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
“I’m not going to forget you. Just like you’re not going to forget me.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza feels like a movie from a few decades past, reminiscent of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous with its journey of self discovery in a nostalgic 1970s setting. The ten year age gap between Alana and Gary is uncomfortable — even if Gary is the pursuer, he is just 15 at the outset. Alana’s initial reluctance gives way to jealousy when she sees Gary interested in girls his age, and the inverse would surely be unpalatable. The script is uncritical, seeing Alana as a late bloomer and the coming of age story is really hers, with less of an arc for Gary (who is based on Anderson’s friend, Gary Goetzman). Both leads are newcomers, but display aptitude — Alana Haim conveys much through subtle expressions, whilst Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular Anderson collaborator) exudes a caged energy as the permanently hustling salesman. The storyline meanders, sporadically engaging and running a little too long, although it chooses the right moment to end. I can only assume that nostalgia has a great deal to do with the strength of Licorice Pizza‘s critical reception, not only for its setting but the style of filmmaking. I found myself unable to identify with the characters or to find any depth to their inconsequential journey.
“People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen.”
Where Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, The Shape of Water, featured a mute protagonist, the manipulative Stanton Carlisle is quite the talker. However his larconic introduction, sporting an Indiana Jones silhouette and barely speaking for the opening 20 minutes, allows us to breathe in the 1930s carnival world that lends itself to del Toro’s visual mastery, at once fascinating and unpleasant. When the plot demands that Carlisle’s mentalism act graduates from carnival to cabaret, Nightmare Alley remains sumptuous but can feel hollow. The cast is excellent, with a smattering of star power and a smorgasbord of supporting character actors. Bradley Cooper is on strong form as the noir anti-hero, charming yet greedy, perfectly offset by Cate Blanchett’s underestimated femme fatale — their scenes together are the best part of a deliberately slow burn story that meanders for slightly too long, punctuated with an abrupt jump that makes a well-signposted conclusion less satisfying. Whilst its storytelling can be faulted, Nightmare Alley is never less than vividly captivating.
“Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs. I live off crumbs.”
The true story of how two reunited schoolfriends in their twenties found themselves awarded lucrative arms contracts by the Pentagon is as unsettling as it is absurd. Director Todd Phillips channels Scorsese but falls into the same trap as The Wolf of Wall Street — in striving to entertain, the film inadvertently glamourises what it seeks to criticise. Jonah Hill is excellent as Efraim, inducing revulsion whilst also demonstrating how his partner is drawn in. Unfortunately, David is sketched blandly and — with the story narrated from his perspective — it hamstrings our connection with the subject matter. The human cost of the arms trade lies largely outside the scope of this film (in contrast to the powerful opening of Lord of War), with David’s eventual disillusionment coming from the strain that deception places on his relationships and his safety, rather than from real character growth.