too convenient conclusion to the conflict between the two leads. Refreshingly, it sidesteps the clichéd ‘I’m sorry, let’s get together and kick ass now’ narrative that most of these movies adopt, but it still feels a little contrived.

On the whole though, this is a really entertaining film, and a worthy continuation of MCU’s already stellar cinema narrative. I’ve heard from various people, how they’re now suffering from super-hero fatigue. I’d urge them to give ‘Civil War’ a chance. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the spectacle and heart of it all.

The Inbetweeners (1&2)

I’ve been on an ‘Inbetweeners’ binge off late. Seasons 1 & 2 are on Netflix, and I went through both in a few days. Jonesing for more, I ended up watching the movie, and its sequel that followed the regular seasons. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Inbetweeners’ follow four male school students in the UK, and their constant pursuit to get laid, be cool and fit in.

This isn’t for everyone I’m sure; Filled to the brim with gross out gags and American pie-esque innuendo. To counter this, the series and the movies are genuinely funny. Cringe worthy in their awkward honesty, and sold wholeheartedly by the main cast, you can’t help but root for these losers and be entertained. Just don’t go in expecting Tolstoy, and you might enjoy it. (Also, the first film is way better than the second)

Zoolander 2

‘Zoolander 2’ was high on my list of anticipated films for 2016. I couldn’t help myself – I deeply love the first film, having watched it multiple times and Ben Stiller hasn’t really directed a dud in a long time. Far from it, the last films directed by him include ‘Tropic Thunder’, and ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. Both are lovely films, so obviously I had high hopes for ‘Zoolander 2’.

I was wrong.

To call this a comedy would be a stretch. I don’t mean this ironically – it genuinely isn’t a comedy. It tries really hard, pleading with you as it wears on, its desperation almost palpable, but I barely broke a smile. Stiller should’ve focused on polishing up his script, rather than cramming his film with a parade of unnecessary and unfunny cameos. (What is Keifer Sutherland even doing?) Jokes that have no business appearing in the film, linger on as if they eventually get funnier, on the fifth hearing. I’m actually surprised at how generic this was. ‘Zoolander’, was incredibly smart in just how dumb it was. It exposed the ridiculousness of the fashion industry in really insightful (and fearless) ways. The sequel however, feels so tired. In fact, it recycles several gags (and plot points) from the first film. I don’t mean that they’ve been updated to reflect today’s fashion industry; just tweaked, because this is after all a sequel, and they couldn’t get away with serving up the same gags again, verbatim. E.g.: The hot reporter from the first is replaced with a hot Interpol agent, Derek and Hansel need to overcome their differences to overcome a villain, who as it turns out is still Mugatu. Even the mermaid commercial in the first, appears again, albeit with Zoolander as a cow. Despite the evolution of the industry throwing up even more fodder, the film takes no risks. Instead, it feels almost apologetic for how much fun the first one was. In a meta twist, the fact that ‘Zoolander 2’ is so bad could mean that the fashion industry has had the last laugh. And perhaps that’s the saddest thing about this movie.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

If like me (before I saw this documentary), you know little about Aron Swartz, here’s a primer: A prodigy who could read aged 3, Swartz became enamored with computers and the internet at an extremely early age. At age 13 or 14, he was already a leading coder and voice for net activism, displaying a wisdom and maturity far beyond his years. It was around this time that he also founded Reddit. Earning the respect of reputed and legendary online voices, he gradually focused his attention on what he deemed to be unjust U.S copyright laws that prevented information that could educate and inform, from being shared freely. In an act of defiance, Swartz used MIT’s servers to download huge volumes of academic journal articles from a corporation that he felt should be in the public realm. When found, the U.S Government brought the full force of judicial prosecution to him, arresting him, and then threatening him with over 3 decades of jail time. Swartz still went on to galvanize the online community to fight bills such as SOPA that threatened free net usage, but in the end the strain of the case was too much to bear. Swartz, a leading thinker for the online age, committed suicide in 2013, aged 26.

