From its downbeat opening with no sudden reset following the Infinity War, there is a sense of finality to Guardians Vol. 3, a rarity in comic book movies that serves to heighten threats as characters are stripped of impenetrable plot armour. Where Vol. 2 explored Quill’s origins, Vol. 3 focuses on Rocket with flashbacks to the cruel animal experimentation that created him (featuring the sweetest otter committed to film). Unfortunately the conceit that makes this relevant leaves Rocket separated from the team for much of the film, negatively affecting their dynamic particularly during action sequences — the smashy action is a far cry from the creativity Gunn unleashed in The Suicide Squad, and it is only in a corridor fight near the end of the film that we finally see the musically choreographed teamwork that elevated previous Guardians volumes. The Guardians are in their element during rollicking galaxy-traversing adventure and there is plenty here, which allows them to avoid the malaise of mediocrity that has characterised Marvel’s recent output. There are visually inventive new locations like a bio-engineered space lab, but also disappointing choices like the mundane (and nonsensical) Counter-Earth. Uneven pacing arises from a combination of the long running time, the repetitive flashback structure and the introduction of two antagonists — the egomaniacal High Evolutionary is driven by a single obsession whilst Adam Warlock, whose introduction was teased at the end of the previous film, is relegated to a background presence repeatedly crashing through walls. Gunn’s greatest skill is allowing emotional beats to resonate even within a comedic framework and, as he leaves Marvel to become DC’s Kevin Feige, this is a fitting send-off to a team that is unlikely to be seen in the same form again (I could have done without the perfunctory post-credit sequences). The Guardians trilogy has always been about family and loss, Vol. 3 capitalising on long-running arcs that allow characters to grow and find acceptance through letting go of their respective pasts.
MCU Phase 5: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 | The Marvels | Captain America: New World Order | Thunderbolts | Blade
“If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours.”
Todd Field’s third film, after 15 years of unrealised projects, is an astonishing work of psychological intrigue and majestic musical performance that never speaks down to its audience, instead trusting the viewer to engage and form an opinion. Blanchett is perfect as the troubled maestro, fictional conductor-composer Lydia Tár, internationally renowned yet manipulative and domineering. From the marketing, one would be forgiven for believing Tár is a biopic, and some female conductors have bemoaned the choice not to shine a light on the rare women at international-level conducting. From the interview that opens the film, it is clear that Field’s focus is not on Tár as a female conductor but on the dynamics of identity and power. She wants to be judged on her skills in isolation, berating a Juilliard student’s identity politics in expressing distaste for composers with problematic pasts, yet her hypocrisy emerges a few scenes later when she adopts the same approach in discussing Schopenhauer. The central use of Mahler’s work is deliberate, given his own abuse of power in restricting his wife’s work as a composer. By writing Tár as a lesbian, making both the perpetrator and potential victims female, Field forces the viewer to remove misogyny from the equation (notwithstanding the overtly masculine traits conveyed through Blanchett’s body language and her wardrobe). Field deliberately obscures the facts of Tár’s past indiscretions, and it is unclear whether her latest protégé is a matter of lust, an exercise of control over her orchestra, or powerlessness before the effect of her music. As allegations of impropriety undermine Tár’s position (some have reductively labelled Tár a film about “cancel culture”), Field examines the fragility of power in the current climate when pitted against the greater power of public perception. The final act subverts climactic expectations but leaves an indelible impression.
“Human emotions are like works of art. They can be forged.”
Originally titled The Best Offer on release, the newer title Deception is blunter but more thematically descriptive of writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore’s study of a lonely art expert who becomes intrigued by a reclusive heiress and a collection of clockwork components in her possession. Geoffrey Rush draws out Virgil Oldman’s contradictions: he is fastidious but capable of kindness, he takes pride in his professionalism yet deceives clients about the veracity of certain artwork so he can acquire it cheaply. Sylvia Hoeks is mysterious and alluring despite being restricted to acting with her voice alone for half the film. Tornatore conjures atmosphere effectively, but his allegory comparing human interaction and artistic immitation is ponderously repetitious and lacks real substance. Nor can the quality of the acting save the story with a twist telegraphed so frequently that it becomes frustrating. Deception is heavily atmospheric, aided by Fabio Zamarion’s beautiful cinematography that, like the protagonist, can be both aloof and intimate, with grand shots like Oldman’s illicit collection of portraits dwarfing him as they gaze down. As an atmospheric character study Deception works, then, but that leaves a considerable balance that does not.
