Tag: Bradley Cooper

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Young romance in a changing time in Paul Thomas Anderson’s unconventional love story

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Alana Haim (Alana Kane), Cooper Hoffman (Gary Valentine), Sean Penn (Jack Holden), Tom Waits (Rex Blau), Bradley Cooper (Jon Peters), Benny Safdie (Joel Wachs), Skyler Gisondo (Lance), Mary Elizabeth Ellis (Momma Anita), John Michael Higgins (Jerry Frick), Christine Ebersole (Lucy Doolittle), Harriet Sansom Harris (Mary Grady)

Is there a force harder to understand than love? That’s basically the theme of Paul Thomas Anderson’s delightfully whimsical film, which explores an unlikely relationship in Los Angeles in 1973, played out to a backdrop of the OPEC gas crisis. Told with a dreamlike grace and overflowing with affection and warmth for its characters, it’s a deceptively simple film that is a masterpiece of heartfelt craft.

Standing in line to have his photo taken for his High School picture, 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is instantly smitten with cynical photography assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim). Much to her surprise, his claim to be a child actor in the movies is actually true – he’s co-starring with Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole, in a thinly veiled spoof of Lucille Ball) in a movie. He’s also a budding entrepreneur, setting up a business selling water beds in LA. Alana still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but finds herself drawn to Gary, despite her acute awareness of their age difference. The two of them become business partners and drift in and out of friendship, never quite sure exactly how they feel about each other.

Now I guess you might well have checked yourself there at the thought of a romance between a teenager and a 25-year-old. But there is no prurience here, no masturbatory coming-of-age fantasy with an older woman or sleazy grooming. This is instead a very genuine, sweet and moving romance between two people who only really have numbers keeping them apart. It particularly works because Gary in many ways feels about 5 years older than he actually is and Alana often feels about 5 years younger than she is. In many ways they are both twenty-year-olds – and it’s only the fact that they are not which puts a barrier between them being together. As such it becomes very easy to accept their potential relationship, and even root for it.

That’s massively helped by the fact that these two characters are marvellously embodied by two first-time actors. Anderson specifically wrote the role for Alana Haim, member of family rock group Haim (Anderson has directed several of their music videos, and was taught by Haim’s mother). She’s stunning: prickly, quick-witted, cynical but also vulnerable and sensitive. She’s desperate to find some sort of purpose in her life: exploring the role of trophy girlfriend, businesswoman and political campaigner, but always seems like she’s slightly lost, for all her defiance. Haim is also wonderfully exasperated and befuddled by the interest she feels for this younger guy, barely able to acknowledge she might have feelings for him. Haim is superb.

Gary, played by the son of regular Anderson collaborator the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is equally well bought to life by Cooper Hoffman. Gary’s career as a child actor is coming to an end: as we see through a disastrously over enthusiastic audition, which the casting directors watch out of a polite respect. But Gary has the go-getting hustling skills of someone much older. He’s got an eye for business opportunities – water beds, film productions, pinball machines – that would be the envy of others. He’s smart, confident, frequently cocky, assured – but at times also staggeringly immature (like a teenage boy he’s obsessed with boobs and Alana watches with frustrated despair as he and some friends drag out miming a wanking gag for what seems forever). He’s also still sometimes just a kid: mistakenly arrested at one point, he sits in terror in a police station and, even when uncuffed and released, is too scared to leave the station without Alana’s encouragement.

That arrest scene is yet another moment that reaffirms the deep bond and love between these two people. Wrongly arrested for nominally fitting the description of a suspected killer – “Look forward to Attica!” the police taunt him – he’s hauled from an Expo. Alana follows, running full pelt after the squad car – even though at this point they’ve not spoken for weeks – and then holds him for what feels like forever when he is released (before, of course, slapping him and saying “What did you do?”). Later, when Alana falls while taking part in an ill-advised late-night motorbike stunt, Gary will run the length of a golf course to make sure she is alright (despite, again, the two of them having cut ties before this). Moments like this sing with a real romantic force.

Particularly as this is such a love-hate film. Alana and Gary constantly hurt each other, finding ways to get into perfect sync only to screw it up. Gary is heartbroken when Alana starts to date his older co-star (a smug atheist, played wonderfully by Skyler Gisondo). Alana is overcome with jealousy and pain when Gary flirts and kisses a school crush his own age at the launch of their water-bed business. After auditioning for a movie role, Alana delights in making Gary uncomfortable when he walks into the bar where she is enjoying a drink with the movie’s male star. Through it all, these two are drawn back to each other time and again – and when the chips are down their loyalty and love to each other is absolute, even if they can’t always admit it to either themselves or each other.

