‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ impresses with its maturity and continued personality

Editor’s Note: In an attempt to keep some resemblance of consistency, I’m actually getting another review out the gate faster than I thought I would. I’ve written a review for almost every Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World and Ant Man) since Iron Man so I wanted to get this out there as quickly as I could. Actually really liking the movie didn’t hurt either. 

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is definitively my favorite of the Marvel Studios’ canon at present period. I wouldn’t say there was a single terrible movie in the batch. It mainly falls to some being much more memorable than the others, and out of all of them I’d wager Guardians is the one to beat in that regard.

My review of the first film can be found here.

Writer/director James Gunn just brought such a voice to that film movie it  transcended beyond anything the company had done up to that point. Much credit to Marvel for actually allowing the guy to down his thing albeit within the confines of their big picture. I just wish the same sort of situation could have worked out for Edgar Wright and his Ant Man movie which I would have thought to the be the one that topped Guardians but I digress.

Going into the sequel, I didn’t have much doubt I’d enjoy it particularly since Gunn was coming back along with the entire original cast. The question was whether it could actually surpass the original. Too often sequels go too big, favoring familiar rather than innovation. Luckily Gunn is a smart enough filmmaker to largely bypass some sequel (Chris) prat falls other directors do, delivering a product that may not be as good as its predecessor but comes mighty damn close in some respects.

This will be a spoiler free review, Nick.

The plot:

“Set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

Thankfully that all important personality I was drowning on and on about in the preface carries over here, almost even more so. There are so many weird things I want to talk about because Gunn goes for some off-the-beaten path pulls this time around. I remember freaking out in the first film when he went so far as to include Howard the Duck (who returns briefly) near the end. Here we have Ego the Living Planet as a major character as well as shout-outs to the original Guardians of the Galaxy (led by an actor I’m surprised wasn’t included in the marketing more) and even the Watchers.

Pardon me as a scratch off yet another thing I assumed I’d NEVER see in a major motion picture.

It’s also a movie bursting to the brim with color, unafraid to embrace an entire palate rather than brood in the shadows providing yet another line-in-the-sand for Marvel against their distinguished competition over at DC.

Gunn is our sole credited writer this time out and it shows, given this movie does something almost unthinkable in relation to the sequel-dominated cinescape we find ourselves in today: rather than expanding this insane universe, Gunn brings us inward. At times, this movie is downright intimate; given that once again a talking raccoon and sentient tree are major characters, this is all the more shocking.

From the offset, Gunn shows us how these characters have changed since last we met. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is a little less reckless, recognizing himself as the caretaker of his team’s larger-than-life personalities. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is less hardened, actually opening herself up to genuine care and affection. The same could be said of Drax (Dave Bautista), who is downright jovial this time around. Conversely, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is a much more bitter; his wise cracks sporting a sharper edge.

Also Groot (Vin Diesel) is now a baby….referred to as Baby Groot, obviously.

Oh by the way, Gunn communicates all this subtly within the first ten minutes of the film; no easy feat to be sure, particularly just how many characters I just listed without even getting to the rest of the returning cast and new recruits.

Largely focused on the idea of a family being what you make of it (much like the first film), Vol 2 splits our characters off from one another for portions of the film, partnering them up with another guardian as to allow for some further development/playing of each other in different ways. 

Think of it like the fourth season of Arrested Development only here we actually have multiple scenes of the entire family altogether.

As you may have guessed, the story kind of takes a back seat in this entry leaving a film that is much more leisurely in its pacing. The larger MCU doesn’t really factor into the events, leaving our characters to take the reigns which I actually ended up liking quite a bit. It doesn’t hurt that these are such lovable and weird characters obviously.

The cast is again uniformly outstanding. Dave Bautista’s Drax is yet again the comedic highlight and in many ways come to represent the heart of this franchise. He gets to spend some quality time with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a personal favorite of mine from the comics. Their interactions are basically everything I wanted and more, leading to some of the movie’s funniest bits.

I was kind of worried Marvel was going to lean in really hard on Baby Groot, who is obviously very adorable, but luckily he’s used effectively and more or less sparingly.

If the movie were to belong to anyone in front of the camera, it’d be Gunn mainstay Michael Rooker pictured below with a local drunk.

Rooker’s Yondu is partnered with Rocket and the two really get down to the nitty gritty as to why their characters are they way that they are, both of whom share arguably the best arcs in the entire film. Quill’s notion of “building your family around” is something that obviously stemmed from Yondu, and is explored to poignant effect here.

