Disney’s Moana marks another solid entry from Musker & Clements

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About two-and-a-half decades ago, Ron Clements and John Musker directed two of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s biggest hits, The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). These movies sandwiched Beauty and the Beast (1991) and signalled the start of a terrific run of success for the Mouse House which ran for nearly 10 years. Pixar then took over as global kings of animation with their CGI creations, while Disney Animation’s films started under-performing.

Eventually Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006 and its Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter was given oversight of both Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation divisions. By 2010, the older sibling was showing signs of resurgence and has since had a good run of hits including Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.

During Disney Animation’s fallow years, there are two films which I very much enjoyed although both under-performed at the box office – Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Both were directed by the same duo of Clements & Musker. Somehow, I have loved their work, even though they have used different styles of animation across their films. One aspect has stayed consistent with this duo which is that their films have all been produced using traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. Now for the first time, the veterans (both are 63 years old) have directed their first fully CGI-animated film, Moana. Unlike many of Disney’s previous films which have been loosely based on fairy tales or literary characters, this is an original story.

The opening half hour of the film is really enjoyable, as it introduces the lead character of Moana, first as a child and then growing up surrounded by her parents, grandmother and villagers and the standard Disney animal sidekicks (Heihei the rooster and Pua the pig). Moana’s grandmother is a wonderful character; wise and far-seeing, she plants the seeds of adventure into the young Moana’s mind and eventually triggers her flight from the safety of her island home on a quest which will help save her people. At this point, she meets up with the demi-god Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson. Moana has to persuade Maui to join her on a journey to Te Fiti island to reverse a curse that is killing all the life in the ocean and on the islands. The two develop a semi-antagonistic relationship somewhat reminiscent of the one in Mulan between the heroine and Eddie Murphy’s magical dragon Mushu.

The film is a bit over-long, running for nearly two hours. There is a segment during Moana and Maui’s journey to Te Fiti island in which they are attacked by some pygmy pirates; it’s an entertaining sequence but doesn’t add anything to the story. In fact, other than the hilarious scenes featuring Moana’s pet rooster Heihei, the journey was a bit boring; by the time they reached the island and began the climactic battle with the lava monster Te Ka, I actually fell asleep for a short while.

Many of the songs in the film didn’t work for me, but there are three which stand out. One is the introspective How Far I’ll Go, sung by 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho who voices Moana. Another is the rousing We Know the Way, sung by Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda (who have also written all the songs in the film). And You’re Welcome, sung by Dwayne Johnson himself, the story of all his past exploits inventively picturised using the tattoos on his body.

So overall, not likely to be one of Disney’s classics, but a solid entry from one of my favourite animation directing teams.

Special mention for the wonderful short film Inner Workings, attached to the start of the feature. Real fun but also thought-provoking.

Of Erumpents and Nifflers – JK Rowling starts us off on the new Fantastic Beasts series

J.K. Rowling makes her debut as scriptwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film set in her beloved Harry Potter universe. Arriving 5 years after the final film in the original series, this one is set in the 1920’s in New York City, thereby giving Potter fans a fresh setting and new characters, while still staying in familiar thematic territory.

The film is inspired by the book of the same name which Ms. Rowling published in 2001, which purported to be one of the first year text books in the Hogwarts curriculum written by a ‘magizoologist’ named Newt Scamander. There is no story in this book; it’s just a reference compendium of all the magical creatures which exist in the world of Harry Potter. Like all good world-builders, Ms. Rowling had made extensive notes and backstories on each of the creatures and then decided to publish it as a reference guide for fans of the series. This is similar to what J.R.R. Tolkien’s son had done in the 1970’s by publishing The Silmarillion, which was a compilation of all the detailed background notes which Tolkien had created for his The Lord of the Rings books.

So, for this new movie series, Ms. Rowling decided to tell the story of Newt Scamander and his love of magical beasts which led him to publish his book.

