(Netflix Streaming, December 2017) The first Guardian of the Galaxy was a gamble and a welcome surprise, providing a rare example of colourful space adventure with likable characters and a seemingly effortless sense of fun. This sequel provides more of the same, except that it’s even more self-assured and perhaps a bit more rigid in the way it presents itself. Why mess with a formula that works? Once more, we get the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe blend of humour, action and visual spectacle, with an impossibly colourful palette and a smirking attitude. The film begins with a strong credit sequence in which a big action scene is played in the background while classic rock makes a comeback alongside a choreographed ballet of mayhem. Afterwards, much of the film is spent getting to know Star-Lord’s dad and further team-bonding exercise. Under writer/director James Gunn’s guidance, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays well, although the formula is more expected this time around. Characters seem to behave in more expected ways, and the film isn’t afraid to lean on its own biggest strength. The visual aspect of the film is a wonder to behold, completely giving itself to the idea that space opera should be big and bold and rainbow-coloured. Chris Pratt makes for a likable lead, but actors as varied as Zoë Saldaña, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell (plus Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance) bring much to the proceedings. Despite the massively post-processed nature of a film that’s nearly entirely special effects from beginning to end, the actors end up being the film’s biggest asset: much of its charm is in seeing these characters interact and play off each other. Otherwise, the film isn’t entirely successful—Making Yondu a sympathetic father figure is glossing a bit over several mass-murder episodes, and there’s a sense, especially toward the end, that it has extended its third act a bit too long. But all told, this remains an exceptionally enjoyable blockbuster film, slickly made and able to deliver exactly what it intended. Recharge the Zune, and let’s see what’s on Vol. 3.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Hmmm. As much as I’d like to like Passengers a lot, there a bit too much nonsense, mismatched tones and wasted opportunities to be entirely comfortable with the result. On the one hand, I do like that it’s an original Science-Fiction movie (for Hollywood values of “original”, which is to say one that only has half a dozen predecessors in print SF) and one that’s slickly made: the setting is terrific, and the film has the budget to fully presents its environment. I love the first half-hour, in which a man wakes up alone in a gigantic spaceship, 90 years from its destination: With a bit of tweaking, it could stand in for the first section of an adaptation of Allen Steele’s terrific short story “The Days Between”. Chris Pratt is pretty good as the desperately alone protagonist, stuck in a nightmare caused by automated arrogance. Never mind that the plot doesn’t make a bit of real-world sense yet, because there’s more to come. The film becomes uglier as our protagonist decides to wake up a carefully chosen passenger, essentially dooming her to the same drawn-out death than him. That moral choice is not indefensible as a plot point, but it does set up expectations that are dashed when the film moves on to “but there was a catastrophe on the way, so it’s all OK!” as an excuse for his actions. A harsher conclusion would have made the gesture carry more weight, although it likely would have robbed Passengers of its mainstream appeal. There are quite a few logical and scientific errors later on, and they do sap the movie of its accumulated goodwill. Not much of the film’s problems can be blamed on its very short cast, though: Chris Pratt makes for a credible everyday man, and while we’re past peak-Jennifer Lawrence adulation, she’s rather good in a role that asks for some very dramatic moments. To be fair, I also liked Passengers a whole lot more watching it moment-by-moment than I would have expected by reading some of its harsher reviews—at times, the vitriol-versus-film ratio reminded me of the Prometheus episode, in which a slickly-made SF movie gets roasted for factors that don’t faithfully reflect the entire film. It’s also worth noting that what bothers people most about Passengers is an integral part of the film’s plot, and that it’s never avoided or downplayed. If this sounds like a half-hearted defence of the film, then I suppose it is—Passengers doesn’t have what it takes to be a great SF movie, but it definitely has its strong moments and haunting sequences. Passengers also shows, in many ways, how mass audiences are now willing to accept and play with concepts that used to be cutting-edge SF a few decades ago—as much as I can quibble with the errors, the distasteful nature of its premise or the way it plays safe, it’s also a polished piece of space-set SF the likes of which I’d like to see more often.