A Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I’m on and off of Marvel’s hype train pretty frequently. One minute they’re producing thought-provoking and thrilling content like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (still my favorite Marvel movie), then other times they’re producing un-interesting and only mildly enjoyable action set pieces like “Thor: The Dark World”. Sometimes it’s just garbage… “Iron Man 2”, anyone?

But 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a fun and refreshing new take on the well-loved superhero genre. While it suffered a bit from an inconsequential villain, its rag-tag group of lovable if slightly insane heroes more than made up for any ineptitude and delivered a rollicking good time at the movies. For these reasons, I was stoked about the follow-up and I have to say it mostly lived up.

image via hollywoodreporter.com

This time around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his merry band of misfits Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a now pint-sized Groot (Vin Diesel) are cocky about their world saving abilities and searching for meaning in their galaxy. They’ve been acting as hired  hands to protect valuable objects, but when this goes awry as it must, they escape to a planet where nothing is quite as it seems.

I just have to say that Baby Groot is everything. Other than every excellent frame that includes him, the movie was pretty good. It definitely got better as it got into its groove, and while the jokes are more laugh out loud funny, I’m not sure if it’s as outright enjoyable as the first. Understandably, it’s hard to recreate the freshness of the original. Something so unique is hard to duplicate, but the filmmakers worked hard here to make sure that what we loved about the first one still worked, even if it just couldn’t be quite as creative.

I like that the villain here had a bit more connection to the characters this time around, but in the end he still was mostly just a “I want to rule the world” type of guy – the Marvel standard baddie. The final battle had just a little too much going on to be hugely thrilling, but it was entertaining. There was a lot more emotional connection and themes of family and trust that tied everything together, and I found those very intriguing. I quite liked this overall, so the Guardians can continue to save the Galaxy as they please.

Grade: B-

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A Review: The Lost City of Z

To be honest, sometimes the best movies are the ones you enter into blindly. What I mean by this is that maybe you don’t know a lot about the film, maybe you’ve never seen a trailer or read a review and you’re not sure what at all to expect. Sometimes this could end terribly. But in my experience, it usually ends in a more transcendent big screen experience, one that allows you to view a film without preconceived notions or exaggerated expectations. This is exactly what happened for me when I watched “The Lost City of Z”.

I had heard of this movie quite a while before it was finished and released, since a number of stars were attached and I do keep up well on movie news. I had also seen a film from the director, James Gray, before. Side note: I highly recommend that film as well, 2015’s “The Immigrant”. It’s a smart and richly layered character story that very clearly examines people in the light of their era and circumstances, and in many ways so does this film. I was still holding out in order to see whether “The Lost City of Z” would receive good reviews, and when it did I made the time to see this one and so should you, it’s a true gem.

image via rottentomatoes.com

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a British officer called upon by the Royal Geographical Society to lead a surveying party into South America in order to help resolve a border dispute. Fawcett and his team, including a man named Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who would come to be a loyal friend and expedition partner, complete the survey despite their jungle obstacles. While there, Fawcett makes ancient discoveries that lead him to believe that native stories about a lost city of gold are true. Convinced of the existence of an ancient vanished civilization, Fawcett makes numerous unsuccessful attempts to find this lost city, including his last in which he ventures once again into the unknown with his son, Jack (Tom Holland).

I went into this knowing very little about the real life subject and came out wanting to know as much as possible. I’ve always loved exploration tales, especially ones set in uncharted lands like the Amazon jungle, and especially ones in which the explorer does their work not for fame and glory but for a real desire and sense of purpose. Yet somehow the story of Percy Fawcett, aside from reading about this film’s development, had escaped me. From opening scene this movie gripped me, and fully immersed me in Fawcett’s worlds – both classical England and native jungle. I hardly knew I was still in an air-conditioned movie theatre after it all, but felt as though I had walked into the jungle (much like the amazing final shot).

James Gray has shown a penchant for world building and attention to detail the likes of which we rarely see anymore. He makes his films feel like epics of cinematic days gone by, and they rarely fit traditional formula, eschewing predictability by examining the unknown about life. Also, Charlie Hunnam gives one hell of a performance in a movie in which everyone is really great. I loved this one a lot, and I hope if you take my advice and see it that you do too.

