Avengers: Endgame

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.

Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.

Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.

Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.

The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.

The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.


A Star is Born

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott

Director: Bradley Cooper

Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” sings a bearded, gravel-voiced Bradley Cooper at various points in this film. It’s a line that speaks about one of the main conflicts that this movie explores and it also carries a tinge of meta, self-aware irony as he helms what is now the fourth retelling of this classic Hollywood story. Using a time-tested formula that’s been updated for a 21st century audience, A Star is Born is a love story that depicts the fall of an old, embittered music legend and the rise of a young, gifted singer. It’s one of the stories Hollywood loves to tell about itself; about how the spotlight can bring you love, fame, happiness and fulfilment, but it always comes at a price and it can also warp and destroy you. It is at once both a fantasy and a tragedy and it is a fable that gets retold with each generation as our attitudes on fame, addiction and gender change and evolve. This is the kind of movie Cinephiles talk about when they say “they don’t make them like this anymore” and it marks both a strong directorial debut for Bradley Cooper and a cinematic star-making turn for Lady Gaga.

The original 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March told this story in the context of Hollywood itself with the former playing an aspiring actress who falls for the latter, an aging movie star in the declining years of his career. The 1954 movie with Judy Garland and James Mason, the most well-known and celebrated of the bunch, reprised the concept but added in a musical component as well. This subsequently led to the movie that this new version borrows most heavily from (at least in concept), the 1971 title that broke away from classic Hollywood and moved into a contemporary rock and pop setting. Barbra Streisand plays an up-and-coming singer and Kris Kristofferson is a washed-up, has-been rock star. This movie was panned on its release and was more or less forgotten about until this new movie brought it back into the public consciousness. In this 21st century rendition the star on his way out is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock singer whose music feels very much of that 1970s Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young era. That style of music is so much a product of its time that there isn’t really a modern equivalent for Maine (although Cooper does cite Eddie Vedder as a key influence) and it’s one of the markers of the deep gulf that ultimately separates him from his protégé, played by one of the foremost titans of the modern pop era that we live in.

After playing a gig one night, Jackson stumbles his way into a local drag bar for a drink and happens upon Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he watches give a performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’. For the first time in what we can safely assume must be a long time, the boozed-up, drugged-out-of-his mind Jackson has a moment of sobriety. He is struck with awe by Ally’s show stopping number and believes he may have found something in her that he once had himself but has long since lost: an artist “with something to say and a way to say it”. Ally, as we’ve learnt by this point, is a waitress with musical aspirations but who has never once believed that she ever had what it takes to make it. Jackson couldn’t disagree more; he is overwhelmed by Ally’s brilliance and invites her to perform with him, confident that the rest of the world will embrace her as readily as he has. Despite her reservations Ally takes the plunge; she steps out on stage with Maine, sings her heart out, and just like that she’s an overnight sensation. The two start touring together and, for a while at least, everything is perfect. Ally is on the fast lane to the top with her beau’s unwavering support and Jackson is as passionate about his music as he’s ever been. As Sam Elliott, playing Jackson older brother and manager Bobby, says with his signature gruff voice that Cooper emulates in his own performance, “it’s been a long time since he played like that”. The two are on different paths however and before long their day in the sun together comes to an end.

Lady Gaga is no stranger to this acting game (she won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story), but what’s so remarkable about her performance is how much it feels like an acting debut from a breakthrough talent. Despite being one of the biggest, most iconic superstars in the music world today, Gaga comes across as this unknown ingénue with a hidden gift for singing being discovered for the very first time. Her performance isn’t just a surprise; it’s a revelation. It shouldn’t be because one thing the preceding movies have always been good at is casting extraordinarily talented women at the absolute top of their fields as the female lead and there is no doubt whatsoever that Lady Gaga is a peer to Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Yet she brings such raw passion and spontaneous energy to her singing, especially early on when it’s just her and a microphone, that it truly is astonishing to learn just how much natural talent this star really has. When she steps onstage to sing ‘Shallow’ in front of an audience for the first time, it genuinely feels like she’s been taken completely off guard by how great she sounds and how much the crowd adores her, as if she hasn’t ever stood on such a stage and received such an ovation a thousandfold.

It would be tempting to view this stripped-down, unfiltered version of Gaga as her true, authentic self, free from the artifice of make-up, costumes and techno-pop stylisation, but not only is that not true (she wouldn’t be Lady Gaga without the Lady Gaga-ness of it all), the movie itself doesn’t appear to think so either. Or it’s at least willing to entertain the idea that Jackson Maine’s country-rock singer-songwriter style isn’t the only valid form of honest musical expression. As Ally becomes more famous and successful, so does her image and style change. She signs up with a big-time music studio who proceed to mould her into a musical icon more recognisably Gaga. Her hair is dyed orange, she learns to dance and she has stylised publicity photos taken of her so that everyone can see her face on billboards. She also appears on Saturday Night Live to sing a song containing the lyrics “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” This is the moment where we’re supposed to understand that Ally has sold out, singing a garbage, studio-commissioned song without any shred of artistry or feeling behind it. Or that’s at least how the film frames it as we watch the scene from Jackson’s point of view far away in the sidelines in stark contrast to the close-up, intimate shots we got of Ally and Jackson earlier on during their performances together.

From Ally’s perspective, the corporate side of her success is simply part of the job and she doesn’t see it as any kind of force that compels her to compromise on her art. Unlike Jackson she doesn’t believe that art and celebrity are mutually exclusive. Jackson for his part is more contemptuous about his fame, preferring to simply leave his celebrity at the door of whatever bar happens to be open and drink himself into a stupor without anybody bothering him. Even he isn’t above that desire for recognition that fame often brings though as we see when he’s pissed off about having to play back-up to a couple of younger singers at the Grammys. The movie never quite makes its mind up about which side it agrees with (and that ambivalence makes for a somewhat confused second half) but it nevertheless respects its two leads enough that it’s able to show where they’re both coming from. When the movie does look down on the artificiality of Ally’s pop music, that may have less to do with how the movie sees her success than it does with how Jackson sees it and his inability to understand the kind of artist she’s grown into (but even then his appreciation of her talent is never in doubt). On some level the film is aware that Jackson’s vision of artistic integrity is a fantasy.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Jackson Maine is how early on he realises that the prodigy he has discovered is going to eclipse him someday and that at some point he’s going to end up standing in her way or dragging her down with him. This is because of his crippling alcoholism and substance abuse which are as much the result of a difficult upbringing as they are the trappings and pressures of stardom. The film is at its weakest when it tries to explain too much and there’s a confrontation between Jackson and Bobby that could’ve packed a greater punch had the movie been more willing to leave certain things unsaid. What Cooper does do incredibly well is taking what on paper appears to be nothing more than a pathetic, irredeemable drunk and giving him a soul. For all of Jackson’s moments of weakness, shamefulness and even cruelty, there is an undeniable sense of decency about the man. He has genuine affection for those he cares about, Ally above all, and Cooper makes it clear that nothing pains him more than to inflict his demons onto others. His performance is large but it’s also a grounded, natural one in the Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart way that never attempts to run away with the film. He and Lady Gaga work in perfect harmony with one another and their chemistry is electrifying.

Cooper is to be commended on more than his acting though. As the director, co-writer, and the music’s co-composer, it’s clear that A Star is Born was a passion project for Cooper and he gave it his all. He handles the story with utter sincerity and is never afraid to get up close and personal. The concert scenes with Jackson and Ally feel both intense and intimate, putting a spotlight on Ally’s breathtaking talent while still allowing us to appreciate the personal, affective connection they share. This retentive style of filmmaking is not only expressive of the sweeping yet deep romance that they share but also of the simultaneous awesomeness and delicacy of stardom as well. As they stand on the stage together before the blurry images of their adoring fans, we are acutely aware of how human they are even in those moments. While other scenes can sometimes go on longer than they need to and say more than needs to be stated, Cooper is also good at letting the actor’s face do the talking when it’s called for (as actor-turned-directors very often are). His best decision as a director though was casting Lady Gaga.

