‘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.

Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw)

Man…

2016 was the pits.

Sure, there was some good moments here and there but what a stinker. It wasn’t a complete bust but my goodness did the lows seem extra low this year or was it just me.

Anyway, it’s almost at an end and unfortunately we can’t even celebrate because 2017 is shaping up to be even more of a shit storm.

As it is the end of the year, those of us with a passing interest in movies are mandated to regale the uninterested masses of what we think were the best and worst the year had to offer cinematically. So guess we should get started…let’s the worst out of the way first because boy howdy there were a ton this year. First off…

You know what?

Fuck that.

It’s time to be positive for just a few minutes.

So guess what?

I’m going to completely forgo a “Worst of” list this year, because frankly this year is the embodiment of a “Worst of” list OUTSIDE of the cinema. It wasn’t even a bad year all in all as far movies were concerned. Yeah, some of the big releases ranged from disappointing to absolute garbage wrapped in burning hair. But that’s every year.

And you know what else?

Not even going to bother with ranking movies either. Why make things that are awesome compete?

This year was all about the lingering factor. Which were the movies that really stayed with me rather than bleed into the background?

Now, as I am not a professional critic I have neither the time or resources to see every movie under the sun. Being smack-dap in the midwest doesn’t help either. That said, at the time of publication, I have yet to see critical darlings like Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water and Toni Erdmann. I have however, through connections or sheer happenstance, been able to expand the variety of movies I actually got to see in theaters this year. So I am “proud” of that at the very least.

I also don’t get too deep into individual plot specifics here so A) if what I have to say about the movie intrigues you but you’d like to know more, I recommend you watch the trailer and B) there won’t be any spoilers for those worried about such things.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

I also spend significantly less time on those I’ve already reviewed. I’ve provided links to those aforementioned reviews because well…I like attention.

Let’s say goodbye to the bad for just a little bit, and embrace everything that there was to love about 2016…at the local movie theater at least.

Some honorable mentions:

Hail, Caesar! 

Midnight Special 

The Jungle Book   (Full review here.)

Captain America: Civil War  (Full review here.)

Sing Street

Rats 

The Neon Demon 

Tickled

Star Trek Beyond 

Kubo and the Two Strings 

Into the Inferno

Hacksaw Ridge 

Amanda Knox 

Moana 

20th Century Women 

Green Room

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If I were to pick any film to watch over and over again from this year, I think Green Room stands at the precipice. By no means a “fun” movie, Green Room is the best movie John Carpenter never directed. It’s Die Hard by way of Assault on Precinct 13 as it borrows the same basic concept: good guys (represented by a desperate band of wannabe punk rockers) trapped on the inside with the bad guys (a legion of Nazi skinheads led by ubermensch Patrick Stewart) on the outside.

Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature shows no mercy to its characters or its audience. There’s a moment that I feel will go down as iconic as it never fails to illicit a guttural reaction from whomever I watch the film with. It involves a box cutter, exposed belly and a point of no return.

As he did with Blue Ruin, Saulnier emphasizes the frazzled, hapless and mistake-prone eccentricities of his protagonists and isn’t afraid to make its characters look scared and weak and powerless and recognizably human; something I’ve harped on in the past.  This focus on pure desperation—as opposed to a Gary and/or Mary Sue-level of competence, provides for more tense scenarios as well as a much-needed shot in the arm of genre-filming altogether. Or in this case, a few HORRIBLY-REALISTIC lacerations to it. (Quasi-spoilers.) When violence comes (and boy does it) the actors don’t treat it like mosquito bites in the way the Fast and the Furious crew would.

It’s also really important to note that Green Room truly is a gift from the genre gods, deliveries from whom seem all too rare these days. It is at once both a nasty, down-and-dirty midnight movie made an actual filmmaker, aware of both the people and location he is cascading in gore. 

Moonlight

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Real talk: I went into Moonlight expecting to hate it. Well…hate is a harsh word I guess. But I’ve been burned by word-of-mouth festival darling award bait more than once these past couple of years (see Boyhood and The Revenant). Pretty important to also note that I have no business being pretentious about which movies I think do and don’t deserve Oscars, Golden Globes or what have you and you should attach no weight to my opinions on that matter either.

The final film however is, by and large, the movie I’d argue is objectively the most proficient of the year. In that every single thing about it is top notch. From acting to score, lighting to pacing, there is not a chink to be found in Moonlight‘s seemingly flawless armor.

Following a “3-Act of a Life” model most recently evoked by last year’s Steve Jobs, we are shown three vignettes in the life of Chiron, a closeted young man who struggles through a variable gambit of themes. As with Boyhood, we get different chapters in a young man’s life. This time however played by three different actors. Unlike Boyhood however, Moonlight actually tells an interesting/compelling story. While they may not look that much a like, the three (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert respectively) create a wholly singular performance that is absolutely astounding in consistency and attention to detail. 

If one were to place it in a box, one could define it as about being black or being gay, but writer/director Barry Jenkins has a made movie accessible to anyone unable to articulate his or her desires.

I also adored the way this movie played against stereotypes and/or audience expectations. Take Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a drug dealer. One automatically equates that character-type as someone who will send Chiron down the wrong path. Refreshingly however, things are much less clear cut than that. The same could be said of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris, a woman with clear demons but more complex shades than simply “uncaring parent.” Harris is also dynamite here; providing, for my money, the best performance of the year.

The Witch

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For full review. 

As perfect as horror movie can be. That’s my quick summation of 2016’s best horror film, although a terror film would probably be a more apt description given the film’s lengthly slow build as it favors a slow build over a cavalcade of jump scares.

It’s an incredibly small story, made large by its astonishing attention to detail. Its opening title card, The VVitch, being an early indicator of just how dedicated first-time writer/director Robert Eggers is to conveying 17th Century Puritan life.

Don’t Breathe 

For full review. 

While we’re on the topic of superior horror, let’s knock out Don’t Breathe while we’re at it. Don’t Breathe is much more in line with The Witch than initial appearances may let on. True, it’s more inclined to fun-house horror, unafraid to go for a cheap jump scare here and there. It’s strength however clearly relies on good-ol’ fashioned tension.

It’s a dumb movie made by a smart filmmaker. Yes the characters make largely stupid decisions. Yes it tampers with your suspension of disbelief. Like a master trapeze artist, director Fede Alvarez walks the line masterfully.  

Arrival 

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If I were to attach a “I NEEDED this movie” title to anything out of this year, it’d be Arrival. Two days after one of the most divisive election years in this nation’s history (the results of which leave me with little hope for the future), we get a science fiction film that ditches bombast and stupidity in favor of actual thought; for conversation, something I think we can all agree will be increasingly important (yet unfortunately neglected) over the next few years.

Denis Villeneuve, director of such feel good films as Prisoner and Sicario, doesn’t automatically bring about catharsis any viewers mind when attending one of his pervious movies. But much like David Fincher (the filmmaker I find to be the closest to Villeneuve in terms of the approach both men take to their projects), the guy is a film-making chameleon. Arrival represents the director’s most uplifting output to-date. 

The film owes a bit to those that came before (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact spring to mind) and some of the grandiose posing of the blockbusters of Christopher Nolan, yet another director whose career Villeneuve seems poised to emulate. Where Nolan stumbled (in my opinion) with Interstellar in a narrative sense, Arrival soars. While there are little action sequences (something I’m 100% behind, I assure you), the movie thrillingly executes sequences that equate to simply two characters/beings trying to converse with on another.

The only part in which it stumbles that I can recall is when it harkens the cliche of ignorant military guys acting stupidly. Some of this works (and unsettlingly predictive given our incoming president-elect), while others involving a coup fell a little flat for me. Arrival‘s successes equate to much more than the sum of its (very minor) failings however.

I’ve heard rumblings of the twist being predictable and undeserved to which I wave a dismissive hand. Predictable or not, the turn that comes around the third act serves a higher purpose.

All of this resting on the considerable laurels of Amy Adams, an actress more deserving of Oscar gold than any other in her current peer group. Rooting for her to finally nab the Best Actresses gold that has long eluded her and for a role in a science fiction movie no less. 

Swiss Army Man 

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For full review. 

I kind of have to eat my words looking back as I boast this would be the most singular cinematic experience of 2016.

Forgive me as I had not seen or heard of The Greasy Strangler yet. But more on that in a bit.

Swiss Army Man is so many things that it almost demands a thesis paper. This while also being a stupid buddy comedy about a corpse that farts and has a boner compass. It’s an onion of a movie with so many layers that I argue it should remain almost undefinable, both in meaning and genre.

The Nice Guys 

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The Nice Guys makes the cut simply on the sheer power of charm and likability but would you expect any less from a Shane Black film? The plot is almost unnecessary when you’re operating with dialogue and characterization of such caliber.

I’ve heard talk that some may have found this movie boring as there aren’t that many action scenes in it and the ones that are in it primarily revolve around guys shooting at each other.

The meat of the movie truly is the way in which our leads are characterized and interact. Similar to Green Room, a lot of what Nice Guys does right can also be directly attributed to how much our heroes fuck up albeit a lot more comedic in tone in this case.

As it lacks the manic energy of Black’s earlier film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the film does get weighted down in its unneeded complexity from time to time. Nice Guys does best when it sticks to leads Russell Crowe (who turns out can do comedy…quite well in fact) and Ryan Gosling (who appears to do literally anything he puts his mind to). When it sticks to those two (with appearances by Gosling’s character’s teenage daughter played by the excellent Angourie Rice), the movie is pure, Black dynamite.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople 

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Another film that basically snuck up on me. In this case, I hadn’t even seen the trailer. I simply saw writer and director Taika Waititi’s name attached and thought I’d give it a shot. Waititi, whose credits include last year’s phenomenally funny What We Do In the Shadows, carries over his trademark oddball wit here all while successfully melding it with the growing pains struggles he embed with another critical favorite of his, Boy.

