Category Archives: Reviews

Thor: Raganarok – Movie Review

After Wonder Woman and Spider-man Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok seems to prove that we’ve hit a good patch of superhero movies at the moment. Starting out with a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking monologue fakeout, I was having a good time with the charming humour right from the start — which didn’t let up all the way to the (more somber) end. Chris Hemsworth is now one of my new favourite movie stars (an honour he didn’t achieve in either of the two other Thor or Avengers movies). He’s got that action-hero-charm that has made stars out of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and more recently Chris Pratt, and this movie lets him work it. As a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, he never breaks a sweat as he cracks wise while defeating Asgard’s timeless enemy and returns to the cosmic home of his god-like people. Upon arriving, he finds things a bit out of whack (and his father Odin is missing) and we are treated to a humourous play within a film (featuring some great celebrity cameos). The light-hearted tone continues as Thor returns to Earth and meets up with Doctor Strange (another cool cameo with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his MCU role). Within a short time, this movie has already featured appearances of some of my current favourite actors (Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, etc.) and soon will feature cinema-queen herself, Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, Norse goddess of death, and sister to Thor and Loki. When she’s unwittingly released from banishment, she quickly takes action to regain control over Asgard and begins by destroying Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir (simply by gripping it tightly).

Surprisingly, while the Hela storyline is the cause of the titular Ragnarok (the end of the world), it’s not the focus of a big part of the movie, putting it on the backburner for most of the middle half of the movie. Instead, in the course of trying to stop Hela, Thor and Loki get catapulted to some previously-unknown junk world called Sakaar. On Sakaar, Thor becomes a contestant in the gladiatorial games run by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum in a trademark, weaselly peformance). Of course, by a huge galactic coincidence, anyone who’s seen the movie trailer knows who Thor faces in the arena as the Grandmaster’s current champion. Seeing the Hulk, Thor is surprisingly happy, stating that it’s OK because “He’s a friend from work”, right before getting slammed into the wall. As I mentioned, the humour is one of the best parts of this movie, and thankfully that is not the best joke in the film (far from it). The rest of the story has the characters working to escape from the planet in order to return to Asgard and end Hela’s reign of terror and possible destruction of everything. Sounds pretty packed, eh?

The other wonderful aspect about this movie was the fast-paced action. From scene to scene, it toggled between well-shot, space-action (similar to either of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — in fact, this would have made a great Guardians 3); and some slower-paced funny dialogue and interaction between characters. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves making this movie and that enthusiasm comes through. New Zealander director Taika Waititi is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

With a high degree of Australia/New Zealand content in the cast and production roster, it’s certainly the crown jewel to have Blanchett playing Hela. The role is a walk in the park for her, but it’s great how she revels in Hela’s superiority complex and bitter resentment of everyone who wronged her even a little bit. Frankly, I think Blanchett needs to play more of these deliciously villainous roles. I only wish that more of the plot had involved her. As a movie villain, she didn’t really get to stretch her wings much beyond snarling a lot and tossing her endlessly conjured blades everywhere, like magicians’ scarves.

After the disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s nice to see that all it took for the franchise to hit its groove was to loosen things up a bit. Let’s hope that we’re on a roll. (4 out of 5)

Advertisements

2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

Spider-man: Homecoming – Movie Review

After so many incarnations, it’s hard to believe that another reboot of the Spider-man story could be fun and fresh, but I really enjoyed Homecoming, and a lot of the credit goes to this younger version of the web-slinging hero, and the exuberant performance by rising star Tom Holland. While I had already raved about the previous Spider-man, played by Andrew Garfield, having a more character-driven story — dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Gwen (played by Emma Stone), this time around the character is portrayed even younger (he’s only 15) and there is a lot of teenage energy and fun to it. It’s great to see Spider-man’s alter-ego Peter Parker going through challenges of high school (though he’s super-smart, so the academics are no struggle) and teen melodrama (at one point, his hi-tech talking suit tries to give him advice on girls). This movie has a non-stop sense of humour throughout the movie that is driven mostly by Holland’s aw-shucks kind of innocence (along with his hilarious nerd side-kick Ned). (They are such classic movie teens that I almost felt like I was watching an 80s movie!).

