Tag: Elizabeth Debicki

Widows (2018)

Widows (2018)

Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)

A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).

Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.

It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.

Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).

Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.

The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.

Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.

But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.

The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.

Vita and Virginia (2018)

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki struggle to bring a love story to life in Vita and Virginia

Director: Chanya Button

Cast: Gemma Arterton (Vita Sackville-West), Elizabeth Debicki (Virginia Woolf), Isabella Rossellini (Lady Sackville), Rupert Penry-Jones (Harold Nicholson), Peter Ferdinando (Leonard Woolf), Gethin Anthony (Clive Bell), Emerald Fennell (Vanessa Bell), Adam Gillen (Duncan Grant), Karla Crome (Dorothy Wellesley)

The love affair between Bloomsbury group writers Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) inspired a successful epistolatory play by Eileen Atkins. It’s got all the elements you need for a love story: sadly none of those make their way into this limp, lethargic, languid film which drains any trace of passion from its material.

Where did it all go so wrong? The film expands the plays concept (two actors performing the various letters between the two lovers) into a series of conversations and throws in as characters the other members of the Bloomsbury circle. Sadly, what it fails to do is convey a sense of joi d’vive to any of this. The Bloomsbury crowd not only come across as pompous bores, but they never even really seem to be enjoying themselves. They certainly find it hard to get passionately worked up about any of these marvellous artistic ideas we keep being told they are having. The only thing we really see them talk about is sex, probably because it’s easier to put that on screen than writing.

The failure of the film is increased by the sadly misjudged performances by the two actors at its heart. It’s already a struggle to get any sense of chemistry between these two – I can’t put my finger on why this is, but there isn’t the undefinable ‘spark’ between them. Perhaps it’s partly because they both choose such wildly diverse acting styles, that their scenes never quite click together.

Debicki goes for a stately fragility, mixed with an emo waviness and seems to be playing every scene as if she subconsciously stating “my character committed suicide you know”. Arterton seems to try and compensate for Debicki’s overstated lip wobbling, by going for a jolly hockey-sticks brashness. Neither performance compliments the other and the effect is feeling like two very good actresses feeling constrained in different ways by the material.

It’s not helped by the flatness of much of the filming. I’ve seen Chanya Button’s work elsewhere (notably on television with some great work on WW2 drama World on Fire), but here she seems uncertain how to bring visual interest to this story. Too many scenes are shot with a murky lack of visual interest. Moments of letter reading are presented as the actors addressing the camera. Stylistic flourishes – such as Virginia’s visions of swiftly growing vines at moments of emotion – seem to come out of nowhere and jar with much of the rest of the traditionalism of the rest of the filming.

So instead, two fascinating intellectuals end up coming across as slightly self-absorbed bores in a relationship that never catches fire. Most of the rest of the cast fail to make an impact: Rupert Penry-Jones gets closest as Vita’s husband who oscillates between embracing their open marriage and demanding a wife who will fulfil a more traditional role. But for the rest, it’s hard to get any sense of their personalities with some performances – especially Adam Gillen – tipping too far into gurning comedy.

The general lifelessness of the film is made somehow even worse by the bizarrely left-field score. It’s a strikingly anachronistic slow-paced drum-and-base inspired sound that wouldn’t seem out of place in the late hours of a nightclub. Here it not only feels horrendously out of place – not least because it’s the only anachronistic touch either in the film-making of the performances, which are otherwise scrupulously correct – but it’s incessant throbbing beat actually helps make the film even slower, as if you were watching it in a slightly intoxicated haze.

Vita and Virginia should really have crackled with the vibrancy of the real-life characters and the passion of their love for each other and their shared ideas. Instead it’s a tedious bore that never sparks into life.

Tenet (2020)

John David Washington has to save the world in the tricksy Tenet

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Katherine Barton), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Michael Caine (Sir Michael Crosby), Clémence Poésy (Barbara), Martin Donovan (Fay), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Yuri Kolokolnikov (Volkov)

SPOILERS: I’ll be discussing Nolan’s film, which was kept so secretive, that even revealing what it is about might be considered a spoiler. So if you want to experience the film as intended, watch it first!

Tenet, at this rate the only blockbuster that is going to be released in 2020, was given the mission to save cinema from coronovirus. Match that with the near religious regard Christopher Nolan is held in by fans of cinema, and you had a major cinematic event on your hand. Is Tenet the second coming of cinema? Well of course not. But it is an enjoyable, if frustratingly tricksy, film shot on a jaw-dropping scale. If you ever had any doubt about whether Nolan grew up watching Kubrick intermixed with James Bond, this film dispels it.

