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”

Jurassic World

Colin Trevorrow’s update on Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jurassic Park” lacks the ideas and intelligence that made the original a hit.

JurassicWorldPoster“Jurassic World” grossed over $200 million domestically in its opening weekend, making it one of the highest opening weekends at the box office of all time. It further was one of the all time fastest to surpass $1 billion in the world, and has already earned over $500 million domestically in just three weekends. It would seem Americans don’t echo the sentiment heard early in “Jurassic World” regarding the poor performance of their theme park: “No one is impressed by a dinosaur anymore.”

And yet the film has found fierce criticism from those quick to label it misogynist or even racist, and sharp defenders quick to shut down anyone that could be too PC or too high and mighty of a critic. Matt Singer wrote a piece entitled “Stop Telling Me to Turn My Brain Off During Movies“, a plea for people to have higher expectations of their blockbusters than absolute zero. Like any major, unexpected hit, “Jurassic World” is the subject of a lot of talk.

The critics are right: “Jurassic World” is loud, cliche, badly written, and dumb, dumb, dumb. But it’s also fun, exciting, campy, cheesy, scary, and at times awesome. These are all things blockbusters have been, will be and arguably should be. But Steven Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park” and Michael Crichton’s novel on which it is based were always stories of ideas. They were full of dreams and ambitions for science, but also fearful of technology, the power of man to wield it and the greater power of nature to put man’s hubris and greed in check. Spielberg managed to put all that into a movie with friggin’ dinosaurs spitting poisonous acid at Newman, raptors opening doors with their talons and a T-Rex eating a man cowered over a toilet.

What makes “Jurassic World” so frustrating and lazy because of all its flaws and in spite of its strengths is that it’s not trying to be anything more than a blockbuster. Colin Trevorrow’s movie isn’t a film of ideas but a copy of a great one and a genetically modified mish-mash of dozens of others. It’s a blockbuster by committee, complete with Hollywood’s biggest rising star, their finest display of special effects, a whole lot of nostalgia baiting, and a healthy dose of product placement for good measure. If it could’ve been all this and been a smart spectacle, then we would’ve really had something.

Set years after the events of the original “Jurassic Park,” Isla Nublar has not only somehow been salvaged from the destruction and chaos brought by the dinosaurs, but it has now been transformed into a thriving theme park far beyond the original vision. Leading the park is Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a by-the-numbers, overly driven business woman with no time for anything but her work, least of all her two nephews coming to visit, the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) and the teenage Zach (Nick Robinson). Claire says that over time people and kids have grown bored of even seeing dinosaurs, and clearly she has as well, because she never sees these amazing creatures as anything more than assets. Her new plan to spike attendance is to create a new dinosaur, the Indominous Rex, a genetic hybrid designed to be bigger, faster, scarier (and presumably cost-effective as well?) and everything the park needs.

Chris Pratt Jurassic World

Owen (Chris Pratt) is the park’s raptor trainer brought in to survey the development of the new dinosaur, and having developed a rapport with his four raptors, he immediately understands how terrible an idea it is to create an unstoppable super dinosaur with no natural instincts to prevent it from murdering and eating everything that moves. The dinosaur is smart enough to trick the park owners into helping him escape, and still Claire refers to it as “just an animal”. These people are dumb enough that a chimp could fool them, let alone a genetically modified super reptile.

Claire is the worst kind of character type: the workaholic woman who projects confidence but is eventually humiliated by her lack of real-world skills and how she runs around in heels the entire film. It’s silly to throw around any “isms” and to assume ill will toward women by the filmmakers, but her character is beyond old fashioned. Howard plays her in the middle portion of the film as an Old Hollywood screwball type, but later turns into the action star luring T-Rexs with flares.

“Jurassic World” wastes far too much time with science and stockholders worrying about the park’s future in a way that was never filler in “Jurassic Park”. And there’s an absurd sub-plot regarding Vincent D’Onofrio’s plan to weaponize the raptors, with the pipe dream of teaching them to hunt and kill terrorists in the Middle East based on Owen’s command (call it “Zero Dark Raptor”).

A more experienced director than Trevorrow, with just the indie comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” to his name, would’ve realized that we’ve come for the dinosaurs, or at the very least the suspense and build-up required to make CGI dinosaurs interesting. Spielberg managed to withhold the T-Rex and more of the awe-inspiring dinosaurs just as he did with “Jaws”. Trevorrow dilly dallies with exposition and clueless kids venturing where they don’t belong. It can be something of a mess, and the truly great moments, including a pterodactyl attack reminiscent of “The Birds,” a dinosaur scuff-up worthy of Japanese kaiju, and a giant aquatic dinosaur leaping out of the water like Shamu, can feel off in terms of pacing and anticipation.

“Jurassic World” is the perfect hybrid blockbuster worthy of one of the highest grossing movies of all time. But like the Indominus Rex, it’s an unholy mix of elements and bad traits that just makes you wish for something more natural.

2 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”

The LEGO Movie

“The Lego Movie” is wonderfully silly, colorful, irreverent, absurd and a brilliant embodiment of our shared cultural experience.

Legos aren’t just toys; for those kids (and adults) who build them, they’re tiny rectangles of color, irreverence and imagination. And it feels so fitting that as “The Lego Movie” presents them, they become a miniature metaphor for life itself. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s wonderfully outrageous story captures the joy and possibility contained within every brick.

