Saturday 20 May 2023

REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3


It's been a long old wait for the third Guardians film; six years since Volume 2, thanks to Disney's decision to fire James Gunn for decade-old shitty jokes, then realising they'd made a huge mistake and hiring him back. Years after revealing he had the story ready for the final film in the trilogy, and after the place-marker of the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special to keep us going, Gunn delivers a film which rounds out the story beautifully, while giving us something quite unlike the previous Guardians films. 

Of course, Gunn's off to DC now to run their movie universe, in a move that's both promising for the future and depressing in the crushing inevitability of another reboot. In spite of a post-credits tagline that informs us that "Star-Lord will return," Chris Pratt's statements on the subject are contradictory, most of the main cast has had enough, and if we do have another appearance by the Guardians, it'll look very different from what we're used to.

Volume 3 provides closure for most of the main characters, new beginnings for others, and, surprisingly, is ultimately Rocket's story. Quill gets to run the show and move the plot onwards, and gets to mature at long last, but everything he and the others do is in the service of Rocket's story. The bizarre little critter is barely involved in the mian plot until the final act, but his backstory drives everything. In spite of what the others say, he has tried to tell us about his origins before, in a sudden, devastating outburst in Volume 1, that showed us there was more to Rocket than just an angry cartoon character with a gun. While Gunn wasn't keen on some of the choices made for his characters in the Avengers films, the Russo Brothers realised that Rocket and Nebula were not only of a type, but the strongest characters from the Guardians team, and therefore the ones that survived the Snap to continue fighting.

I've never really rated Bradley Cooper the way others have, but his voice performance as Rocket has been phenomenal from the start, giving the character more depth than anyone could have anticipated. (Credit also has to be given to Sean Gunn, James's everpresent brother and Kraglin actor, for providing the motion capture performance for the raccoon.) Adapting the backstory established for the character in the comics, already somewhat disturbing, James Gunn creates quite the most affecting and distressing origin story for any character in the MCU. There's an unexpectedly strong vein of horror running through the film, not least in Rocket's upsetting backstory, linked here, in an excellent move, to Marvel's very own Dr. Moreau, the High Evolutionary.

I've spoken before about how most Marvel films are basically cartoons, and Volume 3 is meets this description more than most. Like Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania, it's a visual spectacular, with Disney-Marvel's tireless and under-appreciated visual effects team bringing to life the bizarre realms of Gunn's imagination and Marvel's back-catalogue. More so, the most effective scenes revolve around the trials of four CGI animals which could have made a powerful short filmin their own right. The design, animation and vocal performance of the animals are truly remarkable, creating characters which are monstrous yet endearing, and incredibly sympathetic. As well as Cooper and Sean Gunn (as the odler and younger Rockets respectively), there are amazing performances by Linda Cardellini (in her second MCU role as Lylla the otter), Kevin Michael Richardson as Teefs and Mikaela Hoover as the heartbreaking augmented rabbit, Floor.

One of James Gunn's skillsis taking the hokiest, most absurd ideas in comics and making them work on the big screen, from Wal Rus to Cosmo the Spacedog (finally a fully realised character who works as a sort of reflection of Rocket's story, with a fine voice performance by Maria Bakalova). The High Evolutionary is a creepy character, but also a deeply silly one, yet here, under the eye of Gunn and a truly exceptional performance by Chukwudi Iwuji make him into the best villain the MCU has seen for some time. There's nothing sympathetic about this character; he is simply arrogant, ruthless and cruel, and his unwavering self-belief helps sell the reality of what should be very silly ideas like Counter-Earth and the Halfworlders. Iwuji threatens to steal his every scene, and I find myself wondering if perhaps he should have been cast as Kang and had the chance to come back time and again.

This storyline almost makes it easy to overlook the progression of the other Guardians. Chris Pratt might be becoming annoying in cinematic everpresence, but he remains perfectly cast as Quill, and this film sees him get the chance to develop the character in a more mature direction at last. Zoe Saldana is as good as ever as Gamora, and clearly having a ball playing a more ruthless version from before the Guardians softened her up. Gamora has basically swapped places with Nebula, who, having finally moved past the abuses of Thanos (and had many years longer to deal with her hang-ups than the others), is a more rounded character, with Karen Gillan giving another brilliant performance. Om Klementieff and Dave Bautista remain a wonderful double-act as Mantis and Drax, both now able to move onto new stages in their lives. Drax, in particular, is a character who needed more development; his story is, after all, brutal and tragic, and he gets to be more than the comic relief this time round. Groot is Groot, and he's as entertaining as ever.

