GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language, and brief Suggestive Content

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn

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

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone & Kurt Russell

Nearly three years after GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became a surprise hit and smashed box office records, we finally have a sequel. Since director/writer James Gunn helmed Marvel’s first awesome space opera, he returned for this sequel and is already in talks for a third film. Like most sequels, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a step down from its predecessor. That’s not to say that this film is one of the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, because AGE OF ULTRON, IRON MAN 2, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK still remain below it. GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is a lot like THOR: THE DARK WORLD in that it’s fun, has great moments and positive qualities, but is not nearly as awesome as it should be.

After slaying a giant power-sucking parasite, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot) botch a mission by rudely insulting a proud race of gold-skinned aliens. As a result, the Guardians find themselves with a bounty on their head and that attracts the attention of space-pirates. Things are further complicated when Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the gang run across mysterious stranger Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. This leads to lots of wacky intergalactic action, humorous antics, secrets being revealed, and (as you might have assumed from the title) another rockin’ soundtrack.

As the titular Guardians (of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Batista blend seamlessly back into their characters, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide voices. This second installment builds upon the already established chemistry of these characters and lets them do what they do best. Drax still gets major laughs, while Rocket is still the fan favorite rodent asshole. Meanwhile, Baby Groot is both hilarious and adorable at the same time. However, the developing relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora feels a bit half-assed this time around. Michael Rooker’s space-pirate Yondu and Karen Gillan’s revenge-driven Nebula get more time to shine here and their solid subplots genuinely surprised me.

The film’s new additions, mainly Kurt Russell’s Ego and his insect-like companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are both interesting enough. Russell’s natural charisma aids his mysterious character and Klementieff’s Mantis is like a cute little kid in a bug alien’s body. I don’t want to say much about this film’s main antagonist, for fear of spoilers. I will say that I absolutely loved the idea behind this baddie and was willing to forgive a clichéd motivation because of that. It’s also worth noting that the gold-skinned Sovereign aliens and their High Priestess provide great comic relief. Also, a bored-looking Sylvester Stallone appears in a glorified cameo that was shamelessly included as set-up for future Marvel films (something that is a constant detriment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2’s main problems stem from tedious pacing and sloppy writing. There are arguably too many storylines at play here and, as a result, the movie noticeably feels unfocused. The first third of the film has pacing issues in that I was wondering where things were heading and wasn’t necessarily having fun. There’s a long-winded exposition sequence that’s only tolerable because of Kurt Russell’s charm and nothing else. The film noticeably picks up during its second act and has a very fun final third. Still, it takes a while to recover from the glacial movement and many pointless moments of the first act.

The unfocused approach and all-over-the-place pacing further dilute some would-be emotional scenes during the final act. Certain revelations and plot developments would have made more of a lasting impact, if it hadn’t been for the messy nature of this sequel’s storytelling. That being said, there are still plenty of laughs, action, and great scenes to be had. The opening credit sequence is simultaneously funny, creative and cool. Most of the humor works and the running jokes are sure to get audiences cracking up, especially a couple that are set up far in advance. The film’s set pieces are memorable, with major highlight being a scene from the original film upped to a crazy degree (you’ll know it, when you see it).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a good Marvel movie that could have been a great Marvel movie, if the pacing weren’t slow in the beginning and (too many) storylines weren’t all over the place. I had fun while watching this movie and it had many positive qualities. Certain scenes are great. I like that the film attempted some surprisingly emotional moments, even if they weren’t nearly as powerful as they probably should have been. I also love the villain because the concept is so damn creative and cool. Yet, the more I think about this sequel, the less I like it. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 doesn’t come close to hitting the highs of its predecessor, but remains fun (enough) sci-fi entertainment nonetheless.

Grade: B

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-

OCULUS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Violence, some Disturbing Images and brief Language

Oculus poster

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Jeff Howard

Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty, Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan

In 2011, Mike Flanagan made big waves on the horror circuit with a low-budget effort titled ABSENTIA. The film definitely had some problems found in silly effects, iffy acting, and a significantly flawed execution, but it did contain lots of spooky atmosphere. Flanagan returned to make even more waves at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with his latest scary story, OCULUS, which has hit theaters nationwide. Some of the problems found in his previous film still linger here (though significantly less bothersome), but Flanagan ups the ante all around with this freaky tale of a cursed mirror and a pact between two siblings to destroy it at all costs.