Our entry point in the story is an unnamed character – he calls himself The Protagonist of the operation – played by John David Washington. A CIA agent, left critically injured after an operation at the Kiev Opera, is recruited to work for a mysterious organisation, Tenet. He discovers that Tenet is dedicated to preserving mankind in a war that is taking place across time. The tools of this war are “inverted” bullets and other materials. These bullets both backwards through time – explosions reform and bullets return to the guns that fired them. The Protagonist discovers that the inversion bullets are being funnelled through arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is working with a faction from the future, planning to invert time in order to save their world from destruction. Sator also has access to machines that can invert people, allowing them to move physically backwards through time giving him huge advantages in forging his empire and in collecting the components of a time-inverting super weapon that will destroy all life in our present and past.

Confused? Well as characters frequently say throughout the film – don’t think about it too much. I’ve seen Nolan’s epic twice. It’s a film that revolves around Temporal Pincer Movements – military tactics that use normal and inverted people moving backwards through time. The “forward” team lives through the events. The “Inverted” team move backwards, seeing events from the end backwards, supplying real-time information to the forward team. Those carrying out a Temporal Pincer Movement know the exact timeline of what is to happen and are therefore almost unbeatable.

Watching the film twice, I realise it places the viewer in the same position. First time I was lost in the maze of the film’s rushed explanations, hand-waved time mechanics and confused by working out who was inverted and who wasn’t at any one time. Watching the film a second time, knowing the plot, I did a Temporal Pincer Movement on it myself – my “past self” who knew basically how the film ended, helped my second viewing self to understand what was happening.

So you’ve kinda got to watch it twice to understand it properly. Or at least to begin to. Second time around you also know which details are important and which to ignore, which explanations are crucial to its understanding and which are not. Second time around I noticed a lot more how characters, such as Clémence Poésy’s scientist, who introduces inversion, stress “don’t think about it too much”. The science of it all is basically a red-herring. There is talk of various predestination and grandfather paradoxes (as you might expect in a world where the future is plotting to destroy the past). Again, second time around I realised: don’t worry about it too much. 

So the question is, will people rush to see the film a second time around to understand it better? I’m not entirely sure they will. And I think that’s because, unlike Nolan’s other films, Tenet lacks heart. Here’s a man who has been praised for the ingenuity of his films going a little too far. Look back at Nolan’s other films and underneath the trickery and “timey-wimey” there is a core of a beating human heart. Inception and Interstellar, at heart, are about a man trying to reunite with his children. Memento, a man mourning the loss of his wife. Dunkirk, frightened young men trying to get home. In Tenet, there is none of this. It’s literally a film about time-scheneanigans with a huge Macguffin at the middle that will wipe out the world. The Protagonist is just what who he seems, a character who (engagingly played as he is by John David Washington, very good) we feel so little connection with that you could easily not notice we don’t learn his name.

It’s this lack of heart that really weighs the film down. How much can we really care in the end about a world-ending Macguffin so briefly explained, we just take it on trust that it’s bad? Tenet is burdened by Nolan’s slightly-too-pleased-with-itself cleverness, as events are played and replayed from multiple angles throughout the film, in a way that demands repeat viewings rather than giving the first-time viewer more knowledge in each scene. If you fall for this sort of thing, then you will fall hard. But, Nolan’s other mega-hits charmed viewers because they cared about the characters at its heart, not the elaborate tricks about time and memory. We wanted to see DiCaprio find his kids, we wanted those boys on the beach to get home – and people were happy to let other things wash over them slightly, because the emotion was how they interpreted the story. Without that heart, the film is a massive, showy trick – and a bit empty as a result.

Which isn’t to say that Nolan doesn’t shoot the hell out of it, or that the scope of it isn’t incredible. It’s where his Bond influence comes in. Because while half the time, he’s paying homage to Kubrick’s mastery and precision – or wonderfully, with its early scene of objects moving backwards and thick rubber gloves, Cocteau’s Orphée – the other half is straight out of Roger Moore. Massive bases. Huge car chases. Big shoot-outs. A Russian villain who could have walked out of Spectre and straight into the film. Flemingesque touches with the hero infiltrating the villain’s world, taking part in a sport with him. A woman at the middle who has a foot in the camps of both hero and villain. This is all Moore-era Bond, repackaged with a sprinkling of PhD Physics.

If there is a heart in the film, its Elizabeth Debicki’s abused wife of Kenneth Branagh’s lip-smacking villain. The film’s most effective character scenes revolve around this pair, and the destructive, possessive ‘love’ of Branagh’s Sator, a man must possess or destroy a person. The film captures neatly the perverted “love” Sator claims to have for a woman he abuses, beats and terrifies – and Debicki beautifully captures the mix of shame, hate and fear people in such situations often feel. Nolan must have enjoyed BBC’s The Night Manager, as Debicki repackages her role from that film almost exactly, but given the most emotional and heartfelt plotline in the film, she becomes the one character you really care about and invest in. A better film might have put her even more front and centre.