Given the film prominently features Sam Neill running around in woods, it plays a little like Jurassic Park minus one kid and dinosaurs. Waititi also does a commendable job at meeting the needs of a larger budget. The writer/director’s next project is a Marvel film; something I wouldn’t automatically peg him for given his penchant for the smaller scale.

Newcomer Julian Dennison is an acquired taste as far “cute movie kids” go, a choice that I believe was entirely deliberate. He balances the fine line between making Ricky both likable and exasperating. Even the cavalcade of fat jokes that seem to come his way land more as good-natured ribbing rather than straight-up bullying due to Dennison’s impressive confidence.

Something I’m sure you’ll notice (or already have by this point as I am basically the most predictable person you’re likely to meet) is that this year I put a heavy emphasis on genre (or subgenre) films because that is where my interest in movies is largely focused. This is the fifth one to appear on this list and it won’t be the last.

An old man paired with a cute kid is a movie we’ve seen time and time again. It’s basically a genre onto itself at this point. Wilderpeople doesn’t break the mold, but it provides a perspective all while being 100% entertaining; and that’s really all you can ask from a market with seemingly hundreds of other films with similar premises are vying for attention. In that regard, Waititi’s film stood above the pack.

Tower 

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As is the case with any given year, I am late to catch most documentaries. Unless its a Netflix exclusive, they’re rather hard to catch playing out here in the middle of nowhere…that is unless their far-right docs like Hillary’s America or for the more insane, Vaxed. Luckily due to the wonderful Oklahoma City Museum of Art however, I was able to catch Tower not just once but twice.

Too often we forget whenever a deranged lunatic commits murder on a gun, we lose sight of the brave men and women on the ground. In other words, at times humanity’s best is often highlighted when we are very best. This is the essence of  Director Keith Maitland’s quasi-documentary Tower. The film centers around the horror inflicted by former Marine Charles Whitman, who ascended the clocketower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, and proceeded to shoot 49 people, killing 15.

Maitland opts to stick close to the ground as it were, relying on moment-by-moment testimony from those that were there. There’s never a voice over to connect the dots as it were. Only inter-spliced individual perspective woven together to provide a larger picture. Given the unfortunately common place of such incidents these days, Maitland finds an effective way of conveying just how utterly surreal the experience was at the time. Combining archival footage with newly shot dramatic re-creations, presenting the latter as black-and-white rotoscoped animation (with occasional flashes of color),Maitland blends retrospective interviews with survivors and police officers, though their words are largely spoken (as well as their actions on the day in question) by much younger actors.

Perhaps the boldest move however is that Maitland dedicates virtually no time to the gunman, whose own story is perhaps interesting enough to warrant its own film.  The argument for this is simple enough however: Nobody on the ground knew who was shooting at them, so why should we?

If I were to have a nitpick it would be the inclusion to a closing montage of recent shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook if only because it seemed unnecessary as Tower never came off as a lament or plea for sanity.

While they are all vital reactions to gun violence, this movie offers something equally valuable: the terrified perspective of the average person, who sometimes look past their fear and take actions that remind us why life is worth living in the first place harkening back to that iconic tried but true quote by the invaluable Fred Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping 

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The movie I have hands-down quoted the most this year. Bar none. Also the catchiest soundtrack in a year of catchy soundtracks some of which are also represented on here. It’s also great for my generation’s Top 40-obsessed mentality its own Spinal Tap.

 There honestly isn’t too much to say as this is a straight up comedy, an area I absolutely hate writing about. What can I say? The Lonely Island brand of comedy speaks to me, and this is the trio working on a scale way beyond Hot Rod, another movie I feel as if I quote on a daily basis. It doesn’t hurt that just about every pop parody is as equally catchy as any of the real things on your iPod.

The Lobster

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Another film I was fairly late to the draw on as well as on where I fell on actually liking it.

I include it, not because I loved it, but more than any other film this year, it lingered in my psyche long after I finished it and continues to do so now. I’d be a stone-cold liar however if I claim to “get” every little nook and cranny however.

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos presents a scenario that could easily have been an extended Black Mirror episode, albeit with more laughs and less technology. Staring an effectively cast-against type Colin Farrell, The Lobster posits a world, not too unlike our own, in which societal pressure to seeks companionship and settle down is all encompassing. Quite literally in this case as those that fail to do so are hunted down and turned into animals. It places an unforgiving mirror to our dating, engagement obsessed society. 

More than just a witty parody of meaningless, shallow couplehood, The Lobster is much more probing in how it delves deeper into the strange and cruel world it establishes, ultimately questioning whether two people can truly love one other on any meaningful terms rather than those forced upon them. As you laugh, you may notice you’ve curled up into a bawl and tears slowly emerge from your eyes. 

OJ: Made in America 

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File this under “I’ve seen a number of other reviewers include it on their lists so I’m going to too.”

While technically a miniseries, OJ: Made in America is under consideration for a number of best documentary awards, so fuck it, it is a documentary and more than qualified to be featured here.

It’s a five-hour sprawling epic, unparrelled in scope and content regarding the subject on-hand, much less about the crime in question and more about the much larger context of American class divisions and the ingrained biases in the American legal system. Yes, Simpson’s trial is covered extensively but I’d say that only makes up half of the beast. We also get the best look yet of who OJ Simpson is as a person as well. And it ain’t pretty.

What makes this documentary so effective (to me at least) is that, much like Tower, it doesn’t bold-face any of its messages and rather lets subjects speak for themselves. Director Ezra Edelman, his editors and researchers mostly let people tell their own stories, in full and uncensored, and then find pertinent archival material to support said testimony. 

It’s a film about how a story changes depending on how it’s framed.

Was the Simpson case about the fall of a beloved athlete or the death of a scared and battered woman? Was it about how the media narrowly focused to recognize widespread patterns of injustice? Is it about our tendency to force a narrative onto messy real-life events, distancing us from the truth? These are uncomfortable, yet necessary questions, choses to leave at our feet rather than answer outright. 

The film is journalistic marvel; something to be shown in law and journalism classes in the years to come. 

High-Rise 

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As with The Lobster, I was a fan of High-Rise right away…I think. No wait. Maybe? Okay, give me a second. Hmmm….was I? Yes. Yes. YES. Wait. No. Yes. Of course. Maybe.

I’ve never read J.G. Ballard’s novel, but I bet it is one that has been considered un-filmable for decades. This movie is DENSE in the way only a movie adopted from a DENSE novel can be so it’s fair to say the end result isn’t going to be for everyone.

The apocalypse comes quick in High Rise; so fast in fact that I felt an almost visual whiplash, a decision I wasn’t 100% on board with initially. It’s as if the film’s entire second act was cut out. There’s barely any transition between order and chaos outside of a brief montage, and it took a 2nd viewing for me to get the point. Societies can devolve to ruin so quickly that people simply accept the rubble as the new status quo.

Of cult English director Ben Wheatley’s other films, I’ve only seen Kill List, a movie I really liked for the most part but was more lukewarm towards once it entered the last act. With High Rise, Wheatley plays heavy with allegory, setting the film against the cultural nightmare of Thatcher’s England. Take a scene where our de facto “protagonist” Dr. Laing (a very, very good Tom Hiddleston) peels back the face of a cadaver, revealing the ugly bone and muscle underneath. All that glitters indeed.

I’ve heard it anarchically referred to as a “vertical Snowpiercer,” as the two films revolve primarily around class warfare. I’d argue the two are very different however with only fleeting similarities. Wheatley really avoids anything that could be considered a point of view. I only name Laing the protagonist as Hiddleston is on the poster. Wheatley shoots a wide gaze on the titular 40-story high rise complex, which gets more than a little disorienting once the proverbial shit hits the fan. Things aren’t as simple as “rich on top” and “poor on bottom,” particularly once the puzzle pieces start to move, amalgamating into a cocktail of poignant surrealism, unforgettable imagery, claustrophobia and nightmares.

The Greasy Strangler 

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Where oh where do I even begin?

I really, truly and honestly thought nothing was evening going to come close to touching the coherent weirdness of Swiss Army Man. Then this thing creepily shuffled into the spotlight from out of a the filthy ally I presume it originated from.

The closest thing I can compare it to is Tim and Eric by way of John Waters. Processing it completely comes in various stages. First comes, “What the fuck did I just watch?” Followed closely by buoyant exuberance as you start quoting the film with your friends. The final stage, and most divisive, will be if you’ll ever come back for a second helping.

After a lot of thing and soul-searching, I’ve reached a conclusion:

Xenu, forgive me, I loved every second of it.

This is by no means a movie meant to please anyone. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find many that I’d actually recommend it to. It’s main goal is to cause discomfort, and maybe just maybe you’ll be entertained…probably by accident. I still think my level of enjoyment was a fluke. I was torn between this and The Neon Demon as I enjoyed both for very similar reasons. Both are well-made trash, and I mean that in the highest regard.

WARNING: THE VIDEO BELOW IS ABSOLUTELY NSFW.

La La Land 

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It’s rather jarring to pivot from something like The Greasy Strangler to a film as classy and refined as La La Land, a film that I’m pinning down as Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. Those guys and gals just love acknowledging movies ABOUT making movies. Go figure.

As with Saulnier and Green Room and Eggers and The Witch, writer/director Damien Chazelle is a relatively young talent that has captured my attention so quick fast you’d think he’s been around much longer. His last film, Whiplash, is as perfect a movie as there can be.

I saw a lot of movies I enjoyed this past year, but I think La La Land deserves special credit for being so instantaneously enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to call it the movie I had the most fun watching this entire year. It certainly didn’t hurt I saw it in a theater equipped with recliners and heated seats. Within the first minutes and its opening music number, I knew this movie was going to have seriously TRY to make me hate it.

