GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2** For that space between the ears


SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone; the idea has become self conscious and laboured. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the ‘dad’ of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).

As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”. It took ten writers to come up with this gag.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a BIG treat for you.

If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2. Dir: James Gunn. With: Chris Pratt; Zoe Saldana; Dave Bautista; Vin Deisel; Bradley Cooper; Karen Gillan; Sylverter Stallone; Kurt Russell. Production Designer: Scott Chambers (“Tomorrowland”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”)

 

 

SO, IF YOU liked “Guardians of the Galaxy I”, here’s version 2. It’s pretty much the same, but louder and much, much dumber. In 2, the pleasant shock of quirkiness is gone, the idea has become self conscious and labored. The ironic wit has been replaced by scatology, plot has been left behind somewhere in the other galaxy and George Michael’s bouffant hairstyle has been repurposed to fit Kurt Russell who is Ego, the dad of Chris Pratt (who, if there’s justice on the universe, should still be hiding under a rock after “Passengers”).
As expected, there are running gags. Zoey Saldana’s character, Gamora, now has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian). She keeps trying to eat some sort of (forbidden?) fruit. Gamora keeps her away from it on the ‘ruse’ that it’s not ripe.  Finally, Nebula grabs hold of the fruit, bites into it and exclaims, “it’s not ripe”.

People found this funny.

If you also do, director James Gunn (who also directed the first one), has a biiiiig treat for you.
If you don’t find this funny and if you aren’t waiting with baited breath to see a cameo with Sylvester Stallone, ’twere best you did something better with your time

 

JOY** Joyless


joy-gallery3-gallery-image

“JOY” IS A movie that promises well.

It’s the eponynous story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) who, despite the odds, invented and – hugely- profited from her creation of the Miracle Mop. her story is one of a down-in-the-heels divorced mother of two who has to battle against (male) corporate patronisation and her own sleazy family’s malfeasance to make her unlikely dream come true…even while caring for her loser parents.

We expect David O Russell, armed as he is with a formidable roster of acting firepower (Robert De Niro as her dad, Bradley Cooper as the President of QVC and Isabella Rossellini as the dad’s partner) to give this rags to riches story enough of a twist to leverage it out of cliché.

The twist he offers, is to turn the whole thing into an over-long, muddled, boring soap opera. It’s a genre that’s repeatedly shown and deservedly mocked throughout the film… as offering a false and silly view of reality. “Joy” succumbs to the genre. For, despite the director’s sudden shift in mood half way through, the story, seen through the melodrama of a dead narrator (duh!), never manages to rise above the false and silly. It’s a case where the movie’s form has managed to wrench any believability away; the result is that the audience’s potential engagement with the inherent drama of the tale is entirely neutralized.

It’s as though the director himself didn’t quite believe in the story he was telling.
Russell’s stories…his characters… have always succeeded in the past by being an amusing, unexpected nudge away from everyday reality (remember Lawrence’s big hair bitch in “American Hustle” or her break-out charmer as Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook”). They’ve always been slightly larger than life…and that’s been a major part of their/his appeal. But they’ve always come across as being affectionately realized. Russell loved his creations and this infected our love for them too. In “Joy” the love’s disappeared. The whole enterprise feels like a laboured and a cynical ploy to once again pair Lawrence with Cooper.

Call it love’s laboured and lost.

She (Lawrence) certainly labours hard enough at infusing her role with as much credibility as possible. But she’s swimming against a tide of bad writing (Russell himself) including one awful moment when the De Niro character underlines, in BOLD type, the moral of the tale. Nor does the lackluster acting help anything. Cooper must have been filming something else at the time and simply flown in for his scenes: his role as the tough but empathetic corporate executive feels specious and half-baked. Rossellini is into full soap opera thespian melodrama.

robert_de_niro

But the Razzie award (handed out annually to the worst of Hollywood) must go to Robert De Niro. He has now mumbled his way through so many dreadful movies (his next big can’t-miss ‘hit’ is “Dirty Grandpa” with Zac Efron)) that watching him is no more than a sad reminder of how far this once great talent has fallen. For his own legacy, he should be forcibly retired.

