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F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Has a multi-billion-dollar franchise ever had this much confusion and inconsistency with a name? The Fast and Furious saga, which is what we’re now calling it I suppose, began twenty years ago in 2001 and has undergone all sorts of titular irregularity. We’ve had different adjectives favored (Fast Five, Furious 7) and even gone the route of number-related wordplay, like 2018’s very soap opera-sounding The Fate of the Furious (spelled F8 in some incarnations). The ninth entry is titled F9, and by the logic of the previous sequel, I would assume that was intended to stand for “Fff-nine,” or likely “Fine,” and at this point an implicit admission of the franchise just not even trying to be relatable to any kind of recognizable pattern or order or even coherency. Alas, the title is apparently only supposed to be read as F-9, followed by the also soap opera-sounding The Fast Saga subtitle (sorry, “Furious,” maybe you’ll regain credit billing in the tenth movie in 2023). Maybe that will include the soap opera-sounding subtitle, “As the Wheels Spin.” It’s all just a curious way to handle name recognition for a twenty-year blockbuster franchise. F9 was delayed a year from COVID, a phrase that will be repeated a lot with upcoming fall releases, and after watching the 130-minute sequel, I think the franchise has finally exhausted its general appeal for me.

I’ll begin by stating my own apologist stance on the Fast saga. I’ve never been invested in this franchise for the characters (with the exception of The Rock because he is The Rock) or for the stories, and I doubt few others who even consider themselves fans would differ. I watch these movies for their ridiculous stunts and action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics but make the ghost of Isaac Newton vomit. As long as those action set pieces delivered the goods, I was able to forgive much. And I have had to ignore or forgive a lot but until now I have found those set pieces able to clear an increasingly elevating hurdle, the baggage of these characters and trying to make me care even as they become impervious superheroes that have long left the earthbound trappings of a scrappy team of underground street racers lead by Vin Diesel back in 2001. Now Diesel is 54, every member of his beloved crew/family will never die even after they appear to die, and the filmmakers have decided to introduce a long-lost adult brother played by John Cena, never mind the fact that these two muscle men don’t look like they share a single shred of DNA. It doesn’t matter, and the question remains what even matters any longer for a franchise defined by its brain-melting excess? It’s a soap opera with spy missions. It’s dumb fun to eat popcorn to. That’s all.

I acknowledge the inherent absurdity in bemoaning the over-the-top nature of a franchise whose very appeal was its over-the-top nature. It’s hard to define but every movie universe has a line of sustainable believability. Once that line is crossed, you feel it. The Fast saga has played with this tenuous tonal demarcation line for over a decade. In the eighth movie, the cars were outracing a nuclear submarine and cracking ice floes and The Rock redirected a torpedo with his biceps. That’s crazy, but remember The Rock is a superhero among us mere mortals. In the seventh movie, the cars parachuted out of a cargo plane and drove through skyscrapers. In the sixth movie, they faced off against a tank. And yet, I happily accepted those flights of fancy because they kept me entertained ahead of that nagging sense of incredulity that they were able to somehow outrace. With F9, even with the return of director Justin Lin (Fast 3-6), it feels like the franchise finally crossed that line for me. I completely understand any reader that wants to point and shout “hypocrisy.” In the arms race of action imagination where the producers have had to come up with bigger and more wild set pieces, I think they have inevitably gone from self-parody into ironic self-aware self-parody and back into self-parody again. The best way I can describe it is with the two Expendables movies. The first was amusing action bravado self-parody but then the second film tried to be in on the joke, and all the winking “we get it too” meta commentary just sapped all the enjoyment out of it. The same thing happened with the two so-bad-they’re-good Birdemic disaster movies, with the first a sincere bad movie, and the second trying to be an ironic bad movie, and it just wasn’t the same. The appeal was gone. For me, F9 is the signal that this franchise has begun its descent into Birdemic 2 range and yes, they go to space in a space car and isn’t that what all us irony-drenched fans wanted? It’s like the disappointing be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning of Snakes on a Plane all over again.

