Utkarsh Bansal, Author at Spotflik

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Bumblebee Review

Born. Watched movies, TV. Read novels, comic books. Will read more comic books, novels. Will watch more TV, movies. Will die.

Bumblebee Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

A war is raging on the planet Cybertron. Optimus Prime leads the Autobot rebellion against the tyrannical Decepticons. He sends his loyal soldier and friend, B-127 (soon to be called Bumblebee, voiced by Dylan O’Brien when he has a voice) to Earth, since Decepticons have not found it yet and it can be used as an Autobot base. Soon after he arrives on Earth, Bumblebee finds himself without a voice, on the run from the military and with no memory (that last part isn’t really explained). His mission: to protect the planet’s inhabitants and keep its location safe till the other Autobots arrive.

None of that is what the story is really about. Instead, it’s about Bumblebee’s friendship with highly skilled car mechanic Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who is learning to cope with her dad’s death, and it’s about how each of them grows because of that friendship. Think How to Train Your Dragon, Charlie is Hiccup and Bumblebee is Toothless. That description, to me, sums up both why this movie is so good and also where it falls short of greatness.

What director Travis Knight of Kubo and the Two Strings acclaim gets completely right with Bumblebee is the tone. He creates a playful 80s teen movie atmosphere that is perfect for this story, even in the midst of extreme peril. There’s a sweetness to the interactions between the leads, and they’re both so likable that you don’t question their immediate connection, you just root for them. And when the film seamlessly transitions to robot v robot action, Knight shows the same finesse with the camera that he did with Kubo, creating some kinetic, fluid (and also surprisingly violent) fight sequences.

Hailee Steinfeld, who plays a character not that different from her rebel teen character in The Edge of Seventeen, is just as great here, pretty much carrying the movie herself. Her arc is not particularly well-written, and her growth can feel a little disconnected from the events in her life, but her acting is always beautiful. She never lets one emotion define her, making all the sullenness and the excitement convincing as parts of the same person. I did not, however, get that feeling that I’m watching a real person while watching John Cena as the soldier who first encounters Bumblebee. He does well with scenes of levity, especially when his character is first introduced, but stumbles in more dramatic moments.

What did not necessarily work for me was Bumblebee’s memory loss, and the way it was used to make him feel less like Charlie’s friend and more like her pet at times. I would’ve been much more interested in a story where two people, thinking at the same capacity, become friends. The barrier of one of them being mute could then have made this something truly special. The memory loss plot device also hurts the narrative in that major changes in Bumblebee’s character arc are based on tech instead of his friendship with Charlie. It left me feeling like I was watching two Bumblebees, a confident Autobot soldier in his speaking scenes and in the scenes with Charlie, little more than a Herbie knockoff.

This feeling of familiarity is omnipresent. You know what it means when a robot has red glowing eyes instead of blue, because it’s basic movie language, and that which can’t predict, we aren’t surprised by. The only thing new is to leave the theater with positive feelings after watching a Transformers movie. It does not take a great film to earn the title of best Transformers movie.

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Mary Poppins Returns Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Underwhelming sequels are not exactly uncommon. But when a sequel follows the route taken by two of the best sequels in recent years, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, that is, taking the plot structure of the original and reusing it for a new generation, it is disappointing to see it feel so rote and unimaginative. It’s great to once again enjoy the charismatic screen presence of Mary Poppins herself, and Emily Blunt in that role is practically perfect in every way. But the movie also includes a father (Ben Whishaw) who sometimes gets unreasonable cross at his kids and must learn to find the child in himself again. It includes a mother-like figure (Emily Mortimer) who is fighting for an important social cause but is sometimes laughed at for it. It has a lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who was not only an apprentice of the chimney sweep (among other jobs) from the original, but plays exactly the same part here. And finally, it has the bank. Bank troubles fuel the initial conflict, a banker (Colin Firth) is the antagonist and a showdown at the bank acts as the climax. Just like the first one. Even the one random cameo in between (Meryl Streep) that has no bearing on the plot feels oddly reminiscent of the scene from the original where they all fly to the ceiling.

Those are just the major instances that immediately stand out. I could take the time to detail all the little jokes here are rehashed from the first without any comment on them or any significant addition to them, but by now you get the idea. The premise is simple: 25 years after the events of the first one, the Banks children have now grown up, Jane Banks a labour activist and Michael Banks a widower artist with a job at the bank. As the movie begins, Michael learns that he must pay off a loan in a few days in order to keep his house. He, Jane and his three kids must figure out a way to find the large sum required within that time, and that’s when Mary Poppins comes back into their lives to remind them what’s important, and in the process, teach them some very British manners.

The best children’s stories entertain or educate children, and simultaneously offer adults something more to chew on. Mary Poppins Returns isn’t quite complex enough for that, and the best adults could really take away from it is a pleasant sense of nostalgia for the original, but that’s not to say it’s not a great entertainer for kids. The technical production is fabulous, with stunning visual effects that not only make the Mary Poppins magic fit seamlessly with the live action world around her, but manage to make the live action characters not look odd when they find themselves in a 2D animated world. Moreover, the children are immediately lovable, and since their mother’s death has left them responsible and wise beyond their years, they also act as great role models for the little ones watching.

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My Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2019

by Utkarsh Bansal

2019, at first glance, looks like an orgy of reboots, remakes and sequels. I say give it a second look. Sure, there are ten superhero movies releasing this year, three of them in the same month. Disney is making at least five movies bound to make more than a billion dollars worldwide (see top image). And three of its upcoming movies are remakes of animated classics translated faithfully to live action and CGI images. However, look beyond them, look between their release dates, and you will find a treasure trove of movies with intriguing premises, stellar casts, and fimmakers with unique voices. And that is not even counting movies we don’t yet know about, movies by yet to be known filmmakers that come out of nowhere and take over film festivals.

In assembling this list, I first made a larger list of all the films I was really excited for, then cut down as many as I could, making some painful edits along the way. That still left me with a 20 movies long list. Looking at a list of movies hitting theatres (or in one case, Netflix), I just felt this deep happiness, for even though some of them won’t live up to their promise, there’s just such a wealth of brilliance, and variety of brilliance ahead of us that whatever does end up working will be enough to make every Friday special. It’s truly a treat for fans of all flavours of film.

Instead of describing each film in detail, I’ll highlight the key elements that make these films worth looking forward to, or rather that have me personally excited to see them. It’s also evenly balanced between blockbusters and auteur cinema, which I promise is not by design. 2019 just happens to be evenly balanced.

10. The Irishman

What it is: Netflix original crime drama.

Highlights:

  1. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
  2. All-star cast of crime veterans Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.
  3. Oh I’m not done listing the cast, there’s still Anna Paquin, Bobby Canavale, Ray Romano and Jesse Plemons.
  4. Cutting edge de-aging VFX from Industrial Light and Magic.

Release Date: TBA

9. Toy Story 4

What it is: The toys adjust to life without Andy in the fourth installment, directed by Josh Cooley.

Highlights:

  1. Pixar has proven adept at making sequels, with the Incredibles and Toy Story franchises.
  2. The return of Tom Hanks as Woody as well as the entire lovable ensemble.
  3. That beautiful, beautiful teaser with perfectly chosen music.

Release Date: June 21

 

8. Bulbul Can Sing

What it is: Indian, specifically, Assamese coming-of-age drama.

Highlights:

  1. Directed by Rima Das, who made one of the most moving films of 2018, Village Rockstars.
  2. Addresses the emerging sexualities of adolescent girls, a rarity in Indian cinema.
  3. Deals with LGBTQ issues, a rarity in Indian cinema.
  4. Has already garnered strong reviews at film festivals.

Release Date: TBA

7. Captain Marvel

What it is: Superhero space movie set in the 90s, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Highlights:

  1. That classic reliability that comes from the directors and the franchise both having a good track record.
  2. The lead, Brie Larson, one of the finest actors working today.
  3. A chance to get to know a younger Fury, as well as the big screen return of Agent Coulson!
  4. The movie’s place as an essential segue from Avengers: Infinity War to Avengers: Endgame.

Release Date: March 8

 

6. Gloria Bell

What it is: A spirited middle-aged woman dances and loves and lives life to the fullest.

Highlights:

  1. That spirited middle-aged woman? Julianne Moore. I’m already sold.
  2. Director Sebastián Lelio is on a roll with 2017’s A Fantastic Woman and 2018’s Disobedience.
  3. With those two films focusing on a trans woman and a lesbian couple, Lelio has proven himself a genius at telling stories of women on the fringe of norms of acceptability.
  4. Rave reviews from festivals, unsurprising for an A24 production.

Release Date: March 8

 

5. Star Wars: Episode IX

What it is: Culmination of the Rey trilogy that started with The Force Awakens.

Highlights:

  1. J. J. Abrams returns as director, which is good news since even those of us who enjoyed The Last Jedi did not always love it the way we loved The Force Awakens.
  2. There is a lot of potential for exploration of what it means to be a Jedi knight here, because of where The Last Jedi left off.
  3. Final goodbye to General Leia.

Release Date: December 20

4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

What it is: A quirky dramedy adapted from a novel.

Highlights:

  1. Richard Linklater is one of the finest directors alive, and has been knocking it out of the park this decade with Bernie, Before Midnight, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some and Last Flag Flying.
  2. Stars Cate Blanchett. Hearing Linklater dialogue from her is bound to be a treat.
  3. The trailer looks great, and it’s based on a book I’ve heard great things about.

Release Date: March 22

 

3. Spider-Man: Far From Home

What it is: Globe-trotting Spidey adventure directed by Jon Watts.

Highlights:

  1. Sequel to the spectacular Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring the amazing Tom Holland.
  2. The villain, Mysterio, is portrayed by the ultimate Jake Gyllenhaal.
  3. Seeing the state of the world after the events of Endgame.
  4. It gets bumped many spots higher because of my extreme Spider-Man bias. I love this character, especially in this incarnation.

Release Date: July 5

2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

What it is: Period drama about an actor and his stunt double, set in 1969 Los Angeles.

Highlights:

  1. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
  2. The actor and his stunt double are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively.
  3. Cast also includes Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen among others.

Release Date: July 26

1. Avengers: Endgame

What it is: You know what it is.

Highlights:

  1. It is, as Tony Stark would put it, “The end of the path I started us on.” The 11-year path.
  2. Directed by The Russo Brothers, the finest directors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  3. It’s also supposedly the conclusion to a 3-movie arc for the Hulk that started with Thor: Ragnarok.
  4. Return to the core Avengers roster.
  5. Hawkeye is back! But as Ronin!
  6. How will they unsnap the snap?
  7. Who will die in the process? (This time for good.)
  8. Perhaps most importantly, as the trailer indicates, we can expect a very emotional story for Tony.
  9. Part of the journey is the end.

Release Date: April 26

 

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful 2019! I know I will.

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The Top 10 Best Movies of 2018

by Utkarsh Bansal

So a lot happened in 2018. Like, even without leaving the domain of film, a hell of a lot happened. Documentaries became cool. Netflix started pumping out awards-worthy dramas one after the other. Netflix also released an interactive science fiction film, with plans to use the format for more films in the future. Superhero movies started to look very different than they ever have, with the black-dominated cast of Black Panther and the diverse Spider-people inhabiting a uniquely animated world in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. James Gunn got fired from Mervel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and quickly hopped on board DC’s Guardians wannabe franchise Suicide Squad. And now, as we find ourselves in the thick of awards season, we find a foreign language film in serious contention to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which would be an unprecedented achievement. The landscape of cinema looks remarkably different now from what it looked like a year ago.

In the midst of all this, my own experience of the movies of 2018 was that, while there were many movies that were excellent in very different ways, there were fewer outright masterpieces than I’ve seen in the last few years. Granted, there are quite a few remarkable movies I’ve been unable to watch, that I’ll be catching up on before the Oscars. But even so, it’s difficult to call 2018 either a better or worse year for film overall than 2017, because I really don’t know if I’d rather see many excellent movies or a few that are practically perfect in every way.

Here are the best movies released in 2018 that I have seen so far:

10. Support the Girls

Films are often built around a central character facing one big challenge, and the ways they try to overcome it. With Support the Girls, director Andrew Bujalski reminds us that sometimes the biggest challenge is to get through the day. And once we’re completely engaged in the story of one fateful day in the life of Lisa (played with admirable depth by Regina Hall) and the day-to-day problems that just keep piling on her, we get to the most enthralling aspect of the film: women helping each other stay afloat, keeping each other sane. It’s a glorious celebration of female friendship, and that lands it a spot on this list.

9. Black Panther

I wrestled with this choice a lot. I’m still fighting myself over it. Ever since it released to an outpouring of love back in February, much of the conversation around it has focused on its flaws. And yes, it’s flawed. And yes, I could easily have replaced it with Incredibles 2 or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, both exhilarating superhero adventures. I suppose my final decision came down to the feeling the movie left me with, and after the big, CGI-heavy, disconnected battle, Black Panther used its closing minutes to give its villain an emotional gut-punch of a moment, and closed out its hero’s arc showing his growth in action in a way that resonated. That’s the kind of catharsis I’m always looking for in movies, and rarely find.

8. Village Rockstars

The best thing about movies about little kids is that they tend to have the biggest dreams. In Indian filmmaker Rima Das’s Village Rockstars, a girl living in poverty in a remote Assamese village dreams of owning and playing a guitar. An antidote to poverty porn, the film is realistic about how insanely difficult such a goal is for her, and in general about how difficult life is in that village for financial, social and natural reasons, but chooses to focus on the good, the fun, the hopeful. Its unsentimental optimism is infectious, and its impeccable technical quality on a miniscule budget heralds Rima Das (who wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited this movie) as a creator to watch.

