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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 Big Short (2015)

3463_the-big-short_8FFAAdam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.

In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?

bigshortbale900The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.

McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.

big-shortOf the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.

There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.

McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

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