“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

 

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

Before I started on this review, I found myself wondering which “phase” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” found itself. Phase Two? Phase Three? In fact, I continued to ponder more about the franchise’s current phase than about the plot for this movie. Until I finally shook myself out of this stupor.

Back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” during the month of August, more or less a graveyard for summer films. I suspect that Kevin Fiege had low expectations of the film’s performance at the box office, due to its unfamiliarity with the general public. The movie proved them wrong and went on to become a major box office hit for that year. Due to its success back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released a sequel, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” in the more exulted release date in early May, three years later. James Gunn, who had directed the 2014 film, returned to direct this film. And although he had also served as co-writer of the first film with Nicole Perlman, he served as this film’s sole screenwriter.

Following the events of the 2014 film, Peter Quill aka Starlord and his friends have become renowned throughout the galaxy as the “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The movie begins with the Guardians delivering stolen and valuable batteries to a race called the Sovereign, after they had protected the items from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the Sovereign deliver Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, who had been caught earlier trying to steal the batteries. However, this peaceful transaction is disrupted when one of the Guardians, Rocket the Raccoon, steal some of the batteries for himself. The Guardians find themselves hunted by a fleet of ships controlled by the Sovereign and their leader, Ayesha. They eventually crash land on a planet inhabited by a mysterious figure, who destroys the Sovereign fleet for them. That figure turns out to be Ego, Peter Quill’s powerful father first mentioned in the 2014 film. Ego turns out to be a god-like Celestial that manipulated the matter around its consciousness to form his “home” planet. He explains to Peter that he had projected a humanoid guise to travel the universe and discover a purpose. He eventually fell in love with Peter’s mother Meredith Quill. Following her death, Ego hired Yondu to collect the young Quill, but the boy was never delivered and Ego has been searching for his son ever since. The latter invites Quill, Gamora, and Drax to his home planet. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula. Unbeknownst to all, Ayesha has hired Peter’s former mentor, Ravagers leader Yondu Udonta to hunt them down. But the Guardians eventually discover that Ego might prove to be a bigger problem than either Ayesha or Yondu’s crew.

I was surprised by the characterization featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It had been one of the strong points of the 2014 movie. But director-writer James Gunn took it to another level in this film, as Gunn’s screenplay further explored the main characters’ backgrounds and emotional concerns. More important, the characterizations featured in this film led to better performances by the cast.

One good example was the exploration of Peter Quill’s relationships with the two father figures in his life – his biological father Ego and his mentor, Yondu Udonta. Peter’s search for a permanent father figure proved to have an ironic twist, considering his longing to meet his real father, Ego’s charismatic personality and his occasionally hostile relationship with Yondu. Chris Pratt had to step up his game to develop Peter’s character even further. He did … and proved that he could be a excellent dramatic actor … for the second (or third) time in his career. Kurt Russell gave a first-rate and charismatic performance in his portrayal of Ego. And thanks to Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan’s excellent performances, the movie also explored Gamora’s relationships with her adoptive sister, Nebula and their adoptive father, the villainous Thanos. Although the latter did not appear in the movie, his presence was strongly felt – especially in the confrontation between the two women as they confronted the circumstances that led to their estrangement. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also featured the further development of Peter and Gamora’s relationship. The potential romance in this relationship not only manifested in a charming dance between the pair on Ego’s planet, but also a heated quarrel in which Peter expressed his frustration at being kept at a distance by Gamora. This scene featured great acting from both Pratt and Saldana.

Bradley Cooper had been highly praised for his voice performance as Rocket the Racoon in the 2014 film. The character’s past was not really explored in this film. Considering his origin as a lab experiment, I found this a pity. But Rocket’s problems with being part of a group and his emotional issues were touched upon – especially in a strong and emotional scene that featured a conversation between him and Yondu, while they were being held prisoner. Both Cooper and actor Michael Rooker nearly stole the movie with this scene between Rocket and Yondu. Also, Rocket found himself serving as the toddler Groot’s protector – a strange twist, considering that the latter had been his protector in the previous film. I understand that actor Vin Diesel continued to provide the voice for Groot – and yes, I do mean Baby Groot. I thought Marvel would hire someone other than the deep-voiced Diesel for the role. But they brought him back. And I am amazed that he was able to forgo his usual deep voice to portray the toddler Groot. And speaking of the Yondu, his past reared its ugly head following the revelation that the other Ravager leaders had exiled his group due to child trafficking on Ego’s behalf – including the kidnapping the young Peter Grill from Earth. This revelation also led to another in which audiences learn the true strength of Peter and Yondu’s relationship.