An utterly joyous throwback to the musicals of yesteryear (Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Chazelle’s second feature serves as perfect companion piece to Whiplash, both films being testaments to artistic ambition. (La La Land notably being the more positive of the two by a large margin.) There’s also an emphasis placed on balancing relationships with the tough, often crushing business of following one’s dreams. The 10 minute epilogue is so pleasing yet simultaneously bittersweet that shockwaves of feeling ripple backwards through the whole extravagant production.

It also fortunately capitalizes on the bottled lightening that is the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in what is their third time out as love interests. They make for a couple that you actually root for, their past shared onscreen relationships only building on that credibility. Stone in particular carries a lot of the weight on her shoulders, in regards to acting and singing chops. The movie owes so much to her La La Land feeds off her heartache and elation. In playing a wannabe starlet, Stone achieves movie-star transcendence.

And we haven’t even gotten to the songs. While I could always use more of the old song and dance (particularly when they are all as good as the ones written by Pasek and Paul with a absolutely gorgeous score by Chazelle’s film school buddy, Justin Hurwitz), but I rather enjoyed each. Neither Gosling or Stone have the strongest singing voices but their imperfection is part of the point. This is a musical set out to acknowledge the discrepancy between spotlight fairy-tales daydreams about and our more blemished reality of wage-slave circumstances. In summation, the Los Angeles of movie screens versus the noisy, gridlocked, unforgiving “real” version. Also, good “City of Stars” out of your head. 

La La Land doesn’t really break the mold in a significant way. It’s simply good harmless ol’ fashioned entertainment that only a simple movie of its caliber can provide.

 Shin Godzilla

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Don’t get me wrong: I was a definitely a fan of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Americanized attempt at a Godzilla picture. No country on earth quite has the same handle on the character (and giant monsters as a whole) quite like the Japanese however.

And every few years, Toho wakes up the jolly green giant to show us all how its down. There latest effort, the 29th to be exact, is perhaps the most surprising source of political satire and commentary of the year. Heading into a Godzilla film, you’re not exactly ready for biting political satire. They’re not really known for their humor either…well, intentional humor anyway. All that changes here.  It’s Veep taking place within a kaiju film, meaning while it isn’t a laugh-a-minute, the jokes that land do so in way that bites deeper than your standard food orgy or used tampon gag.

In one of the best/most clever visual gags of the year, we are bombarded with a new bureaucratic situation on a scene-per-scene basis with each introducing a new official with accompanying text giving their title. As the movie progresses, those titles get longer and longer, until one person’s title LITERALLY takes up half the screen. It’s a subtle joke, highlighting the flat out absurdity of not being able to attack a giant monster currently leveling the city because, as it moves from sea to land, there is no set consensus as to whose jurisdiction the campaign should fall under.

Co-directors Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (the lackluster Attack on Titan adaptations) also do an effective job at returning Godzilla back to his nuclear roots. In what must be a clear allusion to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, this iteration is mutated by nuclear waste dumped into the sea and is powered by nuclear fission. In a very Japanese touch, the ways in which to combat the monster are entirely communal; relying on many, rather than one lone solider. 

As with any of these movies, its far from perfect. It gets pretty dialogue heavy at points and its climax is a bit anticlimactic when stacked against some of the earlier set-pieces, but all these imperfections play into the larger charms of a proper Godzilla movie. 

Jackie

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Like Moonlight, I really wanted to write this one off.

I feel as if I’ve seen every variation of the biopic at this point. So forgive me when I’m not immediately chomping at the bits for yet another (what I assumed) standard piece on the life and times of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; particularly one starting Natalie Portman, an actress is really hit-or-miss to me as a performer.

Once again, I’m happy to report that I was super wrong and really should stop being a pretentious asshole.

Jackie offers something more impressionistic, focused primarily on how the first lady’s dealt with the death of President John F. Kennedy. We get a few flashbacks here and there on Mrs. JFK during her time in the White House, but as with the best biopics, the film focuses on single point in its subject’s impressive life rather than a jukebox of their “greatest hits” as it were.

Direction aside, it’s Portman who really solidifies her place among the A-list in a performance that comes the closest to being iconic since her very first in Leon: The Professional and actually be just that (I’m sorry Black Swan lovers. I thought her output in that was largely overrated). As with Michael Fassbender’s largely underrated potrayal of Steve Jobs last year, it would be very easy to dismiss Portman’s characterization as a distracting impression. Couldn’t that be said of the real Jackie O though, a woman many can (and have) argued was simply playing a Kennedy.

Sure, the script gets a bit on the nose at times, but it takes the existential crisis at its center wholly seriously.

Silence 

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It’s should go without saying that Martin Scorsese would probably have to try his absolute best to turn in a movie that wasn’t at least worth watching two or three times at this point in his career. I honestly fear that it is cliche to just include on of his new movies on a “Best of” list without question. To be frank though, I was a little hesitant going into this one.

It looks for meaning in the contradictions and absurdities of faith, rather than its assurances. More obvious filmmakers would probably turn scenes of Christians being tortured and persecuted into pornographic spectacle. Ever the conflicted Catholic however, Scorsese instead (and more interestingly) shoulders the burden of our protagonists’ suffering.

It may not be a very fun movie, but it is an incredibly powerful one; Andrew Garfield’s less-than-perfect accent aside.

The Handmaiden 

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As with documentaries, I’m often late to the party when it comes to international cinema. If anything, it’s probably thing I’m most bitter about whenever I have to a year-end wrap up such as this because I feel as I’m only eating from the appetizers table when their is a whole host of a main course just around the corner.

To be frank, The Handmaiden is fucked up in every shade. But should one expect anything less from director Park Chan-Wook, author of such cinematic WTFs as Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy.

Based on “Fingersmith,” Sarah Waters’ novel of hidden identities and lesbian passion, Chan-Wook’s film transports the action to 1930’s South Korea. Now this isn’t a movie I’d be automatically be chomping at the bits to see and mainly gave it a shot purely based on Chan-Wook’s involvement. While it may sound like something akin to 50 Shades of Garbage, under the direction of an auteur at the level of its director The Handmaiden is pure Hitchcock.

I hate to get into plot specifics with this one because it really is all about the ride it takes you on. So you’ll just have to take my word on this one. Resting on standing performances from its two leads (Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-ri), The Handmaiden is a con-movie in all the right ways, all while being unafraid to tamper with conventions of the genre.

Pete’s Dragon

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For full review. 

Text book example of a remake done right. I’ve long maintained that Hollywood focuses on remake good movies instead of giving middling stories another shot with the vision of a new director. Sure, this is fiscally sound. People are often to flock to something they recognize fondly over a new version of something they didn’t like or forgot about the first time.

I think it’s safe to say that the original Pete’s Dragon isn’t many peoples’ favorite in relation to the massive, ever-growing Disney canon. Therefore it makes more sense to me to let someone else take a crack at it. Less risk, higher gains in relation to creativity and story innovation. (Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite financially so get used to beat-for-beat remakes of popular movies like…oh I don’t know…Beauty and the Beast? I don’t think I’ve seen that one remade enough. You?)

In many ways, it reminded me of Robert Altman’s Popeye or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are; less a work-for-hire gig and more a genuine attempt to imbue children’s entertainment with a little more personality, a little more heart…some would accuse this of being boring and truth be told, Pete’s Dragon could have stood to be a little lighter. It’s never too grim, but its definitely darker than your standard Secret Life of Pets fluff. But so where a lot of the most memorable/best films of our youth.

I think its sole stumble is its villain, played here by the ever-underrated Karl Urban. He’s serviceable, but he comes off as almost one-dimensional in a film that is anything but. He’s definitely more misguided than mustache-twirler, but he could have stood to be more developed.

Zootopia 

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While we’re on the topic of Disney, the company’s global domination is well-under way and the fact there are other major studio releases to “compete” with them can simply be considered pity.

Out of all their major releases this year though (The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Moana and Rogue One respectively), I feel as if Zootopia will be the one I come back to more frequently if only because at it could have have come out at a more appropriate time. Which surprised the hell out of me as the concept did not exactly inspire confidence in me.

The subtext on display isn’t exactly hidden, but isn’t exactly spoon-fed either refreshingly.

Near the beginning of the film, our protagonist Judy Hops (maybe the best Disney has provided in the past few years) protests: “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when another animal does it…” She trails off, letting the resemblance to certain human distinctions hang in the air. 

Zootopia is often delightfully specific about said subtext, about the way different groups share certain spaces in the world, trying for peace (or at the very least, manageable harmony) but continuing to stumble over presumptions, stereotypes, and the often uncomfortable legacies of how things “used” to be. These are important, even hefty, lessons to place on kids 10 and under but what better year for Disney to put out a movie about understanding one’s neighbor, overcoming fears and so forth? Okay, so we all didn’t exactly get over all that stuff (don’t say the Trump word, Tyler, we’re being positive remember?) but this will be things that will become increasing important as times get scary, more volatile and even more divisive. Kudos to Disney for getting ahead of that with the perfect movie to open up those important conversations. 

Love & Friendship

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I feel like such a snobby tool for enjoying this movie as much as I did, but what can I say? It charmed the living hell out of me. I watched it on a whim, not expecting much, and remained completely absorbed throughout. An adaptation of Jane Austin’s “Lady Susan,” (no easy task given it’s a epistolary novel as well as material Austin herself didn’t intend to publish, only becoming available after her death) this isn’t really a movie I’d necessarily seek out either. Just check out this official synopsis:

“Recently widowed, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at her brother-in-law’s estate to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. While there, she becomes determined to secure a new husband for herself, and one for her reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica, too. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.”

