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

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Passengers (Full Review)

1 + 1 = 2. Simple math. But movies don’t work that way. One great actor, plus another great actor, plus an intriguing concept should equate to a good movie. Unfortunately, sometimes even when a film has all of these factors working for it, a multitude of other things can keep it from being as triumphant as we want it to be. Passengers, is an ‘A’ movie concept, with ‘C’ level execution.

passengers_2016_film_posterThe film takes place in a distant future where space ships ferry humans off to live on different colonized worlds. These trips take decades and often centuries, so the passengers are meant to be kept in cryogenic sleep until they’re months away from their destination. Enter Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), one of over 5,000 passengers aboard the Avalon. Jim is awakened 90 years too soon from his cryogenic sleep after the Avalon collides with a meteor that triggers a slow wave of malfunctions. With an android bar tender as his only companion (Martin Sheen), Jim slowly falls into a deep depression with the realization that he cannot be put back to sleep. That is until journalist Aurora Lane (Jenifer Lawrence) is also awakened. Alone on a randomly malfunctioning ship, the two fall in love until a dark secret threatens their relationship.

The best thing the film has going for it is Chris Pratt. Pratt has the charisma to carry a movie on his own and manages to personify all of the most emotional moments in the movie much better than his co-star. Lawrence isn’t bad by any stretch and the two have wonderful chemistry that makes their love story seem genuine, which is important considering there aren’t many other characters ever on screen. But, Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora seems a bit boring and the movie could almost be more interesting without her. Her presence and the montage that depicts the happier moments of their romance, actually manage to undermine the more enjoyable Cast Away-like tone that the movie establishes when it’s just Pratt onscreen.

But the most significant reason Passengers disappoints revolves around the film’s latter half. The philosophically intriguing twist that engulfs the movie’s middle is barely explored and seemingly tossed aside in the end to make things feel happier, but much more formulaic. The feelings and moral complexities conjured between the characters as a result of the twist could’ve and should’ve been the focal point of the movie. Instead, it feels like a footnote on a film that is essentially Space Titanic.

The climax is filled with action sequences as the two try to fix the ship in ways that seem preposterous even for a science fiction film. Then there’s Laurence FIshburne’s wasted character Gus, the ship’s captain. The character is a commanding, yet calming presence, but isn’t onscreen long enough to be anything other than a plot device meant to forward the arc of the main actors.

The effects are solid and there are plenty of exciting moments to go along with the solid performances. But Passengers could’ve been a film as psychologically stimulating as Arrival. Instead it settles for being a Nicolas Sparks movie with a generic blockbuster ending. And while that may be entertaining for some, it’s disappointing for anyone who hoped to see something unique.

FINAL GRADE: C

The Magnificent Seven (Full Review)

magnificent_seven_2016The western, or “Shoot ‘em ups” as my grandfather calls them, was once America’s most popular and profitable movie genre. But after the days of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, America moved on to science fiction and buddy cop movies, leaving the old west behind. Now, even the best westerns get little love. So, here comes Denzel Washington to the rescue along with Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) to try and revitalize the genre with a remake of The Magnificent Seven.

The original Magnificent Seven (1960) is itself an old west retelling of a (superior) Japanese film called The Seven Samurai. Both tell the story of a group of seven outlaws who band together to defend a small town from bandits. This new film carries the same premise with Denzel stepping into the lead role as a bounty hunter recruited by a widow (Haley Bennett) to save her town from a wealthy land thief (Peter Sarsgard). Rounding out the seven cowboys are a snarky gambler (Chris Pratt), a former soldier (Ethan Hawke) and his assassin friend (Byung-Hun Lee), a Mexican fugitive (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), and a comedic old timer with a proclivity for chucking axes (Vincent D’Onofrio).

The premise was fresh to audiences in the 1960’s, but here it feels cliché from the pacing to the characters. The dialogue, the camera work, and even the gunslinging all ends up feeling like a generic western. The often cartoonish nature of a few scenes make the overall product seem like a summer blockbuster version of something meant to be a little bit more thought provoking (see the Japanese original).

But there is certainly some enjoyment to be had. As always, Denzel Washington commands every scene he’s in. Chris Pratt, through a relatively weak cowboy accent, does provide a few laughs even though his character is just an 1800’s version of Star Lord. And overall the camaraderie of the seven men is felt even if it is rushed through. As for the loud, often over the top and formulaic action, it’s hard to not find it entertaining. So even if Magnificent Seven isn’t fresh or memorable like Quentin Tarentino’s Hateful Eight, it is a relatively fun two hour romp filled with the guns, explosions and bravado that make the genre worth watching.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Jurassic World (Full Review)

There’s a reason people love horror movies and thrillers. It’s that feeling you get when your heart races, your eyes get wide, and you start thinking “Oh s**t, oh s**t! RUN!” The first time I ever felt that feeling was when I first saw 1993’s Jurassic Park. I loved the movie so much, that I actually wanted to be a paleontologist when I was 5 years old. Two sequels followed, and while they were entertaining, they couldn’t quite capture the sense of wonder that encompassed the original. With Jurassic World, Director Colin Trevorrow and company hope they can recapture that magic that seems to have gotten lost over time.

Jurassic_World_posterFailing to include the theme park element in the plot was one of the biggest draw backs to The Lost World, and Jurassic Park 3. But this time, the park is now open. Set roughly 20 years after the catastrophe that saw dinosaurs run amuck following employee sabotage, the kinks of founder John Hammond’s groundbreaking theme park have been essentially worked out. Jurassic World, as it is now called, is fully functional with genetically recreated creatures ranging from giant sea monsters, flying pterodactyls and of course, the T-Rex.

But apparently, living dinosaurs aren’t enough. Tourists and investors want bigger and scarier and something fresh (there’s a metaphor for summer films in there somewhere). This leads to the park scientists, lead by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong reprising his role from Jurassic Park), bio-engineering the first hybrid super dinosaur named Indominus Rex.  You can guess what happens from there.

Many of the decisions made by characters in this film are incredibly dumb. I’m talking ‘exploring an abandoned cemetery’ or ‘hearing a scary noise and going to see what it is’ type of dumb. But it shouldn’t bother you, because we all want things to go south. We want park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to ignore common sense and refuse to evacuate the island at the first sign of trouble. We want park C.E.O. Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) to try and capture the Indominus Rex alive to save his investment instead of trying to kill it. We want teenage brothers to foolishly wander off on their own in a theme park filled with deadly dinosaurs. We want raptor tamer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to be a badass who no one listens to despite the fact that he seems to be the only one who knows how to deal with the creatures. Why? Because those are the things that make horror films, disaster movies, and thrillers the most fun.

And Jurassic World is off the charts on the fun scale. Even before the inevitable disaster that sends everyone screaming in terror, the film captures the sense of wonder that a child would get at his first trip to the zoo. From the moment we hear John Williams’ iconic theme, we feel like we’re back in Jurassic Park, and that’s something none of the previous sequels manage to recapture. Once the chaos ensues, it is as heart pounding as ever even if it feels cheesy. The final sequence seems ripped right out of a Godzilla movie, and I enjoyed every second of it.

Jurassic World isn’t a cinematic classic with a ton of memorable characters. The one exception is Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady who is witty and cool from start to finish. And several subplots, particularly one about a government official (Vincent D’Onofrio) trying to weaponize raptors for the military, could have been left on the cutting room floor. But the movie is absolute gold as summer entertainment. More importantly, to fans who grew up re-watching the original over and over again, it is beautifully nostalgic.

FINAL GRADE: A-

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.