Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Stallone
Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of Hollywood in years. James Gunn’s space opera brought some much needed freshness and joy to not only the comic book movie genre, but the blockbuster form more generally. It also benefited from the fact that no one saw it coming. Expectations were not high. This same is not a luxury that is enjoyed by the sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a lot to live up to.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamorah (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are on the run from a race of ethereal, golden beings known as the Sovereign after Rocket stole some of the precious batteries that they had paid the Guardians to protect. Despite having been together for some time now, the team doesn’t seem to get along any better and there are clear tensions and rivalries on display. Continue reading
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Dianne Ladd, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper
As stated in its opening titles, Joy, is “based on true stories of daring women.” It explores the way a tenacious woman manages to survive and eventually thrive in a world determined to put her in her place. This semi-fictionalised account of the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop makes a point of never actually using the phrase “Miracle Mop,” or even the stating the surname Mangano. Rather than presenting a traditional biopic, director David O. Russell has opted for a comically exaggerated fable celebrating the American Dream and tenacious, can-do spirit.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was a creative young girl from whom a lot was expected but for whom things haven’t quite panned out. Seventeen years after being named high school valedictorian she is stuck in a hole, providing for her chaotic family Continue reading
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Chris Kyle was the deadliest sniper in US military history, with 160 kills across four tours of duty in Iraq. For the Iraqi insurgents he was enemy number one – there was a $180,000 reward for killing him – for the US military he was their guardian angel. Knowing he was looking over them made them feel invincible. Kyle was a man that became a US military legend. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is more concerned with showing us the legend than the man.
As a child Kyle’s father taught him there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep who won’t stand up for themselves and will be abused, wolves who seek to bully and harm others, and sheep dogs who are blessed with the gift of aggression and use it to protect the weak and innocent. Chris Kyle is a sheep dog. Inspired by the embassy bombings in East Africa he joins the Navy SEALS and before long finds himself in Iraq. As he grows in standing his missions become more specialised. Having been assigned to team to take out the infamous Al Qaeda operative known as ‘The Butcher,’ he also becomes obsessed with capturing an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa whose skills rival his own. Continue reading
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel
Do you want to know just how hot a streak Marvel Studios are on at the moment? They have taken a minor comic book series about a motley crew of space adventurers that includes, among others, a green woman, a talking raccoon and a walking tree and they’ve turned it into possibly the best sci-fi adventure movie in decades.
Having been abducted from Earth as a child, Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill travels the galaxy as a treasure hunter (read thief). Quill steals a mysterious orb, which turns out to be significantly more valuable, and dangerous, than he imagined. So he teams up with an assassin, Gamora, a pair of bounty hunters, Rocket and Groot, and the physically imposing Drax the Destroyer to sell it to the highest bidder. However, it just so happens that the orb contains one of the powerful Infinity Stones, and when it falls into the hands of the evil Ronan who plans to use it to destroy the galaxy, it falls to Quill and his rag tag bunch of misfits to save the day.
Despite being around since 1969, the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series is not exactly a household name. This means there are a lot of new characters, places and concepts that need to be introduced to the viewer in the first act of the movie. Amazingly, though, it doesn’t become exposition heavy. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t bother giving us complete backstories and origins for all of the characters. It doesn’t seek to answer all of our questions, but rather just to give us as much information as we need. As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t take a while to warm up; it gets rolling at the beginning and keeps going until the end.
Director James Gunn and his team have succeeded in making Guardians of the Galaxy completely different to The Avengers. After that first franchise was so successful, the temptation would have been there to copy that blueprint and import new characters and stories. But while there are minor narrative elements which connect Guardians of the Galaxy to the Avengers universe, and we will no doubt see a crossover film at some point in the future, Guardians of the Galaxy has a completely different style and tone.
For starters, it is not a superhero movie. It is a 1980s-style science-fiction adventure movie much more akin to Star Wars. This eighties resonance comes from within the narrative. Quill was abducted from Earth as a child in 1988, and as such all his points of reference are from the eighties. Similarly, the film cleverly uses music from that era to set the tone. The only memento Quill has from his life on Earth is a Walkman with a mix-tape of seventies hits his mother made for him. That mix-tape – including tracks from 10CC, Blue Swede and David Bowie – serves as the soundtrack to the movie, and from the outset of the film it is really successful in creating a very different, fun vibe.