Around the two outstanding central performances, Anderson constructs a series of scenes and skits that drift from one to the other. The whole film has a curiously dreamlike transition structure: it’s frequently hard to tell how much time has passed and the narrative omits overly functional scenes, so we frequently see a situation has changed but only an implication of why (example: Gary’s mother tells him she can’t chaperone him to New York for a TV appearance – next shot Alana and Gary are on a plane. How was this agreed? Who cares!). Each of the sequences plays out with a shaggy-dog story charm, directed with the confidence and brilliance of a director who is happy to make it look easy. And let me tell you, very few could pull off something as light and charming.

The film is stocked with delightful cameos. John Michael Higgins is very funny as the owner of a Japanese restaurant, with two successive Japanese wives who he “translates” for by repeating in ludicrously Japanese accented loud English whatever has just been said. Harriet Sansom Harris is very funny as a plugged-in agent. Ebersole is a monstrous attention-hungry star. Sean Penn is funnier than he’s ever been playing a version of William Holden, pissed and barely able to distinguish between his film roles and real life, cajoled by an equally pissed director (Tom Waits on top form as a sort of Peckinpah-Huston combo) to perform a motorbike stunt late at night. Best of all is Bradley Cooper, who burns through his brief scenes as an unhinged Jon Peters, a whipper-cracker of unpredictability and insatiable horn.

But it’s the two leads that give this heart, and Licorice Pizza is an amazingly sweet, tender, endearing and deeply charming love story about a couple who can’t quite understand why they want to be together and spend most of the movie making sure they’re not. Anderson brings it altogether with immense homespun charm – this is almost a home movie, Haim’s family play he character’s family, the cast is stuffed with Anderson’ family and friends – and Licorice Pizza is the sort of delight that shouldn’t work, but very triumphantly does.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in an unusual love story Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Pat Solitano Jnr), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany Maxwell), Robert De Niro (Pat Solitano Snr), Jacki Weaver (Dolores Solitano), Anupam Kher (Dr Cliff Patel), Chris Tucker (Danny McDaniels), Julia Stiles (Veronica), Shea Whigham (Jake Solitano), John Ortiz (Ronnie)

David O. Russell is a director it’s easier to admire than fall in love with. I can see why actors come back to work with him time and again – he’s clearly an actors’ director who crafts stories that give them chances to shine. But his films often have an archness about them, while I find too many of them settle for a sort of middle-of-the-road quirky cool. I’ve never really, truly, loved any of them – even if I have enjoyed them while watching them. The closest I think I’ve got is Silver Linings Playbook.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from psychiatric hospital, after being confined for assaulting his ex-wife’s lover, into the care of his parents Pat Snr (Robert De Niro), unemployed now making a living as an underground bookmaker, and Dolores (Jacki Weaver). Suffering from a host of compulsions connected to his bipolar disorder, Pat is fixated on winning back his wife. To do so, he enlists the help of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the widow of a policeman who died in a road traffic accident, who has her own borderline personality disorder and has been dealing with her grief through a parade of casual sexual encounters. Together they enter a dance competition – Tiffany because she always wanted to, Pat because Tiffany has offered to take Pat’s letters to his wife if he says yes and because Pat wants to prove to his wife that he has changed. But is there more than mutual convenience between the two?

Silver Linings Playbook is an unusual romance, that also explores themes of mental health and compulsions and how thin the lines can be between what we consider healthy and not healthy. When does obsession tip over into something that should be treated? Pat is the sort of guy who wakes his parents up to furiously denounce the Hemingway book he has just finished reading in one sitting (a scene played exuberantly for laughs – including Pat smashing a window by throwing the book out of it) but it quickly tips into danger when in a similar mania he awakens the entire neighbourhood at 3am tearing the house apart for his wedding video, accidentally hits his mother, and ends in a tear filled scuffle with his dad. Similarly, Tiffany’s tendencies towards aggression and self-destruction frequently put her in situations both funny and dreadfully damaging.

But just as close to this, we have Pat Snr’s addiction not only to gambling, but also to a raft of superstitions designed to better his chances of winning (and which dominate large parts of his life). Dolores seems obsessed with maintaining peace and order in the family. Pat’s brother has an almost savant tendency to speak his mind, causing more harm than good. Every character in this seems to have their own psychological hang-ups, with resulting problems.

But the film marries this up with an actually quite sweet romantic story between two damaged souls, both very well played by Cooper and Lawrence. This was the film where Cooper repositioned himself as a major actor of note. His performance here is a perfect mixture of charm, pain, confusion, frustration, insight and self-destructive monomania. He’s both funny and deeply moving, sweet and also slappable, gentle but with a capacity for unpredictability. He’s a terrific performance, deeply affecting. It also helps he has fabulous chemistry with an Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence’s Tiffany is a vulnerable soul, desperate to appear as tough and impossible to harm as possible and not caring about any of the collateral damage. She’s as brittle as she seems rigid, and as desperate for affection as she pretends to be uncaring about it.