7. Shirkers

I’m not a documentary person. Usually. But there’s nothing usual about Sandi Tan’s Netflix original Shirkers. The story of a film she made decades ago (also called Shirkers), and the reasons it could never be finished, Shirkers beautifully captures both what goes into making a movie and what it takes out of you. We see from the clips of the original Shirkers in this movie that it was a quirky, hipster, arthouse film with a strong sense of creative identity. Sandi Tan’s unique sensibilities shine through just as much in the documentary. And most impressive of all, she manages to shine a light on herself as well, laying bare her flaws for the world to see. One can only hope she gets back into directing fiction.

6. First Man

The last two films Damien Chazelle directed, Whiplash and La La Land, landed in most top 10 lists for their respective years. As far as I’m concerned, no matter how good 2019 ends up being, those two movies each deserve a spot in top 10 lists for the decade. So of course First Man doesn’t live up to their lofty standard, and of course that’s not a bad thing. This is an unconventional biopic, one that tailors its style and tone to its subject, Neil Armstrong: passionate and energetic and focused when on the job, low-key and muted at home. Ryan Gosling perfectly conveys Armstrong’s inner turmoil without overt displays of emotion, and his lack of energy is more than made up for by the fiery Claire Foy. And the moon landing is one of the best scenes I saw all year, in any movie. The word “exhilarating” was coined just so it could eventually be used to describe my feeling watching this.

5. A Star is Born

Exhilaration is also what it feels like when you see a nervous Ally (Lady Gaga) first take the stage and, gradually getting lost in her music and her love, own the stage. First time director Bradley Cooper plays up the drama in every scene, extracting every ounce of emotion from the audience, and it doesn’t feel manipulative because the relationship we find ourselves invested in is so delicately constructed in front of our eyes, through moments big and small. The romance is born of the music, and the music in turn comes from their love, which makes this the perfect story for the musical treatment. By the time the film hit the crescendo, I found myself spent.

4. Searching

Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut is a perfect example of a film where form trumps content and that’s not a bad thing, because the content is still solid. A whodunit thriller that we observe entirely through digital screens, Searching has its foundations in a well-constructed mystery with unpredictable twists and interesting characters portrayed by skilled actors, especially John Cho as the father of a missing girl. On this solid foundation, Chaganty has constructed a complex, layered maze of computer interfaces, where the different operating systems and softwares we see aren’t merely plot devices, instead the way they’re used becomes a part of the film’s central theme of interpersonal communication. Near the end, the film essentially turns into a crowdpleaser, which ends up being a good thing, because we’ve already been put through such a ringer that catharsis, in plot and in character growth, is appreciated.

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

While this is easily one of the best movies of the year, that’s not even the most important conversation it’s a part of. What it is is one of the greatest action movies ever made, up there with The Raid: Redemption and Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a celebration of what mainstream blockbuster cinema can do. One, it has an unabashedly heroic hero, who really does want nothing more than to save lives and accomplish missions. Two, it has a crew of characters whose dynamic with each other has the kind of wit and heart that makes you want to just watch them banter or bicker when you know they could be out there kicking ass. Three, it flows. The rhythm established between plot twists, emotional pauses and action set-pieces is the kind of thing that makes Christopher McQuarrie the ultimate action director. But fourth and most important is just how insane the situations are that Tom Cruise finds himself in. The bike chase is exemplary of how bike chases in movies should be done. The bathroom brawl is the pinnacle of hand-to-hand combat, at least in Hollywood. And the HALO jump is so crazy and unprecedented, you’re not left asking what action filmmakers can learn from this, you find yourself asking, how is Tom Cruise still alive?

2. The Tale

Because it didn’t get a theatrical release and was exclusive to HBO, Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical character study largely went unnoticed by the film fan community. Laura Dern plays Jenny Fox, a documentarian who, in her late 40s, realises that what she considered an innocent relationship she had as a teenager with an older man might have been worse than she remembered. More importantly, it was very different from how she had remembered it. The movie digs into the unreliability of memory in truly unsettling ways, made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s a true story. Also worthy of applause is Isabelle Nélisse as young Jenny, who has to act in some extremely uncomfortable scenes. The film left me shaken and unsettled.

1. Roma

I said there weren’t many cinematic masterpieces this year, but I didn’t say there were none. Alfonso Cuarón already proved himself to be a master of cinematic storytelling with Gravity, but with Roma, he has cemented his position as among the greatest directors of the 21st century. Not since 2011’s A Separation have I seen a movie that so perfectly captures the rhythms of day-to-day life, the joys and challenges. Its sound design immerses you into its 1970s Mexico setting before you’re even past the opening shot. And the slow initial build up pays off when, in its later scenes, it pulls the rug out from under us, and shatters its audience’s hearts. There are movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and First Man where I think of wrecking ball moments and immediately come up with the Live Aid performance and the moon landing respectively. With Roma, a few different scenes jump to mind, and I get choked up just thinking about them. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and even though this is clearly not the kind of movie that gets a sequel, I can’t help but wish I could get to live more of her life with her.

 

What were your favourite films of 2018? Was it a good year for film in your opinion? Are you excited for 2019? Either way, happy new year! May we get more great films.

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Critics who announced their top ten lists before December 28, 2018 must be kicking themselves. If Bandersnatch is indeed a movie, it’s one that’s easily worthy of a spot. Directed by David Slade, whose filmography shall always remain tainted by the fact that he directed one of the Twilight movies, Bandersnatch is an experience the likes of which we’ve never seen in live action before. Not even those of us who have watched interactive choose-your-own-adventure style videos.

There’s a major debate in video gaming over how much freedom a player should have for the best experience, about whether we really want choice or just the illusion of choice. Bandersnatch doesn’t just find a place for itself on this spectrum of freedom versus illusion and then use it to tell a narrative. Instead, it tells a story that is precisely about navigating the spectrum. On one level, this manifests in the dialogue and the themes of the story itself. But beyond that, you also feel it ingrained in the structure of the movie, in the sense that how much choice the game gives you at any moment directly impacts your emotional involvement in that scene. There are times when being presented with a false choice (where both options lead to the same outcome) is frustrating. But there are also times when you wish you weren’t given a choice at all because both options presented are, to say the least, unpleasant, and making the choice makes you feel responsible for the consequences.

And that’s just one of the ways in which Bandersnatch plays with your mind.

I suppose now is when I should tell you what it’s all about. It’s 1984, and Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) is adapting Bandersnatch, a choose your own adventure novel, into a video game. In the process, he gets to meet and interact with his idol, legendary game developer Colin Ritman, (Will Poulter, The Revenant). Early on, we learn that the process of creating an interactive novel drove the author crazy and he killed his wife. In the film, we follow Stefan’s own descent into or struggle against madness and paranoia (though depending on your interpretation, his fears may actually be well founded). One can only hope that the writer of this movie, Charlie Brooker, does not turn crazy and murderous himself.

Beyond what I’ve already said, it’s not easy to discuss Bandersnatch without taking some of the fun away. Much of the surprise lies not just in the plot twists but in realising how far it’ll take its gimmick. The word bandersnatch, incidentally, comes from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books, a fact I only mention so I can say that the further you go down the rabbit hole of choices in this film, the curiouser and curiouser it gets. This is a sci-fi thriller, not a comedy, yet there are moments that make you laugh at their sheer audacity. Hours after having gone through it twice, and having watched, as far as I can tell, all possible endings, my friends and I are still trying to sort through the various questions it left us with, from abstract philosophical questions of responsibility to the kind of weird questions only great science fiction can tackle.

Lest we let form take over content, I should address the quality of the clips themselves. The screenwriting here is fantastic, with efficient dialogue that skillfully uses interactions to build character. The philosophical conversations are just the right level of on-the-nose. On a technical side, Slade ably does the job of translating the material to screen without adding much. There’s no flair to the cinematography or the set design. It could almost have felt like a drag if not for the terrific performances across the board. Fionn Whitehead had already shown us what he could do with very little dialogue in Dunkirk. Now we know how good he is with dialogue, and a lot of it. Will Poulter, who’s always great, is unsurprisingly great here too, perfectly conveying both Colin’s brilliance and his nuttiness.

In addition to being an excellent movie on its own merits, Bandersnatch is also groundbreaking. On the one hand, I’m excited to see this format go mainstream. It’s certainly versatile, and can be applied to genres like fantasy, romance and even superheroes. But on the other hand, Bandersnatch may have deconstructed the very notion of interactive storytelling so thoroughly that any future stories in the format run the risk of feeling contrived.

Your move, Netflix.

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Shirkers Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

In 1992, 3 young adults tried to make what could have been Singapore’s first indie film, a road movie called Shirkers. The 3 women were writer, assistant director and producer, and Georges Cardona, a living breathing mystery of a man, was the director. I’d rather not tell you much more about what happened, since everything in this documentary is a surprise, but suffice it to say that this documentary-about-the-troubled-production-of-a-movie is unlike any other.

Sandi Tan conceived of the original project and wrote the screenplay. The film would follow a teenage serial killer as she drove around the country, “collecting” hapless victims, taking them along with her on her journey. We get glimpses of the movie Shirkers in the documentary Shirkers, and from what we see, it’s remarkably thoughtful and introspective, given the writer’s age. Sandi Tan and her fellow filmmakers, Sophie and Jasmine, were young visionaries, with the kind of creativity and passion that would have served as an inspiration to other young filmmakers regardless of whether their movie turned out great or terrible, if only it had been completed.

Earlier this year, I watched The Tale, an HBO movie starring Laura Dern as a fictionalised version of the director Jennifer Fox. Fox and Tan used The Tale and Shirkers respectively to tell the stories of how they, in their 40s, finally came to terms with a messed up period from their youth where they put their faith in a charismatic older man who, in completely different ways, took advantage of them. Fox is a documentary filmmaker who chose fiction to tell this story from her life, whereas Tan is a fiction filmmaker who chose documentary. They are two of the best movies so far this year.

Shirkers is just as compelling in its first half, when it’s following the production of the movie, as it is in the second half when it follows these characters as adults trying to figure out exactly what happened, and exactly who this Georges Cardona was. It works because of how much of an enigma Cordona is, and also how much Tan herself isn’t. Her own personality, her flaws are laid bare in front of us, to the point that many may end up with the conclusion that she’s an inconsiderate asshole. This isn’t a documentary trying to make you like her, just to empathise.

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The other reason Shirkers works comes down to its audio-visual style. It’s punk rock, it’s jarring, it’s nothing short of captivating. At 96 minutes, it’s already brisk, but the energetic editing makes it seem even more so. When it ends, it leaves you wanting to know more. Watch it.

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Village Rockstars Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Rima Das wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited Village Rockstars. She’s also the production designer. The very definition of a passion project, this snapshot of life in Das’ village Chaygaon is pulsating with her love for the place and its people. Sometimes, when a storyteller loves their characters, they want the world to see the best of them, and end up creating a fantasy masquerading as reality. Das loves Chaygaon enough to want us to see it exactly as it is, and trusts that we’ll fall in love with it too. She’s right.


The movie follows feisty preteen Dhunu (Bhanita Das), a girl who aspires for things seemingly out of her reach and works on getting them. She sees a group of boys “playing music” on thermocol instruments, and cuts out a guitar for herself to join them. She later sees an actual band perform, and starts working to save up for a real guitar. One gets the feeling she’s aware of how impractical this goal is for someone barely scraping by as it is, but accepting her lot in life is a concept alien to her. It helps that she has the support of her widowed mother, a woman willing to take on the judgemental ladies of the village when it comes to her daughter’s freedom to climb trees and play with boys.

You’ve seen “be yourself” and “follow your dreams” movies before. This isn’t Brave, this isn’t Moana. While Dhunu does face opposition from the aforementioned village elders, that only forms a small part of the movie. The only real villains are poverty, floods and the patriarchy, constants in Chaypur that the characters have already more or less adapted to. The narrative isn’t driven by conflict, but by striving. Dhunu isn’t a rebel as much as she is a hard worker and an indomitable spirit.

This positivity extends to the depiction of poverty. The camera doesn’t linger on images that elicit pity, it revels in long shots of joy. Like the poverty, like the floods, the joy too isn’t something elusive discovered by breaking norms, it’s a part of life. It’s to be found in the kids lounging on the branches of their favourite tree under the sun, and it’s there in the mother teaching Dhunu how to swim, even though there’s a dark story behind this lesson.

The lack of conflict leads to a casual pace, but with a runtime of an hour and a half, it never gets boring. Dhunu isn’t razor-focused on getting the guitar, she’s wise enough to recognise when other concerns take precedence. Thus, the film isn’t focused on its central premise either, and episodically goes through a lot of highs and lows in these characters’ lives. But those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with this lifestyle will be constantly engaged in the process of discovering it, so the plot doesn’t really need to take the driver’s seat.

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The miniscule budget doesn’t show. Naturally lit shots of open fields look as beautiful as in any major release. The sound design adds to the immersion. The camera is mostly still, and when it is handheld, it doesn’t feel amateurish. As other critics have pointed out, the low positioning of the cameras puts us with the kids and enlarges the world. And perhaps most crucially, the untrained actors are naturals, especially Basanti Das as the supportive but stern mother. It’s hard to find a flaw. Rima Das has had a fantastic trajectory with this film so far, her efforts have paid off. I can’t wait till I get to see her next movie Bulbul Can Sing, and I can’t wait for her to get an Oscar nomination, both so the world can appreciate her talents, and so they can see a setting like Chaygaon with empathy instead of sympathy.

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Split and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are two movies that I like, but don’t love. One of my issues with Split was that it told us that James McAvoy’s character has 23 personalities, but that number might as well have been ten or a hundred, since we only see four of them in the movie. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, was adapted from a series of six graphic novels where Scott faces off against seven antagonists, all of whom were crammed into one movie, not giving any of them enough time onscreen for any depth. Netflix’s new romcom, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, is another movie I liked but didn’t quite love, and my biggest issue with it is a bit of a mix of the two mentioned above.
Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before stars Lana Condor (Jubilee of the X-Men) as Lara Jean, a high school wallflower who, when she has a crush on a boy, doesn’t tell him. Instead, she writes him a love letter that she never intends to send, and keeps her letters hidden away with her feelings. When she has written five of these letters, all of them mysteriously get mailed to their (un)intended recipients, leading to chaos in her relationships.

