Guardians of the Galaxy Review

In basketball, there is something called a “Heat Check”. Many of my sports fans out there will be familiar with this term, but for those who aren’t, I’ll gladly explain. Let’s say a player comes out and hits his first ten shots. He makes the easy ones, and the hard ones. It seems like he can’t miss. So, the shooter then decides to test the limits of his hot streak with a “heat check” shot. This shot, is so crazy and so asinine that it can only lead to one of a few options: A) A horrible miss that sends the shooter into a cold streak. B) A horrible miss that will ultimately be a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic game. Or C) It goes in, and you begin to wonder if the shooter will ever miss again. Now that you understand that concept, let’s review Guardians of the Galaxy, a.k.a. Marvel/Disney’s “heat check”.

guardian-of-the-galaxy-posterMarvel has been on an absolute role ever since they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008’s Iron Man (X-Men and Spider-Man aren’t included as they are owned by different studios). To date, they have made three Iron Man’s, two Thor’s, two Captain America’s and are about to release a second Avengers. So why not switch things up by doing something off the wall like a space adventure?

The story revolves around Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), an earth-born abductee who makes a living as a space pirate. After he stumbles upon a dangerous weapon, he becomes wrapped up in a dangerous psychopath(Lee Pace)’s attempt to destroy planets. While trying to sell the weapon, he gets arrested and meets up with an evil tyrant’s assassin daughter, a muscled idiot out to avenge his family, and a pair of bounty hunters who happen to be a talking raccoon and a talking tree. Trust me, it’s no weirder than Star Wars is when you really think about it (think Chewbacca and Yoda). These band of misfits eventually join forces to stop the bad guys.

As on-screen teams go, the Guardians are pretty likable. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora may be a bit flat for some. She is pretty much your run of the mill sexy, bad ass woman with a soft heart (Catwoman, Black Widow, etc.). Dave Bautista’s Drax is the clear weak link. His acting makes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look like Leonardo DiCaprio. But the other three main characters are the movie’s heart and soul. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord with the same swagger and zeal as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. The sentient tree, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) will tug at your heart strings and make you chuckle with his puppy-like antics. And Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is just downright hilarious. He reminds me of the Chicken Hawk in those Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have the luxury of individual prequels like Avengers did. And with so many characters (many I won’t mention), character development and back story often take a backseat to spectacular action sequences. Exposition is often thrown at you without much time for it to resonate. And sometimes the film tries too hard to be funny (usually anytime Dave Bautista speaks). Luckily, the film does succeed in making us care about the main five heroes and their reluctant friendship.

Sure, some of Marvel’s movies (*cough Iron Man 2 & 3) weren’t spectacular, but none of them are as bad as these. So, make no mistake, this was a long shot for Marvel. Because you more than likely don’t know anything about the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet, director James Gunn and the Marvel producers found a way to use that to their advantage. This is unlike anything you’ve ever seen (In fact, only Avengers and the post credit scene of Thor: The Dark World even connect to this movie). It’s Star Trek, meets Star Wars, meets Indiana Jones with a dash of Avengers. And it’s absolute summer fun. So yes, Marvel flung up a half court shot… it rattled around the rim for a bit, but ultimately… they nailed it again.

FINAL GRADE: B+

P.S. The post credits scene is NOT worth waiting on. It has nothing to do with anything relevant.

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REDBOX REVIEWS

Starting something new for all my friends who enjoy that weekly trip to the good ole’ Redbox. There are a lot of movies that don’t get wide releases so you might not catch them in theaters. So here are a few reviews of some limited release films currently available to own and rent.

 

The Raid 2

The_Raid_2_Berandal_teaser_bannerBack in December, I listed this Indonesian martial arts film as one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Anyone who has seen the previous film, The Raid Redemption, completely understands why. It may be the greatest action film ever created. I was fortunately able to catch the sequel in theaters and it didn’t disappoint. Iko Uwais reprises his role as Rama, one of the few surviving officers from the police raid on mob owned slums in the first film. This time around, following the death of a loved one, Rama is forced to go deep undercover in order to infiltrate an even deadlier and more powerful crime syndicate.

