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

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

Out of the Furnace (2014)

Out of the Furnace PosterDirector: Scott Cooper

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson

Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.

A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.

Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.

Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).

Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.

In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.

Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.

If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.

Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.

Rating: 4 (White)

Out of the Furnace - Bale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

★★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: May 9th, 2013 (UK); May 16th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Science fiction; Action

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana

Following on from Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness follows the exploits of Captain James Kirk (Pine) and his crew on the USS Enterprise as they find themselves in a battle to prevent terror from being unleashed by a powerful fellow Starfleet agent who has recently defected, John Harrison (Cumberbatch). With Spock (Quinto) and Uhura (Saldana) having troubles, a domineering Admiral (Peter Weller) monitoring Kirk’s every move, and the biggest threat to Starfleet to date brooding, a seemingly inexperienced Kirk must regain the control and retain the trust of his crew and journey into dangerous territory in order to put an end to the violence.

I think it is safe to say J.J. Abrams is on a role at the moment. Without getting into his television portfolio (which includes the worldwide TV hit Lost), Abrams’ four directorial outputs have ranged from solid to sensational. Beginning with Mission Impossible III — incidentally, Tom Cruise phoned Abrams while the latter was in the middle of shooting one of the final scenes of Lost season one to offer him the job — Abrams served up an action-packed Cruise-fest which was fairly well received financially and in terms of enjoyment.

“I told you guys I was good at musical chairs.”

Up next was his take on Star Trek, a franchise that Abrams has often said he never showed any interest in as a child whereas all of his friends did. Perhaps that benefited the film, as it romped through the Box Office and reinvigorated moviegoers’ love for it. Working with Steven Spielberg had always been a dream for Abrams, and that dream was realised through making the wonderful Super 8 in 2011, another goldmine of adventure and reminiscence.

And now Star Trek Into Darkness. The first thing to say about Into Darkness is that this is a film created not just for long-time Star Trek fans, but also for new admirers (like me). By simultaneously directing an origin story retaining all that has already happened and establishing a brand new ‘parallel timeline’ in the previous instalment, Abrams has given himself and his audience a whole universe to explore vicariously through the crew of the Enterprise. We are thrust into the action straight away this time around (who has time to wait around?) in a riveting and enjoyable sequence full of danger, awesome visuals and witty dialogue — and these characteristics are maintained throughout the whole two hours and seven minutes.

“Hey Zach, look. JJ is doing the dance again.”

Admittedly, having not been a Star Trek fan (or ‘Trekkie’) before Abrams took the reins I am not well versed in the franchise and nor do I wish to pretend that I am (for fear of getting something wrong, mainly). Therefore I did not know of the significance of the different otherworldly beings that the crew encounter or the varying levels of ship on the Admiral’s desk — but the beauty of Abrams filmmaking here is that I did not need to know these things. All that I had to do was pay attention, sit back and enjoy picture. By no means am I saying that Into Darkness is merely a ‘dumb film’ focusing on big thrills and CGI effects to generate income, rather I’m saying the opposite: it is a smart film because it focuses on thrilling the audience and concocting characters to care about. The majority of thinking required from the viewer was required in the first film of the reboot — which Abrams handled supremely well — and this time around the focus seemed to be all about putting on a show for Star Trek fans old and new. And, of course, to successfully further the story of the Enterprise crew while retaining a degree of loyalty to the past.

“I’m in a glass case of emotion.”

Talking about entertaining audiences, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast impeccably well as the evil John Harrison and is the stand out performer. Even though he is used to playing ‘good guys’ like Sherlock Holmes in the self-titled BBC drama, Cumberbatch thrives in this new role, utilising everything from piercingly devilish facial expressions to a demonic-yet-educated voice level to create a tremendous villain to go up against Starfleet. Chris Pine is just as charismatic as he was in the previous film, though a little more serious and contained at the appropriate moments. Zachary Quinto can do no wrong as Spock who he was born to portray, and the likes of Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg and Karl Urban are all effective in their roles, maximising their screen time to create a connection with the audience (when I say “the audience” I really just mean me as I can only speak for myself).

Normally at this point I would give my views on specific parts of the film and write about spoilers, but I really do not think I need to for Star Trek Into Darkness. There was nothing that I significantly disliked about the film and I think all of the main plot points were handled excellently. Moreover, I would genuinely rather not spoil any part of the film because it does not deserve to be spoiled.

I will end by saying that, regardless if you are a Star Trek fan or a science fiction geek or neither of the two, you should see Abrams’ latest offering. Star Trek Into Darkness is a film for all movie lovers who just want to go the cinema and be engrossed in a tremendous spectacle. It is a testament to J.J. Abrams’ ability in filmmaking that myself who, just like Abrams, was never really into Star Trek before, is now a big fan.