Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

★★★★

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James Gunn is Marvel Studios’ most effective filmmaker. Sure, other writer-directors have delivered exciting, interesting, energetic films, action and/or character-driven in purpose. Joss Whedon gave us the former in The Avengers, just about finding enough room to squeeze so many overblown personalities in amongst the blast-and-ruin spectacle. Anthony and Joe Russo’s work on the Captain America arc has been a triumph as far as affording the seemingly ungroundable genre some grounding. But you get the feeling Gunn, more than anybody else, has an affinity for his characters. And in a cinematic bullpen dominated by flash and awe and all that jazz, these films need to provide adequate space for genuine character moments.

It helps that Gunn has a bunch of game, off-piste actors at his disposal. A bonafide A-lister in voice only. Another not just in voice only, but limited to three words. A former comedy sitcom goof. An underused performer whose mainstream exploits have placed her second or third fiddle to her male co-stars. A wrestler rarely heralded for his acting abilities (until he became a thoroughly entertaining bad guy). And Michael Rooker. It helps, too, that these are people who clearly get along in real life. They look cool in group promo shots, are funny in group promo interviews, and combine the two in group promo selfies. Whereas The Avengers are big-time charming, this lot are ragtag charming, and their performances reflect that — aloofness and competence in bundles.

There are three show-stealers, each of whom assume varying levels of prominence throughout the film. Dave Bautista is the comedic heartbeat of a generally funny picture, a primary player as Drax the Destroyer, whose battle to overcome tone-deafness invites instances of hilarity. Bautista, by the way, is one heck of a catch for Hollywood. Next to him, as Yondu, the aforementioned Rooker recounts the surprising emotional verve he once deployed as Merle in The Walking Dead. Both Merle and Yondu are unlikeable antagonists, but antagonists who discreetly command a sense of attachment from viewers. Perhaps the real heartbeat of the piece is Sean Gunn as Kraglin, second-in-command to Yondu, a miscreant with a conscience. Gunn, who also stop-motioned as Rocket during filming, makes the most of the screen time he receives, packing as much punch as those hogging the minutes.

The plot itself is straightforward. The Guardians — Drax, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) — hightail it across the Galaxy in an effort to hide from the Sovereign, a robotic alien race led by Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha. The story, though, is one that incorporates fatherhood and sisterhood, told without narrative complexity but still thoroughly engaging. As a director should, Gunn relies on his cast and crew to bring his vision together, and his vision is colourful. Henry Braham’s gloomy work on The Legend of Tarzan is nowhere to be seen: Given its infinite parameters, it makes sense that space would breed so many vibrant and distinctive civilisations and peoples. The wild accessorisation of The Hunger Games springs to mind, as does The Fifth Element’s aesthetic mania. And I have to point out a landscape shot fraught with tangerine beauty and instantaneous threat, the latter via a spacecraft that advances so rapidly you hardly have time to admire the Braham’s photography.

Of course, a significant chuck of the opening Volume’s charm was its vintage soundtrack. I don’t imagine screenwriting class 101 instructs students to concoct a screenplay partly built around which songs one wishes to include in their final project, but this format has now worked twice for Gunn. From the opening dance-battle number (“Mr. Blue Sky”), to Sam Cooke’s romantic serenading, to a beautifully judged Cat Stevens finale, the music hits each tonal beat. The soundtrack is as much a means to inject sensory pleasure into proceedings as it is a wink towards the audience. And this is a film that likes to wink, taking shots at excessively corny villain names such as Taserface (“It’s metaphorical!”), and freely admitting Baby Groot’s cuteness makes him indispensable: “Too adorable to kill.”

This willingness to just accept the absurdity is alluring. Gunn is not trying to sell us something false, therefore the oddities are easy to buy — a Kingsman-esque murder slalom made jovial via euphoric music — and subsequently digest. We even get some stoner comedy in the midst of too many inter-dimensional space warps, a throwback to the filmmaker’s work on the Scooby-Doo live-action series. And, though infrequent, the piece knows when to harden the mood, often at the behest of Quill’s father-finding arc opposite Kurt Russell, who seems to be having a great time hamming it up as a god. Karen Gillan also does solid work as Gamora’s intensely pained sibling Nebula, though her story could do with some more fleshing out.

