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.

Studios race to build cinematic universes


We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!

Rams


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One thing I love about watching movies is to vicariously experience the culture of faraway lands. An opportunity to see how other people live their lives. The similarities across cultures are sometimes uncanny. I watched an Iranian film a few months ago called The Separation and I swear it was like watching a high quality Hindi melodrama. Of course, as I was watching it, I was making the connection of how Persian culture would have impacted North Indian social culture over so many centuries of intermingling.

Ultimately, no matter how alien a culture is, basic human emotions are all the same. Love and hate, joy and sorrow, anger and fear, all these can be related to, no matter which part of the world it’s from…

So the reason I’m going on this tangent is because I’ve just watched my first Icelandic film, called Hrútar.

I haven’t watched too many films from Scandinavia, by which I mean the broader definition, which in addition to Denmark, Norway and Sweden also includes Finland and Iceland. I’ve watched a few Swedish and Danish films. Four Norwegian films (all from the last 8 years). Three Finnish films (all Aki Kaurismaki). But never one from Iceland. Till now.

Hrútar means ‘sheep’ in Icelandic (the English title of the film is Rams). It is a simple film with the most elementary of plots. There are two brothers. They are both sheep farmers. They live on large plots of grazing land adjacent to each other. They are unmarried and probably in their 60s. But because of an old dispute, they haven’t spoken to each other in decades. Yet, they have to co-exist within a very small and tightly knit sheep farming community. And then a calamity befalls them which threatens their entire way of life. Can they come through without taking each other’s help?

Rams won the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes 2015; it is an award which recognizes new and distinct voices in cinema. Frankly, the film isn’t as edgy as the typical Un Certain Regard fare. But the international recognition at Cannes and other festivals in 2015 probably helped it win Best Film at the domestic Edda Awards in February this year.

The film is noteworthy I think because this story could’ve taken place in any part of the world. And the acting is so accessible that very quickly, one stops noticing the racial and geographical differences and gets caught up in the lives of the people.

The lead actor who really makes this film work is Sigurður Sigurjónsson, who plays the younger brother Gummi. He is the more reasonable and sensitive of the two, whereas the older brother Kiddi, is prone to arguing, drunkenness and violent behavior.

When Gummi’s sheep are declared infected with scrapie, a disease that affects their nervous system, similar to Mad Cow Disease, the local authorities declare that the entire herd will have to be culled. The scenes before and after the culling (which Gummi decides to do himself, shooting each sheep individually) are truly heartrending. He has names for his sheep and he speaks to them, hugs them and kisses them before doing the horrible, unavoidable deed.

As can be expected, circumstances force Kiddi to work with Gummi even if he still doesn’t like or trust him. This should be the turning point of the story and the setup for the final act, but it happens surprisingly late in the narrative. After that, there isn’t much of a story left. The two brothers go off into the hills in deep winter in their snowmobile to safeguard the last of their flock from being culled by the authorities. Gummi gets lost but Kiddi eventually finds him in the snow. The film ends with Kiddi desperately trying to warm Gummi back to consciousness, holding him in an embrace which appears to be making up for decades of lost time.

I was hoping for a more upbeat and unambiguous ending, but perhaps that would have been out of character with the cold and stark landscape in which the story takes place. Nevertheless, this is an easily watchable movie which gives you a peek into a faraway culture – exotic locales but familiar emotions.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane: A creepy survival drama from the JJ Abrams factory


In 2008 January, a found footage monster movie called Cloverfield was released following several months of multi-layered viral marketing. The film told the story of a group of friends who find themselves on the run through the streets of New York as it comes under attack from a giant (mostly unseen) creature. The back story built through the online marketing made the movie a geek’s wet dream and it made $170 million at the global box office. That doesn’t put it into blockbuster status, but it surely turned in a nice little profit on a production budget of just $25 million.

The film was produced by J.J. Abrams, who at that time was known as the guy who had produced the hit TV shows Alias and Lost. Eight years later, Mr. Abrams is a global entertainment powerhouse, the man who has restarted both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and has taken over as producer of the Mission: Impossible films.