“People remember The Artist for the way he murdered and preserved six women.”
Det. Jake Doyle
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a troubled detective, haunted by the past, turns to a convicted serial killer for insight when faced with a spate of copycat killings. Though it may immediately conjure The Silence of the Lambs, tonally Mindcage is most reminiscent of 1998’s Fallen, complete with religious allusions to angels. The resin-coated cadavers, exquisitely decorated and posed in angelic transfigurations, provide Mindcage’s most arresting images but this is a touch of gloss on derivate predictability. Martin Lawrence commits fully but is out of his element in a serious role as a detective burdened by evident PTSD that is not fully explored. John Malkovich is reliably unsettling but The Artist poses no threat to Hannibal Lector’s place amongst the most memorable villains. Meanwhile Roxburgh is capable but given little do beyond providing the audience’s perspective. Mindcage will be enough to appeal to a niche crowd; for most, I would suggest revisting Fallen instead, an equally bleak film that has undergone a re-evaluation in the years since its release.
After her brief, scene-stealing role in No Time To Die, Ana de Armas has been catapulted to the status of action lead, whilst Chris Evans steps back as the hapless everyman. A romcom action adventure about a farmer who discovers his one night stand is a CIA agent, Ghosted opens inauspiciously with a meet cute more awkward than romantic, and a man unable to recognise his stalkerish behaviour even when directly pointed out by his sister. Red flags aside, any romance is doomed by the independently charismatic leads’ palpable lack of chemistry. From the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland, one might expect a deft blend of violence, emotion and humour but Ghosted instead delivers tonal whiplash as it jumps from Cole’s distress at killing a man to petty “comedic” squabbling in a matter of seconds. Aside from a climactic fight in a revolving restaurant, there is nothing memorable about the action save for the decision to set it to upbeat pop songs — this is palpably a gimmick with none of the creative choreography of last year’s Bullet Train. There is some mild, mindless entertainment to be had with Ghosted but you’re better off taking the hint and moving on: there are plenty more films in the c-inema.
“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”
At a time when Churchill has rightly been undergoing a reevaluation, Darkest Hour disappointingly skirts any controversial topics by focusing on a few weeks at the start of his premiership, deciding as France falls whether to engage in peace talks with Germany. In a masterful, Oscar-winning performance, Gary Oldman entirely disappears into Churchill’s visage, aided by prosthetics but sold through the physicality of his mannerisms and intonation. It is a complex portrayal that incorporates the irrascible man of words, iconically defiant against the odds, but also a privately wavering man, weakened by alcoholism, and a man who lied to the British people in his first broadcast as prime minister. The film constructed around it, however, is the most banal patriotism, content simply to deify him as a rousing orator. Most jarring is a transparently fabricated sequence in which Churchill rides the underground to seek the public’s opinion, his Macaulay quotation completed by a black Londoner in a rose-tinted portrayal of multiculturalism and British fearlessness. It is saccharine Oscar-bait, and undermines the verisimilitude that pervades much of Darkest Hour. The cinematography suits the title, scenes grimly bathed in shadow and desaturated, frequently near-monochrome, much occuring within the confines of the subterranean War Rooms. There are brief sequences of war in France, and Joe Wright revisits the Dunkirk evacuation (though never in so striking a fashion as his astonishing long take in Atonement). In Wright’s hands, this is all highly competent and compelling filmmaking but, Oldman’s peformance aside, Darkest Hour is a hagiography that serves little purpose with no fresh perspective.
“That is your distinguishing feature: total blandness.”
Chained For Life brings not only a delightfully surreal tone, but a playfulness with the cinematic form that is increasingly rare. Its anachronistic use of opening credits leads into a film set, where a low budget movie is being shot in an old hospital. Writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s clear intention is to satirise the obsession with beauty and perfection in both filmmakers and audiences, populating the fictional film’s extras with circus sideshow performers who are left in the hospital when the others retire to a hotel each night. This is filtered through the perspective of the film’s star, Mabel — she cannot stomach being around a woman playing a disfigured version of her character, though she finds herself drawn to the charming Adam Pearson as her shy co-star Rosenthal (the character shares his neurofibromatosis). Rosenthal understands his appearance makes him an outsider even as others over-correct, feigning that it makes no difference — in one excruciating scene Mabel, believing herself to be helpful, blithely demonstrates emotive expressions that his face cannot mimic. Schimberg creates deliberate confusion as to when we are watching the film within a film, as seemingly candid conversations are exposed as artificial only when the scene is cut and reset. Movie aficionados will enjoy liberally peppered references from Tod Browning’s Freaks to The Muppet Movie. Although Chained For Life’s fluid reality may not appeal to everyone, by fully embracing its absurdist sensibilities Schimberg has produced a wonderfully idiosyncratic fable.