Guardians of the Galaxy is also far and away Marvel’s funniest film. The Avengers, and in particular Iron Man, have always had that wise-cracking element of humour, but this film takes it to the next level and is legitimately comedic. Gunn and Nicole Pearlman’s screenplay is so sharp. They have given each of the characters a unique voice and can therefore draw different types of humour from each of them.
Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as Quill, bringing an irreverence to this mash up of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. It has potential to be a real star-making performance for Pratt, which could propel him from TV star to legit movie leading man. The CGI pairing of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, voiced by Cooper and Diesel respectively, were among the movie’s biggest question marks. But Rocket turns out to be a scene stealer and Groot, despite only being able to say “I am Groot” in different inflections, is used well to both comic and emotional effect.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios have given us the most exciting, fun and fresh blockbuster movie in years, maybe even decades. For those of us not old enough to have been there, this could be as close as we will get to knowing what it felt like to experience Star Wars for the first time back in 1977.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta
In 2010 Derek Cianfrance announced himself as a rising filmmaker to watch with the critical hit Blue Valentine, an intimate and emotional exploration of the beginning and the end of a marriage. His latest film, the sombre drama The Place Beyond the Pines – which takes its title from the Mohawk Indian name for Schenectady, the location of the films events – is a very ambitious project. The film is an epic, multi-generational morality tale of guilt, responsibility and consequence told in three distinct but interrelated sections.
The first section, and the most engaging of the three, concerns stunt motorcycle rider Luke played by Ryan Gosling. When Luke’s circus pulls into Schenectady, he discovers that he has an infant son in the town from his visit a year earlier. This discovery sparks a paternal instinct in him and, determined to provide for his child, he sets about robbing banks, with his skills on a motorbike provng handy for getting away. Gosling and Cianfrance worked together on Blue Valentine and they appear to bring out the best in each other, as Gosling is engrossing to watch in this role.
In the second section Luke is left behind and our focus turns to young policeman Avery Cross played by Bradley Cooper. A chance encounter with Luke thrusts Cross into the spotlight. An ambitious man, Cross finds himself on a path which will lead all the way to the office of District Attorney, along which his morals are constantly being tested. Bradley Cooper showed in Silver Linings Playbook that he does possess some acting chops and his performance as a conflicted and guilt-ridden man, while not as electric as Goslings, carries the middle section of the film.
Unfortunately Cianfrance’s film loses some momentum with its final section. Set fifteen years later, this section focuses on the sons of Luke and Avery, exploring the ways in which the influences of their fathers’ actions play out in their lives. The storyline becomes messier in this closing section. You feel a narrative shift as what had been an organic story seems to make way for what the filmmaker wants to tell us. With the focus in this closing episode being shared between the two young characters, AJ and Jason, as well as an older Avery in the process of running for District Attorney, it lacks the concentrated focus of the earlier sections.
The Place Beyond the Pines is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt and through these four male characters it offers an interesting exploration of masculinity, but ultimately this admirable film doesn’t quite achieve Cianfrance’s lofty ambitions. It appears to be a case of the filmmaker’s reach exceeding his grasp. Some of the lines and narrative connections the film draws just feel a bit too neat. Is the destiny of the two sons as inescapable as the film wants us to believe? Can what the film wants us to accept as fate at times be more appropriately attributed to coincidence? The attempt to engage with the age old concept of the sins of the father being visited upon the son means that what starts out seemingly as a realist story ends up becoming something more akin to classical tragedy.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Found this great half-hour featurette on Silver Linings Playbook. Among other things it touches on David O. Russell’s personal connection to the material, the film’s important message about mental illness, and the brilliant performances from the ensemble cast. Well worth a look if, like me, you loved the movie.
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker
It’s not often that you encounter something truly original at the movies these days, particularly not in the ‘boy meets girl,’ romantic comedy genre, one of Hollywood’s most generic forms. But originality is exactly what we get from David O. Russell (director of Three Kings and The Fighter) in his latest film Silver Linings Playbook.
The originality starts with our unconventional, but incredibly engaging romantic pairing, Pat and Tiffany. Pat is bipolar and has just been released from a court ordered stint in an institution after he beat up a man he caught in the shower with his wife. He has moved back in with his parents and is determined to win back his wife, Nicki. Pat’s time in treatment has left him with a new outlook on life. He is all about positivity, “excelsior,” and finding the silver lining to the dark cloud that he is working through. Tiffany is a damages soul like Pat, though her scars are emotional rather than physiological, after losing her husband in a car accident. Both characters are frustrated, struggling to live with a support network that doesn’t understand them and a society that doesn’t trust them. But they understand each other, and they become friends.
