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.
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.
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’ 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.
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’ 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.
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.