Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

In 2014, we were treated to a new batch of heroes from Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was skeptical at first because I had never even heard of this comic book series before. It turns out, the Guardians go back to 1969, however the ones depicted in the film are from a “modern” reinvention, that goes back to the latter part of the 20th century. While there’s history there, this is a relatively new series. Nevertheless, my wariness for a new comic book franchise was diminished when I saw that James Gunn, formerly of TROMA, was attached to it. I’ve been a fan of his work dating back to his early days, and really enjoyed his later films such as “Slither”. When I saw the first “Guardians of the Galaxy”, whatever reservations I had were completely vanquished. I was thoroughly entertained by the characters: Star-Lord, or Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). I actually couldn’t wait for their next adventure, having so much fun watching them in their first film.

Now, we’re treated to that next story; and once again, it was a pleasure. The cast is a bit bigger this time, including previous side characters (and somewhat villains) such as Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). While the core Guardians are still the main focus, there is an ample amount of time given to these other characters, especially Yondu.

The opening credit sequence alone is enough to fall in love with this film. We see a growing Baby Groot (only potted in the finale of the last film), dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while the Guardians fight a giant slimy creature as a favor to a group of people known as the Sovereign, who are condescending but open to rewarding them for protecting their (precious?) batteries. Nebula, Gamora’s sister, is being held by the Sovereign, and release her back to the Guardians once the task of destroying the creature (in another amusing sequence) is complete. However, Rocket steals some of these batteries, and the Sovereign goes after them. Their style of space battle resembles old Atari games for some reason. It’s inexplicable, but funny nonetheless.

We also open with another story, that becomes part of the bigger plot, that involves a man named Ego (Kurt Russell), young and dashing, charming a young woman. We later find out what the significance of this flashback is, and are re-introduced to Ego as an older man, who now claims to be Peter’s estranged father.

When the Guardians escape the grasp of the Sovereign, and other shenanigans, Peter and Gamora go with Ego to his home “planet”, along with his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a mysterious but intriguing character that catches Drax’s fancy (although he’s unwilling to admit it). We learn that Ego is known as a “Celestial”, a god-like being, and can control pretty much anything he wants, if he can share that power with someone. He wants that someone to be Peter, who is unsure whether to believe that this is his father.

Father and son relationships are extensively explored in this film–I almost wonder if this would have been better suited to be released around Father’s Day. You have the backstory of Peter and Ego, with Peter still holding onto his resentment that he watched his mother die without his father around. Then, there’s Peter and Yondu, who raised Peter to be a thief and stands by his reasoning: “he was skinny, and made it easy for thievin'” (paraphrased). Yondu, part of the Ravagers–a group of intergalactic smugglers–refuses to admit any other reasoning why he kept Peter around. But we find out why later in the film. It makes sense, and it’s actually quite touching.

That’s the other strength of the film. While it is funny–sometimes uproariously so–it’s also poignant at times. There’s a lot more to this film than just space battles and quick wit. And I think that, like Peter Jackson maturing into his calling for “Lord of the Rings”, James Gunn has found his calling in “Guardians”. It’s like he was made for this series. Yes, it strays from the original comic books and that’s partly why I credit him so much. He made this his own in a sense; and here, in this sequel, he’s really mastered it.

There was never a moment where I was bored, antsy, or frustrated. There are moments when Drax gets a little carried away, and a few awkward moments here and there–but for the most part, all of it works in the grand scheme. The film is almost two and a half hours long, and it really felt like it needed all of that to tell a complete story. Nothing is rushed or slapdash. Gunn takes his time building something and working it into a satisfying conclusion. Yes, there are some cliched, predictable plot twists and devices–I think that comes with the territory of a superhero film. They’re all, by design, franchised to be the same story structure. But there are some really nice surprises along the way, and you might want to keep a few Kleenex handy at a few points.

I know the future of this series ultimately will tie into The Avengers at some point–if the rumors are true–but as they stay in their own universe, I hope Gunn sticks with the series. To me, he’s the heart and soul and foundation of it. Yes, the characters are great–Peter and Gamora have excellent chemistry. Even Mantis and Drax share some nice screen time. Rocket is always a pleasure. And I can’t write this review without completely gushing over Baby Groot. He is adorable, and steals a lot of scenes.

But it’s everything that makes this sequel even bigger, and better than the original. It brings everything up a level, which is what sequels are supposed to do anyway. It’s a great way to start the blockbuster season; but more than that, it stands alone as probably the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.