While I haven’t read the Jenny Han novel this is adapted from, I imagine the crazy possibilities of this premise must have been explored thoroughly in it. But just like Scott Pilgrim would’ve probably worked better on screen if there were, say, five enemies for Scott to take on instead of seven, I got the feeling that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before might have worked better with four love letters. At the very least, it would have reduced the disappointment when, at the end of the first act, the story reveals itself to actually be one we’ve seen before: for unimportant (and rather contrived) reasons, a girl and a boy decide to pretend date, but start to grow to really like each other. After that point, every twist and turn in the plot, every crest and trough of the relationship between our leads, is predictable.

And yet, the movie works, at least on the level of comfort food. A big part of that comes from how natural, how lived-in the preexisting dynamics feel. Lara Jean’s relationship with her dad is as sweet and real as her relationship with her sisters, as with her best (and only) friend in school. Sure, some of these characters are cookie cutter, but they create a world around Lara Jean that is positive and inviting, a world we want to inhabit for an hour and a half, perhaps because like her, we too are scared of leaving that safety net for the real world. (Ironically, the biggest but also the most easily forgiven betrayal in the story comes from within this safety net.)


The other big reason the film works is Lara Jean herself. While the plot is full of annoying tropes such as concealment of information that didn’t need to be concealed and the love triangle (two of them, in fact), it spends very little time on these contrived conflicts. The focus, instead, is on the inner conflicts faced by the protagonist, and that’s a good thing, since in addition to being likeable, she is genuinely interesting. So what if her central arc has been done before, and better, by The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Watching someone shy leave their shell is never going to get old.

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So of course, if you’re tired of romantic comedies, of their formula, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re looking for something relaxing, this is it. Testament to how much I enjoyed the movie is that when it ended with a cliffhanger setting up a potential sequel (there are three books), I was happy I’d get to spend more time with these characters. It’s not often one is genuinely excited for a sequel to a romcom, so that is saying something.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is available to stream on Netflix now.

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Christopher Robin Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Full disclosure: I did not grow up watching or reading about Winnie the Pooh. In fact, my only exposure to Milne’s world so far has been through the 2011 Disney animated movie. Jim Cummings, who was terrific as the voice of Pooh and Tigger in that movie, reprises both roles in Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin. That’s about all the two movies have in common. Just like its titular character, the movie also seems to have lost something special, something childlike.
As a child, Christopher Robin used to spend his playtime in the Hundred Acre Wood, with his stuffed toy pals Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and others. Pooh is a bear who cares only about honey and his friends, Piglet is scared of things, and Eeyore is depressed. Their adventures always involve the animals being silly and getting themselves into trouble, and Christopher saving them. However, as he grows up, supposedly too old to be playing with stuffed animals, he has to say goodbye to his friends. As an adult, played by Ewan McGregor, he loses sight of the things that are important in life, friends, family, fun, and devotes himself to a dull, thankless job. One day, Pooh crosses over from the Wood to the human world, and craziness ensues as the animals try to save Christopher from unhappiness.

The movie, while pleasant, falls short of the potential of that premise. Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince is another movie that dealt with the idea that growing up should not mean we forget what it’s like to be a child, and why happiness matters more than our day-to-day routine. In fact, this is a fairly common theme in children’s movies. This means that in order to be anything more than just pleasant, the film must either put a new spin on it or simply cover its lack of originality up with charm and manic energy.

Christopher Robin, however, is as by-the-numbers as it gets. Mark Gatiss plays the boss who just won’t give Christopher a break. Hayley Atwell plays the wife who just wishes he would be around more. As talented as these actors are, they can’t help their characters rise above the shallow writing, leading to characters as one-dimensional as the stuffed animals. And as adorable as Pooh is, whenever Jim Cummings uses that deep voice of his to deliver what’s supposed to be a wise, philosophical observation, what comes out is trite.

Christopher Robin. (Ewan McGregor) with his long time friend Winnie the Pooh in Disney’s live-action adventure CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

When the movie works best is when Christopher is having fun with his friends, reconnecting with his fun side. Even that aspect of the movie isn’t perfect, since at times it feels like Forster is more interested in telling us that his characters are having fun than in just letting us live the moment. That said, it is always, at the very least, endearing, in large part due to Ewan McGregor’s performance. He takes a tried-and-tested mold, the adult who has lost touch with his inner child, and infuses it with heart and energy. Because of this, even when Christopher is being his dull self, McGregor has an arresting screen presence, keeping us engaged in his story.

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The 2011 animated Winnie the Pooh is an exuberant celebration of childhood, and stylistically unique. It’s the perfect film to get younger kids hooked on movies. Christopher Robin is a tired, somber return to that world, and while it’s an entertaining ride for both kids and adults, it’s not particularly memorable for either. I recommend watching it, but only if you’re so invested in these characters that your enjoyment of it gets a boost from nostalgia.

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

My opinion of 2008’s Mamma Mia! is, why not just listen to an Abba album? Which is interesting, because when it comes to listening to music, I generally prefer songs from movies over those not from movies, because being engaged in a world and the characters that inhabit it enhances the experience of listening to these songs. But with Mamma Mia!, I found myself very disengaged, perhaps because the story had too much sugar and too much cheese for my taste. Very cynical of me, I know. And what’s the point of listening to the movie versions of these songs, when Pierce Brosnan was doing so much of the singing?
In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Brosnan has a lot less singing to do. That is how I suggest you look at this movie: it’s offering the same package as the original, and its execution isn’t too different, except this time there’s less of the things that were annoying the first time and more of that which worked. So whether it’s a good movie or not, it most certainly is a good sequel.

The story (if you care about that sort of thing and are not just here for the soundtrack) is split into 2 timelines. In the present day, 10 years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Donna (Meryl Streep) has been dead for about a year. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has rebuilt her hotel, and dedicated it to her (Hotel Bella Donna), and now wants the grand reopening to go well, while she processes the idea of moving on without Donna in her life. In the other timeline, we follow a young Donna (Lily James) as she as she first finds the building that would go on to become her hotel, and meets the 3 men who end up as Sophie’s fathers.

From that description, it would appear that the present day storyline has an interesting narrative drive, while the one in the past does not. After all, what could be interesting about seeing Donna go through a journey whose ending, thanks to the first movie, we already know? In execution, however, it ends up being the reverse. The present day plot presents us with challenges Sophie is facing, and then those problems get solved and the characters are happy, skipping the part in the middle where we’re actually supposed to try to figure out how to solve that problem. In the past, however, since we already basically know what’s coming, the focus is on living the moment with Donna and the Dynamos, which is surprisingly entertaining. The key here is the change in directors, this time, the dialogue is sharper, the musical numbers better choreographed, the characters slightly better fleshed out. From almost every perspective, this sequel ends up being a tad better than the original, even though it’s basically the same movie (even some of the songs make a reappearance, including the titular Mamma Mia!).


There is, however, one significant factor in favour of the original: Meryl Streep. She was almost the only actor who could make the dramatic beats feel at least a little genuine in the midst of all the ridiculousness, and her presence is sorely missed this time around. Good thing Lily James is a more than capable replacement, she’s a good singer, and is so much fun to watch onscreen that for the first half hour, you really don’t mind the absence of an engaging plot. New additions include Cher and Andy Garcia. At the beginning of the movie, I was just baffled by the choice of that accomplished an actor for what looked like a rather small role, but once the logic behind his casting did become clear to me, the decision only got weirder, for reasons I cannot disclose without spoiling a major reveal.

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Speaking of spoilers, I find it interesting how the promotional images of the movie spoil all the biggest reveals in the movie. It’s almost as if they know the audience isn’t there for the story. Deciding whether to watch Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is simple. If you liked the original, you’ll like this more, if you didn’t, this won’t win you over. That said, even though I count myself in the latter category, I believe in angels, something good in everything I see. (Sorry.)

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Hanging off a train in 1996. Climbing a rock in 2000. Swinging from one building to another in 2006. Climbing the Burj Khalifa in 2011. Hanging off an airplane in 2015. A HALO jump and some frankly insane helicopter stunts in 2018. On the one hand, it might seem that Mission: Impossible – Fallout special is that its stunts are even crazier, even bigger than the ones in previous movies. But even though they are, our feeling while watching them isn’t too different, watching the previous stunts, we still had that feeling that they’re crazier and bigger than what had come before, and the question of “how will Tom Cruise top this one?” at the end. The fact is, daring stunts, while exciting to watch, can no longer make an M:I movie stand out in this franchise full of excellent action thrillers, and they are also not what makes Fallout special.

What makes Fallout special is Christopher McQuarrie’s direction, precise, controlled, and impactful. These three adjectives apply both to the story at large and to individual moments. Near the beginning of the film, we see a three-way fight in a bathroom with Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill taking on a fighter far more skilled than either of them, and every punch, every kick is precise, controlled and impactful. This is achieved through impeccable sound design, with no background score and clear sounds making us feel the weight behind every hit. It’s achieved through smooth camerawork, which is neither shaky nor frantically edited, so that from moment to moment, we know where everyone is situated, and what they’re doing to gain an advantage. It’s also achieved through attention to detail in writing, so that the characters don’t just have the larger goal of winning the fight, they also have specific things they’re trying to achieve moment to moment, specific hurdles to cross, which further ensures we’re constantly on the edge of our seats.

While the bathroom brawl mentioned above is certainly the highlight of the movie, every action sequence is similarly excellent, beginning with Cruise and Cavill jumping off an airplane and ending with a helicopter chase. The rhythm and flow of Fallout is set by its action, so much so that the plot is almost irrelevant. Terrorists who have a problem with the current world order want to create a new world order, and of course this involves nuclear bombs. IMF agents Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) team up with CIA agent Walker (Cavill) to stop them, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson in badass form) gets involved with her own mysterious motives. It’s a tried and tested premise, and the only refreshing element of it is that at least this time around, the IMF hasn’t disavowed Ethan. Previously, the best film in the franchise was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, and one of the key factors in its appeal was that without official backing, the team’s equipment kept faltering, leading to some fun unpredictability throughout. Here, we see the team working at peak efficiency, going up against opponents working at their formidable best, and that is a different kind of thrilling.

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However, great action alone could not make Fallout the best of the series, since Ghost Protocol paired its action with an emotionally effective story about Ethan and his ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), resulting in a movie even those not into the action genre could appreciate. (Sidenote: that story was elevated by Jeremy Renner’s terrific performance, and unfortunately, he does not make an appearance here. Fingers crossed for M:I 7). Luckily, Fallout’s story, if anything, got me even more emotional. The difference is that since this is the first movie with a returning director (McQuarrie also helmed the previous instalment, Rogue Nation), the story is constructed in such a way that how involved you are depends on how many of the previous movies you’ve seen. Some of the emotion comes from the respect Ethan’s team has for him, some from his bond with Ilsa, and some from how Ethan sees his role in Julia’s life, and to fully appreciate these narrative threads, you need to have seen the last three movies in the series (the first two might as well not exist, and can easily be skipped). I also loved how the movie demonstrated Ethan’s ultimate appeal, that at his core, he’s just a really good person, beautifully demonstrated in a tense moment with a Parisian cop midway through the movie.


The last few years have given us what I consider some of the greatest action movies ever made, movies that have and will continue to inspire future action directors to up their game. Incredibles 2 shows us how good animated action can be, Captain America: Civil War is a showcase of what’s possible with superhero action choreography, Fallout is as good as stunt-based action gets, and Mad Max: Fury Road is simply an all-around perfect action movie. It’s a good time to be an action movie lover.

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Top 10 Best Trailers from SDCC 2018

by Utkarsh Bansal

Once upon a time, the annual San Diego Comic Con was an event that celebrated comic books. Today, it still does that, but the focus has shifted to what most geeks really care about: movies and TV. And every year, the biggest moments in the convention are the reveals of new trailers that get us all buzzing. Now, we did get a trailer for the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody right before the Con, and one for Alita: Battle Angel right after, but this post is about the 10 best trailers revealed during the Con itself.


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10. Aquaman

After the lackluster financial performance of last year’s Justice League, Warner Bros is hoping that James Wan’s (The Conjuring, Furious 7) Aquaman can be the movie that rights the ship for their DC movies. Now I’m in the minority when I say I’m not a fan of Wan’s work, and this trailer didn’t particularly help with my excitement for this movie. So many one-liners are stuffed into Arthur Curry’s (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones) mouth, it feels less like a superhero movie and more like Fast & Furious. That said, what did impress me was the epic scope of Atlantis mixed with a personal core conflict. While I am looking forward to the movie, it will release on December 21, the same weekend as Mary Poppins and Welcome to Marwen, so it will have to do something really special in order to stand out.

9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars


The beloved animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars ended years ago without being able to wrap up its plot, leaving many fans dissatisfied. Now, to the delight of many, the series will get the conclusion fans have been clamouring for, and this trailer gives a good feeling for what it will look like. While I appreciate the rousing music and was impressed by the opening shot with the row of Stormtrooper helmets, the reason the trailer places this low on the list is that just like the previous seasons, the art style and the animation simply do not look very good.

8. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

When I saw David Yates’s 2016 movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my reaction was much the same as my reaction to this trailer: it’s good, I just wish it was great. The movie managed to recreate the awe and wonder we associate with the magical world, but fell short when it came to the lead characters played by Eddie Redmayne and crew. Newt Scamander and his three friends are simply not as interesting to follow as Harry, Ron and Hermione were, and that’s the soul of the world Rowling has created. Fortunately, the sequel has two advantages. First, we see Newt’s time at Hogwarts, which led to the best moments in the trailer. And second, we have here two characters far more interesting than any of the leads, Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore and the controversial Johnny Depp as the dark wizard Grindelwald. While I don’t expect much depth from the moral conflict of “should muggles be ruled over by wizards and witches?”, I do expect depth in the characterisation of Dumbledore and his relationship with Grindelwald.

