Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

James Gunn and Marvel are telling us everything we’re seeing in this sequel to “Guardians of the Galaxy” is remarkably cool, but it’s trying too hard.

The opening set piece to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a battle for the ages with a giant octopod, slug thing. But distracting our attention is Baby Groot plugging in an amplifier to blare “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Now, if you need a reminder of who Groot is, in the last “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he was a sentient tree being that only ever spoke three words, “I Am Groot.” Now he’s a baby. Clear?

But fear not: age differences aside, he and the Guardians still have the same taste in ‘70s AM radio. And apparently more interesting than another CGI battle is watching this four-inch-high Chia pet shimmy its hips. Director James Gunn seems to know we’ve grown desensitized to whatever mayhem is going on behind Baby Groot, and at this point American audiences would still pay hundreds of millions of dollars even if it meant we were placated for something mindless and cute for just a few moments.

That’s what “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” has come to. It’s ridiculous there are people honestly writing about this with any degree of seriousness, let alone even calling it a movie. It’s explosively colorful, filled with endless inane chatter, heavy on catchy pop songs used as superhero music videos, and littered with enough made up space words to convince someone there’s a plot, characters and stakes here.

Gunn jams “Guardians 2” with gigantic space opera moments and activity, but at every turn he shoe horns in a joke to lighten the mood and remind everyone this is all just mindless entertainment. The details don’t matter, because we’re just moments away from another shot of Baby Groot eating M&Ms as the world explodes around him. Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Rapid Response: Wet Hot American Summer

David Wain’s summertime parody was far ahead of its time, even in the early 2000s.

WetHotAmericanSummer14 years is an awful long time in the 21st Century. In 2001, the first iPod would just be released, and the memes, texts, emojis and general sense of irony we now freely use as communication were hardly even a concept. “Wet Hot American Summer”, David Wain’s cult comedy debut from 2001, may have been released in the new millennium, but its reception was pure ’90s, practically unprepared for the style of irreverence Wain brought to the table. Roger Ebert turned his review into a cheap rendition of “Camp Granada”, while others simply found it profoundly unfunny, if not disturbing.

Thankfully, Wain’s film has aged better than anyone could have anticipated, to the point that just this month an extended TV series set on the first day at Camp Firewood rather than the last day, was released on Netflix. It’s an incredible feat namely because of how the massive ensemble cast has ballooned in fame and popularity in those 14 years: Janeane Garofolo, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Christopher Meloni, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper (are you kidding me?)! I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

But “Wet Hot American Summer” is random, meta and absurd in a way that never fit the template of the times and could only exist in an Internet age. It’s an assortment of characters, vignettes and broad set pieces that don’t add up to a complete plot, but it doesn’t play like a sketch movie in the slightest. It doesn’t play like a “Family Guy” half hour of cutaways, one-liners and non-sequiturs. And it isn’t even pure anarchy (well, for most of the run time).


One of the most revealing scenes in all of Wain’s film takes place on a trip into town away from camp. An ’80s rock song plays over a montage as the counselors and teens tag along in the back of a pick-up. It’s a fun, shooting the breeze diversion from the rest of the film, with a few quick glimpses of everyone dancing and eating burgers and smoking weed. Without a moment’s change in tone, the image on screen devolves into chaos. The kids are buying cocaine, then have transformed into skinny, lifeless junkies shooting up heroin in a random shambles of an apartment. The song ends, and so does the scene. Things return to normal, and no one bothers to comment on what we’ve just seen.

Throughout “Wet Hot American Summer”, Wain realizes he can play with genre and tone with no consequences. As long as the flow and the spirit of this otherwise wholesome movie never wavers, he can show whatever he wants, whether it’s a gay sex scene between Cooper and Showalter, or a “Rocky” training montage between Meloni and Showalter. Shannon’s character seems divorced from the movie entirely, with her classroom of arts and crafts students coaching her on the verge of a nervous breakdown over the behavior of her husband.