The very literal Drax the Destroyer forms a strange friendship with a young empath named Mantis, who has been forced to serve as Ego’s “pet” for a number of years. Although Drax’s needling personality and strange sense of humor made his regard for the naive and sheltered seem abusive, I was surprised at how the pair managed to grow close – to the point that Drax nearly sacrificed himself for her safety. In these scenes involving Drax, Dave Bautista proved once again that he was a better actor than many had assumed, due to his past as a professional wrestler. And he had a first-rate co-star in Pom Klementieff’s subtle and charming portrayal of the empathic Manits.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also saw the return of Yondu’s right-hand man, Kraglin, who was forced to overcome his sense of self-preservation in order to come to his captain’s aid when the crew turned on Yondu. Ayesha, the Golden High Priestess and leader of the Sovereign, proved to be another interesting role for actress Elizabeth Debicki’s filmography. Ayesha proved to be not only interesting, but also one of the most arrogant characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) … the type of character that eventually rubbed Rocket the wrong way. Audiences also got an expanded look into the world of the Ravagers. Thanks to Gunn’s script, I realized that most of them – including Yondu – was not as despicable as I had originally assumed. And I was shocked and pleasantly to see the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames and Michael Rosenbaum as among the older leaders of the Ravangers.

But despite the movie’s strong characterizations, I was not as impressed by “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” as I thought I would be. It lacked something that the 2014 movie possessed – a strong narrative. At first, I thought Ayesha would prove to be the heroes’ main protagonists, considering that she had hired the Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians in the first place. However, about midway into the movie, I realized that she was nothing more than a plot device (and a tiresome one at that) used by Gunn to drive the Guardians into the path of Ego, Peter’s father. And in the end, it was really about him … and his plan to remake the universe into his image, using the seedlings he had implanted on different planets, impregnating various females like Meredith Quill and using his offsprings like Peter.

I know … this sounds confusing. Let me put it this way. For years, Ego traveled to different parts of the universe, planting seedlings on different planets. Then he seduced and impregnated women like Meredith so that he can utilize the powers of his offsprings to activate the seedlings … and he can terraform those planets into his image. As it turned out, Peter was the only offspring who had the power to help him activate the seedlings. Personally, I found this story rather lame. It was more or less just another “meglomaniac” trying to conquer the universe. In a way, it reminded me of Thanos’ narrative within the MCU involving the Infinity Stones … only it involved “seedlings” and Ego’s offsprings. I found this narrative less original and with more shortcuts. The film’s minor plot lines involving the characters’ emotional arcs struck me as more interesting.

The movie also featured the usual first-rate visual effects. I was surprised that so many visual effects companies were involved in the film’s production. I think I managed to count at least nine of them. Wow. Nine companies involved in the visual effects? Hmmm … perhaps I should not have been surprised. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” seemed to lack a cohesive visual style, despite having a single production designer, Scott Chambliss. Some people were not impressed by the visuals for Ego’s planet, as shown below:

Personally, I was. Mind you, there was nothing mind-blowing about the visual effects for Ego’s planet. But I had enjoyed them, nonetheless. However, I was impressed by the special effects used to visually convey Rocket, Groot, Kraglin and Yondu’s journey across the galaxy – involving several jumps. I found it very effective and rather funny.

Peter Quill’s audio cassette tape played a major role in the score for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Near the end of that particular movie, he came across the package that his mother Meredith had given him just before her death. The package contained another cassette with more of her favorite songs of her youth. I hate to say this, but I was not that impressed by the collection of songs used for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”, aside from one or two. Even more surprising is that I found the songs featured in the movie’s end credits to be a lot more entertaining … and right for the movie. Pity.

