Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Box office champions tend to have the last laugh.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Rob Zombie, Rhoda Griffis, Seth Green (voice), David Hasselhoff, Gregg Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Chris Sullivan, Elizabeth Debicki. Directed by James Gunn

 

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, Da Queen loves everything Guardians, particularly Rocket Raccoon. If I were to say anything negative about either the franchise or the characters, I am likely to get the cold shoulder for weeks on end at best or a heavy object upside my head at worst. Thus, I waited for her to go out of town on business before publishing my review for this massive hit.

Taking place only four months after the first Guardians (making this 2014), the nascent team continues to bicker like, well, family. They are getting set to take on a CGI alien tentacle thing that is kind of a cross between a squid and the machine ships of the Matrix trilogy. Incongruously, Baby Groot (Diesel) sets up a boombox and dances along to the strains of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while all around him is chaos. That kind of sets things up and sums things up at the same time.

Rocket (Cooper) being a raccoon has a distinctly kleptomaniac kind of attitude and before long their former employers, the genetically perfect (but not too bright) Sovereign are after them and they are saved by a mysterious figure but are forced to crash land on a primitive planet to make repairs. There the mysterious figure reveals himself; his name is Ego (Russell) but more to the point, he’s also Star Lord’s (Pratt) dad and he invites his boy over to his planet for a bit of father-son bonding time. Rocket and Groot stay behind to repair the Merano and guard their prisoner Nebula (Gillan) while Gamora (Saldana) – sister to Nebula – and Drax (Bautista) go along for the ride, joining the ultra-empathetic Mantis (Klementieff) who works as a kind of valet for Ego.

Things being what they are for the Guardians, Ego turns out to be a God-like Celestial and as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and Ego’s power is as absolute as it gets. The Guardians are once again called into battle but can they overcome the power of a god?

This is everything fans of the first film hoped it would be; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it for Marvel fans in general (like a cameo appearance of Howard the Duck) and Guardians fans in particular like the appearance of the original Guardians team of Yondu (Rooker), Starhawk (Stallone), Charlie-27 (Rhames) and Aleta Ogord (Yeoh).

The downside of that is that it feels at times like Gunn is trying to cram a bit too much into the movie; not only is he setting up future Guardians movies as well as, indirectly, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War but he’s also trying to throw in a whole lot of Guardians lore while trying to tell a coherent story of his own. There is also a whole lot of carnage and some impressive battle scenes – a ton of them in fact – and for some it might end up being geek overload.

Gunn also wisely spreads the wealth among his talented cast; we get to learn a whole lot of backstory for all of the characters and while Peter Quill is the ostensible focus, Drax ends up getting almost all of the laughs while Nebula and Yondu are given some scenes of tremendous pathos. And yes, the sci-fi spectacle is all there from the art deco splendor of the Sovereign to Ego’s planet which the most ambitious computer effect is ever created to date with something over a trillion polygons of computer graphics.

The chemistry between the cast continues to be strong and while the story sometimes might be a little hard to follow, there is still some investment and I’m sure that Marvel’s lords and masters over at Disney were smiling at the theme of family which is one of their sweet spots. This year’s summer blockbuster slate has been inconsistent in quality but certainly it has had its share of smart and entertaining successes and this is one of the biggest so far.

REASONS TO GO: One of Kurt Russell’s best performances in years. The song selection is masterful. The special effects are truly special. Baby Groot nearly steals the show.
REASONS TO STAY: Gunn tries to pack in a little bit too much into the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (of the sci-fi nature), some mild profanity and a little suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glenn Close filmed scenes as Nova Prime but they ended up on the cutting room floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ice Pirates
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Home at last!

Home at last!

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Pip Torrens, Greg Grunberg, Kiran Shah, Andrew Jack, Warwick Davis, Sasha Frost. Directed by JJ Abrams

So, no joke, this is the cinematic event of the year – and one of the biggest event movies ever. Certainly it’s box office explosion, mowing down box office records like so many innocent civilians at the hands of Stormtroopers, gives credence to that. People weren’t just excited to see it – they were absolutely insane to see it. Many have gone back and seen it three or four or more times since it opened. But is it worth all the hype?

