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”

Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale and Casey Affleck star in Scott Cooper’s grim Americana noir.

OutoftheFurnacePosterThere’s a moment in “Out of the Furnace” when a backwoods, villainous hick named Harlan DeGroat has a deer skinned to its bones hanging from the ceiling. The imagery calls to mind something absolutely raw, as though this bleak look at Americana symbolized all that’s emotional and open about the people who live this way. But Director Scott Cooper’s prized trophy doesn’t have that much meat on its bones to begin with. “Out of the Furnace” feels frustratingly unspecific, empty and generic, no matter how gritty the characters are.

It starts as a story of two brothers grappling with the complications of poverty, crumbling industry, crime, family, violence and more before taking a left turn as a revenge story driven by not much at all. Cooper has loaded his film with imagery and personalities full of gravitas as though that were enough.

Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are two good ‘ole boys with little to their name beyond their factory jobs and their truck. Russell has a girlfriend he loves dearly (Zoe Saldana) and a father on his death bed, but he’s yanked violently from those loves when he gets involved in a drunk driving wreck that kills a woman and child. While his brother lies in prison, Rodney has lost thousands gambling and looks to repay his debts through illegal bare-knuckle brawls. As a former soldier, fighting seems to be all he knows.

Rodney eventually finds his way to the most rural of rural areas, where the meth dealer and backwoods boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) has organized a fight that gets Rodney in trouble. Russell, now free from prison, looks to rescue his brother and bring him back home.

These are men full of rage, anger and addiction, but none of it seems specific or tied to a real backstory or social issue. That Rodney is driven to fight as a result of his veteran status is treated as a given. The police claim they have no jurisdiction in Harlan’s gangster society up in the hills, and yet their dynamic as criminals seem to have no real impact on Anytown, USA where “Out of the Furnace” is set. Rodney is forced to take a dive during his fight, but it’s never explained why there should be an unspoken tension and danger between Harlan and Rodney’s manager (Willem Dafoe). “Am I supposed to be scared because he sucks on a lollipop,” Rodney asks of Harlan. Cooper struggles to explain why we should be afraid of Harlan, but with a line like this he calls attention to how cartoonishly cliché and short tempered Harrelson’s character is in the first place.

In fact all of the industrial, Americana imagery in the film contains an understated melodrama but doesn’t seem to signify much of anything in particular. Saldana is the film’s only named female character, and she’s given absolutely zero to do. And Bale’s Russell is the protagonist, but possibly only to serve as an ironic counterpoint to his more troubled brother. “Out of the Furnace” ends on a heavy note, and the cinematography makes it to be a movie of purpose, but it’s without much purpose at all.

2 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”

Star Trek Into Darkness

“Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t overstuffed, but isn’t exactly balanced, and it begs for more innovation.

J.J. Abrams’s innovation on the “Star Trek” reboot was that he managed to take a long-standing institution, play with a very sacred universe’s timeline and still manage to canonize it. If he didn’t manage to impress me, and I was one of very few, it’s that doing so was his only innovation.

Set pieces existed for their own sake, as did stylistic camera twirls and lens flares. Dialogue teetered on being self-serious and self-referential without pausing for breath, and the plot that grew out of it didn’t make as much sense as it appeared. Even Roger Ebert pointed out that in this futuristic sci-fi epic, space battles were reduced to cataclysmic mayhem and sparring with fists and swords.

And although “Star Trek Into Darkness” improves upon that last aspect to the point that I enjoyed everything I saw, part of me wishes the Abrams from “Super 8” showed up, to dust off a cliché, and boldly go where none have gone before. Point being, if you’re looking for innovation here, you won’t find it. Continue reading “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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


James Cameron and “Avatar” prove the worth of 3-D in this thrilling and visually stunning sci-fi epic.

What were my expectations of “Avatar?” I don’t know. Whatever they were, they were too high, an unattainable level of excellence for an unproven technology in the hands of a capable, yet questionable director. So did James Cameron meet my expectations? Just about.

“Avatar” is a visual wonder with the story, the style and the spectacle to place it all in context. It’s use of 3-D and the facial recognition technology is inherently convincing and in its stunning perfection will likely change the way fantasy, action blockbusters are made. James Cameron has invested an estimated $300 million into his first project since “Titanic” 12 years ago, and every painstaking hour of work and dollar spent shows up on that screen in what is by far the most visually busy and yet remarkable feature of the year. Continue reading “Avatar”