7. Disenchantment

Matt Groening, beloved creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, returns with his third satirical animated comedy, Disenchanted. The Netflix series follows a princess who, just like Princess Merida in Brave, chooses to escape the plan society has for her, and goes off an a fantastical adventure with her magical companions. I honestly don’t have much to say about this trailer. This is a comedy, its purpose is to make me laugh: the trailer made me laugh. The first 10 episodes will drop on Netflix on August 17, and I will be there to watch them.

6. Godzilla: King of the Monsters


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Gareth Edwards’s 2014 monster movie Godzilla was not received well, and for good reason. While the scenes featuring the titular creature were appropriately epic, far too much time was spent with an uninteresting human lead played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The sequel, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat), seems to realise this, as the focus seems to be shifted to the monsters themselves. The human characters, played by Millie Bobby Brown, Sally Hawkins and Vera Farmiga seem a tad more interesting than last time, but who cares when you’ve got Godzilla encountering the three-headed dragon Ghidorah? I particularly loved how the trailer balanced the terror of these monsters with their beauty and their majesty. Done right, this could be something special. But even otherwise, it’ll at least be a fun kaiju movie.

5. Iron Fist

This very short teaser impresses the hell out of me. Everything wrong with season 1 seems to have been fixed, and this looks like the Iron Fist we’ve always wanted to see. During the events of The Defenders, Danny grew as a person through his interactions with Matt Murdock, and when he showed up in one episode of Luke Cage season 2, people loved this mature version of him. This teaser, in addition to having terrific action, shows us that improved Danny, a street level hero committed to protecting Hell’s Kitchen.

4. Shazam!


This trailer is absolutely delightful. Not only is it great to see a kid who fights bullies rewarded with superpowers, there’s something very exciting about the idea of teaming up a superhero with a kid who loves superheroes. Zachary Levi is charming as hell in his portrayal of a child in the body of an adult, and his banter with his best friend is endearing. I have little hope for Aquaman, but this really could turn the tides for DC, especially since it’s followed by two movies that both also look like they could be good, Wonder Woman 1984 and Joker.

3. Young Justice: Outsiders

Like The Clone Wars, Young Justice is another beloved animated series that ended way too soon. It left us fans with a cliffhanger that was frustrating because the show had been going so well! Clearly, I’m very invested in this story, and might not be completely unbiased in evaluating the trailer, but to me it represented the best of what I love about the first two seasons, the smooth animation and complex relationships. This is easily my most anticipated TV series of 2018, and the trailer lived up to the hype.

2. Glass

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I had no idea why I was so excited for Glass. I thought Unbreakable was good, Split was better, but I didn’t exactly fall in love with either film. This trailer made it clear: I’m excited for Glass because of the potential for greatness, not the likelihood of it. There’s already so much to explore in the interaction between a super-strong guy, a super-smart guy, and, well, whatever James McAvoy is, and the addition of Sarah Paulson just makes it more interesting. The trailer knew to tease just the right questions, like what is Anya Taylor-Joy saying to James McAvoy and why? If done right, this will complete M. Night Shyamalan’s resurgence.

1. The Dragon Prince

Look, Avatar: The Last Airbender is not just the greatest animated series I have ever seen, it’s one of my favourite TV shows ever. The Dragon Prince, the new Netflix series from Aaron Ehasz, who was the head writer on Avatar: The Last Airbender, looks like it has all the elements that made it a great story. It’s an epic fantasy with humour, action and magic, and some of the shots in the trailer are truly breathtaking, especially the dragon at the end. Moreover, the medieval setting looks good too, and opens up the potential for complex political storylines. Most importantly, though, I just can’t wait to get lost in the vast fantasy world and learn the rules for how magic works here.

So what about you? Which trailers were your favourite? Which movies and series are you most excited for?


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The Dark Knight, 10 Years Later

by Utkarsh Bansal

1931, City Lights. 1941, Citizen Kane. 1957, 12 Angry Men. 1972, The Godfather. 1994, The Shawshank Redemption.

2008, The Dark Knight.

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Every so often, a movie comes out that convinces a large portion of cinephiles that it belongs in the conversation for greatest movie ever made, and sparks a conversation among the rest. Christopher Nolan crafted a masterpiece, in which he was helped by all of his most frequent recurring collaborators. Michael Caine has acted in 7 of his movies, Wally Pfister shot 7, Lee Smith edited 7, Hans Zimmer scored 6 and Nathan Crowley has been the production designer on 7. All of them, plus movie-specific actors Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart, did some of the best work of their careers, leading to this work of exceptional technical skill.

 

But beyond just how well made it is, the movie’s longevity has to do with its cultural impact. 2014’s Whiplash was impeccably crafted too, but that’s not going to inspire the conversations in 2024 that The Dark Knight does now. So what are these conversations? What makes this movie stand out even among other great films of its decade? Here are some opinions.

  1. Kristopher Tapley, for Variety, writes about the impact the movie had on the the Oscars. In 2009, the film missed out on a Best Picture nomination because there were only five nomination slots, and those were reserved for more Oscar-friendly movies like holocaust drama The Reader. That led the Academy to expand to 10 slots, and while we saw some impact of that decision in the next 2 years, with movies like Avatar and Inception competing for the coveted prize, the number of mainstream entertainment blockbuster nominees has diminished since then. That said, we still see movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Dunkirk recognised every so often, so the impact is certainly felt.

    CHRISTIAN BALE stars as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action drama “The Dark Knight,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and also starring Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman.
    PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

  2. Richard Newby, for The Hollywood Reporter, writes about the lessons studios and filmmakers took from The Dark Knight’s success, and how the movie’s legacy is tarnished by the fact that these were not the right lessons. It is clear that many other franchises have since tried the approach of rebooting with more realism and grit, and this tactic has been applied often with no regard for whether it suits that specific franchise. While I agree that it’s not smart to claim that The Dark Knight was successful simply because it was dark, I do think there are those who have used that approach to great success elsewhere. Newby mentions the Planet of the Apes trilogy as the only good example of this trend, but I’d like to mention that even though Skyfall and Logan are not reboots, they did essentially the same thing to their worlds and characters, and did it well. Both movies would have been very different if they did not live in a post-Dark Knight world.
  3. Alan Zilberman, for The Washington Post, writes about the influence the Joker has had on toxic elements of movie fandom, specifically arguing that modern online trolling might have its roots in people who found something admirable in the villain and emulated his quest for chaos. The most interesting point he raises is the trolls’ desire to see people get angry, to the point where they often even say things they don’t believe, simply to infuriate. Movies like The Dark Knight, Fight Club and The Wolf of Wall Street always run the risk of making the “bad” persona so charming and alluring that people can’t resist the temptation to emulate it.

There are many more thinkpieces, some with the same talking points as these, others dissecting the greatness of Heath Ledger’s performance or why no superhero movie since has been able to live up. Still others are discussing the way the movie addressed post-9/11 concerns about the war on terror and how the movie’s politics hold up today. And 10 years later, there will be many more articles. Whether you think the The Dark Knight has had a positive impact on cinema or negative, one thing is undeniable: we as a culture won’t stop talking about it anytime soon.

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Hotel Artemis Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum are enough to sell most people on watching anything, but here they’re just three of nine stars crammed into one movie. Cram might seem like an odd choice of word, since having many entertaining personalities bouncing off of each other should be a good thing, but here lies the dichotomy of Drew Pearce’s feature-length directorial debut, Hotel Artemis. On the one hand, the charismatic actors bring a screen presence that glues us to their every conversation, on the other, the movie tries to give each character and subplot its due, not leaving enough time to give depth to any of them.



In a dystopian 2028, Los Angeles residents are engaged in a massive riot due to a water shortage. This setting is a backdrop in the film, and plays no further role thematically. Its only purpose is to make everything outside Hotel Artemis dangerous. The Hotel, run by The Nurse (Jodie Foster), is a safe haven for criminals, complete with state-of-the-art medical technology and strict rules about criminal-on-criminal violence. Remind you of John Wick? Well, if you’ve seen those movies, you’ll have noticed that there, The Hotel Continental is shown to be a true safe haven because, while you can break the rules, the consequences are final and inescapable (except for that cheesy ending to John Wick 2, of course). Rule enforcement at the Hotel Artemis seems to lie on the shoulders of just one man, Everest (Dave Bautista). He’s strong, sure, but he’s still one person, so from the beginning, one never gets that sense of security in that hotel, so that when the violence inevitable goes down, it’s not surprising in the least.

Sterling K. Brown plays Waikiki, a robber with a bit of a conscience, whose idiotic brother Honolulu, played by Brian Tyree Henry (Widows, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), gets himself shot, which leads Waikiki to bring him to the Artemis for treatment. Honolulu, however, unwittingly brings with him a collection of rare diamonds that many would be willing to kill for, especially the Wolf King, played by Jeff Goldblum. There are more criminals staying at the Artemis, however, and this is only one of the many subplots in the movie, giving it a feeling of being “a day in the life of The Nurse”. This is quite like the recent Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar, and if you enjoyed that, I recommend this to you.

As long as the movie tries to just be a crime comedy, it’s quite engaging, but it soon becomes clear that Pearce is really trying to get us emotionally invested in the various relationships these criminals share, which, if it wasn’t already a little challenging because these are criminals, gets really difficult because of how many there are. So while Waikiki was likable enough for me to root for him, I could never care as much about his dynamic with his brother or with fellow lodger Nice (Sofia Boutella) as the film wanted me to. The one dynamic I genuinely found endearing was between The Nurse and Everest. Jodie Foster does a great job playing a woman who’s smart and efficient but just too old for this shit, and Bautista convinces us that he’s someone she can rely on for support. The way Everest cares for her also makes him more than a strong henchman, more than just a physical presence.

One auxiliary point: in its attempt at making us not recoil from this institution for criminals, the movie makes a distinction between classes of criminal, with certain kinds not allowed in there. This includes, terrorists and murderers. Murderers, however, are completely okay. Hollywood, and pop culture in general, has a long history of treating murder as a minor inconvenience, often even a game, but while you can usually compartmentalise those feelings so that they do not affect your experience of every movie with casual murder, Hotel Artemis makes it a little too explicit, and that turned me off on the whole experience.

If, however, that doesn’t bother you, this is what I have to say about the movie: it’s an entertaining watch, and if you’ve seen every other movie in theatres that interests you, this is worth a watch. Just keep your expectations low.

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Isle of Dogs Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Bryan Cranston. Edward Norton. Bill Murray. Jeff Goldblum. Greta Gerwig. Frances McDormand. Scarlett Johansson. Harvey Keitel. Tilda Swinton. Ken Watanabe. Liev Schreiber. Do I really need to say more? Do you really still care whether I think Isle of Dogs is a good movie? After reading that cast list, I wouldn’t. But since we’re her, let’s talk about what the film is about, and pretend it matters.

12 year old Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to Trash Island to rescue his pet/bodyguard Spots. This is in a dystopian Japan where the ruling party has convinced a vast majority of the public that dogs are not good boys. All dogs are therefore exiled to Trash Island, where they have to survive in horrible conditions, fighting over garbage for food. While Atari is on the island, American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) tries to start a revolution against the anti-dog ruling party.

But the primary plot of the movie centers on dogs, and dogs are the real protagonists. A pack of dogs, each with an alpha dog name (Rex, Boss, Chief etc), if not an alpha dog personality, roam the isle. While officially, they have no leader, Rex (Edward Norton) pretty much takes charge. Four of these five dogs were pets, and thus grew up in luxury, but the fifth, Chief (Bryan Cranston), was a stray, which often leads to him having a different perspective on things than the others, and consequently feeling like an outcast. The pack finds Atari, and decides to lead him to Spots, but Chief, who’s never been very good with humans, needs more time to take to the boy and get invested in their mission.

When I see this as Chief’s story, with a touching arc of courage, growth and self-esteem, this is a really good movie. Bryan Cranston brings gruffness, grit and experience to his performance, but layers it with heart and vulnerability. He makes us love his character without ever being particularly likable. His relationships with Atari, the pack and others grow organically, and even when we aren’t very invested in the other character, we care about the relationship because we care about Chief. His performance makes the movie for me.

Unfortunately, that’s just one of two storylines in this movie. The other follows events back on the mainland, showing us the politics around an intense dogs vs cats divide, shining a light on the corruption and propaganda involved, which, wouldn’t you know it, is an allegory. (The pro-dog opposition party is called the Science Party. Subtle.) Oddly enough, you don’t need to be a dog-lover to appreciate the plot with the dogs, but whenever the movie cuts back to the subplot about people fighting over whether dogs are good, especially with Tracy’s movement, unless you’re a dog-lover, there’s nothing interesting to be gained from it. And if you’re not a dog lover, but are a cat lover, the experience might be even less engaging.

But story isn’t everything, and for directors like Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and in this case, Wes Anderson, the storytelling choices often form the core of the appeal of their films, much more so than the stories they tell. Anderson’s work in Isle of Dogs has already received a lot of acclaim and controversy, and while, not knowing Japanese, I can’t reasonable pick a side in the appropriation debate as it applies to this film, I can back the acclaim. Everything you expect from an Anderson film is here, from the symmetrical frames to the meticulous pace. And while the emotional investment rises and falls, at least it’s always funny.

Ultimately, I do recommend Isle of Dogs, it’s a good film. But the recommendation can’t help but be weaker for those who don’t hear the title and immediately think “yes! I do love dogs!” Wes Anderson completionists will be satisfied, but everyone else, consider this a “go if you have time on your hands” kind of recommendation, and not the “go! go! go!” kind.

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Opening note: If you haven’t watched the first instalment, Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, you don’t need to in order to fully appreciate this sequel, Soldado. This is a crime thriller with its own separate plot, one which is connected to the events of Sicario but is explained well enough in Soldado that you don’t need to watch the predecessor to be engaged. That said, Sicario was a pretty good movie itself, so no harm in watching that first and then going to the theatre for this.