However, one of the things that reminded me that we are very much in the twenty-teens, was how Robert Downey Jr. made a few guest appearances as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Avengers. If you didn’t realize, the “homecoming” is bringing Spider-man back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after many years of being isolated from the other characters by virtue of intellectual property rights. Downey’s presence reminded that even though this is a Spider-man movie, it’s part of that other pop-culture juggernaut. Interestingly enough, while the character needs a place among all the various cinematic super-heroes, Peter Parker is also trying to find his place as a hero. Having come off the thrill of teaming up with the Avengers in the events of the Captain America: Civil War movie, now he wants to prove himself worthy to be a grown-up super-hero: one of the big boys.

One of the best decisions made for this movie was that they didn’t go back and replay Spider-man’s origin story again (there’s a bit of mention that he was bit by a spider, but that’s it). This allowed a bit more time to spend with Peter Parker’s life — we even get to know his friends and classmates (he’s part of the academic decathlon team, which actually plays a meaningful role in this movie) and there was time to develop the villain’s story as well. This made the pieces fit together really well, and I felt like we got a good understanding of the characters — which is something lacking from the movies where producers want to cram a lot of characters onto the screen and give us a lot of explosions and crashes. This movie was even able to make an interesting bad guy out of the Vulture, a staple of Spider-man’s rogues gallery, but not generally very cool. With Michael Keaton in the role, he’s got a few really good speeches and does some moustache twirling, gradually becoming a true nemesis to the young Spider-man.

So is it all just characters talking, or high-school drama? Of course not. There is plenty of action (at some of America’s very well-known tourist attractions, no less) and as I mentioned, the humour is non-stop. I think this is the funniest super-hero movie ever — even more than Deadpool (which had a much darker undertone). There’s a moment of decision at the end of the movie that sets the direction for any sequels. Though it goes exactly as I expected, it also made me wonder what could possibly be in store for subsequent films. I guess I’ve been so programmed by the other blockbuster super-hero movie events that I almost can’t imagine what a down-to-earth, friendly, neighbourhood hero movie might be like — so I’m really looking forward to finding out. Much to my surprise, this third version of cinematic Spider-man seems to be the perfect one (as long as they keep Tom Holland) to take the character forward. 4.5 out of 5

Wonder Woman – Movie Review

After the mess that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was worried about this movie. Wonder Woman has never been one of my favourite super-heroes, though I did watch her 70s TV series (despite its cheesiness). Like most fans, I’m surprised it’s taken so long for her to get her own movie adaptation. In contrast to Spider-man — who’s going onto his 3rd cinematic reboot — the origin story of Diana, princess of the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, seems fresh by comparison. This version begins with her childhood living on “paradise island” surrounded by warrior women but isolated from the rest of the world. Flashing forward to an actual war story, the focus shifts to the WWI events which brought Diana to the outside world in order to fight evil. Wonder Woman’s basic backstory can seem a little old-fashioned but it’s counteracted by humour and a bunch of Pretty Woman-inspired scenes (or given the Greco-Roman context, maybe Pygmalion is a better reference). Captain Steve Trevor (played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) tries to help Diana the Amazon fit into Edwardian England, and ends up creating an interesting metaphor for this movie, which itself tries to help a god-like super-hero blend into a relatively earth-bound conflict between warring nations and war-time politics. It’s not only because Diana (played by Gal Gadot) is so gorgeous that she continues to stand out.

Starting out in Themyscira, the scenes are wonderfully enjoyable. The locations (shot along Italy’s Amalfi Coast) are breathtaking, and the magically beautiful weather doesn’t hurt. Early scenes of little girl Diana watching the other Amazon warriors training for battle are also great fun. The Amazon fight scenes are really good: a combination of slow motion camera work and graceful movements (spins and legwork) make the fighting feel like dancing. The scenes reminded me a lot of those from 300, and even though director Zack Snyder also worked on this movie, this time he was only a writer/story guy. Again, there’s a bit of disconnection between the Diana’s quasi-mythological backstory (looks like they’ve been using the same decorator in Themyscira’s throne room  as Thor‘s Asgard) and early 20th century London, but I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t really mind.