“The Lego Movie” at times plays like the culmination of the entire Millennial generation’s media moments. The dialogue zips along with the speed once reserved for the Marx Brothers and Old Hollywood Screwball but is now a facet of the kids who have grown up with “30 Rock” and “Arrested Development.” The ironic absurdity to the entire story plays directly to a modern sensibility. And entire set pieces and spastic, GIF ready images feel like every Internet meme rolled into one (a character called Princess Uni-Kitty seems bound to become one).

It’s a brilliantly wild and even surreal experience that reaches for activity and laughs wherever it can find them. Some may find “The Lego Movie” unrelenting if not exhausting, but the exhilarating quickness is exactly why it feels so daring and inventive.

Even the story tests limits by treating every detail with a knowing wink. “The Lego Movie” follows the adventures of Emmet (Chris Pratt), an every day guy who smiles, likes what everyone else likes and is happy to just be a part of it all. When he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), he’s told he is “The Special” with a prophecy that proclaims him to be “the most awesome, interesting person ever,” destined to save the world and find what makes him so unique.

Lord and Miller (“21 Jump Street“) recognize even the kids have heard that one in some shape or form before (“The Matrix,” for one), so it plays directly on those instruction manual tropes. The villain is named President Business (Will Ferrell), the theme song to the world is proudly called “Everything is AWESOME!!!” and it minces no words over story details that don’t add to the beautiful world they’re creating.

Beyond that, pop culture obscurity designed to go over the kids’ heads and land only with the parents don’t exist here. Lord and Miller have made a dynamic, bonkers comedy first and rely on the fact that kids will appreciate its broad strokes while the older crowd can admire the speed, absurdity and wittiness. For proof, look no further than the Batman song, with the lyrics, “DARKNESS. NO PARENTS. BLACK WINDOW SHADES.”

Although this is a movie that could be for everyone, it’s built with the Lego loving crowd in mind. Familiar Lego instruction manuals direct the film’s hero to brush his teeth and perform jumping jacks while blink and you’ll miss it visual gags and Easter Eggs like a poster for “A Popular Band” litter the scenery awaiting the Internet obsessive to find it all. In one sequence, the film flashes between many of Lego’s available sets and brands for purchase, providing a tasteful, hilarious and even plot driving way of doing the necessary toy-tie in.

The fun of playing with Legos however boils down to the act of seeing the world you can create, and “The Lego Movie” is a visually stunning example. The camera is completely liberated and mobile and the colors and details in every frame are endless, utilizing the best of modern CGI while staying true to the characteristic look and shape of Legos dating back to forever. One shot is a miraculously bleak image filled of destruction and chaos after a climactic battle. It looks worthy enough to belong in “Avatar,” but Lord and Miller smash cut to a pitiful looking cloud constructed of Legos, achieving the two-fold effect of an absurd visual gag while reminding us that beyond it all is a little kid dreaming this all up.

There’s beauty in that realization, and “The Lego Movie” really hits its stride in a fourth wall breaking final act that attains an emotional resonance on par with “Toy Story” and the best of Pixar. But “The Lego Movie” is entirely its own creation, constructed from the universal building blocks that define our cultural experience.

4 stars

Her

Spike Jonze’s “Her” deepens our relationship with humans by embracing love and technology.

We live in a world of screens. There are now more screens and devices on this planet than there are humans. So it’s amazing how few of them there are in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

Jonze’s film only invokes technology as a way to communicate the imperfect beauty of human nature. “Her” has a sci-fi high concept but it’s as true and honest a relationship movie as any ever made.

In Jonze’s near future, men don un-ironic mustaches, pants are beige and hitched high with no buttons or belt loops for style, walls and homes are pristine white and softly focused but not exaggeratedly so, and few people crane their necks staring down at cell phones. Everyone can be seen talking with head held high, but they’re speaking to indiscreet ear buds implanted in their sides, getting headlines and emails read aloud to them on the subway. In this new age Los Angeles, everyone is alone together. Continue reading “Her”

Zero Dark Thirty

At the end of “The Hurt Locker,” Sergeant William James returned home from his tour of duty and stood in the aisle of a supermarket, overwhelmed and lost. After all he had seen and done, what more did he know to do?

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have explored this dilemma yet again in “Zero Dark Thirty,” only now we’re at the center of a cold, revenge fueled manhunt for the most wanted man in the world, Osama bin Laden. Now that we’ve got him, what’s next?

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a stirring procedural drama that examines the more exciting, alleviating, gripping and harrowing moments of our decade long battle with Al Qaeda. And because it feels so thoroughly investigated by Mark Boal and so intensely staged by Bigelow, it is at the center of major controversy in the CIA and US Senate. But there is no nobility here. The film hardly advocates torture. Through depiction, not endorsement, it suggests that our revenge soaked victory may be more hollow than we imagined. Continue reading “Zero Dark Thirty”

Moneyball

“Moneyball” is a clever baseball movie that makes you think differently about the game and the film genre it belongs to

Baseball is called America’s pastime because we love to imagine it the same we always have. But who still “root roots for the home team” and actually likes Cracker Jack?

“Moneyball” is a clever baseball movie that makes you think differently about the game and the film genre it belongs to. It’s a witty, cynical take on a rousing, inspirational sport, and it’s massively entertaining.

Here is a film that ignores the personality and skill of baseball players, that says the classic ways of finding a winning baseball team is wrong, and stars an anti-hero who’s been kicked down to the point that he doesn’t even see the point of the game anymore. Yet every sports fan is still rapt with attention. Continue reading “Moneyball”