Oh joy.

But credit where credit is due; this movie was just what I needed right when I saw it.

If anything, its nice to see Kate Beckinsale take a part that reminds us all of how lightening quick she can be as an actress and wear a wardrobe that consists solely of tight, black leather. (As a male, the latter is always fine but the movies in which she does this are anything but.) Everyone is on fire, but Beckinsale really is the main attraction here. She delivers cutting lines with the casual cheeriness of someone who can’t even conceive of caring what others might think of her and she’s just pure dynamite. In a fair world, she’d be in the same conversation with Adams and Stone for Best Actress come Oscar season.

It doesn’t hurt the movie is also a lot of fun. You don’t have to be an English major or literary snob either. I credit writer/director Whit Stillman, a man who seems adept at taking droll, quasi-pedantic material and making it easily digestible for someone as stupid as me. 

Special kudos must also be extended to Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin in what may be the best comedic performance of the year. Martin is a lovable doofus for the ages. Any competent actor could get a chuckle from a choice line, but it requires a special sort of auteur to be handed “How do you do?” and turn the basic response of “Very well, thank you” into something hysterical. Bennet does this by having Martin consider the question as if it were a riddle from the fucking Sphinx.

Gold.

Storks

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For full review. 

So there was a split decision among this, Star Trek Beyond and Captain America: Civil War. Don’t take this as anti-franchise snark but as awesome as it is to see how the well the Marvel characters have translated on the big screen as well as the closest thing we’ve gotten to an actual cinematic Star Trek yarn in well-over two decades, I tend to skew towards equally entertaining original material. In keeping with the oddball theme of 2016 and the movies that came out of the woodwork, I’d feel remiss if I’d reserve a special place for Storks. And let me stress this isn’t some ballsy attempt to “be different” or “standout.” I just fell in love with the zany world this movie sort of passes along like some sort of hot potato.

It made money to be sure, but it’s largely left the conversion. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a torch bearer. That’s imply this movie is forgotten, when it fact it’s fair to call it a success. I just don’t want it to disappear. There’s so much to love here. It gives us a return to Looney Tunes-physics, something I feel has largely disappeared from major studio releases. Fast-paced, line-a-minute dialogue that comes from recording sessions involving multiple actors, another rarely utilized tool. It also provides the standout character of the year in Tulip (Katie Crown, in what I hope is a bright future in voice acting).

So if you happened to have missed Storks, I recommend seeking it out particularly if you’re an animation fan. I was a little harsher on it after my first viewing, but with each viewing since, I’ve softened on it considerable even growing to love this weird $70 million blip on the 2016 radar.

A Monster Calls 

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Cathartic.

That’s the one word I’d use describing both A Monster Calls and the the young adult novel upon which it is based.

Some accuse the movie of being…overly simplistic, even unsophisticated, in relation to its statements and themes on death, mourning and general grief. I accuse those who may do that of losing sight of the movie’s intended audience: children.

Having lost more than a few loved ones, some unexpectedly and others slowly, the film hit me in the same way the books did, something that rarely transfers over from page to screen. The plot follows your typical pre-teen fantasy formula: we have Connor, a young, artistic yet intrinsic boy, who feels alienated at school and at home, save from the relationship he shares with his terminally ill mother. Each night at 12:07 a.m., The Monster (voiced here by Liam Neeson at his growliest) arrives to tell a story that pertains to Connor’s current predicament. The Monster warns however that once these stories are done, Connor will have to tell his own story and it must be true…or he will suffer his worst nightmare.

The crux of why the film hit me deals largely in just how personal it feels, all while being universal as well; akin to movies like A Christmas Story or Stand By Me. It’s hard to say if the movie will do much for anyone else to me and it’d be easy to dismiss it as simple Oscar bait. If that is the case, I guess fell in hook-line and sinker. Watching it, I was reminded of a Guillermo del Toro, a director I could easily see Monster‘s J.A. Bayona emulating. (The two have worked together in the past, most notably Boyona’s terrific 2007 horror flick, The Orphanage.) Now I don’t think When Monster Calls ranks as high as a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the same sort of magic is certainly there.

Weiner 

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I add this movie last as it was the toughest to include. Given the part Anthony Weiner ended up playing the 2016 election, I’m not exactly his biggest fan. Set aside his personal demons. Set aside he’s a massive piece of shit as a person. Set aside the massive disappointment he turned out to be. Remember that period where he had actual promise behind? I’m not from, nor have I ever been to, New York City but this guy’s heat was palpable and felt all the way out here from those who cared to pay attention.

It’s bad enough the guy trashed a promising political career derailed by a dumb Twitter sexting scandal. Then he went and did it again disappointing millions willing to look past his transgressions. Everyone loves a good comeback story after all, right? The filmmakers behind this doc obviously thought so originally.

A lot of what the movie does well is completely by accident. That isn’t a knock on the filmmakers at all. Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg didn’t set out to document a scandal. This was a movie meant to give us rare insight to a political comeback.

They instead happened to be on the ground floor to be there right as the final nails in the coffin that was Weiner’s hope of a political career. It’s astounding at the level of access we are treated to, not all of it is pretty either. It’s a spiritual successor to War Room, perhaps the most important political documentary of all time. The most dramatic sequence takes place on election night. Weiner’s loss is basically assured. However as a publicity stunt, his sexting partner, Sydney Leathers, shows up at his concession speech to confront him and his wife, Humma Abedin, on camera. Th back and forth between Leathers and Weiner’s team as a potential confrontation approaches is genuinely nerve-wracking and one of the most tense of the year. 

Perhaps the best element of Weiner is that it doesn’t just put up a camera to the man himself but also the parties that took him apart. The filmmakers effectively indict the rivals, reporters, and cable hosts who seemed offended that Weiner stayed in the race and kept trying to talk about real issues. Weiner is at once about the downfall of a politician, but it’s also about the smugness and hypocrisy of those who took a politician down mainly because dick pics make better copy than substantive explanations about zoning laws.

‘Doctor Strange’ is but a glance through a key hole at Marvel’s mystical multiverse

Maybe this is where I preface with how much I love the character of Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange a.k.a Doctor Strange a.k.a the Sorcerer Supreme.

Well…

There really isn’t all that much to say honestly.

He’s a character I sort of stumbled upon by accident actually when I was much younger. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say I was initially drawn to the visuals to which I argue there are no better to be found in the comic book medium than a Doctor Strange book. He also probably has my favorite look of any in the Marvel canon as well. Not to mention possibly the best base of operations of any superhero. Yes, I am including the Bat Cave in that debate.

Character-wise, I think what I like most is his matter of fact-ness approach to magic. As a neurosurgeon, he is anything if not pragmatic. That goes along way when you’re dealing with stuff as goofy and outlandish as the typical problem of a Sorcerer Supreme. His last name should be a pretty clear indicator for the general tone of the conflicts in which he deals with issue to issue.

I also loved how his house served as a hub for a good portion of Marvel’s street-level New York heroes. I’m fairly certain everyone has stayed there at some point and when it was destroyed (for a bit…for like 40 minutes….for the fourth time….that year) it was always cool to see his friends rally around him and trusty manservant, Wong. Seconded maybe my Nick Fury, he had possibly the most extensive contacts lists of any one in Marvel.

All that said, I had no illusions in my mind that a Doctor Strange movie would ever exist. Well…except this one…

And yes…that is a young Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth).

To me, more than any other comic book character, he was the bar upon which films would never reach.

Then this little movie happened…

Now that this exists, where does that shift? Squirrel Girl?

Oh.

Right. 

Well, for what it’s worth, this movie was made and I was pretty gosh darn(?) excited about it.

I wanted this to be my favorite Marvel movie.

And the trailers did very little to levy the fact that this would be incredible.

End result? Not incredible. Not great, really either. But a lot of fun. So…at least there’s that!

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The plot:

“Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ follows the story of the talented neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange who, after a tragic car accident, must put ego aside and learn the secrets of a hidden world of mysticism and alternate dimensions. Based in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Doctor Strange must act as an intermediary between the real world and what lies beyond, utilizing a vast array of metaphysical abilities and artifacts to protect the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” – Marvel

The review:

See this in IMAX 3D.

You’re doing yourself a real disservice if you bother with any other format. Perhaps the highest praise I have for this is that it truly is the first Marvel film that needs to be experienced on the biggest screen at your disposal. Oh sure, many of their past endeavors have been treats for the eyes as well but Doctor Strange elevates the bar (visually) to level in which all subsequent releases are sure to be compared.

Visually and conceptually, the effects owe quite a bit to the inverted physics of Inception with a healthy how-do-you-do to the East-meets-West influences of The Matrix. From those sparks however, Doctor Strange becomes what I presume to be the winner all of next year’s visual effects awards. Like…all of them.

Every sequence feels distinct, more innovative than the last. While it doesn’t reach the comic book-y glory that was the airport sequence in Civil War, there’s something to be said about just how outside the box this movie gets in relation to how it operates on a basic, visual level.

You’ll probably hear that certain sequences will make you feel as if you took LSD, molly, or whatever the kids are calling it these days. And to a degree, those statements carry validity.

Let’s go down the list. We have:

A race through an M.C. Escher-fied Manhattan war zone.

A fist fight between disembodied spirits.

More than one instance in which the Doctor’s iconic cloak gets a punch or two in.

A 2001 meets ultimate acid trip through all of time and space.

And that’s just a taste. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (who really hasn’t stood out to me as a director before this) really outdid himself in delivering such a distinctly-visual film in an environment that unfortunately seems to widdle down the unique flairs of its directors.

The cast, as is typical with Marvel movies, is perfect to a tee. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the could have been given more interesting things to do, but they perform admirably with the some lackluster lines scattered throughout.