Fans of the first might find this one slow at times, but when the action hits, it is as good if not better than the mind blowing sequences of its predecessor. Many of the action sequences, taking place on trains, prison yards, highways, are more vibrant than the ones in Redemption, which all took place in one location. And the new villains, specifically two named “Baseball Bat Man” and “Hammer Girl” (can you guess what they use as weapons), provide some of the most jaw dropping fight scenes you’ll ever see. Bottom line, if you are a fan of action or crime films with actual plot (sorry Expendables), then you won’t find a better watch than The Raid 2. FINAL GRADE: A

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The_Grand_Budapest_Hotel_PosterIf you’re looking for something quirky but infectiously smart and entertaining, then this movie is definitely for you. It is one of the most beautifully made films of the year from both a story telling and visual aspect. In this story, within a story, within a story, within a story (got all of that?) Ralph Fiennes stars as a Hotel concierge who is framed for murder after his elderly lover leaves her most treasured possession to him. Fiennes was magnificent as Voldermort in the Harry Potter saga and I loved him in the most recent James Bond film. But here, Fiennes is as magnetic as I’ve ever seen him, perfectly matching wit, arrogance, and genuine warmth in the role of Gustave. The brotherly relationship between the character and his new, excessively dedicated lobby boy, Moustafa (relative newcomer Tony Revolori) is what drives the story and gives it its charm.

As mentioned before, the film is shot beautifully, using miniatures to give the movie the look of a children’s book while also using techniques to give it the proper classic feel of a murder mystery. And even through its predominantly comedic tone, it manages to strike the perfect heartwarming and soulful tone at its climax. The numerous cameos (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton… just to name a few) are pretty comical too. FINAL GRADE: A

 

Under the Skin

Under_the_Skin_posterThis is without a doubt one of the top five most bizarre films I have ever witnessed. The incredibly attractive Scarlett Johannson stars as an incredibly attractive alien in human form who seduces men and leads them back to a creepy black void where their skin is harvested. Sound interesting enough? The beginning of the film, which seems more music and nat sound than dialogue, plays like a documentary which certainly adds to the eerie tone, but also makes the movie incredibly dull for the first hour.

But if you can sit through the same repeated act, the second half of the movie is far more intriguing. Although I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you couldn’t, as I nearly gave up on it. Eventually though, Johannson’s alien character defies her intended purpose and ventures out on her own. By the end of the film, the message should come across powerfully and I unexpectedly found myself appreciating the artistic nature of it all, but there’s still a strong chance you may find it boring and weird even if you persevere through it. FINAL GRADE: B-

The Rock’s Hercules (A review of the movie you chose Lucy over)

I’m not a huge fan of swords and sandals epics. In fact, I think the market is over-saturated with them as much as it is with vampires. 300: Rise of an Empire was fairly decent, albeit unnecessary, but after the travesties of Wrath of the Titans, Pompeii and that last Hercules movie no one saw, I just didn’t have too much interest in seeing The Rock fight a bunch of CGI monsters for an hour and a half. Good thing this Hercules wasn’t that kind of movie at all.hercules-movie-2014-poster-570x846

Unlike most movies about Greek Gods, this movie seeks to debunk the old legends and tell a more realistic tale. Instead of being the demi-God son of Zeus, Hercules is nothing more than a really, really, really strong soldier-for-hire who was raised not knowing his father. And his most epic quests vs. those mythological beasts? They are merely fabrications of missions he successfully accomplished with the aid of his trusted team of mercenaries (Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Ingrid Berdal, Aksel Hennie) and his storytelling nephew (Reece Ritche). But even though he is not laced with Godlike powers, this Hercules is nothing less of a hero.