Some of the conventional superhero traits do find their way into the piece: The general lack of true jeopardy; the special effects-fest towards the end. Although it isn’t a huge distance, this is as far from the Marvel formula as we are likely to get, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok pending. Put it this way: Whereas the iconic Avengers gladiatorial pose (that bit where they all assemble mid-battle and the camera gives us a 360° shot of their scarred triumphs) is a pristine effort, akin to a collection of futuristic Atlas sculptures, the same pose here ends with an amusing splat. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t after glamour. It is after fun, funny and feeling, and it nails all three.

Director: James Gunn

Rating: 12A

Runtime: 2hrs 16mins

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker

Images ©: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Jurassic World (2015)

★★★★

Jurassic World PosterDirector: Colin Trevorrow

Release Date: June 11th, 2015 (UK); June 12th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the context of filmmaking, it’s very easy to construe that as nothing more than an excuse for lazy writing or a general lack of ideas. Mainstream horror comes to mind, movies that retread the same ground so often that the concrete slabs below are eroding into nothingness. Jurassic World similarly stomps over familiar tracks, the same ones paved back in 1993 by Steven Spielberg.

Yet there’s an authentic admiration afoot in Colin Trevorrow’s work. Moments so sincere that any semblance of cynicism will be expunged from your psyche. A lot of goodwill has clearly been poured into the making of this fourth dino instalment, a film that undoubtedly strives to capture the fantastical magic of the first. It probably gets there in the end. We see imitation in spades and it’s flat out splendid.

Some time after the tumultuous events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar has been transformed into the tourist-attracting dinosaur paradise originally envisioned by John Hammond. Operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) invites her two nephews — gloomy Zach (Nick Robinson) and wide-eyed Gray (Ty Simpkins) — over to experience the park first-hand. When something inexplicably goes wrong, Claire and Velociraptor coach Owen (Chris Pratt) find themselves in a race to restore civility.

These characters are initially drawn rather whimsically. Chris Pratt’s Owen is the morally upright park hand who spends his time tucked away in a cabin fixing up motorcycles when he’s not training Velociraptors. Claire is work-obsessed, her penchant for sustainable order and satisfaction statistics often overruling any time spent with her nephews (both of whom also assume recognisable age-related traits). It’s all part of the writers’ plan though; imminent danger brings heroism and savviness to the fore, particularly in Claire whose transformation is punctuated in a scene where she literally rolls up her sleeves.

In fairness, there are early hints at this increasing character roundedness. Conversations about the new breed of dinosaur — Indominus Rex, a corporate attempt to freshen up the park — leave Claire flustered, suggesting she is somewhat torn by the possible consequences. “Indominus wasn’t bred, she was designed,” we hear ominously. Owen, despite treating his raptors with care and respect, is still holding them captive. The influence of corporations, poor animal welfare, and immoral science are all interesting themes that would have benefited from more breathing time in a film not contractually obliged to serve up grand bouts of action.

Occasionally, Trevorrow and his team of co-writers do return to the aforementioned themes — an exhilarating scene where Owen rides his bike among the raptors seems to suggest humans and dinosaurs are one in the same. But the moment of the movie, and a shoe-in for one of the moments of the entire year, belongs to Claire. It comes towards the conclusion, spine-tingling in delivery, and cements her place atop the annual cinematic table of quick-thinking badassery.

While Bryce Dallas Howard moulds into the cool aunt we always knew she could be — shooting errant dinosaurs and using her wily driving skills to protect her nephews — Chris Pratt remains impossibly cool throughout. He’s Indiana Jones, a surly customer not afraid to echo some juvenile Han Solo-esque one-liners. When he gets serious, he means it. The two actors appear effortless in their roles, and share an engaging, charmingly awkward chemistry.

