Film

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.

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Film

‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ – Review

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a charming slice of whimsical magic, beautiful and engrossing from start to finish, and probably my favourite ‘blockbuster’ this year.

Deadpool movie reviewThis surprises me, more than anyone, because I’m not really much of a Potter fan…never have been. I appreciate the movies, don’t get me wrong, and I totally understand why a whole generation fell for them, but I didn’t start watching the Potter series (for various reasons) until film six, which rather left me feeling that I was a bit too late to the party. Plus I always found the stories a little derivative of other fantasy fiction with a few too many MacGuffins for my liking.

Fantastic Beasts is, on the other hand, a different…well…’beast’ altogether. Whilst it certainly expands the Potter universe, it is also very much its own film. There are really obvious similarities to be made with The Hobbit trilogy in that both have a unique story to tell but are also products created for clear commercial gains. Yet whereas The Hobbit trilogy often felt like ‘Lord of the Rings but not as good’, the twenties setting, new characters and general tone of Fantastic Beasts means it doesn’t feel like an imitation of the Potter movies before it, but a movie very much with its own groove.

The similarities between Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit trilogy also extend to their structure – both have an original story to tell but also surround that story with world building to tie their mythology more deeply into the movies that proceeded them. For Fantastic Beasts, the unique story is that of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic creatures.

I’ve heard a fair amount of complaint about Newt, claims that he isn’t really a character and there’s not much too him, but I disagree profoundly. Newt Scamander isn’t provided a tragic origin story, nor is he the ‘chosen one’, he’s just a kind-hearted, slightly eccentric, often awkward character trying to do the right thing because that’s what he believes in. I’m not really that much of a Eddie Redmayne fan, but he completely won me over as Newt and I found myself totally endeared to his character. He’s certainly not devoid of motivation or depth, there are various references to his past that help form his character, but they are refreshingly simple and not overblown. To my mind at least, he’s every bit as fleshed out as Harry Potter himself was in his own movies, if not more so!

This particular story thread also risks feeling kind of slight – ‘his magical creatures have escaped and need to be found’ doesn’t scream high stakes – but Rowling’s screenplay squeezes out every bit of wonder from this concept. The high point is a trip into the magic suitcase itself which reveals the whole world which these imaginative creatures inhabit. The scene is played for full awe and there’s a sense of innocent, imaginative, child-like magic which transcends anything even the early Potter movies could capture. It’s in these scenes that you also get a sense of exactly who Newt is, and just how much he cares for these creatures.

This storyline is also helped by three great supporting characters; Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie and Jacob Kowalski. The sisters complement each other because one, the good-natured Queenie, is very much defined by her femininity whilst the other, Tina, is more conservative and geeky (that’s probably too strong a word, but she’s certainly a ‘focused’ character.) Jacob is another great addition because he’s a muggle (or nomaj) and is able to offer a completely human pair of eyes to the strange workings of the wizarding world. What’s particularly refreshing about this group of characters is there is nearly no ‘wisecracking’ at all. In today’s superhero dominated landscape, heroes seem to fall into two categories; ‘constant wisecracks’ or ‘brooding’. These heroes, on the other hand, are neither, they are chipper but behave like people, not gag machines. They all, particularly Jacob, essentially feature as Newt’s companions throughout the film.

And I use the term ‘companion’ quite particularly because there’s no denying Newt Scamander’s story shares a considerable chunk of its DNA with Doctor Who (which, if you don’t know, I absolutely adore.) Redmayne’s eccentric British Scamander smacks of Matt Smith’s magnificent Eleventh Doctor (my personal favourite incarnation of the beloved Time Lord) and his suitcase that is bigger on the inside can’t help but bring the TARDIS to mind. I’ve always thought Potter and Doctor Who have a similar lineage, both are full of British eccentricity and world build in a way that avoids taking themselves too seriously…apart from when they need to. But Fantastic Beasts has more similarities still, heck even the eventual fate of Jacob feels distinctly Doctor Who in its execution. There were rumours that director David Yates was interested in making a potential Doctor Who movie and, whilst little more has been said on that, this is the closest we’ve got so far to a big budget Doctor Who movie.

The second plot thread is the one that must do the world building and is considerably darker in tone. It involves the Magical Congress of the United States, The Second-Salemers and Grindelwald. Whilst the Newt story is breezy and light, this plot thread explores child abuse and the terrible effects of suppression and denial of one’s own identity. This thread is probably the one that’s going to provide the momentum for the four (yes, four!) sequels to the movie and will almost certainly bring in a younger Albus Dumbledore not too far down the line. Thankfully this ‘B plot’ doesn’t jar with Newt’s, but instead provides the film a tonal dexterity that enriches every aspect of it.

It’s certainly this part of the movie, however, that brings the flaws that Fantastic Beasts does have to the table. There is a twist at the end involving Grindewald (and an actor who is fast becoming infamous) which both fails in execution and cheapens the development of one of the film’s main characters. It’s also the threads of this storyline which take over for the film’s third act and provides a largely consequence free, CGI laden final showdown which rivals some of Marvel’s laziest efforts and mostly sidelines Newt.

Yet, much like Doctor Who, Fantastic Beasts get so much right and is so endearing that it largely bypasses my critical faculties. On several occasions this movie made me feel, not just sadness (the ending has just the right kind of sentimental ‘farewells’ for my liking) but also awe at some of the amazing creatures and the imaginative ideas behind them. Sure, you feel the studio pressure now and then, but it’s still tangible that Rowling is passionate about these stories and still loves telling them, a passion which is infectious.