Another factor that sank the movie for me was the inclusion of the long-lost brother storyline, especially considering the Diesel character is all about the vague platitude of family. In order to justify this significant oversight, the storyline has to resort to numerous flashbacks to fill in the sordid family details between the feuding brothers. I cannot overstate just how much I do not care about the characters in this franchise, so devoting more time to introducing complicated family histories with melodramatic flashbacks is not what I want to experience during the downtime in between the next explosion. By trying to take these characters and their relationships seriously, or seriously enough, we’re forced to slog through personal drama nobody asked for or actively desires. Better to embrace the soap opera absurdity and just have Cena show up and then every other set piece another long-lost brother shows up, and then we keep cutting back to the same singular flashback but now it’s revealed that another brother was there too previously unseen on the peripheral of the camera. The same thing goes for having to bend over backwards to explain the re-emergence of Han (Sun Kang), a character killed in the sixth/third movie by the-then bad guy (Jason Statham) that we like too much now to be the bad guy. I don’t care that he’s alive again, and the convoluted yet still unsatisfying vague plot to explain his fake death is unwanted as well. Apparently, the only character who will remain legitimately dead in this series is Gal Gadot (for now).

For the hard-core fans, there may be enough nitro juice in F9 to still provide a satisfying jolt of high-octane entertainment. Lin still has a nice command on action sequence visuals and there’s some large-scale carnage that tickles even while it’s undermining every concept of magnetism. Unfortunately, the joy I felt with previous action incarnations from the series was not recaptured this time. It just doesn’t feel as memorable, at least in a positive way. Going to space is memorable, but not in a positive way, unless they had to race a universe of aliens on the moon to save the Earth. I genuinely like Cena as an actor, but he’s far too strait-laced and dull here. Watch the recent Suicide Squad reboot to be reminded just how charming and comically talented he can be in the right role. Diesel seems to be putting less and less effort into every performance almost like a dare to the audience on how little they will accept. There were a few shots I watched where I felt like he was on the verge of going to sleep. The villain is lame, the movie has too many competing comic relief characters, and it’s all too long. I’ve been a defender of the blockbuster bombast of the Fast saga. I’ve considered myself a fan of its outlandish set pieces and ludicrous stunts. I’ve been able to ignore what didn’t work. Alas, the time has come where I can no longer do that. I just felt mostly indifferent and bored for much of F9, and its action highlights couldn’t save the extra emphasis on convoluted soap opera melodrama. Your mileage will vary as far as what you can forgive, but F9 feels like the appropriate off-ramp for me.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Suicide Squad (2021)

When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?

It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.

The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.

The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.

Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.

Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.

As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Love and Monsters (2020)

Imaginative, quirky, and monstrously fun, Love and Monsters is a winning sci-fi monster movie and more evidence to the unique amusements provided in full from a Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter) story. In the near future, after blowing up a world-threatening asteroid, the ensuing chemical debris causes many lizards and insects to grow to world-threatening sizes, killing a majority of the population, and forcing the survivors to live underground in vaults. Our hero is Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a very Jessie Eisenberg-esque guy who isn’t so good at survival skills in this new world. His group looks at him like he’s a helpless kid who can’t defend himself. Joel discovers that his teenage crush, the girl he’s been writing letters to, is alive and he pledges to make the 80-mile trip on the surface to reunite with her. The resulting journey can be episodic but each section is impactful, each monster encounter is different and contributes to a fuller understanding to the world, and the character arc finds ways to surprise you, like when it acknowledges that Joel’s foolhardy romantic gesture is exactly that, him not fully accepting how the world has changed both he and the object of his desire. That sparkling creative voice of Duffield’s is alive and well throughout. His worlds feel well thought out, lived in, crazy but with purpose, and his characters are often teenagers with pointed attitude but they feel like characters rather than mouthpieces for overt stylized dialogue and pithy banter. O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is an interesting choice and gets to be far more neurotic and physically comedic than I’ve ever seen him. He’s an underdog that’s easy to root for. There are moments of wonder, moments of unexpected empathy, moments of suspense and terror, and plenty of moments of comic bemusement in the face of this crazy world. Joel befriends a very Woody Harreslon-esque father (Michael Rooker) with an adopted daughter in tow (the Zombieland character dynamics are pretty apparent but not a major detraction) and they form an enjoyable fractured family to help Joel become a better survivalist. I loved a small moment with a beaten down robot helper that manages to be sentimental as well as subverting sentimentality. The conclusion feels like a Walking Dead episode but it brings together many of the dangling storylines and proves satisfying for the character’s arc, a better understanding of the creatures in this world, and for Joel’s sense of self and community. The special effects are amazing for a movie that shockingly only had a tiny $28 million budget. Love and Monsters is a movie that makes the most of its time and money to tell a bigger story but one with enough wit, heart, and personality to draw you in and leave you happy for more post-apocalyptic monster adventures. All hail Duffield, king of spry and accessible quirk within the Hollywood system.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Brightburn (2019)

