Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

afa29-startrekintodarknessEvery film franchise needs an installment where the stakes get higher and the outlook gets a lot bleaker, dropping lower into the darkness. Star Wars has Empire Strikes Back, The Hunger Games has Catching Fire and the new Star Trek series has this film. The opening gambit exhibits all the problems that normally arise with the enterprise crew. Kirk acts rashly not following protocol, Spock is far too logical for his own good and the native population sees far more than they should. All in a day’s work except their exploits get Kirk relieved of his command and Spock transferred. It’s not a good situation by any means.

Then out of the woodwork comes John Harrison a former Star Fleet weapons expert who has gone rogue and induced a man to blow up a seemingly insignificance archives building, but its all a ploy to get at the command. The aftermath leaves Kirk’s mentor dead and Kirk himself reinstated bent on revenge. The Enterprise heads after Harrison who fled to Kronos, part of the airspace of the dreaded Klingon. In a heated confrontation the unstoppable fugitive mows down the Klingons and allows himself to be taken in, but obviously something is not right.
Now Admiral Marcus is on their tale bent on finishing off Harrison and doing it by any means necessary even going so far as shooting down the Enterprise. The balance of right and wrong is completely off kilter by now. Once again Kirk chooses to ally with Harrison to take down Marcus, a risky proposition to be sure. Little does he know who Harrison actually is and what his mission entails. Ultimately Kirk is left with a few options with a ship without little power and a crew that are sitting ducks. In a fitting role reversal, he does the only logical thing he can and Spock takes over the bridge using Kirkian-like tactics. But the mission is far from over with danger still afoot. It takes a little ingenuity from all hands on deck including Spock, Uhura and Dr. McCoy. They cannot be expected to stop there however because their true mission is to go where no man has gone before. Gear up for another 5 years in space or possibly 5 years until the next movie.
I must admit I am not a true Trekkie but I did appreciate a few of the nods in this film including the appearance of Leonard Nimoy and the resurfacing of Khan. Now I really want to go back and see the classic Wrath of Khan too. However, I found this film to have nice pacing some good about-faces and a generally good story line. There are times when I get sick of the drama and picture perfect special effects but Star Trek Into Darkness is undoubtedly good blockbuster fodder. For Trekkies, it certainly is worth it and the cast is endearing. I must say I miss Deforrest Kelly especially, though. Bones is just too overdramatic in this film for his own good. But what do I know? Since villains are always so important Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job raising the stakes by playing the audience beautifully. Well done.
4/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

84784-gotg-posterMy first thought about this film without any prior knowledge was, “How can they have a superhero movie with a talking raccoon and a walking tree? That’s so stupid!” Well, they proved me wrong or maybe they proved me right in a sense.

Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid in numerous ways, yes, but it’s the kind of dopiness that is fun, endearing, and often hilarious. It succumbs to some of the normal superhero/blockbuster cliches, but it also finds time to make fun of itself, and it benefits from that. It does not take itself too seriously and it begins with Chris Pratt aka Peter Quill aka Star Lord (not Andy Dwyer for all those Parks and Rec fans). He is an unlikely superhero, even the actor himself, and so it makes his character work all the better for this film.
After a childhood, tragedy Peter is abducted by a group of Ravagers, and thus begins his life in the far reaches of the galaxy retrieving artifacts for his employers by any means possible. He comes across a highly sought after orb, and he himself has a price on his head. That’s how he crosses paths with deadly female assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and bounty hunting partners Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). Gamora was sent by a power hungry villain bent on revenge. Rocket is a highly intelligent raccoon with an attitude, and Groot is a walking tree of few words who teams with him. They all end up in prison, and it is there where they finally begin to gel as unlikely as it sounds.
The crew is joined  by fellow inmate Drax, and they head out to deliver the mysterious orb to their contact. However, it falls into the hands of the enemy, and the gang must now protect Xandar from destruction. We have seen it all before, an epic space battle with ships zooming by, pyrotechnics everywhere and unexpected twists and turns. It is moments like these where it seems Guardians falls into the usual mold of explosions, image overload, and corny drama.
Quickly it finds itself again with Peter being goofy (ie. a dance off) or Rocket giving us one of his many wry comments in an extra epic moment (Well now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now). It is these sorts of moments that make this film. Groot only knows three words, “I am Groot,” and yet Rocket has spent so much time with him that he understands every iteration. That’s how a summer blockbuster about a talking raccoon and a walking tree ends up working. It sidesteps some of the usual tropes, and when it does fall into one it willfully makes light of itself. We can forgive and forget because these “lovable misfits” are a barrel of laughs and they have a heart. It does not hurt that this film has an Awesome Mix for a soundtrack. At times I was not sure if I was watching a space opera or a rock opera — the music was so often the highlight. Then, when “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” started playing I was sold.
3.5/5 Stars