FilmSpace: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Lady Macbeth; The Promise

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment

THE FIRST Marvel Cinematic Universe film of the year, a subtle and sinister period drama, and a love triangle amidst the Armenian genocide are all reviewed this week.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – ★★★★☆

You can’t be surprised twice. Guardians of the Galaxy benefited from a muted hype, its success stemming from it not only being great, but much greater than anyone imagined.

The opposite is true of Vol. 2. With its predecessor recognised as one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, the next outing for Star-Lord et al has a weight of expectation.

Director James Gunn stakes his claim that what made the first Guardians so enjoyable was its 1980s references and ragtag shenanigans. They’re everywhere, evoking imagery from prog rock albums, referencing David Hasselhoff and Pac-Man, and a return of the tape deck Awesome Mix.

When the gang aren’t getting up to no good like stealing batteries for the sake of it, they’re bickering like a family at Christmas dinner. This is exacerbated by the appearance of Ego who has links to one of the Guardians, which is welcomed by some and eyed suspiciously by others.

And, in a first for the MCU, it brought me to tears over a universally human event, soundtracked by a Cat Stevens song.

Romantic tension is pushed aside for familial love. Gamora is still having a hard time with her sister Nebula; Star-Lord has unanswered questions about his lineage; Drax sees the other rogues as his siblings.

It’s a surprisingly beautiful film. These misfits need to make their own love, all cast aside by their respective societies. The introduction of Mantis, an empath, forces some unspoken emotions out into the open. And, in a first for the MCU, it brought me to tears over a universally human event, soundtracked by a Cat Stevens song.

Its success relies on whether the jokes, of which there are many, connect. If not, there’s a lot of tomfoolery in the way of the story. If they do, then Vol. 2 is endlessly fun (and cinema doesn’t get much more fun than Vol. 2’s opening credits scene). The Avengers may be more iconic, but it’s the Guardians you want to hang out with.

Lady Macbeth – ★★★★☆

There’s a tonal shift two thirds of the way through Lady Macbeth that’s so subtle you don’t realise until it’s too late: you’re implicated.

Katherine is a sympathetic and understandable figure. Forced into a marriage with a sorry excuse for a man, she’s trapped in a stately home with maids and a patriarchal rule. While her husband is away she reclaims an element of freedom, wandering out into the moors usually forbidden to her, striking up quite the relationship with a worker, Sebastian. The space she inhabits is suddenly for her, as are her sexual desires.

She never stops reclaiming that freedom. What’s initially comprehensible begins to take on a more abhorrent edge. Who would blame her for lashing out, treated like an object by her husband, seemingly as much of a possession as the land that came with the marriage. Fans of Game of Thrones will detect a hint of Cersei Lannister in Katherine’s survival instinct. She’s quick-witted, and quicker to strike.

There’s a tonal shift two thirds of the way through Lady Macbeth that’s so subtle you don’t realise until it’s too late: you’re implicated.

Florence Pugh is a revelation as Katherine. She has utter control over every delicate shift in her body language; her eyes speak exposition, smirks between sips of tea unveil a calculated mind. Is it the Kuleshov effect, or has she raised her chin in defiance?

Acting is invisible until it’s contrasted with something that draws attention to its established beats. Something Pugh is doing here is akin to marching out of time with those beats. Her art here – and it is art – is making something so virtuoso look like something so natural.

It’s initially exhausting – the misogyny is relentless in its opening third – but taken as a whole Lady Macbeth is an incredible story of sympathy, agency, dominance and mercilessness.

The Promise – ★★☆☆☆

Armenian genocide denial is rife, and the main talking point in the run up to The Promise’s release. Deniers took to IMDb to rate the film 1/10 long before it was available for consumption outside of the festival circuit.

It’s an underrepresented evil in film, one that is still unacknowledged by Turkey. 1.5m Armenians died, and The Promise shows towns being sacked, families murdered, and the euphemisms used by Turks to dismiss dissenting voices.

A passing glance at the news in 2017 shows a world without empathy, so the film’s love triangle is a way in for those not suitably appalled by genocide. Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon make for a beautiful trio.

Isaac’s Mikael is training as a medical student until he and his family are forced to react to what is happening. Bale’s Chris is an American journalist with the Associated Press, and he’s dating Le Bon’s Ana.

That cinematic tension reliant on whether a protagonist lives or dies is fine in an action adventure, but is exploitative here.

The love triangle is given a surprisingly adult treatment, and never pushes aside the enormity of the genocide in importance. There ought to be sufficient empathy had for a close band of characters and their families being persecuted without this stormy relationship drama, so the romance aspect never quite clicks.

A factual account of a pursuit on the mountain of Musa Dagh is extraordinarily tense, but therein lies a moral conundrum – as Armenians flee from Turks, the film invites you to shout “hurry up!” as if at a sporting event. That cinematic tension reliant on whether a protagonist lives or dies is fine in an action adventure, but is exploitative here. It’s hard not to cry, but does it artistically earn those tears?

It falls into the category of being an ‘important’ film – the Holocaust has been widely portrayed in cinema while the Armenian genocide hasn’t received the same exposure. The film can’t be given a free ride because of its importance – as a sprawling romantic epic it fails, it’s overly long, and despite its star power, it’s never engaging. It does tell an undertold story, just not very well.

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