There was a considerable amount of controversy surrounding Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, a typically Asian role. To me, it’s a double-edged sword. Sure, it would be great to see an Asian actor given a high-profile role such as that but the stereotypes imbued with it, I think Marvel chose wisely in just casting an incredibly talented actress.

I also liked Cumberbatch’s Strange. He wouldn’t have been my first pick, but he defied my expectations here. He imbues Strange with same level of charming arrogance Robert Downey Jr. can in his sleep at this point as Tony Stark albeit different enough to where it doesn’t seem like he is merely mimicking the success of the other actor.

 I’m more than ready to see how he fits in with the rest of the MCU as a whole, particularly the ever-skeptical of magic Tony Stark.

Not to mention the onscreen reunion of the Facial Hair Bros.

Not to mention the onscreen reunion of the Facial Hair Bros.

We get a preview of what role he’ll play in a future movie in our now mandated first of two after credits scenes and SPELLS exciting things for a certain film involving a certain God of Thunder and a golly, green giant. Not to get too spoiler-y, but that quick scene made me so giddy at the mere fact that Strange is taking a similar role to the one he’s had in the comics for decades.

Every other actor and actress, while talented, kind of fades into the background. Similar to Terrance Howard in the first Iron Man film, Chiwetel Ejiofor serves as sidekick Mordo (not yet a baron), who will go on to become much more interesting in the sequel. (Hopefully they actually keep him around for the second film though.)

Our villain, Kaecilius, didn’t really do a lot for me. I guess he was fine to say the most, helped mainly by the fact that he’s played by our most recent Dr. Lecter, Mads Mikkelsen. The guy probably sleeps with a menacing face on.

I got a kick out of Benedict Wong’s take on Wong. It would have fairly easy to get uncomfortable with that character, but I think this interpretation is largely successful.

Also he’s not in it long enough to really offend anyone. Assuming he plays a larger role in future films, (as I require him to) hopefully they keep that balance up.

The only performer who I felt was kind of wasted was Rachel McAdams. She’s fine but she’s equated to same role as Natalie Portman in the Thor films in that we needs someone to humanize this asshole of a main character for us but otherwise serves no real purpose in the plot. Oh wait….I just remember….Michael Stuhlbarg is in this too. Okay, mark that as TWO wasted performers.

As with the comic, the character’s origins mirror that of Iron Man’s which leads me to the only substantive argument I can petition concerning this film, and it is a biggie. For all the bells and whistles, it is about as generic as white bread with no crust and a side of milk. There are some flourishes here and there (I really love how the good doctor approaches his final confrontation with the big bad at the film’s conclusion as well as its resolution), but the crux of the story is something we’ve seen again and again and again and again.

It’s a common complaint I share regarding superhero films in general.

I’d probably be less disappointed if I hadn’t been naive enough to buy into the rumors spread by alleged gross person Devin Faraci at birth.death.movies that the film WOULD NOT be another origin story.

Look, I get it. Disney is all about accessibility and when you’re entering a pool as crazy as the magical side of the Marvel Universe, you’re going to want to go in with some floaties first particularly if you have no experience with it.

There is also lion’s share credit to had by Derrikson and his co-writers for cramming what could have been Star Trek levels of exposition and explanation and quasi-comfortably fitting it into something much more digestible for John and Sally Q. Public. Fortunately, when that explanation does start to wear a little thin, the film wisely cranks up the action.

It’s a similar complaint I had to last year’s Krampus. Sure, it’s crazy but there’s so much potentially for more without getting bogged down in logistics. That’s the beauty of magic, particularly comic book magic.

I don’t want to play “Tyler writes a better movie,” but maybe they could have place a bit more focus on a normal character -coughmugglecough- who is cursed or is in someway affected by magic in which they need Strange’s assistance. Strange, is already Sorcerer Supreme as this point much in the same way Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is already a detective at the start of Sherlock. We then find out more about his world through an audience surrogate. I’m not arguing that is an anyway better. Hell, we’ve seen that story before too, but as we press forward, my origin story burnout is becoming all the more real.

I wouldn’t even hazard to say I’m disappointed. 2016 has been a fairly disappointment year in the blockbuster department, but I wouldn’t classify Doctor Strange as one of them. It’s fine. I say that a lot, but trust me it’s true. Movies can be just fine. They neither have to blow you away or make you angry. They can exist in the in-between successfully. I often harp on the fact that the most important aspect of any movie is whether it carries a memorability or not. That’s the most I can really ask of any film. I think The Incredible HulkIron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World suffer the most in terms of that.

Doctor Strange‘s mere existence is a win for me. It’s coherence another.

So yeah, I enjoyed the movie for what it was. I’m honestly more disappointed I don’t have more to say about it given this is something I’ve been wanting to see for a good portion of comic book-reading life.

I don’t particularly have anything that profound to say about it outside I hope this sample platter of a film is simply a fraction of what Marvel has in store should we get a fully-fledged sequel. I think I said the same thing about Green Lantern, a movie I still maintain was not as bad as everyone made it out to be. It wasn’t great, but it too was fine. Like Doctor Strange, it left the door of limitless comic book possibilities open for something akin to my expectations. Unlike that movie, I think we have a competent company as represented by Marvel Studios behind the reigns to ensure we actually get to see those possibilities brought to fruition competently.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ is Marvel’s latest cinematic mic drop

Let’s compare and contrast…

Just when you think the nation cannot get more divided, we’ve now had two two-and-a-half hour movies this year in which ideologies clash, public opinion turns against costumed avengers and our best and brightest heroes punch one another in the face. One from DC Comics; the other from Marvel.

I think I’ve made my thoughts on Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice pretty clear by this point, so I don’t particularly want to beat a dead horse. Suffice to say, that movie largely sucked all the life out of the room. It’s as if Zack Snyder and his crew were mad they were making a comic book movie.

Thank Uatu, Marvel Studios has got their collective shit together. Not sure if this constitutes as a spoiler, but this movie was the complete antithesis of….that other film. It boggles my mind that they were originally slated to open on the same day until DC wised up and moved to an earlier date. At this point, Marvel has nothing left to prove.

It’s pretty simple actually.

One did it wrong.

The other right.

Let’s see why!

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The plot:

“With many people fearing the actions of super heroes, the government decides to push for the Anti-Hero Registration Act, a law that limits a heroes actions. This results in a division in The Avengers. Iron Man stands with this Act, claiming that their actions must be kept in check otherwise cities will continue to be destroyed, but Captain America feels that saving the world is daring enough and that they cannot rely on the government to protect the world. This escalates into an all-out war between Team Iron Man (Iron Man, Black Panther, Vision, Black Widow, War Machine, and Spiderman) and Team Captain America (Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Falcon, Sharon Carter, Scarlett Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant Man) while a new villain emerges.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

-cracks knuckles-

Okay, where to start?

Almost immediately give a shout out to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the cream of the crop in my humble opinion; no easy sentiment to make given that pool includes the likes of Joss Whedon and James Gunn) and anyone else over at the Marvel brain trust for actually providing us with a movie called “Civil War” and actually making us question whose side we’re on. You know…like an actual civil war should, something Dawn of Justice ultimately neglected to. Hell, it does a better job at that than the original comic written by Mark Millar on which this is based did.

In the comic, we were firmly meant to be against Team Iron Man as it made Tony and his side act completely act out of character, hiring super villains to hunt down renegade heros, building a super prison in the negative zone to illegally hold captured vigilantes and even creating a clone of Thor, who went on to accidentally kill the superhero Goliath (think Ant-Man, but only increases in size). In fact, the comic in general required a huge suspension of disbelief. Given how many decades upon decades of near-universe ending events, it’s hard to believe (no matter how tragic) that one event is going to be the be-all, end-all inciting incident that leads to the Superhero Registration Act. It took Marvel years to recover with constant backtracking to justify it all (Skrulls! It was always the Skrulls. And Spider-Man’s marriage never happend….FUCK YOU, “ONE MORE DAY”!!!!!!)

What’s important in an event like this is that, as in life, things are never so black and white as they appear. Tony sees the Avengers as a source of power, while capable of incredible good, that also needs to have a level of oversight given his firsthand experience with the consequences of his superhero antics whereas Steve, having seen how those in control can misuse that power (i.e. the Nazi’s, S.H.I.E.L.D, etc.), is instinctively  mistrusts handing over the keys as it were. In other words, the movie perfectly captures the idealogical difference between these two men. They want the same thing, but they have different ways of getting there. Neither side is wrong. They both see the other’s argument, but as is often the case in today’s political landscape, their emotions get the better of them. In BvS, Batman and Superman want the same thing…and they do the same thing…and they are same characters…but they still want to kill on another.

Marvel also never loses the levity it is justifiably praised for. This movie gets pretty dark; just as dark as BvS in fact but it’s still fun.  How on earth can a movie that has serious, complex themes still actually be an enjoyable experience that doesn’t feel like a chore? Fuck me, right?

The other substantial win Civil War achieves is THAT airport sequence.

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HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.

Just so we’re not hear all day, let me preface by saying every action set piece in this film is fantastic. Each has a difference feel and emotion behind it. None are ever gratuitous or over-long. When they need to be fun, they’re fun. When they need to be serious, there is great emotion and heart in every frame.

But the fight between Team Steve and Team Tony at an evacuated airport takes not only the film to another level, but the comic book film genre as a whole.

I’d go on record as saying it is flat out the greatest sequence I’ve seen in a superhero film up to this point. I cannot hyperbolize  the sequence enough. I don’t think there was any point in which I wasn’t making  either this face…

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Or this face…

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I could without a doubt dedicate an entire several thousand word post to this scene alone. Chances are you’ve read better writers praising it by this point and I don’t want to belay the point. It’s simply the culmination of what Marvel has been building to, and if you thought the sequence in which the Avengers first assemble was spectacular, get ready for the NEXT step.