When the WWI story kicks into gear, it’s largely Steve Trevor’s adventure (or at least him and his ragtag band, which easily adopts the beautiful Diana into its ranks). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Chris Pine is really good at being the hero with a bashful sense of humour, but I was confused by the presence of an American in the WWI British air force (or intelligence corps). Anyway, the actual war story part of the story is not that well thought out or complex, but at least there’s a villain who is not only a German general (boo!) but a ruthless killer, working with a mad-scientist poison-maker. He might also be the current incarnation of the Amazons’ nemesis, the war god Ares. The setup is very simplistic (as comic book stories traditionally are) — I mean, the first bad general that she meets is the enemy that the Amazons were born to fight? Seems too easy.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s mostly because of the charm of the actors/characters, the nicely choreographed action scenes, the fun fish-out-of-water humour, and the adventuresome spirit of the film. I also liked how the movie dealt with a number of themes, including the strength and independence of women; and whether human nature or cosmic forces are truly accountable for the evil in the world. Any disjointed pieces of story came nicely glued together. Wonder Woman is a great palate-cleanser after the loud, over-the-top, confusing, and shallow super-hero movies that we’ve been seeing recently (4 out of 5).

Alien: Covenant – Movie Review

One thing that disappointed me about the prequel Prometheus was that it started to open up the Aliens mythology (with the Engineers, and a Lovecraftean backstory), but in the end the story was reduced to another space crew finding a primitive version of the Alien xenomorph, and being slaughtered. I was hoping that Alien: Covenant (the sequel to the prequel) would make more of that story, but sadly it didn’t really. Once again, a space crew ends up on a planet where the monster awaits them, and they fight for their lives. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling and well-made, or that I don’t enjoy another trip to space-horror town, but let’s make this story broader, no?

Covenant is definitely a follow-up to Prometheus as it opens on a flashback for the android David, from the first movie, talking to his creator, Weyland. That scene has a thematic connection to the rest of the movie, dealing with the idea of creation and creators. That theme was also a big part of Prometheus. In this movie, our intrepid space crew is awakened from cryo-sleep when a freak space storm-type event causes major damage to the ship, which is also carrying thousands of colonists to a new home. Their caretaker is another android, named Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, but this time with an American accent — Hmmm.) When the crew stabilize things a bit and start making repairs, they also discover a nearly ideal planet that they didn’t notice before, one that is perfect for their colony and would save them another 7 years of their cryo-sleep journey — Hmmm. Too good to be true? Maybe in a horror movie, eh? So a predictably stupid decisions is made for the crew to go down to the planet and check it out. Unfortunately, they stupid decisions just keep coming when they decide that the primordial jungle is so balmy that they don’t need any helmets — even the Prometheus crew wore helmets, until they decided not to and let the alien spores get into their bodies. And so on.

Michael Fassbender really steals the show in the dual role of Walter and David. Not only does he have a great story-telling voice, he’s got that stolid calmness, that inscrutable creepiness, and that trusted strength, all of which he can subtly switch around. They’ve also come a long way with their showing dual roles side-by-side on screen. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the scenes between the two androids are seamless. As enjoyable as Fassbender’s performance was, I don’t quite know why they chose to make David the centre of the story. Once the space crew meet up with him, he’s like some kind of creepy, Gothic host welcoming them to his Transylvanian castle (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!). Going back to my earlier comments about how the movie could have really expanded the world of these films, getting into world of the Engineers, or even find ways to expand on the xenomorphs and how they mutate, I think that’s where the interesting stuff is. Maybe someone can even come up with some real biological ground rules for these creatures rather than just having them change or become whatever is needed to cause more carnage for the crew. Instead the story all seems focused on a few human/android characters every time, and how they foolishly fall prey to these alien creatures.

If you’re a pop culture nerd like myself, you could argue the cautionary tale of a very similar movie franchise, Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, which did try to parlay a story with killer alien monsters into an entire attempt at world-building and complex mythology. That attempt failed and led to Riddick, the last sequel, going back to the formula of a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures. However, I think that if we’re going to get a whole bunch more of these Alien sequels (or pre-sequels), we need to do more than just rehash the same formula over and over. Perhaps Ridley Scott just felt that the first Alien movie was so archetypal that he’s been continually trying to retell that story from different angles.

