Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Starring
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki
Director
James Gunn

It’s hard to believe that most people had never even heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy prior to 2014, because in the three years since the release of the first movie, they’ve become some of the most popular characters in the entire MCU. While there was certainly an immense amount of pressure on returning director James Gunn to create a worthy follow-up, you wouldn’t know it from the self-assured confidence that the film exudes. Admittedly, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” isn’t as fresh as its predecessor, but it’s almost as much as fun, and that’s to the credit of Gunn and his excellent cast, who have once again delivered an offbeat, action-packed space opera (with yet another killer soundtrack) that doesn’t skimp on humor or heart.

After saving the universe from Kree fanatic Ronan the Accuser, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians have parlayed their newfound fame into a lucrative career as mercenaries. But when they’re hired by a race of pretentious, gold-skinned beings called the Sovereign to kill an interdimensional beast in exchange for Gamora’s captured half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), the Guardians manage to piss off their employers by stealing some of the valuable batteries they were charged with protecting. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Guardians are rescued at the last minute by an ancient celestial entity called Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. Though Peter is thrilled to finally meet his dad and learn more about his secret heritage, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is suspicious of Ego’s true motives. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) is recruited by the Sovereign’s High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to track down and apprehend the Guardians for punishment, leading to a mutiny among his crew when he refuses to turn them over.

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What’s Space Opera, Doc? How “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” fits into the subgenre

Since people first looked up at the stars, they dreamed of traveling amongst them. Not knowing what they were or what it all meant, there was always a sense of longing to explore the glittering abyss of space. And as imaginations raced, they were quickened and informed by advances in science and an understanding of the world around us. Soon, science fiction was born, and within that a subcategory of these fanciful tales of epic battles and ships piloting the galaxy; it was called “space opera,” and it’s the basis for some of pop culture’s most sustaining works of the 20th century. “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” works all explored different facets of the wonders held in the cosmos. As people prepare to re-enter the cosmic fray with the latest massive space opera, James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” it seems a fitting time to look at what a space opera is and how a centuries-old subgenre is still captivating audiences’ imaginations.

For all of its pervasive appearances throughout the years, the definition of space opera is an oddly elusive one. It certainly is a subset of science fiction, taking place in a reality closely related to our own, albeit with interplanetary travel and usually alien species interacting in some ways. The term was first coined back in 1941, a play on the derisive parlance “horse opera” used for melodramatic westerns. However, space opera stories appeared as early as 1854, depicting people navigating strange new worlds with unheard of technology and encountering different life forms in an adventure with space travel as the backdrop.

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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After watching hundreds of films throughout the year, it can be somewhat daunting trying to compile a Top 10 list that isn’t laden with footnotes, caveats and what-ifs. (That’s the whole point of the Honorable Mentions section.) My annual year-end features tend to follow a pretty similar formula in that two things are almost always certain – they will include a mix of blockbusters, awards contenders and genre flicks, and there will be several notable omissions – and the 2014 edition isn’t any different. So what if Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” didn’t make the cut, or that “Selma” is ranked too low? These are my favorite movies of the year, and if you’ve got a problem with that, go make your own list.

Best Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the year; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

whiplash

2. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

birdman

3. “NIGHTCRAWLER

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s dynamic performance, because it’s the quiet ferocity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: David Medsker

year_end-david

Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

whiplash-dm

2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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Blu Tuesday: Guardians of the Galaxy, Frank and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Guardians of the Galaxy”

WHAT: After stealing a mysterious orb with untold power, intergalactic thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) becomes the target of a bloodthirsty alien named Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Captured by the authorities and thrown into prison, Quill teams up with a quartet of fellow misfits – deadly assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-driven bruiser Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), gun-toting raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel) – to mount an escape. But when the group discovers the true power of the orb, they agree to stick together in order to prevent it from falling into Ronan’s hands.

WHY: Marvel Studios has a history of taking some big risks, from the men behind the camera to those in front of it, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is perhaps their biggest one yet. Not only is the comic book on which it’s based an unknown quantity to most filmgoers, but James Gunn isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to direct a big-budget comic book movie. Despite his lack of experience, Gunn repaid the faith that Kevin Feige placed in him by producing one of the most purely fun Marvel films to date, absolutely nailing the offbeat tone of the source material like some kind of punk rock “Star Wars.” Chris Pratt oozes charisma as the Han Solo-like ruffian, and Michael Rooker gets some of the best moments as mohawked space pirate Yondu, but it’s the boisterous Rocket (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) who steals the show in hilarious fashion. Finding that balance where all five characters are represented equally isn’t an easy feat, but Gunn does a good job of giving each one the attention they deserve, both in the action and the more low-key dialogue scenes. The movie isn’t perfect by any means, but if the objective was to make a funny, action-packed and slightly off-kilter space opera that introduced audiences to the Guardians and left them wanting more when it ended, well… mission accomplished.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director/co-writer James Gunn, a pair of production featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an exclusive look at “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Frank”

WHAT: A wannabe songwriter named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to join an eccentric pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a giant fiberglass head wherever he goes. But when Jon becomes obsessed with making the band famous, he threatens to ruin everything that makes the band (and the offbeat Frank, in particular) so special.

WHY: Loosely based on Chris Sievey’s papier-mache-headed alter ego, Frank Sidebottom, “Frank” transcends the kitschy nature of the cult comedy character to tell a story that’s much deeper and funnier than anything the real-life personality ever did. Anyone who’s seen clips of Frank Sidebottom knows that isn’t very difficult, but the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if it wasn’t for Michael Fassbender’s outstanding performance, which takes acting to a whole other level by hiding the one thing that actors rely on the most: their facial expressions. It’s more than just a simple vocal performance, however, as Fassbender works overtime to not only create a three-dimensional character, but one that’s relatable as well… and all while wearing a giant head. Unfortunately, while Fassbender’s Frank is a lot of fun, the rest of the characters are so miserable (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sourpuss bandmate) that it’s hard to enjoy. Director Lenny Abrahamson can’t even decide if Domhnall Gleeson’s protagonist is a calculated jerk or a misguided fool, and though the movie has some important things to say in the end about fame, mental illness and fitting in, they come much too late to have the desired effect. See it for Fassbender and the brief moments of black comedy brilliance, but keep your expectations low.

EXTRAS: There’s a short behind-the-scenes look at the film from AXS TV.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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