The film throws these two together with an obvious spark from the start, and brilliantly uses their preparation for a dancing contest to show them growing closer together physically and emotionally, as well as adding a purpose to their lives and giving them a common goal to work towards. There is a rather nice gentleness, amongst all the chaos of this film, that something as simple as taking up a new hobby can help to ground two people.

The film builds the romance gently, carefully showing it developing organically and leaving us to guess at what point the bond between these two enrichens and deepens from an instant connection to something more profound. It’s sure got a lot to overcome, with Pat’s obsessive focus on his wife and Tiffany’s compulsion for meaningless sex and her own desire to destroy promising relationships (she almost immediately alienates the surprisingly gentlemanly Pat with an offer of casual sex on their first meeting). With a gentle slow-burn, the film builds towards something that ends up being rather moving.

Russell’s adaptation of the original novel is well-structured and entertaining and his unfussy, stylish direction brilliantly creates an enjoyable mode. De Niro (in what many people called a joyous return to form) and Weaver are both very good as the parents (both were Oscar nominated – this is one of the few films to be nominated in each acting category) and there is hardly a weak beat in the cast. After several quirky, indie-cool, rather distant films, this is possibly the most fun and the most heart-warming Russell has ever been. It’s a career high. Heck even Chris Tucker is really good. And I’d never thought I’d say that.

American Sniper (2014)

Bradley Cooper takes aim as the American Sniper in Eastwood’s surprisingly thoughtful war film

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Jake McDorman (Ryan “Biggles” Job), Cory Hardrict (D), Kevin Lacz (Dauber), Navid Negahban (Sheikh Al-Obodi), Keir O’Donnell (Jeff Kyle), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa), Mido Hamada (The Butcher), Eric Close (Agent Snead)

All war films walk a fine line: too far one way, and you glorify the violence of conflict; too far the other way and demean the bravery of the soldiers sent to fight it. It’s a tricky balance, but one American Sniper handles with real confidence, astutely putting together a film that can celebrate the bravery, skill and professionalism of its lead character but deplore the psychological impact killing has on him, while subtly suggesting the war he was fighting was scarcely worth the sacrifice.

Chris Kyle (played by an almost unrecognisably beefed up Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL sniper stationed in Iraq. Kyle’s role as a sniper is to protect the troops on the ground from threats they can’t see, and it’s a job he treats with immense seriousness, believing he has a duty to protect others. Kyle soon builds up an astonishing number of kills (a record for US soldiers), but increasingly the burden of killing from a distance impacts Kyle more and more. Over the course of four tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes distant and withdrawn at home from his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and children. Only after his final tour does he begin to seek help, finding a new purpose in life in helping other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. Which, tragically, leads to Kyle’s death, as he is killed in February 2013 by a veteran whom he was trying to help.

Eastwood directs with his expected unfussy smoothness and American Sniper is one of his finest films, a largely unsentimental, gritty look at the true cost of war physically and emotionally. Eastwood balances respecting Kyle’s skill and deploring the impact using that skill had on him. The film stresses the perverse necessity for empathy the role of sniper demands. Kyle is so good at the role because he will go the extra mile to protect his brothers-in-arms on the ground. The psychological impact is heavy because this man, hard-wired to protect others, has to do so by gunning down hundreds of people. Is it any wonder it has such a huge impact on him?

The sequences set in Iraq have the grimy air of reality to them, with dust, dirt, sweat and glare dominating every frame. Eastwood pulls no punches on the impact of bullets from distance on bodies, the violence of direct combat, the terror of being pinned down by enemy fire or the waste of lives (both civilian and military). While the film celebrates the bravery of frontline soldiers, it’s telling we see very few officers at all, but stay with the grunts, and the film is one of their stories and their choices. The politics behind why the soldiers are even there are barely touched upon and, as the tours tick by, the feeling of being there because they are there permeates the film. There is always another insurgent leader to take out, another target to find, and the soldiers make so little progress towards their actual target (locating al-Zarqawi) that he’s barely even mentioned.

Eastwood still subtly suggests our cause in Iraq hardly helps to win over hearts and minds. The soldiers’ interactions with the population are consumed with tension and violence, usually involving scared soldiers shouting at unarmed people, cable-tying men on the floor and failing to relate to or understand the cultures they are in. Any attempts to do so usually end with poor consequences, and the closest to a bond Kyle forms with someone outside of the soldier circle leads to a tragic ending. It’s not a film that has an affinity with the consequences of war, or the impact it has on lives.

If you have any doubt about that, then watching the slow breakdown of Kyle over the course of the film (manfully shrugged off and denied for as long as possible by the man himself) should shake that. Much of the impact of this comes from the excellent performance of Bradley Cooper, who slowly turns the light, fun and intelligent man we meet at the start of the film into someone sullen, withdrawn and permanently on the edge of anger, unwilling to even to begin to think about the possibility that anything he has seen has had any lasting impact on him. There is even some questioning of the damage extreme masculinity and an unwillingness to be open about your problems has on people (themes that Eastwood has always been far more interested in than he is given credit for). 

