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

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Breck Eisner

Written by: Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless

Starring: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Olafur Darri Olafsson & Julie Engelbrecht

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the latest in a long line of would-be franchise starters that feature immortal monster slayers (e.g. DRACULA UNTOLD, CONSTANTINE, etc.). This film came and went in a flash during this past October and didn’t leave much (if any) of an impact on the general public. You kind of know what to expect when you’re walking into this film. I wanted to see Vin Diesel killing witches six ways to Sunday with some semblance of a plot that was really just an excuse for witch slaying. However, that’s not quite what this film is. Instead, LAST WITCH HUNTER is more of a mystery-procedural that happens to have witchcraft and swordplay. I was pleasantly surprised by this during the first hour. However, I became utterly bored during the second half, when the film slows to a drag thanks to needlessly complicated plot twists and terrible CGI.

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Kaulder has been hunting and slaying witches since the Dark Ages. His origins began upon discovering an evil witch responsible for the Black Plague. Kaulder slayed the Witch Queen and was cursed with eternal life as an end result. Centuries later, Kaulder has become jaded with his infinite existence as a weapon for the Axe and Cross (a secret organization that keeps a truce between witches and mortals). When his latest record-keeper (Michael Caine in search of a quick paycheck) winds up dead, Kaulder begins to investigate possible dark magic responsible for the old man’s demise. Aided by witch/bar owner Chloe, the duo begin to uncover a centuries-old conspiracy that could unleash a second Black Plague upon the world.

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This movie kicked off with promise. I liked the general look, fast pace, tongue-in-cheek humor, and action during the first half. The prologue sets things up nicely and delivers one of the best fight scenes in the film. The mystery-procedural plot that began unfolding also had my interest to a point. The dynamic between Vin Diesel (doing his typical bad-ass thing as Kaulder) and Rose Leslie (fitting the supernatural sidekick role well as Chloe) is entertaining to watch, while Elijah Wood (the protégé record-keeper) damn near disappears from the screen after the first 30 minutes (only popping up to service the conclusion). WITCH HUNTER does a fairly good job of setting up its mythology without delving too deeply into heavy exposition…until around the hour mark.

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Halfway through the running time, this movie decided to do the polar opposite of everything that was working in its favor. The results, as you can probably imagine, are not too entertaining. Action set pieces are fast forgotten for heavy-handed twists that play out with lots of awkward explanations. LAST WITCH HUNTER actually has two separate moments were villains stop the entire movie to monologue about their evil (and clichéd) plans in case the viewer was too stupid to understand where all of this was heading. However, that might be the case as some last-minute revelations really come out of nowhere in a bad way. This movie would have been just fine as a straightforward supernatural actioner and I simply don’t understand the need to overcomplicate the story with useless plot twists. The effects also suffer during this latter half and the finale is overlong and disappointing. Most of the effects in the final showdown resemble Syfy Channel quality. This is especially true of one cartoony monster that didn’t fit in with the rest of the magic and witches.

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Most of the problems with THE LAST WITCH HUNTER arrive during the second half of the film. Up until that point, I was having fun watching Vin Diesel solve a dark magic mystery and hunt witches. While Diesel definitely slays some witches after the story takes a nosedive, it’s not nearly as enjoyable to watch thanks to convoluted plot twist after convoluted plot twist. This movie could have been big dumb fun, but instead it’s just plain dumb. Don’t expect a franchise to emerge out of this lackluster flick. I’d actually recommend CONSTANTINE or END OF DAYS over this missed opportunity.

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

GuardGalaxy poster

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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