Grade: A+

A Review: Beauty and the Beast

Sometimes you just have to be the one with the unpopular opinion. It happens to me more often than I’d like! But I’m not afraid to express mine, and one of them happened to be that I wasn’t particularly excited about the remake of “Beauty and the Beast”. It seemed that once Emma Watson was cast, with her perfect Disney princess look, everyone and their mom was on board with rebooting a classic. I was a little more skeptical. I’ve never been a massive fan of Watson’s (despite being a hardcore Potter fanatic), though she is perfectly serviceable and just so gosh darn adorable. I was excited about much of the rest of the cast, as well as the prospect of new musical numbers. But the original animated film is such a lovely work of art and cinema that I wasn’t sure a live action remake would work. And while it’s not a perfect movie, I’m happy to say that I did enjoy it.

While there’s not a ton of new stuff here, we do get some more Beast & Belle back story which is nice, and the Beast himself is a much more well thought out and explained character. I greatly enjoyed his arc much more in this version; his new song “Evermore” is hauntingly beautiful and is a perfect showcase for how far the Beast has come in his patience, acceptance of his fate, and his love for Belle. It’s a beautiful part of the story and nice to see him actually have more screen time.

image via traileraddict.com

It did look gorgeous and should easily score some costume/production design nods at the Oscars. Everyone’s singing was actually awesome, and Dan Stevens, despite being CGI’d to oblivion, actually gave more to his character than most others in the movie (as previously stated in my rambling love for the Beast). Watson is just fine here, though again she seems to have a problem with appearing genuine at all times instead of slightly awkward. But she’s cute as a button and a very talented vocalist. Additionally, Luke Evans is perfect casting as Gaston and was awesome to watch. Overall an enjoyable experience, and one I’m glad I gave a chance.

Grade: B-

Kong: Skull Island (aka scary, scary creatures)

I’m not sure what I expected from the 100000000th adaptation of the King Kong story, but I’m not sure this was it. All the trailers looked bonkers in the best way, and I was hoping for an ultra-cool, ultra-badass 70’s version of Kong where we got wartime politics, rock n’ roll, and giant monkeys. We got most of those things, but not really in the cohesive package I’d imagined.

This movie isn’t bad by any means, there’s stuff to like here. But it’s not really great either and that saddens me when it could have been so much more. “Skull Island” operates at its best when it’s embracing its B-movie action and tone. In typical B-movie fashion, the dialogue is mostly bad (or at least forgettable), and the characters are poorly written and expanded upon (I thought when Brie Larson won her Oscar movies would finally stop criminally underusing her but here we are). But there is also the dedication to action and craft, and its absolute devotedness to its subject, the beast himself.

image via impawards.com

For sheer awe, spectacle, and fun, Skull Island is a riot. It embraces its natural habitat and exposes creatures from the underworld that looks both nightmarish and fantastic. While some are a little less impressive (giant stick insect anyone?), Kong himself and a few other of his natural foes look amazing, and watching them fight each other provides a hint of how adrenaline inducing the fight between Kong and… well, another monster, will be.

It’s not a very good movie, I wish it had a bit more flair to it, but it does its job serviceably and seems to have fun doing it. I came for the ape action and stayed for the aesthetic, and was perfectly pleased with the outcome. Would need to be a much deeper movie tonally for it to work on all fronts, but the end result is a thrilling creature feature with a nice nostalgic spin on the King of the Apes.

Grade: C+

A Review: Logan

Despite having seen every X-Men film (aside from the recent “Apocalypse”), I had never seen either of the two Wolverine standalone films. I had heard enough negative reviews to have simply avoided them, not because I was averse to the idea of Wolverine in his own movie – he is truly one of the most well written comic book characters around, but more because I just hadn’t seen an example of a successful idea for the character of Wolverine on his own. Then along came “Logan”.

image via traileraddict.com

I’ll go ahead and tell you right now that if you’re one of those people who likes to think themselves “above” comic book movies, you would still dig this. I have seen many a superhero flick and there was almost no resemblance to those here. Sure, it’s about a superhero and there are great action sequences, but it doesn’t follow conventional blockbuster tropes. It’s actually a modern Western, gritty and down-to-earth, steeped in old filmmaking lore. What director James Mangold & co. were able to do here is hearken back to the good old days of filmmaking – sparse locations and sets, more character focus, simple but effective antagonists, and disguise it all in a way that also appeals to comic book fans and general movie audiences. It’s brilliant and a joy to behold.

