(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.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) Not only are there better heist films than 2015’s Heist, but there are better heist films named Heist than 2015’s Heist: Have a look at the 2001 Heist for a David Mamet take on a familiar topic. (But don’t look at 2015’s American Heist, which is even more generic than this one) Actually, a good question would be why Heist is named as such, given that it pokes around a river casino, a bus chase inspired by Speed (Heist was originally far better titled as Bus 657), and the unbearably American plot device of a sick kid needing costly care that can only be met through criminal activity. Robert De Niro headlines the film but remains constrained in a fairly small role, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the one doing most of the dramatic work here. De Niro is good but doesn’t stretch anything on his way to his exit; Morgan is quite a bit better as an opportunity criminal who gets caught along some less savoury characters. In smaller roles, David Bautista does fine, but Gina Carano continues to display her thespian limits as a police officer who mumbles a lot. The plot is an old thriller staple (heist goes wrong; truants are challenged in their attempt to escape) and while some of the script and Scott Mann’s direction show promise, Heist struggles to distinguish itself from countless other similar movies. It’s too ponderous to be enjoyed as an action thriller (despite doing best in that mode), and by the time the story gets interesting somewhere in the third act, it’s far too late to care all that much. At the very least, Heist will do as one of those movies you catch on cable TV when there’s nothing else on… but it’s likely that there will be far better choices available on other channels at the same time.
(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.