Zoe Saldana

May 17, 2017

‘Guardians Vol.2’ Lacks the Magic, but That’s Not All Bad

It would be putting it mildly that the expectations were out of this world for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.” James Gunn’s oddball superhero action comedy introduced fans of the MCU to a brand new type of hero and extended the storytelling into outer space. Sure, both “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” took us into the mythical world of Asgard, but the colorful landscape of deep space was something to behold.

Also, the fact that Marvel/Disney was willing to take a chance on a Troma-alum like Gunn who seems to have an affinity for tentacle Hentai porn and graphic violence, was a breathe of fresh air. You had the prefect blend of heart, family-friendliness and of course sexual innuendo, hence the first “Guardians” was a smash hit.

Take us three years to 2017 and Gunn is back at it again with “Vol. 2,” a flawed, but fun, sequel that is essentially a companion piece to the MCU as opposed to any type of film that progresses the overall story arc in the MCU. More importantly, it seems like the shackles were completely off of Gunn to create a film in the way that he sees fit, and that is where the film both shines, and trips over itself at times.

We meet our heroes back in 2014, fresh off the heels of their big victory against Ronan the Accuser and turning over the Power Stone to the Nova Corps on Xandar. This time they are helping the Sovereign protect some batteries from a giant tentacle monster. With their job complete, the Guardians receive their reward; the captured Nebula.

Of course, things go south quick and our heroes crash land on a lone planet and are greeted by a man names Ego, who tells Star Lord that he’s his father and wants to show him his birth rite. At this point our heroes part ways and the film gets the plot moving.

It’s difficult to put into words what’s wrong with this film without sounding like a cranky old man that doesn’t like cutesy Disney-like characters, the use, or overuse, of music, and a couple of jokes and scenes that are a little too self-indulgent. But I guess that’s what you get when you let an inmate run the asylum.

The biggest criticism from most people is that the sequel isn’t as good as the first one. Wow, what a criticism to make…the sequel isn’t as good. Hard hitting stuff. However, I have been pounding the drum in my perceived notion that there has been a recent dip in the quality of Marvel product. But this could also be my perception since the quality has been high for nearly decade, that is was inevitable that a few leaks would start to spring from the hull of the Titanic that is Marvel Studios.

I have to admit, during the title sequence of “Vol. 2” nearly took me out of the film. Unlike Chris Pratt’s trounce through Morag dancing and singing to “Come and Get Your Love,” the Baby Groot dance to “Mr. Blue Sky,” while the rest of the team is fighting a massive alien set the tone that I was going to be annoyed with cute antics. Pratt’s dance set the tone for fun and personally I rather see a REAL HUMAN character on screen than a computer generated creature pimped put to sell Pop! Vinyl figurines.

However, the film rebounded from that and turned into a pretty fun, stand-alone Marvel film. There is meditation on family and abandonment and the idea that the heart should drive you as opposed to your brain, and those themes were handled quite well considering all the boombastic action going on for about 80% of the film.

This brings me to one of the things I really liked, and that was Gunn’s freedom to pay homage to his friends on screen, namely Michael Rooker and his brother, Sean Gunn. The additional screen time and plot progression of Rooker’s Yondu, and Gunn’s Kraglin is something unexpected and a breathe of fresh air. Being close to the director is certainly a perk, but the way both Yondu and Kraglin are treated in “Vol. 2” is something a lot of studios with millions of dollars invested in a film wouldn’t allow to happen; make them a central part of the film. But low and behold, they are given much more screen time and are allowed to play pivotal roles, especially at the film’s climax.

At the end of the day, these films are bulletproof. No matter the reviews or criticism, “Vol. 2” will make close to a billion dollars worldwide, and the Marvel juggernaut just keeps chugging along. In all fairness, however, it’s fair to openly criticize this film, because it’s not perfect, and has it’s flaws, but don’t criticize it just to criticize because overall, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” is a harmless Summer blockbuster that is just another piece of the Marvel machine heading towards the inevitable “Infinity War,” and if anything, at least this film is proving that you don’t need to shoehorn things into a universe that is so bloated that at times it seems to be collapsing in on itself.

