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

LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Written by: Ben Affleck

(based on the novel LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper & Robert Glenister

Before the end of 2016, Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT was being touted as a potential gangster epic and an Oscar contender. Things didn’t quite work out in Affleck’s favor though, because this film wound up empty-handed with no major award nominations and lost an estimated 75 million at the box office. This was especially disappointing for me because I’m a giant gangster movie fan and Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director/writer in the past (e.g. THE TOWN). A lot of NIGHT’s problems come down to its mixed bag script and messy pacing, but it still remains a decent outing for gangster fans.

It’s the 1920’s and the place is Boston. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WWI veteran turned outlaw. Joe doesn’t consider himself a gangster, but he hangs out and commits crimes with gangsters on a regular basis. Joe also has developed a major crush on Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the gal pal of dangerous Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). After things unexpectedly go south, Joe finds himself saddled with a three-year prison sentence and a desire to get revenge on White. Joe’s chance for vengeance comes in a highly illegal job opportunity in Tampa, Florida. However, Joe’s newfound gangster lifestyle (though he still refuses to call himself a gangster) presents a series of new challenges.

The first positive qualities that immediately stick out in LIVE BY NIGHT are stellar production values. This film nails the time period it’s presenting through lavish costumes, convincing effects, old-fashioned settings, and authentic-looking vehicles. This is a period piece gangster story through and through. However, it also contains a number of well-worn gangster clichés. These include: an admittedly cool car chase, Joe’s by-the-numbers quest for revenge, lots of threat-laden conversations, a few bullet-ridden confrontations, and a cheesy voiceover narration that guides the viewer through the entire story.

LIVE BY NIGHT injects a fresh component into the clichéd Prohibition-era gangster story through its Tampa, Florida location. Plenty of gangster epics have been set in Boston, the Bronx, and Chicago, but I can’t think of many that took the Tampa approach. This setting throws a new an interesting flavor into the clichéd gangster recipe. One business-related subplot involves Joe building a partnership with a Cuban crime family and the most entertaining events involve a bloody feud with the Ku Klux Klan. Another interesting challenge comes in the backwoods religious folks who are deeply opposed to rum-running and gambling…because God.

Even with this neat location, LIVE BY NIGHT falls far short of its gangster epic ambitions. This is mainly due to shoddy pacing and one unconvincing subplot. The film’s opening fifteen minutes are dedicated to a prologue that somehow feels like it’s on fast-forward, despite taking fifteen whole minutes to set up. The film also has a disappointing tendency to run through some of the most interesting bits (like a gang war and Joe rising to the top of Tampa’s rum-running businesses) in montages. The script’s most egregious offense of poorly developing its plot comes in a half-assed romance that consists of a dance montage, brief flirting and one of the worst sex scenes that I’ve sat through in a long time. Still, we’re supposed to care about Zoe Saldana as Joe’s newfound love-interest, even though the viewer is given no reason to care at all.

Ben Affleck deliberately plays Joe as an “outlaw,” not a gangster. Sure, he affiliates with gangsters on a daily basis and isn’t above killing or stealing, but he’s no “gangster.” Affleck’s downbeat performance as solemn-faced Joe has good bits and bad bits, ultimately making for a so-so protagonist. Chris Messina is far better as Joe’s comic relief sidekick and lends a fierce attitude to the action-oriented moments. Chris Cooper gives the film’s best performance as a “non-corruptible” sheriff, while Elle Fanning has a memorable part as his faithful preaching daughter. Meanwhile, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone are intimidating as two rival mob bosses. Disappointingly, Brendan Gleeson has about five minutes of screen time and Sienna Miller plays an over-the-top Irish stereotype.

LIVE BY NIGHT has the pieces of a great film lurking somewhere within its messy execution, but bad pacing and a few forgotten subplots really kill this film’s lofty aspirations. The Tampa location adds much-needed freshness into the fun (but dusty) gangster clichés. The cinematography is beautiful and the production values are big. Occasionally, a truly fantastic scene makes its way through the film’s numerous problems (e.g. a suspenseful car chase, a showdown with the KKK, and a bullet-filled finale in a hotel). Still, LIVE BY NIGHT can’t live up to its gangster epic promises. This is an entertaining enough time for gangster movie fans, but don’t expect anything great.

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-

OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Scott Cooper

Written by: Brad Ingelsby & Scott Cooper

Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe & Forest Whitaker

If there’s any film from this year that OUT OF THE FURNACE reminds me of, it’s THE COUNSELOR. Though not nearly as terrible as that mess Ridley Scott directed, this film has some of the same potential and problems. The cast is A-list around the board here. The side characters are filled with big name actors. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are the leads. Woody Harrelson plays the villain of the piece. However, the story looked to be a typical vigilante revenge set-up and that’s pretty much where it went. With all the potential of the A-list cast, the film feels like a missed opportunity for something much greater.

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Russell (Bale) and Rodney (Affleck) Baze are two very different people from the same family. A tragic accident throws Russell into the slammer for a few years, while Rodney goes back to his second tour of duty in Iraq. Cut to the present, Russell is getting out of prison and Rodney has been earning money from underground fight clubs, suffering a bad case PTSD. After getting mixed up with the wrong people (led by Woody Harrelson), Rodney goes missing and Russell takes matters of justice into his own hands.

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That’s the basic outline for OUT OF THE FURNACE and the promotional material would have you believe that the entire movie is about Russell seeking vengeance for Rodney’s mysterious disappearance. In actuality, the promoted plot only takes place for about half of the movie. The first half shows both siblings enduring hard times given their very different circumstances. This approach may have worked if there was something more to these characters than being struggling blue-collar workers. No real development is given that makes the audience care about the people on display, which I assume is probably the exact opposite of what director/co-writer Scott Cooper was going for.

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The same can be said about the other characters in the film. Big name actors like Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker show up to do rather menial work as means to an end, rather than giving any sort of emotional fleshed-out characters to the viewer. In all honesty, many of the problems with OUT OF THE FURNACE come right down to how the story is presented. If the movie had begun around the hour-mark in this film and carefully had developed the characters in a way that didn’t show us everything they’d experienced in the past five years, then it might have made for a far more compelling story than it did. The running time of nearly two hours feels bloated and struggles with side-plots that have no relevance to main storyline that seems to be frequently neglected in order to feed us more filler that this film didn’t need.

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The viewer doesn’t need to see Russell’s struggles with his ex-girlfriend or his anger at the town Sheriff (who has hooked up with Russell’s ex-girlfriend). This film should have focused on three characters in particular. It should have been Russell Baze, Rodney Baze, and the villainous Harlan DeGroat. These three characters were the only ones that mattered and it seemed like way too much time was being devoted to unneeded elements, which stripped the main plot of vigilante justice down to its bare bones. Given familiar material, the acting from everyone here is solid enough. Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe are both regulated to the background. Christian Bale is great and we’ve come to expect that from him. Casey Affleck is also fascinating to watch as a man clearly traumatized and a stone’s throw away from going over the edge. Woody Harrelson also gives an insanely scenery-chewing performance of pure drug-addicted redneck evil.

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Despite there being some a few troublesome moments that doesn’t really make too much sense given the circumstances (especially one that comes near the end), OUT OF THE FURNACE could be written off as a more artsy version of DEATH WISH. It’s decent enough, but doesn’t break any new ground or throw any fresh elements into the well-worn revenge-thriller formula. Far from terrible, but also a bit of a missed opportunity given the level of talent involved.

Grade: B-

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