It’s playing on the playground with your friends, throwing your imaginary super powers at one another.

It’s validation to those late night arguments who would win in a fight.

It’s fulfillment to anyone that’s ever picked up a comic book.

As a friend pointed out, I almost always say, “How in the hell are they going to top that?” after many of these films. I once again find myself asking myself that very question. This scene is the bar and it’s higher than ever before. We’re seeing over 8 years of story-telling pay off. The movie transcends from comic book movie to actual comic book come to life. It’s a sequence we are going to be talking about for years to come. Good luck to all that come afterward.

They do a far more effective at balancing every character than Age of Ultron did. There is still the typical sequel bait, but its so much more organic here. No one goes off and does their own thing simply because they need to get some legwork out the way for a future film. In other words, there is not a sequence were Thor takes a bath to see the future or whatever the fuck that scene was in AoU. It is in fact possible to create a sense of longing in the audience for more of another movie without ham-fisting entire sequences to movies that haven’t come out yet.

On top of including so many familiar faces successfully, Marvel does a bang up job at adding new ones as well. I’d don’t want to break down every one as the cast is pretty damn substantial and we still have the new recruits to get to. Let me just highlight each really quick as they are all fucking great and deserve heaps of praise.

Familiar faces

Chris Evans, Captain America/Steve Rogers – Continues to be the heart and soul of the MCU; basically since the first Avengers film, he’s been doing commendable work  at taking what could easily be a boring character and making him a man with

Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark/Iron Man – Still the best. He will always be the best. He’s a bit more somber than we’ve ever seen the character before, which is appropriate given the proceedings but he never looses that patented Downey wit. His scene with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker (who will get to in a moment) is still buzzing in my brain and something I’m still trying to comprehend.

Scarlett Johansson, Natasha Romanova/Black Widow – The argument for a solo film grows only stronger every time she shows up in one of these films. Maybe if they’d done so sooner we wouldn’t have the whole Ghost in the Shell controversy on our hands.

Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider – Served much better here than in Winter Solider if only because he gets a bit more development a.k.a. dialogue.

Anthony Mackie, Sam Wilson/Falcon – His friendship with Cap is one of my favorite things about these movies now. They banter, they work well together. They’re both military men that see America for what it is; broken, but worth fixing.

Don Cheadle, James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine – Probably the most underserved of all the heroes. He gets a few moments to shine (as does everyone) but his presence isn’t as strong as it could be.

Jeremy Renner, Clint Barton/Hawkeye – A personal favorite of mine from the comics. So happy to see him as the guy who comments on the absurdity of the situation while ultimately being the one help out without question.

Paul Bettany, Vision – Still great. Seeing him trying to woo Scarlett Witch did my nerd heart good. Also seeing him in his civilian clothes was just a fantastic absurd touch.

Elizabeth Olsen, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch – Much like Bucky, she is better served here than in the previous film in which she first appeared if only because she gets more to do. I like her as the one the team is almost uniformly scared of (except Vision) as she tries to find her place both on the Avengers and the world at large.

Paul Rudd, Scott Lang/Antman – I love Paul Rudd, and I smile to myself almost every time I remember THIS guy is a part of the MCU proper.

He isn’t in the movie too much but he gets what is perhaps the best moment in a movie comprised of “best of” moments. Much like Peter Parker and Clint Barton, Lang provides much needed everyman aspect to a roster of characters that may be sorely lacking in their absence.

Rookies

I think heading into this, I was most interested to see how Black Panther was pulled off. Seconded only by Doctor Strange, he is a character I have been eagerly anticipating to be included in the MCU (I was scared as hell Fox somehow nabbed him with their Fantastic Four deal). I worried that he’d be an afterthought, much in the way Wonder Woman was in BvS that was simply wedged in to preview his own future film. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised that not only is he a major player throughout, he is perhaps the most compelling element of the film as a whole.

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His arc also serves as a pseudo-origin story, which hopefully means his eventual solo movie will not have to much baggage in terms of establishing his world. I’m not too familiar with Chadwick Boseman as an actor (he’s ranged from passable to awful in other films in which I’ve seen him perform), but he completely won me over here. T’Challa initially has more reason than any other bring in the Winter Solider, and actually goes on to be the emotional crux for the entire film. He is in the film plenty, but you’ll be longing for more of him and his kingdom of Wakanda. (“Come for the vibranium, leave because of the scary jaguar god!”) Put simply: he’s an actual addition, not the appetizer for a future movie. Which brings me to the Spider-Man of it all…

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Apologies if this comes off as graphic, I think the millisecond the title card reading “Queens,” I may have had the most earth-shattering nerdgasm of my life.

I’ve made no secret of my love of the character (going so far as to post a fan fiction for a fourth film in the Sam Raimi series) and going into vivid detail about my….let’s say disappointment with the Marc Webb helmed reboot series.

Spider-Man coming back to Marvel proper is just about everything I’ve wanted since the announcement of the cinematic universe. Unlike the X-Men, Spider-Man’s section of the MU can’t truly flourish in its own cinematic universe. No one was clamoring for a Secret Six spin-off, right?

Now it’s way too early to commit to this, but Tom Holland may just be the best Spider-Man we’ve ever had. He certainly has the potential to be if only for the fact that we have an actual teenager in the role who can quip and shoot off banter with the best of them. He single-handedly won me over on the thought of yet another reboot based solely on his youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy. We may finally get a PERFECT Spider-Man film, you guys. No more, “Well, at least they got that right.” Don’t get me wrong: I love Spider-Man 2, but how fucking amazing would it be if when Doctor Strange was referenced, they could have followed it up with Peter interacting with the Sorcerer Supreme himself?

Let me expand: You could cut him out of the movie completely and not really lose much. However, in this case, Spidey is a great addition to already great movie as opposed to Wonder Woman, who was a faint glimmer in the darkness. Whether by design or complicated inter-studio agreements, Spider-Man was not the forefront of the marketing for this movie. Sure, he was there but he was not shoved down our collective throats as to trick us into thinking he’d be a critical part of the movie.

We also get Emily VanCamp returning as Agent 13, William Hurt back as Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross and Frank Grillo’s Crossbones making an appearance to top it all off. Hell, they even brought in Martin Freeman as Everett Ross (no relation to “Thunderbolt”), who I presume will play a larger role in the Black Panther solo film along with Andy Serkis’ Klaw. It all strengthens the MCU as a viable, believable world where characters we know pop in and out from time to time.

Out of the weaknesses this movie has (and their are very few, none which ruin the film), I’d say the villain’s plan (yeah, they cram a villain in here somehow) may have been the only noticeable kink in this film’s incredibly impressive armor. It’s no secret that Daniel Bruhl plays Zemo (no longer a Baron). What his plan is exactly I won’t spoil, but it’s another one of those unbeatable plans that relies on one too many unpredictable elements that modern action films seem to flock to. I did like it a bit more once his grand plan was revealed as it tied in the larger themes of the film, but he just wasn’t super memorable in the long-run particularly when stacked up against everything else going on. I just wish there had been a better way to get to his scheme while also making him something to the level of Loki, the only villain truly worth noting in the MCU thus far. The TV shows are a completely different animal as we got guys like the Purple Man (David Tennant) terrorizing Jessica Jones and the glory that is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin over on Marvel’s Daredevil.

Also, not really a complaint but more of an observation, while Captain America is a leading force in this film, I wouldn’t consider it a strict Captain America movie, at least not in the same way The First Avenger or The Winter Solider was. Maybe could have just called it Marvel’s Civil War? Do we really need to throw in the Captain America to draw interest? I thought they had proved the Marvel part was enough with Guardians of the Galaxy. Again this is a very, very, very, VERY minor nitpick if even that.

To conclude, Captain America: Civil War isn’t just better than most superhero films; it’s better, by and large, than most movies of this scale. It could have easily been a train wreck given all of its moving parts and runtime. It’s never dull and always moving, as it invites us to both enjoy the big-budget spectacle and also contemplate the bigger themes lying just under the surface for those that chose to look. It’s the superhero movie we need right now as we forward into the most vitriolic election year this country has seen in decades. (Well played, Marvel.)

‘Deadpool’ succeeds at being a Deadpool movie by getting down and dirty with its absurd comic book roots

Whoda thunk, right?

Like cut back to May 2009. Right after you saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and just how badly the character of Deadpool was handled in that film.

Flash forward to now, and we actually have a proper interpretation of the character.

To be fair, the film environment back then probably would not have allowed for a PROPER Deadpool film, but we are in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world and in my book that opens the floodgates for just about any obscure character to get his or her own movie deal.

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I’m on the edge of my seat for the Rom major motion picture.

That isn’t to say Deadpool is any way, shape or form an obscure character. Not in the slightest. I’m not sure who describes Deadpool as a “cult character” other than those that have NEVER picked up a comic book or have NEVER attended a fan convention. The Merc with a Mouth is an INSANELY popular character and is only going to get more popular with a wide release film that actually plays to his strengths.

The first time I can recall experiencing over-saturation was with Deadpool. I don’t think you could pick up a Marvel comic book from the years 2008 – 2011 without Deadpool making a cameo at one point or another. Whenever I go to a comic book convention there are a minimum of 20 to 30 Deadpools of varying quality and spin on the costume (zombie Deadpool, pimp Deadpool, steam punk Deadpool, etc.). Now, my love of the character was pretty intense from my introduction around middle to about the end of high school. I eventually tired of the character however. Not to any fault of any particular writer, but Marvel as a whole. They were forcing him into EVERYTHING and I needed a break. It’s been a few years since I picked up a solo book staring Wade Wilson, and given that he’s set to blow up even more in popularity after this weekend, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Do not get me wrong: I still enjoy Deadpool, as a character, quite a bit. (I even put together a low-rent costume two Halloweens ago.) What has always appealed to me (in the comics) is he is really only the comic book character to recognize and actively comment on the fact that he is a comic book character. (Sure, Animal Man met Grant Morrison but that moment is not something that is really ever recognized in later Animal Man comics under the direction of other writers.) He exists to be a smart ass in the way that Spider-Man can’t be. Because of this, writers are able to mess around with standard comic book conventions. For instance, he has active conversations with his thought bubbles.