“I don’t know anything about you except that you abused me.”
Content Warning: child sexual abuse
Rooney Mara delivers an utterly absorbing performance as Una, a woman who has decided to confront the man who sexually abused her as a teenager, in an effort to understand and reclaim her past. David Harrower’s script delves into shades of grey in the emotions and motivations of the pair, but not in culpability — even Ray makes no attempt to justify his actions, only to contextualise his feelings, a fine line that Ben Mendelsohn deftly navigates through quiet chemistry with Mara. Una is deeply uncomfortable to watch, and there is a disparity between the memories recalled in conversation and the flashbacks to a fragile thirteen-year-old, ensuring the viewer never loses sight of the victim. Most remarkable about this translation from stage to screen is its use of space and light. The conversations between Ray and Una shift between rooms in a deliberately sparse warehouse with only artificial light: clinically white when the lights are on, and shrouded in darkness when off. This lighting parallels Ray’s past being dragged into the harsh light, yet he often finds it easier to admit to concealed truths in the dark. Throughout the middle section of the film, Ray’s colleagues relentlessly search the building for him, a metaphor for his past catching up with him. Whilst this adds a sense of urgency, the dialogue flounders as the conversation becomes repetitive. The final third of the film shifts to other locations which is necessary to push the story forward, but in the process loses some of the caged tension that drove the film. It allows us to appreciate how prison was finite punishment for Ray but it provided no closure to Una’s relationship with him, this inability to move on leaving her emotionally stunted, using promiscuity in an artificial attempt to reassert control.
“And all that damage we leave behind. All those lives. All those empty rooms. What were they even for? You have asked yourself that question? Why we do what we do?”
Adapted from a John le Carré novel inspired by the abduction and rendition from Germany of the innocent Murat Kurnaz, this is an old-fashioned slow burn thriller that could be criticised for its meandering nature were its explosive conclusion not so purposive and memorable. A Most Wanted Man is obliquely critical of American foreign policy and overreach, whilst exploring the moral conflicts on a personal level for both those in the intelligence services and those who cooperate with them. One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, released shortly after his death, he delivers a powerful central performance as an agent doggedly pursuing a terrorist financier whilst trying to protect his investigation from intervention by the local police or the USA. The focal point is a Chechnian fugutive who might be a refugee or a terrorist, an angle that remains relevant a decade later as refugees continue to be treated with suspicion. Rachel McAdams provides the counterpoint as a lawyer aiding the dispossessed, with Willem Dafoe the neutral banker caught unwillingly in the middle, though the film’s coldly clinical perspective limits our connection with any of the characters. A Most Wanted Man lacks the flair and intrigue of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — for me the quintessential Le Carré adaptation — but it asks more pressing political questions.
“I feel closer to my father with his books than with him. Each book is a touch of colour. All together, they form his portrait.”
Léa Seydoux is poignant and engaging in this exploration of love in its familial and romantic forms. Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve introduces us to Sandra at a pivotal point of loss and gain — her father fading to a neuro-degenerative syndrome whilst she kindles an illicit romance with an old friend. The ebb and flow of these aspects forms One Fine Morning’s pacing. Pascal Greggory’s performance is moving yet understated, an academic painfully aware of his deterioration and yet docile rather than defiant in the face of being bounced between hospitals and care homes. A single mother, Sandra’s most stable relationship is with her young daughter; the others feel fragile — her father is disappearing and her mother’s support feels finite, whilst her lover is indecisive about his marriage. The camera sits with Seydoux through the inner turmoil of Sandra’s relationships, trusting the viewer to interpret what remains unsaid or, in her father’s case, misspoken. One Fine Morning ends abruptly in a way that is momentarily dissatisfying but, with hindsight, feels more appropriate for its naturalistic tone than providing artificial catharsis — love is a continuing, enduring experience that lacks a neatly identifiable climax or conclusion.