Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017)

The future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in good hands. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a loud, colourful, hilarious and heartfelt statement of intent. 

Returning to the family of misfits and mercenaries he guided to the screen in 2014, Gunn rises to the challenge and raises the stakes for the Guardians and makes a more personal and rewarding film for us. I think that’s why Guardians works so well, in both movies. The literal fate of the Galaxy is at stake, but the core of the story is about family.
So, what does Volume 2 have in store for us? More than I expected. The trailers for the movie gave away shockingly very little, the big creature battle prominently shown, is actually in the opening credits sequence,  following a short prologue of a digitally de-aged Kurt Russell romancing Peter Quill’s mother and planting something rather dubious in a forest on Earth. Russell’s Ego is a welcome addition to the cast, announcing himself as Star Lord’s father early in the runtime. 

There are parallels with Empire Strikes Back, the middle film of another trilogy, also one about a hero with daddy issues discovering his powers. Volume 2 however is a true ensemble film and everyone has various issues of abandonment and loss to work through. Gamora and Nebula, Rocket and Yondu, everyone has something to deal with. 

Rocket steals the film for me, arguably the badass of the group (and in this group that’s saying something)  yet still having so much depth and compassion. We forget how easily a CGI Raccoon and Talking Tree could be misused in other hands, but James Gunn never treats them as anything less than they deserve. Rocket and Yondu bonding after being taken prisoner by the hilarious named Taserface and a mutinous Ravager crew was probably my highlight of the film. Gamora and Nebula’s battle for respect was awesome too, packed with more father issues, Thanos forcing his daughters to compete for his affections.

You know what the absolute BEST thing about GOTG Volume 2 is? The fact it doesn’t act like a set up for any other films. This is a stand alone chapter in the Guardians story, and it’s all the better for it. We only get one mention of Infinity Stones and no appearance from Thanos. It may let some people down, but it keeps the film from being dragged into someone else’s story. That’s not to say there’s a lack of cameo’s or character appearances. 

Sylvester Stallone and Michael Rosenbaum turn up early on as Stakar and Martinex, two of the original Guardians from the 70s comics while our obligatory Stan Lee cameo had some characters show up that absolutely floored me. Some of the FIVE  mid and post credits scenes tease a few big things to come, but just for GOTG, making me very keen to see how Volume 3 turns out. 

The soundtrack is of course fantastic, with songs from ELO, George Harrison and Parliament adding a spacey 70’s vibe. If Volume 1 was scuzzy 70’s Americana, Volume 2 lights a joint and takes us to the planetarium. 
Look, it’s a Marvel movie, it’s gonna do well at the box office no matter what, but it’s just great to see how much love went into this film. These movies are often art-by-comittee and struggle for it (Hello BvS, Iron Man 2, Fant4stic) so it’s particularly excellent that such a singular vision had persisted through both of the Guardians films. 

Packed full of comedy, it’s easily Marvel’s funniest film by quite some distance, with everyone getting a chance to shine, with Dave Bautista as Drax dropping his deadpan jokes more than most. 
Full of retro pop-culture references, breathtaking action and genuine heart,  Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 could easily end up being the biggest film of the MCU. A sequel that goes bigger and better and doesn’t lose any of the things that made us fall in love with the characters in the first place. 

Don’t be a trash panda, catch it in cinemas now. Or May 5th if you’re American. 

9/10

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The Belko Experiment (2017)

Do you ever have those days where you want to bash your co-workers across the head with a stapler? You do?! Boy, do I have a film for you!

The Belko Experiment, written and produced by James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean,  is a brutal, horror-thriller, peppered with a sly vein of dark humour and a tremendous cast of unlikeable characters. 

A group of American white collar workers based in their company’s Colombian offices are locked in the building and forced to murder each other for some unknown reason. If they don’t comply, their mysterious captor will start the killing for them. Every employee was fitted with a GPS chip in case of kidnap, but there’s bad news, the chips are secretly some Task Force X style bombs. 

While being a riff on the old Running Man/Battle Royale trope of being forced into murdering people to stay alive, Belko cleverly marries this familiar concept to the idea of the workplace and it’s competitive environment. Not a totally original concept, but you’ll agree it’s a nice fresh take. 

 The two movies I was reminded of most were meta-horror classic The Cabin In The Woods and 2009’s Exam, another single location thriller about corporate competition. 

