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Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

sM6KRdyGuy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Great Gatsby (2013)

the-great-gatsby-poster1It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.

In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.

101900_galLuhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).

The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.

101940_galIf I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.

The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.

Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.

Nate’s Grade: B

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