I enjoyed the movie. Needless to say it is a top-of-the-line Hollywood production, both technically speaking – production design, visual effects, cinematography and music – and in terms of people and performances – the casting, acting and chemistry between the actors.

The real standouts in the movie are the new American actors. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (the American term for muggles) who inadvertently gets swept up into Newt Scamander’s adventures in NYC. He is the ‘everyman’ foil to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the nerdy Scamander, giving the audience the right cues to gape in wonder at the magical world, just as a pre-teen Daniel Radcliffe did in the first Harry Potter movie. Then there’s American singer-songwriter Alison Sudol in her first major big-screen role playing the very likable and charismatic Queenie Goldstein, one half of the Goldstein witch sisters who work at MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic). These two along with Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston (who plays Queenie’s sister Tina) are going to be at the centre of this five-film series just as Harry, Ron and Hermione were in the original series.

So let’s make sure we remember these four characters, shall we? Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalksi.

In terms of the various ‘fantastic beasts’ in the movie, I loved the scenes featuring the Niffler and the Erumpent. The Niffler is a platypus-like creature which has a propensity to steal anything shiny and put it away into its apparently bottomless magical pouch. The Erumpent is a rhinoceros-like creature and there is a hilarious scene in Central Park in which Scamander and Kowlaski try to capture an escaped Erumpent which happens to be in mating season.

In spite of all these great ingredients, what’s missing is a strong story. This is such an irony considering that the scriptwriter is none other than the creator of Harry Potter. I have read every book written by J.K. Rowling, including the deliciously dark The Casual Vacancy and the three crime novels published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. All her books have likable characters (except The Casual Vacancy, of course) and she captures their emotions and motivations so realistically. Most of all, the stories themselves are compelling; we are eager as readers to turn the page and find out what happens next, and we have a clear idea of what the hero’s ultimate quest is. In this case, I discovered that I didn’t really care why Scamander was in New York. The individual character interactions and scenes are entertaining, but there is (not yet) a sense of an overall journey.

Perhaps it might have been a good idea for Ms. Rowling to actually publish a novel to base this film on, one that subjects itself to the rigor of her tried and tested storywriting process.

In any case, the movie is bound to be a big success and the next film in the series will surely feature a young Albus Dumbledore and his nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (who appears briefly in this film). The films are currently scheduled to be released every two years, all of them directed by David Yates who also directed the last 4 Harry Potter films. Given that his cinematic retelling of the Tarzan story was a flop this summer, it’s just as well that Mr.Yates has secured a steady job until well into the 2020’s!

Marvel brews some strange magic

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The Marvel hit factory started off by telling us stories of modern science being used to both create and overcome evil, with Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America in 2011. Our world then had to deal with alien visitors when Thor and some unwelcome Asgardians came to visit in 2011. More aliens, all unwelcome, came through a portal in the sky in The Avengers in 2012. Soon after, we were taken on an intergalactic adventure (yes, Xandar the homeworld of the Nova Corps. is in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy) in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Now, producer Kevin Feige and team open a new door and take us into the mystical world of spells and astral planes with their latest product Doctor Strange.

Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, who is superbly cast in the lead role, this is a welcome expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Doctor Strange’s character has been teased previously in a couple of MCU movies and the connection is made very clear early on when a shot of NYC shows the Avengers building nestling among the cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers.

This is one of Marvel’s most expensive movies, with a production cost of $ 165 million, the highest for an origin story of a newly introduced character, but of course a safe bet when you consider that this is the 14th film in the MCU. The previous 13 have collectively grossed $ 10 billion across the world and by now, Marvel fans will probably come out to watch even a reboot of the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie.

The film is mainly set in NYC, the home of brilliant but oh-so-charmingly-arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. But the action moves from Nepal to London to Hong Kong during the course of the movie.