In fact, excellently assembled as the sequences in Iraq are (especially the tension around a semi-duel between Kyle and an insurgent sniper known only as “Mustafa”), I could actually have had more time given over at the end of the film to exploring how this man with such a warm empathy in him discovered a new purpose in his life. Kyle’s other heroism – and perhaps the secret to the regard he was held in by so many when he was murdered – was his commitment to helping people any way he could. His refocusing his life to help veterans deal with PTSD and physical disabilities could have been brought out into greater focus. Kyle’s greatest strength was his empathy and he became so open about his own problems, and his struggle to readjust, that it helped inspire many others to do the same – and it’s a plot thread I feel deserved a few more minutes at the end of the film.

It does however make a wise call by ending the morning of the day that Kyle was killed, with him leaving his family to spend a few hours with the veteran who killed him. Kyle had been involved in the development of the film, and it stands as a fitting, honest, tribute to him. Powered by Cooper’s superb performance, well supported by Sienna Miller as the wife who wants him to acknowledge the impact war is having on him, Eastwood assembles a fine war film, that acknowledges the sacrifices and heroism of soldiers, but also deplores the horrors conflict enacts on their psyche. It’s a mature, intelligent and well-handled film and well worth your time and effort.

American Hustle (2013)

Glamour and confidence tricks in David O. Russell’s flashy American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Louis CK (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez/Sheik), Elisabeth Röhm (Dolly Polito), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amada), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio)

In 2013, American Hustle was nominated for ten Oscars and won none of them. Somehow, being invited to the big party but not receiving any prizes was strangely fitting for a film about small time grifters forced into a big game way beyond their control. Russell’s film is like a celebration of his strengths and weaknesses as a director: it’s stuffed with some very good (if rather mannered) performances, offers lots of dynamic film making, but is still basically a rather cold and arch film that’s hard to really invest in – rather like a con game in itself.

In 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time grafter, running scams with his partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who uses the identity of a young English aristocrat “Lady Edith Greenslly”. Rosenfeld longs to leave his unstable, selfish wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) for Sydney, but fears he will lose all his access to his adopted son. Rosenfeld and Prosser’s career of clever investment frauds is brought to an end when Prosser is caught red-handed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso forces the pair into his entrapment operation, targeting New Jersey politicians with offers of bribes as part of a Fake Sheik investment. Initially it targets Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but the operation quickly expands, as the ambitious and impulsive DiMaso constantly follows every connection and the operation expands to dangerous levels, taking in the mafia. Scared, Rosenfeld and Prosser desperately try to play both ends against the middle.

American Hustle is a decent film, which pulls together the sort of capers, turmoil and antics that you would expect from a film about a long con. It throws into the melting pot the vibes of several other films, from The Sting to Goodfellas, and asks us to admire the results. Russell encourages the actors to play it with an edgy verisimilitude that pretty much works as a metaphor for con men. Each performance is an effective display of high-wire character acting work laced with arch, studied tricks. But only rarely do you get a sense of something that’s real.

That’s part of a film that wants to have a cake and eat it as well. It’s striking in the entire story that the most sympathetic character is the initial target, Jeremy Renner’s well-meaning, passionate New Jersey politician, bamboozled into taking a bribe (money he mostly uses in the local community) because he is convinced it’s a crucial part of getting Arab investment. It’s even more striking that the most honest, subdued (and deadly) character is the Mafia kingpin Victor Tellegio, played with chilling menace by an unbilled Robert DeNiro. Nearly everyone else on the side of the entrapment operation is pretty much a selfish prick or verging on the unhinged.

But then that’s part of the point of the film, which throws two people who know what they are doing (Rosenfeld and Prosser) at the mercy of people playing with fire (Roselyn and in particular DiMaso, a permed, tightly-wound powderkeg). This is one hell of a performance from Bradley Cooper – and a sign again after Silver Linings Playbook that Russell and he have a natural understanding. Cooper is a force of nature, a bundle of terrible impulses combined with an utter lack of shame or self-control, who is quite happy to trample over everyone to get what he wants and has no regard whatsoever for the danger he puts himself and others into. Utterly unpredictable, he never sticks to a plan, veers between rage and hysterical laughter and, worst of all, is always convinced he’s right.

It’s DiMaso who spins the operation into dangerous waters with his vaulting ambition to land yet another big fish, recklessly peddling insubstantial, unprepared lies on top of each other – to the terror and horror of practised peddlar of bullshit Rosenfeld, whose whole successful schtick is based on saying “no” and having the mark do all the desperate work. DiMaso’s approach not only puts the operation at risk, it puts lives at risk – not that DiMaso cares, preoccupied as he is with his childish one-upmanship with his boss and a teenage sexual obsession with Prosser.