Many writers and artists have re-imagined the origin of Superman, the alien orphan sent to Earth and raised by the Kents into a thoughtful young man who empathizes with the humans he has come to identify with. What if that alien child, blessed with powerful abilities, didn’t decide to become a hero and instead saw himself as superior? That’s the premise of Brightburn which looks at the Man of Steel through the lens of The Omen.

In the small Midwestern town of Brightburn, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are a couple struggling to conceive, and then one fateful night a spaceship crash lands on their farm. Inside is a baby boy they decide to raise as their own son. Flash ahead a decade and Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is a normal kid except he’s never been sick, he cannot be cut, and he’s starting to develop even more powers thanks to his spaceship seeming to activate something within him. It also fills his head with an alien message, one not too friendly for the people of Earth. Tori and Kyle must reconcile how far they’re willing to go to protect their son and whether it’s at the expense of the well-being of billions.

Brightburn takes its thought exercise to the limit, fully developing its intriguing angle of what if the story of Superman went in a much darker, much bleaker direction. Instead of representing a hope for mankind, what if this alien son represented its demise? As I was sitting back and watching, each element felt well placed and well thought out, contributing to a feeling of satisfaction that the screenwriters have given considerable thought to telling not just a good story but the best version of their story. There’s a very early science reference to wasps that tells you exactly where the film is going. I have some small quibbles when it comes to motivations, in particular the flip in Brandon, but these are minor and honestly could have been smoothed out with one or two added scenes. I appreciate that writers Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn (cousins to James) start things rather dark and see it through. This is the kind of movie you pray doesn’t go soft and squishy by the end, where the irredeemable monster is reached through the power of love. This is not that movie. With an all-powerful monster, it would be a cop-out to somehow slide in a happy ending. The entire trajectory of the movie feels appropriate, quibbles over rushed motivation aside, and where we end up feels predictable but right.

The biggest comparison I can make with the film isn’t any of the Superman adventures but a little indie, 2011’s powerful character study, We Need to Talk About Kevin. For those unaware, that movie followed a woman whose son grows up to be a school shooter who also kills her husband and daughter. The movie skips around in time and in doing so reveals through flashes of memory key incidents, flashpoints, where mom realizes something just isn’t right with her dear old son. It’s a test of a parent’s love but it’s also a test of how far a parent can ignore the warning signs that are amassing like a cancer. Like that film, Brightburn demonstrates the limits of parental love and rationalization. For much of the movie, Tori refuses to accept her son’s darker impulses and the reality that is getting harder to ignore. Her son was a gift from the sky and that needs to mean something. Her love and parenting should be enough to keep her child on the path of good and responsibility, she reasons. This only delays the intervention that might have made a difference, but then again, when you’re dealing with a kid with invulnerability and laser eyes, is there any intervention to turn things around? Are some too far gone? There are moments that even touch upon the creepy loner status of deranged spree killers. I genuinely felt sorry this one teenage girl ever showed a glint of kindness to Brandon because all it does is place her and her family into his obsessive fixation to control.

I do believe that your enjoyment of Brightburn will partly rest on your prior knowledge of the Superman mythos and its clever, darker reworking. Considering this is an essential aspect of its premise and execution, I don’t see this as a fault, though it will limit the audience that can simply plug into Brightburn and enjoy it as is. The film leans heavily on the iconography of Superman and purposely twists it as a perverse thought experiment. If you’re indifferent or unfamiliar with Superman, it may play out as an efficient thriller with some solid acting and gross-out effects. However, if you’re a canny follower of the Superman origins, then it becomes a meta commentary with even more to unpack. How does one exactly keep a god grounded in the ways of morality? I don’t mean to make it seem like Brightburn is inaccessible to non-comic book fans. It’s not, but part of the enjoyment for me was how it took something familiar and twisted anew.