This was admittedly a lesson for me in not judging a book by its cover. Don’t get me wrong, The Rock (calling him Dwayne Johnson is like referring to Bow Wow as Shad Moss) is still a mediocre actor and the script is stuffed with action film clichés. But the movie has enough likeable characters (Ian McShane’s fortune telling sage is my particular favorite) to keep it light hearted summer fun and the plot contains enough twists to keep it from being mundane. Even the action sequences, while not remotely as eye popping as those in 300, are nevertheless done with a realistic flare that makes them entertaining. Before this weekend, I would’ve definitely told you to see Scarlett Johansson in a “mental thriller” over The Rock as Hercules. Never would’ve thought I would be horribly wrong.

FINAL GRADE: B, Not a must see, but time well spent

Lucy Review (A review that is more Rant than Review)

lucy2Have you ever heard someone speaking about something that they thought was deep and intellectual? Even though a few of their points might actually be enlightening, by the end of the conversation you’re just left with a confused face and the thought that they’re full of it. If you don’t know where I’m going with this by now, then congratulations, you’re left with the same feeling most will have by the end of Lucy.

Scarlett Johannson stars as Lucy, a girl who gets kidnapped in China after her boyfriend (of one week) tricks her into delivering a briefcase to a Chinese gangster. From there, she is forced into smuggling an experimental drug that accidentally overdoses into her system. The drug begins slowly but surely allowing her to access more than the 10% brain capacity allotted to humans. This leads to her essentially gaining superpowers, mainly the ability to control her own body chemistry and pretty much all matter.

Knowing what she can do, and how easily she can do it, is enough to kill some intrigue here. If you’re looking for an action movie, look elsewhere. She can drop an army with the flick of a wrist. If you’re looking for a mental thriller, look elsewhere. She is so intelligent that even the brightest minded characters in the film, such as Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman, seem boring and useless. And because she is so smart and strong, there are no worthy adversaries.

If you’re looking for a Matrix-esque thought provoker, you’ll get what you want, but only in very small doses. A scene where Lucy explains to a group of scientists that numbers and equations are all manmade laws built to conform a reality that they can’t begin to fathom is perhaps the best moment in the film. And yet, instead of moments like this… we get inexplicable scenes where it seems as if director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional) only wants to show off his special effects budget. Why does someone who we’ve already seen defy the laws of physics need to lead a long and uber destructive car chase? Why does someone who lays out an entire room with the flick of the wrist allow gun toting henchmen to nearly spoil the one thing she feels the need to accomplish?

The film is just made of confusion and uselessness, even from a filmmaking standpoint. There are early jump cuts in the opening that involve predators and nature that make sense but serve no purpose in improving the narrative. And then, as if it was never used, the style vanishes. I had high hopes for this movie because I am a fan of the director. But, maybe instead of trying so hard to be a summer blockbuster, Luc Besson’s Lucy should’ve just tried to come up with a story worthy of its omnipotent main character.

FINAL GRADE: C, Wait for it on Redbox

July 2014 Quick Reviews

New movies are coming out left and right. I’m just trying to keep up. Here are a few quick reviews from some recent July flicks I’ve seen…

Tammy

Tammy_posterBy now you should know all about Melissa McCarthy’s antics. And, by now, you should know whether or not you’re a fan. I, personally, have found her hilarious just about every time she is on a screen, whether it be movie (Bridesmaids, The Heat) or television. She is both quirky and lovable and even when her characters are abrasive, you can’t help but admire their gusto. But some scripts are even too dull for Melissa McCarthy to save (see IdentityThief). In the case of Tammy, there just isn’t enough here to make this film about a down on her luck woman going road tripping with her grandma (Susan Sarandon) worth sitting through. Did I laugh? Sure, a few times. Will you laugh if you like Melissa McCarthy? Probably. But the majority of the best chuckles can be found in the trailer, so there’s no point in sitting through a boring plot when that’s the case. FINAL GRADE: C-