 

JOY: Dir. David. O. Russell. With: Jennifer Lawrence, Rbert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd. Screenplay: David O. Russell. Cinematography: Linus Sandgren

It’s not a great way to end the year…which has however been a year of fabulous film-making. I won’t offer yet another top ten best movie list (having not as yet seen either “The Hateful Eight” of “The Danish Girl”), but, apart from the Box Office cash cows such as “Spectre”, “Bridge of Spies” etc. here anyway are some of my – often unexpected – highlights of the year (really worth finding on DVD):

 

wild

“Wild”: Reese Witherspoon’s intelligently produced, delightfully funny movie about a woman who seeks to walk away from her troubles along the thousand mile path of the Pacific Crest Trail and ends up walking toward a future worth the walk, as it were. Written by Bruce Hornsby

ex

“Ex Machina”: Alicia Vikander’s breakout performance as a robot (probably the sexiest robot ever) and that frightening moment when robots reach (as they will) what’s called ‘the singularity’ (when sentience emerges)

young

“While We’re Young”: Noah Baumbach’s insightful satire on the pressures of growing old in a culture that only rewards youth…with and unexpectedly brilliant performance by Ben Stiller. Who’d have thunk!

charlize

“Mas Max: Fury Road”: George Miller’s out and out visual spectacle of the year with the out and out female badass creation of the year: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa

inside

“Inside Out”: The best of animation. As good as any of the Toy Stories; an inventive and deliriously lovely anthropomorphizing of how kids (OK everyone) deal with Joy, Fear, Anger etc

45

“45 Years”: A quiet, thoughtful, nuanced movie about age, memory and love with Best Actor performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtnay

99

“99 Homes”: A spellbinding Michael Shannon as a reptilian real estate broker: the ruthless, nasty, everyday face of modern capitalism

Steve

“Steve Jobs”: Danny Boyle’s financial dud about the gulf between creator and creation; it had the sharpest screenplay of the year (from Aaron Sorkin) and an Oscar worthy turn from Kate Winslet

carol

“Carol”: My Best Movie of the year. Todd Haynes’ brilliant look at the nexus between love and desire. With glowing performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

brooklyn

“Brooklyn”: Another finely scripted story by Nick Hornby (from a novel by Coln Tóibín). Director John Crowley locates the pin point moment where the real drama of love and belonging reveals itself without the need of faux angst and melodrama

 

AMERICAN SNIPER: American Psycho


american-sniper-shot-for-web

NAVY SEAL CHRIS Kyle was America’s most lethal soldier. Single-handedly, he killed over a hundred and sixty Iraqis (or “savages” as they’re referred to). He was regarded with awe and considered a living legend by fellow soldiers and those who knew of his achievements. In lieu of the real thing (Kyle was himself murdered by an emotionally unbalanced vet he was trying to help), “American Sniper”, Clint Eastwood’s latest, has become the go-to movie of Red state America (it earned over $100M last weekend). To them, it offers a wonderfully patriotic narrative of heroism and victory both in war and in self doubt, all in the face of insuperable odds.

Movies of war (perhaps without the pause for the honesty of evaluation or the mask of nostalgia) often tend to reflect a collective perspective about the particular war. Hollywood’s version of Word War II was, via Audy Murphy, or the more recent “Fury” for that matter, a celebration about how America won the war; for the Brits, that war was more about a celebration of British fortitude for having endured the Blitz and the rationing that followed. Both narratives reflected versions of identity.

The movie narrative of Vietnam, from “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Mash” (though this was ostensibly about Korea) was darker, more cynical, more condemnatory of those who lead the nation into the fog of war and the reality of failure.

The narratives of this new series of wars…against vague abstract goals in Iraq and Afghanistan initially focused on the lasting damage it was doing to returning soldiers (as a stand in for the damage it was doing to the psyche of America) in brilliant movies such as “In the Valley of Elah”; and in movies such as “The Green Zone”, the dubious morality of the wars was examined.

