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”


Ryan Coogler directs this Rocky sequel about Apollo Creed’s son.

creed-finalposter“Rocky” is one of the finest examples of Americana ever put onto film, and “Raging Bull” is among the absolute best movies of all time. But outside of those two obvious choices, the most memorable boxing movies are the ones that go beyond just being a boxing movie. “The Fighter” plays with genre conventions by invoking family dynamics and a drug addicted brother who is more interesting than the protagonist. “Million Dollar Baby’s” final fight isn’t in a ring at all.

It’s easy to see why Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” is so rousing, and beyond swapping “Rocky’s” racial roles, it even plays with ideas of legacy and living in someone’s shadow, with Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) smartly drawing from previous “Rocky” sequels in order to make something more meaningful and modern.

But “Creed” is still a boxing movie. A very good one, but it still has a big final showdown with an unbeatable opponent, an ego-driven, yet talented underdog of a fighter working his way up from the working class, and not to mention a training montage. How many different ways can you shoot the speed bag being pummeled and carefully worked over, or the jumping ropes moving faster and faster until they’re hurled to the ground?

Coogler from the film’s first moments frames Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) as something of a God, as is fitting with his name. His physique is hulking and hunched over in our first glimpses of him. But the strength of “Creed” lies in how Adonis has to grapple with that persona. Apollo Creed’s widow adopts him at a young age and Adonis works to hide his silver spoon upbringing; he wants to succeed not because he’s Apollo’s son or because his wealth was handed to him.

Coogler’s message is to embrace legacy while still carving one of your own. “Use the name; it’s yours,” Adonis’s girlfriend says, before he’s gifted with a pair of American flag boxing shorts that read CREED on one side and JOHNSON on the other.

Coogler also plays with cinematography in interesting ways to reimagine how a “Rocky” sequel can look. Rather than striving to reach the top of some steps, Coogler slows down time around Adonis in a ravishing look at the Americana of the urban streets, with ATVs rocketing around a sweating, menacing Adonis. There’s also a mid-movie fight that steals the show from the finale in that it’s accomplished in a single take over two rounds and several minutes. Rocky’s own personal struggles overwhelm whether we care about the final fight’s ultimate outcome, but at the very least it aims to put a pin in the idea of more “Rocky” movies.

Jordan as an actor seems extremely confident in his own skin, aware of his body and using it to get at Adonis’s brashness and ego. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw,” the physical transformation is not just a practical feature of the character Jordan is portraying but very much a part of Adonis’s energy. As for Stallone, the appeal of his performance is that he’s aged into the gruff, seasoned veteran role full of wisdom and discreet fatherly affection, but he’s retained Rock’s dopey charm. Whether his still garbled Philly accent is Oscar worthy is up for debate.

3 stars

In Need of a Franchise

There is currently a lack of a compelling action franchise in Hollywood today that isn’t attached to a book or superhero.

We need a hero.

The American movie going audience has plenty of them in spandex and intergalactic armor, but like Batman at the end of “The Dark Knight,” they’re not the heroes we need right now.

American cinema currently lacks a quality, classical, legacy franchise. We have plenty of franchises constantly in production, but very few of them match the action movie template of the ‘80s and early ‘90s that were unadulterated fun and were marketed to people other than ravenous fanboys.

These movies were original ideas that didn’t draw from comic books, graphic novels, teen romance novels or TV shows. But what’s more, they featured men and women without superpowers or futuristic gizmos who performed stunts that were ridiculous, but at least they were down to Earth. They were fun and only rarely something more. Continue reading “In Need of a Franchise”

Rapid Response: First Blood

One of my journalism teachers gave a peculiar example in class one day. He called the moment when an article (or a movie) comes out to explain to you just what your dealing with the “Col. Trautman Moment,” in honor of Rambo’s Vietnam War commander who tells Brian Dennehy just how much deep shit he’s in far too late after he’s made Rambo angry.

In journalism we call this a nut graf. It’s an essential ingredient in a good article, but some of the best writers can weave it in naturally without using a line like, “You don’t know what you’re dealing with soldier.”

“First Blood,” or the first of a kajillion Rambo films, is a notoriously dumb and meat-headed ’80s action movie that, despite it’s popularity somehow got away from me until recently because…well, who cares why?

It spawned so many sequels not because it’s the most campy and outrageous action movie you’ve seen from the period or because Sylvester Stallone was such a bankable star after “Rocky” (that fame came after this), but that “First Blood” is an anti-Vietnam War movie. It’s right-wing take on the war was that, it can do real damage to the people like Rambo who come out of it, but the real harm comes from the society that doesn’t respect that these people are doing important work overseas.

This is more or less the mentality today: hate the war, not the soldiers.

So in that way, “First Blood” spat in the face of “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” by making a war movie with a conflicted character but glorified, amped up action. It seems to advertise becoming a super soldier with lines like, “Those green berets are real badassess.”

But I’d be lying if I said the politics were the things that irritated me most about “First Blood.” In capturing Rambo, this small town has absolutely nothing at stake. Everyone here reacts like a hammy tough guy over the littlest bullshit gesture by the war vet. They’re all one-dimensional jerks who can so freely get killed off by the almost horror movie monster that is Rambo. After he escapes, he goes from low-key drifter to Bear Grylls in no time flat. And everything he does is diluted by this dark, ugly and occasionally incoherent film. It’s poorly written, agonizingly low-brow and redneck, and Stallone overacts the hell out of it.

So here’s my Col. Trautman Moment: “I don’t think you understand. This movie is terrible.”