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He is what I would consider a template for meta humor, which appeals to me in varying degrees. He’s very much a product of the 90’s (little surprise should come from the fact that he was created by the comic book industry’s resident bro-writer/artist Rob Liefeld), and I completely get while people both love and hate him. When written poorly, Deadpool is cheap catchphrase machine with sex and boner jokes that appeal to the lowest common denominator. He’s also a character that it’s rather tough to care about on a emotional level. Given that he’s both aware of his fictional existence AND has a super healing ability, it’s hard to care about whether he’s going to live or die.

If this movie was going to work, it needed to not only be smart in how stupid it was but also embrace its own absurdity that its comic book namesake. As long as you embrace the absurd, you can get away with just about anything.

Luckily, the team behind Deadpool don’t just make it to second base with that absurdity; they hit a home-fucking-run and go all in. Done with the sex metaphors….FOR NOW.

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The plot: 

“This is the origin story of former Special Forces operative turned mercenary Wade Wilson, who after being subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopts the alter ego Deadpool. Armed with his new abilities and a dark, twisted sense of humor, Deadpool hunts down the man who nearly destroyed his life.” – 20th Century Fox

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIM1HydF9UA

The review: 

Right off the bat this is a movie for fans made by fans. There is a palpable kinetic energy to the proceedings from every one involved. A fun movie can only be fun if its participants are also having fun.

Clearly someone was going their jobs in both A) making this movie and B)marketing this movie. They understood what is so appealing about this character.

Any doubts that I may have had that the filmmakers where going to mess this up were almost immediately eliminated by the opening credits which are a perfect “you’re either in or out” thesis before all the mayhem begins. An overt nod to the comic book splash page, the filmmakers clearly know their stuff because each action sequence is fun, gag-filled and excitingly preposterous.

It’s almost as if Fox cared very little about this movie as long as it stayed under budget (a fact the movie openly comments on) and made money (given it’s a comic book movie, they must have assumed that was a safe bet) because director Tim Miller and screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese throw almost every insane, crude, offensive, R-rated joke he can at the audience. Given this is the same studio that gave us that atrocious Fantastic Four reboot that reeked of studio intervention a few months ago, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little surprised. Hell, we actually get Colossus (played this time around by Andre Tricoteux)  portrayed as Russian, a trait the other movies seem to be gleefully ignoring at this point. It even boils down to little details like making the eyes on Deadpool’s mask CGI so they can emote just like they do in the comics. Both Weasel (played by Silicon Valley-scene stealer TJ Miller) and HYDRA Bob appear for small parts. We live in a world with a live action HYDRA Bob, people! (He obviously isn’t a member of HYDRA in this, but we get an old friend of Wade’s called Bob.) Fox, take note: it’s not that hard to make a character look and act like they do from their respective sources.

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Oh…….oh no…….why………what is my life………?

I don’t think since Robert Downey Jr. declared he was Iron Man have we had a better actor to character translation. Reynolds, who has had three previous attempts at the comic book movie apple now including a previous shot at Deadpool, FINALLY gets a superhero film worthy of his considerable charisma. He was always the right choice for the character (the opening moments with the character in that piece of shit disguised as movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he can actually quip and y’know be THE MERC WITH A MOUTH, rank as the film’s only lively scenes), but now he has a full platform to show just how right of a choice he was. I hope this starts a trend of actors, who were great/perfect choices for comic book roles that got stuck in shitty comic book movies,  getting second chances. I’m looking at you for recasting Mark Strong for Sinestro in your inevitable Green Lantern remake, DC.

I take issue with anyone that says Ryan Reynolds is a bad actor. Sure, he’s been in bad movies. Who hasn’t in Hollywood? Like just about every other actor in Hollywood, he also gets miscast in stuff. But I dare you to watch movies like Smokin’ Aces, Adventureland, The Voices and the recent (and possibly his best performance thus far) Mississippi Grind. The guy has always done solid work and he’s finally starting land consistently quality stuff worthy of his talents.

Reynolds plays Deadpool as if he leap right off the page. For better or worse, this is pretty much Wade Wilson as he is in the comics albeit only slightly watered down in order to be at least a little palatable to a wide audience. Rest assured though, much like Raphael, he is still the rude, crude, fighting dude we all know and love.

His latter appearance in said shitty Wolverine film is cheekily reference but wisely ignored in terms of where it comes into play. (These X-Men films have never, EVER cared about continuity and it’s best we accept that now rather than later.)

Speaking of the film’s cast, I was a big fan of Morena Baccarin as Wilson’s main squeeze Vanessa (who will one day become Copycat).

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I got some heavy Marion Ravenwood vibes from her in that she matches our hero quip for quip and actively avoids being a simple damsel in distress troupe. Baccarin has been working over at the acting wasteland that is Gotham lately so forgive for forgetting that she is actually a very charismatic actress worthy of much more than that terrible, TERRIBLE show that I still watch for whatever reason. Excuse me while address Ms Baccarin (who I am 100% sure is definitely reading this): Yo, Morena! I know DC probably pays you pretty darn well and ya met the fatha of your child on tha set -and may dat child be a b-e-a-utiful and healthy child- but more stuff like dis please. You’re beautiful. I wish you well. Papa bless.

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Okay, I’m back.

If I were to have any major complaints, it would be for all the bells and whistles, the story is pretty rudimentary. While told out of sequence for the first half, the film follows just about every beat you would expect in a standard origin/revenge story. Even our villians – Ajax played by Ed Skrein and Angel Dust played Gina Carano – are basically one-and-dones that don’t leave much of an impact.

I know. I know. You’re never going to a movie from a major studio that throws away all convention. It’s just that when Reynolds is out of costume, the movie becomes wholly predictable.

I also suspect (but hope I’m ultimately wrong) that this may be a movie of diminishing returns. It’s not fair to say because I’ve only seen it once but this movie didn’t have the heart of similar weird comic book movies like Guardians and Scott Pilgrim Vs the World did. I’ll give it a few more viewings before I commit to that statement so take it as more of a worry than an actual criticism. 

Also while I LOVE that this movie was made with little supervision, I’d be omitting if I didn’t say that at times it looks straight to video action movie at points in terms of cinematography and location. A minor, MINOR quibble, as being an asshole, I must both have and be able to eat my cake.

We are teased with promise of Cable in a future sequel (stick around for the end of the credits for a Bueller-ian inspired tag), which both excites and terrifies me. If there is any character in comics that would be harder to justify in a film than Deadpool, it’d probably be Cable. Just look at his bio and try to make sense of it. I wish luck to whatever writer(s) tasked with that assignment.

Should this movie be a massive success and spawn a franchise, I fear Fox will start to pay attention and start instituting PG-13 ratings for maximum profits so the character can properly cross over with the company’s sister X-Men series. Two X-Men appear here, the aforementioned Colossus and perpetually teenage smartass, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (another deep pull I was astounded by) as portrayed by relative newcomer, Brianna Hildebrand. I argue for the opposite however. Let the Deadpool team work outside of the confines of mega-budget studio tent-poles and let the X-Men come to him. As evidenced by that shitty, SHITTY Wolverine movie, this is a character that just doesn’t work in a movie that does not revolve around him or at the very least a universe in which he can fuck with the rules because that IS the character; the outsider. The one who can actively comment on the world he inhabits and the world outside it. Given that won’t be the case, here’s hoping someone a lot more talented than I is in charge of incorporating the Merc with a Mouth into the proper X-Men cinematic universe without sacrificing all the good will Miller, Reynolds and the rest of the team did such a commendable job building here.

Make way for the motha ‘uckin’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

So we are well over a week past the release of this flick, and I am just now getting around to posting a review about it. Does that mean I worked harder on this post more than any other? Sadly no. I just focused on a different project that I had been neglecting for over a year. Also I am gearing up to go back to work so I am at least happy to report that laziness isn’t the key reason this is coming in late.

2008 was a pretty crucial year for Marvel Comics. It was the year Marvel Studios launched with the first Iron Man film as well as the lesser renowned (and lower quality) Incredible Hulk. Coincidentally it was also the year the company dedicated a book to a little group of obscure cosmic Marvel characters that deemed themselves “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and was co-authored by two Marvel mainstays: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. I only found out about the group through a friend of mine who praised both the quality of the stories and colorfulness of the characters. After a lot of build up I finally gave in and read the first few issues and fell in love. It was refreshing to delve into a section of the Marvel U that I had little to no knowledge beforehand. It didn’t hurt that the characters were also so unique and lovable.

If you had told me in 2008 that eventually we would get to a point where a multi-million dollar film would eventually spin out of this obscure series, my reaction would have been as follows….

Now it appears that the joke is on me.

I say all of this to not only highlight just how far Marvel Studios has come since 2008, but to give the company mad respect for taking such a risk. While The Avengers was pretty much a sure fire hit, a movie that features both a talking raccoon and a talking tree in a universe that mass audiences have never heard of isn’t. Not only that but it is written and directed by James Gunn, one of the most unique and wonderfully weird writer/directors working today. To say this movie had a lot going against it is an understatement of Hulk-sized proportions. I’m happy to report that Guardians gleefully defining expectations (other 2014 examples include The Lego MovieThe Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in Our Stars) to become not only one of the best blockbusters of the year but possibly my favorite Marvel movie to date!