The rest of this review has spoilers for the first movie Sicario, so read on only if you’ve seen it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels like two full movies and a short film packed in one, and yet also feels like just half a movie. The first movie had a relatively simple plot, using Emily Blunt’s character Kate to introduce the audience to the actual protagonist of the franchise, Benicio del Toro’s cold-blooded hitman (Sicario is Spanish for hitman) Alejandro as well as the brutal world of Mexican cartels that he inhabits. With the second and third chapters, writer Taylor Sheridan is trying something much more ambitious. With Alejandro as the protagonist, he’s crafting a complex 2-movie epic with multiple parallel threads. Each thread highlights a different perspective on the grim situation, sometimes asking tough ethical questions of its characters and us, other times just indulging in its cynical “everything sucks” worldview. Unfortunately, this instalment feels like it gives each of its three major plot threads a setup to something interesting, but ends with us realising we’ll have to wait for Sicario 3 before we get any semblance of depth or nuance from them.

The thread we start with is probably the one with most potential. It takes Matt (Josh Brolin, in the third of his four movies this summer) and Alejandro, who were fighting the drug trade across the US-Mexico border in the first movie, and has them now fighting cross-border human trafficking. After an Islamic terrorist attack in the US, the authorities suspect that the terrorists were smuggled across the border by Mexican cartels (yes, the possible xenophobia in this is addressed, without much depth). A war must be started against the cartels, for which purpose the military needs someone who has no boundaries, and as long as he’s not on American soil, will go to any lengths he deems necessary to complete his missions. That someone is Matt, and he, upon deciding that they should first get the cartels fighting each other by kidnapping the daughter of one of the cartel leaders, brings in Alejandro to do the job, because Alejandro has history with said cartel leader Carlos Reyes. What I’ve already described here is a movie more complex than the first Sicario, and this is only one thread. This raises the question of what’s acceptable in the face of horrifying evil, and would also be interesting to follow to see what obstacles our protagonists face in their mission, and how they overcome them, but we never get there as halfway through, the film switches gears to its second plot. This too raises an interesting question, that of how personal Matt and Alejandro can let their mission become for them, but as the film ends, we realise that that too is something we’ll only get into in the sequel.

The film sporadically cuts away to a third subplot, one that hardly even connects to the main storylines, and just when it’s finally starting to go somewhere, that too is left hanging for the next movie to pick up on. And while the title Soldado (soldier, as opposed to Sicario, which means hitman) never really makes itself important thematically, I would imagine this subplot, if anything, is where it’s at least somewhat relevant.

In terms of filmmaking craft, this film could’ve been seen as highly effective, if it wasn’t following Sicario. With that film, Denis Villeneuve was trying to create a work of art, while Stefano Sollima seems more interested in a thriller that does its job and not much more. So you have Hildur Guðnadóttir with a tense score, but it simply does not stand up to the music we got from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Dariusz Wolski gives the film a great, engrossing look, but he’s no Roger Deakins. And without Emily Blunt, we no longer have a sympathetic character, and the emotional arcs Matt and Alejandro go through fail to evoke much emotion given how cold these characters are written to be. That’s not to say there are no advantages to the new approach. When trying to make an art film, not every risk you take pans out, and the action sequence near the end of Sicario where it was so dark, one could hardly tell any of what was going on, really didn’t work. In Soldado, none of the scenes can quite match the tension of the bridge scene from Sicario, but many are intense enough to be memorable, and none is outright bad.

A word on the women in this film, and in Taylor Sheridan’s other films. Isabela Moner plays Isabel Reyes, the daughter of Carlos Reyes, and while she’s given a remarkable personality, that’s not the same as being given much of a character, a role, and in the larger picture, she rarely serves as more than a damsel in distress. And had I only seen this one Taylor Sheridan movie, I would club that with my other complaints, expecting Isabel’s depth of characterisation to show up in Sicario 3. Catherine Keener plays Matt’s superior, and is often wrong when he’s right about how to deal with situations at the border. Had I only seen this one Taylor Sheridan movie, I would attribute that to the common trope of bureaucrats not understanding problems as well as those in the field. But I’ve seen other Taylor Sheridan movies. In Hell or High Water, women barely exist, and in Sicario and Wind River, the role of the woman is to be naive and fail until she’s shown the right way to do things by the men around her. It’s a disturbing trend where it’s starting to feel like Sheridan lives in a world where only men really get things done.

On the whole, I still think Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a good movie. A tense, engaging thriller. And I recommend watching it in spite of its lack of depth in theme or character, for the simple reason that it sets up for a sequel that is shaping up to be far more interesting. I sure hope Emily Blunt shows up.

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The Best of the First Half of 2018 in Film

by Utkarsh Bansal

The Oscars only happen once every year, and in this internet age, who has the patience for that? Surely we consume enough content every 6 months to warrant some awards-like recognition! Well, whether we do or not, here are my picks for the best that 2018 has given us so far in movies.



BEST SCORE

The Runners-up: Jonny Greenwood’s score was brilliant as expected in You Were Never Really Here, just months after he received his first Oscar nomination for his work on Phantom Thread. And since I’m covering so few categories, I’ve included sound design in the score category. This means that Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score for Annihilation, Colin Stetson’s score for Hereditary and Marco Beltrami’s (The Hurt Locker, 3:10 to Yuma) score for A Quiet Place are all runners up for the haunting atmosphere they created in tandem with the impeccable sound design.

The Winner: Ludwig Göransson’s score for Black Panther is at times thrilling, at times inspiring, and consistently innovative. It adds to the identity of Wakanda, and adds to the larger-than-life, epic feel of the movie. The Killmonger theme, in particular, is one that many including me will be listening to for years.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Runners-up: Just like I used Best Score to generally talk about which movies sounded the best, I want to use Best Cinematography to highlight the movies that looked the best this year, so while I will only name the DPs, this also involves production design and visual effects to a large extent. Revenge, shot by Robrecht Heyvaert, looks amazing, and completely immerses us in its desert setting through both sound and visuals. Much of the strength of Ready Player One, shot by Janusz Kaminski, lies in how dynamic its action sequences felt, largely due to the giddy camera movements. Bradford Young of Arrival fame shot Solo: A Star Wars Story, a movie that is worth watching for its colourful settings and exciting flight scenes, regardless of whether you find the story engaging. And Rachel Morrison followed up her brilliant work on Mudbound with some very innovative shots in Black Panther, successfully capturing the grand and the personal.

The Winner: Rob Hardy shot the 2015 thriller Ex Machina and the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Fallout, but in between the two, he shot the most visually arresting movie I’ve seen in a while – Annihilation. Even when it’s just showing us a scene of people talking to each other, the camera refuses to let us look away, but when it takes us to otherworldly, dreamlike locales, any given frame of this movie can be sold as a work of art.

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

 

BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE

The Runners-up: Three of my favourite supporting roles this year have come from child actors. Milly Shapiro made complete detachment as creepy as it can be in Hereditary. Isabelle Nélisse did something incredible with her portrayal of a little girl dealing with unfamiliar, difficult circumstances. And Millicent Simmonds brought courage and heart, childishness and maturity to her character Regan, a deaf girl caught in the midst of both an apocalypse and a challenging relationship with her father. On the adult side of things, Robert Downey Jr was as heartbreakingly good as he has ever been, following up heavy performances in Civil War and Homecoming with one that really conveyed just how much weight this man feels on his shoulders.

The Winner: Speaking of heartbreaking performances in the MCU, Michael B Jordan as Killmonger in Black Panther made many of us cry over a villain. His was a tragic journey, and the performance was the perfect balance of making us hate what he was doing while still feeling for him, wishing things could have been different.

BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE

The Runners-up: Just like Michael B Jordan in Black Panther, Josh Brolin broke hearts in Avengers: Infinity War. He took a performance with the madness and determination we expected, and infused it with a profound sadness we did not. Speaking of madness, Joaquin Phoenix was out of this world in You Were Never Really Here, and perfectly sold moments where he was in pain and we felt for him, as well as moments where we’re completely detached and intrigued as to what’s going through this man’s head. Laura Dern in The Tale played a woman who went through a wider array of emotions in a few days than most of us do in a lifetime. While her plight was one that could bring us to tears anyway, her performance of her denial, her low points and her brief moments of relief made us connect with her on another level altogether. And Emily Blunt not only sold the terror of living in the post-apocalyptic world of A Quiet Place, she also convinced us of her character’s inner strength and resolve. In addition, hers was an intensely physical performance, where like her, we want to scream whenever she goes through those painful scenes, but we’re simply too scared to do so.

 

The Winner: Toni Collette in Hereditary combined peak horror acting with peak dramatic acting. When she’s terrified of the things happening around her, she does it as well as you expect from a lead in a horror movie. But much more effective and haunting are the scenes where you’re not terrified for her as much as you’re terrified of her. Hereditary portrays a family fraught with tension, and as much as you feel for her character, sometimes you just don’t want to get on her wrong side. This is one performance that I consider the best not so much because it’s real, but simply for how powerful and memorable it is.

BEST PICTURE

The Runners-up: So 2018 hasn’t exactly been a great year for mainstream movies so far. Remember March, when of the 5 weekends, each with a major release, only one ended up not being a complete disappointment? The good news is that while other genres may have been lagging, one reliably entertaining genre gave us one hit after another: superheroes. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was a family feud of epic proportions. It took large, weighty themes, and weaved them into a thrilling, beautifully shot action movie while also managing to introduce us to a completely new culture. The Russo brother did something truly unprecedented with Avengers: Infinity War, and built on the investment we already had in a dozen characters to give us emotional gutpunches that we’ll be talking about for years, while also introducing us to one of the most emotionally complex supervillains we’ve seen. With Incredibles 2, Brad Bird somehow managed to live up to expectations built up over 14 years, and delivered not just the fun family adventure we expected, but one of the best straight-up action movies in a while. My one non-superhero runner up pick is John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, a horror movie that used the most effective tool horror movies have at their disposal, sound, more effectively than it it ever has been before. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the family it focused on was one we grew to deeply care for.

The Winner: It makes me very sad that, in all probability, you know little to nothing about The Tale. It’s an autobiographical HBO movie directed by Jennifer Fox that stars Laura Dern as Fox. Fox has to confront her past, relive her darkest experiences, and accept the truth about what she’s actually been through as opposed to the stories she’s told herself. Beyond sheer dramatic weight, what makes this movie special is how it manages to put us in Jennifer’s shoes. While flashbacks are usually used in movies to give us as incontrovertible a version of the past as what we have for the present, the flashbacks here are memories, and function as such. What makes this even more riveting is the fact that Jennifer isn’t simply reliving her memories, she’s interacting with them, sifting through them, leading to some of the most chilling scenes I have seen this year. If this wasn’t a TV movie, I would’ve predicted a Best Picture nomination. As it is, I still hope it wins a few Emmys. It deserves them.

What are your favourites from the year so far? What are you most excited for from the rest of 2018? The Viola Davis thriller Widows? The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man? Perhaps a blockbuster like Ant-Man and the Wasp or the new Mission: Impossible? Or is it that Alfonso Cuaron movie we know nothing about? Whatever it is, I expect we’ll see many more great films in the second half of 2018 than we have so far.

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Weekend Performance: Juggernauts and New Releases Contribute to Healthy Box Office

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom dropped a hefty 58.8%, making another $61 million. This is quite unsurprising, given its lukewarm reception, and the numbers will only get worse once Ant-Man and the Wasp opens in the US this weekend. Incredibles 2 fared much better, dropping only 42.2% to make $46.4 million, but it too will probably face a significant drop next time. Fallen Kingdom has made $943.5 million so far, while Incredibles 2 currently stands at $656.5 million worldwide.

Among new releases, Sicario: Day of the Soldado made an impressive $19 million on a budget of $35 million, and the comedy Uncle Drew made a respectable $15 million. In eight place this weekend came the Indian biopic Sanju, which made $2.7 million from only 356 screens.

What did people like?

Both Soldado and Uncle Drew only received a lukewarm critical reception. On Rotten Tomatoes, the two movies got ratings of 64% and 66% respectively. Metacritic, on the other hand, gave the edge to Soldado with a score of 61 as opposed to Uncle Drew’s 57. General audiences made their pick much clearer, with Uncle Drew getting a CinemaScore of A whereas Soldado had to settle for a B.

Sanju, which is enjoying widespread love from the Indian public, didn’t do so well with critics, with only half of the 10 reviews collected on Rotten Tomatoes being fresh.

For the coming weekend, while we do not have enough reviews to say what the consensus is with any certainty, critics generally seem to love Sorry to Bother You, like Ant-Man and the Wasp and be mixed on The First Purge.

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Sacred Games Episode 1 Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

A good cop in a bad world. A Mumbai kingpin. Seedy bars, deserted malls, and corruption at every level. There’s a lot about this crime thriller that we’ve seen before. The more I think about Sacred Games, the clearer it is that directors Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, Raman Raghav 2.0) and Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan, Bhavesh Joshi) aren’t even trying to impress viewers with novelty in story or setting. Instead the purpose here seems to be to present what could, with lesser directors, be just another Mumbai gangster epic, and dazzle us with the execution.

Case in point: Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance as notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. At this point, Siddiqui could play this kind of character in his sleep, but while the megalomaniacal criminal he played in Raman Raghav 2.0 felt uninspired and rote, here his performance feels fresh and riveting. His dark sense of humour is so effective that I found myself laughing not just at searing observations about the ridiculous culture he found himself in, but also at some rather juvenile humour that came from creative use of common expletives.

Image result for sacred games ganesh gaitonde

The story in Sacred Games follows two parallel narrative threads. The one set in present day is directed by Motwane and follows honest cop Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) who is at a particularly low point in his life, personally and professionally, when he gets a call from Gaitonde with some rather important information. But before getting to that information, the kingpin spends quite a lot of time narrating his backstory to Sartaj through flashbacks. This ‘rise of a mob boss’ story, set a few decades in the past, forms the second, and so far, much less interesting thread directed by Kashyap. If not for Siddiqui’s dry observations and boundless energy on screen, there would be nothing interesting about the sequence of events we see here.