Those gore effects are impressively gross. This is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the destructive power of its super demon seed. It builds in intensity and is actually pretty restrained, all things considered, but when it wants to pack a punch, the movie does. There was one extended bit of eye trauma that made me shield my face. How in the world can a person have that much glass shard lodged that far into one eyeball? It causes me shudders even thinking back on it. There’s another scene where a person’s jaw is dislodged like they were the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, a lanky part that stubbornly won’t stay put. The person even holds their hand over their face, knowingly teasing the audience. As the film hurtles toward its final act, if you can think of a way that Superman could kill a vulnerable mortal, this movie covers it. Super speed splattering a person? Check. Laser eyes boring a hole through a skull? Check. There’s even a scary sense of visual poetry to one kill that goes flying into the heavens in slow motion. The gore and grisly deaths are another aspect that reminds me how well developed the film is.

The acting may be better than you’re anticipating. The screenplay doesn’t simply rely on the main characters being stand-ins for their Superman analogues. While they don’t feel like three-dimensional characters, care has been put to give them more substance so that the drama of their choices can be compelling on its own. Banks (Lego Movie 2) and Denman (16 Hours) debate their increasingly fraught choices with clarity. He’s convinced their son isn’t right and poses a danger, and she doesn’t disagree but refuses to abandon their son after all these years together. Early on, they feel like a real family, and that only makes the tragic events feel much more resonant as things spiral out of control. Banks and Denman are certainly not playing any scene for a knowing wink. To them and the rest of the production the events are very real and very scary. Dunn (Avengers: Endgame) is eerily spooky with his stares and glares, but there are also moments that remind you he is or was still a kid and experiencing the same desire to belong.

This is not going to be a movie for everyone but if you’re intrigued by the premise and/or have an affinity for Superman what if scenarios like Red Son, then it should be right up your alley. It’s a clever and satisfying thriller that appeals to fans with darker desires. It’s about as well executed as its premise could go, and I left my theater thoroughly satisfied with only some minor quibbles for motivation clarity and an extended epilogue (I don’t know if Billie Eilish fits for the end credits but that’s just a personal preference). Brightburn takes the Superman mythos and twists it into a creepy horror film, the origin of a super villain, and an apocalyptic death sentence for the rest of humanity. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch even as it’s disturbing you and leaving you wincing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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+

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

Super (2011)

Super is a different kind of superhero movie. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither) has crafted a story that attempts to deconstruct the superhero fantasy. In his story, the people that put on the costumes to fight crime are just as dangerous as the criminals.

Frank (Rainn Wilson) has two memories he can hold onto as his life’s highlights: marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict, and assisting the police in finding a crook. He works as a short order cook and dreams of being something more. Then local crime lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) comes into Frank’s home, eats his eggs, compliments him on his cooking of said eggs, and then walks off with Sarah. He’s been gotten her hooked back on drugs. Frank tries to rescue her but Jacques and his goons (Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn) won’t let him get anywhere close to his wife. Then Frank becomes inspired. He feels that God has spoken to him and instructed him to become a crime-fighting super hero, the Crimson Bolt. With a wrench, Frank patrols his streets looking for crime to vanquish and a way to thwart Jacques. Along the way he gets help from Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old girl who works in a comic book store. She jumps at the chance to live out her super hero fantasies and elects herself to be Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Together they plot to clean up their city and maybe enjoy some of the perks of superhero-dom.