Anyway, Covenant was definitely well made for space-horror: the visuals and special effects are gory and great. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even question the CGI. In the back of our minds, these creatures basically exist. Again, the potential for a much more epic and interesting story universe is still out there, as they haven’t explored much more of it here. The movie plot itself held the possibility of many twists, but in the end fell back on a bit too many cliches to be surprising. If you’re new to the genre, you may prefer to watch the original Alien, but if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll certainly get more of what you’ve come to love (4 out of 5).

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Movie Review

C_MR_WhUIAApVo9The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has become something of a beast, weighed down by continuity, history, and the expectations of big budgets and big fandom. However, a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out to remind us that there are still fun adventures to be had in the MCU. One of the advantages that the Guardians have is that they were relative unknowns in the Marvel Comics world before they burst onto the big screen three summers ago. Even with the runaway success of their first movie, they are still not icons like Captain America, Spider-Man or the X-Men. They could have just as easily been a totally new sci-fi franchise featuring a rag-tag band of space adventurers. In fact, it’s probably no surprise that they remind me a lot of the original Star Wars crew. In this second movie (“volume”), we seem to be catching Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and (now baby) Groot in the middle of a job, hired to protect giant space batteries by a race of golden-gods known as The Sovereign. The opening sequence is full of action, but hilariously baby Groot (the cute little tree person) takes the spotlight as he dances to some grooves while all his fellows fight a giant tentacular, toothy-mouthed monster trying to steal those darn batteries in the background. It perfectly reflects the tone of this movie franchise and its tongue-in-cheek blend of spectacular space-action with mundane, shoulder-shrugging humour.

The other element that completes the Guardians formula (which also happens to be a Star Wars hallmark) is “family issues”. Their payment from The Sovereign for doing this job is to get custody of Gamora’s sister Nebula (in order to hand her over to the authorities) and so the two gals have ample opportunity to work out all their differences over some beat downs and attempts at mutual destruction. Meanwhile, when the crew ends up needing to flee The Sovereign (courtesy of Rocket’s sticky fingers around the priceless space batteries), they get a helping hand from a mysteriously powerful stranger, which leads to some family issues for Quill as well.

This ensemble is very nicely balanced and it’s great how each of the main characters is needed: not only as part of the team, but also to make the movie enjoyable. While Groot and Rocket typically steal the show, this time around Drax was the source of the most humour for me. Dave Bautista is wonderful as the faux straight-man. He’s big, strong and kind of serious, but he’s also full of jokes because he laughs at the “wrong” thing and just doesn’t feel the same sense of impropriety that we might. (This will make me sound like I have a 4-year-old’s sense of humour, but I was rolling with laughter from Drax’s line “I have famously huge turds.” Please don’t judge me.)

The story itself is not too big, even though it involves galaxy-ending possibilities, the focus is still pretty personal. Almost all the aliens we meet are slight variations on humans. When The Sovereign pursue our heroes their fighter ship swarms are remote-controlled, making all their pilots act like a bunch of gamers at an arcade. Similarly, the storyline where Quill’s foster father Yondu struggles with mutiny in the ranks of his own crew of Ravagers, it feels like something inspired by The Sons of Anarchy, or some other human biker gang. Yondu himself has a pretty big role in the resolution of this movie. I actually grew to like him a bit more — not just for his relationship to Quill, but also for his bad-assery and his cool mind-controlled arrow.

The Guardians are a lot of fun to hang out with over the course of a two-hour movie, but there is so much potential for more adventures that I really wish that they were a TV series (I’d probably enjoy it way more than Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). There is also so much room for sci-fi goodness in their corner of the galaxy that I want to see more before the next sequel movie. I know, there is an animated series that I should probably check out, but from what I saw, it was not nearly the same thing. Anyway, I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 as a great kick off to a summer filled with blockbuster movie sequels and franchises. (4 out of 5)

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).