The reverse can be said about the present day storyline, where Khan’s performance as the troubled hero is passable, but is easily the least memorable aspect of the otherwise compelling plot. In addition to a subplot about police corruption, the episode sets up a high-stakes mystery that involves the pasts of both main characters. Motwane gives Mumbai and its people a distinct flavour in every frame, and is also mostly successful in ratcheting up the tension in those scenes that require it.

Another player in this storyline is a RAW agent played by Radhika Apte, but her role in the premiere is minimal, so it’s impossible to say much about her character or performance.

Overall, I had a blast with the episode, because even when the story wasn’t particularly engaging, the style and the atmosphere (credit to the score) were, and if nothing else, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance alone made the experience one worth having, and one I highly recommend. I can’t say with any certainty that the rest of the 8-episode season will live up to the promise of this one episode, but I’m happy to say that I’m excited to check it out. Between Sacred Games and the anthology movie Lust Stories, Netflix might just replace theatres as the place Indian moviegoers visit looking for quality entertainment.

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Incredibles 2 and Pixar’s Mastery of Sequelling (Except Cars 2)

by Utkarsh Bansal

With Toy Story 2, Finding Dory and now Incredibles 2, Disney Pixar has perfected the key ingredient to making a sequel: finding a reason for it to exist. A new story to tell with the existing cast of characters, one that comes organically from the established themes. Toy Story 2 wasn’t “further adventures with the toys you love!” It had a new narrative question to ask, “what happens when the child doesn’t want to play with the toy anymore? Can these toys afford to define themselves through their owner?” Finding Dory, while not as good as the rest, still had the guts to tackle difficult questions of what it takes to maintain a friendship with someone who is mentally ill, and how that ill person feels when they think they’re at fault. Even the relatively weak prequel Monsters University had something at least mildly interesting to work with, “how did two such polar opposite people come to be such close friends?” One of the things that sets Cars 2 apart from these is that its conflicts were manufactured, and so it couldn’t justify its existence.

Brad Bird, director of 2004’s The Incredibles, famously said he would only make a sequel when he was convinced he had a story worth telling. True to his word, he waited over a decade. And it was so worth it. On a personal level, the first movie is about a family where every member (except Jack-Jack) feels dissatisfied with something, which is leading to growing tensions. On a larger thematic level, it was about what makes a person special or unique, and whether having an unfair advantage over others means superpowered people (or supers) should restrain themselves. (Yes, this has, over the years, led to criticisms of the movie having a capitalist agenda.)

Incredibles 2, on a personal level, tells the Parr family that everything has a price. At the end of the first movie, a decision seems to have been reached, where these supers are going to live more freely, be who they are. The sequel asks them to face the consequences of this decision. Bob Parr (Mr Incredible), voiced by Craig T Nelson, must learn to take responsibility for raising his kids, a responsibility he was running away from last time. Helen Parr (Elastigirl), voiced by the brilliant Holly Hunter, must learn to let go of that responsibility and trust Bob to handle it, so she can do what she needs to in order to improve public perception of superheroes. Violet, like in the first film, is dealing with high school problems, but this time they stem directly from the family’s change in status quo. Jack-Jack must fight a trash panda. Edna must add another dimension to her already jaw-dropping degree of awesomeness. Frozone must continue to be as Sam Jackson as possible in a PG movie. Dash doesn’t really have an arc but he’s having so much fun that it’s okay. The kid spent the first movie trying to run without inhibitions, let him breathe a little!

But while the film works at every level where it comes to characterisation and character growth, it falls a little short of the original’s thematic depth. But again, what’s crucial when looking at Pixar sequels is that (apart from Cars 2,) when their sequels are flawed, it’s only because their execution of their concept was flawed, not because they didn’t have a worthy concept to begin with. The Incredibles showed us a world where the world decided they didn’t need superheroes, that they caused more harm than good. However, thematically as it went along, the focus was on the supers, on individualism, and on what this change in the law does to them. The movie didn’t really analyse the effect superheroes have on the world, and whether people were right in denouncing them, leaving the door wide open for the sequel to attempt that, and to its credit, that’s exactly was Incredibles 2 tries to do. So yes, the execution wasn’t exactly great. The Incredibles used its villain Syndrome to provide counterpoints to its heroes’ beliefs, and Incredibles 2 does the same with its villain, Screenslaver. The difference being that Syndrome was just a terrific character overall, and with his motivations and beliefs and personality, one of the best supervillains out there, whereas Screenslaver is, quite simply, a far less interesting character. And the weaker character is a large part of why the question of “are superheroes actually good for the world?” could not get much more depth than a Powerpuff Girls episode. But just the fact that the question was raised tells us that Pixar knows what they’re doing, and leaves us with a theme we can ponder for ourselves.

Now another difference between the two instalments is that the motivations of the Parrs individually were directly tied to the movie’s overarching theme of specialness. Maybe if Elastigirl in Incredibles 2 was more emotionally conflicted about her place in the world, (“to fix the law, I gotta break it!”) we would be too.

But the fact is, Disney Pixar never (other than Cars 2) tells a story the artists don’t feel the need to tell. Finding Dory came 13 years after the original, Incredibles 2 took 14. So while a movie like Toy Story 3 might have provided a perfect wrap up for the trilogy, and we might all be apprehensive for Toy Story 4, and reasonably so, I would argue that they have given us enough reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. If Pixar thinks there is a worthy story still to be told with Woody and company, there probably is.

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Weekend Performance: Fallen Kingdom at the Top of the Food Chain

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people watch?

The weekend’s big new American release, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, shot past estimates with a massive 148 million opening weekend. While it is, of course, far less than Jurassic World’s 209 million, that’s not to be interpreted as the sequel underperforming, but instead as the previous instalment overperforming. And while this won’t be matching the predecessor’s gigantic 1.67 billion gross, it’s already rapidly heading towards the 1 billion mark, with over 700 million worldwide so far. People like dinosaurs in movies.

Meanwhile, Incredibles 2 dropped 56% for a second weekend gross of just over 80 million dollars. This is impressive considering the massive opening of Fallen Kingdom, but not too surprising considering the well-deserved A+ CinemaScore. This is better than the A received by Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory, the only Pixar films so far to make a billion dollars. This should indicate that Incredibles 2, which has grossed 484.43 million so far, will comfortably cross that number, and beat Toy Story 3’s 1.067 billion to become Pixar’s biggest earner so far. What seems less likely is that it’ll become the highest grossing animated film ever, for which it would have to beat Frozen’s 1.29 billion. The upcoming barrage of summer blockbusters will make that rather unlikely.

What did people like?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom currently holds a 50% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 131 positive reviews and 132 negative. The consensus reads, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom adds another set piece-packed entry to the blockbuster franchise, although genuinely thrilling moments are in increasingly short supply.” The Metascore of 51 from 59 reviews is no more positive, and both the scores place it at the second-worst position in the franchise, better than only Jurassic Park III.

However, the crowdpleasing aspect of dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs still gained the movie a CinemaScore of A-, which, while still worse than Jurassic Park and Jurassic World’s A, is at least better than Jurassic Park II and III’s respective B+ and B- grades. What I make of this A- is that while the movie will have a good hold over the next weekend, it will get crushed as soon as Ant-Man and the Wasp is released on July 6, and will keep taking large drops as more major tentpoles are released.

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Fans of the Jurassic Park/World franchise can often be heard saying that they go to these movies for the unique, quirky characters, most notably Ian Malcolm played by Jeff Goldblum. Yes, everyone wants to gawk at giant prehistoric creatures, but the first time we saw a dinosaur in the 1993 original, the sheer awe and wonder we felt were due, in part, to the awe we saw on the faces of the characters on screen, because we connected with them. A film like 2015’s Jurassic World, however, doesn’t make over 1.5 billion dollars with just fan support, and it’s reasonable to believe that a large part of the audiences impressed by it were there primarily to see dinosaurs chasing and eating people, when not fighting each other.

In that sense, it’s lucky that I’m not a fan of the franchise, because it means all I was looking for heading into this was a mindlessly entertaining time, and was thus not too disappointed. The story concerns Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s attempts to save dinosaurs from extinction when the volcano on Isla Nublar erupts. This leaves room for some fascinating ethical dilemmas concerning whether it is our moral responsibility to save them, considering the fact that we are the ones who brought them back in the first place, potentially disrupting the ecosystem. Also, they’re kinda deadly. And it’s not that the screenwriters here don’t see that, this quandary is addressed, it’s just that they’re clearly far more interested in spending time on people hiding or running away from dinosaurs than in exploring this question.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Given the quality of writing we see for the rest of the movie, perhaps we should be glad they did not apply that level of *nuance* and *depth* to an issue as sensitive as animal rights. The plot unfolds with no regard for character development or even logic. Luckily, director J. A. Bayona seems to understand that, and instead of trying to make the action sequences look believable, puts all his effort into making them big and enjoyable. And for the most part, he does a good job with that. As much as I may mock “people running/hiding from dinosaurs”, those really were the some of the scenes I enjoyed the most, second only to dinosaurs battling other dinosaurs.

So no, this isn’t the perfect sequel for loyal fans who want more fun, endearing characters to adventure with. People here exist only as dino-fodder. This is also, unsurprisingly, not a film for sci-fi enthusiasts hoping for something beyond lip-service for thought-provoking questions related to genetics. And even among action movie fans, this is only a movie for those willing to suspend the hell out of their disbelief. I would like to say that at least that last class of moviegoer has my enthusiastic recommendation, but even there I must be half-hearted, since there are stretches near the middle of the film concerning cartoonish villains and their greedy schemes that will bore just about anyone.

All this is not to say that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a bad movie, it just means that I don’t think it’s a good movie either. This is the kind of meh that some will despise, but others justifiably crave as the kind of escapism movies are so good at. Because sometimes, real life finds a way to drive us away.

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Weekend Performance: Incredibles 2 Breaks Record, Then Runs Laps Around It

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

No one who knew how much people were waiting for a sequel to 2004’s The Incredibles expected it to fall short of Finding Dory‘s record for the highest opening weekend box office for an animated film, 135 million. But as predictions of 135 million gave way to predictions of 150, and those were replaced by estimates of 170, no one could’ve predicted that Incredibles 2 would end up with 182.7 million dollars at the end of its first weekend. In addition to being the highest for an animated film by a mile, this is also the 8th highest opening of all time. Moreover, it is the highest opening weekend ever for a family film, with the 7 movies above it all

Among superheroes, it’s behind only Black Panther and the 3 Avengers titles, and ahead of The Dark Knight sequels, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War. Between this, The LEGO Batman Movie, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it’s reasonable to hope that animated superhero movies will start to get more common in theatres. I, for one, am excited for Big Hero 7.

The Jeremy Renner based-on-a-true-story comedy Tag made 15 million dollars. With a 28 million production budget, the movie will easily make a profit, but still isn’t quite the smash hit Warner Brothers was hoping it’d be. Superfly opened to a similarly decent but unimpressive 6.87 million. The infamous John Travolta-starring biopic Gotti opened to a miserable 1.72 million, barely edging out the critically bashed Indian blockbuster Race 3, which opened to 1.69 million in the US, and almost as much in India.

What did people like?

Gotti, in addition to the abysmal Metascore of 25, received the rare distinction of a 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating based on 26 reviews, with the concise critical consensus “fuhgeddaboudit”. Race 3 hardly fared better, with just one positive review out of 9.

Tag was better received than many expected, but I personally had had high hopes for this movie, which ended up with a 56 on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Audiences were similarly underwhelmed, as seen by the B+ CinemaScore.

Incredibles 2 garnered all the critical acclaim this weekend, complimenting its box office gross with a Metascore of 80 and a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is, however, worth noting that this only ranks it at #11 and #12 respectively on the two websites, among Pixar’s collection of 20 films. This is not to say that Incredibles 2 isn’t a great family adventure, but that Pixar has set its standards high enough that a movie needs to be truly brilliant to even make it to their top 10. That said, Incredibles 2 still did become the 7th Pixar movie to score the rare (yes, rare) CinemaScore of A+. That kind of word-of-mouth is going to ensure it has legs, so that even though Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this coming Friday, it won’t be able to stop Incredibles 2 from reaching the coveted 1 billion dollar mark. Did someone mention superhero fatigue?

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Alex Strangelove Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Craig Johnson’s Alex Strangelove, a new gay teen romance attempts to portray the struggles of the LGBT+ community in a funny yet thought provoking manner, much like ‘Love, Simon’ earlier this year, but it’s far from perfect.

The plot revolves around Alex Truelove, a high school kid whose plan to lose his virginity to his girlfriend Claire goes awry when he finds himself drawn to Elliott, a charming gay kid, and his struggle as he questions his sexual orientation. It’s like a raunchier but not quite as adorable sidekick to ‘Love, Simon’, and definitely doesn’t live up to that level of quality.

We don’t get much time to discover Elliott’s character, and his relationship with our protagonist doesn’t get the screen time it deserves, leading to a lack of depth. Moreover, most of the humour in the film feels forced, which is evident through a rather odd subplot involving a psychotropic frog.

Nevertheless, Daniel Doheny’s portrayal of a teen confused about his sexuality is worth a watch. Some of the other characters seem annoying and aren’t very well-crafted, especially Dell who isn’t quite the comic relief he’s intended to be.

The first half of the movie which focuses on how Alex plans on losing his virginity to Claire, feels stretched and repetitive after a while. It’s only after Elliott is introduced that the plot really starts building up. But even then, the movie doesn’t leave you wanting more.

After ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Love, Simon’ this year, Alex Strangelove doesn’t seem to have anything special about it. But give it a try if you are bored and want to watch something light hearted this Pride Month, just don’t expect too much from it.

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Lean on Pete Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Lean on Pete is like a walk at night. It’s surreal and relatable. The movie draws from an extremely well written ensemble of characters, with Charley (played by Charlie Plummer) at its centre. Filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s (Weekend, 45 Years) coming of age story is neither bursting out the door nor rushing to a climax. It gives us a slice of Charley’s life to make us reflect on concepts of care and neglect.