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Something terrible happened to Tim and Kaylie Russell as children. Police didn’t believe their delusions about a cursed mirror and ghostly figures with glowing eyes, so Katie landed in foster care, Tim was shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, and their parents are dead. Years have passed and Tim is released from the hospital, believing it all to be in his head. His sister, Kaylie, is still convinced that the antique mirror is responsible for their screwed up childhood and has acquired it to prove so. Taking precautions and setting up surveillance equipment, the siblings return to their old house to destroy the evil object. It’s not as simple as just smashing the mirror though, because the glass has a way of manipulating those around it. It causes elaborate hallucinations that could easily drive a person crazy. As Kaylie’s plan to destroy the mirror begins to encounter many difficulties, the siblings relive the horror of that night along with questioning what is really around them and what is fabricated by the mirror.

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OCULUS is a good old-fashioned horror film. It doesn’t rely on gratuitous sex, a high body count, or over-the-top gore (though there are some bloody moments). Flanagan focuses on telling a freaky story and creeping the viewer out. He does this very well. The storytelling technique blends the past and present together. Both the current events and the previous tragedy are told simultaneously, crashing into each other with increasing unease. There are clear flashbacks, but also other scenes where it’s hard to tell if the sibling is hallucinating/reliving their memories or if it’s just a cut and dry flashback. This approach was a nothing short of brilliant and it keeps the viewer engaged with the dual plot-threads. The script itself kept me wondering where the film was going to go next, but not due to boredom. Instead, I was wondering what was going to build on what I had already seen, suffice to say that the story itself didn’t disappoint.

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The acting varies from both sets of cast members playing the siblings in different time periods. I actually found the younger child performers, of whom much of the film hinges on, to be more convincing than the seasoned ones. That’s not a huge complaint in regards to Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as the siblings in the present time period, but it took me a while to buy into them as these characters. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the latter of whom actually played Young Josh in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, steal the show. Besides Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents, there aren’t a whole lot of other actors involved that play a big part in the story. It’s mainly about the breaking of a once-happy family and the siblings trying to get revenge on the evil that tore them apart.

M48 Katie Sackhoff stars in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

As far as the effects themselves go, there are some clear budget constraints. Most of the film does take place in the house (be it past or present), but ghostly specters of the mirror’s previous victims appear here and there. I dug the looks of some of them. Other times, things looked a tad corny. Seeing as Flanagan had 5 million (which is significantly higher than the 70 grand that he made ABSENTIA on), there’s not really an excuse for this. It’s not a film that relies heavily on effects, but they are employed throughout when necessary.

M174 Garrett Ryan (left) and Annalise Basso (right) star in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The film is professionally constructed in most ways, it looks great (save for some questionable effects work) and the storytelling is phenomenal (save for some so-so acting near the beginning). A big complaint I have to level at OCULUS involves the fact that I never once jumped out of my seat and I could call when certain pop-up scares were going to happen. It’s a creepy movie, but not necessarily a frightening one. It’s the kind of scary movie you might show to non-horror fans in order to terrify them, while you enjoy laughing at their screams and watching a pretty kick-ass story unfold in a mostly unconventional way. The ending is also a real doozy. I called it about a minute before it happened, but I was highly satisfied with how things turned out.

M121 Karen Gillian and Brenton Thwaites star in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

OCULUS does have some cracks in it, but is well worth looking into for those wanting a well-crafted horror film. The story rocks in the way it’s told. The more than capable child performers are arguably a huge part of what keeps things working as well as they do. I wasn’t necessarily out-and-out scared by OCULUS, but it did creep me out significantly. There was an eerie feeling that stuck as I walked to my car in the night, followed me as I drove home, and is currently hovering over me as I type this review. OCULUS winds up being well worth a watch and also might be one of the better horror films to come out this year! A solid horror film about a killer mirror? Who knew it could be done?

Grade: B+

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