My rating: :D

10 Cloverfield Lane

March 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Movies

“Cloverfield” was a 2008 monster movie that wanted to be part “Blair Witch Project”, part “Independence Day”, and part “Godzilla”. For me, the film failed to even be close to any of those in quality and in execution. The characters were at best boring, at worst irritating; and the film’s guerrilla-style camerawork was either dizzying or too unfocused and felt forced as “amateurish”. Every actor was too good looking to be considered realistic, and some were even recognized actors, which completely betrayed the “found footage” number one rule: you should be thinking you’re watching real people, not actors. Years later I saw the film again and it dulled into a watchable, somewhat amiable B-movie. Maybe that’s what it was actually intended to be–but whenever J.J. Abrams is involved, you know it’s going to aim higher. So for that, I gave it very bad marks.

In “10 Cloverfield Lane”, it seems that only part of the title is used to connect the two films together. We get the feeling that there will be a giant monster at some point. However, we’re introduced to a more intriguing, and unsettling story when we’re introduced to a boorish but somewhat likable hero/villain, Howard, played wonderfully by John Goodman in one of his best roles in his colorful career.

A young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), leaves her fiance after a fight, and heads into the abyss of Louisiana, only to be forced off the road and losing consciousness at the end of the car wreck. She finds herself cuffed to the wall of a small basement room attached to an IV. Howard comes in and introduces himself, feeds her, and tells her he saved her life. After she attempts to escape, Howard realizes he should level with her and tell her that he’s brought her to his bunker because of an attack. He’s not sure what the attack was, except that toxic air has been released into the atmosphere and it’s no longer breathable. They are seemingly the only survivors, save for one other person–Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is around her age. Emmett knows Howard, and worked for him. He believes everything Howard says, to the dismay of Michelle, but there’s a hint of doubt coming from him as well. She can tell he doesn’t want to believe Howard.

Howard eventually introduces Michelle to his entire bunker, complete with kitchen and living room, board games and a TV with a VHS/DVD player. He believes they may have to stay down there for years, which Michelle also has a hard time swallowing. It’s hard to tell if Howard is telling any sort of truth, because he has some logic to his theories about what has happened. Then he mentions aliens, and she really loses her faith in him.

As time goes on, they learn to accept each other in some ways. No one truly trusts the other, except perhaps Emmett begins trusting Michelle more than Howard, and begins to hear her out in her plans to escape. She attempts to leave the bunker at one point, only to be confronted by a hysterical woman seemingly afflicted with burn marks all over her face. The woman is at first seen as a victim of some sort, but then becomes aggressive and starts screaming at Michelle to the point where Michelle really can be the only one seen as a victim in all of this.

This incident, however, allows Michelle to finally believe Howard. But then, things start to fall apart again when she starts to learn about his past, especially involving his daughter Megan. As the story unravels, a very creepy question emerges: What if you were stuck in a bunker following an apocalypse, and your only company was a psychopath?

It’s at this point where the film really begins to crackle and pop, and there are many surprises as the mystery unfolds. The film has plenty of jump-scares, and even becomes a full on thriller towards its climax.

The climax is where the film may divide audiences. This film was not originally conceived as a “Cloverfield” sequel, spiritual or not. It does have some elements that will remind you of that film. However, it becomes something entirely different toward the end. Howard morphs into something utterly monstrous, lumbering and menacing, and though he is still a human being, we see less of one as the film reaches its surprising and audacious conclusion.

Goodman’s performance isn’t the only one to point out, though; Winstead is steady and balanced as Michelle. She reveals to Emmett in an emotional scene that she may have been abused in the past, but always runs away from everything instead of confronts it. She tells him a story about a young girl being publicly assaulted by her own father, and even if it’s not serious or life threatening, Michelle’s resolve is simply to leave the scene rather than help the little girl. This gives insight into her leaving her fiance, who may also have been abusive (voiced briefly by Bradley Cooper, as Ben, who tries calling Michelle after she’s left).

The three characters are engaging and their chemistry is very good, keeping us interested not only in the unfolding of the story, but in their lives as well. We want to see what happens to them, as much as we want to see what happens in the plot.

As stated before, the ending shifts everything to another level, and you either accept it or you don’t. But by that time, I believe the film has achieved something the original “Cloverfield” never did–a believable cast, a credible and appealing story, and a satisfying journey. Whether you like how it ends up or not, to me, isn’t as important as being completely enthralled by the events leading up to the conclusion. It is, essentially, a great ride.

My rating: :-)

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 6, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.

What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.

The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.

There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.

So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.

But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.

There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).

The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.

Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.

And I look very much forward to seeing them.