“American Sniper”, with that distinctive adjective (it’s not simply “Sniper”, it’s a particular type of sniper, the “American” one) is Clint Eastwood’s continuation of the counter-argument probably initiated by movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. This counter-argument suggests that these wars were/are defined by the heroism of (mainly) men who are putting their lives on the line to keep America safe. In a sense the righteousness of these wars – now rapidly crystallizing away from the adventurism of Bush and Blair into a defensive crusade against Islamic terrorism – offers a new and more triumphant perspective on American identity. This isn’t a case of great art being co-opted by political fervor (as say Wagner was by the Nazis). There’s nothing about the movie to suggest that the way the movie is being read by its supporters is in any way less than the movie intends to be read.

Kyle is never for a moment in any doubt that what he’s doing is right. He says to a therapist that “When I meet my maker I’m prepared to defend why every one of those I killed deserved to die”. There’s nothing in the story-line to suggest that we the audience should take this in any way but at face value. In Kyle, Eastwood offers us an old fashioned, stoic, taciturn John Wayne type of hero who has mastered to art of locking away any troublesome issues (like moving away from the field of battle when he’s back home) as though they don’t really exist. For him, the way to deal with the awful darkness of killing people is to reposition his actions to himself as simply a means of keeping soldiers alive. Kyle is a man, a trained hunter from his youth, whose life is built on the foundation of two complementary philosophies: God, country and family, and the more intimate philosophy taught to him by his dad. “There are three type of people in the world,” says dad, “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. You must never be a sheep, never be a wolf; always be a sheepdog”

The idea of America as the world’s sheepdog is a tremendously appealing version of national identity.

The movie’s structured along the lines of the traditional Western. There’s a bad guy who’s killing good guys and who needs to be killed by the hero, the sheepdog. This is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence set in Falluja. Here, the faceless enemy is given a face in the form in an Iraqi sniper, Kyle’s counterpart and opposite number. He is an Olympic gold medalist, Mustafa, who like Kyle is a ruthless killer. Eastwood shows him picking off the Americans (vulnerable, ever threatened by seemingly innocent fathers and mothers who harbor stockpiles of weapons buried in plain sight) with deadly precision. Like Kyle, he too is a father and husband and presumably, like Kyle, he too is doing his job for God, country and family.

Alas, “American Sniper” never deviates too far from its central argument to add unnecessary nuance. Mustafa is the deadly face of the enemy that needs an even deadlier force to take him out. Boohah!

Bradley Cooper (massively bulked up) is Eastwood’s perfect choice. He exudes trustworthy protectiveness and passionate patriotic fervor. Who wouldn’t trust this decent, good-looking, faithful, honorable man? Eastwood never allows us to question for a moment the building psychosis of the killings. After the shock of his first kill, he quickly settles into the complacent acceptance that it’s what has to be done in the cause of God, country and family.

The action is good (Eastwood takes us there into the heart-stopping terror of being in a war zone) and the acting is superb (Cooper is on central stage for the entire movie which he charismatically holds). Even Sienna Miller as Taya, his wife, does the usual (in films of this sort) duty of crying, imploring and looking pained, convincingly.

article-2633181-1E06575600000578-125_634x753

But “American Sniper” is a disingenuous revisionist presentation of the (failed) war in Iraq.

We’re presented with three core images of the war: Kyle’s heroic, skillful ‘kills’. One hundred and sixty plus kills. And all of them, like the kid at the beginning of the movie, were bad guys out to get the good guys. The world of massive collateral deaths that scar the reality of these wars, and of Abu Ghraib just never exist in the world of Eastwood’s morally righteous war.

It’s one thing for a character to be blissfully untroubled about killing people in defense of country. But where’s the director’s artistic thoughtfulness in all this? He too seems untroubled by the morality of war and of lionizing Kyle as a modern day hero; a modern day take on the American identity.