Given that we’ve had a profusion of fantasy and magic related movies in the past decade and a half, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there are some familiar tropes being recycled here. For example, Strange’s semi-sentient Cloak of Levitation behaves like something out of a Harry Potter film, a cross between that crotchety sorting hat and the invisibility cloak. Likewise, the evil being Dormammu’s representation is reminiscent of Sauron’s eye in the Lord of the Rings films. Some of the reality distortion in the city fight scenes will also seem familiar to anyone who has watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception, although I have to say I was completely immersed in the experience and found myself involuntarily tilting my body in response to some of the changes in perspective.

Having said that, the whole is greater than the sum of its recycled parts and it was beautifully topped off by the Hong Kong fight sequence set-piece. It uses some of the most inventive reality-bending concepts seen on screen since The Matrix; latching on to objects moving backwards in time and using them as vehicles and weapons is a pretty neat trick!

Much has been written about the ‘whitewashing’ of a key character; The Ancient One ended up becoming this bald white woman instead of this ancient Asian man. But when actually watching the movie, I was so taken up by Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the character that she didn’t seem out of place.

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What did dissatisfy me was the portrayal of Kamar-Taj, the hidden retreat where the Ancient One lives. It seemed too easy to find and it had too many trainees going through standard kung fu moves to fit the description of an exclusive hideout of powerful sorcerers. Likewise, the ease with which Stephen Strange picks up his sorcery skills didn’t sit right with me. It seemed like he had been at Kamal-Taj for just a few weeks. In comparison, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins goes through a seemingly more arduous and long drawn training regimen in Ra’s al Ghul’s Himalayan hideout and therefore his eventual transformation to Batman is far more believable.

When the Doctor Strange project was greenlit by Marvel Studios and the casting for the title character was on, I was secretly praying that Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen would be chosen for the role. I don’t know why this particular actor came to mind, but his strong facial features and ability to play stoic characters, seemed like the perfect fit for the confident/ arrogant Stephen Strange. Even though he didn’t get that part, I was thrilled at the irony and coincidence of him getting picked the chief villain Kaecilius. But of course, in blockbuster movie bad guy roles like this, there is little opportunity for actors like Mikkelsen to show their range, beyond the usual bombastic bad guy proclamations. As with all Marvel films, humour is used very effectively as a counterpoint to the action and the tension; pretty much all the characters, including even Kaecilius get at least one humourous line at they all work.

Marvel movies aren’t known for great music soundtracks, nothing like the iconic stuff that John Williams created in the 1970s for Star Wars and Superman. I do like Alan Silvestri’s OST for The Avengers and I have to say, Oscar winner and long-time Disney Pixar composer Michael Giacchino has done some good work here for Doctor Strange. While most of it is generic, the Master of the Mystic end credits sounds like it should be THE Doctor Strange theme and has this wonderful throwback feel like something from those 1970s British scifi TV shows, Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel.

Speaking of which, as usual, do stay through to watch the mid- and end-credits. You’ll know which MCU movie Doctor Strange will have a guest appearance in next and you’ll also know who will be his next adversary.

Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?

I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.


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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.

Sorcerers of Majipoor: world building on the scale of Lord of the Rings

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Robert Silverberg’s award winning 1980 novel Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced scifi fans to the world of Majipoor, a giant planet settled by humans and other alien races for thousands of years. Since then, the prolific Mr. Silverberg (now 81 years old) has published 6 more novels and countless short stories and novelettes revisiting Majipoor at different points of time across its history, the latest being the short story collection Tales of Majipoor, published in 2013.