Belko stars Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona and John Gallagher jr as the main three of our unlikeable characters, but this movie is a real team effort, with Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, John C McGinley, David Dastmalchian rounding out a strong ensemble. Every cast member is potential cannon fodder and we are left guessing who will be next on the chopping block, with some deaths being very surprising indeed!

The level of violence in this movie is astounding, everything from guns and knives to exploding heads and murder by office equipment. Greg McLean’s direction pulls no punches, showing us enough gore and then some. I’m a fan of horror and I do enjoy spectacular kill scenes, so I quite liked the Final Destination-esque way in which Belko tops each death with something a little more gruesome. 

If you arrived at The Belko Experiment through James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, be aware this is a very different beast, even more dark hearted than Super or the Dawn of the Dead remake he wrote for Zack Snyder. I’d have liked a little more character development, as we’re never really taken beyond any surface level details, however, I enjoyed the rapid pace and lean story,  so I can’t complain too much. 
A story about survival in a literal cut-throat working environment, The Belko Experiment is entertaining, gory and darkly funny. 

7/10

For Fans Of:

Dredd

Exam 

The Running Man

The Cabin In The Woods 

Office Space 

Lost Highway (1997)

We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

Until this year, my only real experience of the work of David Lynch was Twin Peaks. For one reason or another, probably my fragile mental state, or my fear of the real, I just never felt ready to give it a go. 

Lost Highway is not what you’d call an easy watch. Dark, sexy, surreal and purposefully obtuse, this noir tinged trip poses some difficult questions and doesn’t necessarily give you the answers. Written by Lynch and Barry Gifford, this is a film to lose your self in, if you fully buy what Lynch is selling, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Bill Pullman stars as jazz saxophonist Fred, seemingly losing touch with his sanity and becoming suspicious of his wife Renee, played by a mesmerising Patricia Arquette. Fred and Renee begin receiving video tapes of their apartment and themselves, Fred meets The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) at a party and things descend into utter chaos. 

I don’t really want to delve any further into the story, as I feel that it would take away a lot of the enjoyment. This is a film to be experienced, enveloped in. The progression of Pullman’s Fred, from losing his grip on his life into a literal loss of self is breathtaking. Where as other filmmakers would use subtext or symbolism, Lynch has the guts to just go there. His bravery and bold choices here do chime back to Fire Walk With Me in its unrelenting nature. 

The back half of the movie, is almost a totally different tone and ushers in a new cast, amazing, quirky characters played Robert Loggia, Gary Busey and Balthazar Getty all show up, with Patricia Arquette playing a different character. Like I said earlier, if you’ve bought into Lost Highway at the beginning, this sea-change just feels completely natural. We also get the last film appearances from comedy legend Richard Pryor and Lynch favourite Jack Nance, both giving great performances in their small roles. 
This latter part of the film also comes across as clearly being hugely inspirational for Nicolas Winding Refn‘s 2011 pulpy noir, Drive.

The music in Lost Highway is brooding, imposing and very fitting. The score tracks by regular collaborator Angelo Badalamenti fit like a glove, while the mid 90’s industrial rock songs from Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein bring a weight and groove to some visual heaviness. David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” accompanies both opening and closing credits, bringing yet another level of symmetry to this rorschach test of a motion picture. 

Reading up on the making of the movie, Lynch mentions being inspired by the OJ Simpson murder case. Bizarrely, the Mystery Man himself, Robert Blake, was arrested for murdering his wife around the release of Lost Highway and this remains his last film role. 

I unreservedly enjoyed Lost Highway. I can sort of understand why a 1997 audience didn’t connect with it, being darker and heavier than most would expect. A horror tinged noir, darkly funny and fully immersive, go and lose yourself for two hours.
We’ve met before, haven’t we?”


Ghost In The Shell (2017)

The biggest pre-release buzz around Ghost In The Shell was a whitewashing controversy. It was unfortunate that such a good film got such bad press.  Director Rupert Sanders gives us dark, cyberpunk action, a neo-noir mystery filled with incredible visuals and genuinely gorgeous special effects,  GITS (with its unfortunate acronym) should have been far more successful than it has been. 

It’s taken me a few weeks to get round to seeing Ghost, but I’m glad I have. Scarlett Johansson headlines this adaption of the  beloved 90’s Japanese anime, basically an anime version of Robocop. ScarJo plays the Major, who we see in the opening as a brain being placed into a cyborg body. The first of her kind, the Major is a government supersoldier. Leading some kind of poorly explained paramilitary security team called Section 9, the Major has to stop a cyber terrorist from murdering prominent scientists involved with cybernetic enhancements and Hanka robotics, who created her. Got all that?