The American soldiers, as seen through the lens of Mustafa, are vulnerable easy targets. There’s a moment as a troop of soldiers, increasingly defenceless and stranded on a roof-top are surrounded by hoards of infitada swarming toward them. Poor, defenceless marines; all decent people planning weddings, back home BBQ’s now under threat by swarming faceless brown savages.

It’s “Zulu” all over again.

It makes for compelling, exciting story telling.

It’s almost as though the might and firepower of the US Armed forces and the rag-tag group of Iraqi insurgents were evenly balanced…and the more morally righteous force won. Hmm.

In the movie, Eastwood consistently reiterates what America is fighting for in Iraq: defense of those back home. He never for a moment pauses to wonder what they – the savages – are fighting for (in their own country) or how and whether Kyle’s one hundred and sixty deaths really did or does keep our loved ones safe back in Oklahoma and Idaho and everywhere that’s not Falluja.

At issue is not Eastwood’s politics or his attitude to war. It’s just that when polemic tries to pass itself off as art, with the power that art has (the same criticism could be leveled against Matt Damon’s sloppy liberal polemic about fracking, “Promised Land”), it becomes duplicitous propaganda.

And to this blogger, that ain’t worth the price of admission.

American Sniper: Dir: Client Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall from the book by Chris Kyle. With Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller. Cinematographer: Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games”)

 

Guardians of The Galaxy: We’re in good hands


guardians-galaxy-movie-preview

There’s a lot of sci-fi that brilliantly captures the zeitgeist of our concerns, fears and hopes. It’s as though, because we can’t bear to face realities head-on, the sugary pop of sci-fi makes it all that much easier to go down. So, not unexpectedly, in our jolly world bracketed by global jihad and (often state backed) terrorism on the one side and climate change and eco collapse on the other…to which, just to make it three dimensional, we can now add the spread of Ebola and the reduction in the efficacy of penicillin.

Yep, Armageddon isn’t far away. It’s just across dystopia hill. That’s why we have zombie movies. We’ve now seen (recently) the end of the world via “World War Z”, “I am Legend”, the two recent “Planet of the Apes”, the “Terminators” and the up-coming return of “Mad Max”. And if the zombies don’t make it clear that the end is nigh, there’s always Godzilla, various Transformers, “War of the Worlds” and sundry really bad guys (like Electro, The Lizard, Ra’s Al Ghul etc) who have been held in check only due to a couple of hard-working super heroes.

If that ain’t bad enough, we’ve also had a massive economic crisis papered over by the on-going obscenity of astronomical management and bankers’ bonuses… which continue to drive a wedge between the have’s and the have not’s in a world patrolled by dark, centrally controlled police forces. It’s not such a stretch then for us to fully empathize with what’s going on in “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” or “The Minority Report”.

These existential fears of our times don’t nearly end there. We’ve always suspected that there was more than a grain of truth in the rise of Skynet, artificial intelligence and robots that will pretty soon become sentient. “I Am Robot”, “A.I Artificial Intelligence”, R2-D2 and Arnold Schwarzenegger prove the point.

So we normal folk who can’t out-gun or out-run the rush of zombies trooping out of the streets or parliaments nearest to you will either become a zombie, get wiped out by someone we thought was human or end up scrabbling for food with Katniss Evergreen.

But that’s sci-fi that’s of this world. There’s also sci-fi that’s out of it. Think “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” “Avatar”, “Battlestar Galactica” and “Alien”. That’s the other future we have to look forward to: the earth has been destroyed and we now live on sundry planets with names like Tatooine or Pandora, running away from sith lords, or (once again) mega corporations bent on destroying all before them in search of precious minerals (coltan probably).

With a future this dark, we all need the tonic of an escape into a world that bares only the vaguest resemblance to ours, but that’s exciting, funny, charming, sexy, and filled with good music.