I won’t go too much into the plot details of the film, because I feel they’re better left experienced and also because it’s better if you at least have a working knowledge of Wolverine and the X-Men going in and I’m not going to assume that everyone reading this has that. But even though prior knowledge will enhance your enjoyment and understanding, what I also liked about this film was that it is very much independent. It doesn’t concern itself with Easter eggs or setting up for a myriad of future sequels. It is content to exist on its own, in its own space.

Camera work is sublime thanks to Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson. Gorgeous Southwestern landscapes are brought to full life, although there is an alternate black and white version called “Logan Noir” that I’m anxious to see as well. Story is concise, filled with emotion – mostly due to the fantastic camaraderie of the ever excellent Hugh Jackman and newcomer Dafne Keen who absolutely 100% steals the show here. Although the movie is indeed called “Logan” and it’s the title character we revolve around, Keen is very much central to the film’s plot and ideas and she is astounding. One of the finest young performances I’ve seen (just after Millie Bobby Brown), and one of the finest performances period I’ll see this year. Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant give very fine turns here as well. This movie is so wholly enjoyable and I can’t thank James Mangold enough for all the effort he and his team put in to make such an enduring and bold work of filmmaking.

Grade: A

A Trailer Review: Baby Driver

Okay so, if you’re reading this, you might know me. And if you know me even a little, you know that one of my all time favorite directors is Edgar Wright. I mean like, consistently top five. I think he is brilliant and his movies are wholly original and works of modern art. Needless to say it’s probably clear that his new feature, “Baby Driver”, the newest since 2013’s “The World’s End” is my most anticipated film of the year. His first solo writing credit, he directs a huge ensemble case including Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, Lily James and Ansel Elgort as the Baby in “Baby Driver”.

The film premiered this past weekend to glowing reviews at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX. Along with that premiere, Wright and co. released the very first theatrical trailer for the film which blew my freaking mind.

As you can see from the footage, it looks like Wright has put together something altogether unique. An action thriller that relies on music as heavily as any traditional musical would – only instead of pirouettes and choreography it’s high speed chases and bullets ringing though the criminal underworld. It looks like a blast of a wild ride, and something branded with Wright’s personal stamp, which is only ever a very good thing. I cannot wait any longer to see this movie – is it August yet?!

A Review: Get Out

When I heard Jordan Peele of “Key & Peele” fame was writing and directing a horror movie, I was intrigued. Little did I know, Peele was not only making a horror movie – he was making one of the best horror movies of recent years, one that combined genuine scares with humor and societal themes on racism.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a big city photographer taking a weekend trip to the childhood home of his (relatively) new girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents. One note: Chris is black, and Rose is white –  and she hasn’t told her parents that he’s black. They’re not racist! she insists. They won’t care.

Upon arriving at the Armitage estate, Chris notices something is… off. Not only are Rose’s parents Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) acting unusually strange around him, but the family’s black housemaid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) are also distant, unmoved, and almost disturbed by Chris’ presence. Like the audience, Chris is slowly realizing everything is not as it seems.

image via jetmag.com

But the beauty of the situation is that of course Chris is right, something sinister is happening, but at first you almost wonder. As a black man, Chris must experience racial tension of this sort every day, even from well-meaning white folks. So is this simply heightened because of the nervous circumstances? Or is something very suspicious and darkly chilling actually occurring?

Peele takes the best of horror – paranoia, and uses this to communicate the black American experience. Watching this as a white female, I can never truly grasp the reality of Chris’ experience. But I can understand that this extended metaphor is intended to show us that racism is alive in America, that it can occur in unexpected ways, and that we must do all we can to step into another person’s shoes and understand what makes them different and celebrate that, but also realize how we are all very much the same. There is a moment near the end that just about made me sick with the presumption that I (and probably everyone who saw it) tacked on to the situation from the connotations we knew it would probably have. That in itself should tell us that something is wrong here in America.

Aside from this hyper relevant social themes, Peele does an incredible job with the whole film. The script is sharp and so the acting is top-notch. The scares are genuinely thrilling and the third act action is excellently directed. It shows us that not only can Peele master the social themes and humor, but proves himself to be a great action-horror director. I can’t wait to see what he has planned next.

Grade: A+