What scares you most in the horror genre? Masked killers in isolated settings? Booby trapped razor wire rooms? Demon possession? Werewolves? Ghosts? Those are all well and good, but nothing messes my shit up more than psychological uncertainty, the feeling that anything you see might not be real, and the layers of your perception are gradually being fucked with in a subtle way. Such are the terrors that Mike Flanagan’s Oculus traffics in, a film that takes postmodern horror expectations and strangles the life out of them in favour of something far more effective. You’ll read surface level summaries claiming this to be about a haunted mirror. It…is. Sort of. And it isn’t. Then it is again, and before you know it you have no idea what’s real and feel like leaving the television and hiding in a back room for fear of an incoming dissociative episode (true story). See, the haunted mirror is just the suggestive tip of a very dense psychological iceberg, a starting point to a narrative that’s disturbing in ways that few big budget horror films understand. When an idyllic American family moves into a perfect new house, life seems peachy. Following the arrival of an ornate antique mirror, things take a darker turn. The loving patriarch (Rory Cochrane, exuding natural charisma) turns fiercely psychotic, preying on his doting wife (Katee Sackoff) and terrorizing his son (Garrett Ryan) and daughter (Annalise Basso, terrific in a performance of true hurt and horror). The mirror seems to indeed be the source, but no clear correlation is ever established by the film, only heavy suggestion gnawed at by the notion that the parents may just be irreparably sick in the head, an idea just as, if not more scary than a sentient looking glass. After brutal tragedy, we flash forward a decade or so, the parents are gone and once again the daughter, now played by a dynamite Karen Gillan, tries to get to the source of what happened by locking herself, her brother (Brenton Thwaites, the only weak leak in an otherwise excellent acting ensemble) and that dang pesky mirror in their old house to destroy it. Bring on a panic inducing haunted house of the unconventional variety, one where something, either the mirror or inherited mental illness, plays endless nasty tricks of the mind on both of them until the viewer feels uncomfortable in their own thoughts, the fabric of internal reality ready to disintegrate into shards. Their plight is carefully interspersed (big kudos to Flanagan, serving as his own editor) with flashbacks to the harrowing ordeal they went through as children, as the loving parental unit collapses into madness before their eyes. Listen for a hair raising, subversive score by The Newton Brothers that just adds to the queasy cauldron of unease that this film is. It’s more brilliant than any widely released horror film has any right to be these days, a huge step in the right direction for the genre and a waking nightmare for anyone whose worst fear is losing their mind.
James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2, I’m happy to report, blows the first film right out of the water. There’s a subversive, wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour running through both films, as well as a boundlessly creative and colourful canvas of ideas both big and small, coalescing into something just this side of chaos. Picture a stick of dynamite; Volume one is the fuse, fizzling terrifically as it gets off to a great start. In many franchises, by the time the first film uses up the wick and reaches the stick, it’s sequel, the energy is lost and we end up with a dud of a follow-up. Not this baby. Volume two is the stick of dynamite, exploding gloriously across our screens in fits of dazzling imagination, humour that doesn’t quit for a nanosecond and the heart to back it up. Volume one dipped its toe in the water and showed us the roots of what a great space opera might look like, and volume two plunges in to give us just that. We rejoin with the merry band of misfits who now know each other a little better, are more comfortable working as a unit, and blast off into a tale of space battles, living planets and perpetual banter. Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, equipped with a brand new eight track collection of vintage pop songs, is still searching for his real dad when he kind of finds him by accident in the form of Ego, a powerful celestial being slyly played by Kurt Russell. Joining him are the gang we know and love, broccoli hued babe Gamora (Zoe Saldana), deadpan Drax (Dave Bautista outdoes himself in the comic relief department, a true highlight) Rocket (Bradley Cooper, excellent), scowling smurfette Nebula (Karen Gillian), adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, collecting a mortgage-eclipsing paycheque for literally doing nothing) and antihero Yondu (Michael Rooker). Rooker gets far, far more to do here than he did the second time around, becoming a fleshed out character with a terrific arc and a whole pile of scenes, a strong asset to the film. The villain here is way more compelling than Lee Pace’s silly space vampire in Volume One, and I won’t spoil anything but there’s more than a few surprises. Kurt Russell’s living planet is pure delicious eye candy, a vista to rival anything in Star Wars, Mass Effect or similar worlds, detailed and lovingly rendered. As per usual there are cameos, but surprisingly it’s more than the obligatory laundry list of Where’s Waldo fellow Marvel appearances. There are truly inspired name drops here and a few genre titans who show up, none of whom I’ll give away except Sylvester Stallone. He’s given an unassuming supporting role that he plays solidly without tongue in cheek or any hint of a gimmick, just an enjoyable little addition to the cast. James Gunn is a cinematic punk, cracking prudence right in the jaw, throwing caution to the wind and tirelessly churning out the kind of fresh, funny and irreverent films we want to see, scrappy crowd pleasers that people will actually remember, which lord knows is what Marvel needs to shake up their sometimes complacent, too comfortable aesthetic. The soundtrack is obviously a winner, and any film that uses Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain as its main cue has pretty much already won me over. This will probably be the cornerstone of summer blockbuster season, it’s just too much fun and has everything you’d want, with the dial cranked just past what we got the first time around in the best way possible. I am Groot.