Instead though, the action around time dominates, with Nolan’s brilliantly mounted action scenes that mix forward and backward motion with staggering (and seamless) effect. It’s yet another reason to see the movie twice. The film is big, loud and demanding – often too loud, with dialogue frequently drowned out (a problem you notice less second time around when you have a much better idea about when to concentrate and when to look away). The cast do terrific work. Washington is very assured as the lead, playing with wit and grace. Debicki is a stand-out. Robert Pattinson brings a quirk and originality to a role that has very little to it on paper. Branagh has been more controversial for his Bond-tinged Russian baddie, but I found a chilling horror in his domestic abuse and selfishness that works extremely well (again particularly second time around). Pattinson brings a playfulness to an underwritten role.

Tenet may not rework cinema – and I doubt it would make a top five list of Nolan’s best films – it’s bold and challenging, if a little cold and heartless. While demanding a double viewing, it’s not quite clear if it will make you long to see it again too quickly. But if you take the effort to do so, you will find a film that grows on you more with repeated viewing – and reveals its deliberately impenetrable mysteries much better.

The Man From UNCLE (2015)

Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill try, and fail, to get some zing out of The Man From UNCLE

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Henry Cavill (Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (Ilya Kuryakin), Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria Vinciguerra), Jared Harris (Adrian Sanders), Hugh Grant (Alexander Waverly), Luca Calvani (Alexander Vinciguerra), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Christian Berkel (Udo Teller), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.was a 1960s TV spy caper series, which I confess I’ve never seen an episode of but I’m reliably told (by my wife who has) that it’s all larks and fun. This Guy Ritchie remake, on the other hand, is a tonal mess that has no idea what the hell it is. Only Hugh Grant gets anywhere near to appearing in a caper movie – probably because he’s virtually the only member of the cast who might have grown up watching the original series.

Anyway, in the early 1960s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an international master-thief turned CIA agent (this suggests his character is a whole lot more fun than he actually is). Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB super-agent, dealing with issues of psychosis (yup more fun to be had there). This odd couple are ordered to team up and work with car mechanic (no seriously) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is working with renegade Italian fascists, led by femme fatale Victoria Viniciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), to build a new nuclear mastery over the world. Or something.

It should be a ridiculous, overblown, mix of Bond and high 60s camp. Instead it’s dreary, chemistry-free, largely uninvolving sub-Mission: Impossible high jinks that I’m not ashamed to say I dozed off during at one point. Would that I had slept through more of it. It’s quite damning when the most enjoyable thing about it is thinking about the accent Olympics going on (we have a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian, a Swede playing a German, an Australian playing an Italian, an Irishman playing an American…).

No matter which way the three leads are arranged, Cavill, Vikander and Hammer have no chemistry at all in any combination. There is precisely zero bromance between the two leads. Vikander and Hammer have a will-they-won’t-they romance that comes from absolutely nowhere and leads nowhere (set up for sequels that will never come). Cavill looks the part, but completely lacks the cheeky, self-confident, “I’m-enjoying-all-this” charm that the part requires – instead he’s flat and boring. Hammer has more of the winking-at-the-camera cool, but he’s saddled with a part that frequently requires him to burst out in hotel-room-trashing outbursts of anger. Vikander just looks a bit bored with the whole thing.

These rather joyless characters go through a series of action set pieces, none of which got my pulse racing, and all of which felt like off cuts from a lousy Mission: Impossible sequel. Car chases, fisticuffs, gun fights, explosions, boat chases – they all tick by with no wit or pleasure involved anywhere. In these sort of things, you need to feel the characters are such adrenaline junkies that they sorta enjoy the crazy antics they get thrown into – you don’t get any of that from these three.

Much as I like Elizabeth Debicki, she can do little with her underwritten part – I mean I get that the plot isn’t the main thing in a film like this, but they could have at least given our villain a character. Instead she is as cardboard cut-out as the rest of the storyline. The acting from the bulk of the cast is also really odd – some seem aware they are in a tongue-in-cheek spy film, others seem to think they are in an espionage thriller. It’s a mess. There are scenes of pratfall comedy followed by grim scenes of torture and violence. In one juddering moment of this spy romp, the flipping Holocaust is dragged in as a shorthand for identifying a character as an “ultimate villain” – which given he had our hero strapped to a chair and was about to torture him, I think we could all have worked out without exploiting genocide. Anyone else think pulling this appalling real world event (with photos!) into a stupid caper movie is really tasteless? Did no one watch this thing while it was being edited?