Overall, I enjoyed “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It was not exactly a disappointment thanks to the strong characterizations featured in the film and the first-rate performances by a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But I must be honest, it was almost a ghost of the 2014 film. And this is due to what I believe was a weak narrative that included a villain with goals that struck me as unoriginal. It is a pity that Nicole Perlman did return to serve as director James Gunn’s co-writer in this second film. I had the odd feeling that needed a collaborator for a stronger narrative.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

 

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

Following the success of his 2012 movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, Quentin Tarantino set about creating another movie with a Western theme that also reflected today’s themes and social relationships in the United States. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Tarantino nearly rejected the project. And if he had, audiences would have never seen what came to be . . . “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”.

The circumstances that nearly led Tarantino to give up the project occurred when someone gained access to his script and published it online in early 2014. The producer-director had considered publishing the story as a novel, until he directed a reading of the story the United Artists Theater in the Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The event was organized by the Film Independent at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of the Live Read series. The success of the event eventually convinced Tarantino to shoot the movie.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is at its heart, a mystery. I would not describe it as a murder-mystery, but more like . . . well, let me begin. The story begins in the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory where a stagecoach rushing to get ahead of an oncoming blizzard, is conveying bounty hunter John Ruth aka “The Hangman” and his handcuffed prisoner, a female outlaw named Daisy Domergue. The stagecoach is bound for the town of Red Rock, where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. During the journey, an African-American bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, who is transporting three dead bounties to the town of Red Rock, hitches a ride on the stagecoach. His horse had died on him. Several hours later, the stagecoach picks up another passenger, a former Confederate militiaman named Chris Mannix, who claims to be traveling to Red Rock in order to become the town’s new sheriff. The stagecoach passengers are forced to seek refuge at a stage station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, when the blizzard finally strikes. The new arrivals are greeted by a Mexican handyman named Bob, who informs them that Minnie is visiting a relative and has left him in charge. The other lodgers are a British-born professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray; a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage, who is traveling to visit his mother; and Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general. Forever paranoid, Ruth disarms all but Warren, with whom he had bonded during stagecoach journey. When Warren has a violent confrontation with Smithers, Daisy spots someone slip poison into a pot of coffee, brewing on the stove. Someone she recognizes as a fellow outlaw, who is there to spring her free from Ruth’s custody. And there is where the mystery lies – the identity of Daisy’s fellow outlaw.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marks the sixth Quentin Tarantino movie I have ever seen. I also found it the most unusual. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I would not even consider it among my top three favorites. And here is the reason why. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” struck me as being too damn long with a running time of two hours and forty-seven minutes. I realize that most of Tarantino films usually have a running time that stretches past two hours. But we are talking of a film that is basically a character study/mystery. Even worse, most of the film is set at a stagecoach station – a one-story building with one big room. Not even Tarantino’s attempt to stretch out the stage journey at the beginning of the film could overcome this limited setting. And due to the limited setting and film’s genre, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is probably the least epic film in his career, aside from his first one, 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. At least that film did not stretch into a ridiculously long 167 minute running time.

I also thought Tarantino made too much of a big deal in the confrontation between Major Marquis Warren and General Sanford Smithers. Apparently, Warren had a grudge against Smithers for executing black troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge. I find this improbable, due to the fact that there were no black troops fighting for the Union during that battle, which was a Union victory. There were no black Union or Confederate troops known to have taken part in that particular battle. Tarantino should have taken the time to study his Civil War history. But what really annoyed me about the Warren-Smithers confrontation was that Tarantino thought it was necessary to include a flashback showing Warren’s encounter with Smither’s son, which resulted in the latter’s death. I realize that the Warren-Smithers encounter allowed Daisy’s mysterious colleague to poison the coffee. But a flashback on Warren and Smithers Jr.? Unnecessary. I also found Tarantino’s narration in the film somewhat unnecessary. Frankly, he is not a very good narrator. And I found one particular piece of narration rather unnecessary – namely the scene in which Daisy witnessed the coffee being poisoned. Tarantino could have shown this on screen without any voice overs.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”. It featured some outstanding characterizations and dialogue. And it seemed the cast really took advantage of these well-written aspects of the script. I am not surprised that the film had received numerous nominations for Best Ensemble. Although the running time for “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” might be longer than it should, I have to give Tarantino kudos for his well-structured screenplay. He took his time in setting up the narrative, the mystery and his characters. And although he may have overdone it a bit by taking his time in reaching the film’s denouement, Tarantino delivered quite a payoff that really took me by surprise, once he reached that point. Unlike many movie directors today, Tarantino is a firm believer in taking his time to tell his story. My only regret is that he took too much time for a story that required a shorter running time.