An underfed yet sweet relationship plays out between brothers Zach and Gray too. Not helped by an unnecessary divorce plot strand, Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins are fun to watch as the generic sibling duo who eventually, predictably, come to appreciate each other. Robinson, who excelled in The Kings of Summer, has natural charisma and could be a breakout role away from superstardom. Comparably younger, Simpkins defies the annoying kid curse and puts on an amiable show here.

Other members of a pleasingly diverse cast include Omar Sy, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, and previous Jurassic survivor, BD Wong. Jimmy Fallon makes a hilarious cameo, striking a funny bone from which point the film gets gradually more amusing. Trevorrow manages to carefully balance light-hearted humour (which the franchise well known for) and rampaging action (which the franchise is also well known for). We see this during a dino football scene: the situation is terrifying in theory, but the visual of a marauding dinosaur thumping a giant glass ball around is humorous.

Action spots are aplenty, though never burdensome. Executed with boisterous energy, you willingly give into the air of childlike joy and genuine threat. One sequence sees the dinosaurs meet The Birds and we subsequently feel that film’s sense of impending, uncontrollable danger. A claustrophobic night vision routine looks like it has been lifted directly from the Zero Dark Thirty Abbottabad raid. These instigators of flickering emotion merge with John Schwartzman’s realistic-looking cinematography, and as such we constantly feel embedded in the story. This is, without doubt, a CGI masterstroke.

The same can’t be said for compelling dialogue, of which is there is very little. There are plenty of exposition-driven sound bites in first hour though, lines wrapped in a heightened dramatic effect, snippets that have an unfortunate made-for-trailer dynamic. The screenplay is ham-fisted, especially during the film’s opening third where the desire to induce peril overrides any airy character discussion. But the people and the sounds and the overall atmosphere collectively create a welcome distraction.

At its simplest — and it is often simple — Jurassic World is a nostalgic love letter to cinema. It is a wonderfully reminiscent piece bearing great admiration for Spielberg’s original, and is able to duplicate Jurassic Park’s most memorable moments without plunging into mawkish territory. We hear John Williams’ famous track early on, during a perfectly handled island tour sequence celebrating the magnificent park facilities (Tomorrowland… pfft), before it hits a crescendo coated in cinematic glee.

Those sort of goosebump-inducing moments are the foundation of the cinematic experience. Jurassic World is not the complete package by any means, but as far as celebratory storytelling goes, it has serious bite.

Jurassic World - Pratt & Howard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

★★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy PosterDirector: James Gunn

Release Date: July 31st (UK); August 1st (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

As far as pure cinema goes, Guardians of the Galaxy has all the boxes covered. Sure, we’ve been running on the fumes of superhero momentum for a few years now and with a behemoth such as Marvel Studios behind the film, entering expecting entertainment is an entirely justifiable frame of mind. But James Gunn’s picture never rests on any laurels, it is not satisfied with simply entertaining. Guardians of the Galaxy sets out to interact with the paying customer, to re-establish the genre whilst also refining it. There are laughs, plenty of ’em. Societal threads designed to make us think. And real characters, most importantly. This isn’t just a great addition to the Marvel ranks, it is also a great piece of cinema.

Having lived twenty-six years of his life aboard a scavenger spaceship, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) somewhat innocuously finds in his possession a universe altering orb. The artefact is highly sought after, by none more so than Thanos (Josh Brolin). In an attempt to scupper the success of a threatening deal made between Thanos and Kree radical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with an alien, a warrior, a tree humanoid and a raccoon. Chaos? Ensue.

Balance is pivotal, just ask the bloke in prison with only one leg. Gags, thrills and seriousness are all elements that see plenty of daylight under the astute guidance of James Gunn, a decision that wholly benefits the director’s film. It is tough too, cementing each individual strand without compromising the whole, a concoction Iron Man 3 failed to measure correctly (and look what happened there). Guardians of the Galaxy never stumbles into said pitfall and instead thrives on variation. If the essence of tip-top filmmaking is versatility, we’re looking at a lofty outing. As an audience overly saturated with superhero escapades, we need more. A divergence from the, albeit rather fun, company line. We need space adventures and fresh motives, and both are on the menu here.