There’s a rule in improv that you must never say “no”, or the scene stops. “Wet Hot American Summer” seems to say “yes” and “no” simultaneously. The movie can do whatever it wants, and the character personalities and expectations don’t necessarily matter 30 minutes after they’re introduced. But the film never seems erratic. It makes a point to stay constant to what Camp Firewood is, and to the moment in the ’80s the film is sending up.


Granted, the film has plenty of other less cerebral pleasures. Poehler and Cooper are damn near incredible, so passionate, involved and overly dramatic. Poehler has become the winning and cheerful Leslie Knope but this film is a reminder of her more cutting side while still being endearingly lovable (“Am I watching the Cleveland Playhouse?”). Meloni’s Gene is outrageous, so committed to his midriff, scruffy facial hair and trademark bandana that he can get away with the lunacy that is talking about dick cream, chatting with a can of vegetables (H. Jon Benjamin, no less) and best of all, humping a fridge.

It’s material so silly and often so clueless and offensive (the first time Paul Rudd threw a kid out of his moving van, it seemed despicable. The second time, I howled) that it’s easy to see how the film can be so misunderstood. What’s more, Wain hasn’t necessarily struck lightning a second time since, despite never truly breaking his own rules. But while this film aimed to capture the ’80s, it captured the pulse of 2015, and today feels timeless.

American Sniper

“American Sniper” is powerful, classical storytelling by Clint Eastwood but is troubling one-sided in its depiction of war.

308555id1i_TheJudge_FinalRated_27x40_1Sheet.inddIn this country during every sporting event, there is a moment reserved for the armed forces who have served this country. It could be a tearful commercial for beer, insurance, cars, anything, or it could be a standing ovation for two veterans during halftime. They sacrificed their lives, did their job, and that’s all we as a nation ask of them.

To ask anything more of our military or to question how they do their job goes against America’s values in the 21st Century. To suggest that they did something that’s out of line with what’s good for the country or what’s good for others around the world is tantamount to treason. Blame the country, blame the system, blame the terrorists, but don’t blame the troops.

When we hear of a soldier like Chris Kyle, he’s not just a veteran or a hero; he’s a legend. Kyle was credited with over 160 kills as the most lethal sniper in American history. After four tours in the Middle East as a Navy SEAL following the attacks on 9/11, Kyle lived to tell his story in the book that became Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”.

Having not read Kyle’s book or known the man, I cannot comment on his character. “American Sniper” depicts Kyle’s life work as a soldier with all the valor and respect anyone in this country would be likely to give him.

And yet the portrait Eastwood offers of Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a soldier who killed methodically, who showed no remorse for his assassinations, who brought himself to kill children as a result of his work, who labeled his victims “savages”, who placed his need to protect other soldiers above his own family, and who showed disdain for loved ones who expressed uncertainty at the work they were doing. I look at “American Sniper’s” Chris Kyle and see a flawed person, perhaps someone who shouldn’t be called a legend so willingly.

Yet Eastwood’s film is not so ambiguous. Kyle’s fight is against evil and his goal is to protect soldiers at all costs, all of which is a necessity as part of this job. Eastwood even crafts a cinematic device in the form of a single villain named Mustafa. He was an Olympic gold medalist in sniping from Syria, but here he’s a ruthless assassin who can pick off Americans from a mile away, never speaking a word and only seen sitting by a phone spinning a bullet as he awaits troop movements. He’s the embodiment of pure malevolence and Kyle’s ultimate rival, and he must be stopped.

Depending on which side of the political spectrum you sit, this may be more than enough justification for total war against terrorists or it may be a gross misappropriation of humanity outside of America. It’ll give you an idea of the horrors of war, but it may either fill you with pride for the work of brave men overseas or leave you uneasy at what they did there.

Perhaps Eastwood doesn’t need to pick sides. In “American Sniper” he leaves politics out of the equation altogether, and though there are enough naysayers within the military’s ranks to question the pursuit of glory and violence, he doesn’t vilify Kyle’s actions or suggest that he should feel bad for the body count he amassed.