The novels deal mainly with the ruling triumvirate of the planet – the Coronal (equivalent to a king), the Pontifex (the head of the bureaucracy, a post into which the ruling Coronal moves upon the death of the previous Pontifex) and the Lady of Sleep (the keeper of morals, a post occupied by the mother/ aunt of the reigning Coronal). Majipoor is a ‘backwater planet’ which has limited contact with Earth. The original human settlers were technologically advanced and were able to tame the planet and its aboriginal inhabitants – the Piurivar – in the early part of the planet’s history. In those early centuries of colonization, the human settlers built great engineering marvels. One of these is the Coronal’s castle, built on top of Castle Mount, the tallest mountain on the planet with springtime weather maintained right to the top using force fields and atmosphere generators. There is also the sprawling underground city called Labyrinth which houses the Pontifex and the entire bureaucracy. Other alien races have since then migrated to Majipoor and become an integral part of the human-dominated society. Interestingly, due to the scarcity of metals on the planet, whatever advanced technology exists on Majipoor (genetically modified draft animals, floater cars and energy guns) is the stuff that’s survived or maintained from the original colonist tech. Since then, Majipoor has settled into an agricultural economy supporting a pastoral society.

This means that the Majipoor stories have more in common with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy books than the scifi stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. In the Majipoor novels, Robert Silverberg has unleashed his world building skills and the sheer amount of detail that pops up in the novels is astonishing. Tolkien likewise had worked for many years to create an extensive historical, geographical and linguistic backdrop to the world of Middle Earth before he embarked upon the task of writing the actual stories of hobbits, elves and the One Ring.

I had read Silverberg’s first Majipoor trilogy – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – in the late 90s. The trilogy centred around the character of Valentine and his journey from becoming the Coronal till his succession to the position of Pontifex.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world with the first book of another Majipoor trilogy featuring the books Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams. These are set thousands of years before the Valentine trilogy and tell the story of Prestimion and his journey to becoming Coronal of Majipoor.

And so, I am in awe all over again of Silverberg’s amazing world building skills and am re-experiencing the sheer joy of reading about this gigantic planet, its flora, fauna and peoples. I have a mental picture of Silverberg sitting down with large sheets of paper and writing out the names of each of the 50 cities (Amblemorn, Dundilmir, Castlethorn, Gimkandale, Vugel, Muldemar…) that dot the slopes of Castle Mount or the names of rivers, lakes, flowers, trees (simbajinder, dyumbataro, mengak, havilbove, jujuga, halatinga), birds, animals and minerals which are mentioned as part of the narrative.

For example, in the Sorcerers of Majipoor there is a page and a half devoted to the description of the dyumbataro tree – how it’s branches uniquely grow from a mass of aerial roots and how the humble fisherfolk living around Lake Roghoiz are able to shape these to build a platform for their houses; how the houses are built from translucent sheets of a glossy mineral cut from the sides of nearby cliffs and the evening sunlight strikes this material to create a sight of extraordinary beauty along the shores of the lake. This scene is a small part of a chapter which covers a journey by the main characters down the River Glayge aboard a riverboat named Termagent, passing the village of Makroposopos, famous for the skill of its weavers, arriving at the impressive Stangard Falls, then onwards past the river towns of Jerrik, Ganbole, Sattinor and Vrove with the cities of Nimivan, Threiz, Hydasp, Davanampiya, Mitripond, Storp visible along the way…

You get the picture!

Many online reader reviews have criticized Sorcerers of Majipoor for its slow pacing and lack of plot progression. That’s something one has to be prepared for when reading the Majipoor books. The whole point of the book is the enjoyment of the world rather than the thrill of a page turner.

Even so, there is a plot in this book, not just descriptions of cities and trees! It is a story of political intrigue played out against the backdrop of old-fashioned jousting games, royal balls, lavish feasts, the above-mentioned river trip and much more. The central character here is Prince Prestimion, who is heir presumptive to the Coronal’s throne but has the crown snatched away from him on the eve of the coronation through the machinations of others. He now has to sort out who are friends, foes and fence-sitters as he attempts to overthrow the usurper. His three closest friends – the noblemen Duke Svor, Septach Melayn and Gialaurys – remind me of the Three Musketeers, each with their own personalities, which get fleshed out over the course of the novel.

The Majipoor novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy losing yourself in imaginary worlds, then start off with Lord Valentine’s Castle and work your way through the two trilogies. You may want to keep a notebook and pen handy though, to keep track of all the characters and places!