What chance do the (mostly) small-fish politicians and local figures have, whose lives are placed on the altar of DiMaso’s ambition? It’s no wonder that, late in the film, our conmen heroes start to feel guilt and remorse – none more so than Irving Rosenfeld. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of tricksy, Olivier-ish disguises that he so loves (in this case increased weight, a balding comb-over and a pair of tinged glasses he obsessively fiddles with), Rosenfeld is an operator happy with the level he is working at and incredibly wary of stepping up into the dangerous big leagues. Justifiably convinced of his own professionalism at fleecing money and winning trust, Rosenfeld has no problem with taking money from the selfish but every problem in the world with destroying the life of a fundamentally honest man. Bale’s performance, for all the tricks, manages to successfully build a picture of a selfish man who believes himself in his way to be honest in a way and is just trying to make his way.

That way also involves balancing between two very different women. Amy Adams does decent work as a blowsy fake-aristocrat, sporting a series of tops with neck lines that literally plunge down to her waist, although she is perhaps a little too “nice girl next door” to really convince as the love-em-to-manipulate-them Prosser. She’s not also helped by the script giving her an ill-defined arc of self-doubt linked to pretending to be someone else. Sweet as the genuine love can be her between her and Rosenfeld – and excellent as her chemistry is between Bale and Cooper – it’s the character who remains the least knowable in the film.

Also not helping is the fact that Jennifer Lawrence burns through the film as Rosalyn, the sort of electric, larger-than-life but still very real performance of arrogance, selfishness, dangerous stupidity and greed that marked her out as a major actress. Whether inadvertently putting Rosenfeld’s life at risk through blabbing details she’s half-overheard and half-understood, cleaning the kitchen while singing an aggressive rendition of Live and Let Die or nearly burning the house down because she won’t believe metal can’t go in “the science oven” (aka microwave), Lawrence is the film’s MVP.

Russell’s film showcases all these actors brilliantly, but his overall story remains a little cold and not as clever as it thinks. With a film about conmen you expect a final rugpull – and this film sort of manages one – but the story telling to take us there isn’t quite as articulate and clever as it needs to be in order to be really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the film’s ragged, hip, indie style of telling – or the air that the actors are making a lot of this stuff up as they go with edgy, semi-improvised performances – but the film never really engrosses or engages. For all that we see the inner worlds of Rosenfeld and Prosser, I can’t say I really, truly cared what happened to them. 

Instead Russell focuses on the marshalling of his resources, and cool, slick film-making. He uses expert camera work and editing, mixed with a superbly chosen soundtrack, overlaid with voiceover, sudden transitions, some narrative jumps and a vibrant sense of cool to make a story that finally feels a little too much like a style-over-substance trick – in fact a con game all of its very own, as enjoyable and entertaining as the rest of the film, but when it finishes you realise your pockets are empty.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Time to got to work: Avengers: Endgame caps off a 22 film series

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Evans (Steve Rodgers), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Don Cheadle (Rhodey), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Rene Russo (Frigga), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Tilda Swinton (Ancient One), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Tom Vaughen-Lawlor (Ebony Maw)

So this really is it. For now. As Dr Strange says at one point “we are into the Endgame now”. Avengers: Endgame is Act Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ten-years-in-the-making finale. It’s also a sequel that, for me, enriches and improves the “bangs before brains” Infinity War. Where that film played too hard to the fanboy wet dream of seeing X teaming up with Y and lots of bashing, Avengers: Endgame focuses more on the intelligent character work and decent acting and writing that has underpinned what has turned what used to be the preserve of geeks into a franchise now almost universally beloved across the world.

The film picks up almost immediately after über-Baddie and misguided-humanitarian Thanos (James Brolin) has successfully used the powers of the infinity stones (a series of mystical macguffins that have been omnipresent in the series so far) to wipe out half of the population of the universe to save it from overpopulation, including dozens of our heroes. Those that remain – predominantly the original roster from the first Avengers film – must work together to find a way to overturn this destruction that Thanos has wrought. But more sacrifices are inevitable along the way.

Avengers: Endgame is a film that the less you know about where it is going, the more you are likely to enjoy its twists and turns. Viewers who may have been anticipating a series of increasingly brutal smackdowns between the Avengers and their nemesis Thanos will however be disappointed. This is not a film of acative avenging: it’s a film where our heroes cope with the burden of unbearable failure, survivor guilt, PTSD and are desperate to try anything to try and make amends. Surprisingly, for the biggest budget entry in the whole cannon, this feels like a smaller-scale, character driven film which carries far bigger (and realistic) stakes than several films earlier in the franchise.

For the opening two hours of this three hour epic, there is actually precious little in the way of action. Instead we explore individual reactions and struggles of each of our heroes. Some have slumped into depression. Some are struggling to move on. Others have shut down and focus on their work. Some have managed to put their past failure and loss behind them to rebuild their lives. Others have embraced the darkness altogether to extract a revenge upon the world that they feel has taken everything from them. It’s a real change of pace from the high octane action and smart banter of the first film. This feels more earned, more invested and more designed to engage our brains and emotions rather than pound us into joyful submission with its bangs and crashes.

In fact it builds back into what has made this franchise so successful and so beloved. It turns these heroes into people, rather than just monoliths of action. Way back in the day, when making the first Iron Man film, Kevin Feige said if they got the film right the name “Tony Stark” would become as famous as “Iron Man”. It sums the aims of the franchise up – that these should be real people to us rather than just comic book cartoons. If we think of Chris Evans, we think of him as being “Steve” not Captain America. Jeremy Renner is as well-known as Clint Barton as “Hawkeye”. If Scarlett Johansson is addressed as Natasha we don’t blink an eye in the film, in the way we would if she was called “Black Widow”. The Hulk can be calmly addressed as Bruce or Ant Man as “Scott” and we never think it strange. In fact it would feel odd to have them calling each other by their cartoon names. It’s normalised the personalities behind the badges and masks.

And that works so well because the writing, when it works, focuses on making these characters feel real – and the actors they have brought on board to fill out the roles have excelled at adding depth and shading to the roles. Chris Evans will probably forever by the noble, dedicated humanitarian Steve Rodgers and rightly so as he has turned this potential stick-in-the-mud into a person we deeply respect and love. He’s terrific here, marshalling a plot arc that brings his time in this crazy franchise to an end with a neat bow that feels fitting and fair (even if it’s got some logic gaps).

Robert Downey Jnr also does some excellent work in his final sign off from the series. The role here plays to all the strengths Downey Jnr has brought to the role:  the smartness, the intelligence, the slight smugness, the charisma. But also the vulnerability and longing to be genuinely loved and to build a family around him. The desire to protect people. The nobility under the off-the-cuff exterior. Downey Jnr’s departure was well advertised and again it works a treat here.

But then the whole cast are marvellous. Hemsworth gets to stretch his comic muscles even more than his regular ones, and balances marvellously a plot about a hero who has lost his way. Scarlett Johansson gets some of her meatiest material as Natasha, unable to fully take on board what has happened but determined to make amends. Jeremy Renner has some of the film’s darker material – and confirms that he has always been the heart of the team – with a plot line that hinges on the loss of his family. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is presented in an intriguing new light that both delights and feels like a real rounding up of his character arc.

The eventual plan to underdo the work of Thanos revolves, it’s not a spoiler to say, around Time Travel. With a run, jump and leap the Russo Brothers acknowledge every cliché of time travel lore from dozens of films (Rhodes and Lang at one point hilariously name check virtually every time-travel-based film ever as back-up for their concerns about the mission) before basically throwing it all out of the window by making up its own rules (since, hey, time travel is impossible anyway so why not say all that “you could kill your own grandfather” stuff is bollocks?).

The time travel allows us to fly back into the plots and events of several other Marvel films, principally the first Avengers film, Guardians of the Galaxy and (hilariously considering it might be the worst one) Thor: The Dark World. This flashback structure works extremely well, with our heroes woven neatly into the events of films past – as well as allowing for “unseen” moments from those films to be staged here for the first time.

For a film that, up until now, has dealt with the pain of loss it also makes for a playful series of missions (or at least until one of them turns out to carry huge personal cost) that contrasts really well with the first half. The missions focus on a “heist” structure also gives us the chance for our heroes to work through the demons, often with the help of several (deceased) characters from past films living again (Rene Russo in particular gets easily her best ever scenes in the series as Thor’s mother in the past urging her son to come to terms with his guilt).

All this intelligent and emotional character work, mixed with sequences that are focused less on action and more on adventure and capery means that when we get the inevitable battle scenes at the end of the film – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say most of the film’s final act returns us to the action beats that governed Infinity War – actually feel really earned. Having reminded ourselves why we loved many of these characters in the first place, seeing them fight for good and do incredibly cool things while doing it suddenly feels both really earned and also hugely entertaining. Investment in these action scenes grows from the detailed work earlier.

It’s also a testament to the Russo Brothers direction. I will say right away that while I found part of Infinity War lacking in personality and identity behind the camera, I think I massively overlooked how effortless the Russo brothers make balancing all these plot lines, characters and events seem. Never once does the film seem to dip or droop the ball, and I don’t think there are many directors who could even begin to manage what they achieve here: a fusion of popcorn action with character study, which juggles 20-40 characters at various points. My hat sirs.

Avengers: Endgame is a delightful film. I went into it sceptical after Infinity War left me a little cold, but I needn’t have been so concerned. This is a film that, on its own merits, is almost a sort of masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film that juggled so much – not least the crushing expectation of its fans – and delivered so superbly? Chalk that up as another success for the Russos just turning in a film that the huge fanbase loved. Avengers: Endgame isn’t Citizen Kane – but just as the Russos couldn’t make a film as great as that, you can’t imagine Orson Welles would ever have managed to direct a film like it.