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THE PLOT:

“After stealing a mysterious orb in the far reaches of outer space, human Peter Quill is now the main target of a manhunt led by the villain known as Ronan the Accuser. To help fight Ronan and his team and save the galaxy from his power, Quill creates a team known as the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ to save the world.” – IMDb

THE REVIEW:

Right off the bat, I want to give a lot of props to James Gunn for making this movie work as well as it does. He isn’t a household name yet, but after this I hope his name will come up outside of film circles. For those in the know, Gunn is a very peculiar filmmaker in that his films typically have some odd elements and stray far from convention. It’s an easy guess that this stems from his time spent at Llyod Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, the independent studio behind The Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken. Like Kaufman, Gunn traditionally keeps cast of regulars (including Michael Rooker, his brother Chris, and Nathan Fillion to name a few) and writes scripts with scenes that would have no place in a mainstream Hollywood wide-release. While he has dipped in much more conventional fare, such as his his scripts for Scooby Doo and its 2004 sequel Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Gunn has a penchant for the weird. Such as the scene in Super in which Ellen Page rapes Rainn Wilson for comedic effect…

Or just about all of his 2006 movie Slither

In other words, you’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable candidate to helm a film focused on Marvel’s weirdest team. So props to Marvel for taking a chance and giving it to Gunn and thankful the writer/director didn’t drop the ball,delivering a loveably weird movie.

The opening credits, that play to the beat of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, features a cock-sure Chris Pratt dancing along. It’s a cocky way to open a movie with the strange aspects threatening to shadow the entire film. It’s as if Gunn and Pratt are telling us, “Calm down, everyone. We got this.”

Of course there are obviously some concessions in order to make this movie accessible to a wide audience, this movie is distinctly a James Gunn movie. One only has to look at the odd character quirks and comedy beats to notice it.

I loved just how unapologetically weird this movie is. There is minimal exposition which both helps and hurts the overall film. Let’s talk about the pros first. There are only about two scenes that I remember in which important information is discussed slowly and only one of them is close to the beginning of the film. The rest of the film we, as an audience, are just along for the ride with Gunn in the front seat. Luckily Gunn and company have created a vibrant world, unique from any other science fantansy/western hybrids that shall remain nameless. At no point do we question why every one is speaking English (and at points have southern accents) or why there are humans besides Chris Pratt in space. I credit good writing, production design and the film’s soundtrack. There has been enough praise to why the oldies mixtape soundtrack is awesome, but I think it contributes to the film not feeling cold and distant. At first it is odd to hear a song like “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 in a space opera, but hearing such a familiar song in an unfamiliar cinematic environment somehow makes this strange new world feel like home.

If Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant Man made you question Marvel’s business plan concerning individual director’s visions, this film should put those concerns to rest as this without a doubt the movie Gunn wanted to make. And if a guy like Gunn can get a movie like this made through the studio system, chances are Wright’s script must have been a tad unreasonable. (My money is on Wright wanting to be free from the Marvel continuity, and Marvel responding with a “fuck that.”)

Speaking of the world, Guardians sports absolutely gorgeous effects, sets, and practical make-up. Taking a note from the Star Wars prequels and doing the exact opposite, Gunn opts for a majority of crowd shots full of practical aliens as opposed to CGI ones. When CGI is used, it is used masterfully. Characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot look photo realistic and rival Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in terms of motion capture performances.

Like The Avengers, this is a team movie but unlike the earlier film Guardians truly feels like a team film with no weak links to be found character wise meaning that no one on the hero side is shortchanged. The same can’t be said about the villains but I will get to that momentarily.

I’m happy to report that everyone featured on the film’s poster is phenomenal here. These are some of the best characters Marvel has put out film-wise to date. For the first time during one of these films I found myself sad that the movie was ending. I WANT to spend more time with these characters and eagerly await their return in the sequel.

Let’s go through the roster:

Burt Macklin himself, Chris Pratt, takes the lead as Han Solo meets Mal Reynolds Peter Quill aka The Star-Lord. I’ve said it before, but Pratt IS the next big actor. With his role in this he only solidifies the fact. He is able to sell both big laughs and the more dramatic moments as well. Between this and The Lego Movie, 2014 will be known as “The Year of Pratt.” Next year he will be facing off against dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park sequel, Jurassic World. With Parks and Recreation ending soon, Pratt schedule is about to open up drastically meaning that get used to seeing this face more and more in a theater near you.

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Zoe Saldana continues to build herself as “the queen of the nerds” as she takes the role of super assassin, Gamora.

She is both one Star Wars movie and DC movie away from taking the throne!

She is one Star Wars movie from taking the throne!

If I HAD to say there was a weak link, I’d point to Gamora if only for that fact of not getting to see her be the super assassin she is purported to be. She is given plenty to do, but she hasn’t proved to be the asset Scarlett Johanson’s Black Widow was to Captain America in The Winter Solider. I did appreciate her not falling for Quill’s “pelvic sorcery” by the time the credit rolled. I dislike the trend of having female superheroes always ending up with someone by the end, and Marvel has done a halfway decent job of avoiding the trend.

The biggest surprise to be found in this film by a large margin is Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Back when he was simply known as Batista, the guy was one of my favorite wrestlers growing up. Largely for moments like this…

That being said, wrestlers are not known for their acting abilities outside of the ring, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Rowdy” Roddy  Piper excluded. Color me shocked to find Bautista being not only on-point with his comedic timing but also the most compelling character in the film. They don’t make Drax a bumbling idiot. He is actually the most well-spoken of the team. He just doesn’t get  sarcasm or metaphors which is one of the funniest runners throughout the film.

Rounding out the team is the film’s two true scene stealers, who also come in the form of its weirdest participants: Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel).

It's going to be a tight race for People's "Sexiest Thing" this year.

It’s going to be a tight race for People’s “Sexiest Thing” this year.

These two obscure Marvel characters made a big resurgence with the 2008 comic. Now after this they are about to blow up in popularity. The film almost rides on the success of these guys. Cooper’s Rocket is a one-liner machine that could have easily been played as annoying comic relief ala Jar Jar Binks. Instead he is a character with much more weight. Yes, he is hilarious and is given some of the film’s best comedic moments, but there is also a twinge of sadness to him. We get a very brief glimpse of his origin and it takes the character from being just a wise-cracking raccoon to a guy you have a lot of empathy for. The same could be said of Rocket’s associate Groot who serves as the latter’s muscle/houseplant. Was there a better person to play this part of Vin Diesel? Between this and The Iron Giant, there is no one who can top this man as super lovable giant characters with limited vocabulary. That isn’t a shot at the guys acting, but his voice and demeanor play a big part in the success of Groot. He is extremely dangerous but most of the time he is happy just giving you a smile and a hug. Now if we could just somehow get him to meet up with Hodor from Game of Thrones.

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Let’s switch over to the villainous side, and talk about the weak links in the film. Lee Pace plays Ronan the Accuser, who serves as the film’s main antagonist and he is as bland as white bread. Often we are told how evil this guy is, but we hardly ever see him do anything evil. I’m still not even sure what his motivation was beyond just attacking the Nova Corps for killing his father. There were points were I forgot he was even in the movie and whenever we cut back to him I found myself bored. It seems like quite a waste to have someone with a voice like Pace’s (which was genetically designed to be the voice of a bad guy) in a part as thankless as this one. Marvel needs to step up its game villain wise because Loki can not carry the torch forever. Ronan’s team consists of Nebula (played by former Companion and future Mrs. Tyler Talley, Karen Gillan) and Djimon Hounsou’s Korgath. Hounsou barely registers as a part in the film with all of maybe three scenes, and Gillan is the closest of all three to come to an actually interesting part. She has a past with Gamora and fingers crossed she makes a return in the sequel.

Josh Brolin’s Thanos also makes a small appearance. It’s no secret that Thanos will serve as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ultimate bad guy when Avengers 3 rolls out in a few years so it was disappointing to get a scene in which he is not all that threatening. Maybe it would have been better to only hear him or see him in the shadows because I don’t think many audiences really care about Thanos yet. I know I am much more pumped for Ultron when he takes center stage in next year’s Age of Ultron. I will give credit to Marvel for setting up all of their MacGuffins to eventually be the ultimate MacGuffin – or MacGlovin – in the form of the Infinity Gauntlet.

Other small parts are filled by a number of familiar faces including Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, and John C. Reilly. Some argue using such big names for small rolls is a waste, but I think it is a strength when the main cast is so good. Why not have the supporting cast be strong too? Gunn also calls upon his regulars to make both crucial and small appearances. Michael Rooker plays Yondu, a Ravenger who has been refitted and tailored specifically for Rooker. Like any Michael Rooker character, you will go through the gambit of emotions towards this character concerning whether you like him or not. I am in the camp that believes that any movie could use a little Rooker in it. Be on the look out for Sean Gunn, Greg Henry, Rob Zombie, Nathan Fillion and Seth Green who all have cameos at one point or another. If you hang after the credits, you’ll catch Green’s role and if you are like me you will lose your shit.

Let’s wrap things up before I ramble…well ramble even longer. Weak villains aside, Guardians of the Galaxy is one of Marvel’s strongest cinematic outings yet leading me to place further faith in the company. Later this year we will see them take yet another risk with an equally obscure team: Big Hero 6. It’s refreshing to see a movie like this do so well box-office wise and will hopefully lead Marvel to take more risks with different genres. With Ant Man allegedly being a “heist” film, my fingers are crossed that Doctor Strange is a more in line with a truly creepy horror movie. While all these risks may not pay off, if Guardians is any indication of the talent Marvel is willing to bring into the fold, I think we can all rest easy.