David Ayer aims high but falls short with Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad has disappointed a number of critics as being less than the sum of its parts. After watching it, I tend to agree, particularly since director David Ayer had done two very entertaining ensemble movies prior to this – the well-received World War 2 film Fury and the critically massacred drug-enforcement-team-gone-bad action flick Sabotage – both of which I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. In fact, Sabotage had the kind of vibe that Suicide Squad should have had; it’s an R-rated film with gratuitous violence and unlikable characters – exactly what was missing from Suicide Squad. Not surprising…while Sabotage was an independent production, Suicide Squad is from a large corporation, namely Warner Bros. and I guess some studio execs didn’t have the courage to do with the movie what Fox did with Deadpool earlier this year., i.e. give it an R rating. Even though Deadpool is part of Fox’s X-Men universe, the studio had no trouble making an edgy, R-rated film for grown ups, being quite clear that the film was meant for a very different audience quadrant compared to the kid-friendly X-Men films.

Suicide Squad on the other hand, takes two steps forward and then retreats a step. Instead of portraying a team of hardened death-row criminals, who are in fact the biggest foes of the Justice League superheroes, we end up with a team of social misfits who all appear to have hidden hearts of gold.

Take Will Smith’s character for instance. He plays Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, the world’s deadliest marksman who never misses; an assassin for hire. The writers have picked one particular storyline from the comic books in which Deadshot has an estranged daughter who he cares for. In the movie, this daughter and his need to do right by her becomes a big part of his character. What could have been a really kick-ass anti-hero/ supervillain instead became Will Smith playing some misunderstood guy with a heart of gold. I can well imagine Will Smith or his reps insisting that his character be given these redeeming qualities in order to protect his future box office potential and public persona.

Another key character, the psychotic criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) starts off very convincingly as the former prison shrink who is the lover and accomplice of the Joker. In fact, Robbie has done an outstanding job with the character, but towards the end there is once again an attempt to give her a softer side and some emotional bond with the rest of the Squad, which really jars with her character traits upto that point.

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Harley Quinn and Deadshot are inmates at the Belle Reve Penitentiary for supervillains. They along with a few others (Killer Croc, El Diablo, Captain Boomerang) are offered a partial amnesty by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller in return for joining a black ops team to combat possible metahuman attacks (her logic being that the next Superman need not be a good guy). In fact, as is so often the case with the US government, it is one of their own ‘creations’, the ancient witch named Enchantress, who goes rogue and ends up creating havoc across several city blocks. The squad is assembled under the leadership of an Army special forces officer named Rick Flagg and off they go. After many predictable action scenes, the squad members have a chance to escape but instead choose to ‘do the right thing’ and save the city.

In return for a job well done, they are put back into Belle Reve, with the only hope of getting out of solitary confinement being their willingness to volunteer for a future black ops mission.

The Joker, played by Jared Leto, had promised to make a big impact in the movie. Although he does have reasonable screen time and is chilling in an early scene with a gangster in a night club, the character soon becomes part of the background noise once the action begins.

I also had a problem with the soundtrack, which was filled wall to wall with many recognizable hits from the past. I know this approach was pulled off with great aplomb by James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy, but in general I don’t have much respect for this sort of ‘lazy composing’. I found it somewhat condescending, as if the dumb audience needs the song to understand the underlying theme/ tone/ message of a particular scene.

In spite of all the criticism, I actually found the movie reasonably entertaining. It was, as we Indians say, a typical ‘masala movie’, or in western parlance, a ‘popcorn flick’. Just laugh along at the slightly predictable jokes, sit through the fight scenes that blur into each other and every now and then, you are rewarded with a genuinely well choreographed sequence or smart punch line. In particular, I enjoyed the cameos from a couple of Justice League members.

Overall, a case of too many characters and too much ambition being squeezed into the confines of a two hour film.

