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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Live By Night (Full Review)

Once upon a time, (thanks to movies like Gigli) Ben Affleck’s name didn’t garner many positive vibes. Then, along came The Town and Argo and just like that, ole’ Ben’s reputation for quality movie making was back to Good Will Hunting status.  But reputations can only survive for so long before they have to be reinforced. And after the bad mojo created from Batman v Superman (most of it entirely not his fault), Mr. Affleck needed something to remind us that he is still one of the best filmmakers/actors.

live_by_night_filmLive By Night is the story of bootleggers in Florida during the time of American Prohibition. Affleck directs and stars as Joe Coughlin, the Boston born son of a Police chief (Brendan Gleeson) who is an outlaw by day. When his affair with an Irish mobster (Robert Glenister)’s girlfriend (Sienna Miller) lands him in hot water, Coughlin moves to Tampa, Florida with his partner (Chris Messina) to begin work bootlegging for the Italian mob. There, he meets his wife (Zoe Saldana), battles the Ku Klux Klan, and attempts to keep a Sheriff(Chris Cooper)’s preaching daughter (Elle Fanning) from ruining his organization’s plan to build the state’s first casino.

As you might be able to tell from the synopsis, the movie is filled with subplots. Clearly Affleck had ambition, but his film never seems to reach a consensus about what story it actually wants to tell or what point it wants to make. None of the subplots are uninteresting, but because things jump around so much and so often, it all feels like one big long mess that would’ve probably been better suited for an HBO mini-series.

Thankfully, the film isn’t a bore. The gangster action is exciting whenever it hits, but those moments don’t come as often as you think or want. In fact, for much of the movie, it feels more like a romance and a film about the political workings of bootlegging more than a gangster film. The lulls in action or intrigue are made less unfavorable by a few welcomed moments of wit, charm and humor from Affleck and a solid supporting cast. But at no point is any of it enough to fully justify the film’s poor pacing and sheer lack of focus.

FINAL GRADE: C, Redbox it

Star Trek Beyond (Full Review)

I was never a Trekky before J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise with his sensational 2009 reboot. 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, while divisive among purists, was an equally exciting adventure for me. So needless to say my expectations were set high for this third installment about the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) taking over for Abrams in the Director’s chair there was little for me to believe that Star Trek Beyond wouldn’t be another exciting entry.

STAR-TREK-BEYOND-5Beyond follows up with the crew of the Enterprise as they are knee deep in a five year expedition across space. Ship captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) contemplates stepping down as life becomes mundane aboard the ship, while his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) juggles his faltering relationship with shipmate Uhura (Zoe Saldana) along with the thought of also leaving the Enterprise to lead his home world. After a pit stop at a state of the art space colony brings them into contact with an alien (Lydia Wilson) who has lost her ship and crew, the Enterprise sets out to help her only to fall into a trap set by a mysterious villain named Krall (Idris Elba). The encounter leaves the Enterprise destroyed and its crew (Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin) kidnapped or stranded on an alien world. Kirk’s only hope of rescuing his friends lies in a orphaned alien warrior named Jayla (Sofia Boutella).

The film’s biggest issue is that it struggles to live up to the heights of its predecessors thanks to a script that makes the plot feel like a one off television episode more than a third installment in a film franchise. The stakes don’t feel nearly as high as in Into Darkness and the individual characters aren’t highlighted as well as they were in the 2009 installment. Throw in a relatively goofy ending featuring a song by the Beastie Boys and Elba’s stock adversary who simply grumbles and growls for most of the movie and it all feels like a step down.

But if you’re a fan of Star Trek in general, or just a fan of Abrams’ previous movies, then there is still plenty to love in Beyond. While some characters don’t get much of anything to do (Cho and Saldana), others have phenomenal dynamics that add social context and humor. The relationship between Pegg’s Montgomery Scott (Pegg) and Jayla is an endearing one and the dynamic between Spock and Dr. McCoy (Urban) is one of the film’s biggest highlights. Also, unsurprisingly, Pine is once again sensational as Captain Kirk, a leader so witty and brave that it’d be hard not to run through a brick wall for him.

The visuals are also stunning which should come as no shock. So even though Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite a classic, it’s still time well spent. It’s hard to blame any of the pieces directly involved when the story simply isn’t pertinent enough, so there’s nothing wrong with just sitting back and enjoying this one and hoping for a little more the next time around.

FINAL GRADE: B

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.