“Vol. 2” is the closest thing we’ve had to a stand-alone Marvel movie, thus far. No need for cute cameos or a character just passing by. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind just seeing a “Guardians of the Galaxy” film universe. It’s ripe for the picking and there are plenty of things to cherry pick and create some fun films. Hell, a talking racoon and a tree are some of the most talked about characters in the MCU; who’d of thought they would be more beloved at this point than Iron Man or Captain America. People are looking for their heroes to be against the grain, and that is why “Black Panther,” for my money is going to blow people away, but tread carefully when giving the masses what they want, the disappointment could also be monumental and remember; with great power, comes great responsibility.

August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Matt’s Take)

ANTI

Guardians of the Galaxy – Anti

Usually once a year, there is that one movie that you know is a foregone conclusion. I won’t dance around it, it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” this year. But before I get into the meat of this review, a brief story; the night before I was all set to watch “Guardians” the next morning, a sense of dread washed over me. I thought, “what if this movie isn’t as good as I thought it would be?” “What if I walk out feeling slighted?” “What if everyone else is walking out happy and I’m walking out disappointed?” I would have to really take a look into my soul and see what was wrong with ME? Alas, that wasn’t the case, “Guardians” was wonderful, it was great, it was down-right groovy. For me, “Guardians” is the anti-Marvel movie. It plays by it’s own rules, and for the first time in Marvel’s Phase Two films I wanted more, got more, and wasn’t letdown, and before you attack, I also loved “Captain America 2” but “Guardians” has taken that big step forward that Marvel was lacking; it’s expanding the universe to places you wouldn’t believe.

“Guardians” tells the tale of Peter Quill, aka, Star-Lord, a space pirate working with Yondu, leader of the Ravangers. While exploring the desolate planet of Morag, Quill stumbles upon a mysterious orb and is attacked by Korath the Pursuer, but escapes. Needless to stay an adventure plays out that features Quill teaming up with a living tree named Groot, a sexy, green, ass-kicking assassin with a past, Gamora, a gun-toting, wise-cracking raccoon called Rocket, and Drax, a tattooed convict with nothing left to lose. Together the “Guardians of the Galaxy” have to save the planet of Xander from Kree extremist, Ronan the Accuser. It’s typical comic book storytelling with a rebellious and anti-Marvel bite that we haven’t seen since “Iron Man.”

Since day one, it just seemed that “Guardians” would succeed, but only with those that were willing to give it a chance, and after it’s first weekend $160 Million international haul, plenty were willing to give something new a chance. The cast is one of the best, but one of the oddest that you might ever see. Led by Chris Pratt, who so many know as the former Pawnee City Hall shoe shiner Andy Dwyer in “Parks and Recreation”, makes it known he’s ready for Hollywood in a “star” making performance, and the cast only gets better. From Zoe Saldana, Michael Rooker, and even Glenn Close, the cast is the perfect mix for a film this eccentric.
While the parts played by humans are great, it’s the CG characters that really steal things and create an unexplainable emotional connection with the audience. Who would think that a raccoon and a humanoid tree creature would create some of the most emotional scenes in film this year. It’s a testament to direction, which I’ll get into shortly, script, and performance. You believe that Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, is real, and his implied tragic back-story brings the feels in a major way, and this leads me to his relationship with Groot, his bodyguard/whipping tree, if you will. At heart, their relationship is simple; Rocket is a raccoon, who lives in a tree. The beauty is in the simplicity. The most human emotions out of the entire film are from the film’s two non-human characters.

However, nothing would work in “Guardians” if it wasn’t for one person; director James Gunn. From humble beginnings working with Lloyd Kaufman at Troma Studios to his first directing gig on the ultra-underrated throwback creature feature “Slither,” and now as Marvel’s golden child directing what could be the high-grossing film of the year. It’s been quite a road. What Gunn brings to Marvel is a rebel mentality. He’s never been a guy to conform, but at the same time he knows how to strike the perfect of pleasing the fans, while still creating something that fits his twisted sensibilities. Plus, he cares about the material. While on the media trail, all Gunn would talk about is how everyone is going to love what he called “the raccoon.” Normally, directors will build up their biggest stars and the big action set pieces, but all Gunn went on about is how Rocket is going to steal the show…..a raccoon….was going to steal a nearly $200 million dollar space epic produced by Marvel and Disney in the middle of the Summer movie season? Well, Gunn was right, he….was….right.