Rooker’s one of those character actors that is basically good in everything he appears in, which is no easy feat given the sheer scope of his body of work as a character is. Seriously go check out his IMDb page and come back. So know I’m serious when I say this may just be his best performance to date. I won’t divulge into specifics but the movie’s best beats (both comedic and dramatic) all go to him, and I feel it’s a performance we’ll all be talking about for a while. Given the guys super talented, it should come as no surprise and it’s awesome to see Gunn give his friend such a hefty role in such a huge movie. Not that he needs it, but I hope this means we’ll only see more of him in bigger films.

This film also passes the bechdel test, which is something I always like noting in major blockbusters. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, perhaps the least developed of the guardians, is given much more time with her adopted “sister” Nebula, played by my favorite companion Karen Gillan. The two share quite a few nice story beats throughout, playing once again into the whole family theme.

If anyone gets shortchanged, oddly enough it’d be Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, who is paired with his father Ego (of course he’s played by Kurt Russell). Pratt really doesn’t do a whole lot another the final act and it’s not like he’s out of commission a majority of the movie. He’s just a lot lest dynamic to the plot outside of he’s just met his apparent father. To go another further would be too spoiler-y, but even though it’s kind of late in the game, Pratt is consistently in his element here. Unlike Jurassic World or Interstellar, Pratt is the perfect quasi-level headed mantle piece for this insane galaxy to rest its shoulders. He’s an insanely charismatic everyman, unafraid to look stupid or take a joke at his expense.

So if I were to take any qualms with this one it’d be that it’s almost too easy on plotting, drifting off in some sections where some tightening could have been beneficial. This becomes increasingly apparent during the middle section where we linger on beats that drag on just a tad too long. This becomes jarring once things ramp up in the third act and we have action happening at a lighting fast rate.

The film’s soundtrack, following in the footsteps of the unlikely mega-hit that was the Awesome Mix, Vol 1, is similar to the film itself in that it is perfectly great but just not up to the exact bar of its predecessor. Their are certainly some stellar tracks put into play here though with my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all time being the largest standout for me personally.

Although Glen Campbell’s inclusion was also a worthy of note too, particularly the ludicrously silly scene it accompanies.

To be a nitpick, I’d argue the songs in the first film “fit better” in that each and every one was obviously carefully picked one-by-one as to go specifically with each scene in which it appears. Vol. 2‘s soundtrack, while also doing this to a degree, feels just a little bit more like an oldies jukebox. There’s really nothing wrong with that. It kind of just boils down to personal preference. It comes no where near the level of ego/incompetence behind the ADD music cues in Suicide Squad, which were part showing off and part shamelessly attempting to emulate the success of the first Guardian‘s soundtrack.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Vol. 2 a better movie than the first film; it’s a hell of a lot of fun all while being much more mature, opting not to rest solely on the past accomplishments of its predecessor to make it great. It builds on them. Think of this as the Paul’s Boutique to the first film’s License To Ill. Sure it lacks the populace appeal of the first outing as well as its conciseness, but it’s deceptively simple as it hides layers of complexity to be discussed and examined beyond its initial release.

I for one can’t wait to see this motley crew back in both Avengers 3 and the third (and presumably final) film with Gunn on writing and directing duties. Like it or not (why would you not), Gunn has carved out a whole universe for himself; largely undictated by the larger demands of the MCU and a sandbox for which he and his team may let their collective imagination run rampant.

I went absolutely bananas for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

I battled between “apeshit” and “bananas” for the title. As a hack writer, I am expected to use a shitty ape pun in the title. I went with the more “kid friendly” of the two. Here’s hoping you all have forgotten about my choice by the time the third film comes out. Just kidding. I expect to be long since frozen in carbonite/dead by that point. I digress.

Let me preface by saying that I am a massive fan of apes and I love movies about apes. I find them both entertaining and engaging. After all they are our closest genetic cousin and evolutionary partner so it’s hard not to feel an affinity for the guys. Now a good majority of movies centered around apes are complete shit. When they are not saving the world through espionage, they are often subjugated to sports movies, both competitive and extreme, or hotel hijinks. For every King Kong, there are  Dunstons. The Planet of the Apes franchise is the happy middle ground that represent both the ape movie zenith and its lowest lows. -COUGHBENEATHTHEPLANETOFTHEAPESCOUGH-

The series has seen a great resurgence thanks to the 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that should not have been as good as it was. Like Kung-Fu Panda, it was a movie that defied all expectations and became of the best films of the year. The biggest contributors to the film’s success was both the visual effects work of WETA Digital and Andy Serkis’ spectacular motion capture performance as Caesar. To me, Serkis has been unjustly (but understandably) denied award consideration for his mo-cap performances. If it weren’t for him, more than one film would have fallen apart.