Sex Tape

art-streiber_sex-tape-movie-posterAs the title suggests, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal star as a married couple who make a sex tape in order to recapture their once intimate relationship. After the video is mistakenly uploaded to iPads belonging to their friends and family, the couple go on a quest to cover up their blunder as well as find a mysterious texter who has already seen the tape. Jack Black has a fairly comedic cameo and Cameron Diaz still has a very nice body in her 40’s. That’s probably the only positive things I can say about this forgettable raunchy comedy wannabe (and even the latter complement is negated by Jason Segal nudity). I found myself checking the time and waiting for this one to be over, several times. There is barely any chemistry between the two leads and the force fed heartfelt moments fall flat. Even if you found moments in the trailer funny, I doubt there is much more that you’ll crack a smile at. FINAL GRADE: D  

The Purge: Anarchy

the-purge-anarchy-2014While the first Purge had its share of twists and turn, it left a lot to be desired. With such a broad premise; annual government sanctioned murder used to cleanse our sinful country in the near future, it doesn’t make much sense to have all of the action confined to one family in one house. Anarchy luckily takes the audience further into this world, giving more characters and perspectives about this twisted society than the first film ever dreamed of. If you’re going to have a movie about legal mass murder then take us where the action is. The film follows a mother (Carmen Ejogo of Sparkle), her overly inquisitive daughter, a stranded couple going through separation, and a gun toting rogue out to avenge his child (Frank Grillo of Captain America: Winter Soldier) as they try and navigate their way through murderers, rapists, sick rich people, and even the treacherous government themselves. While the film does go through flashes of dryness and, like the first film, some characters are boring, overall the film is a solid upgrade from its predecessor and does a much better job hammering home the underlying political allegory. FINAL GRADE: B

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_poster_a_pThere is no secret as to why Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the surprise hit of summer 2011. His name is Caesar. He is what turned Rise into not just a good movie, but a classic one. His journey from pet, to frightened outcast, to brilliant revolutionary was something out of greek mythology. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wisely steps us back into Caesar’s world. This time, however, his world is much different than before, and it allows director Matt Reeves to explore the tribal, man vs. his worst nature elements from the classic films while also incorporating the mob-esque tone from Rise.

If you saw Rise (which you should have) and watched the ending credits, then you know where this film picks up. Alzheimer’s testing on apes made them super intelligent and also created a virus that began spreading throughout the world. By the time this film roles around, humans are seemingly down to only a community of survivors. Meanwhile, Caesar, now the father of two, has created a flourishing society of super smart apes.

The humans (specifically Keri Russell and Gary Oldman) all do a fine job, but it’s the apes and their interaction that make this movie even more captivating than the last. Andy Serkis, a.k.a. the king of motion capture (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Kong in 2005’s King Kong) once again returns to masterfully portray Caesar. He is stronger and wiser than he was in the previous film. Part Professor X, part Mufasa, part Tony Soprano, it is easy to see why he is such an iconic character. His entourage of apes, including the orangutan, gorilla, and bully chimp from the first film and now his teenage son Blue Eyes, are all solid supporting characters even with limited dialogue.

But the character that moves the story and makes the movie more lively, is Koba (Toby Kebbell). Remember that creepy looking, caged ape from the first film with all of the scars… yeah that guy. He is the ultimate adversary, playing out the worst natures of any creature with higher intelligence. We watch as he goes from Caesar’s friend to his ultimate enemy, attacking humans because of fear and hatred that we can’t even blame him for having, because it is warranted by our same fears and hatreds.

Like with the previous installment, there is the perfect balance of heart tugging drama to go along with the bad ass moments and quotable dialogue. I especially love a moment during the climax when Caesar and the human lead (Jason Clarke) give their sorrowful goodbyes and apologize for the inevitable war they both thought they could naively avoid.

Because there are more apes and more personalities, we get a grander scope that makes Dawn better paced and more vibrant than Rise. Not to mention the CGI is incredible. I could’ve sworn those were real apes talking. If there is a knock at all, it’s that the 3D is highly unnecessary. I also thought the film sets itself up for a sequel when it actually could’ve wrapped things up. But maybe there is more story to tell. Maybe there is one more element missing to transform our world into the true planet of the apes. If so, let’s hope it’s as smart, thought provoking, and gritty as these first two.

FINAL GRADE: A