So many things could have gone wrong with this film too. One, not many people know about the “Guardians” outside of hardcore comic fans. For the normal reader I’m sure the idea of talking trees and other misfits might be a little “alien.” Two, this was a huge gamble for Marvel/Disney. Taking a chance on Gunn as a director and trusting in Pratt as the lead wasn’t something on anyone’s radar, except for Kevin Feige. Three, creating another comic book team up, but only doing it in two hours as opposed to three movies (I would count “The Incredible Hulk” but for some reason people don’t see that as canon now). Comparing “Guardians” to “The Avengers” is natural; their both team-based films fighting a big bad, oh, and they argue a lot. What sets “Guardians” apart however is the heart it has. I’m not saying that Joss Whedon doesn’t have heart, hell, he’s one of the biggest fanboys working in film today and Marvel wouldn’t be where they are without him, but Gunn not only created something out of what could have been considered nothing, and surpassed “Avengers” in my opinion. And yes, “Guardians” has become a huge comic commodity recently but only if you are a true die-hard comic reader could you say with a straight face that you’ve been a “Guardian” fan from the jump. That, or you’re almost 50 years old at the time of this reading.

This might sound sacrilegious, but “Guardians” is better than the “Avengers.” Yes, it is. On first viewing I still had “Avengers” in the lead by a little bit, but sitting down the second time, this time with the wife, I felt so much more emotion watching it again. First, I could relax a little more and simply enjoy the film this time and not worry about the overall story. I had the chance to focus on the little things that made the film special. Gunn has a habit of including little tid-bits for fans of his older films, including the always entertaining cameo by his mentor Kaufman. The other thing was watching this with my wife. At heart, we’re both nerds; however, we butt heads when it comes to things like Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings, but this is one of the films that we were both looking forward to this year. Not only is “Guardians” great fun, but it also brings my wife and I closer together. We cried in the same parts, we cheered when our heroes finally came out victorious, and most importantly when we walked out of the film we both looked at each other said, “let’s see that again!” That’s a win in my book, and something I’m sure a lot of people are doing around the world.

Finally, and this is for the cynics. I understand your stance on comic films. They are campy, fairly vapid, and maybe worst of all, don’t add much to the film landscape in terms of increasing awareness of women’s rights, the plight of those overseas, or contain some sort of message that is supposed to make us better people. Well, maybe it does, at least with the last point. When a person walks out of a film and wants to see it again, or that little kid falls in love with a gun-toting raccoon, maybe that’s their way of changing the world. It’s making it a better place to live when we can all be together in a darkened theater and enjoy what is happening on the screen and feel like we are one community sharing a goal; to have fun. Look, I enjoy art-house film as much as the next person, but in a world that is this shitty, and hard to live in, why not have some fun with a wise-cracking rogue, a walking thesaurus covered in tattoos, a genetically engineered killer looking for redemption, a tree that gives flowers to little girls, and of course the raccoon. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is everything it was meant to be; a fun, balls-to-the-wall space adventure that gives cynics the finger and allows someone who I consider the “anti-Michael Bay” to show the world what he can do on the grandest of all stages, and its worthy of your love, admiration, and at times, tears.

Fun Fact: After you put the kids to bed, make sure you check out James Gunn’s “PG Porn.” It’s arousing.

August 2, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy (DJ’s Take)

REWARDING

The road to Guardians Of The Galaxy has a been a strange one if you think about it.  When Marvel’s cinematic universe potentate Kevin Feige announced at 2012’s San Diego Comic-Con that the next big film coming down the pipeline was going to be Guardians, many were floored.  It was supposed to be a victory lap for Marvel after The Avengers changed the comic book movie genre forever…but they decided to come out with Guardians Of The Galaxy next?

