Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Imperium

For F*** Magazine

IMPERIUM

Director : Daniel Ragussis
Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Pawel Szajda, Chris Sullivan
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 49min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language)

imperium-posterDaniel Radcliffe solemnly swears he is up to no good, and that’s putting it very mildly. In this thriller, Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a promising FBI analyst. His superior agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) gives Nate the assignment of infiltrating a Neo-Nazi white supremacist group, in order to foil an impending terror attack. Agent-in-charge Tom Hernandez (Carbonell) thinks that Nate and Zamparo are barking up the wrong tree, but Nate is determined to prove him wrong. Nate fully immerses himself in the role of a skinhead, with the intention of getting close to radio host Dallas Wolf (Letts), whom Nate believes is plotting something big. While he is initially accepted by Vince (Szajda) and his gang, Nate finds himself drawn to Gerry (Trammell), who appears to be a mild-mannered engineer and family man, worlds away from your typical white supremacist thug. At every turn, Nate is in danger of having his cover blown, as he starts to wonder if the risky endeavour was worth it.

Imperium claims to be inspired by real events – it isn’t based on a specific case, but former FBI agent Michael German, who receives a story credit, did have similar experiences on the job. Writer-director Daniel Ragussis makes his feature debut with this gripping film. Imperium invites audiences to not just stare evil in the face, but to dig beneath its skin and see what makes it tick. The scenarios presented are chillingly plausible, and we gain insight into the different facets of the white supremacist movement. The motivations and rationale of these people are established clearly enough. Some of these scenes are heavy on the exposition, but the film stops short of unspooling a manifesto and making the audience read through it line by line. All of the obstacles one imagines Nate might run up against when going undercover do present themselves, but the momentum of the story means it’s easy to overlook some fairly standard procedural plot developments.

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There are a few lines in the screenplay that are unintentionally funny – “we can’t control the ketchup, but we can control the streets” comes to mind (no, we’re not giving any context for that). However, most of the writing is engagingly clever, and it’s evident that Ragussis has given the premise a good amount of consideration. Nate thinks his way out of some truly daunting binds, and we are presented with characters who are very satisfyingly developed. It might be tempting to portray militant racists as one-note monsters or bumbling buffoons, but that would end up quite boring. It’s scarier when we see them as actual people. We learn that there isn’t just one type of white supremacist, and that there are rivalries of ideology even within that community. Imperium details why some would be drawn to the cause, while also acknowledging its danger.

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That’s not to say that Imperium is a work of unparalleled nuance: Ragussis falls back on familiar shock tactics, including sweet-looking children spouting hateful rhetoric. Flashing images of marching hate groups fill the screen, which comes quite close to hitting the audience over the head.

Many child actors dive headlong into eyebrow-raising, ‘adult’ roles in an effort to shake off any potential type-casting. One could dismiss Radcliffe as doing just that, but his varied post-Harry Potter career on the stage and screen shows that he is putting in the work to cement himself as a serious actor. He gives an Oscar-worthy performance here, creating a fully-rounded character whose harrowing journey is easy to go along with. Nate starts out looking like John Oliver Jr., and then goes full skinhead. Not the most drastic physical transformation, but striking all the same. This is an intelligent character who is able to apply what he’s studied to practical use, and who does his homework – there’s a montage of Nate diligently poring over Mein Kampf, Essays of a Klansmen and books of their ilk. He doesn’t look like he’s cut out for undercover work, but goes on to prove that he has a real knack for it. It’s a generalization, but English actors seem to struggle with American accents – we’ll be darned if Radcliffe doesn’t sound really natural here.

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Collette’s Zamparo is the authoritative maternal figure, and she seems to play the role a little too broadly. However, the interactions between Zamparo and Nate do reveal just enough about their respective characters, with a big part of Nate’s motivation being his eagerness to impress his superior. Letts avoids turning his radio host character into a blustery blowhard, and the character is all the more insidious for it. Trammell’s charming turn is disarming – Gerry is the friendly neighbour who builds a treehouse for his kids and throws barbeque parties; his wife makes cupcakes – albeit cupcakes that are decorated with Swastika frosting. The way Gerry views Nate as a potential successor in the movement and the hospitality he shows to Nate provide nail-biting tension cloaked in suburban normalcy.

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Imperium succeeds as a blistering thriller and a searing voyage down some foreboding paths. It may not be terribly complex, but there is a palpable effort to ask difficult questions, and it will give your skin a workout from all that crawling it’ll be doing. A likeable protagonist trying to keep a grip on his sanity as he plunges into the lion’s den ties it all together.

Summary: Placing the audience on the razor’s edge alongside its protagonist, Imperium is an affecting and deeply engrossing thriller boasting a captivating lead performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong