Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2: Groot and gang save the world. And this film!

When a ‘bunch of jackasses’ stood ‘in a circle’ to emerge unlikely saviours of the cosmos three years ago, it marked a welcome relief from self-serious superheroes caught in an unchanging vortex of noisy valour and franchise fulfillment.

Contrary to Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more illustrious entities, the Guardians of the Galaxy did not carry any baggage of expectations and writer/director James Gunn ingeniously turned this obscurity into an opportunity of ‘Ooga Chacka’ proportions to have some good, old-fashioned fun.

Gunn’s frisky follow-up retains its predecessor’s irresistible flippancy and zeal for a vigorous colour palette and retro soundtrack. But in the face of novelty wearing thin and a plot that looks at schmaltz as adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2‘s intergalactic antics struggle to find a rhythm.

Things kick off sure-footedly enough with Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr Blue Sky extending its feel-good fervour to dote on a post-resurrection Groot’s toddling imp while the rest of the oddball gang is busy clobbering away a monstrous octopus to its yellow goop conclusion. Dazzling in its CG sorcery and immersive 3D, the opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

Regrettably, the banter-flavoured bonhomie of its offbeat quintet, which made the first Guardians of the Galaxy such a picnic, is cut down to stick in hokey family reunions and a caboodle of antagonists.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the winsome scamp who is more Walkman junkie than Star Lord, confronts the truth about his parentage, his sage green cohort Gamora (Zoe Saldana) gets a taste of sibling rivalry around ombre blue Nebula (Karen Williams).

Numbskull alien warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) finds a kooky complement in a socially awkward empath named Mantis (Pom Klementief).

Without a doubt, Galaxy poster boys (voiced ever-so-delightfully by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper) Groot, the twig whose vocabulary is limited to three words but expressions range in thousand and Rocket Raccoon, a quip-ready, devil-may-care, furry portrait of insolence are still the brand’s biggest attraction. If they don’t get an independent story arc, it’s probably because they sell enough toys already.

And after witnessing Rocket’s quick thinking in devising a trampoline-like effect to hurl his pursuers atop pine trees and Groot’s child-like confusion in understanding the nitty-gritties of explosives, they are bound to sell some more.

Rocket’s high jinks spell trouble for his gang yet again as they incur the ire of an army of aureate Sovereigns led by their haughty leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki evoking a Tilda Swinton) or outwit Taserface (a suitably overwrought Chris Sullivan) a gruff, ghastly space pirate and self-appointed replacement for Yondu (an excellent Michael Rooker) calling the shots among The Ravagers.

Juxtaposed in these escapades is Kurt Russell as Ego combining charisma, cheek and campiness to play a highly fertile and fanciful planet.

Quite a few friendly, famous faces show up fleetingly during the course of Vol 2‘s rambling narrative, but lack the wit to play on its pop-culture powered frivolity. Often it’s what plagues this sequel about outer space misfits the most. Gunn nearly stifles his protagonist’s sass and snark to harp on fathers and father figures, lengthily discuss a 1970s chartbuster and pay fitting but overlong farewells.

At a running time of over two hours, with nearly half of it devoted to a tedious apocalyptic scenario and gratuitous explosions in outer space, the only reason to keep up with Vol 2‘s indulgent exercise in mayhem and mawkishness is the imagination it packs in.

A riot of cosmic fireworks, a rainbow coloured pyre, Star Lord summoning a Pac-Man shaped defence, Yondu reprising his cool arrow trick to topple a host of opponents and a predominantly multihued cast extolling the virtues of make-up art reiterates Gunn’s flair for visual pizzazz.

Piggybacking on the first one’s popularity, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 doesn’t always escape the trappings of an obligatory sequel, but the disarming shenanigans of its screwball superheroes coax you to stay hooked on to that feeling.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Super filmi week: Getting ready for the Baahubali juggernaut

Prepping for the Baahubali juggernaut, remembering a toddler Vinod Khanna and making Deepika Padukone dance to Jennifer Lopez’s tunes, Sukanya Verma’s super filmi week was pretty eventful.

Monday
No time for Monday blues. After a loooong wait, Baahubali will finally reveal its best kept secret. 