What “American Sniper” provides is perspective. It gives insight into the effects of war on soldiers in a way many other films have succeeded at or failed at to varying degrees. And it best of all shows how a man like Kyle could choose war over his family. If “American Sniper” doesn’t make a bold statement of purpose about war, it at the very least tells a story and offers Kyle’s point of view with powerful, engrossing, classical storytelling. Eastwood proves he’s an old pro capable of stark action and emotion that will move everyone regardless of politics.

The film’s most revealing scene comes early during Kyle’s childhood. At the dinner table after a schoolyard brawl, Kyle’s father explains that all people are sheep, wolves or sheep dogs; people are either blind to the evil in the world, committing evil or sworn to protect the world from it. This philosophy guides all of Kyle’s actions and his motivation to engage in four separate tours despite the objections of his wife, and Eastwood doesn’t question this idea or view it with ambiguity. But who are the sheep dogs to pick out the wolves? Is there no middle ground between a dog and sheep? And does the sheep dog have the right to eliminate all the wolves, regardless of the flock?

This analogy thankfully doesn’t return in “American Sniper” to overstate a point, but those who do raise objections to war are often in the background. Kyle spots his brother going home after a tour, jaded and confused at what he’s done. Another close friend killed on the battlefield has his mother read a letter about the misguided pursuit of glory at his funeral. When his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) asks what he thought, Kyle says it was the letter that killed him.

With Kyle so resolute, it’s a shame then to see “American Sniper” so one-sided and to deny the Muslims depicted in the film as anything other than monsters. In each case of Kyle engaging directly with the Arabs who live in this war torn region, Eastwood flips the encounter into something more debasing. In the first, the man demands $100,000 for information on the whereabouts of a known terrorist. In the second, the man offers the Americans a feast, but does so only as a ruse. Kyle’s suspicion uncovers a stockpile of weaponry meant to kill them. The aforementioned Mustafa does not say a word, only murders. And Kyle frequently refers to those he kills as savages. After witnessing a woman and child brandishing a grenade meant for American tanks, Kyle says, “That’s an evil like I’ve never seen.” It’s here that the troubling sheep dog mentality rears its head, and Eastwood makes it feel as though he’s banishing evil from the world instead of killing people, innocent or otherwise.

In comparison, one of Eastwood’s best cinematic efforts was a pair of films that managed to show both sides of World War II, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters to Iwo Jima”. The more patriotic “Flags” followed Americans who questioned the image sent back to the states after the battle at Iwo Jima, and “Letters” offered added depth to the Americans’ Japanese combatants and why they felt they needed to commit figurative or literal suicide as a natural expression of war. “American Sniper” lacks that counterpoint, framing much of Kyle’s story in flag waving terms that don’t sit well considering the violence on display.

Rather, “American Sniper’s” depth lies on the home front. Eastwood recognizes that there’s a torn dilemma between where home really lies for a soldier like Kyle, with his family of a wife and kids or his family of SEALs. The gravity of Kyle’s choice to do four tours lies in knowing what he’s leaving behind and how he rationalizes that he’s really protecting his family. Kyle’s wife Taya begs him to be human again, but it’s a touchingly realized moment when she realizes he’s not fully “here” when his mind is at war. If Eastwood fails at giving us the effects of war across international boundaries, he succeeds when crossing marital boundaries.

And yet the strength of “American Sniper” still does rest on the battlefield. When Kyle is seen sniping, Eastwood takes us into Kyle’s mental zone, focused to the point that time passes quickly in the background and that he can kill tirelessly without fanfare. It’s harrowing stuff always photographed clearly and crisply. Few directors outside of Eastwood have the ability to communicate a war shootout with such clarity.

Matching Kyle’s mental zone is Bradley Cooper, firmly in the prime of his movie star charisma and talent as an actor. It’s hard to imagine another actor fitting into Kyle’s combat boots, and Cooper takes Kyle’s focus to scary places. Sienna Miller likewise does strong work and brings much needed pathos to the film’s home front scenes.

