May 2023 Roundup
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by James Gunn // Starring Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillen, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Will Poulter, Chukwudi Iwuji
It’s been six years since the galaxy was last guarded, aside from an infinity war and an endgame, but the Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU’s finest fiends and vagabonds, are back for one last hurrah. Whilst the Guardians franchise (within a franchise) is generally lauded, Volume 2 didn’t quite hit for me, and, with Bautista and Saldana both admitting they were pursuing new opportunities going forward, I couldn’t help but wonder what direction Volume 3 would take. Well, it’s still classic Guardians, James Gunn wasn’t going to rock the boat too much before exiting for the new DCEU, but this time he raises the pathos and emotion by a few notches - especially for the character of Rocket Raccoon (Cooper) as Volume 3 becomes his story. The rest of the gang aren’t shunned, in fact, Bautista’s Drax and Klementieff’s Mantis are given greater development (or in Mantis’ case, something to do finally) whilst Gillan’s Nebula gleefully continues her assimilation into the dysfunctional family, but it’s everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic raccoon (badge, rabbit, squirrel, hedgehog…) who exists as the heart and soul of the movie. His backstory powers the narrative and provides real emotion and stakes in a way the MCU hasn’t successfully executed in a while. However, there is still a big bad, the High Evolutionary (played with LOUD relish by Iwuji), complete with nefarious ideas to create a counter-Earth filled with 'perfect species' and a sub-villain in Will Poulter’s criminally weird Adam Warlock to contend with alongside some roaring third-act action, so the MCU hasn’t given up on its conventions. Whilst the action is strong, especially a climactic hallway massacre, the villains again left something to be desired and the movie often struggled to balance its tones - at times it was classic Guardians fare, and at others, it would be dark, traumatic, overly-serious, or hammy. Gunn just about manages to contain the tones and make them sing, but the pacing and momentum suffer slightly because of this. The final movie of the trilogy again brings some impressive visuals and a banging soundtrack, though, sometimes the songs don’t quite match the scenes they occupy - nothing stands out in a purely negative sense, but the synergy didn’t always feel natural. Fans of the Guardians will be absolutely delighted with the gang's swansong, and I had a good time revisiting the team and their emotional exits. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 isn’t top-tier Marvel but it’s damn solid with some great gags and action throughout. Compared to recent MCU releases, however, it’s a rousing success.
IFC Films // Directed by Matt Johnson // Starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Saul Rubinek, Cary Elwes
At one point in time, it really did seem as if everyone had a BlackBerry. I know I did, my trusty BlackBerry Bold 9900 getting me through the highs and lows of life (mainly thanks to good old BBM). Now, the story of developers Research in Motion (RIM) and BlackBerry, the smartphone that ushered in the technology and changed the cellular world forever, is the subject of a movie - in a year where Cheetos, Air Jordan, and Tetris have all received movies, I really shouldn't be surprised. But surprised I was at hearing the announcement of this project, I mean, was there really a story here? More fool me for not knowing as the story of the rise and fall of BlackBerry is a true cautionary tale - riveting, exciting, and strangely tragic all at once. Matt Johnson’s BlackBerry charts the story of RIM from its origins with co-founders Mike Lazaridis (Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Johnson in an affable role) desperately trying to keep their company afloat to them dominating the technology world and beyond. It’s a story of good intentions and ambition bumping up against corporate devilry and greed in the form of Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie - the man who invested heavily in RIM only to destroy them from within with his shady dealings and desire for profit. Following the lead of The Social Network and Steve Jobs, the movie balances its diverting narratives smoothly - we're witness to the technological angle fronted by Baruchel’s Lazaridis (in possibly his best performance to date) as the company struggles to keep up with unprecedented demand from their relatively small HQ in Hamilton, Ontario and also the frenetic business aspect as we follow Balsillie - fantastically portrayed by Howerton - summoning all of his business ingenue, arrogance, and smarm to secure lucrative deals and the worlds top talent. It’s a combination that works excellently, powered by two fine leads, and, satisfyingly, the movie never meanders through a story that could easily have succumbed to mundanity. There’s a chaotic energy that permeates BlackBerry thanks in no small part to the cinéma vérité style of filmmaking employed by Johnson which really puts the audience in the room with the characters and, at times, allows for some decent dramatic tension - alongside the atmosphere created as the characters hold each other at arm's length throughout. It’s also the decision to focus on the men behind the company rather than the product that allows BlackBerry to really succeed. We get to understand their motivations, we see their changes (specifically Lazaridis), and we’re afforded the chance to see how they all deal with major moments individually and uniquely, and Johnson neatly handpicks the moments we as an audience need to see rather involving unnecessary subplots. BlackBerry is a compelling and richly rewarding experience about a company that, for a while, held the world in the palm of its hands - whilst we may know the outcome, waiting for the implosion has rarely felt so gratifying.