But what I really liked about “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is that it proved to be a new direction for Tarantino. In this age filled with lack of originality in the arts, it was refreshing to see there are artists out there who are still capable of being original. After viewing the movie at the theater, it occurred to me that is was basically an Agatha Christie tale set in the Old West. Tarantino utilized many aspects from various Christie novels. But the movie resembled one movie in particular. Only I will not say what that novel is, for it would allow anyone to easily guess what happens in the end. Although many of Christie’s novels and Tarantino’s movies feature a good deal of violence, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” featured very little violence throughout most of its narrative . . . until the last quarter of the film. Once the Major Warren-General Smithers confrontation took place, all bets were off.

I wish I could comment on the movie’s production values. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly memorable. Well, there were one or two aspects of the movie’s production that impressed me. I really enjoyed Robert Richardson’s photography of Colorado, which served as Wyoming Territory for this film. I found it sharp and colorful. I also enjoyed Yohei Taneda’s production designs for the movie . . . especially for the Minnie’s Haberdashery setting. I though Taneda, along with art directors Benjamin Edelberg and Richard L. Johnson, did a great job of conveying the Old West in that one setting.

Naturally, I cannot discuss “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” without mentioning the cast. What can I say? They were outstanding. And Tarantino did an outstanding job directing them. As far as I know, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked the first time at least three members of the cast have worked with Tarantino – Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Channing Tatum and Demián Bichir. Otherwise, everyone else seemed to be veterans of a Tarantino production, especially Samuel L. Jackson. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked his sixth collaboration with the director. It is a pity that he was not recognized for his portrayal of bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. As usual, he did an outstanding job of portraying a very complex character, who not only proved to be a ruthless law enforcer, but also a somewhat cruel man as shown in his confrontation with General Smithers. Actually, most of the other characters proved to be equally ruthless. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of bounty hunter John Ruth struck me as equally impressive. The actor did an excellent job in conveying Ruth’s ruthlessness, his sense of justice and especially his paranoia. Walton Goggin’s portrayal of ex-Confederate-turned-future lawman seemed like a far cry from his laconic villain from “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Oddly enough, his character did not strike me as ruthless as some of the other characters and probably a little more friendly – except toward Warren. Jennifer Jason-Leigh has been earning acting nominations – including Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nods – for her portrayal of the captured fugitive Daisy Domergue. Those nominations are well deserved, for Jason-Leigh did an outstanding job of bringing an unusual character to life. Ironically, the character spent most of the movie as a battered prisoner of Russell’s John Ruth. Yet, thanks to Jason-Leigh, she never lets audiences forget how ornery and dangerous she can be.

Tim Roth, who had not been in a Tarantino production since 1995’s “FOUR ROOMS”, gave probably the most jovial performance as the very sociable English-born professional hangman, Oswaldo Mobray. Bruce Dern, who was last seen in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”, had a bigger role in this film as the unsociable ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who seemed determined not to speak to Warren. Despite portraying such an unsympathetic character, Dern did an excellent job in attracting the audience’s sympathy, as his character discovered his son’s grisly fate at Warren’s hands. Michael Masden gave a very quiet and subtle performance as Joe Gage, a rather silent cowboy who claimed to be on his way to visit his mother. And yet . . . he also projected an aura of suppressed danger, which made one suspect if he was Daisy’s collaborator. A rather interesting performance came from Demián Bichir, who portrayed the stage station’s handyman, Bob. Like Madsen’s Gage, Bichir’s Bob struck me as a quiet and easygoing man, who also conveyed an element of danger. I was very surprised to see Channing Tatum in this film, who portrayed Jody Domergue, Daisy’s older brother. Although his role was small, Channing was very effective as the villainous Domergue, who could also be quite the smooth talker. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Keith Jefferson and Gene Jones.

Yes, I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” too long. I feel it could have been cut short at least by forty minutes. And I was not that impressed by Quentin Tarantino’s voice over in the film. I could have done without it. But despite its flaws, I cannot deny that I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” to be one of the director’s more interesting movies in his career. With a first-rate cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason-Leigh; and a screenplay that seemed to be an interesting combination of a murder mystery and a Western; Tarantino created one of his most original movies during his career.