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.

★★★★★

Joy

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.

★★★

Burnt

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.

★★★