Vertigo Releasing // Directed by Paul Schrader // Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell
Paul Schrader has been on a hot streak in recent years with the magnificent First Reformed and The Card Counter, movies that dealt with conflicted men and their pasts and fears, as well as capitalism, environmentalism, and existentialism in the worlds of religion and gambling. His latest effort, Master Gardener, follows a similar path, narratively and thematically, and plays like the third part of a loosely connected (yet still unconnected) trilogy. As the title suggests, the movie is set against the background of horticulture and gardening and centres on Joel Edgerton's Narvel. Narvel is a man who KNOWS horticulture, an unforthcoming man but one that harbors a mysterious past - a past that, in true Schrader style, we are left waiting to uncover whilst the movie plays out meticulously. Also, in true Schrader style, he is a man who pours his soul into the pages of a diary in a darkened room like Ernst Toller and William Tell before him. Master Gardener is not as sharp or incisive as Schrader's previous two efforts, though there is more of an uplifting tone here, but this is still a Schrader film first and foremost and what he does well, he does very well. The layered messages throughout are clear despite not being as cutting as before, but instead Schrader asks you to buy into Narvel's attempt at atonement as he attempts to guide troubled Maya (Swindell) toward a better life, and, whilst doing so, running full-speed into his dark past. It's an interesting direction for the story to take, but not one that is entirely successful especially in the bond between Narvel and Maya, a bond that was ripe for further review but one that lacked the deft touch of the directors previous works. Both actors, Edgerton and Swindell, provide strong performances alongside Sigourney Weaver's domineering matriarch, Norma, instead the writing fails them at certain moments. The screenplay throughout does not call for concern, however, as there is plenty of profundity on display, and a near-literal nature and nurture argument looming over the entirety of the story, Master Gardener is a movie brimming with intrigue. As the movie goes on, Schrader asks us as the viewer to grapple once again with uncomfortable themes, and, potentially will alienate many with the depiction and arc of Narvel, but Schrader has never been one to take the easy route. Whilst Master Gardener falls short of the levels of quality set in Schrader's previous two offerings in terms of incisiveness, there's still plenty here to continue his winning streak. His next project, though, promises to be a breath of fresh air from this unofficial trilogy - instead becoming an unofficial tetralogy...