Super mines familiar territory scene in other movies, the what-if scenario of what might transpire if people put on some tights and attempted to fight crime. Unlike last year’s similarly themed Kick-Ass, this is a movie that refrains from overt style. It does not portray Frank as a hero in any traditional sense. Gunn takes great pains to showcase the frayed mental state of his main character. Frank is troubled, seriously troubled. His attempts to escape his reality are borderline dangerous and his violent attacks are without warrant. I watched this movie shortly after seeing the suitable violent Hobo with a Shotgun (good pairing, folks), and the tone of the violence between the two films was starkly different. Hobo‘s violence is meant to make you laugh; Super is meant to make you wince, then laugh in a “Oh my God” kind of alarm. In Super, the extreme bouts of violence, which are not as prevalent as in Hobo, are meant to make you think how stunningly dangerous Frank and Libby are. When somebody cuts in line at a movie theater, the rest of the people react in disgruntled anger. But Frank goes into his car, changes his clothes, comes back as the Crimson Bolt and declares, “You don’t cut in line,” and strikes the guilty party across the face with his trusted wrench. The crowd is freaked out, naturally. These revenge fantasies are taken to the limits, and Frank has decided that everyone deserves the same punishment for breaking the rules of society whether they be a drug dealer or a line jumper (“You don’t butt in line! You don’t steal! You don’t molest little children! You don’t deal drugs! The rules haven’t changed!”). Frank follows in the same vein of disturbed social justice as Travis Bickle.

The characters are played straight, which only highlights their demented oddball qualities even more. Wilson is a strong comedic actor as he showcases week after week on TVs The Office. He’s always had something of a unique “off” quality to him, be it presence or looks or demeanor. It allows him to slip into cracked characters so easily. Frank is a troubled individual, but there’s something sympathetic about his plight to finally assert himself in the world and stand up to forces that he feels have victimized him. He’s a sad guy, lonely, deeply insecure, feels impotent to the world, and yet he can put on a costume and work out his varied psychological issues. Wilson can be terrifying, deadpanned hilarious, and even potentially touching as he desperately seeks a life filled with moments he can be proud of.

But it’s the little firecracker that is Page (Juno, Inception) that makes Super come alive with risk. Page’s performance is bristling with uncontrollable energy; she practically shakes with excitement over becoming a superhero sidekick and leaving her boring reality. Then, when they actually do kill bad guys, she jumps around, taunting at the top of her voice, chuckling at a level of violence that should be disquieting to most normal human beings. That’s because Page, in particular, has tapped into her character’s manic wish-fulfillment role-playing persona. What would faze people makes me laugh and hop around in impish joy, because she is laying out her idea of justice. And Page is joyous to watch. She’s so excited onscreen that her words practically trip over themselves. And then there’s the superhero sexual angle. This is the first movie, by far, where I ever viewed the elfin actress in a sexual manner. And with Gunn’s film being what it is, prepare for some strange discomfort. Libby tries to seduce her superhero partner into being a partner of a different sort, and she leaves the sidekick suit on.

The tone is meant to make you squirm and laugh under your breath through gritted teeth. Seeing Frank legitimately hurt people can be funny in a bleak sense, and the delusions of the main characters and their inept execution as superheroes certainly adds plenty of chuckles. When Frank tells his newest sidekick that they’re going to fight crime, she’s bouncing off the walls in happiness. That is until she discovers “fighting crime” means sitting in an alley and just waiting for crime to materialize. “This is so boring,” she groans. Frank’s oft-repeated catch phrase of empowerment, while swinging his wrench of justice, is: “Shut up, crime!” But then he later starts to reconsider his place in the order of society, reflecting upon his brute force actions and whether he too has become a criminal in the pursuit of battling evil (“How can I tell crime to shut up if I have to shut up?”). The side stories involving the evangelical TV superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) are a hoot. They’re even funnier when you consider that Frank uses these outlandish bits of corny Christian message-delivery as confirmation from God. For those looking for some Kick-Ass kicks, they will be sorely disappointed until the violent confrontation between good (Frank and Libby?) vs. evil (Jacques and his minions).