Introducing the blockbuster fun movie of the summer: Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” featuring a real carbon based life form human person, “Parks and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt as Peter Quill or the Star Lord. He’s a wise-cracking, disco dancing, Hans Solo wannabe that scavenges and steals for a living. The problems come after he steals a mysterious orb – the object of desire of Ronan (Lee Pace, not to be confused with Keanu Reeve’s “47 Ronin” or Robert De Niro’s cheaper version “Ronin”), arch villain and potential destroyer of galaxies. His flight from multiple other dangerous creatures forces him to team up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana, still in her strange colour from “Avatar”), Rocket, a raccoon with attitude and the voice of Bradley Cooper who was obviously enjoying himself, Drax the destroyer, an enormous hulk of a man in the form of ex WWF “Smack Down” wrestling championships, David Bautista (or The Rock part two) and a towering, multi-talented tree, Groot, expertly played by Vin Diesel whose acting style is usually so wooden that he fitted seamlessly into the role.

These five zap here and there, elude and destroy armies of attackers and, thanks to a smart script and James Gunn’s pitch-perfect directing “Guardians of the Galaxy” comes across as a movie that accepts its role as blissful, well-crafted escapism with great gusto.

It’s a difficult act to pull off: keeping the audience gripped and in the thrall of a crew of ridiculous creatures, whilst being a very self aware, and mockingly irreverent.

Alas, after two fun hours, we were back to the dystopian zombie reality of Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, Bank crimes and the other malignancies of a world without moral leadership

 

Intense and Operatic: The Place Beyond The Pines


The-place-beyond-the-pines

“The Place Beyond The Pines” is the first truly outstanding movie of 2013…just squeezing in before the onslaught of the blockbusters. This is a three-part story that all centers around an explosive confrontation between drifter Luke (a quietly convincing Ryan Gosling) and the steady good cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).

We initially follow the narrative of Luke, a motorcycle stunt-man who is shocked into a sense of responsibility when he discovers that a casual relationship he’d had with Romina (Eva Mendes playing down her attractiveness, as a woman struggling to make something of herself) has resulted in a son.

Suddenly he realizes that his life has shifted from that of feckless drifter to father, with the demands that this new responsibility brings. With no other moral compass to act as a guide, Luke interprets fatherhood simply as the need to provide ‘things’ – a cot, various toys and trinkets. And herein lies his own test of character: his nobler instincts to live up to a sense of parental duty drives him to a course of action that is, sadly, determined by his darker, amoral side. Egged on by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), his evil angel, he uses his motorcycling skills to turn to bank robbing. He cannot escape his drifter past, even if he tried.

The story suggests the kind of inevitability ahead of him (“if you ride like lightening”, Robin tells him, “you’ll crash like thunder”). It becomes distressingly clear that Luke’s life and character are formed of such stuff that no desire to rise to a higher realm of ‘responsible parent’ can trump the fate that his drifter soul has mapped out for him.

Character is fate.

If Luke is shocked into a sense of responsibility his past cannot live up to, Avery Cooper’s past on the other hand, forged by his strong relationship with his father, gives him a deep sense of resolve and a clear conscience-driven perspective.

Whereas Luke chooses the easier way of crime – the short-term, instant gratification of quick money, Avery is forced to confront crime, even as he becomes part of it. He finds himself briefly immersed in a corrupt scheme master-minded by the brilliant Ray Liotta (as crooked cop DeLucca). And it is up to his need to do the right thing that pits him against pretty much all his friends on the force. Avery, driven by a strong sense of guilt, has to fight his way beyond the corrupting influence of his clan to the place, as it were beyond the pines.

This is not to suggest that Avery is the unblemished goodie to Luke’s compromised baddie. Avery himself manages to do what’s right despite his own lust for power and influence. Luke wanted to cash; Avery wants the influence.

The third part of this trilogy concludes the balance between responsibility, conscience and parenthood when we meet their two children, now troubled teenagers, preparing to confront their own high noon showdown.

Mike Patton’s vibrant score adds to the operatic feel of this film; lends it the kind of gravitas Derek Cianfarance’s (who also directed “Blue Valentine”) directing and Ben Coccio’s and Darius Marder’s writing, deserves. Though Gosling, Evan Mendes and Bradley Cooper are the key protagonists in the drama, there really is a wonderful supporting cast that help lend the movie enormous stature and tremendous felt-life credibility.