Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Full Review)

No film in Disney/Marvel’s massive gallery was as much of a surprise success as 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The film about a ragtag group of space anti-heroes transcended its lesser known source material to become a fun summer blockbuster full of exhilarating action and humor. But it’s hard to follow up a breakout hit with something better or even just as good. Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron showed us, that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe always keeps things entertaining, sometimes their sequels can’t quite live up to the hype.

GotG_Vol2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of a group of intergalactic heroes for hire. Returning are Drax (Dave Bautista), a slow witted mustle man who lacks subtlety; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a rude and violent talking raccoon; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a naive tree monster reduced to baby form following the first film’s climax; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) skiled assassin and daughter to a space tyrant, and Peter “Star Lord” Quill, (Chris Pratt), an Earthling with a human mother and an alien father he’s never met. After the crew makes enemies out of a society of genetic purists (led by Elizabeth Debicki), the Guardians encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), an antient, powerful being claiming to be Quill’s father, and his socially awkward aprentice, named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Michael Rooker also returns as Quill’s former mentor Yondu, and Karen Gillan reprises her role as Gamora’s sister/hated rival, Nebula.

As it turns out, Guardians Vol. 2 has many of the same problems as Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron in that it seems more concerned with making the audience laugh and giving them shiny new CGI to gawk at than with forming a coherent narrative. As such, the plot to this film is all over the place for the majority of its seemingly lengthy runtime. There are far too many threads that are overly emphasized such as a subplot about Yondu’s connection to a former mentor (played by Sylvester Stallone) and his dismissal from the bounty hunting Ravagers. It isn’t until the admittedly exciting climax that things seem to actually come together, but the means hardly justifies the ends.

There’s still a great bit of humor throughout. Dave Bautista (who has greatly improved since his acting debut) is hilarious in every scene and most of the banter between the team is fun. But even here, things don’t feel as consistently organic as they did the first go round. Too much of the jokes are awkwardly raunchy (get ready for penis jokes… yes, penis jokes), and the cartoony slapstick is so abundant that it often undermines scenes that should probably be taken more seriously.

The film manages to add some weighty emotional moments to make the story feel grounded and a bit more necessary. A few scenes between Saldana’s Gamora and Gillan’s Nebula do a fantastic job of adding depth to both characters. In fact, most of the cast deserves credit for injecting likability into each of their characters. But with the story, much of the humor, and even the soundtrack all feeling like a step down, its hard to make a case that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is memorable. Not every follow up is going to be The Empire Strikes Back or The Dark Knight, but I can’t help but feel like characters this fun deserve an adventure that isn’t predominantly a throw away.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Full Review)

War Dogs (Full Review)

The Wolf of Wallstreet reminded us that a true story about shady hustlers can be both really compelling and hilarious regardless of whether audiences grasp the logistics of the actual scheme. Now Todd Phillips, Director of Old School, The Hangover and its lousy sequels I’ll try to forgive him for, handles a similar script with a pair of actors keen for this type of setting. Jonah Hill proved his worth with a stellar supporting performance in Wallstreet and Miles Teller was exceptional in 2014’s Whiplash so War Dogs has all of the ingredients for a solid comedic drama.

War_Dogs_2016_posterMiles Teller narrates the film as David Packouz, a former massage therapist with a beautiful wife (Ana de Armas) who is expecting their first child. Eager to get out of a financial rut, Teller abandons an unsuccessful venture selling bed sheets to nursing homes to join his childhood friend, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) in his business selling low end equipment to the U.S. military. Their hustling takes them from personally smuggling a truck full of ammunition through the hostile Afghan desert to personally doing business with a registered terrorist (Bradley Cooper) in hopes of winning a multi-million dollar deal in the midst of the War in Iraq. Eventually, Diveroli’s sleaziness and arrogance coupled with Packouz’s naivety lands their business in hot water with the U.S. government.