As the iconic opening crawl informs us, thirty years has passed since the Empire has fallen and the Republic was re-established. From the ashes of the Empire has risen the First Order, run by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis) who appears via hologram as kind of a gigantic mummified cross between Abe Lincoln and C3PO (Daniels). Who appears later on in the film. C3PO, not Abe Lincoln.

I digress. Everyone is looking for Luke Skywalker (Hamill), the last Jedi Knight who has disappeared after some sort of catastrophe involving training new Jedi Knights that went horribly wrong. The First Order wants to stop him from doing what the Resistance (tacitly supported by the Republic) want him to do – to lead them to victory against the First Order. To that end, they have sent cocky pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) to the desert world Jakku to retrieve a map which leads to Skywalker. However, the First Order led by their Sith-like leader Kylo Ren (Driver) show up and Dameron is forced to give the chip containing the map to his trusty droid BB8 (kind of like a Beach Ball with the top of a droid on it – perhaps that’s what BB stands for) and sends him rolling off to the nearest settlement. He’s captured and interrogated but eventually rescued by Fin (Boyega), a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience.

BB8 discovers Rey (Ridley), a metal scavenger who has been on her own since her parents left her on Jakku to fend for herself. In the meantime, Fin and Dameron get separated and Fin finds Rey and BB8 but with the Emp…er, First Order hot on their heels, they escape in what turns out to be a familiar spaceship.

Once away they run into familiar faces and new ones, and discover that an all-new and improved solar-powered Death Star is getting ready to do its worst. The new Resistance heroes must go to this new weapon and destroy it, but that is no easy task, even with the old Rebellion heroes on their side.

After the prequel trilogy left the Star Wars fandom and moviegoers in general underwhelmed, I can safely say that this had a pretty high bar to meet, but it has done so in spades. Frankly put, this is one of the best movies of the year and I never thought I’d say that about a Star Wars film. As you’d expect, the special effects are marvelous and mostly achieved through practical means. However, there’s more to the film than that.

Let’s talk about the story a little bit. Some have complained that there are too many similar elements to the very first film, which is now titled Episode IV: A New Hope in canon. That’s a pretty fair complaint and it is occasionally distracting, but the storylines aren’t terribly identical. I do wish they’d used something other than a desert planet to open the movie with although I suspect that the universe has more desert planets than those with greenery. But one can have a fairly barren terrain without having the same sand dunes that characterized Tatooine. However, the important thing is that the story has retained that epic quality that characterized the first trilogy (not the prequels so much).

That said, the acting here is marvelous. Ford in particular brings Han Solo back to life, giving him the same gruff, roguish qualities in the first trilogy but tempering it with melancholy – there have been events in his life since the fall of the Empire that have been bitter and some even tragic. Not all of those are gone into with much detail, but let’s just say that as a father and a husband he makes a good smuggler.

Ridley and Boyega, who share the heroic role, both show a good deal of screen charisma and promise as the new kids on the block. They both realize they don’t have to carry the film, but something tells me either one or both could if they had to. Boyega, particularly, has an incredible amount of potential, not just here but in all of the films he’s been in. His character is the most interesting one of the new ones, although Kylo Ren has some definite Daddy issues that no doubt are going to develop into something else.

The movie moves along at breakneck speed; even the pauses are well-placed and well-paced. It’s not a short movie but it never feels long. Considering all the expectations that were heaped on this property that Disney paid $4 billion for, it’s good to see that for once not only were those expectations met but exceeded. Looks like Disney has gotten an excellent return on their investment.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular! Recaptures everything about the first trilogy that made it great. Will appeal to kids and adults as well. Surprisingly good performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Story a little too much like the very first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sci-fi violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abrams preferred to use actual locations and practical effects over green screen and CGI in order to be more aesthetically similar to the first trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Hitchcock/Truffaut