A Star Is Born (2018)

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga excel in A Star is Born, truly one from the heart

Director: Bradley Cooper

Cast: Lady Gaga (Ally Campana), Bradley Cooper (Jackson Maine), Sam Elliott (Bobby Maine), Dave Chappelle (George “Noodles” Stone), Andrew Dice Clay (Lorenzo Campana), Anthony Ramos (Ramon), Rafi Gavron (Rex Gavron), Greg Grunberg (Phil), Ron Rifkin (Carl)

The story of A Star is Born is practically a staple of Hollywood. Bradley Cooper’s film is the fourth version (after 1937, 1954 and 1976) and re-packages the action to the country and western scene. Cooper injects the film with a real seam of emotion and complex, challenging humanity – represented above all by Cooper and Gaga’s searing, heartfelt, beautiful performances.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous country singer, and a self-destructive, if charming, alcoholic. One day, by chance, he stumbles into a bar and overhears a performance by Ally (Lady Gaga), a soulful artist rejected on multiple occasions for a record deal because of her slightly unconventional style and looks. Jackson and Ally form a deep connection and he invites her to perform with him. Their bond grows and Jackson is proud as her career starts to flourish. But this rise is matched by his own increasingly damaging alcoholism and drug addiction which puts his health and their happiness at risk.

A Star is Born brilliantly refocuses the story as a beautiful relationship drama. In previous versions, the man slumps into destructive behaviour due to resentment at the female protégé’s increasing success. Here though, Jackson – despite flashes of jealousy – remains supportive and proud of his wife, and she devoted to him. What Cooper has structured here is a story about the damage of depression and alcohol – and how they can shatter and destroy a person regardless of events in their life.

It also means we get a fresh perspective on an otherwise predictable drama. Having Jackson remain proud and supportive – and increasingly guilt-ridden by the impact his behaviour has on Ally – means we can also remain invested in him. Similarly, it’s hard not to share his feeling that Ally loses something of her beautiful soul as her manager crafts her into a manufactured pop icon. It’s the intrusion of the rest of the world into this couple that puts strain on their relationship, not internal tensions. 

It’s a film in many ways that starts with a happy ending. The early, romantic meetings are beautifully done, the first performance of Shallow (Ally’s song) on stage plays like the fist-pump ending of any number of Cinderella stories. Her protective attraction matched with his old school chivalry in their early relationship is deeply romantic and shows what could be between them. Cooper sprinkles the film with happy endings – you’ll be begging the film to stop at any number of them – and barely a scene goes by that won’t have you choking back tears or watching through your fingers in pained horror at how badly things can go wrong.

It helps that for both leads this was clearly a deeply personal project. Both produce sensational performances. Cooper has talked about his struggles with both alcoholism and depression – and he brings all this deep rooted pain to bear here. Jackson is, in many ways, a wonderful man – caring, supportive and loving – but struggles with demons he can’t control. Cooper’s fragility, his suffering, his gut wrenching guilt and sadness are played beautifully in a performance that truly comes from the heart, and that leaves you wanting to give him a hug.

Lady Gaga is his match in a performance of tender innocence, of gentle humanity and earnestness. Again you sense the story of an unconventional person, with crippling self doubt, more than speaks to her. Gaga’s emotional bravery and commitment here is extraordinary, and you feel again she is showing in this film something very personal and tender to her. The chemistry between the two actors is electric – it’s rare to see two such performances complement each other so perfectly.

These two actors play off each other beautifully, with scenes that are at times hard to watch in their scarring emotional truth. At the same time, the investment of the audience is absolute in this loving relationship. The film also has some excellent performances in the support, not least from Sam Elliott as Jackson’s frustrated, but fundamentally loving, brother.

A Star is Born shocked me. It’s not the film I was expecting, or the story I anticipated. Instead it’s an entertainment industry parable, a love story, a film about the destructive unpredictability of depression and how sometimes love can’t conquer all. With some graceful direction from Cooper and above all his emotional honesty – and the truth of his and Gaga’s performances – this becomes a film that tugs on the heart strings until heart strings break. Beautifully made and wonderful.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Our heroes line up for action in a fun follow-up to a more fun movie

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Vin Diesel (Baby Groot), Michael Rooker (Yondo Udonta), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Kurt Russell (Ego), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Sylvester Stallone (Stakar Ogord)

In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was expected to be Marvel’s first flop: an odd collection of ridiculous looking characters, from a comic book few had ever heard of. Instead, its oddball charm and wit made it one of the most popular in the franchise. This is the tricky second album, which has to deliver more of the same while trying to build on the first film.

Set a few months after the first film, the Guardians are left stranded on an alien planet after a job for elitist race The Sovereign (led by a drily witty Elizabeth Debecki) goes badly wrong. They are saved by Ego (Kurt Russell) who reveals himself as Peter Quill’s long-lost father. Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) follow Ego to his homeworld, while Rocket (Bradley Cooper) stays to repair the ship with their captive Nebula (Karen Gillan). While Ego’s world hides a range of dangers, Rocket and Nebula come under attack from Peter’s former guardian Yondo (Michael Rooker), whose pirates have been hired to capture the Guardians.