Well into the second hour of the movie a characters explains, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Lean on Pete is a story embedded in that sentiment. Without being melodramatic, the movie tries to make sense of Charley’s actions, actions that may seem equal parts idiotic and heroic but this 15 year old boy is just trying to survive around people who are petty and mean and sometimes brutal.

The movie opens with Charley going on a long run in his neighbourhood. He has recently moved to Portland with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel). Ray loves his son but he isn’t the best father, careless to the point where his actions have devastating results for both of them. They live in abject poverty, but Charley is shown to be independent and self sufficient. The movie kicks in once Charley starts working for Del (Steve Buscemi), a fractious owner from the local track. Del couldn’t care less about his horses, but once Charley meets Lean on Pete, he forms an immediate bond. Their friendship is seen through silence and one sided chatter.

When Del decides that he has no use for Pete anymore, Charley decides to take matters into his own hands. The moment is not built up for edgy excitement but rather draws us in to take part in it. We don’t question the boy’s decisions, we understand them. As Charlie makes his way across the desert landscape to find his mother in Wyoming, we never need centre stage monologues to understand his actions. Haigh seems to have stepped back to let Plummer discover and shape Charley as he faces hardships on this journey of pain, compassion and discovery.

The script seems to carry the compassion that is otherwise missing in its characters and storyline. And amidst it all, the landscape is beautiful and the colors seem to echo the boy’s feelings. In a never ending sequence of suffering, the background is a welcome reprieve, as are the interactions between Charley and Pete. It’s not a new concept, the story of a boy and his horse but Lean on Pete is not a fantasy with glimpses of freedoms and grandeur. We are given no promises, no lies, making the audience understand that the story goes on even after the credits starts rolling.

The movie toes the line where its appeal is uncertain but once you’re in, it makes you feel its hunger, agitation and the few moments of peace in between. Just like Charley is unable to do anything but try and save Pete, we can’t help but root for the boy with nothing but compassion and a survival instinct.

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Weekend Performance: Ocean’s 8 Successfully Revives the Franchise

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

The all-star heist comedy Ocean’s 8 exceeded expectations this weekend with 41.6 million dollars. This number exceeds the openings of all previous Ocean’s movies, where the highest so far was Ocean’s Twelve with 39.15 million. If the movie has legs, it’s safe to say we will be getting more heists with this crew. What’s left to see is whether this will motivate more gender-swapped franchise revivals. Women in Black perhaps?

Meanwhile, A24 just had its biggest opening weekend so far with Hereditary’s 13.6 million. The studio’s top 3 opening weekends are all horror movies, the other two being The Witch and It Comes at Night, but this seems to be at least partially due to their awards fare like Lady Bird and Moonlight opening in limited release before expanding.

Avengers: Infinity War, still going strong worldwide, became the fourth film to join the 2 billion dollar club. It reached this milestone in 48 days, beating Star Wars: The Force Awakens which took 54 days, but not Avatar, which did it in 47. It now seems plausible for the movie to beat the overall gross of The Force Awakens by the end of its run.

What did people like?

The dystopian crime comedy Hotel Artemis got mixed reviews from critics, with a Metascore of 57 and 59% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were much less forgiving, and the movie ended up with a CinemaScore of C-.

Hereditary did poorly with audiences too, with a CinemaScore of D+ that is in line with previous A24 horror releases The Witch (C-) and It Comes at Night (D). Critics, however, loved it even more than those two films, with a “must-see” 86 on Metacritic and an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Ocean’s 8 got very mildly positive reviews, with a lackluster Metascore of 60 and a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of just 67%. Audience response was par for the course for this franchise, as the B+ CinemaScore joins the B+, B and B+ scores for the Soderbergh trilogy.

The blaxploitation remake Superfly didn’t fare any better with the audiences, getting a grade of B+. With critics, the reaction was significantly worse. Both the Metascore of 53 and the Rotten Tomatoes rating of 52% indicate an even split, and the consensus reads, “Superfly updates the blaxploitation original with a stylish remake that’s short on social subtext, but still exciting and visually arresting enough to offer its own slickly staged action rewards.”

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Weekend Performance: Solo Struggling to Hold on Even as Other Disney Movies Approach Milestones

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

As expected, Solo: A Star Wars Story topped the weekend with 29.4 million dollars. This drop of 65.2% from its opening weekend confirms what was already suspected, the movie will almost certainly fail to make back its budget, and will thus lose Disney money. Elsewhere at the Mouse House, Black Panther crossed 699 million domestic, and might just cross over the 700 mark in the coming weeks, becoming only the third movie to do so, while Avengers: Infinity War stands at 1.966 billion dollars worldwide, and will almost certainly become the fourth movie to cross 2 billion this coming weekend.

Among new releases, only the Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley survival romance Adrift fared well with 11.6 million. The sci-fi action thriller Upgrade made 4.67 million, which is respectable given its low budget. Action Point, on the other hand, bombed with 2.39 million dollars only.

What did people like?

Critics trashed Action Point, with only 19% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 38. Audiences agreed, giving it a miserable C+ CinemaScore.

Adrift received a more mixed response. Critics were slightly positive about it, with a Metascore of 56 and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 69% accompanied by the consensus: Adrift sails smoothly between love story and survival drama, thanks in large part to a gripping central performance from Shailene Woodley. The B CinemaScore reflects a somewhat less positive audience response.

The Leigh Whannell-directed sci-fi thriller Upgrade was received much more positively, as indicated by a Metascore of 65 and 86% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus reads: Like its augmented protagonist, Upgrade‘s old-fashioned innards get a high-tech boost — one made even more powerful thanks to sharp humor and a solidly well-told story.

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Bumblebee Official Teaser Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

Doesn’t matter how sick and tired you are of Transformers movies, Bumblebee looks like a legitimately good movie. I’m serious! I was expecting something good out of Travis Knight, the director of Kubo and the Two Strings, but this still managed to surprise me by feeling less Transformers and more Herbie for a large portion of it. When it does become the action movie we know it is, it boasts cleaner action and better designs than what we have seen from Michael Bay. Could this be the start of a new era of Transformers movies?

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White Boy Rick Official Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

It has been a while since I’ve been able to root for, and then love, a live action Matthew McConnaughey movie. Hasn’t happened since Interstellar, in fact. This one, from acclaimed director Yann Demange, looks riveting, with a trailer that shows an insane true story and blends heartfelt character interaction with thrilling music and consistent humour. Richie Meritt, who plays the titular Rick, looks like a younger Ansel Elgort, and seems to be just as good an actor.

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Suspiria Teaser Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

For anyone who loved Call Me By Your Name as much as I did, it is exciting to already get to see the teaser for Luca Guadagnino’s next project, a remake of the horror classic Suspiria. Yes, horror remakes do not have a great track record, but when you have this talented a director as well as Tilda Swinton at her creepiest, you have to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Like any good teaser, this didn’t reveal any of the plot, and much of the tone. And I like this tone. If the final product is able to sustain this much tension, this could be a continuation of the ongoing resurgence of the horror genre (10 Cloverfield Lane, Get Out, A Quiet Place, Hereditary etc.)

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The Tale Review

by Utkarsh Bansal

Jennifer Fox’s The Tale stars Laura Dern as, well, Jennifer Fox. That, in a sense, is the most unsettling thing about the movie, knowing just how real this is, just how much of herself the director is baring to us. A disclaimer at the beginning cautions us that the film is certified TV-MA because it depicts rape, but we’ve seen rape on film before, and while it has been more shocking and more horrifying in other depictions, it has never been this unnerving, which is due in large part to the intimacy the director has built with her audience.

Jenny Fox is a documentarian living in a happy relationship with her longtime boyfriend (played by Common), and spends her time going through candid footage of interviews she’s taken for documentaries and teaching classes on making documentaries. One day, her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a story she’d written as a teenager that disturbs her, so she mails it over for Jenny to read. The story concerns her encounter one summer with two adults, Bill (Jason Ritter) and Mrs G (Elizabeth Debicki), who taught her running and horseriding respectively, and gave her an escape from her tumultuous home life.

And this is where it starts to get complicated. The adult Jenny describes these events from her recollection as benign, even positive. She claims to have had a loving, consensual relationship with an older man (Bill) when she was 15. If the age difference is called into question, her simple reply is “it was the 70s!”. But as she starts to read the story and dig in to

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Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 Official Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

Rich Moore’s first Wreck-It Ralph is one of the finest movies in the current Disney animation renaissance. He further cemented his place among the great animation directors working today with 2016’s Zootopia. This long-awaited sequel, which brings Ralph and Vanellope to the internet, initially looks like a somewhat better version of The Emoji Movie from the first half of this trailer, with easy gags about specific popular websites. But once they enter what is essentially an online version of Disneyland, this becomes absolutely hilarious, with self-aware gags on how Disney princesses are perceived, and how things become a “thing” on the internet. I have faith in Moore, and even if this sequel doesn’t live up to the original, I expect a clever, engaging adventure.

Ralph will break the internet on November 21.

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Widows Official Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

The director of 12 Years a Slave. The writer of Gone Girl. Starring Viola Davis. And the premise of four widows taking up the heist left unfinished by their husbands. This trailer delivers on the hype that the above description entails. While there will, of course, be some action in the film, what the trailer shows us is a thoughtful, emotional drama about people. And it certainly helps that these people are played by an all-star cast of awards-worthy actors. I’m calling it: this will end up as one of the best movies of the year.

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Weekend performance: Solo Falls Short of Even the Lowest Expectations

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

The decision to make a Han Solo prequel was always a questionable one, and Ron Howard stepping in to finish a movie started by Phil Lord and Chris Miller did not help get people on board. Over these last few months of trailers and spots, I’ve asked some of the biggest Star Wars fans I know whether they’re excited about Solo, and have received a few different variations of “meh” in response. The unenthusiastic critical and audience response cemented it. As it stands, more than half of these friends of mine have not seen the movie yet, and will probably wait until they can stream it on Netflix. The theatre I watched it in had somewhere between 10 and 15 people, and that was opening day.

And in spite of all that, I was convinced that the Star Wars brand name alone would push Solo: A Star Wars Story past a 100 million opening weekend. But in a disappointment reminiscent of last year’s Justice League, the movie ended up with 84.42 domestically. Internationally, it fared even worse, which is less surprising. Star Wars was an American cultural phenomenon, unlike, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is more global in its appeal.

Speaking of which, Avengers: Infinity War only dropped 41.3% this weekend, a significantly smaller drop than had been expected for a long time. Deadpool 2 took a bigger hit, making 65.4% less than its opening weekend haul. It has now almost crossed half a billion worldwide, while Infinity War is fast approaching the 2 billion mark.

What did people like?

The weekend’s only notable release was Solo: A Star Wars Story, which has a Metascore of 62. On Rotten Tomatoes, 70% of critics gave it a positive review. The critics consensus reads: “A flawed yet fun and fast-paced space adventure, Solo: A Star Wars Story should satisfy newcomers to the saga as well as longtime fans who check their expectations at the theater door.”

With a mildly positive CinemaScore of A-, it appears that general audiences agree with that sentiment. For context, the last 3 Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi each got an A, while the 3 prequels shared Solo’s grade of A-. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only 4 out of their 19 movies have CinemaScores A- or lower. Over at Pixar, Cars 2 is the only one of their 19 films to stumble down to that score. From every direction, critical, public, and box office, the message is clear: Star Wars can do better.

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Christopher Robin Official Teaser Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

Ewan McGregor stars as an adult Christopher Robin, who is surprised to meet his childhood friend, the adorable bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, Owl and Rabbit from the Hundred Acre Wood. Caught up with work and family, Pooh and his friends help Robin rediscover the meaning of life.

The trailer has got all the feels, filling us with nostalgia. It releases on August 3, so better get ready to dive into Pooh’s world again!

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Hotel Artemis Red Band Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

 

Hotel Artemis is an action thriller comedy set in a dystopian future LA that start Jodie Foster, Sterling K Brown and Jeff Goldblum among others. This new trailer didn’t get me as excited for the movie as the last one, but that’s probably just because of the novelty of the concept. What I did love about it, though, was every moment with Jodie Foster as The Nurse. She has elements of your typical badass boss, but this trailer presents her as much more human, and much funnier, and that’s what I want from this movie, not just another Hotel Continental from John Wick.

Hotel Artemis comes out in theatres June 8.

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Wildlife – Official Teaser

by Utkarsh Bansal

 

If you knew nothing about Wildlife going into this teaser, you’ll leave still knowing almost nothing, which in my opinion is how teasers should be. And once you read the premise given in the video description, you realise that’s not the selling point for this movie anyway. I’ll watch Wildlife because it stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, I’ll watch it because it’s the directorial debut of Paul Dano, and I’ll watch it because it has got absolutely amazing reviews out of film festivals.

Wildlife comes out in theatres October 19, 2018.

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A Fantastic Woman Review: One Woman’s Struggle with Loss and Identity

by Utkarsh Bansal

In 2013, Sebastián Lelio gave us Gloria, a movie about a free-spirited 58 year-old woman seeking romance. In 2017, A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman grieving for her partner. In 2018, Disobedience depicts the struggle of a lesbian couple set against the backdrop of a Jewish orthodox community. His films show us perspectives on womanhood that movies are rarely interested in or comfortable with exploring.

This one in particular won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Now I’ve only seen 2 of the 5 nominees, so I cannot say I found it deserving of the honour, but I can say it at least deserved its nomination. This is a beautiful movie, in every sense of the word. Aesthetically, it looks and sounds beautiful. Sometimes the visuals enhance some mundane, everyday sight, other times, we’re presented with something surreal, visuals that escape realism and take us into pure, unfiltered emotion, whether it’s suffocation or ecstasy.

But beyond aesthetics, there’s something beautiful about the film’s depiction of life. Our protagonist is Marina, a trans woman in a loving, intimate relationship with a much older man Orlando. The plot kicks off with Orlando’s death, and that’s when we realise there really isn’t much of a plot to this film. It plays out as a sequence of uncomfortable conversations between Marina and members of Orlando’s family, or with a detective, or with just about everyone who is refusing to let her grieve in peace. This leads to a very relaxed, meandering pace that feels intimate and real.