This leads us to the sequel headed by Matt Reeves, a director who is well versed in defying expectations. This is one of the movies I was most excited for going into this summer, and I am happy to say that it not only matches its predecessor, it surpasses it, making it the best entry in the franchise since the 1968 original.

Planet of the Apes

THE PLOT:

“A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.” – Twentieth Century Fox

THE REVIEW:

All good sequels take what was good about the first film and expand on the world it created. The mistake many sequels make however is that the filmmakers believe that bigger is better. They expand visually but stay stagnant in the story department. Good sequels often also carry heavier themes and an overall darker tone. (The exception being good comedy sequels. I’m looking at you, 22 Jump Street.) Poor sequels never have anything new to say about the material. In short, a truly good sequel should go further than the first film and take risks.

Dawn adheres to these formulas well, setting the stage for one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen.

Serkis continues to do wonders as Caesar, proving he is the go-to-guy for motion capture. As with the previous film, Serkis breathes life into the world-worn Caesar as he attempts to maintain a very thin line between man and ape. Every emotion and tick registers on his face.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the film is that Serkis isn’t alone this time around. While the ape performers did an admirable job in the first film, they knock it out of the park in the sequel, particularly Toby Kebbell’s Koba. As Caesar’s second-in-command, Koba serves as the closest thing this film has to a villain albeit a completely sympathetic one.Permanently scarred by experimentation, Koba’s hatred for humanity is completely justified. Unlike Caesar, Koba is only privy to humanity at its worst and therefore we relate to his plight to it wiped from the Earth for good. The juxtaposition between Caesar and Koba is one of the driving conflicts in the story, and the scenes between Serkis and Kebbell serves as some of the film’s best.

The effects are just draw-dropping. Some of the shots will have you questioning whether you are seeing a real ape or not. The true magic happens when you forget. I don’t know why but a lot of work went into creating Maurice, an orangutan played once again by Karin Konoval. For whatever reason this character constantly looks flawless. Remember how Gravity was a sure win for “Best Visual Effects” during the Oscars this spring. Well expect this movie to be streets ahead of any of the other nominees come award season next year.

The human characters are painted in broad strokes but still register better than in Rise. The main family is a bit of a cliche but no more than any of the characters from the first film. Like Godzilla, this film wastes the talent of a supremely talent actor. Gary Oldman plays human leader Dreyfus and is in the movie for about 15 minutes. He isn’t given much wiggle room in terms of character development, but the one quiet moment he is allowed he absolutely nails.

The score by Michael Giacchino is perfection, further cementing his status as the new John Williams – albeit John Williams is still with us and a badass.

Tension is built effectively as the solid screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback leads to the inevitable battle between the two fractions that takes up a majority of the film’s conclusion. It’s worth noting that once the war between ape and man breaks out, the moment is more melancholy than triumphant. While there is cool imagery – such as an ape duel wielding two machine guns while riding a horse – the tone is rather sad in the face of the peace that was almost obtained. As the film concludes, I found myself filled with dread at the events destined to break out in the third (and I assume final) film in this prequel trilogy. War has broken out, and many lives will be lost. We know the ultimate outcome, but I can’t wait/fear the events that will get us there.

I also appreciated that this film was as blatant as the last film in its references to previous installments. There are little nods here and there – such as Caesar’s wife’s name being Cornelia (played by Judy Greer of Archer and Arrested Development fame) – but nothing as eye-rolling as Tom Felton screaming…

No one talks like that in real life. Especially people under 25.

 The script isn’t without fault however. I mentioned the family is somewhat bland. Well other human characters are just downright frustrating, particularly the inclusion of the one asshole character that is an asshole for no reason and is then included in important events even though everyone should know he will fuck things up for everyone.

Off is in the direction in which you should fuck.

Off is the direction in which you should fuck.

“But, Tyler, they needed him because he knew how to fix the dam!”

Well, one person trying to make sense of this stupid character, they seemed to do fine without him after they sent him off BEFORE they fixed the dam. Almost like his inclusion was only to cause a rift between the two species in order to move the plot forward. Sure does make sense to bring a detrimental character with you for no reason. As we all know, bringing in people that work against our interests is absolutely the best strategy.

I’m nitpicking, but characters like this and their importance to the overall plot in some movies annoy the shit out of me.

Let me summarize with this: who would have EVER thought that a sequel to a prequel/reboot after a reboot based on a franchise with 5 films based on a French novel would be as good as this movie is. We can only hope that the sequel is half as good as the set up this film has provided it. My vision for the third film is something along the lines of this…