As always, Gunn peppers the film with his favourite actors, and although some of them are hidden in vocie roles, Nathan Fillion finally gets to appear in the MCU in a full and recognisable role. Will Poulter does well as the childlike superbeing Adam Warlock, but to be honest, his inclusion is one character too far. There isn't really room for his story and that of the Sovereign here, even with their reworking to be linked to the High Evolutionary. It's well known that Gunn has been trying to get Warlock into the series for a while, and this feels like he was forced in as it was his last opportunity. Nonetheless, he could work well in the future with more room to breathe, which the film seems to be setting up.

Volume 3 comes together as a expansive cosmic adventure that, in spite of its huge scope and the millions of lives in the balance, has a very small scale story at its heart: the rescue and understanding of a friend. Along the way, it explores the horrors of vivisection, ethnic cleansing and war, and the importance of family and compassion. A fine end to the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy.

Saturday 6 May 2023

REVIEW: Renfield

 (I'm not going to get to see many films in the old kinematic theatre this year, what with the baby and all, so when I do get to see one I'm going to try to review it, at least within the first month of seeing it.)

The first thing to say is that Renfield is trash. Absolute schlock, orgy of gore trash. It's basically a Troma film, but with a budget. It's absurd, over-the-top, and almost offensively gruesome. Pure gornography.

This is, of course, entirely the point. Had he been able to get away with it, you can bet Tod Browning would have made his Dracula more graphic. Not as graphic as this, obviously, but he pushed the envelope as much as he could in 1931. I'm still baffled by the ratings system these days; this is the goriest film I've seen in a while and it's only a 15 certificate. That's the nature of it, though. Although this is a sequel to the 1931 Dracula, it's also a horror film designed for the sensibilities of an audience watching almost a century later. Plus, it's an outright comedy (unlike the 1931 film, which, although inarguably a hugely important production in cinema history, was often inadvertently laughable). The gore and violence reach levels that are so utterly over-the-top that they become cartoonishly ridiculous.

The two Nicks, Hoult and Cage, are perfectly cast as Renfield and Dracula respectively. Explicitly the same versions of the characters played by Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi in 1931, thanks to some beautifully reacreated and digitally altered scenes from the original, they don't play them in the same way. After all, this would be hard to make work in 2023. Hoult has the harder job, making the insane Renfield of the original a three-dimensional character who we can believe as a hero, and he does an excellent job. It's Cage who steals the show, as he always does, with a performance that I can best describe as Nic Cage playing Mike Myers playing Bela Lugosi playing Dracula. He's a perfect balance of true horror and uninhibited camp.

Awkwafina is great as Rebecca, the one honest cop in New Orleans. (This film is savagely anti-cop; the entire NOPD/PDNO is corrupt except her, working for the mob. Apparently, it really is one of the worst police forces in America, which is saying something.) She plays the same character she generally plays, but that makes for a great foil for the uptight, Victorian Renfield. There's a pseudo-romantic storyline there as well, which doesn't really come off. They don't have the right chemistry. The odd couple crime-fighting partnership angle works better. 

Having Dracula team up with the most brutal crime family in New Orleans is a weird idea that works remarkably well, largely thanks to the classy performance of Shohreh Aghdashloo as the family's terrifying matriarch, someone who can genuinely stand up to the Count as an equal. They both have their stooges, with Ben "Jean-Ralphio" Schwartz giving a great turn as her perpetually out-of-depth son Tedward. 

The surprising part is how well the heavily-trailed angle of the support group works. Positioning Renfield's servitude to Dracula as an abusive relationship with an uneven power dynamic. The support group scenes are some of the funniest and most affecting of the film, with some great performances by Brandon Scott Jones (as the group leader) and the underutilised Jenna Kanell and Bess Rous. Renfield's taking ownership of his life is the spine of the film, and is the smartest element of what is, ultimately, a very stupid rip-em-up.

I disagree with critics who are calling this a one-joke film. It's at least a three-joke film, but it's true that it would wear thin at full length, which is presumably why it clocks in at a, for today, very short runtime of 93 minutes. Having repeatedly attempted to launch a Monsterverse of movies, Universal have finally allowed writers and directors to do their own thing with their properties. Renfield is a very modern take on Dracula, but still works as part of the same universe as the monochrome oldie. It works as its own thing while also celebrating the long and storied past of these characters, which is exactly the approach this studio should be taking.