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) If you’ve been longing for more machine guns and explosions in your western classics, then this Magnificent Seven remake is just for you! I kid, but not much: Rather entertainingly updating the 1960 classic for contemporary audiences, this remake crams a lot of gunplay, explosions and heavy gunfire in the result. Under the veteran eye of director Antoine Fuqua, this Magnificent Seven sports lush cinematography, vivid action sequences, a pleasantly diverse cast and a tighter script. To its credit, it doesn’t try to ape the original as much as play around with its basic structure and characters. Our lead character now had a personal connection to the antagonist that works rather well, Denzel Washington makes the role his own rather than try to ape Yul Brynner, and Chris Pratt doesn’t even try to be Steve MacQueen in a similar role. The images are more spectacular, the action is far more intense (at times, bodies drop like flies to a degree that feels excessive) and the script is cleaner. While The Magnificent Seven remake will never become a classic, it’s a decent enough reinterpretation and an entertaining shoot’em-up western in its own right.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I wasn’t exactly demanding a Jurassic Park sequel, but there’s still some kick to the idea of humans facing down unnatural predators and considering the progress in special effects technology since the 1993 original, I’d have to be almost willfully incurious not to see Jurassic World. The result is … middling. Nearly twenty-five years of CGI development means that this fourth film is crammed with action, sweeping camera moves and dinosaurs once it’s done teasing audiences during its third act. The climax comes complete with a long thrilling single-shot in which nearly everything gets destroyed around our running, ducking, dodging protagonists. Technically, it’s a super-polished production on par with nearly every big special-effect spectacle we’ve seen recently. Director Colin Tremorrow pole-vaults from indie feature Safety Not Guaranteed to blockbusters with this one, and Chris Pratt solidifies his unlikely rise to superstardom. However, as you may fear, the script (liberally reflecting the original Jurassic Park) is also on par with said special-effects spectacle: It moves the pieces across the board in time for the next action sequence, but it’s pure surface work with little underneath. The structure is intensely familiar, the plot beats are predictable and the overall dramatic arc holds few surprises. (There’s a nice acceleration in pure chaos as the film advances, though, at least until the suddenly more tepid third act.) As a result, Jurassic World feels a lot like its fictional theme park’s namesake: a carefully predetermined ride with obvious commercial sponsors, bereft of heart when going for simple entertainment and far more predictable. At times, the script almost becomes playful, but then retreats in comfortable mediocrity. (There are exceptions, such as an unwarranted lengthy death scene that seems taken from a different film.) Is Jurassic World entertaining? It sure is. Could it have been much better? Almost certainly: It’s light on thematic content (“learn that we’re not in control”) is bluntly stated, and that’s almost it), exceptionally predictable when it comes to drama, and even mentioning its own absurdities (see; high-heels) isn’t enough to make them forgivable. But, as we know and as the characters of the movies know (because a lot of stuff was packed in boxes in anticipation of the sequel), there will be another Jurassic movie, and another, and another…
(In Theaters, August 2014) At a time where superhero films are in real danger of being overexposed, it’s refreshing to see that Marvel Studios are doing their damndest to avoid resting on their laurels. Their “Phase 2” slate of movies has branched off in interesting directions so far, from quasi-improvised comedy (Iron Man 3) to far-out geekery (Thor 2) to almost-serious political thriller (Captain America 2) to an irreverent space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy. From a plotting standpoint, this ensemble-cast action caper isn’t anything new: we’ve seen more or less the same thing half a dozen times before from Marvel Studios alone. But from the 70s pop-fueled title card onward, it’s obvious that this is a successful attempt to stretch the envelope of superhero films in a new stylistic direction: bold, brash, colorful and with a clear emphasis on fun that feels refreshing after the stone-faced dourness of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (to say nothing of Man of Steel.) The result is never less than highly entertaining. Much of the credits for this success goes to writer/director James Gunn, who manages to ride herd on a good ensemble cast, a somewhat esoteric mythology, complex SFX-laden sequences and surprising pop-culture references (including pleasingly dissonant musical cues). With this film, Chris Pratt makes a strong bid for superstar status, while Dave Batista proves to be an unexpectedly gifted performer and Zoe Saldana shows why she rose so quickly to stardom. Guardians of the Galaxy was an insanely risky project on paper, but the result is pure blockbuster entertainment. Particularly exemplary are the film’s occasional moments of seriousness (tempered by un-ironic fun) and its satisfying coda which takes pains to deliver its payoffs and make sure that everyone is happy. Such crowd-pleasing instincts are a good way to ensure that the audience will come back for more, and a sign that Marvel Studios truly understand what business they’re in.