We have never seen these characters before on the big screen, at least not presented in the way they are here. One of the great achievements of Silver Linings Playbook is that it removes the ‘otherness’ from mental illness. Through their characterisation, and some of the directorial choices of David O. Russell, the film encourages us to identify with Pat and Tiffany, rather than to identify with the other characters trying to deal with Pat and Tiffany – we empathise with them rather than merely sympathising. And in siding with the two supposedly “crazy” characters we start to see the insanity of the regular world. We notice the quirks, foibles and obsessions in other characters – some minor, some not so minor – which are deemed socially acceptable in a way that Pat’s and Tiffany’s are not.
Russell’s beautiful screenplay is brought to life by a series of really strong performances. In fact, Silver Linings Playbook became the first film in 31 years, since Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1982, to receive an Oscar nomination in all four acting categories.
Bradley Cooper is the real surprise. Cooper has been a movie star for a while now but has seldom been required to do much more than be charming and look handsome. His performance as Pat, a man struggling to deal with the unknown in himself, is a revelation, showing us something of his talent that I doubt many knew was there. Bipolar is all about extreme ups and downs, highs and lows. Pat alludes to the fact that even before he had been diagnosed, his mood swings had been something that had troubled and frustrated his wife. Cooper imbues Pat with a manic intensity, which makes his positivity every bit as intimidating as his moments of aggression. But the really impressive part of his performance is the way he, with the help of the director, manages to get you to switch between emotional responses very quickly. Pat doesn’t have a filter when he talks – as Tiffany notes, he says more inappropriate things than appropriate things – and this is the source of much comedy. But on a number of occasions you find yourself laughing at Pat and then, in a heartbeat, feeling really sorry for him, or defensive for him, or afraid of him.
As Cooper’s foil, Jennifer Lawrence is every bit as impressive as Tiffany. The film really comes to life the moment that we are introduced to her. Pat and Tiffany’s meeting at an awkward dinner hosted by her sister is a fantastic scene and a preview of what is to come as the writer/director has fun with these two characters not bound by social conventions. As I said above, Tiffany’s scars are emotional rather than physiological, and as a result she is not as confused as Pat, but she is much angrier. She contrasts a real strength and willingness to stand up for herself with an extreme vulnerability. She is a sharp and abrasive, but at the same time likeable character. Lawrence burst onto the scene in 2010 when she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Winter’s Bone. In the couple of years since she has done some more popcorn-style movies with a supporting role in X-Men: First Class and, of course, her leading role in The Hunger Games. But this performance in Silver Linings Playbook really cements her standing as one of the best young actresses out there, and of the four Oscar nominated performers in the film, for mine it is Lawrence that is most likely to take home a statue.
But the real treat for me was the performance of Robert De Niro. One of the absolute greats of the American cinema, it seems like decades since we have seen De Niro in a film which is worthy of his prodigious talent – you probably have to go all the way back to the mid-1990s when he did Heat, Casino and Jackie Brown. In recent times he has been reduced to playing caricatures of his own persona, often in reasonably uninspiring comedies: there was the gangster in therapy in Analyze This and Analyze That, psychotic retired CIA agent in the Meet the Parents series and, the lowest point of all, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where his role as Fearless Leader saw him spoof his own legendary “Are you talkin’ to me?” monologue from Taxi Driver. Finally, in the role of Pat Sr, De Niro has not only been given something he can really sink his teeth into, he has been given the chance to do something different. Pat Sr. is a bookmaker who is devoted above all to his favourite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. He is superstitious to the point of being obsessive compulsive. He is willing to do anything within his power to not disrupt his Eagles’ juju, whether it is making sure the remotes are facing the right direction or making sure he has his lucky handkerchief. He is a loves his son, but lacks the knowledge of how to engage with him outside of the time they spend together watching football. It is a fun character, but not lacking in depth, and you can sense that De Niro is really engaged by in a way that he hasn’t been for some time.
I’ll admit I even really enjoyed Chris Tucker’s work in this movie, and that is quite a leap to make.
I referred to Silver Linings Playbook above as a romantic comedy, but I feel that kind of pigeon-holing really undermines the complexity and depth of this film. It is wickedly funny and at its centre is a relationship between a man and a woman, but it is also at different moments sad, uplifting, concerning, charming and poignant. It has been a while since I’ve loved a new film as much as I did this one. It is a beautifully crafted film that will really stay with you.
Rating – ★★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean