SICARIO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Grisly Images, and Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya & Jeffrey Donovan

SICARIO is a movie that’s been gaining steam for a while now. Premiering at Cannes and receiving huge word-of-mouth, Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller has slowly unfolded in a handful of theaters across the nation over these past two weeks. It’s now finally receiving a nationwide roll-out and I can say that this one was more than worth the wait. Violent, grim, and bleak as hell, SICARIO is one of the most original thrillers to hit in the past few years. It’s up there with NIGHTCRAWLER and PRISONERS. I can safely say that this has a spot reserved on my Best of 2015 list!

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SWAT agent Kate Macer is on what appears to be a routine kidnapping raid when she discovers a house of horrors. This crime scene includes corpses in the walls and a bomb in the backyard. It turns out this suburban home from hell is owned by someone with ties to the Mexican cartel. Desperate to bring the monsters behind this grisly site to justice, Kate is recruited onto a special tactical team that aims to bring down a notorious cartel lord and his cronies through any means necessary. However, by-the-books Kate is not fully prepared for the possibly illegal and morally questionable areas that her mission will take her to.

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If there’s anything to be said for Denis Villeneuve’s thrillers, it’s that they all maintain the same sense of suffocating unease. SICARIO opens with a disturbing bang and never lets up on its constant tension for the rest of the running time. This movie doesn’t give you room to breathe as it feels like potential chaos and violence could be waiting around every corner…and in this film, they usually are. Much like 2013’s stellar PRISONERS was a morality play crossed with a tense kidnapping thriller, SICARIO stirs up troubling ethical and moral questions with what, in any other hands, could have been a just another bombastic over-the-top action flick. Villeneuve’s brooding approach to every scene had me clenching my arm rests for the entire film. He also does something with a side plot involving a minor character that I truly loved, but I refuse to spoil anything by going into specific details.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone is perfect. Adopting a convincing American accent, Emily Blunt portrays the story’s only voice of reason as Kate. As she encounters more and more horrific scenes in the escalating hunt for the cartel, you can see the damage that it’s inflicting on both Kate’s psyche and health. A similar transformation seems to occur in Blunt’s face as she appears traumatized, broken, and physically ill by the time the film hits its third act. Josh Brolin dominates every scene he’s in as the secret team’s questionable leader. You can sense of the scummy nature of this character from the minute you first see him and a smirking Brolin uses that to his full advantage. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, the team’s mysterious second-in-command, and he’s never been better. Combining the characteristics of a rough anti-hero with the mannerisms of a certain Cormac McCarthy villain, Del Toro becomes a wholly compelling, sympathetic character with an absolutely terrifying side to him.

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SICARIO might turn a few people off in its sheer darkness. This film is bleak! Seeing as it’s about a team hunting a cartel, you would expect some gruesome imagery. However, the attitude of which this movie treats those moments makes it so much more disturbing and brilliant. This is a film where a van full of characters drive by hanging mutilated bodies and it only results in a few passing comments, because it’s not out of the ordinary in hunting cartels. Villeneuve knows precisely what to leave off the screen as well, resulting in the implication of certain scenes being far worse than anything we could have possibly seen. The story goes into extremely grim places and that’s especially true of a final act that left me in a stunned silence.

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SICARIO is an uncompromising masterpiece of a thriller. Fueled by stellar performances, a suffocating sense of impending dread, and a script that will have you thinking about it long after it’s over, SICARIO simply needs to be seen to be believed. Between this film, ENEMY, and PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite modern filmmakers. SICARIO is not only one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the most thought-provoking and intense thrillers that I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

Grade: A+

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use throughout, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

(based on the novel INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph & Martin Short

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making unique films, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted him tackling a stoner noir comedy. Yet, INHERENT VICE (nominated for one Golden Globe and two Academy Awards) is currently in theaters. This movie plays out like CHINATOWN by way of BIG LEBOWSKI. Unfortunately, a damn near incoherent script and lengthy running time kill some of the momentum that this hippie mystery had going for it. I can see it gaining a possible cult following, but INHERENT VICE’s big problems weigh it down. At least, the film is a somewhat entertaining mess.

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The 60’s have come to a close and the 70’s are killing the hippie movement. Doc Sportello is a pothead private investigator who receives a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Doc’s ex, now lover to a powerful businessman, informs the hippie detective that there’s a complicated plan at work and she might be in danger. Before you know it, Shasta has disappeared and Doc is on the case. His search begins with three seemingly unrelated disappearances that lead to a huge conspiracy and much craziness. I must attest to not completely understanding everything in the plot at the end of the day, but dare anyone to explain the whole movie to me in a way that makes any plausible sense without having to pull out a notepad and pen in order to map the whole story out. At one point in the film, Doc does exactly that on his wall and I couldn’t help but feel totally lost with him (in a bad way).

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How does INHERENT VICE function as a comedy? It definitely has its fair share of very funny scenes. The best of which have not been given away in the trailer. However, there is also a semi-serious attempt to lace all of these laughs into a mystery that becomes far more irritating than entertaining. For the first hour, I had a pretty good grasp of the plot as the web of lies, murder, and drugs spun faster and faster. However, with a certain plot twist, the movie completely lost me and never regained my interest in the actual story at hand. Part of this might be entirely blamed upon the source material itself as the 2009 has been said to be polarizing. Some call it a hugely entertaining hippie noir, while others see the whole affair as an aimless bore. I’m somewhere in the middle in my opinion of this film. The biggest detriment to the movie is the overlong running time that drags in quite a few places and ends with a shrug.

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Doc is a totally wooden protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix blends right into the role of a hippie who happens to be a private investigator on the side, but there’s nothing much to this character other than him wandering through a variety of random situations (some of which work, while others fall flat). The other characters wind up serving little to no point, including Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro popping up for about 5 minutes of screen time. Not to mention that Martin Short’s entertaining role is underused. There is one exception to these shallow cartoon characters played by A-listers. That’s in the performance of Josh Brolin. Brolin plays a cop bearing the nickname of Bigfoot. This character is fuelled by an extreme prejudice against hippies, but also remains a friend (of sorts) to Doc. Brolin steals every scene he’s in and received the biggest laughs out of my theater audience (myself included).

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Even though it bores in places and is ultimately underwhelming, INHERENT VICE does have an air of solid filmmaking around it. It’s very well-shot, has great moments and sports a fantastic soundtrack. There’s a sense that what you’re watching might just be a drug-addled hallucination projected onto the theater screen (in a similar way to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). There are definitely positive qualities to be said for that effect. I’d almost recommend seeing the film just for the weird, funny atmosphere it brings (as well as Brolin’s scenes).

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INHERENT VICE is a one-of-a-kind movie in its concept and execution, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are laughs to be had, but also a running time that limps along. The A-list cast is mostly wasted and Josh Brolin walks away as the best part of the entire movie. I imagine that INHERENT VICE would play a lot better if you were high (not that I’m advocating that at all). As someone who saw the film without drugs, I think it’s just an okay flick.

Grade: C+

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Stylized Violence throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity, and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Written by: Frank Miller

(based on the SIN CITY graphic novels by Frank Miller)

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie King, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jamie Chun & Julia Garner

The original SIN CITY was one of my favorite movies during high school and hopes were high that Frank Miller’s amazing crime anthology would play out with the two sequels as a trilogy. Announcements for big name talent (including the original cast and the likes of Johnny Depp) were made and then the much-anticipated sequel was placed in development hell. Almost a full decade later, the second installment has finally been released and it was not worth the ridiculously long wait. Ironically, another Frank Miller sequel released this year bears some strong resemblance to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. That film would be 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Both sequels are forcibly trying way too hard to duplicate what the filmmakers think fans liked about the originals and neither of them succeed well at it. DAME TO KILL FOR is a mixed bag in every way.

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A DAME TO KILL FOR follows the same format as the original SIN CITY. It’s a crime anthology with four noir tales that have recurring characters and an interlocking timeline. While the first film felt open and vibrant with every single detail being paid close attention to, this sequel feels confined and cheaper in many ways. The production values range from sometimes gorgeous to mostly corny. I don’t mean corny in the sense that things feel too far over-the-top (some intentional cheese works well), but corny in the sense that the world around our actors is fake looking. The visuals of 2005’s SIN CITY hold up well to this day and made me feel like I had entered a dangerous city filled with criminals. DAME TO KILL FOR feels like I’m watching a bunch of actors pretend in front of a green screen with silly looking CGI backgrounds around them. It feels like less attention was being placed on detail and more on pumping this thing out fast, but that’s not the real case because this had a nine-year-long production. The stories are as follows…

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JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT: Marv (from HARD GOODBYE in the original) wakes from a drunken stupor surrounded by crashed cars, corpses, and blood. He tries to piece together what happened to put him in this situation from hazy memories. This opener lasts less than 10 minutes and introduces the vibe that things are more forced this time around. Some dark comedy is present and I had fun watching the style in which this tale played out, but the writing was okay at best. Marv’s make-up looks ridiculous on Mickey Rourke this time around and it hurts that he appears during every single story in some way or another. It should have been an early sign for disappointment that the memorable character with the most disturbing tale in the first film was in a campy opener this time around. B-

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THE LONG BAD NIGHT: This first full-blown tale is the best segment in the film and up to the caliber of the original flick. I wouldn’t call it only good, but pretty awesome as a whole. Johnny is a gambler with a superb winning streak who visits Basin City (a.k.a. Sin City, duh) to play the most powerful poker game in town. He finds himself in over his head when he goes up against the corrupt Senator Roark (family member to a twisted priest, a cannibal serial killer, and a yellow-skinned pedophile in the first flick). Roark doesn’t take kindly to losing and Johnny finds himself against odds that he didn’t foresee when he leaves for a night on the town.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome newcomer to the cast as Johnny and Powers Boothe (briefly glimpsed in SIN CITY) takes center stage as the slimy Roark. It’s easy to hate the gambling villain and the story was fairly predictable, but a few twists did take me by surprise. I liked a reveal midway through that wasn’t so much of a shock but a nice direction to take the story. The ending of this tale is fantastic. It’s a poetic conclusion to the best story of the sequel. Also production values felt far better in this single story than they were in the rest of the entire film. A

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A DAME TO KILL FOR: The story is where the ride begins to get really bumpy. Dwight (from BIG FAT KILL in the first film) is a private investigator specializing in incriminating photos. When a femme fatale from his past contacts him about her abusive husband, Dwight becomes infatuated with the sexy Ava Lord and comes to find too late that the situation isn’t as simple as he expected. This tale was as by-the-numbers as one can get. There aren’t any unexpected twists and some lengthy side plot threads go nowhere.

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This also happens to be a tale where two recurring characters from the 2005 film are recast. The hulking bodyguard, Manute, was originally played by Michael Clarke Duncan (who passed away), but Dennis Haysbert doesn’t necessarily do a bad job of filling the part. He’s a hulking baddie who serves his purpose. However, Josh Brolin is terribly cast as Dwight, a role that Clive Owen owned. Brolin has none of the charisma or charm that made the character so damn enjoyable to begin with. Eva Green (who served as the best performer in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) bares it all here (literally), but isn’t much of a character. She merely plays out as means to an end. The worst part about this second-to-last tale is that it takes up a majority of the running time, so much so that this sequel is titled after it. C

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NANCY’S LAST DANCE: Picking up shortly after YELLOW BASTARD from the original film, Nancy Callahan is looking to avenge her dead lover/protector John Hartigan. To do this, she hardens herself and aims to kill Senator Roark. Her plan encounters some difficulties along the way. DAME TO KILL FOR commits the worst sin any anthology can by ending on its weakest note. This tale with direct ties to one of the best stories from the first film is dull, sloppy and anti-climactic. It was so bad that I was hoping the movie would just get to the final scene that everyone knew was coming. Nothing more can really be said about this story other than it’s poorly acted, written and played out. D

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To say SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR is underwhelming would be an understatement. The main returning cast members from the original come in Bruce Willis (showing up for an extended cameo), a few side characters (including a gloriously wasted Rosario Dawson as murderous hooker Gale), Mickey Rourke as a silly looking Marv, and Jessica Alba shakily trying to take on a lead role in a dark segment. It speaks volumes that the most interesting character (Dwight) only appears for one segment, while the wooden Nancy is throughout every single one of them. Marv, one of the most colorful characters from the original, is turned into a dull brute and that’s all the personality he’s given. After a nine-year wait, I sat in a theater with about six other people on opening night. When the movie ended, a person behind me exclaimed “That’s it?!?” Those two words are likely to summarize most fans’ responses to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, including mine.

Grade: C+

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and for some Language

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Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman

(based on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin

After months of anticipation, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has finally arrived. Though primed to be one of the biggest hits of Summer 2014, there’s been a whole lot of speculation about this adaptation of the cult comic book series. I have never read a single issue of GUARDIANS and it would be pure guesswork for me to say if this will surely please diehard fans of the source material, but GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is friggin’ cool. James Gunn (known for his work on cheesy B-flicks like SLITHER and independent films like SUPER) has helmed a crazy good time. This space opera is pure entertainment from start to finish and one of the better Marvel films to date.

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Peter Quill was abducted from Earth as a young child and has grown up as a space thief, giving himself the nickname Star Lord. After stealing a powerful orb that holds incredible power, Quill has a bounty place on his head. This brings to light two thugs (Rocket and Groot) and an assassin (Gamora) tasked with retrieving the stolen artifact. A warrior, Drax, enters the picture and the band of intergalactic misfits become the Guardians of the Galaxy. They are faced with doing everything in their power to keep the orb from the evil Ronan, a warlord planning on exterminating an entire planet. Aside from each member’s very different baggage, personalities begin to clash as they try to save the universe from almost certain doom.

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It should be pretty apparent that a movie called GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY mostly relies on the title characters. Before entering the movie theater and even before a trailer had been released, everybody was telling me that Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) was going to steal the show. Judging from the amount of laughter generated from the audience, I’m willing to bet that he’ll be many fans’ favorite character. However, I have to disagree. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is essentially a living tree alien that speaks three words throughout the entire film (“I Am Groot”). Through some body language and different voice tones, Diesel brings this plant to life. The green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a female badass that comes off as an action heroine and that’s all she was really meant to be. Peter Quill is Marvel’s version of Han Solo and Chris Pratt is great in the role. My favorite member of the group was Drax. He got the biggest laughs out of me and comes off as a violent version of Spock (taking nearly everything said to him in a literal sense).

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There are plenty of notable side characters too. Benicio Del Toro reprises his role as the Collector from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, although one can’t help but feel his part was more of a cameo than a full-on side character. GUARIDANS OF THE GALAXY does this with a number of big actors. Glenn Close and John C. Reilly are there for a few minutes. Josh Brolin gives voice to Thanos (who’s primed to be the big bad in the third and most likely final AVENGERS film) and shows up for a small chunk of total screen time. As far as the villains go, Ronan is the major baddie here and feels like the serious threat in an otherwise zany story. I also want to note that Karen Gillan knocked it out of the park as Nebula (Ronan’s assistant, Thanos’ daughter, and Gamora’s sister). Michael Rooker is given a sizable role as a blue-skinned space pirate.

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One thing that has to be admired about GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is how fleshed out the world is. There’s a strong comic series that provides source material and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been connecting details from the very start, but everything clicks in terms of entirely foreign planets and odd creatures being brought to life on the big screen. Some of the effects are nearly cartoony (mainly involving Rocket and some questionable work in the final showdown), but everything else is visually fantastic. Imaginative as it may be, the comical nature of this story keeps thing rolling at a fast pace. Plenty of laughs are littered every step of the way and none of them detract from the story being told. A couple of moments fall flat, but a lot of the jokes hit right on the mark (Drax had me cracking up).

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Complaints are found in familiar some plot elements though. Aside from the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, GUARDIANS doesn’t completely feel like a Marvel movie and yet suffers from the problems that a few of their other projects have. The plot is predictable in the sense that an origin story is, despite this being totally different from the studio’s usual superhero comic book fare. The characters having internal struggles, but we all know how this is going to play out. It’s enjoyable all the way through, but there was never anything that took me by surprise. One thing that I am getting tired of seeing is the trope of many different artifacts being sought after by heroes and villains. I know it’s a concept as old as time, but Marvel has used it in many of their past films (e.g. the Aether in THOR 2 or the Tesseract in THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and THE AVENGERS). Here’s hoping some different ideas make it into the new AVENGERS movie and the Phase Three films.

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I have no clue as to how GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY will tie into the rest of the Marvel mythos. Despite being in the same cinematic universe populated by the Avengers, this is unlike previous superhero films (even if there are a few similar concepts). It stands fine as a space opera and I wouldn’t mind seeing this turned into its own franchise. The jokey nature is mostly fresh and everyone will have their favorite character of the five colorful heroes. Mine is Drax, though I’m sure the majority will dig Rocket. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is on the higher end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and delivers on being a blast of intergalactic fun that I will revisit many times in the future.

Grade: A-

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