REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

6 05 2017

The summer season means sequelitis with few exceptions. One of these outliers, to an extent, is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It appears that after the surprising smash success of his series opener, Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Marvel decided to loosen his leash to continue pushing his aesthetic. Though the enormous potential of the irreverent “Guardians” series seems self-evident from our vantage point in the era of “Deadpool,” it was far from a sure thing when the studio greenlit the film in the heat of “The Avengers” universe-building craze. “Kick-Ass” hardly served as a reliable indicator that audiences were ready to follow the superhero genre into a parodic cycle.

From the outset, Gunn shows that he was far from operating at full throttle in the first film – and that he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. The way he stages the opening battle sequence is pure subversive brilliance. Some mysterious octopus-like space creature drops out of the sky and onto a landing pad where Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and the Guardians are waiting for it. We have no idea what it is or why it poses a threat, in typical Marvel fashion. Gunn capitalizes on that unfamiliarity, staging the fight out of focus in the background while an adorable Baby Groot dances to an Electric Light Orchestra jam in front of our eyes. He knows people operate on sensation and feeling more than linear plot development, and he crafts an ideal anti-action scene.

So it’s a little disappointing when, by the end, Gunn still has to direct in lockstep with the Marvel mold. We’ve still got to have the obligatory third act “blow everything up for 20 minutes” portion of the screenplay, unfortunately. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at least imbues an otherwise mindless spectacle with deeper stakes. Every aspect of the film harkens back to its central themes of family, from the gold-hued eugenicist Sovereigns to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). And, of course, there’s the match made in intertextual heaven: Star-Lord reuniting with his long-lost father, Kurt Russell’s Ego.

It’s too bad that anything relating to blood dynamics sounds like the notes from a family psychologist’s notepad. The dialogue sounds far too on-the-nose for a film so fluent in 13-year-old boy humor. (That’s not to knock the jokes, which would have gone over gangbusters with me 10 years ago. Some still do, to my reluctant chagrin.) But thankfully, Gunn still give us plenty of the franchise’s ragtag family, the Guardians themselves, rocking out to another awesome mixtape. B





REVIEW: The Hangover

20 08 2016

When I started writing this site over 7 years ago, it was the summer of “The Hangover.” This comedy sensation that came out of nowhere spawned Facebook wall posts and bumper stickers (remember those?) by the dozen. Lines entered the cultural lexicon at an unprecedented rate. Amidst 2009’s pretty great lineup of studio and indie entertainment, this was a film you wanted to go back and see again.

Obviously, much has changed since then. The original sensation went onto inspire a blatant cash-grab carbon copy sequel, and when director Todd Phillips and the Wolfpack tried to change courses for a third film, no one seemed to care anymore. By that point, Bradley Cooper reemerged as an Oscar-caliber actor, Ed Helms got bumped up the big desk at TV’s “The Office,” and Zach Galifianakis’ career began to sputter out doing similar schtick. Todd Phillips has only just returned to the directors’ chair, and unsurprisingly, he’s doing a bit of a career pivot of his own a la Adam McKay.

But do all these transformations do anything to diminish the original? Does “The Hangover” deserve to sit on such a high pedestal? Have all the rip-offs and imitators it spawned tarnished the sheen? Or, perhaps a bigger personal question for me … is the film so great because it came out around my 17-year-old summer? (A recent article on The Ringer made a pretty compelling case for why that year seems to always stand out when polling people’s favorite summer movie season.)

I rewatched start to finish the film for the first time in several years; I specify because I watched five to ten minute snippets constantly for the year or two it dominated HBO airwaves. The short answer – yes, it still holds up. Years later, “The Hangover” is one of the few comedies that can generate chuckles and belly laughs from home.

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REVIEW: War Dogs

16 08 2016

War DogsIt takes about an hour into Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” to realize the true colors of the film’s subjects. As they discuss a deal to arm Afghani soldiers with millions of bullets, top Army officials look across their table.

On the left is a man who possesses an everyman-style swagger, a sharp knack for business and a reservoir of nobility should he choose to tap into it. On his right is a man who seems to have little in the way of conscience or prudence, a cunning manipulator who cares little for the body count left in his wake so long as his bank account grows. And then beneath these pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sit their respective counterparts in the film, actors Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli.