My rating: :D

American Hustle

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

David O. Russell has been one of of the best filmmakers of the 21st century and his last film, “Silver Linings Playbook”, was my favorite film of the year. In “American Hustle” he reuses many of the same actors he’s been using for his past few films, and brings another great story to the screen. There’s a caption at the beginning of the film letting us know that “some of this actually happened”. The true part of the story centers around a con set up by the FBI to nab politicians, including the mayor of Camden, NJ as part of what they called “Abscam”.

In the film, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small time crook posing as a legit businessman who embezzles money from his clients. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and for the first time in his life he falls in love. He is already married, and has a child, whom he tries to take care of. But his double life as a con artist keeps him from being anything close to an All American Dad. He hires Sydney to play the part of his assistant, going by the name of Edith Greensley and is busted by a potential client named Richie (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once they’re busted, Rosenfeld has one shot to stay out of prison by helping the FBI go after bigger fish in a program they call ABSCAM. Rosenfeld goes along with it, but finds himself becoming genuinely friendly with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The mayor is not corrupt at all, and Rosenfeld shares a similar childhood background. Meanwhile, the FBI sets up a staged meeting with the Arab Sheikh (Michael Pena) as a potential investor to work with the mayor. But things get complicated when it’s discovered that the mayor, while being free of actual criminality, is involved with big time criminals that gives Irving some doubts as to the plan working. He also doesn’t want to sell out his now friend, something he’s never really had to confront. For the first time in his life, he has an actual moral dilemma. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also becomes friends with Carmine and his wife Dolly, which complicates things as well. Rosalyn is a dangerous girl–smart, but also absent minded sometimes. But Irving really doesn’t have a choice but to go along with everything, even though he starts to see Sydney seemingly having feelings for Richie as they start to work together.

This is all pretty familiar territory as far as plot and theme goes. But with a strong cast and David O. Russell’s unique touch, it brings the film out of anything formula and turns it into a rather special film to experience. Bale’s Irving is a very conflicted person, and at times you’re not really sure what’s going on in his head. Even when he’s narrating the film. He has a heart condition, and at times stresses himself out almost to the point of having a heart attack. His demeanor never really shifts, even when his comb-over is messed up by Richie at one point.

The whole film has a comedic tone but also an underlying seriousness that keeps it credible. It doesn’t ever cross the line into obvious comedy, except a few moments including an altercation between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (well played by Louis C.K.). “American Hustle” has laughs, but also moments of poignancy that gives the film depth. It may not be as great as “Silver Linings Playbook” but it’s certainly another great addition into David O. Russell’s filmography.

My rating: :-)

The Hangover Part III

May 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

The Wolfpack is back for one more adventure, and this time, the formula’s changed a bit. This was a relief after it felt a bit tired in “The Hangover Part II”, and it even felt a bit underused since they were in such an exotic place where they didn’t even speak the language. The arrogant Phil (Bradley Cooper), paranoid Stu (Ed Helms), quiet and completely unknown Doug (Justin Bartha), and the man of the hour Alan (Zach Galifianakis) have returned to fix a problem that was started by their old nemesis, Chow (Ken Jeong). Unbeknownst to them, Alan and Chow have actually been in contact, and that leads a gold smuggler named Marshall (John Goodman) to catch them on their way to taking Alan to a mental hospital in Arizona. Chow has broken out of prison in Bangkok and stolen gold from Marshall. The gang is told they have only 3 days to find Chow and bring him to Marshall. And guess who is the bait?

Doug. The one guy we never get to know in any of these movies. I suppose that it’s fitting, and probably on purpose, that they chose him again. So, it’s the remaining three of Phil, Stu, and Alan, to find Chow who has gone to Tijuana. The boys try to use their own medicine that had gotten them in trouble in the first place and drug Chow when they find him–but Chow is on to them.

Instead, Chow sets them up yet again and has them unknowingly break into Marshall’s mansion and steal more gold from him. Then, Chow leaves them there while he goes…back to Las Vegas. Now the gang has even less time and a less patient Marshall to work with.

So in this sequel, action drives the plot more than any other “Hangover” movie. I guess that works better, but it leaves less room for comedy. There are some big laughs, though, including one involving Alan in an intervention that echoes an actual episode of “Intervention”. In fact, most of the laughs belong to Alan, as this is primarily his and Chow’s movie. Alan’s always been the most enjoyable character, although I couldn’t care less for Chow. But the filmmakers get it right this time by giving Galifianakis the most screen time. And, they are smart not to clutter the film up with tired cameos and stupid in-jokes.

