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

Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

The Hateful Eight (2016)

★★★★

The Hateful Eight PosterDirector: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight almost feels like a career denouement. Fittingly, its structure loosely resembles that of the director’s inaugural feature, Reservoir Dogs, though experience has clearly softened his haste. One can imagine a young Tarantino, exuberance overriding patience, penning a screenplay too snappy to tempt overstaying its welcome (at less than 100 minutes, it is his shortest film). With over 20 successful years to his name and having perfected his incomparable style — arthouse blockbusters — snappy screenplays no longer have a place in the auteur’s workshop. The Hateful Eight reflects just that, seemingly to the point of no return.

Post-Civil-War tensions are rife in what is essentially a courtroom western. In non-revelatory terms, let’s run through some of the prosecutors (after all, Tarantino’s screenplay does the best descriptive job). John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is pure Americana, the type who gets glossy-eyed reading a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln. He is transporting criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock where she will be hanged — Jennifer Jason Leigh, oddly enough, increasingly channels The Breakfast Club’s Allison with each disconcerting grin and her general weirdness. Along the way they meet Major Marquis Warren, practical and thoughtful, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

He hitches a ride after some toing and froing, as does Chris Mannix who the trio find flailing around frantically in the brewing blizzard. Mannix, the prospective Sheriff of Red Rock, is weaselly and the most out-there of the entire bunch. He is played by Walton Goggins, the film’s MVP on the humour front. Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sanford Smithers), and Demián Bichir (Bob) are already huddled up in Minnie’s Haberdashery when the travelling troupe arrive seeking shelter from the storm. Turns out the snow would have been a safer bet.

This rabble, though most engaging, are a noxious bunch. They use “during wartime” as a reductive excuse for past misdemeanours when really those misdemeanours were, and are, a way of life. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” muses Roth’s Mobray with ominous foreboding. Much has been made about the treatment of Domergue, and it’s plain to see why: she gets throttled often and without much in the way of retaliatory action. The characters are almost universally vile, Domergue included; the abuse is not funny nor, crucially, do I think it is meant to be. It didn’t offend me (the N word is again invoked with consistency) but others mightn’t be so kind.

For around an hour and a half, you get the feeling Tarantino and co. are taking the material seriously, so much so that those doing the striking gain a nasty reputation. But when the spaghetti violence takes form later on, that conscientious veneer ceases to exist and gory absurdity reigns supreme. Perhaps justifiably, given the caricature-esque group involved. At this point the violence is played, at least to an extent, for laughs and shock value — although it is worth noting most of the amusing moments arrive via verbiage. Ruth, for instance, intentionally has the worst comeback patter: “My pistol plays a tune… Domergue’s Death March.”

Jackson gets the best of the dialogue and subsequently repays Tarantino’s faith. He delivers a whodunit monologue with such devious joy; you can just about see the actor licking his lips as he succumbs to the satisfying taste of the words rumbling around his mouth. On the topic of audio, Ennio Morricone delivers another resplendent score, thoroughly grandiose and absolutely worthy of the occasion: his return to the genre for the first time since Buddy Goes West (1981). Galloping horses carry a distinctly cinematic sound and Tarantino, a movie lover, knows it. He also knows and cherishes the woody authenticity of film as a shooting medium, making Robert Richardson’s immaculate visual serving a welcome non-surprise.

There are times, and this is true of all Tarantino outings apart from the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, when you find yourself actively egging conversations towards their conclusion. This is especially applicable in “Chapter One” of The Hateful Eight, when Warren is attempting to nab a seat in Ruth’s convoy. It might be a genuine attempt to flesh out key characters or simply a matter of self-indulgence, or possibly a bit of both. Tarantino writes and writes, and then writes some more, and when you see one of his films you just have to accept that. Because when he gets it right — and let’s face it, he does get it right quite a lot — even Aaron Sorkin must look on with a hint of jealousy.

Having said that, there isn’t much depth beyond the obvious cultural and political divisions (which are so plainly invoked they barely register as thoughtful). The certainty of death manifests via blood-trails in the snow — these rose markings could also represent the importance of evidence on the path to justice, though I might be clutching at straws with that one. Tarantino makes it work, however, by subbing in rich characters and the unrepentant screenplay I have already alluded to. The film exists in an era that demands people declare their backstory upon meeting a stranger and those variably truthful backstories are thoroughly enticing to hear.

A chapter in the film’s second act expertly refreshes proceedings just when you think the film might be turning stagnant and a tad repetitive. “The name of the game is patience.” It is true; patience welcomes more positives than negatives in The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is the sort of director who would rather swim across an ocean than take a speedboat in order to prove his point. You’ll know by now whether or not you enjoy that sort of storytelling. Regardless, there is something charming about a film that keeps you in the cinema a little longer than necessary — especially if said film has a lot going for it.

The Hateful Eight - Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Bruce Dern

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company