Universal Pictures // Directed by Louis Leterrier // Starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Momoa, Charlize Theron, Tyrese Gibson, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel
The family is back for another fast, furious, unfathomable, and unrestricted romp. I won’t rattle on about how this franchise used to be about racing because it’s been done to death and the Fast series is now universally accepted as a crazy, OTT, action-fest. Me? I tolerate the series more than anything, I can’t call myself a fan as…well, the movies aren't great across the board but the series has been going for twenty-two years now so can Fast X prove otherwise? To be honest, no, not really, however…however, for the first half of Fast X, I was having a good time. Sure, it was just as incomprehensible as ever but it hadn’t gone stratospherically stupid at that point - OK, except for the impenetrable bouncing bomb hurtling through the streets of Rome… - though it flowed nicely, and the set up was executed well enough. From the midway point, it all goes crazy and seems dead set on outdoing everything that has come before with the franchise. Helicopters, dams, rivers, rockets, planes, gravity, the Pope - none of it can stand up to the might of a car, or a kayak…or Dom Toretto (Diesel). Superman returns again to uncharismatically lead the family across another global adventure that sees them all become the world’s most wanted terrorists, and it's all part of bad guy Dante Reyes’ (Momoa) plan to DESTROY Toretto once and for all. Though, whilst Vin Diesel lumbers through his performance, desperately trying to add weight to his dialogue whilst sounding like he has a mouthful of toffee, Jason Momoa is full of life and magnetism as the beefy yet effeminate Dante, his character adding some much needed colour and levity to the now-telenovela. If you can breeze past the awful dialogue (“Without honour, you got no family!”...what?) and some wonky CGI, then you’ll enjoy the stunt work and some of the huge setpieces employed throughout - no one can say these movies don’t put in a shift when it comes to spectacle and it's fairly easy to see why these movies are so popular. Fans will be pleased as well with the connectivity with the rest of the franchise, the story picks up, expands or culminates threads from many of the previous Fast movies, and it also clearly sets up the big finale to come - the Endgame for Fast fans is fast approaching. Fast X manages to be bigger and more bonkers than any of the previous entries in the franchise, but it's still a bit rubbish.
The Little Mermaid
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Rob Marshall // Starring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy
After the sheer temerity of casting someone who isn’t white, The Little Mermaid felt like it had an uphill battle to overcome even before its release, such was the uproar from the internet bedwetters. As the next in line from Disney to receive the live action adaptation, what the movie really had to contend with was a fantastic ‘original’ animated movie, a movie that has been beloved since its 1989 release for its songs, visuals, and affable characters. This 2023 version, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), clocks in at over an hour longer than its predecessor with additional songs, scenes and focus on specific characters - but, honestly, these additions really equate to the weaker aspects of the movie. When The Little Mermaid adapts directly from the 1989 feature, the movie is at its strongest - even if it isn’t as dazzling or beguiling - but as we drift from the familiar, Marshall and co. struggle to fill the runtime with anything of any real substance, instead offering narrative strands that do not amount to anything when all is said and done. Where the movie shines is in its lead performance, Halle Bailey wonderfully taking on the role of Ariel, and, whilst her acting is fine, her vocals particularly soar. Classic cuts such as Part of Your World are belted out with genuine spirit and her earnest, innocent performance fits the role like legs on a human. The cast across the board are solid, McCarthy is deliciously hammy in the perfectly cast role of Ursula and Daveed Diggs shines as Sebastian - as Prince Eric, Hauer-King had great chemistry with Bailey, but he is generally so-so otherwise. Whilst the voices of the anthropomorphic sea life are generally strong, the visual aspect is really anything but - Sebastian is caught between reality and fantasy, whereas Flounder looks on the cusp of death. Throughout the movie, the visuals fluctuate from bright and vivid to murky or downright appalling (some of the underwater CG is painful) and it's genuinely frustrating to see such inconsistencies in a big-budget offering from the major studio. Avatar, this ain’t. The reimagining of the songs, also, fall into this category, the reworking of the classics are enjoyable, but the new additions, particularly Prince Eric’s Wild Uncharted Waters is wetter than the sea itself, and far less interesting. It’s these issues that really sum up The Little Mermaid (a strange title, really…one the movie poorly tries to interpret), it’s all just…fine. It never really excels or allows itself to take risks, every feels a bit safe (including the new additions). When it works, The Little Mermaid is enjoyable and entertaining…because those parts are adapting the wonderful animated movie. When the movie doesn’t work, it can be a slog - one that does not justify its overly long runtime. Halle Bailey is a star in the lead role, but the rest of the movie does not live up to her promise.