Although, as hyped up that inquiry is, I can’t claim to have undergone any sleepless nights wondering why Katappa did what he did. Rather, I am wildly curious to learn how the revenge pans out.  

Meanwhile, I am revisiting the first part of S S Rajamouli’s epic action fantasy for the second time since its release in 2015 to compose a quiz. Only this time, I skip the clunky Hindi dub to experience its magic in Telugu. Translations are helpful but there’s so much more power and emotion to words when understood in their original form and voice. 

Often after a film blows my mind, I avoid watching it again for this fear of diluted impact or not feeling the original ‘wow’ factor. That’s not the case with Baahubali: The Beginning.

Everything I loved about it — action, ambition, audacity, cinematography, imagination, Prabhas — I still do.

Everything I found problematic — dumbing down of Tamannaah’s character, songs in the second half — remains the same.  

Tuesday
Realisation of the day: Bollywood is a lightsaber-armed villain versus the crossbow-wielding hero. Acting is keeping a straight face through it all. (Courtesy: A film called Iraada.)

Wednesday
I am at a suburban multiplex, attending the Indian premiere of Félicité organised by the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) film club. 

Quite remarkable how the MAMI team is making continuous efforts to bring in acclaimed foreign films for the desi cinephile’s consumption so soon after their appearance on an international platform. 

Recipient of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, the Alain Gomis directed French production is a compelling portrait of a woman as much as it is of a city who do not give up on themselves no matter how trying the circumstances. 

Set in the grubby, unhinged Congolese capital of Kinshasa, Félicité documents the ordeal of a single mother struggling to raise funds after her son suffers critical injuries in a motorcycle accident. 

Singing at the local bar not only provides her the means to run a home but a lively outlet to feel alive and express her identity in the midst of throbbing music and an appreciative audience. But in the face of her son’s physically painful condition, the stoic woman is left reeling in despair. 

Gomis gives an internal account of her state and sensitivity, manifesting itself in dimly lit, surreal dreams featuring an okapi even as the scenes intercut between a rousing choir and discordant reality.  

Tough as things may be, they aren’t entirely without hope. 

During this tough period, she finds some unlikely comfort in an unassuming auto mechanic. His silly but endearing attempts to impress her, cheer her desolate kid and fix their conked off fridge provide Félicité its few smiles and a realisation of how life will continue to function even if some things are beyond repair.   

Enchanté.

Thursday
Vinod Khanna has passed away.

As I sit down to pay a tribute to his sparkling personage and cinematic highs, a distant memory returns to me. 

As a kid, disposed to snooping into my parents’ stuff, I had discovered a black and white photograph of a toddler Vinod Khanna. It was neatly tucked in a file belonging to my journalist father along with all his other work-related cuttings, writings and notes. 

Khanna’s name was handwritten on the back of the picture even as his unmistakably shiny mane, striking cleft and poetic eyes graced its front. The actor looked regal and camera-confident even then.

Unfortunately, my dad wasn’t around to tell me the story behind the picture, it was probably part of a feature he wrote. Still, I tried flaunting it amongst a few school friends and neighbours but not everyone bought into its authenticity. 

I am no longer sure where the photograph is any more. Perhaps it’s still lying somewhere in one of my zealously packed cartons I haven’t had the opportunity to open since I moved out. 

RIP Vinod Khanna, you live on in countless such memories. 

Friday
I am not a morning person but when the occasion is Baahubali: The Conclusion, I don’t mind waking up at 7am to catch its first show. Especially when it’s rewarded with the thrill of seeing a hall full of enthusiastic folk breaking into applause at Baahubali’s every move and entry.   

At interval point, I am so psyched by the events in SS Rajamouli’s magnificent telling of the Baahubali mythology, I can barely bring myself to leave the hall and buy a samosa to calm down my breakfast-deprived stomach.

And so the haste with which he winds up the climax is a bit of a downer. The action is grand but Rajamouli’s mastery in mega makes me dismissive towards anything that’s not unprecedented. 

Grievances aside, I am only a little embarrassed to admit I had Baahubali-sized tears rolling down my cheeks when the most asked question concerning the film becomes its most heart-breaking reality.   

As I pointed out in my review, ‘this time, high drama, more than spectacle, is what lends its riveting tale of revenge and glory all its wallop and wizardry.’

Saturday
A fun DIY remix idea pops in my head on seeing Deepika Padukone gyrate seductively to the beats of Raabta’s title track on YouTube. 

Just play the video on mute, set the speed to 1.5 and turn on the Jennifer Lopez song Waiting for Tonight in full blast and what have you — a smooth cocktail of scorching visuals and sexy vocals.   

Sunday
Reading a month or two old interview of Michelle Pfeiffer by her Mother! director Darren Aronofsky and her journey from grocery clerk to beauty pageant winner to Hollywood A-lister is most fascinating. 

She is bright but shy and unconscious of the heady effect she has on people. The star of films like Scarface, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Age of Innocence, Desperate Liaisons and One Fine Day has a potent presence on screen but off it, she isn’t so sure. 

Where her reserve translates into skillful renditions of complicated characters, Pfeiffer admits a sense of insecurity. ‘I’ve always had this feeling that one day they’re going to find out that I’m really a fraud, that I really don’t know what I’m doing.’ 

Incredibly self-deprecating sentiments coming from an actress about whom filmmaker Tim Burton once gushed, ‘I don’t really go back and look at the movies but her performance in that (Batman Returns) was one of my favourite performances of anything by anyone in any movie that I’ve worked on’ and film critic Roger Ebert wrote, ‘an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels.’

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: Baahubali 2 is a spectacular achievement!

When S S Rajamouli’s multilingual Baahubali came out in 2015, it generated a euphoria that surpassed conventional applause. 

Not only did its Amar Chitra Katha meets Middle-earth aesthetics give us a whopping, unbridled blockbuster, its cliffhanger climax regarding Katappa’s motives prompted many inventive fan theories. 

A rare distinction for Indian movies.

While most delays torment, here it amounted to a strange thrill in speculating what lies ahead in the second and final chapter of director Rajamouli’s most ambitious venture so far.

And I have to say, it doesn’t disappoint.

Baahubali: The Conclusion continues its tradition of grandiloquence and magnitude. Except this time, high drama, more than spectacle, is what lends its riveting tale of revenge and glory all its wallop and wizardry.

The action harks back to the resplendent kingdom of Mahishmati and the politics brewing inside jilted father-son Bijjaladeva (Nassar) and Bhallaladeva’s (Rana Daggubatti) conniving minds even as the successor to their beloved throne — Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) is busy taming unruly elephants, hunting down wild boars and making kshatriyas out of kaayars.  

But before the focus completely shifts on his drawn-out romance (featuring a power play of pink versus blue arrows) with a fiesty princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty) while wandering about foreign lands to gain practical knowledge in the company of the ever-loyal and suddenly comic Katappa (Sathyaraj), Baahubali holds off to note Bijjala’s meltdown and Sivagami’s (Ramya) passive guilt.

Sometimes even a flash can be as telling as the flame. Rajamouli’s strength lies in utilising every oppurtunity to colour his distinctly black and white protagonists with more subtext than what most extravaganza-driven material allows. 

What follows may evoke memories of Ramayana and Beta but Rajamouli’s idealism and convinction in old school values lend it heft. For all its kinetic battles and combats, it’s not people but promises that cause trouble in Baahubali.  Equipped with a cast that’s not only in tune with his vision but knows exactly where to hold back and when to give their all, adds to Baahubali’s might.  

Always striving for a harmonious coexistence between sentiment and audacity, Rajamouli relies on his unfettered imagination to create a landscape of architectural marvels and fantastical beasts.

A herd of charging cattle sporting horns that resemble blazing torches, a batch of gruesome warriors clinging to a giant post set on fire, a furious display of archery skills within a corridor swamped by hostile invaders — there’s tons of visual marvel on display.

Against such sterling creativity, the kitschily filmed songs, especially in their Hindi dubbed avatar, seem like a bit of a disadvantage.

There are times Baahubali shows the strain of expectation, especially in the second half’s doddering pace, lacklustre combat and excessive, unconvincing use of VFX but when it communicates from a place of heart, it moves and enthralls.

Better viewed as a whole instead of parts, Baahubali is a spectacular achievement, which not only deserves its place in history but also proves filmmakers should dream big and more often.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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