Meanwhile, the Cloverfield geek club had been clamoring for a sequel for several years. The Abrams club has been coy about it, indicating they’d love to do it, but only on their own terms and in their own time.

And then in February this year, when we least expected it, came the trailer to a movie called 10 Cloverfield Lane. It came from Abrams’ Bad Robot production house. Surely, this name couldn’t be a coincidence? Was this the much awaited sequel? How come it was produced in secret, completely the opposite of the high profile marketing campaign of the original?

The answer came from Abrams – this movie is not a sequel to Cloverfield. He called it a “spiritual successor” to the earlier film, but not existing in the same universe or timeline. Abrams likened the connection to that of multiple films which are part of an anthology series. The connecting thread is that both movies feature a large scale attack on a populated area and the story is told at the ‘ground level’ of how some ordinary people survive the attack.

There are basically just three characters in the film. A brave and resourceful young woman, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young man, played by John Gallagher Jr. who is trying to do the right thing in unpredictable circumstances. And a man in his 60’s who may or may not be a delusional maniac, played to perfection by John Goodman. These three characters find themselves confined in a surprisingly cheery and well-equipped underground bunker. One wants to keep them all down there for good. One wants to escape. And one doesn’t know what and who to believe.

Unlike the wild camera movements which are characteristic of found-footage films like Cloverfield, the lighting and camera positioning in this film is very conventional, making it easy to focus on the characters and their surroundings.

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This is a genre film that feels like it’s a blend of genres – locked room mystery, character study, suspense thriller, all rolled into one. Towards the end, it rapidly shifts gear and becomes a conventional scifi film. I was reminded a bit of another multi-genre thriller that deconstructed itself rather cheekily, called The Cabin in the Woods. Coincidentally that film was directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay for the first Cloverfield. Connections, connections.

Very interesting musical score by composer Bear McCreary, who used a full 90 piece orchestra, with some very strong cello sections, but most interestingly, layered on the sound of an experimental stringed/ percussion instrument from the 70’s, appropriately called a Blaster Beam (check out this article from Wired).

10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely worth the time, if you’re a fan of suspense thrillers. And I look forward to further entries in the Cloverfield anthology from the bad boys at Bad Robot Productions.

Sorcerer: The misinterpreted classic from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection


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By the mid-1970s, William Friedkin was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood. His 1971 crime drama The French Connection picked up 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Two years later, The Exorcist became a milestone in the horror genre, was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Only Francis Ford Coppola with his two Godfather films and The Conversation between 1972 and 1974 could be said to shine brighter.

At this point, Coppola and Friedkin both embarked on ambitious new film projects which would take them far from civilization, both physically and metaphorically. Each would personally confront the existential demons that their on-screen protagonists were fighting to overcome.

Coppola’s film took a year just to complete photography, due to an arduous location shoot in the jungles of the Philippines and health issues with his key actors. It nearly destroyed his career, but after several postponements, it was released in 1979 to critical and commercial success and cemented his place in the pantheon of directing gods. The film was Apocalypse Now.

Friedkin’s film similarly required nearly a year of photography, with elaborate sets built in the jungles of South America, besides location shoots in other parts of the world including Paris and Jerusalem. His crew suffered from injury, gangrene, food poisoning and malaria. The film, titled Sorcerer, was released in the summer of 1977 and sank without a trace. The title misled audiences into thinking it was a supernatural movie from the director of The Exorcist. In fact, it was a slow-burning story about four men trying to transport boxes of dynamite through the jungle. Also, no one could have predicted the cultural phenomenon that Star Wars became a few weeks later. In no time at all, theater owners took Sorcerer off and brought back George Lucas’ scifi epic. Friedkin’s career nose-dived and he never got another decent directing gig in Hollywood again.

I watched Sorcerer for the first time last weekend; it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. And that makes the fate of the film and its director even more tragic.