In the absence of a plot, what holds the narrative together and keeps us engaged from one scene to the next is the central character. The film is a character study, and Marina proves absolutely worthy of such a study. No one box, feisty, subdued, cynical, determined can contain all that she is. The scenes of dialogue, and even the few without any, do a skillful job of peeling back the layers of this woman’s complicated mess of feelings. Even though we barely get to know Orlando, we feel Marina’s love for him, and want to be left alone to grieve with her. Much of the credit for this goes to Daniela Vega, who was the inspiration for Marina even before she agreed to play her. She gives a mesmerising, memorable performance, full of heart, passion and realism, a performance that can make us admire her energy even as it conveys her exhaustion with this cruel world. It is in this feeling of being able to see inside her soul that the the movie is able to rise above defining its protagonist as a victim.

Not everyone will love A Fantastic Woman, its pace, its structue, its rhythm may not appeal to all, but I do urge everyone to give this very good movie a try. Join me in celebrating just how fantastic of a woman this is.

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Let’s Talk Deadpool 2

by Utkarsh Bansal

Now that most of us have seen Deadpool 2, and many of us have discussed every plot point to death, it’s about time I give my 2 cents on some of the most discussed aspects of the film. As should be clear from the title, this post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the movie. Get ready, we’re going to get nerdy.

  1. Deadpool redeems X-Men characters:
    This isn’t new. The first Deadpool movie redeemed Deadpool himself from what was done to him in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It also redeemed Colossus from his rather bland role in X2 and in X-Men: The Last Stand, this:Deadpool 2 continues in that proud tradition by pulling the Juggernaut out of the mess left behind in the wake of “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” from X-Men: The Last Stand, and makes him a seriously formidable presence. What many might not have noticed is the fact that Yukio, the character introduced to us as Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s girlfriend here, is the same character we saw in 2013’s unfortunate The Wolverine. Not that she was awful in that movie (though at least in certain scenes she was), but Shioli Kutsuna, even with her limited screentime, lights up the screen with her energy, and I would love to see more of her in the future.
    What other characters should Deadpool 3 redeem from the original X-Men timeline? I for one would like to see Gambit done better. Where’s my Channing Tatum movie Fox?
  2. Speaking of Deadpool 3, what next?
    It’s a foregone conclusion by now that an X-Force movie will happen before Deadpool 3. That still leaves the question, do we even want a Deadpool 3? Ryan Reynolds recently said that he’d like Deadpool 3 to be scaled down, with a smaller budget and smaller stakes. If they go that route, I would like to see it.Now the primary reason the excitement is greater around X-Force right now is that new characters Cable and the scene stealing Domino both left fans (including me) wanting more of them. In an X-Force movie, Wade wouldn’t necessarily need a character arc and could mostly be the comic relief, while the story focuses on Cable, Domino and their relationship. And, of course, Dopinder. Can’t forget Dopinder. If that seems like too small an ensemble, it might be fun to see Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Yukio leave the X-Men to join the darker and more brutal team X-Force. This is especially important because as much praise was heaped on Deadpool 2 for showing an openly lesbian characters (Sorry Marvel, Valkyrie doesn’t count) in a superhero movie, they weren’t really a part of the story in any significant way, which is something X-Force could change.
  3. Homage? Ripoff? Coincidence?
    Deadpool 2’s many similarities to other movies have not gone unnoticed, but the response has ranged from praise to indifference to criticism.
    Two of these connections were referenced by the movie itself, which does to a certain extent shield them from criticism. One is the obvious Terminator 2: Judgement Day connection, with Cable coming back in time to kill a kid, and Deadpool filling in Arnold Schwarzenneger’s iconic shoes as the kid’s protector. (Did anyone else find it odd when Deadpool called Cable John Connor? Just doesn’t fit!)The other is a much more subtle connection to Logan, with Deadpool, like Wolverine, losing everything, and holding on to his humanity through a child. This was referenced by the movie in multiple ways, the most poignant of them being the music from Logan’s death scene being played here. The thematic connection was explored in more depth by Richard Newby for The Hollywood Reporter, as well as this video by the YouTube channel Wisecrack.
    The similarity that I cannot defend is with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Once we find out why Cable has come back in time, the connection isn’t easy to ignore. Russell is basically Raven, and wants to murder a bigot who tortures mutants. Cable is Magneto, and believes that the only way to stop this from happening is to kill Russell. Deadpool, like Charles Xavier, has hope. If only they had made that reference themselves!
  4. Does the time travel in Deadpool 2 make sense?
    That’s a question that can be answered in one word: NO. Which is particularly disappointing because the same franchise gave us X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is one of the few movies in recent years that made mostly good use of this science fiction concept.
    So where did Deadpool 2 go wrong? Not immediately at least. But when you don’t clearly define your set of rules, it’s not easy to be consistent. It all began when Cable came back in time to save his family (I must mention, I completely agree with Wade on this, Cable should’ve gone further back and killed Hitler instead). Now Days of Future past had established a form of time travel in this universe where a person’s mind is sent back through time to their own younger body. Here, the whole of Cable, not just the mind and memories, but the entire physical body travels back. That’s okay. One universe can have multiple kinds of time travel. Cable’s device simply works differently from Kitty Pryde’s mutant powers.But things get messy(er) as we approach the end. Deadpool sacrifices himself to save Russell, helping redeem the kid so that he doesn’t kill the evil headmaster. Cable’s daughter’s teddy bear is no longer drenched with her blood, signalling that Russell does not go down a dark path, and Cable’s family lives. But wait, what? This teddy bear experienced the original, darker future! So even if we’re now set on a more optimistic course, why should that change anything about the toy? Cable didn’t change! He’s still the Cable who has experienced, and remembers, a dystopia.
    But okay, let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment. After all, this is the device that Back to the Future used, with the fading photograph. Let’s just say that objects from the future take on the physical properties of the new likeliest future, but the mind retains its memories. Yes, I know, that’s just lazy writing.

    (Image courtesy ScreenRant)But the advantage of this acceptance of a leap of logic is that it makes what comes next pretty easy to swallow. Cable uses his last charge to turn back time and save Wade’s life. But this time, instead of his body being transported back so that there are 2 Cables running around simultaneously, his mind goes back into his (slightly) younger body so that he can just make one different choice and do everything else exactly as he did it the first time around. This can be explained away by saying that a) the device senses if its user was still around in the past, and if so, just sends back the mind, otherwise, the entire body; or more likely, b) the device has 2 settings, and Cable deliberately just sent his mind back the second time. Lazy writing? Yes, but by this point I’ll accept most anything.
    Now of course we get to the mid-credits sequence. Deadpool goes back in time (mind only) to save Vanessa. I’m assuming he still does everything else as he did originally, so he can save Russell from becoming a murderer anyway. Next, he saves Peter. Just Peter, it seems. Sorry folks, no Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, or Brad Pitt(!) in X-Force. He then somehow jumps to the original X-Men timeline, pre-Days of Future Past, when X-Men Origins: Wolverine was still canon, and shoots that godawful version of Deadpool. Probably doesn’t kill him, though. That’s unfortunate. And finally, he finds the Ryan Reynolds of the X-Men universe and shoots him before he can say yes to the Green Lantern script. Unless their universe’s timeline went very differently from ours, that would’ve happened in 2009. But seeing how the X-Men in the manor look like their 90s versions, and seeing how much younger this Yukio is than The Wolverine’s Yukio, Deadpool 2 is probably set significantly before 2009, in which case that’s a jump forward in time.
    (Also courtesy ScreenRant)Okay okay I’m sorry for trying to find logic in this, I just couldn’t resist the temptation once the writers confirmed these scenes are all canon, and Vanessa and Peter really are alive.Speaking of which…
  5. Does death matter? For that matter, does anything matter?
    Okay no I can’t answer that second question, but the answer to the first one seems to be “no” these days.
    SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR AHEAD FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO ITS 1.82 BILLION DOLLARS
    So the thing is that the impermanence of death is by no means a new problem. Comic book readers have for years dealt with characters, good and bad, coming back to life so frequently that we’ve stopped being scared for them. In movies, however, for a while the concern, at least for our favourite villains, was the opposite. They never seemed to live to see another day, and thus never got more than one movie’s worth of character development. One of the reasons Loki stands out is that he changed that. He was more complex in The Avengers than he had been in Thor, and even more so in Thor: The Dark World. That said, the MCU also brought the “superheroes never die” problem from the pages to the screen, with Phil Coulson, Nick Fury and Wong refusing to stay in their graves. Infinity War was supposed to change that. Death was coming, and would mean something. But not only did not do that, the issue seems to have infected Deadpool Too, so it might be too late now. Vision’s sacrifice was immediately reversed using the time stone, and since we know Peter Parker and T’Challa need to be alive to lead their upcoming sequels, they can’t be dead either, and their return in the next Avengers movie might also end up involving the time stone somehow.
    Luckily, the Deadpool 2 writers have confirmed that Cable’s time machine, unlike the MCU’s time stone, is truly spent, and won’t play a role in any future movies. I suppose we could take that as reassurance that future deaths in this series are to be taken seriously. As for the damage already done, I can’t say. What do you think? Will seeing Vanessa alive and well in X-Force cheapen Wade’s character arc for you? Were you emotionally invested to begin with? Comment below!
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Weekend performance: Deadpool 2 Falls Shy of Record

by Utkarsh Bansal

What did people see?

In a surprise to no one, one superhero movie starring Josh Brolin dethroned another this weekend, with Deadpool 2 making 125.5 million dollars in its opening weekend, falling just short of Deadpool, which made 132.4 million. Its dominance will be short-lived, however, as Solo: A Star Wars Story opens this coming Friday.

Avengers: Infinity War made 29.45 million, taking a hit as expected, but its 52% drop is still not staggering, probably because of Deadpool 2’s R rating. Which means that Solo will cause a significantly larger drop next week. Worldwide, it’s closing in on the coveted 2 billion mark, for which its biggest obstacle is, of course, Solo.

Book Club starring Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda opened to a respectable 13.6 million, which should be enough for it to turn a profit. It opens in India this Friday. The other wide release, Show Dogs didn’t even make enough to break into the top 5. Meanwhile, nearing the end of its massive run, Black Panther is crawling towards 700 million domestic. Fingers crossed it gets there.

What did people like?

Deadpool 2 received a similar critical reception as Deadpool, matching its 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and slightly improving on the Metascore, bringing it from 65 to 66. Book Club got a mixed reception with 58% on RT and 53 Metascore. Show Dogs was thrashed with 23% on RT and 35 Metascore. The limited release Ethan Hawke movie First Reformed received rave reviews, earning a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 84.

General audiences showed their love for the Merc with a Mouth, with a CinemaScore of A, while Book Club and Show Dogs received A-, which is still a mildly positive score.

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Mowgli – Official 1st Trailer

by Utkarsh Bansal

Mowgli has always been an exciting project. Directed by Andy Serkis, it’s sure to have breathtaking visual effects (the CGI in the trailer, especially for Kaa, felt a little off, but rest assured itlit be fixed by the time of release). It’s also not beholden to the animated movie, leaving it free to explore darker territory from the source material itself. And holy crap the voice cast! Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, Naomie Harris as Nisha and Andy Serkis himself as Baloo! The trailer didn’t do much to increase my anticipation level, but it did confirm the factors I was already excited about.

The only reason to doubt this film at this point is the fact that this is only Serkis’ second movie as director, and his first, Breathe, did not get a great reception, so we have nothing to convince us of his storytelling capabilities. (Also, is Cumberbatch reusing his Smaug voice?)

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Revenge Review: Familiar yet Effective Rape-and-Revenge Thriller

by Utkarsh Bansal

Revenge is a story as simple as its title. It’s a rape and revenge thriller, and that should tell you just about everything there is to know about the plot. Matilda Lutz plays our vengeful hero. Her name, backstory, or really any character traits apart from sheer grit and determination are irrelevant here. She’ll be hurt, she’ll survive against all odds, and one by one she’ll hunt them down. You expect the wide shots, the badass music, the brutal violence. We’ve seen it all before.

What I hadn’t seen before was not the story, but the telling of it. Writer-director-editor Coralie Fargeat has given this movie a distinctive voice, making it memorable not in its plot points, but its minutiae. I remember the bit apple, the blood dripping on the ant, the star-shaped earring. Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert employs extreme close-ups, making the movie’s desert setting feel all the more gritty, visceral and real. Just like The Revenant, another revenge movie, made us feel the cold, Revenge makes us feel the heat. The sounds of the desert are loud too, completing the effect of immersion. When you not only see what the protagonist sees, but also feel what she feels, you don’t need a backstory to get invested.

The editing deserves special mention. It is perhaps the biggest reason the movie is so engrossing. Now usually the kind of editing most deserving of praise is the kind that is so seamless that you forget it’s there. The editors on Revenge announce their presence with a bang, and take over the show. The sudden cuts are flashy, showy, and spectacular. If the deliberate pacing used effectively to build tension throws you off, these edits are what will keep you engaged.

From a story perspective, the one thing I did find remarkable here was the symbolism. There’s a subtly effective phoenix metaphor in the way she comes back after being left for dead. Well, at least until the movie decides to get rid of the subtlety and embrace that metaphor as its emblem. And while the movie offers no deep feminist insights, it’s certainly interesting to see how the 3 antagonists of the film embody different traits associated with toxic masculinity: entitlement, apathy and a bloated, fragile ego. To me, this made their comeuppance all the more satisfying.

Revenge isn’t some masterpiece of action, hell, it’s not even a masterpiece in the revenge subgenre. But it’s a good movie, and one I highly recommend to those who need an outlet for righteous feminist rage.

If you don’t mind copious amounts of blood, gore and full frontal male nudity that is.

Revenge is available for digital rent and download now.

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