I will say the design is pretty good and it’s well shot. But compare this to the fun and games of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (which this is obviously trying to emulate) and the total lack of chemistry at its heart becomes immediately clear. Hugh Grant is a complete relief when he turns up as he’s the only actor who actually looks like he is enjoying his part and wants to be there. It was a big box office bomb and it’s no surprise. No one is having fun, the spirit of the original series seems to have been completely lost, and the lead actors totally fail to bring the leading-man pizzazz the film needs. Perfect if you want a nap.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

“Hello old sport”: Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jack Thompson (Dr Walter Perkins), Adelaide Clemens (Catherine)

The Great Gatsby is possibly the great American novel. I’ve only read it once, but I certainly admired its beautiful prose, capturing of an era of American life and understanding of the fragility behind America’s love of success. Baz Luhrmann is clearly a fan, as he spent years putting together this passion project, presenting the biggest, brashest version of Fitzgerald you are ever going to see.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young writer turned bonds salesman in 1920s New York. He lives across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brash old-money man carrying on an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of his garage mechanic. Carroway’s next-door neighbour is the sumptuously wealthy, but mysterious, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose parties and generosity are legendary. As Carraway gets to know Gatsby (as much as anyone can), he discovers that Gatsby has a deep, near obsessive, love for Daisy.

Luhrmann’s film is a technicolour explosion that uses many of the techniques you’ll be familiar with from any of director’s other films. The camera is a whirligig of motion. The colours are bright and primary. The whole tone of the film (certainly for its first hour) is larger than life. The narrative has been tweaked to take on the tone of a Greek Tragedy, with the loud noise, fast camera moves and speedy pace all inverted in the latter half to invoke sadness and tragedy. And of course, the music is deliberately anachronistic, mixing modern genre music with 1920s sounds.

Sometimes this high-budget technicolour brilliance does feel like it is partly getting in the way of the deeper themes that lie within the original. But that might be partly because the novel’s themes are so reliant on internalised feelings, unsaid or guessed emotions, and deeply purple prose, that these are ideas which are very hard to translate to the screen.

There is something to be said for Luhrmann turning one of the pillars of 20th-century American culture into a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge!. And Moulin Rouge! is what the film strongly resembles, not only in design, but its romantic structure, poetic retelling, high drama, sense of impending doom and danger behind the bright lights, assault on class and the way it stands in the way of true love, and the lack of freedom in our lives. Both even have sad, reflective authors book-ending events.

So your enjoyment of the film is probably going to depend on how you feel about Luhrmann’s OTT style. Love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Julietand you will probably find something to enjoy here (and you’ll also notice his love of tragic love stories). Saying that, of those three, Gatsby is the one the carries the least depth to it, which is intriguing as it probably mines the most psychologically rich source material. While Luhrmann understands that the book is about the real emotions masked by explosive parties and opulence – the film often feels as choked by these things as the characters do.

This is partly because I feel both Maguire’s and Mulligan’s performances don’t quite work. Maguire is so stripped back, quiet and passive he almost disappears – you don’t get a sense of Carraway as either a shrewd observer or someone wrapped up in events: instead he’s a passenger, like the plot contrivance Gatsby sometimes treats him as. Similarly, Mulligan is slightly overwhelmed by the movie, not giving a strong enough performance for her to break through. The film powers forward with such momentum and brashness, it squashes her.

It’s probably why the most successful lead performance by far comes from DiCaprio. He’s perfectly cast as Gatsby: so good in fact you wish he was in a more thoughtful, relaxed film that would give him a more of a chance to breathe. DiCaprio perfectly encapsulates the desperation just beneath Gatsby’s surface, the fear and uncertainty that lies under his suave urbanity. He completely gets the character, understands he is a showman presenting a front to the world because that’s what he thinks the world wants, but who is, in his own way, as empty and lost as the world of bright lights he is offering people. It’s an excellent performance.

Luhrmann’s work with DiCaprio is what gives the film it’s centre and, for all the colour, noise and joy of the first 40 minutes or so, it finds its heart in the moments of acting and character interplay as the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom love triangle comes to a head. This scene, with its bubbling emotions, high stakes and tension is like an oasis of calm in the high-faluting scenery that surrounds it. But then this is a film where the smaller moments actually come across as richer than the larger ones – partly helped by the fact that Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki both give excellent performances as the key supporting characters. 

The Great Gatsby captures the feel of Fitzgerald rather well, but for all the dialogue of the book placed over the film in voiceover, it never quite manages to capture the spirit of the book in the same way. It looks wonderful, and its dynamic filming is certainly enjoyably impressive, but it doesn’t quite become a film that deals in emotions and depth. It flashes and fizzles but it never lets us really soak in its ideas and themes. It’s all too much at times, and the tragic sadness at the heart of the story, of this lost boy trying to live the life of a man, never comes out as it should. An interesting and entertaining film, but not one that will last.

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.