Thursday, July 27, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017)

There are two types of beings in the universe...
Those who dance, and those who do not.

This damn Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So many films to keep track of, it's a wonder it works at all.  The model seems functional enough; release origin stories and team-ups regularly, each one expanding the universe in some way, setting up future films while also telling internally satisfying stories.  The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is the crowning example of this; a great cast of characters, a fun McGuffin-centric adventure story in space, a killer soundtrack, and some of the best comedy writing in the whole of the MCU.  It was, however, lightning in a bottle.  So many things went uncharacteristically right at once, and I was absolutely certain that it couldn't be repeated.  I assumed a sequel would focus on trying to replicate that same lightning, and would be a vastly inferior film as a result.  Written and Directed by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is, thankfully, a worthy sequel to the first.  It may not be as light on its feet, but it gets points for coming close.

You "Earthers" have hang-ups...

We regroup with the Guardians by way of an action scene set to the tune of Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," wherein the regrown Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dances his little heart out as the others struggle to take down a tentacled monster.  Midway through this sequence, I knew I was in good hands.  The film centers around Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) as he meets a god-like alien named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be his father.  The group is skeptical, especially Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has feelings for Quill but can't process them due to the horrific childhood she shared with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  All the while, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals highly valuable batteries from an exceptionally snobby race of golden-skinned aliens, which puts the Guardians on the run from Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his crew, who were hired to capture them.  While on Ego's planet, the group meets Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is something of a servant to Ego and has empathic powers that Drax (Dave Bautista), having learned to embrace humor and joy, finds endlessly amusing.

I've never felt such humor...

The script finds a very good balance of tone, keeping the humor character-driven and never pulling punches with its darker material.  One scene in particular, which involves Rocket, Baby Groot, and Yondu slaughtering dozens of people set to Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer," is probably the most darkly humorous scene in the whole MCU.  I welcome it, to be sure, but the casual violence, if often bloodless, does become numbing after a while.  This doesn't prevent the finale from reaching some high emotional points, and even managed to eek a surprise tear out of me, but some of the action goes on a bit too long and loses its sense of tension.  The plot is relatively thin, as it was with the first film, but there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.  The point of this series isn't necessarily to tell a complicated story, but to let us spend time with these characters.  Volume 2 excels at that.

We can jack up our prices if we're two-time galaxy savers!

I appreciated the visual inventiveness of the film; rather than generic space battles or typical 2010s future designs, we are treated to drones remotely piloted by machines that resemble 80s arcade games, the painterly planet created by Ego, and countless alien designs that are distinctive and full of character.  In fact, I was often frustrated that the film favored close-ups, obscuring the gorgeous production design and relegating the hard work of the make-up artists to fuzzy background details.  We've given the characters plenty of time to breathe and become developed, now we need to do the same for the world-building.  The practical effects are stunning, but they're far and few in-between; CGI is king here, and it has inconsistent results.  The designs are stellar, but the actual rendering of much of the animation isn't quite as sharp as it was in the first film.  Rocket, in particular, felt so tangible last time but now tends to float a bit more.  This is, of course, nitpicky as hell and hardly dethrones him from being my favorite character.  Plus, look at all the color! This is a movie that's not afraid to be pretty.

Die, spaceship!

The soundtrack continues to be an important part of what makes these movies so much fun (and good God, after Suicide Squad I can really appreciate when it's done right).  "Brandy" actually becomes an important metaphor for the main villain, and in a surprising turn of events, I really liked the way the villain was handled.  It could have been better;  there was a moment where the film squanders the potential for an "Evil Star-Lord," but the matter resolves too quickly.  But compared to the villains from the first film?  This is ten times better.  Yondu and Nebula walk a nice tightrope between being villains and heroes throughout the film, and their development is handled excellently.  Performances from the cast are generally great, especially when it comes to the comedic beats, but I think Pratt struggles a bit toward the end with what's supposed to be a dramatic moment (and I can't confirm this, but I do believe CGI tears were added to his eyes for added effect, which does not sit right with me at all).

Nobody has any tape...

While the comedy can be on par with the original, there are still duds here and there. Thankfully, the film moves fast enough to make you laugh again (and forget that the "Kurt Russell says he has to pee" joke even happened).  That's partially why this sequel isn't quite as nimble as the first; a few more jokes feel forced, the effects are a bit more cartoonish, and the pacing could be better.  Otherwise it's a good time; it's got a great soundtrack, tons of 80s nostalgic references (the PacMan scene had me dying), great use of color, surprising violence to go along with its charm (Baby Groot is so cute... Holy shit, he just killed a guy!), and good character development.  It's probably the strongest series in the MCU, maybe besides the Captain America movies, and I eagerly await Volume 3.

We are Groot.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

Can't you just be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man?