As Peter Quill and co’s gallivanting adventures scamper between wondrously constructed civilisations, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher what might happen next. Mystery and intrigue swivel in and flurry around proceedings, at which point our minds are buzzing with a thirst for more. 10 films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, this burst of authentic suspense is truly welcome, particularly at a time when the formula is beginning to wane. And it’s not just the raucous air that commands a sense of thought; Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman also include a frequently rearing class allegory, pitting different species side-by-side in disharmony and challenging social boundaries.

And if you’re just here for a laugh, you could do a whole lot worse. The film is hilarious, and it knows so. There’s a prevailing camaraderie between audience and filmmaker; collectively, we know this is all a bit absurd — a tree with a conscience, a raccoon with a rocket launcher — so why not revel in the madness? Brilliant one-liners (“Pelvic sorcery”) make way for equally funny banterous group deliberations. Despite oozing a retro vibe, the film still bears more than a semblance of accessibility. Newcomers will leave filled to the brim on “bro” lingo, whereas the more mature amongst us can lap up Footloose references — of all people, Kevin Bacon becomes one the best running gags on screen this side of 2014. Or, like me, you can inelegantly giggle at everything. Guardians of the Galaxy has a heart, one that beats for all-comers.

At the epicentre of its heart is a ramshackle gaggle of misfits. Forget cookie-cutter characters, these five are dense to the nth degree. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill — though he prefers Star-Lord — and is the glue that holds the guardians together. Pratt is on a mission to stardom himself, and his performance here is another indication of the leading man’s talent. He injects Quill with some soul and, rather than becoming the conventional male hero, embarks down a slightly less glamorous yet equally loveable path. No doubt buoyed on by his Parks and Recreation experience, Pratt also has comic timing down to a T. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the kick ass alien who is sort of Thanos’ daughter but sort of not. Saldana has already proven her worth on the blockbuster stage and her mystique is integral as it affords the group an ambiguous streak.

Perhaps the most impactful performance emerges from wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista. No doubt, his skills inside a ring prove handy when it comes to fulfilling a number of exciting fight sequences, but it is the big man’s sincerity that really shines through. Drax takes everything literally — a trait that often tickles the funny bone — but he is never presented as stupid. He’s had a tough time in life and he is a tough guy, but Drax is also an endearing presence and Bautista deserves huge credit for ensuring that this is case. Groot is the Hodor at large, partnered alongside the spitfire raccoon, Rocket. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is both persuasive and energetic. A wit-off between Tony Stark and Rocket must be in the pipeline. The aforementioned quintet mesh together like a rugged patchwork quilt: rough and probably a bit dirty, but entirely warming.

Unlike The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy is not an all guns blazing affair. There are a lot guns and they do embark on a hefty amount blazing, but that comes with the territory. We get the sense that the engine is only revved half-way, that the future is dangling the promise of a whole lot more. And that is thrilling. We’re only in the introductory phase of this particular relationship and, while the sparklers are sizzling now, fireworks undoubtedly lie ahead. The comparatively small-scale feel, then, is really charming and quite emotive. Subsequently a deeper connection with the characters ignites. The film’s mischievously dated soundtrack has a hand in generating this personable aura. Its compilation is a masterstroke, making for a number of unorthodoxly funny mishmash sequences — Cherry Bomb is particularly rollicking.

Going forward, one thing is a certainty: if this is Marvel’s new prerogative, then rest assured that next time the comic book logo appears on screen we’ll be in good hands. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a man without integrity,” rings out early on. I’d like to think that Guardians of the Galaxy is gender-neutral and I’m convinced it is bursting with integrity. It’s also Marvel’s best film to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.