Super isn’t so much of a superhero parody as a morally queasy, crazy, discomforting comedy of the darkest sort. Gunn’s film shows that people with unchecked superhero fantasies can be just as dangerous as the criminals they seek to penalize. Gunn de-romanticizes the concept of vigilantism. Wilson and Page make a fun pair of superheroes with a few screws loose themselves. This is a different kind of superhero movie, the type that shows how dangerous and ridiculous and insane the fantasy can be in a real world where the bad guys have guns and a short fuse. Gunn’s Troma-fied super story has plenty of dark laughs, uncomfortable moments, and nutball characters. I don’t even fully know what to think about the film. Do I really like this? Am I supposed to? Is this all entertaining or just uncomfortable? Is it an entertaining form of discomfort? Does the ending, which aims for emotion, work, or has the film burned too many bridges and fried too many nerves to attempt something tonally different? Super probably won’t win any new converts to the genre, and I imagine its bleak laughs will push many away, but the film also has a car-crash watchability. I do not mean that in a backhanded way. Super keeps you watching but you don’t know if you want to.

Nate’s Grade: B

Here on Earth (2000)

The story is nothing groundbreaking: new guy arrives in town, sweeps girl off her feet because he’s “different” than the rest, earns ire from mean boyfriend, and eventually gets the girl. It’s been the plot from everything from Lady and the Tramp to Edward Scissorhands. But even though the theme is based in predictability, the creators of ‘Here on Earth’ seem to have lazily put forth an execution.

The movie and its screenwriter have their logic completely reversed. The girl’s boyfriend is supposed to be the wife-beating snotty jerk, and the new kid is supposed to be the nice sensitive “different” guy. But in Earth, Klein is the snotty Richy Rich whose colors never change, and Josh Hartnett is the dependable and established nice guy boyfriend. The structure of this tragic tale is no way to build drama, only contempt for the female lead.

Whatever high-minded message Earth is hopelessly aiming for is destroyed by dialogue so cheesy that it could be considered a side dish at a local Taco Bell. By the time Klein starts naming Leelee’s breasts after different states in the Union the movie loses what little credibility it had or thought it did (“Massachusetts welcomes you”). It’s a wonder most of these young actors can even say what they do with a straight face.

Spoilers follow as I make fun of this movie. Just when you’re wondering why the hell Leelee is doing the things she does and it looks as if we may reach a conclusion or insight – BAM! – she has cancer and dies. This ranks up with “it was all just a dream” as one of the cheapest ways to sneak out of an uncomfortable or unexplained position. It turns out our Joan of Arc bumped her knee and somehow that has exploded into unstoppable cancer. The doctor tells the distraught family members that they always suspected this could happen. Like hell! Every time I stub my damn toe it never crosses my mind I’ve contracted cancer.

Here on Earth is supposed to be the tearjerker for the teen audience out there; the Love Story for the under twenty. But the only thing wringing from this formulaic clunker of a sob story is a healthy outpouring of sap, moral high ground, and a warning to always wear knee pads.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Bone Collector (1999)

Another serial killer movie? Didn’t we as an audience learn our lesson already with Kiss the Girls? Apparently not with this latest adaption of standards and predictability that does nothing more then reinvent the old blaming the butler routine. And may I affimingly add that whoever the critic who gasped that this is on par with the masterpieces of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en either is lying through their teeth or has their children’s college education payed exclusively by Universal.

The Bone Collector has fancy gloom, grit, and gore, but it has no substance whatsoever. The script has the feel of being pasted together from leftovers of earlier better movies. It takes one illogical shift after another until the supposedly “surprise payoff” ending comes charging in but echoes more of a unified feel of rip-off instead. Contrivances are in abundance with every scene, and further prove the superiority of Lambs and Se7en in how well they achieved perfectly tuned thrills. The Bone Collector‘s biggest disappointment is in its utter lack of substantial entertainment when the core of the movie is Angelina Jolie getting dirty in dark places wielding a flash light. This kind of stuff may have worked at summer camp around the fire to scare people, but on the big screen the only ones to cower in terror will be the extensively naive.

Not to lambast this clunker too much, because there is some credible acting from the star leads. Denzel Washington at least makes his role non-laughable which is saying a lot in respect, and Jolie looks like she is a fresh talent but this ain’t her vehicle to hitch on to. Her “gifted” police specialist at finding evidence doesn’t seem to special to me with the easily found clues that anyone could trip over.

The suspense in The Bone Collector boils down to flashes of gore and jumps to frighten instead of the meticulous psychological and intense battles in Lambs and Se7en. The serial killer genre is at a glut again, and The Bone Collector is merely the fat of that over-extension that would serve best to be cut loose.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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