This felt the most like a real “film” of the three “Hangovers”, and it works the best. I would’ve liked to laugh more; but I was at least thoroughly entertained, and that’s more than I could say for the first sequel. The entire trilogy still leaves something to be desired, though. I always felt that the execution never lived up to the promise of the set-up. I always liked the premise of people waking up after a night that they don’t remember. But there were always conveniences and lazy pay-offs that I thought undermined the potential for a great action comedy series, which is really what this was. I think if the writers looked more at screenplays like “Lethal Weapon” and “48 Hrs.” instead of trying to be something like an adult “American Pie” or a less bleak “Very Bad Things”, the series would’ve been more of a success.

As it stands, however, I do think this is the brightest of the three films, because it focused on the right character this time. It is a funny movie, and at times it’s thrilling too. The most surprising thing, though, is that it even has a sweet moment halfway through where we are reacquainted with the baby “Carlos” from the second movie. He’s grown up a little bit; but he and Alan share a very good scene together, possibly the best in the whole movie. The resolution of the film is satisfying; and unlike the other two films, it ends right when it needs to. 

This isn’t a movie that will resonate but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted. I don’t need to go through it again; thankfully, it looks like that isn’t going to be offered anyway.

My rating: :-)

The Hangover 2

June 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

2009’s “The Hangover” was a sleeper summer hit comedy that continued the tradition of modern raunchy American comedy films, and had some hits and misses but enough hits for me to enjoy the film. But two years later, I remember very little of it–much in the way that the characters in the film didn’t remember the night before when they got themselves involved in all of their shenanigans.

But like them, I decided to go through it all over again, and I saw ”The Hangover 2″, a sequel that I’m not sure is so inferior as much as it is just a continuation of a mildly entertaining movie “series”. In this case, the “Wolfpack” that includes Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), are heading to Thailand–a much more exotic and even more dangerous locale than the more familiar (and American) Las Vegas.

The plot is pretty simple, as in the first one: Stu is getting married in Thailand, his friends come, Alan is jealous of Stu’s future brother in law Teddy, and a few nights before the wedding, something happens. Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a dingy hotel room in Bangkok, and have no idea how they got there.

This actually has been the part of the premise that has intrigued me the most, for both films. I liked the “adventure” angle that took the plot forward. It was like a mystery. My only problem with the first one with that the payoff was a little weak. Maybe that was the point, but I remembered the funniest parts of the film were during the end credits because you saw all of the pictures from that lost night.

In this film, there are actually bigger laughs, especially coming from Galifianakis and the little monkey that was in the hotel room with them. But again, the payoff is weak, and some of the raising of the stakes are familiar enough by now that you know what’s going to happen; whereas in the first one, it really was hard to actually know how everything was going to unfold. But everything with the international intrigue and interpol and gangsters–we’ve seen this all in the first one; and although this brings it a little more over the top, the climax is still quite predictable.

This film does provide stronger characters, however. Stu is easily the most likeable, and because he’s the one caught up in this mess and the focal point, we are a little more invested in seeing things through and rooting for things to work out. In the first one, we had no idea who Doug was and only saw him in snippets. So while we did want to follow the journey, it was the journey over the characters that took precedence. In this, we’re familiar with the journey and the characters are a little more fleshed out that we like them enough that there’s a balance.

The film does try to be bigger than the first one even though it’s recycling the same plot, but I don’t think it went far enough. Kind of like in the first one, some of the ways they find out about the night before are actually a bit disappointing because they’re not very interesting. In this, though, there’s an expectation to see more exciting and shocking things; and with the exotic locale, I would have thought the language barrier would have played a large part. If you’re stuck in a foreign country, there are far more interesting and funny things that can happen than accidentally kidnapping a monk, for instance.

And like in the first one, this film doesn’t seem to know when to end.  There’s a decent finish, and it’s satisfying; but then, we still have to go through the wedding. I will maintain, we don’t care that much about the characters that we need to see the actual wedding. That part isn’t necessary; the story has been concluded. The end! But, not only are we having to sit through the wedding, we go through the reception, too, and the cameo at the end neither made me laugh nor interested me at all. It felt so tacked on, and a waste of time. Sure, this cameo performance probably gave this person some much needed cash, but why subject us to this? Have the person come in during the plot of the film so it doesn’t seem so forced and wasteful.

Overall, the film’s not a complete waste of time; but it’s also not, in my mind, a successful movie. It needed a bigger punch than it delivered and while the actors do their best with the material (that admittedly is handled a little better than the original), it just doesn’t have enough. In the first one, the premise was interesting and there was enough to make it a passable comedy. This one is just unnecessary enough to not give it a pass.

My rating: :?