Fantastic Beasts ultimately benefits from not being based on a book, paced more like a film without a long middle which has largely nothing to do with the first or final act, a problem for most of the Potter movies.  Rowling’s first screenplay is a real triumph and proof, if proof is needed, that the Potter universe still has plenty of magic left up its sleeve. It also achieves the impossible and makes the prospect of a further four films not just seem bearable, but something to look forward to. If the future films in this saga are as fun, charming and magical as this one, then consider me a full convert to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

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Film

Are critics really too harsh on the Transformer movies?

The performance of the Transformer movies raises an interesting point about the relationship between movie critics and the paying audience. Each movie gets a critical slating and is an opportunity for reviewers to sharpen their vitriolic insults to impress each other with just how well they hate the movie. The paying audience, on the other hand, flock to the cinema to see giant robots punch each other in the face. The latest installment, Age of Extinction, is no exception, rating a pathetic 17% on Rotten Tomatoes yet already earning more than $575 million globally.

This has caused some people to conclude that the critics are just out of touch. While reviewers might wish that the modern audience were in love with the latest art house movies, viewers really just want to watch something that is fun. Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said pretty much the same thing in a recent interview with MTV, arguing that critics are reviewing Transformers as if it is a 1970’s Scorsese movie rather than a fun film like Jaws or Star Wars.

This view seems to me, however, to be misguided and it is frankly ludicrous to mention any of the Transformers movies in the same breath as Jaws or Star Wars, one being a masterclass in suspenseful direction and one damn near inventing the modern day blockbuster. If Bonaventura is right then all blockbusters should come in for an equal slating but, of course, they don’t. This year saw Captain America: The Winter Solider get a lot of praise from critics and, at this moment in time, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has got near universal acclaim from critics. Transformers movies aren’t criticised because of old fashioned film criticism, they are ridiculed because they are the worst kind of blockbuster; dumb, cynical, utterly pointless and even offensive.

Let me clarify, I am as far from a movie snob as you can get. I love superhero movies, I have adored Star Wars since I was a child (yes, even the prequels) and I have owned every single James Bond film on VHS, DVD and blu-ray. Heck, my favourite film of all time is ‘The Dark Knight’, a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight a clown! Yet I cannot, for one moment, understand a fraction of the appeal that the Transformer movies have. Even with the Twilight franchise, which I detest with every fibre of my being, I can understand how it appeals to a certain demographic to whom intense young love is a reality. But Transformers, I just can’t see it.

Take the latest installment, Age of Extinction. It is a noisy, boring film where pretty much nothing of note happens and it goes on for an agonisingly long 165 minutes. The single positive I can bring myself to say about this movie is that Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager (a common name) is a slightly easier character to emotionally invest in than Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky. At a push you could praise the film for spending enough time introducing the human characters in the first act that you kind of just about care they don’t die.

Everything else is mind-numbingly dull. The plot of the film is both convoluted and stupid and rarely bothers to make sense. Transformers are now being hunted and destroyed by the US government because of the destruction caused to Chicago in the third movie (fair enough really) but the government isn’t distinguishing between Autobots and Decepticons (if you’re thinking this may have some thematic power, don’t get your hopes up.) This is because the CIA wants to assist Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown capture Optimums Prime who now has a price on his head. Throw into that mix the company KSI who are building their own Transformers and the revelation that the dinosaurs were actually made extinct by the Transformer ‘creators’ and you have an over-packed plot that still feels too slight.

I can only assume the main appeal of the film is the huge action set pieces where Transformers level entire cities fighting each other. The trouble is there is absolutely zero tension and investment in watching giant robots slugging it out. There is no thematic weight to their conflict; Decepticons appear to be straight up assholes that simply need to be destroyed while the Autobots are all basic hero caricatures who I could not care less about. In fact the single moment of actual investment for me as a viewer came not during a free-for-all brawl but during a smaller moment where Cade’s daughter has a gun placed against her head and is given ten seconds to live unless Cade tells the agents where Prime is. Prime, meanwhile, is hiding and is remotely interesting as a character for those few moments because he actually has something resembling an internal conflict; reveal himself or let the human die. The large scale battles are just headache inducing noise. Compare this to the final action sequence in Avengers Assemble, which is both well directed and complete with characters we can care about, and I simply don’t understand why Transformers needs to exist anymore.

The script is also embarrassing. One agent when confronted for not having a warrant replies, ‘my face is my warrant’…what? Plus, to add salt to the wound, the whole thing is borderline offensive. The Transformer Drift, for example, is an Asian caricature which makes absolutely no sense in the Transformer universe. But worst of all is the sexist way the film handles Cade’s daughter Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. There is no denying that Peltz is a stunning screen presence but she is there purely as eye candy. She is continuously in danger and continuously yelling ‘daaaaaad’ (in one instance, when agents are approaching her home, she yells ‘daaaad’ as if she is a human siren rather than an actual character). At best she enables the men in the film to save the day and the way she moves from the protection of her dad to the protection of her boyfriend is damn right creepy. Of course this is nothing new, Megan Fox wasn’t in the first two movies because of her acting, but the fact that Peltz is so young and playing the main character’s daughter makes it all the more uncomfortable when the camera leers at her body.

Ultimately I think it is quite unfair to argue critics are out of touch and prejudiced against blockbusters. Transformers movies are not given a hard time because they are mainstream, they are given a hard time because they are dumb, cold, witless, cynical and offensive. Why we as an audience keep flocking to see them, I don’t understand. It isn’t my place to tell people what they should or shouldn’t like, but I think the film critics have this one right; we really are handing over our hard earned money to gorge on garbage. But what do I know? Film goers have spoken and there’s another two Transformers heading our way…lucky us.

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