Sorcerer is a remake of the 1953 French classic The Wages of Fear, itself based on the 1950 novel of the same name. Why the unfortunate and misleading title? It’s the name painted on one of the two trucks used to transport boxes of explosives through the jungle. So random! In retrospect, if the title had been different and the movie had been released closer to the Oscars, it may have all turned out differently.

If you haven’t read the book or seen The Wages of Fear, it is difficult to describe the movie. It is partly a character study, partly a thriller and partly a morality tale. It has therefore been described as an ‘existential thriller’. There are four opening vignettes that show the backstories of the four men (from Mexico, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey) and how each ends up on the run. The scene then abruptly shifts to a hot, humid, muddy Latin American jungle. The four characters have all landed up in a shanty town, living in squalid conditions, surrounded by impoverished locals, trying to eke out an earning taking whatever jobs are available, mostly with the giant American oil company that dominates the local economy. The transition is extreme and you can sense how wretched it must be for these men to find themselves stuck in this hellhole. They were running away from civilization, but now they want to get back somehow. But illegal visas cost money and they have none. Eventually an opportunity comes up that brings the four men together – a dangerous assignment transporting 6 cases of highly unstable nitroglycerine sticks (split across 2 trucks) through 200 miles of jungle to help put out an oil well fire. The oil company is willing to pay handsomely on completion of the job.

The trucks themselves are key characters in the film. There is a sequence where the men pick two trucks from a scrapyard and then painstakingly bring them to working order using scavenged parts. You can see ‘Sorcerer’ below; looks menacing doesn’t it? Doesn’t look like this creature wanted the men to complete their assignment…

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And so at the half-way point of the movie, the journey finally begins. Each truck carries three cases placed far apart from each other on a bed of sand in the back. The men have to be extremely careful not to jolt the truck while driving through the jungle. There are several tense moments as the trucks have to navigate natural and man-made obstacles relying on a combination of skill, teamwork and pure luck. The bridge crossing sequence which is illustrated in the movie poster is truly memorable. This scene alone took months of reshoots and cost USD 3 million (a full movie’s budget in those days).

One can imagine that a story like this cannot possibly end well. On the positive side, the mission is indeed accomplished and the men achieve a sort of redemption, having at least re-discovered their own humanity.

A special note regarding the eerie soundtrack by German electronic band Tangerine Dream. It is discordant, relentless and extremely unsettling. Apparently, the band composed the music based only on the script without seeing a single minute of footage from the film. The music is indeed a perfect fit with the images on the screen.

If possible, do watch the restored version which was released on Blu-ray in 2014. Really worth it.

Captain America: Civil War – The Avengers sequel that’s better than the Avengers sequel


And so, the Captain America trilogy has come to an end. It began nearly five years ago with The First Avenger, a movie characterized by its simplicity and earnestness, reflecting the spirit of the times. During World War II, when your country asked you to fight, you fought; and it was easy to tell your allies from your enemies. The 2014 sequel The Winter Soldier was set 70 years later in the present day, but drew its inspiration from the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, a time when spies and double agents made it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. The sibling duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are back again in the directors’ chair for the third and seemingly final entry in the series, Civil War. This time around, they seem even more at ease in managing what has become a hugely complex storytelling effort. Not only does Civil War continue with the second movie’s theme of “you don’t know who your allies are”, it goes one step further and turns friends into enemies.

The trailers made it clear that Civil War features pretty much all the characters from The Avengers; Age of Ultron and has frequently been referred to as ‘Avengers 2.5‘; in fact, the Russos will be directing the next two films in the Avengers series, so Civil War is indeed a bridge, both story-wise and thematically, between Age of Ultron and 2018’s Infinity War Part 1.

The only complaint I had after watching the movie yesterday (and this has been echoed in multiple reviews) is the absence of a worthy villain to challenge Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. To think that over the course of the trilogy, we have gone from Hugo Weaving’s menacing Red Skull to Robert Redford’s duplicitous S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce to Daniel Bruhl’s rather bland Colonel Zemo…that’s somewhat disappointing.