Most didn’t even know who the hell the Guardians Of The Galaxy were.  I, being a comic book reader since I was seven, knew who they were and still was confused.  The balls on Marvel.  The balls indeed.  This WAS their victory lap.  The Avengers success allowed them to take a chance on a property that no one knew, and have it fly under the radar pressure free.  And it did.  Until that trailer came out.  A trailer that played up the film’s unfamiliarity with audience for a laugh.  A trailer that showed us why Feige was so confident in the property to begin with.  Guardians Of The Galaxy looked like it was going to capitalize greatly on one of the strengths of Marvel.  That strength being their films are fun.  It also looked as though Guardians was going to take advantage of the growing desire for a lighthearted sci-fi space adventure before even their Disney brother Star Wars Episode VII could.  I mean look at this poster

If Only Serenity Came Out Now

Trailer after trailer came out, each looking better than the last.  Excitement grew.  Critics fawned.  DC pouted.  Then about two weeks before release…rumblings of worry began about Guardians Of The Galaxy possibly not living up to the hype.  A film about characters no one knew four years ago was now being thought of as too good to be true.  The whole thing reminds me of another risky venture that Marvel took back in 2008.  And we remember how that turned out don’t we?

THE TANK = COMIC BOOK FANBOYS’ MINDS

Guardians Of The Galaxy is merely another risky venture by Feige and the boys at Marvel.  The verdict?  Not only does it live up to the recent hype you’ve been hearing, it is possibly the most REWARDING experience you’ll have in the theater all year. 

So, what is Guardians about?  It’s about a group of emotionally scarred kindred spirits coming together to become a family.  What?  It is.  The kindred spirits just happen to be raccoon, a tree, an earthling, a deadly alien chic, and a crazed warrior.   Sure there is a plot revolving around the retrieval of a mysterious macguffin (A Favorite Trope For Marvel) and various quests for revenge.  However, this is really about the unity of these characters amidst their differences and obstacles.

You may think that I am crapping on the plot of Guardians, but I’m not.  I merely want to bring attention to the real accomplishment of this film.  That accomplishment is the quality of these characters themselves.  Each one of them are so rich and fleshed out, the story almost feels inconsequential.  You’ll fall in love with them equally and so deeply that you’d be willing to watch them regardless of their journey.  The Guardians are as uniquely lovable as Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie, 3PO and R2 or Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Wash, River, Book, Kaylee, Simon, and Inara.  And that is just on paper.  You still gotta cast the thing.  Thankfully Gunn and Feige knocked that out of the park as well.

Matthew McConaughey is an actor that has taken a meteoric rise over the past few years.  However, his McConaugh-sance has smoke screened most from the arrival of Chris Pratt.  This guy has been in projects ranging from Parks and Rec, Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, Lego Movie and has crushed his performance each time.  Peter Quill now might very well be Pratt’s Han Solo role, while his part in the new Jurassic Park might be his Indiana Jones.  Pratt is that magnetic and the magnetically charming throughline for this entire film.  Quill could soon become a Marvel favorite after audiences get a glimpse of Star-Lord, even with Robert Downey Jr. still walking the earth as Tony Stark.  It is nearly impossible not to fall in love with this character from his very first frame on screen, much like how we did with Downey Jr. in Iron Man.

Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is not as entertainingly devilish as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.  However, she has the tough task of being the film’s straight man or woman as it were.  Saldana is solid in the role and has undeniable chemistry with Pratt.  Whenever she is given a scene to carry, she delivers.  Dave Bautista was the one character that I was worried about.  He essentially plays the Thor role of the team, which could be bad if done poorly.  However, Gunn plays into any stilt and stiffness that Bautista could of have had and uses it as a character trait.  A decision that makes Drax possibly the most humorous characters in the film.  A stroke of genius if you think about.  Bautista’s acting, which is still quite good in this, is now nearly immune from criticism.

Diesel and Cooper make icons of their two CGI characters.  Cooper especially lends something to Rocket that I never expected.  He is the fan favorite master of wisecracking, of course.  However, there is a very terrific and subtle thread of emotional trauma that Cooper brings to Rocket.  Just one of the many examples of the detail and time that went into creating these characters.  A feat completed through the writing and directing of James Gunn.

I think Gunn might be Marvel’s new golden boy.  I understand why there were rumors of him taking over Avengers after Joss Whedon.  Gunn and Whedon’s thematic voices are different, but they seem to approach the material in a similar way.  They both never forget to service their characters first.  They both embrace fun without letting it get too silly.  And they both seem to love the material they are working with.  (Trust me…that is not always a guarantee…ahem…Marc Webb…ahem…Michael Bay)  Gunn brings so much life to this world, I’m amazed the budget was as low as it was. ($170 million)
With the freedom Marvel seemed to have given Gunn with Guardians and the success that I think it will be, I can only imagine what we will be in store for in the sequel.