While the movie is unable to escape the romanticisation of male self-sacrifice for the woman’s good that it inherited from its predecessors, this version of A Star is Born does allow its couple to share their most reciprocal relationship yet. The film is just as interested in Ally’s evolution as an artist as it is in Jackson’s decline and, during the honeymoon years before the heartbreak that is to come, their relationship is built on mutual respect for each other’s talents and ambitions. And, while the theme of male seniority is still there (if somebody tried to make this film with the genders reversed, it would probably end up looking like Sunset Boulevard) Jackson and Ally also find that they make each other better people. He gives her the confidence to overcome her insecurities and she gives him the strength to battle his demons, at least for a while. Whatever shortcomings there are to find in terms of plot and character, it’s Cooper and Gaga who bring it all home with their affectionate, heartfelt performances. It’s the kind of romantic-fantasy movie you don’t see very often these days where they treat the emotions being conjured with such barefaced sincerity that they don’t care if it comes across as corny. This is a movie that wants to tell you a resonant story and that wants to make you feel; on both counts it is a success.


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

The original Guardians of the Galaxy has become such a monster hit in the years since its release that it’s easy to forget how little audiences were expecting from it at the time. Even though it was a Marvel property, the vast majority of viewers knew nothing about who these characters were or about the universe they lived in. All they really knew going in was that it starred the chubby guy from Parks & Rec and had a talking raccoon and a tree man fighting bad guys in space. People were so convinced that this movie with its strange premise was going to be Marvel’s first flop that they were taken completely by surprise when it turned out to be one of the funniest, most entertaining and awesome films of the year. Now that Guardians has lost that element of surprise, its sequel must somehow inspire that same reaction again while also managing the audience’s now eager expectations. Few films can live up to that kind of expectation, and I suspect that some will be inevitably disappointed when they find that this movie isn’t quite the gamechanger that the first film was. For me though, Vol. 2 is exactly the kind of sequel I hoped it would be.

Now renowned as the Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) protecting some valuable batteries for the Sovereign race in exchange for Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). When Rocket steals some of the batteries for himself the Guardians must go on the run and end up crash landing on a planet where they are met by Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself to be Peter’s father. He invites Peter, Gamora and Drax to his home planet while Rocket and Groot fix the ship and guard Nebula. Meanwhile Yondu (Michael Rooker), now outcast by the Ravagers for child trafficking, is hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Sovereigns, to track down the Guardians and capture them, a task he accepts but is reluctant to carry out.

The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly for this sequel. The Guardians are gearing up for a big fight with a giant CGI tentacle monster only for the battle to occur in the background as we instead follow Baby Groot around as he dances along to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. Not only is it a clever and funny twist on a trope we’ve seen in countless other blockbusters, it reminds us at the outset that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t and has no interest in being a generic, interchangeable action-driven movie void of character and plot. Guardians has character, whimsy and heart and wants to showcase them to its audience. There are certainly great moments of action that occur from Yondu taking over a ship with his whistling arrow to Gamora’s ultimate showdown with her sister. However, much like how the best scene in Age of Ultron was when the Avengers were just hanging out in Tony Stark’s apartment, Guardians is at its best when it allows its characters to just be themselves.

At its core Guardians of the Galaxy is about family and that theme becomes most prominent when Star Lord finally meets his estranged alien father (who, of course, is played by an 80s icon). Thus, with the revelation of who he really is and where he comes from, it isn’t long before Quill finds himself torn between his biological family and his makeshift one. The movie however expands on the same theme with its other characters, bringing equal attention to the combative sisterhood shared by Gamora and Nebula and the surrogate father-son bond Quill shares with Yondu. Rooker in fact was the biggest surprise for me as he gives this movie, and perhaps the whole MCU, its most touching and heartfelt performance. Although there may not be any real question about what the film’s resolution will be, which is that family is who you’re with and not where you’re from, the way that it gets there is still compelling and, in the end, moving.