The two new characters – Black Panther and Spider-Man – do add some freshness to the growing ensemble of heroes. Many critics have praised Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Prince T’Challa/ Black Panther and so I was expecting something very special. I came away a bit disappointed with Boseman’s rather stiff rendering of the Wakandan prince. What did work was the wonderful chemistry between him and his father, which is a credit to South African acting veteran John Kani, who plays King T’Chaka. Spider-Man, on the other hand is an unqualified hit and Tom Holland seems a perfect embodiment of the wise-cracking teenage superhero that we all love. I was least expecting his entry into the plot at the point that it happened and there was a collective gasp of joyful surprise from the audience when we all realized whose apartment we were in.

While all the reviews have spoken glowingly about the set-piece fight sequence at the airport in Germany, I thought the opening encounter in Lagos was also very well done, with the camera work particularly effective at bringing the audience into the midst of the hand-to-hand combat in a busy market place. It’s reminiscent of the shaky cam/ quick cut style of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but far easier to watch. The Russo brothers describe themselves as ‘guerilla filmmakers’ and you understand why.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing very distinctive as far as the theme music is concerned. Henry Jackman is the composer and I loved what he had done with X-Men: First Class in 2011 (particularly Magneto’s Theme). But all we get here is a generic, bombastic score with lots of strings and horns. The best music in the extended Avengers/ Captain America film series so far is still Alan Silvestri’s theme from The Avengers.

Here are my top moments from the movie:-

  • Black Widow’s stylish fighting jacket – Scarlett Johansson continues to be the style icon for the Marvel movies, sporting a tan cotton jacket during the opening fight scene in Lagos. The jacket is already a hot seller on many online stores.

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  • Scott Lang shows he can go both ways – The airport fight sequence is the showpiece of the movie. It’s where the growing schism between the two factions of the Avengers becomes all-out war. A last minute reinforcement for Captain America’s side is Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. But there’s a big surprise in store as Lang shows that there’s more than one way to use those Pym particles.
  • Goodbye Peggy Carter – This was a really poignant moment for me. I’m sure Rogers-Carter doesn’t have the same ring to it as Romeo-Juliet, but for me, their unfulfilled romance has been one of the great tragic on-screen love stories of recent times, perhaps accentuated by actress Hayley Atwell’s strong performance in the Agent Carter TV series.
  • Cap keeps the Carter family connection strong – Steve Rogers moves right on, building a nice relationship with Peggy’s niece Sharon, although I do find it very difficult to accept the vapid Emily VanCamp as a replacement for the feisty Hayley Atwell.
  • We get to see the Raft – The prison for super-criminals makes an appearance.
  • Audi product placement – Audi continues their association with Tony Stark and the Avengers. Tony Stark is seen driving the super cool R8 V10 plus Coupé. The new SQ7 features prominently in a tunnel chase sequence involving Bucky, Cap and the Black Panther (check out Audi’s tie-in ad below).

  • Aunt May is really attractive – What a brilliant casting idea to get Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Even Tony Stark seemed interested.
  • CGI is getting better at making actors look young – A low profile company called Lola VFX has been creating younger versions of actors on-screen for a few years. They ‘de-aged’ Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan for a flashback scene in X-Men: The Last Stand. In last year’s Ant-Man, a young Michael Douglas appeared in the opening scene. In both those films, they were able to take 20 years off the faces of actors in their late 60s/ early 70s. In Civil War, there’s a scene featuring a very young Robert Downey Jr., who appears to be in his late teens or early twenties; a significantly tougher task and a sign of how much the technology has improved. This is a sign of things to come in the sub-specialization now known as ‘visual cosmetics’.
  • Closing titles – The closing title sequence uses abstract shadows to describe the character played by each actor. A nice touch to have ’13’ come up against Emily VanCamp’s name, as Sharon Carter is called Agent 13 in the comic books.

And so, Marvel has yet another bona fide hit on their hands. The Disney machine already has two big hits this year with Zootopia and The Jungle Book. Look for Civil War to zoom up the charts and potentially overtake the current 2016 box office champion Deadpool in the coming weeks.