Like Wolf of Wallstreet, the movie is filled with dark humor that almost always hits its mark thanks to the charisma of the two lead actors. Teller and Hill form a perfect balance and help carry the movie through its more predictable arcs. Neither are as good as Leonardo Dicaprio was in Wallstreet, but the expectation isn’t for them to be. Where War Dogs falls short is in its relatively predictable drama. Packouz’s marriage suffers, their friendship crumbles, and of course it all ends with legal fallout. But even the film’s more zanier moments, like the aforementioned trek through hostile Afghan territory (which apparently didn’t actually happen) is undoubtedly entertaining and each major player falls into their role. So even if War Dogs feels like Diet-Wolf of Wallstreet it’s a film that feels like solid entertainment.

FINAL GRADE: B

War Dogs (Full Review)

May 2015 Quick Reviews

Summer movie season is in full swing. Here are some quick thoughts on some of the films that capped the month of May…

San_Andreas_posterSAN ANDREAS Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as rescue pilot Chief Ray Gaines in this earth quake disaster film about the San Andreas fault (mainly encompassing California) ripping apart. The film is pretty much everything you’d expect a disaster movie with The Rock to be. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

San Andreas is stuffed full of nearly every disaster movie cliché imaginable: A scientist that no one listens to until it’s too late (Paul Giamatti), a significant other that the main character must reconcile with (Carla Gugino), an offspring that needs saving (Alexandra Daddario), and a character who turns full a-hole when everything starts to go south (Ioan Gruffudd). But it’s still fairly entertaining. The action sequences are no less (or more) interesting than the events in films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, but the 3D is a nice added touch. And as far as leads go, Dwayne Johnson is right in his element here, when he isn’t trying to show too much emotional depth. All in all, the film is decent time spent, but don’t expect anything earth shatteringly original. Pun intended. FINAL GRADE: C+

Tomorrowland_posterTOMORROWLAND In this day and age when spoilers are released via on-set cell phone footage and each movie gets four trailers to show you all of the interesting parts, Tomorrowland is an absolute breath of fresh air. Kept relatively under wraps, the story revolves around an intelligent, young girl (Britt Robertson) who is recruited to save a futuristic world kept secret by history’s best and brightest. George Clooney co-stars as the former child genius turned cynical recluse who reluctantly aids her on her journey.

The cast, especially Clooney, deserves credit for strong, emotionally grounded performances. The only problem is that this adventurous build-up comes to a highly underwhelming climax that manages to weigh down the entire film. And, although highly relevant, the movie beats you over the head with its overarching message. Still, kudos to Disney and director Brad Bird for withholding all of their secrets to make this film feel wildly original. FINAL GRADE: B-

Aloha_posterALOHA Where do I start with this one? I guess I’ll begin with the overly convoluted plot. Yes, a romantic comedy has a complicated story. Anywho, Bradley Cooper stars as a contractor for the military who returns to his hometown in Hawaii to help a billionaire (Bill Murray) with a satellite launch. Yes, that’s actually the plot. Emma Stone co-stars as his Air Force watchdog who falls in love with him and Rachel McAdams as his now married ex-girlfriend.

If the military and NASA dribble involving secret missiles and land negotiations with Hawaiian natives doesn’t make this film feel droll enough, the lack of chemistry between the characters will. The film is filled with awkward moments, and not the entertaining kind of awkward that makes you laugh, but rather those moments where you just want the scene to end. The most enjoyable moments in the movie come from Rachel McAdams’ husband, played by John Krasinksi who communicates non-verbally for nearly the entire movie. He provides some snickers in spurts, but other than that, this film is neither endearing or humorous. FINAL GRADE: D+

May 2015 Quick Reviews

American Sniper (Full Review)

The art of war is a very delicate subject. Why soldiers fight, and how they fight, will probably always be a subject that is taboo. But, no matter how you feel about war, there is no denying that it takes someone with a special constitution to voluntarily thrust themselves into the filth of it. American Sniper gives us a fascinating glimpse inside the life of the noblest of the sort.