After watching “American Sniper”, I’m still unsure about the real Chris Kyle’s heroics. Much has already been made about whether his depiction is accurate, and political proponents on both the right and left have sought to either champion or vilify Kyle to make a statement. But Eastwood above all has captured a powerful story with a character at the center who could be a legend, but is at the very least human.

3 ½ stars

Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn’s film is the most unique movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not enough so.

The narrative surrounding “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it’s something of a risk and a departure for Marvel. The comic on which it has based has no name recognition outside of comic fans, and the on-paper, ragtag bunch of misfits that includes a goofy thief, a green assassin, a hulking, deadpan behemoth, a raccoon with a rocket launcher and a sentient tree, could come across as a bad attempt to recreate the success of “The Avengers” or just a strange, downright misfire. But Marvel is specifically known for making movies that are becoming increasingly calculated, planning movies out a decade and including them all in their intersecting web of stories known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To put it lightly, Marvel isn’t stupid, and like the group at the movie’s core, it’s stronger and more put together than you’d think. “Guardians of the Galaxy” may just be the most idiosyncratic movie in the Marvel canon, but any illusion that the film is taking this oddball story and shattering the mold of what Marvel is or does is really pushing it. Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy”

American Hustle

“American Hustle” is David O. Russell’s brilliant charade of a movie led by an amazing cast.


Christian Bale gained 43 pounds for his role in “American Hustle.” When he first appears on screen, he spends minutes “perfecting” an elaborate comb over of glued on hair and parted strands that will fool no one.

The beauty is that Bale and O. Russell have fooled everyone. We immediately are torn between the “real” Bale, the real character he’s portraying or the carefully tailored version he’s putting on for his associates, and if this portrayal is good enough, we’ll believe whatever these master performers put in front of us.

“American Hustle” is a brilliant charade of a movie. It’s a talky, intricate and intrigue filled caper in which everyone’s a con artist and there’s little sense of what’s real and what isn’t. We’ve been conditioned to believe in the movies there’s a certain element of truth within each story, no matter how fictional, fantastical or how deceitful and crafty the characters.

O. Russell’s film takes the real life story of ABSCAM, a ‘70s FBI sting operation that convicted several congressmen and a senator, and turns that concept of reality on its head. He opens the film with “Some of this actually happened,” a clever twist on the ambiguous “Based on a True Story,” and inhabits his and Eric Singer’s screenplay with a wacky, high octane and deliciously fun investigation that can’t be fully followed, trusted or believed in the slightest. Continue reading “American Hustle”

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a moving, surprising and sprawling epic of choices, fate, family and fathers.

Three motorcycles are stunt driving in a spherical cage at a circus. It’s a sight to see, but your nose is nearly grazing the walls, and the three fly by in a powerful blur, all seemingly connected in this daredevil harmony. This little visual metaphor is a wonderful summation for the near narrative perfection found in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s a moving, surprising and sprawling epic of choices, fate, family and fathers.

One of those daredevils is Handsome Luke Glanton, played with a menacing blankness by Ryan Gosling. We meet Luke donning a red leather jacket and striding through a colorful carnival, the camera bobbing as it carefully follows the back of Luke’s head. We’re the thought that’s nagging in the back of his skull, the responsibility that won’t escape him.

At one of his shows, he meets Romina (Eva Mendes), who he had a fling with a year earlier. They’re about to part ways, but Luke learns that Romina’s one-year old son is his and makes a commitment to stay and care for the boy, even if he doesn’t really have a place in the family. Continue reading “The Place Beyond the Pines”

CIFF Review: Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell described the Led Zeppelin song “What Is and What Should Never Be,” a song used in his new film “Silver Linings Playbook,” as bipolar.