Star Trek Beyond – Justin Lin keeps the series flying high

In 2006, Taiwanese-born director Justin Lin was tapped to direct the 3rd installment in the Fast and Furious series. The big stars Paul Walker (from the first two films) and Vin Diesel (from the first film) weren’t returning and the series could well have come to a quiet conclusion with this film. However, Lin did enough to make Universal Pictures some money and give the execs the belief that there was still life left in the franchise. He was called back for the fourth film, this time with the original cast returning. It was a significant commercial success and got him the gig for the next two films as well, each one going from strength to strength, with the addition of rising and future stars like Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot.

Now Paramount must be hoping that Lin can bring the same magic touch to the Star Trek series. JJ Abrams rebooted the series to commercial and critical success in 2009 and hopes were high for his follow up in 2013. But it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, probably because of its messy plot which also fiddled around with a hallowed storyline from the original film series; Abrams and his beloved writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof have been known to aim too high and fall short in the past (yes, I’m talking about Lost). With Abrams now having to produce both Star Wars (for Disney) and Star Trek films, Paramount have turned to Justin Lin to helm the 3rd entry in the rebooted Star Trek series.

Star Trek Beyond plays like a two hour TV episode. So audiences don’t have to be familiar with the plots of the previous films, only with the overall premise and with the key characters.

The film opens 3 years into the crew’s 5 year mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Everyone has settled into a routine and Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is going through a crisis of faith as one day blurs into the other. In fact, he’s applied to Starfleet for a desk job. Other members of the crew are immersed in their own lives. Sulu (John Cho) misses his young daughter, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are taking time off from their relationship, McCoy (Karl Urban) is in a philosophical mood and Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) is obsessed with affairs of the Enterprise as usual.

The crew stops for shore leave at the massive new space station named Starbase Yorktown, which is a marvel of film production design – beautifully rendered in incredible eye-popping detail. There are two significant scenes at the Yorktown and I am sure that in due course I will watch this movie again just to pick up all the engineering details. I bet there will be a few scifi forums discussing the design as well. It’s so massive that as it comes into view, Dr. McCoy says “why didn’t they just rent space on a planet?”.

While at Yorktown, a rescue mission comes up requiring a flight through a dangerous route. The Enterprise is equipped with the best navigation system so Kirk is asked to take up the mission and off they go.

Very soon, the crew are fighting for their survival on the planet Altamid against a dangerous, almost invincible foe named Krall (played by Idris Elba, unrecognizable underneath alien make-up). Also on the planet is another victim of Krall, a scavenger named Jaylah who is trying to find parts to repair an old spaceship so she can escape from the planet. Jaylah (also under a fair bit of make-up) is played by Algerian born actress Sofia Boutella, who made such an impression playing the blade-legged assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014. She is the perfect feisty foil for the Enterprise crew and together they try to outwit Krall’s forces, escape Altamid and prevent Krall from unleashing havoc on the rest of the Federation.

As I had mentioned, the film’s plot is written like an extended TV episode, so it doesn’t try too hard to explain how and why things happen. Also, in keeping with the tone of the original series, there are moments of levity, banter and situations that are outright tongue-in-cheek. None more so than when the Enterprise crew need to use an audio signal to disrupt the ship-to-ship coordination signal of Krall’s space force. Since they are with Jaylah on her scavenged old spaceship, they happen to find an entertainment system containing ‘old Earth music’, one of which is Beastie Boys’ Sabotage; perfect disruption music, no? It works like a dream and Justin Lin has choreographed the on-screen action and destruction perfectly to the cadence of the song. I was admiring it and laughing at the ridiculousness of it at the same time!

It all ends like a charm, of course. All key crew members survive and as they toast each other on another successful mission, they are ready once again “to go where no one has gone before”.

There is already talk of a 4th film, one which may feature Capt. Kirk’s deceased father George Kirk. George appeared for a few minutes in the opening sequence of Star Trek (2009) and was played by an then-unknown Aussie actor named Chris Hemsworth. Not surprising then that the filmmakers would be looking for a way to bring the new world famous actor back into the picture.