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”

Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg’s exploitative disaster film is confused and cliche.

deepwaterhorizonposterPeter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” might just be the most confused, peculiar, conservative Americana cash grab in recent memory. It’s staged like a gritty, exploitative war film in the vein of Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” and yet it’s the story about the worst oil spill in history? There’s almost no mention of the environmental damage of the spill, and the people involved are all scientific technicians, and yet they behave like salt of the Earth, blue-collar Marines? And the movie’s biggest enemy is actually big business? Not to mention it stars Mark Wahlberg?

Labeling “Deepwater Horizon” as a movie that’s pandering to a certain sector of the American public may be reductive, because the movie’s real problem is that it isn’t about anything more than a tragedy. Like a Transformers movie, it’s obsessed with metallic carnage and special effects even before everything goes to hell, and it’s loaded with mechanical jargon as if the way in which an oil rig works is interesting enough to anyone on its own. “Deepwater Horizon” wants to praise human sacrifice, but it stops short at exploring the mental struggle heroes face or examining their values. Continue reading “Deepwater Horizon”

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s 8th film is an overwritten slog.

HatefulEightPosterQuentin Tarantino, a truly favorite director of mine, can be called a lot of unsavory adjectives, but I never thought “boring” could be one of them.

“The Hateful Eight,” his eighth film as he proudly boasts, is an overwritten slog. At three hours and filmed in 70mm Panavision, Tarantino has the audacity to take those cinematic tools reserved for epics and apply them to a cozy, claustrophobic character drama set in a cabin in the woods. Tarantino bottles all his despicable characters and ideas about race and gender into a room and takes forever for them to explode, then even longer to clean up his mess.

The film involves bounty hunter John “Hangman” Ruth’s intentions to collect $10,000 reward by bringing in Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) alive, a principle of his to personally see all his victims hang. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former black officer in the Union Army and now full-time bounty hunter who still enjoys killing white boys who would rather see him dead. Warren hitches a ride with Ruth and former marauder, now Sherriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) to a haberdashery where they’ll wait out a blizzard.

This set up consumes the film’s first of three hours, a drawn out procession of formalities and mistrust in on the nose period dialogue. It’s theatrical play-acting, and Tarantino still confines all their conversation to the two walls of a cramped stagecoach. Tarantino leaves very little to subtext, with Warren, Ruth and Mannix each speaking detailed personal histories despite how much they seem to know about each other already. This is conversation for the audience, a way for Tarantino to show these allies are still at odds with one another, Mannix just a little racist and Ruth very much on edge. The mystery is Domergue, who spends the stagecoach ride with a black eye and a streak of blood down her cheek from Ruth’s blow to the head. She’s a monster, not a lady, we’re told. How much of her abuse can we endure? Tarantino is goading us, and the movie has barely started.

Waiting for them are four other travelers, each an Old West stereotype more likely drawn from cinema than from reality, as is Tarantino’s penchant. Tim Roth plays Oswaldo Mobray, complete with a thick and eloquent British accent that suggests Christoph Waltz could’ve been in mind for the part, as could’ve “Unforgiven’s” English Bob. Demian Bichir as the Mexican keeper of the haberdashery is Bob, easily a surrogate of Eli Wallach in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Bruce Dern is a grizzled and apathetic Confederate General made enraged by Warren’s taunting. And Michael Madsen is the reserved, anonymous cowboy Joe Gage, just off to visit his mother. Of course Tarantino takes the time to have Ruth and Warren reintroduce themselves to all four individually.

No one can be trusted, and Ruth warns that one or some of the remaining four could be in cahoots with Domergue. But to what degree are we invested in seeing whether this woman gets to the rope or not? We have more doubt as to whether they are innocent rather than whether they are guilty. It’s just a matter of how long Tarantino takes to arrive there, and how much we choose to tolerate along the journey. His cards are all on the table.

Or maybe not. Tarantino back tracks in a clunky, narrated aside to fill in the gaps that we didn’t see, rather than allow those twists to emerge through character or dialogue. It’s too contrived to not be exactly as Tarantino intended. We’re made to realize that this genre setting, this overly theatrical dramatizing, this will they/won’t they scenario is in service of how much he can get away with and how hateful he can make his eighth film.

Violence here serves as an exclamation point and punch line rather than a consequence or for stylish entertainment value. The Ennio Morricone score is fascinating, operatic and lovely but staged over extended sequences of Ruth’s driver walking out into the cold to use the bathroom. The N-word rankled some feathers when Tarantino used it as coloring in “Django Unchained,” but here it seems notably superfluous. And there’s not much more to be said for measured storytelling nuance when your characters start projectile vomiting blood onto a woman’s face.

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t just hateful, it’s depressing and a drag. Tarantino has used his time to say everything despicable and nothing in particular.

1 star

Rapid Response: The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s remake “The Thing” has stellar makeup and special effects, but it’s lacking in the narrative department that its horror counterparts share.

If there’s something missing from “The Thing” it’s certainly not The Thing. We see plenty of it.

John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is a remake of a number of sci-fi B-movies from the ’50s that played on the Red Scare, and while this film lacks that cultural poignancy, it makes up for it in the stylish special effects of the day. Like David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” it has stunningly outrageous makeup applied in all the wrong places, and it holds up because they’re tangible make-up effects rather than CGI.

Carpenter is of course the horror legend behind “Halloween” and a number of other ’70s and ’80s horror staples. “The Thing” however has a firm place on the IMDB Top 250, presumably for its unseemly effects and people that die really good. Some are incinerated, some are eaten by The Thing’s opening chest cavities or heads, Wilford Brimley shoves his fist into another guy’s mouth. It’s ridiculous, over the top violence that is handled all too gratuitously, but it at least works as a novelty.

Unfortunately, the movie is missing character depth, wit, charm, and even an eerie sense of cabin fever that dominates trapped on the far side of the moon monster movies.

As did the ’50s “The Thing from Another World” or “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Thing” is a movie about paranoia and being uncertain about your safety when the enemy could be any of your closest friends. But it’s not an engaging story when all of the characters are one-dimensional, underdeveloped and uninteresting. We catch glimpses of faces and names but are only even partially attached to Kurt Russell’s character MacCready.

And allow me to say now, it’s a bad thing when Kurt Russell is the one giving your movie’s strongest performance. The acting throughout is pretty stilted, and my guess is that the camp appeal in the characters better fits the preposterous goriness.

The verdict is that “The Thing” can barely hold a candle to say, “Alien” or “The Fly,” amongst many others, although I’ll give this ’80s version benefit of the doubt that it is more visually inventive and absurd than the CGI gore-fest of a remake that’s being released in theaters today.