Guardians Of The Galaxy was a high risk, but ended up becoming a high REWARD.  We should all go out and claim this REWARD, and by doing so, prove that strange and different is not automatically box office poison.  Hop aboard the Milano…grab a prosthetic leg…never call Drax a thesaurus…Watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.  And if you don’t…Peter Quill has a message for you.

December 22, 2013

Out Of The Furnace

PERFORMANCES

Perhaps it is because I’m a black man born and raised in a city environment that the world of the country gangster interests me so much.  Their world is an entirely different world than the one I’m used to, and it’s just a short ways up the highway.  I watched The Dukes Of Hazzard religiously as a kid…before I realized that them Duke boys were driving ’round with a big “Go F%*k Yourself Black People” flag on their car.  It is no secret that Justified is my favorite show on television. (SCREW YOU GOLDEN GLOBE COMMITTEE)  Even Roadhouse tickles the hell out of me.  Especially the absurdity of that final scene.  So, Out Of The Furnace seemed like a film set directly in my entertainment wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, the film has an overly simple and predictable plot that merely serves as a platform for its real asset.  The thoroughly stellar PERFORMANCES.

Out Of The Furnace comes from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper.  Crazy Heart also ended up being a film with an unremarkable plot but extremely remarkable and Oscar winning PERFORMANCES.  Furnace is about the chaos that happens after two brothers get mixed up with a psychotic mountain man gangster.  That’s it.  Okay, there are some other secondary facets to the story.  This includes a regretable accident, an awkward love triangle, and a combat veteran’s hardship.  However, hardly anything happens that you will not see coming or have not seen before.  Because the premise is this simple and familiar, the moments that connect the important plot elements feels like overly long and extraneous padding.  You could easily cut forty minutes from this barely two hour film and still not miss a thing.  A very unfortunate problem, seeing as those padded moments have some of the film’s better acted scenes.  This makes me think they were kept in, not because the story needed it, but because of how good the actors were in it.  You never want to have a film where great PERFORMANCES are playing defense with your story.

Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are real artists when it comes to framing and light.  I think Cooper could make a terrific western if he wanted to.  The western genre is centered on confrontation, tension and the anticipation of violence.  That is maybe what he was trying to do here.  A modern day western.  If that is the case then the pacing of the film makes sense.  However, there are still some elements that don’t serve the build up of confrontation.  Though, Cooper should be credited for once again getting what he got from his actors in this film.

People still forget how great of an actor Christian Bale is.  Even after his recent Oscar win for The Fighter.  In The Fighter, Bale played a larger than life character that required his usual body transformation.  It was a character that gave him many things to do and many things to play with.  His character Russell Baze is precisely the opposite of Dicky Ward.  Russell is more subdued and still.  Most of Bale’s PERFORMANCE is internalized.  And yet, the PERFORMANCE is tremendous.  A scene with him and Zoe Saldana on a bridge is probably some of the finest acting you’ll see this year.  Yeah, Zoe Saldana is in this.  She isn’t in it for a long time, but long enough to give a strong PERFORMANCE.  Bale’s brother Rodney is played by the Affleck brother who can act.   (You’re an awesome director Ben, but Casey can act circles around you)  Again, the dynamic between the two brothers is nothing new.  However, Casey and Bale elevate the relationship in every scene they share.  You would never think Casey could display an intensity that rivals the always intense Bale, but he does.  And speaking of intense, the real standout of this movie is Woody Harrelson.  From the first scene, you know that Harrelson is going to steal this film.  He is tough, funny, and scary as hell.  He is such a great character, I wish there was a little more time dedicated to him.  His inevitable showdown with Bale struck me as a bit anticlimactic.   Cooper might have meant to keep his character Harlan Degroat (What a great name) simple and vague.  However, I would have appreciated a little more time with the character and see the behind the scenes of how he ran his organization.

I’ve focused on the main stars, which really short changes the fine work done by the supporting cast.  From Forest Whitaker, to Willam Dafoe, to Sam Shepard.  Every actor brought their A game.  Sadly, the story surrounding them is simply just a B-.  Grab your rifle…and your boxing tape…don’t let Woody Harrelson serve you a hotdog…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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