I gathered everything you read above, from watching the documentary, ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’. You may argue that copyright infringement is more complicated than it seems, and that Swartz was actually wrong in what he did. Perhaps you’d be right. The documentary recreates Swartz’s life from accounts from his family and friends, who just happen to be leading net activists. So, arguably, we’re only hearing one side of the story. Ostensibly, those on the other side of the equation, refused to appear in the film, and their absence is the film’s sole failing. While a balanced view may be missing, Brian Knappenberger’s film is as clear eyed as they come when defending Swartz’s ethos of challenging unjust laws. Not only is it single minded in its narrative, but it packs a huge emotional punch too. Ultimately, it’s difficult not to be enraged by the injustice meted out to Swartz. The true tragedy lies in his potential, and what could’ve been. If he’d accomplished as much as he did at 26, who knows how our world would’ve been shaped by him at age 30, 40 or 50. Through archival footage of Swartz’s many public speeches, the film paints him as someone who wanted to better the world. While the definition of this may vary depending on your politics, the film suggests that what is beyond debate is that a prodigious voice was snuffed out by a toxic nexus of privilege, old-school thinking, fear and commerce. And it would be right. For someone who previously knew little about him, I felt a deep sense of respect for who he was, and sadness at what the world may have lost, with his death. In that sense, the film builds his legacy and hopefully, if enough people watch this and learn about what he tried to do; his struggle would not have been in vain. Watch it on Netflix now.

It’s early days still, but I’d be surprised if ‘The Internet’s Boy’ didn’t feature high on the list of my favourite films that I watched this year.

Eddie the Eagle

‘Eddie the Eagle’ tells the story of Michael Edwards, dubbed ‘The Eagle’ at the 1988 Montreal Winter Olympics. Representing the UK in the Ski Jump event, he overcame a series of obstacles to place last in both, the 70m and 90m runs. Despite this, his underdog story and unassuming nature endeared himself to people around the world, thus developing a passionate fan following.

Needless to say, Eddie’s story is heartwarming and inspirational – a sports story in the spirit of ‘Rudy’. So obviously, a movie based on his life would be equally endearing. ‘Eddie the Eagle’ is unapologetic in its intent to make you feel good, and in this sense, the film is a straightforward heart tug, filled with naïve and wide eyed exuberance. The story or the lead character is never ironic and there are no winks to camera to help you adjust your cynicism to digest the story. As a viewer, you are expected to take it at face value, and go along for the ride, rooting for Eddie through every bone crunching fall and triumphant landing. That’s what’s so refreshing about the film. It adopts a tried and tested template, but commits to it so fully, that it almost feels like a throwback to Disney films of the 50’s. The whole affair is light and breezy despite the stakes and for once, it’s really nice to watch a sports film without the burden of brooding leads and droning monologues. At the heart of the film are two really nice performances by Taron Edgerton and Hugh Jackman, both of which are integral to making the film such a charming watch. Taron in particular, seen previously dripping swag and brute force in ’The Kingsman’, is cast against type as Eddie. Bespectacled, awkward and supremely earnest, he is the heart of the film, and you can’t help but cheer him on, through every obstacle or unfair decision thrown his way. As if to complete the illusion, the costumes and styling are spot on, with characters draped in bright fluorescent colors and big hair, that was signature of the 80’s. Similarly, the score is Vangelis synth with embarrassingly OTT keyboard solos, but it all works so well together, and furthers the film’s compulsive need to please.

I do have one big issue with the film though.

Right after watching it, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. I loved how the filmmakers told the story and admired how they stirred such emotions with clarity and single minded purpose. I then began to research Eddie the Eagle, and was disappointed to find that a lot the movie’s version of Eddie’s journey to the Olympics wasn’t exactly as it happened. I’m all for dramatic license – movies tweak real life accounts all the time to serve brevity of runtime & budget, and to punch up the narrative. However, critical to Eddie’s story in the film is Hugh Jackman’s turn as Bronson, his American trainer – once a promising skier, now reduced to a grouchy alcoholic. He overcomes his own demons to provide Eddie with the skills critical to his success, which is an engaging (albeit well-trodden) story in and of itself. Here’s the kicker though – apparently this character doesn’t exist in real life. Not only that, a subplot involves his relation with an estranged mentor and legendary ski trainer, Warren Sharp (played by Christopher Walken), who wait for it … doesn’t exist in real life either. In fact, in an awkward resolution to Bronson’s arc, he is reunited and accepted by Sharp in a brief locker room meeting at the very end of the film. What is the point of this, other than to shamelessly manipulate viewers? More importantly, if Bronson was never around, what drove Eddie’s success beyond his apparently bottomless reservoir of self-motivation? I’d assume that Eddie’s exploits at the Olympics would be fodder enough for a great film, so its dependence on such a blatant crutch is surprising. I guess I’m having trouble separating the truth from the fiction to fully commit to the film, but if unlike me, you’re willing to give in to the good vibes alone, I guarantee you’ll love this film.