“War Dogs” is the Bush-Cheney partnership reimagined as a buddy comedy of hapless warmongering and reckless profit hunting. If ever there were an indication that the military-industrial complex had officially jumped the shark, it would be this story during this war. As a way to offset accusations of cronyism, the Pentagon set up an online database that allowed all contractors access to military deals. While industry giants still nabbed the biggest deals, Efraim’s business strategy stems from picking up the crumbs – “like a rat,” in his own words.

Phillips along with co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic would have us believe that the company Efraim lures David into partnering with him, AEY Inc., is the equivalent of the geniuses of “The Big Short” who spotted the leak in the mortgage market. (The film certainly features gratuitous grafts from Adam McKay’s stylistic masterstrokes to make the parallels, too – down to the freeze-frames and quotation-fronted chapter divisions.) But while Phillips may have that film on the brain, the dark heart of “War Dogs” bears a far greater resemblance to another film about fools who wrecked the economic futures of hard-working people.

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REVIEW: Joy

16 01 2016

“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”

Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.

Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.

In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”

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REVIEW: Burnt

14 11 2015

BurntBradley Cooper is among the most interesting American actors working today, so it’s a shame that he chose such an uninteresting project like “Burnt” at perhaps the apex of his stardom. For the man who was a crucial part in powering the first non-tentpole film to the top of the yearly box office since 1998, such a conventional tale told with little panache cannot help but disappoint.

That’s not to say that “Burnt” is empty of any merit or entertainment, though. In fact, it plays at around the same register as “Aloha,” Cooper’s unfairly savaged starring vehicle from earlier in 2015. John Wells’ film and Steven Knight’s script produce modest results from a modest effort, where Cameron Crowe went all out only to wind up with a mixed bag of failures and successes. Either way, the fact that Bradley Cooper can emerge from these two movies untarnished by their narrative struggles further attests to his place in the pantheon of his generation’s finest actors.

Perhaps someone could psychoanalyze Bradley Cooper to determine what keeps bringing him back to these stories of redemption. In 2005, he starred in an ill-fated TV comedy called “Kitchen Confidential” as a star chef seeking a comeback after personal issues put his career in jeopardy. In 2012, he changed the way most audiences in “Silver Linings Playbook” as Pat Solitano, a bipolar man seeking to put his life back together after a meltdown gets him institutionalized.

Four Oscar nominations later, in 2015, Cooper still seems to feel some need to prove himself through the character of Adam Jones in “Burnt,” a chef seeking a coveted third Michelin star in London after drug and alcohol abuse wrecked his last restaurant. (Sound familiar?) Jones is loud, brash and kind of a nightmare to handle. But he swaggers about with such authority that a crack team of cooks with global roots lines up to endure his abuse and work with him.

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REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: Serena

23 02 2015

SerenaDespite all the negative press churned out by the rumor mill as it sat for years in the editing bay, “Serena” is far from a disaster.  Susanne Bier’s saga of competition and coveting in 1920s North Carolina certainly contains a fair share of riveting moments.  Overall, though, it seems to lack focus.

For instance, is the protagonist of the story George Pemberton, Bradley Cooper’s timber baron intent on protecting his land from government encroachment?  Or is it Serena Pemberton, Jennifer Lawrence’s arrestingly beautiful and tempestuously emotional business and life partner?  The answer is unclear because the movie lacks decisiveness.

The same goes for which of the two storylines in “Serena” – George and Serena’s tumultuous marriage, or their contentious capitalistic ventures – serves as the predominant one.  The film would have undoubtedly benefitted from the demotion of one to the status of a subplot.

With some of these fairly basic issues left unsettled, “Serena” quickly becomes mostly notable as a showcase for its stars.  Had Bier and her editors somehow turned the film around in a few months after shooting in spring 2012, the performances would likely have received no end of acclaim.  But now, three years have passed, in which time Cooper and Lawrence have collected a whopping five Oscar nominations.  Their George and Serena now feel rather penciled-in when measured against Pat Solitano and Tiffany Maxwell.

The 105 minutes necessary to watch “Serena” might be put to better use by rewatching “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” or “American Sniper.”  Those films feature the stars giving more fully fleshed-out performances (with better accents) while also featuring more confident direction.  The fine details available for discovery by digging deeper into those characters far outweighs what can be skimmed from the surface of this middle-of-the-road flick.  C+2stars