Scarlett Johansson’s character is the titular Ghost In The Shell, a brain rescued from an accident, placed into a robot body, to become a post-human weapon. In the near future, cyber enhancements have become part of everyday life and everyone is connected digitally. A shadowy corporation is of course involved with her creation. As I mentioned above, it does come across as a riff on Robocop, but, it’s not such a bad thing. The idea behind Major is the opposite of Alex Murphy, they want a human element to have the feelings and decision makings. Of course, memories are still erased and mysterious flashbacks push our story forward. These themes of memory, self and who we are, really do make Ghost In The Shell feel a step above the usual summer movie, it may not have heart but it sure has a brain.

Aside from Johansen, the rest of the cast is stacked with fantastic actors, Michael Pitt as the villain, Juliet Binoche as Dr Ouelet, the Hanka scientist who created Major, Peter Ferdinando as Cutter and Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæ as Batou, Major’s partner in Section 9. Oh and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is Aramaki, the leader of Section 9! I hadn’t realised he was in Ghost, so seeing his name get second billing in the opening credits really shocked me.  Speaking only in Japanese, Kitano is subtitled and gives a great performance, only getting to show elements of how bad ass he could be. An uncredited cameo from the amazing Michael Wincott brought to mind his role in the recent Westworld TV show as well as its similar themes.

The cast is multinational and racially diverse, so I guess they tried a pre-emptive strike in response to the casting backlash. Didn’t quite work for the critics but gives us an excellent set of actors throughout the movie. 

The character development could have been a little better, I feel like we didn’t get to know anyone as well as I’d have liked, the 1hr40mins runtime felt quite lean, the film feeling quite cold, distant and somewhat mechanical. Ironic, eh? 

The stunning effects deserve much more plaudits than they’re getting, the character design is fantastic and the city itself is almost another character. As the camera swooped around this rainy, dark metropolis, filled with pixellated holographic adverts, my mind was buzzing. Somewhere between Back to the Future 2, Blade Runner and Batman, Rupert Sanders’ world building is sublime, succeeding where his character development didn’t.

 The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe is perfect, setting the scenes against a backdrop of unsettling electronics and waves of bass. Mansell has long been proving he is one of cinema’s best composers and once again he’s made something special. I read that it’s apparently not getting an official release which is odd as it really is worth a purchase.

So, (memory) cards on the table. Ghost In The Shell is a good, solid action mystery. Some may take issue with its character depth, but it isn’t anything to stop you enjoying what it’s got to offer. Great acting, great visuals and an excellent score. I’m sure when it turns up on Netflix in a few years you’ll see what I mean. 

7/10 

For Fans Of: 



Robocop

Blade Runner 

Total Recall 

The Fifth Element 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

You’d probably expect a follow up movie, to an abruptly cancelled television show to be a sequel. Especially one that ended on a huge cliffhanger. Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, opens with TV static,followed by the same television being smashed by an axe. 

(This article contains spoilers for Twin Peaks the TV series.)

The lesson to learn from this, if you didn’t already know, is don’t expect the norm from David Lynch. This is a very different animal to the television series. 

Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the cult classic, Twin Peaks, showing the last 7 days in the life of Laura Palmer, the girl who’s death is the catalyst for the series. Sheryl Lee reprises her role as Laura along with almost the entire original cast. Ray Wise returns as Leland Palmer, Kyle McLachlan pretty much cameos as Dale Cooper and Lynch himself pops back up as loveable, hearing impaired FBI boss Gordon Cole. Lara Flynn Boyle most notably didn’t return as Donna and was replaced by Moira Kelly

Flopping on initial release and getting critically berated, FWWM in my opinion, is a dark hearted masterpiece. Having very little of the playful humour of the series,  this movie plays like a twisted mirror version of what we loved about Peaks. Opening with a 30 or so minute prologue starring Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as two FBI agents investigating a murder we’d heard of in the show, but never seen. They face hostile local cops and have a bad experience with coffee in the town diner. Almost the exact opposite of Dale Cooper’s arrival, setting the tone for how the story will play out. 