“And if I say to you, tomorrow…” Robert Plant croons smoothly, honestly and calmly, all before a big explosion. “And catch the wind, see us spin/Sail away, leave the day/Way up high in the sky,” he screams.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is just as exciting, surprising and stylish as that Zeppelin song. It’s a crowd pleasing rom-com about two people struggling with bipolar disorder who learn to love, stay positive and enjoy family in the face of lots of hardship.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is just being released from a psychiatric ward. Eight months earlier, he caught his wife cheating on him and beat her lover half to death, but because he was found to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder, he was able to spend his sentence in a mental institution rather than in prison.

It’s no wonder his disorder would go undiagnosed. Pat is part Italian and living in Philadelphia, and their loud, argumentative family dynamic blends perfectly with Pat’s honest, blunt and high-spirited speaking brought on by his disability. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), also has a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when rooting for the Eagles, adjusting remotes and holding lucky handkerchiefs to ensure an Eagles victory. But O. Russell realizes that all these nervous ticks just come naturally as being part of a family. Continue reading “CIFF Review: Silver Linings Playbook”

The Words

Once upon a time, a man named Brian saw a movie. It was about writing and words. And wouldn’t you know? It was called “The Words.” Brian was very excited, as this was the first new movie of the fall.

But for a movie about words, it was not very well written, Brian thought. It had narrators and stories within stories. It had Dennis Quaid narrating as though he were a mother tucking in her child with a bedtime fairy tale. This was not a movie for smart people, Brian realized, but a bad movie without much to say and a cloying way of saying it.

This story was about Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). His dream was to be a writer. But he wanted to support his girlfriend Dora (Zoe Saldana), who he loved very much. So they were married. And he wrote.

But Rory couldn’t make it as a writer. He spent years of his life writing his book, but still the rejection letters rolled in. Days passed. The rain fell. Wind rushed through the trees outside. And at long last, Rory Jansen took a day job. But we know Rory and Dora still loved each other, because the camera with a soft blue filter hangs above them as they lie peacefully in bed.

And then, Rory found a book in a suitcase. It was an unpublished manuscript. Maybe it was Ernest Hemingway’s lost first novel, but no. He read it, and he was entranced. Days later, he couldn’t stop thinking about that book. So he typed it up himself.

“He didn’t change a period, a comma or even correct the spelling mistakes. He needed to know what it felt like to touch it, if only for a moment.” When his girlfriend read it and believed it to be his, she asked him to publish it. “Rory Jansen had made his choice.”

He called it, The Window Tears. Yes, The Window Tears. It became the next great American novel. Rory was the toast of the literary world, and his life was good.

And then he met The Old Man. The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) told Rory that it was his novel Rory stole. The Old Man had a story too. It was even more melodramatic than Rory’s. It had love at first sight, a Parisian romance during World War II and even a dead baby. “But the words poured out of him. How could anyone not understand?”

But now we must return to Brian at the start of our story. When he saw “The Words,” he tried not to gag. He thought about writing himself. He would say that Bradley Cooper was a bad actor, and that the movie looked like it had been photographed on Instagram. But try as he might, the words just couldn’t come.

He thought about how the whole movie felt, with the narrator always saying the obvious and reading short, pretty sentences that even a child could understand. It went on and on. So Brian decided to write his own story. And he would use the exact language the movie had used throughout.

And he did. And he lived happily ever after.

1 ½ stars

The Hangover

Remember when comedies not produced by Judd Apatow didn’t have to be about being chased by CG dinosaurs or fighting an evil Egyptian Pharaoh with Amelia Earhart? Or how about when a comedy didn’t have to star every A, B, C and D-List comedian on the planet? Me neither, but “The Hangover” is the exception.

Here is a simple, funny comedy with a not completely outrageous premise and a few characters that are familiar but not total cliché stereotypes. Doug, Phil, Stu and Alan are four guys on the way to Vegas for Doug’s bachelor party. We see them make a toast and have a drink on the roof of the hotel, and the next morning, none of them can remember anything, their room is trashed with hundreds of unexplainable details, and Doug has gone missing. What we’re left with is three characters on a kind of mystery quest to piece together everything that happened the previous evening. Continue reading “The Hangover”