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

Spectre (2015)

★★★★

Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia 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