I’ll say this right off the bat . . . if you don’t have fun watching his movie then there is something wrong with you. GOTG was always going to be a tough act to follow. I admit I am not a devotee of the Marvel cinematic universe as it stands; but Guardians is the exception.
From the get-go the music is perfectly placed. I read another review last night before seeing the film that compared Gunn’s music choices to Tarantino’s, and I have to say that comment is dead on as we begin our story with some very nicely done de-aging, and the set-up to what appears to be a beautiful love story.
Right when my son turned to me in the theatre and asked, “Are you sure this is Guardians of the Galaxy?” We find ourselves years later and we’re back with the family guarding the galaxy against a giant, undulating space monster which filters into a super-cool credit sequence.
Then we are off the Planet Goldfinger where the locals are not unlike the locals in my home town – you have to watch what you say ‘cause they’re easily offended. Nebula is back with a vengeance and the crew take her and leave, unfortunately, they manage to piss the Goldfingerlings off before that happens.
Cue the big space battle. Rocket and Quill are measuring, Drax is matter-of-facting, Nebula is impatient to eat something that aint ripe yet, Gamora is the only adult in the room and Groot is living dangerously by not wearing his seatbelt.
Just when all hope seems lost they are aided by a mysterious stranger and his pet Mantis. Hey, that dude looks like Jack Burton. Turns out Big Daddy has a giant Ego and a whole planet to himself. But remember children, remember the last guy who used the line, “I am your father!”
So the team splits up, The Junk-Panda, The Twig and the She-borg get embroiled in a mutiny while Star-Lord, Gamora and Drax jump to Ego’s utopia. Hercules was a son of a God and so, as it turns out, is Peter Quill. If you build it, he will come – so Peter and Big Daddy play catch.
You’re saying, “Hey you haven’t mentioned Yondu.” That’s ‘cause Yondu is the real heart in this movie. And really, that is what Vol. 2 is all about – heart. James Gunn has again crafted a movie that is visually, musically and splendidly comedic across the board – but what turns out to be the guy’s real strength is infusing an awful lot of heart and soul into these characters. It’s an old school talent from back in the days when movies used to be good. The secret being . . . you give a shit about the characters, you want them to win. You can’t make a movie like that with your mind, but you can with your heart, and Vol. 2 has a big one.
So, like I said about the “I am your father line,” well turns out that Daddy Quill aint that wholesome. This leads to a thrilling, break-neck climax that still has time for luck, for laughs, for the unknown – right before tears and glory.
Vol. 2’s rich palette explodes off the screen, especially if you see it in 3D. The score lifts and throttles with the great themes set up in the first film. There are fun running gags of which Taserface is one of my favourites; it brought to mind Mel Brook’s Men in Tights and the ‘Mervin’ Sheriff of Rottingham scene. Also, like one reviewer I read said, I kinda wish Tango and Cash could have had a brief meeting, for no other purpose but to have it in there for nostalgic purposes. It was cool to see them both in a movie together, and if the post-credits scene is anything to go by, it will be great to see Sly back in these kinds of movies. I loved Demolition Man and, get ready to burn me, Judge Dredd (1995).
If you don’t have fun watching this movie there is something wrong with you, because it is a whole lot of fun and it was a delight to watch it with my son, even if the only true highlight for him was hearing someone say the word ‘penis’ in a movie. Both cast and crew have crafted and excellent sequel here. I cannot honestly say that it is a sequel that betters the original, but it is a good, strong follow-up to a film that surprised audiences as well as the powers that be.
Like any good sequel this film had to be the first film and more than the first film. It does succeed and I can easily see how it scored a perfect 100 during the test screening process, as it has all the elements come together in the right place, at the right time – action, laughs, light and darkness.
The guy who wrote Tromeo and Juliet has come a long way. Some have greatness thrust upon them, some are born to it, but James Gunn has, without question, achieved it. I watched his little gem Slither again recently. You get shades of what he would go on to do with GOTG in that film which is at once shocking, funny and touching all thrown into the mix.
Vol. 2 is great and I, like with the first Guardians, will watch it again and await its Blu Ray release. I think Vol. 3 will be the true challenge for Mr. Gunn now, but, with the success he has garnered, he has earned the right to do it his way. Really, I think I am more eager to see where he goes after he’s done guarding the galaxy.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.
Go see Vol. 2 and as ever . . . happy viewing
THE DUDE IN THE AUDIENCE