First the good things: this is a very entertaining film, packed full of funny lines and entertaining moments, solidly acted (with some stand-outs) by a cast who are able to communicate their enjoyment with the audience watching. Like the best of the Marvel films, it focuses on a core cast and establishes an audience bond with their characters very swiftly, and care about their fate. The focus of the film is actually skewed in favour of character over plot and action, which makes a nice change from many of these films (the action quotient is actually fairly low for a Marvel movie, and a large chunk of the film largely involves spending time with our heroes). It’s also admirable that the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that, to varying degrees, all of our heroes are in some way anti-heroes, or perfectly willing to perform selfish, dangerous or questionable acts for their own immediate gain (even if on the bigger issues their hearts in the right place).

It’s clear what type of movie you can expect right from the opening credits, where the camera focuses on (adorable) Baby Groot dancing to music in close-up, while (out of focus) our heroes combat a space monster in the background, each of them at key moments interacting with Groot in a way that demonstrates their character. It’s a lovely, witty way of opening the movie (perfectly scored to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky) and firmly states that character and personality will be central. Baby Groot is, by the way, possibly the star of the movie, Gunn making sure the character isn’t overused or becomes wearing. The film gets the tone more or less right: it would be easy for this to feel like a private party we’ve been invited to watch, but it just about feels inclusive enough (and avoids smugness or self-satisfaction at its own wit) to remain charming and fun.

The focus is so much on jokes and fun that the actual plot of the movie is a little bit weak: a (predictable) villain reveal is made late-on, seemingly to give the film an antagonist. The actual plot content of the film is pretty lightweight. What plot there is, is nothing new (Daddy issues, spliced with Universe-in-peril) I’d also say that the films length is probably a bit too much – considering not a lot really happens, the film takes a long time to do it – it could do with a bit more discipline in the editing room, and a bit more willingness to trim out some of the material. This is, however, not a major problem –– and the film just gets away with it because it gets the character moments so right you simply enjoy spending time with this group, even if what they are getting up to is little more than a second-rate episode of Star Trek.

Where Guardians 2 falls a little bit flat is the wearily on-the-nose “emotional” sections of the script. While in the first film much of this goes unspoken, here several scenes are featured where the characters carefully spell out their feelings. The most egregious examples are an almost laughably overplayed game of catch between Peter and his Dad, and a terrible “everything spelled out” conversation between feuding sisters Gamora and Nebula. Whenever this film goes near this emotional content, its points land with heavy punches, while coating the content with sticky sentiment that gets “bad laughs” from the audience. The film has plenty of well-crafted and funny impact lines, but its script rushes through the areas where depth is needed, and doesn’t seem to trust the audience to understand the emotions that underlie the bickering between the characters, or that some of them may be tempted to do terrible things to fulfil their emotional needs. Only the final sacrifice of a character really works – and that’s because it is the only emotional connection that is quietly built in the background of the movie, rather than in the foreground.

But that’s probably a movie trying too hard for good reasons, rather than bad. There is more than enough here to recommend the film. Interestingly, Pratt’s Peter Quill is largely sidelined for chunks of the film (the fact that its nominal plot is all about Quill and he feels like a supporting role tells you how weak the plot is) so other members of the cast really stand out. Saldana has a slightly thankless role as the “Big Sister” of the group, but manages to bring a lot of unspoken depth to her role. Bautista provides excellent comic relief as Drax (though his lines are such gifts, it would be hard to screw them up), Baby Groot is very funny, Cooper’s Rocket has a juvenile, rebellious attitude that  that deserves a more interesting subplot. Surprisingly though, the film is repositioned more as a redemption journey for Michael Rooker’s space rogue Yondo, and Rooker delivers a surprisingly emotional performance as a confirmed killer and thief struggling with his conscience. Gunn allows him contemplative moments that really ring true within the chaos of most of the rest of the film, and this feels like one of the best displays of simple “acting” you’ll see in the MCU.

Guardians 2 is not a perfect film, and I suspect its weak plot, predictable and uninteresting villain, and often ham-fisted emotional moments will grate more and more once the exuberance of the ride has worn off on the second or third viewing. But it’s got a lot going for it: genuinely funny jokes, an intention to entertain which it largely succeeds in, some charming performances and enough action in it without letting that overwhelm the film. It’s a roller-coaster rather than a gift that will keep giving, and it lacks the first film’s well balanced plotting and world-building, but it’s entertaining and a great deal of fun (if 20 minutes too long) and the final reel’s sad events do carry an emotional weight (because they are based on largely unspoken feelings) that will stay with you after the film wraps. Not as fun as the first one – but still better than many others.