When a property is as big and as successful as Guardians has become in the last few years, it becomes so easy for studios to decide that all they want to do is ride on that success and phone it in. This is why the movie’s best quality is how earnest and sincere it all feels. The effort that Gunn and his team put into this movie is evident not just in the attention and care they put into the story and its characters but in the visuals as well. The movie is teeming with radiant colours that movies like those in the DCEU don’t think exist, the set-pieces such as Ego’s home planet are wonderfully designed and the film is rife with striking visuals such as those in the space jumping scene. The movie does become cluttered and even a little by-the-numbers in the third act but Gunn does such a great job of keeping the focus on the characters and all of their motivations that it doesn’t really slow down the film for me. Even though Vol. 2 doesn’t have the surprise factor that made the first movie such a mind-blowing revelation, I actually enjoyed it even more. Not only is Guardians of the Galaxy a great work of pure entertainment, but Vol. 2 is also one of those rare sequels that took everything that was good about the original and made them even better.



Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Writer: David O. Russell

The movie opens with a dedication to “daring women everywhere”. Through the character of Joy (no surname) the film aspires to capture the voice of those women all over the world who dare to be more than others have said they can be. This film is made for the working mothers who have to work themselves to the bone every day to get by. It is for the women who possess talent, ideas and potential but have been held back by their circumstances and commitments. This film is for the women who have had to fight for their victories against the constraints placed upon them by an inequitable patriarchal system. These women have voices that demand and deserve to be heard and I admire this film for speaking out for them and for delivering a message about the value of determination and hard work. I just wish it were a better film.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced working mother of two trying to provide for herself and her entire family. This includes her reclusive mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) who spends her days watching melodramatic soap operas, her father Rudy (Robert de Niro) who has returned home following an unsuccessful third marriage, and her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez) who still plans on making it big with his singing. Joy herself has always dreamed of applying her creativity as an inventor but had to abandon that ambition to focus on her commitments. Nevertheless her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) has always maintained that Joy has the potential to become a strong, successful woman. When Joy is inspired one day to create a self-wringing mop, she decides to follow her idea through and market her new invention. In her endeavour however she is met with numerous adversities that threaten to stop her from achieving her dream and finally realising her full potential.

In her third collaboration with David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence drives this film single-handedly as the indomitable Joy and gives what is by all means a good performance. Her character is determined, strong-willed and smart and Lawrence portrays these qualities with both humour and conviction. Over the course of this film I was definitely rooting for her and I felt for her every time one of the adversities she faced beat her down. I’m not convinced that Lawrence deserves all of the awards attention she has been getting but it is nevertheless a decent performance. The rest of the cast however were not so great. The one-dimensional characters that surround Joy seem to have been deliberately shaped into the most implausibly unlikeable people possible in order to make her situation that much worse. They include the overly-pathetic mother, the overly-contemptible father with his overly-insufferable girlfriend, and the overly-disdainful sister. I know that they’re supposed to be awful characters but it’s a wonder that Joy puts up with any of them. Bradley Cooper as well is completely wasted in his role as a television marketing executive who helps Joy gain some exposure for her creation. The only pleasant surprise for me was the ex-husband who turned out not to be the total loser that the film built him up to be.

I’ve found that there are some people who were thrown off when they realised that the dramatic crux of this movie was the selling of a mop. However if a film like Bicycle Thieves can build its drama around a bicycle then Joy can certainly do the same with a mop. I think the reason the film lost me in the end was because the concept felt a little too familiar and the story as a whole just felt pretty haphazard. The movie’s pacing was all over the place, especially in those parts where the film cut over to those segments of Terry’s ridiculous soap opera. Those scenes, while funny, just felt unnecessary. Joy’s journey as a character is fine for the most part but still feels pretty tired. It seems like Russell is trying to tell this story in a new way but for all his style and skill I think the emotional weight got lost somewhere.

I like the message that this film is trying to tell and I like that it assumes the voice of a group that doesn’t get heard often enough. The result of Russell’s efforts is a pretty decent film but lacks the fire or resolve of Joy’s character. I think perhaps because Russell stylised the film more than it needed to be, the story lost its plausibility and therefore much of my investment. I was invested enough to follow Joy to the end but I didn’t receive any sort of emotional reward from the film’s climax. I was left feeling pretty indifferent to the film’s resolution and haven’t thought much about it since. All in all the film is fine. It has a good central performance and some enjoyable moments but is all based around a story that I found to be quite unfulfilling.



Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Brühl, Riccardo Scarmacio, Sam Keeley, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson

Director: John Wells

Writer: Steven Knight

The tortured genius is a subject that often gets tackled in films from Amadeus to Good Will Hunting right up to Steve Jobs (the film I intend to write about in my next review). The idea of a deeply flawed individual who possesses an extraordinary capacity for brilliance provides so much room for tension and conflict that the drama practically writes itself. It has proved to be such a fascinating topic that four of last year’s eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture, including the winner, featured stories of tortured geniuses and artists. However, just like with any other subject, it is all too easy to produce a generic take on this idea. There are films that often present their protagonists as ‘tortured geniuses’ without providing any profound insight into the ‘torture’ or the ‘genius’. They want to allow these protagonists to achieve some form of redemption in spite of themselves and rely on tired clichés and convenient developments in order to do so. The result is a bland, predictable story of a tortured genius that isn’t compelling and a redemption that isn’t earned.

The tortured genius in this case is Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), a gifted chef with self-destructive tendencies who returns from his self-imposed exile to run a restaurant in London. He assumes the post of Head Chef in a restaurant owned by his former colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl) and sets out to recruit his other former colleagues to join his culinary dream team. This proves difficult as many of these chefs still resent Adam for crimes that he committed back in the day. Amongst them is Reece (Matthew Rhys), a three-star Michelin chef (compared to Adam’s two) who antagonistically refuses to ever work with him again. Adam also recruits as his number two Helene (Sienna Miller), a sous-chef of unrealised talent. With a talented team and an advanced kitchen at his disposal, Adam plans to introduce a nonconformist menu of radical methods and unblemished taste in order to earn his third Michelin star.

The problem I had with this film is that it knows what kind of story it wants to tell but doesn’t have the commitment to follow it all the way through or the ambition to dig beneath the surface. We get that Adam is a talented chef with a volatile temper and a weakness for drugs, alcohol and women, but his characterisation beyond that is underwritten and underdeveloped. We are never given a deeper understanding of the motives driving his action or of who he is beneath his abilities and weaknesses. The film’s tendency to manipulate the circumstances around him undermines the evolution he undergoes as a character. I wasn’t at all compelled by his journey because he was never required to make any real risks or sacrifices. He makes a decision not to indulge in any of his vices in order to live a healthier life but is still allowed to get with the love interest anyway. The film throws in a generic moral about how he doesn’t need to succeed in his goals in order to live a fulfilling life but then allows him to succeed in his goals anyway. The film even allows him to succeed in spite of himself since his failures are consistently saved my some lucky twist of fate. Therefore the redemption he receives at the end of this film simply isn’t earned because it doesn’t come at any real cost to him.

Although I did not find myself drawn to the story or the characters, I did think the cast as a whole did a fine job with what they were given. Bradley Cooper is allowed to be loud and explosive in a Gordon-Ramsay-like way in this role and proves himself equal to the task. Sienna Miller continues to be woefully underused in her films and delivers a commendable performance as a generic love interest. Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy and Matthew Rhys also provide notable performances as their respective characters with Brühl in particular clearly enjoying himself. The film even features minor roles for Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson, both of whom deliver far more than the material provided for them. I must also say that the food in this film does look nice and I imagine would be very appealing to any foodies watching the film.

This film is simply uninspired, lacklustre and dull. It offers a familiar story with familiar characters that have been done a hundred times before and doesn’t bring anything new. The most enjoyable part for me was watching the food being cooked because at least then there was something interesting for me to look at. Beyond that and maybe a few laughs here and there was nothing in this film that captivated me or caught my interest. There was some great talent behind the making of this film, not only with the actors but also with the director and screenwriter. John Wells is a formidable director who has done good work on TV and Steven Knight is a marvellous writer. While the talent involved was enough to prevent this film from being downright terrible, everyone who worked on it is capable of producing something better.


