Friday, May 24, 2024


My two stars for THE FALL GUY are a weighted average of 90 minutes of flaccid, obvious, juvenile action-romance followed by 30 minutes of a super-fun sparky high-stakes romantic comedy. The difference? In the final 30 minutes of the film its stars Ryan Gosling (BARBIE) and Emily Blunt (A QUIET PLACE) are actually on screen together, in on the plan together, MacGuivering a trap for the Bad Guy, and vibing of each other. The two actors are superfun and have real chemistry. The problem is that this film contrives to have them at odds with each other for most of its running time.

Gosling stars as stunt man Colt Seavers who doubles for douchebag superstar Tom Ryder, clearly based upon Tom Cruise, and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (KICKASS).  When the star disappears from the set of his latest blockbuster, which happens to be directed by Seavers' old flame and debut director Jody (Blunt), her agent Gail (Hannah Waddingham - Ted Lasso) persuades Colt to go find the star and save the film. Crucially for some reason Colt has to do this without telling Jody. And this is what separates them for the majority of the film.

I dunno. I just didn't vibe with this film. The humour didn't catch fire for me. The meta jokes about action films and Hollywood and the 1980s, which is totally my era, just felt forced and off.  The action sequences from director David Leitch (DEADPOOL, ATOMIC BLONDE) never excited me. And the script from writer Drew Pearce (MI: ROGUE NATION) lacked any romantic fizz or genuine laughs. I feel Blunt and Gosling were doing all the heavy lifting, and it worked when they were allowed to get into it at the end of the film, but that was too late to save it for me.

THE FALL GUY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 126 minutes. It is on global release. 


I am giving CHALLENGERS one star for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' occasionally superb electronic soundtrack and a further star for cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cheeky tennis ball POV shot. Otherwise CHALLENGERS is a damp squib of an attempt at a sexy adult relationship drama, replete with hammy dialogue and superficial characaterisation.

All of which is a shame for the multi-talented star Zendaya, who was using the film to rebadge herself from being a Disney child star to a serious actor.  The weird thing is that I am not sure anyone apart from Zendaya thinks she's pigeonholed in that way.  A brave, vulnerable performance in Euphoria put paid to peppy, pretty Zendaya the teen star.  And Sam Levinson's MALCOLM & MARIE gave her a role in an actually fully fleshed out proper adult relationship, playing opposite John David Washington.  Now that was a toxic relationship shown in all its gnarly and credible glory!

So back to CHALLENGERS.  The person responsible for this ludicrously melodramatic film is debut feature screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes.  No-one in a real relationship has ever spoken in the way that his characters speak.  Watching this felt like watching a Bollywood movie or 1980s soap opera. As a result, the relationships aren't credible and the characters struggle to capture one's attention or sympathy.  To be sure, the film tries hard to camouflage its superficiality with tricksy camera shots and a non-linear narrative. But unpick the flash and there's nothing there.

Zendaya "stars" as junior Tennis ace Tashi whose career is cruelly ended with a brutal knee injury.  She vicariously lives her career by coaching her successful husband Art (Mike Faist) but they have little sexual chemistry.  He hits a bump in confidence and she enters him in a challenger tournament to get some court time, at which point they both run into Patrick (Josh O'Connor - MOTHERING SUNDAY- a washed-up former peer and lover of Tashi and potentially Art.

The irony is that this is meant to be Zendaya's first headline film, and she has been the star of the red carpet promoting it.  But when you watch the film you realise that she's just the tennis ball that Art and Patrick are playing with. The film is ACTUALLY one about homosocial and potentially homosexual love. The climax thus has actually nothing to do with Tashi at all, but both players falling into each other over the tennis net. Poor Zendaya. She isn't even centred in her own film.

I am coming to the slow realisation that I do not like director Luca Guadagnino's films. But they appear to be critical darlings, certainly since he came to global recognition with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. I just don't get the hype.

CHALLENGERS is rated R and has a 131 minute running time. It is on global release.

Sunday, May 05, 2024



Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an Indian auteur who specialises in lavish, big-budget costume dramas that feature stunning women in beautiful outfits singing heart-rending songs that Bhansali also writes. He is the Indian director as indulgent maximalist, though without the stunning landscapes of, say, a David Lean. Rather, Bhansali's control extends to creating huge sets in which his dramas are encased, lending them a claustrophobic, artificial air that often matches their narrative themes. This is nowhere more true than in his first TV series, HEERAMANDI.

Heeramandi may translate literally as The Diamond Bazaar, but subcontinental viewers will know it as the name of the red light district of Lahore, now in post-partition Pakistan.  But western viewers should banish any image of streetwalkers and take Geisha culture as their context. The madams of these opulent brothels train young girls in classical poetry, dance and music in order to seduce long-term aristocratic patrons or Nawabs. As such they form a triad of dependence with those Nawabs and the ruling British.  The Nawabs support the British because the British guarantee their lavish lifestyle and privilege relative to ordinary Indians.  And in turn the Nawabs financially support the courtesans of Heeramandi.  

The great irony of the series is that while the courtesans become politicised, they are essentially ending their own profession. Without the British there will be no Nawabs or patrons, and we know from history that many of these artists did end up as common prostitutes to survive. The gilded cage may be brutal - love cannot guarantee escape, and these woman are effectively slaves - but perhaps that is safer than life beyond it.

The series takes place in the 1920s and its two warring protagonists mark the contrast between tradition and modernity. Manisha Koirala (DIL SE...) is stunningly cruel as the traditional madam, Mallikajaan. She is a supremely successful businesswoman precisely because she rejects all sentimentality, even when it comes to her own family. Her antagonist is Fareedajaan, played by DABANG's Sonakshi Sinha. Sinha is very much a creature of the 1920s in her dress, hairstyle and even how she entertains, with cocktail parties rather than mujhras. Both actresses deliver outsized, high camp performances as selfish and successful woman, exploiting Nawabs, the British and their own family members alike. 

The tragedy plays itself out with the younger generation of courtesans. Richa Chadha (GANGS OF WASSEYPUR) is heartbreaking as Lajjo, a courtesan betrayed by her patron and self-medicating with alcohol and delusion. The role of the heartbroken and betrayed courtesan is a trope in Indian cinema, and Bhansali's exploits the viewers' familiarity with it to add layers of pathos. 

And then there is the political awakening of Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) who uses her training in seducing men to provide information for the revolutionaries and ends up echoing the iconography of Nargis in Mehboob Khan's MOTHER INDIA.

Where the show is weaker is in its love story. Bhansali's niece Sharmin Segal is a lacklustre screen presence as the thinly written poetess Alamzeb.  Her love story with the Nawab's nephew is rather feeble and by the numbers.  Similarly, the British characters are all caricature baddies.  Characters become political and bury hatchets on a whim.  But all this can be forgiven as we gaze at the stunning outfits and puzzle over the inherent tension between the self-titled "Queens" of Lahore exerting power within their gilded cage, but ultimately being brutalised by the system they claim to run.

HEERAMANDI: THE DIAMOND BAZAAR was released on Netflix on May 1st.