After much hype following his debut in Captain America: Civil War last year, we are finally treated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first real Spider-Man movie.  After Sony's (reboot helmed by Mark Webb), which came fast and went faster, it feels odd to have yet another big screen Spider-Man.  However, this time I'm on board for the change-up, even if the transition isn't perfect.  Some of my issues with Spider-Man: Homecoming derive from the title character operating as Iron Man's sidekick, which doesn't suit my preconceived notions of what Spider-Man should be.  Imagine if Batman gave The Flash special shoes, in his debut movie, that can make him run faster... and talk to him.  See, Peter's own well-known powers are undercut significantly by the Iron Man-like suit that Stark has provided for him (complete with a too-intelligent A.I. and more spy gear than James Bond).  The film is lightweight and enjoyable, and revels in the fun of being a superhero movie, but it's definitely a middling chapter in the Spider-Man franchise as well as the MCU.

I know you want to save the world... but you're not ready yet.

Following the events of Civil War (which are recapped here in a cute, home video-style movie), Tony Stark (Robert Downy, Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man lets Peter Parker (Tom Holland) a.k.a. Spider-Man keep his fancy new costume, but doesn't think he's ready to join up with the Avengers just yet.  Peter slowly detaches himself from school and his social life to spend more time as the web-slinger, but in a neat twist on most Spider-Man movies, there's not much in the way of dramatic crime to be fought.  The montage showcasing Spider-Man in a realistic Queens setting is charming, funny, and finds exactly the right note to establish this version of the character.  All the while, a former disaster-salvager-turned-advanced-weapons-dealer named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has developed a winged suit that allows him to fly and rob trucks containing alien power cells.  Naturally, Spider-Man gets involved in the action, and has to take down the flying dude (I'd call him The Vulture, but the film doesn't) while balancing his homelife with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and school crush Liz (Laura Harrier).

You were on the ceiling!

The story is mostly fine, it a little trite.  The humor is best when it comes from the characters, especially when it comes to the character of Ned, who seems happily aware that he's the best friend/tech adviser character in his own life.  When the humor is situational, it leans toward the cliche-ridden.  The aforementioned gadgets that Peter has at his disposal result in some good gags, and it's immensely satisfying whenever he's forced not to rely on them, but it adds this "junior secret agent" element to the movie that was probably unintentional.  Once again, when it focuses on the character relationships, the movie is at its strongest (especially the ever-complicating relationship between Peter and Toomes, who makes for a good villain).  The chemistry between Holland and Harrier is basically nonexistent, but Holland's interactions with the other principals is great.  The script needed some fine tuning, especially when it comes to moments that incite drama, but then quickly sweeps it under the rug.  Peter left his best friend alone at a party?  Ah, he was doing Spider-Man stuff, it's alright.  Aunt May was worried sick about Peter all night?  Oh, he lost his internship, all's forgiven.  It's all too consequence-free to have any real resonance.

I'll do anything to protect my family.

The action suffers from a similar problem.  It's all a bit too safe, and the choppy editing and camerawork only makes matters worse.  Spidey's fancy new suit makes it so that he can take down the villains with ease, deflating any sense of tension.  This does have a payoff toward the end, but it's ham-fisted and predictable.  Holland's performance carries it, to be sure, but the constant intervening from Iron Man and the endless barrage of meta jokes (that clearly want to be Whedon-esque but don't quite cut it) make everything less exciting.  Don't get me wrong about the suit, I actually love the way it looks.  The electronic eyes were a brilliant touch, giving an in-universe excuse to let Peter emote while still wearing the mask (akin to the comics without the suspension of disbelief).  The best action sequence takes place at the Washington Monument, and despite some gooey CGI Spider-Man moments (seriously, it looks like 2002 all over again), it's suspenseful and thrilling.  However, the climactic fight on board an airplane is just awful; busy, over-edited, and mostly filmed in shaky close-ups.  I sat there squinting at an enormous movie theater screen.

Just a typical homecoming...

The music and overall visual style of the film are par for the course when it comes to the MCU, which is to say that the music is bland and unmemorable and the visuals look washed out and standard.  Michael Giacchino, who is probably my favorite composer working today, teases us with a fantastic orchestration of the '60s Spider-Man theme song in the opening, only to replace it with a very cliched superhero score for the rest.  This coming from the man who wrote the music for The Incredibles, which has some of my all-time favorite superhero music.  Director Jon Watts wanted to ground the film's action, avoiding the swooping camera moves throughout New York City that defined the Raimi films and gave them their most iconic visuals.  This leads to a great gag where Peter has no buildings to sling to, but aside from a shot of Spider-Man riding on top of a train, doesn't allow it much in the way of memorable visuals.  I did appreciate the racial diversity of the cast though.  In a Queens high school setting, diversity should be obvious dressing, but it rarely is in Hollywood.  There's just not a lot of style on display, and with only intermittent moments of substance, Spider-Man: Homecoming commits the mild sin of being just okay at the end of the day.


Spoiler note:  The ending with Tony and Pepper finally getting together was nice, but it kind of sucks that they had a breakup and got back together entirely offscreen.  Maybe we needed an Iron Man 4.  Also, Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man through the exact same situation that his best friend did earlier in the film?  Very lame.  Also, Captain America's cameos were uber hilarious.