American_Sniper_posterFilms by Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, J.Edgar, Gran Torino) can be an acquired taste. They often flutter around with no clear intent or perspective or they give off a certain sense of gloom that saps the energy out of everyone watching. Luckily, here he has a subject that would be difficult to mismanage. The film follows the memoirs of U.S. Navy Seal, Chris Kyle. A man documented as the greatest sniper in our country’s history.

At the start, the film seems too much like a movie and not enough like the recount of an actual person’s life. We begin with shots of Kyle’s childhood where he beats up a bully for hurting his younger brother then receives a seemingly made-for-movie speech from his father about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. These scenes are relevant, but so hurried and overblown that they feel like the intro to a superhero movie. Luckily, things pick up when Kyle (Bradley Cooper) decides to quit his life as a cowboy and join the navy in his mid-30s.

Bradley Cooper has come a long way since his days of playing comedic tools in films like Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. Here, he takes his game to new heights. I’d never heard of Chris Kyle a.k.a. “The Legend” as he was known in the military circuit, and odds are you haven’t either. So, a poor performance could’ve easily made this man seem like a naive, robotic, jarhead brainwashed by the American ideal of patriotism. But instead, Cooper is utter perfection. He portrays Kyle with fierce passion and nobility that makes him feel like a true, flawed hero.

Thanks to Cooper, this Chris Kyle feels as real as if we knew him. Cooper guides us through every emotional moment, from each conflicting kill, ranging from maniacal butchers to women and children in the name of protecting his fellow soldiers, to Kyle’s bouts with post traumatic stress disorder after returning home to his wife (an equally brilliant Sienna Miller) and kids. The film also succeeds through several solid supporting roles (Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman) and also manages to address the controversial perspectives of the “War on terror” through the eyes of the men engulfed in it.

There is nothing enjoyable about war. War is always horrific and grim, and movies on the subject share the same sentiments. In that sense, American Sniper is just like any other war film. Luckily, we have stellar performances to help an otherwise dull film transcend into something incredibly compelling.

FINAL GRADE: B+

American Sniper (Full Review)

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.

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

American Hustle… Full Review

It’s amazing what you can do with a great cast. In some instances, you can take a group of talented actors and build a story solely around them. And while this is no guarantee for a great movie (see The Counselor), it does provide enough of a framework to make something worthwhile more times than not.

ImageDirector David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) probably knows the power of the cast better than anyone, because he’s worked with most of this cast before. This time around, he takes his acting All-stars to the glorious late-1970s and engulfs them into a loosely based tale of the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation. It’s worth noting that the costumes, soundtrack, and cinematography for this film are all great… but none of those things are why this movie could compete for an Academy Award.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams reunite from The Fighter to play two con-artists who fall in love, despite the fact that Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld has a family of his own. Watching Bale’s hairy gut and listening to his heavy Brooklyn accent makes you almost forget this is the same guy that played Batman. Adams brings out her ferocity and sex appeal like never before as Sydney Prosser, perhaps the biggest hustler in the entire film. After the two lovers’ shady investment firm is taken down by the FBI, they are forced to work with federal agent Richie DeMasso to bust other con-artists. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) plays the greedy Agent DeMasso at his angry and hyperactive best.

The dynamic of those three characters as they attempt to hustle the good hearted, but double dealing, mayor of Atlantic City is what drives the plot. Jeremy Renner (Bourne Legacy, Avengers) plays Mayor Carmine Polito with so much genuine spunk that you can’t help but root for him. What drives the movie most, however, is Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) who channels up perhaps her best performance yet as Irving Rosenfeld’s loud, obnoxious, and unpredictable wife Rosalyn. Are back-to-back Oscars in the near future for her?

If the film falls flat to some, it is because of a plot which at times becomes a bit convoluted. But overall, there is enough information for the average moviegoer to comprehend. So while American Hustle may not be the smartest film of the year or the most exciting, you’ll be hard pressed to find one with such fun and invigorating performances.

FINAL GRADE: A

   

American Hustle… Full Review