American Sniper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Jason Hall

American Sniper has been praised by some critics as this year’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and, like those films, it has run into its share of controversy. Much of this controversy stems from the film’s ideology and from the debate over whether or not the film’s subject Chris Kyle deserves to be hailed as a hero. With 160 confirmed kills Kyle has been declared the most lethal sniper in American military history. Some have declared him to be a hero, allocating him with the nickname ‘Legend’, while others have denounced him as a murderer. Left-leaning critics of the film have branded it a propaganda piece that glorifies war while right-leaning supporters have acclaimed it as a celebration of the US troops and the hardships and sacrifices they have to endure on a daily basis. Personally I’m less interested in the political aspect of this film and more interested in the human aspect. Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, has stated that the film was intended to be a story about one man and his internal struggles. That is the film that I wanted to see as I entered the theatre.

The film starts off with an incredible opening scene where Kyle, who is perched on a rooftop in a warzone on the lookout for any potential threats, spots a woman and a young boy entering the site. He fixates upon them, waiting to see what they plan to do. The young boy is handed what looks like an explosive device and Kyle is suddenly faced with a difficult decision. He has seconds to decide whether or not to fire knowing that there will be dire consequences if he makes the wrong choice. He must weigh the ramifications of taking a child’s life against the potential threat posed to his nearby allies and make a split-second decision that he can never take back. Each agonising second that passes is tenser than the last as we wait to see what Kyle will do. It is an opening that instantly grabs your attention and immediately provides the audience with an outline of the inner conflict that will torment Chris Kyle throughout this film.

The film then goes into flashback mode as we see scenes from Kyle’s childhood in which his father teaches him how to shoot and imparts upon him a lesson about how all people are either sheep, wolves or sheepdogs. He is adamant that both of his sons shall grow up to become sheepdogs, i.e. men who stand up to bullies and who help those in need. Cut to a few years later, Kyle is living in Texas as a rodeo cowboy. He spends his days drinking beers with his brother without a worry in the world until one night when he sees the news coverage of the 1998 US embassy bombings. In that moment Kyle feels the call of duty and immediately enlists in the US Navy to become a Navy SEAL. I imagine that Eastwood was trying to appeal to a sense of American patriotism in this scene, and perhaps he succeeded (I’m not American), but to me this moment came across as a bit corny. To the film’s credit it does manage to diminish the supposed glamour of joining the armed forces with its brutal training montage.

Afterwards we see Kyle in a bar where he meets his future wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). Throughout this film Miller does do her best with the material she is given, but she simply isn’t given much of a character beyond being Chris Kyle’s wife. They fall in love and get married just before Kyle is deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He excels as a soldier there and builds up a considerable kill count, but it soon becomes clear that the war is having a distressing effect on him. Whenever he comes home to see his family, he isn’t really there as he is still being haunted by the war. He is still driven by a strong sense of duty and refuses to leave the Navy until he believes that he has done enough.

Bradley Cooper does a commendable job of portraying Kyle and the trauma that he experiences. The film makes a strong attempt to depict Kyle as a hero by emphasising how he is haunted not by the lives he has taken but by the lives he failed to save. However my major gripe with this film is that it never really gets under Kyle’s skin. The film does a good job of showing the inner struggle that Kyle suffers but never really tries to uncover a deep understanding of it. The film seems more determined to revere Kyle as a hero rather than view him as a human being. Therefore the sum of his inner conflict simply amounts to him caring too much. This may make for an admirable character but it also makes for a simplistic one.

American Sniper is overall a stirring film with some great moments, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by the lack of a compelling character study. I couldn’t form an emotional bond with Kyle as a character until at the very end when we are shown the archive footage of his memorial service at the Cowboys Stadium. That, for me, was a strong emotional moment because it was actually real. The rest of the film, as decent as it was, never really felt like a real story. Perhaps this is because it was clearly made with a strong ideological motive in mind that was pretty difficult to ignore. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a such a purpose in a film, whether it be politically, morally, or patriotically motivated, I just felt that it got in the way of what could have been a better film.