It’s unsettling to see Laura Palmer alive, knowing the fate awaiting her at the end this film, but Sheryl Lee’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. You really feel Laura is coming apart mentally and see her anguish. She knows Bob is coming for her and when she realises who he is, it’s heartbreaking.  Watching FWWM, I got to feeling Lynch was saying something deeper about her sexual abuse and her drug addiction all along in Peaks, but I obviously didn’t pick up on it, forever changing how I watch the show from now on. 

The show’s reveal of Leland Palmer as the killer and molester of his daughter at the beginning of season 2 was oddly placed due to network pressure, and left an emptiness in the middle of that season before Windom Earle shows up and led our characters to the Black Lodge and the madness within. FWWM acts as the dark mirror version of the show and being a feature film, it had the freedom to push boundaries that were unavailable to Lynch on television.

I had a lot of different feelings while watching FWWM, mainly due to the fact it was so different to Twin Peaks. The campy comedy was gone, everything felt more real and more grimy. Laura’s trip to the club with Jacques Reno being the highlight (lowlight?) of showing how her life was unravelling around her. Going back to what I said earlier about Lynch saying more about her sexual abuse and drug addiction, I really began to feel like this was all Laura’s way of coping with what her Dad was doing all those years. Sure, he claims he didn’t know BOB was possessing him, but there are definitely a few clues dropped that he was in control. 

It does change your opinion on Leland and the TV show as a whole. Going further, are BOB, MIKE and the Black Lodge just a metaphor for abuse and evil? I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but it’s hard for me not to think about it everytime I see BOB now.

The Black Lodge itself and it’s inhabitants are more fleshed out during FWWM. The reveal that the backwards talking The Man From Another Place is the chopped off arm of MIKE was interesting, adding a new element to his previous appearances. His scene sat across the table from BOB showed them at odds over the battle for Laura. I particularly loved when during David Bowie’s sudden appearance, we got to see more of the Lodge’s monstrous and twisted demons, some of whom are apparently returning for the new series. This short scene was hugely disturbing, letting us know there was much more than we realised, as well as bringing back the Grandmother and Grandson that talked to Donna Hayward in season 2. 

With Fire Walk With Me acting as both a prequel and a sequel, Lynch got to both explore Laura’s past while leaving her future wide open. Odd that a dead character would have their fate left hanging in the balance, but I don’t think Laura is staying dead. Sheryl Lee being in the new series gives me hope we will see more of Laura than expected and that maybe because the Black Lodge is outside of Space and Time, a return for her and the real Coop will be bolder than a lot of people expect. 

Through the darkness of future’s past,
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds…
“Fire… walk with me.”

Life (2017)

Daniel Espinosa’s Sci Fi thriller Life is going to end up as one of those films most people catch on TV and wonder why they missed it at the cinema. A victim of Alien Covenant‘s schedule change, this exciting, tense ensemble picture was taken from May and dropped into the most crowded March ever. I’m pretty sure it’s going to underperform hugely, which is a shame, as this is a film very much worth watching. 

The story of scientists on the International Space Station experimenting on soil samples retrieved from Mars and unleashing a creature, there’s nothing hugely original here, but the film really works. 

Life’s small cast of Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, an oddly wooden Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare, Hiroyuki Sanada who seems to be playing the same character he did in 2007’s Sunshine and Olga Dihovicnaya gel well together and the chemistry between them does sell the isolation and enforced close proximity of people who have to both get on and be professional. Especially in the company of an increasingly hostile and deadly alien organism. 

Coming across like a somewhat realistic take on Ridley Scott’s original Alien, Life puts it’s diverse ensemble cast in danger of being killed by a rapidly growing and evolving creature, named Calvin by school children when the crew announces it’s discovery to Earth. I’m not going to pretend it’s a brand new concept, but Daniel Espinosa  really does make  Life into a fresh feeling experience. I think the fact that the emphasis on realism and relatability to real life science lulls the audience into suspending disbelief enough that when Calvin evolves from single cell to his final monstrous design, you buy it and don’t question anything. 

Chock full of tension, gore and some gorgeous cinematography,  Life  is a solid, Sci-Fi thriller from the writers of Zombieland and Deadpool and comes highly recommended from me. Walking the line between realism and horror, believable enough to scare you, far fetched enough to not give you nightmares. 

7/10, Life is in Cinemas now .

FOR FANS OF :

Alien 

Sunshine

The Thing

Gravity 

Event Horizon