Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

2017 #59
James Gunn | 136 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The franchise that some thought might kill the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which actually turned out to be one of its most popular successes, is back for the difficult second album. And difficult it is, because Guardians 2 takes a lot of what made that first movie work and ramps it up to 11, consequently slipping over into bouts of self-indulgence.

The story picks up on a thread left conspicuously hanging at the end of the first movie: who is Peter’s father, and why did he have the Ravagers kidnap Peter from Earth? Vol. 2 digs into those answers pretty quickly, because it has somewhere else to go with them… but that would be spoiler territory. So while Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the ever-hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) toddle off to learn about daddy-o, the rest of the gang — Rocket (motion capture of Sean Gunn, voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, allegedly) — get caught up in a mutiny involving Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). All while the lot of them are being chased by a race of gold-skinned perfectionists led by the priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) who the Guardians conned.

Returning writer-director James Gunn gets things off to a strong start, diving straight into answers, humour, an entertaining title sequence, a couple of action scenes, more humour, and more answers. But after this strong and pacy opening salvo, the film seems to flounder a little. Not fatally so, but it gradually becomes apparent that the middle is going on far too long. Your mileage will vary on how draggy this is — some people seem to have absolutely hated it; I thought much of it was amiable enough, but it goes nowhere fast and that eventually becomes wearing.

You've got the power to know you're indestructible...

Part of the problem lies in splitting our heroes up into two groups with two stories. It may have been inspired by The Empire Strikes Back (or that may just have been a parallel some critics have spotted, I’m not sure), and it’s not a fundamentally flawed structural choice, but here it doesn’t really work. Part of the problem is that the gang works best when sparking off each other. Heck, the film even goes to pains to set up a joshing rivalry between Peter and Rocket, then splits them up! Story-wise, the issue is twofold: the A plot is a slow one that spins its wheels because it has too little story-fuel to drive the whole movie; but the B plot feels grafted on to give half the cast something to do, as well as provide a little action and humour while the other plot is tackling the emotional heft.

That said, uncommonly for a modern blockbuster, it’s the emotional side the film gets most right. While the plot dawdles, the action is adequate, and the comedy is hit and miss (more the former than the latter, to be fair, but there’s a definite case of “throw everything and see what sticks”), there are several characters who get strong, believable, rounded emotional arcs. The obvious one is Peter finding out about his parentage, but my favourite was where the film goes with Nebula and the relationship with her adopted sister, Gamora. There’s also a comparatively meaty subplot for Yondu, meaning it’s mostly the supporting characters who fare best with the material rather than the heroes — aside from Peter and (to a lesser extent) Gamora, the primary function of Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot is to be humour generators. They are funny, though.

Funny.

In the director’s chair, Gunn continues to dole out even more of what people praised about the first movie. You liked the retro-cool soundtrack? OK, how about a new track every time there’s a lull in the action! The use of the music feels sloppy, often just plonked there to cover a gap, with no discernible thematic relevance. It’s doubling down on something people latched onto the first time, but it feels slapdash. The one instance that almost works is Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, which has a setup and a pay-off, but they’re not quite properly connected.

Also overdone is the slow motion walking. Remember that shot in the first film of the Guardians walking into battle in slow-mo looking badass, that was then humorously undercut when they started, like, yawning and stuff? James Gunn does, and he liked it so much that he uses it again several times here. Apart from he seems to have forgotten the second part of the scene that made it funny rather than cheesy. Cool people walking in slow motion seems to be one of those cinematic devices that doesn’t really date, especially when used sparingly, so I could let it go once, but here it reaches the point of “oh my God, another slow-mo walking shot?!”

This indulgence in everything people liked before extends right to the very end of the movie — literally. The end credits are a lively affair in and of themselves, but they’re further interrupted by a total of five additional scenes. Five. They’re mostly inconsequential (don’t go expecting any hints towards Infinity War), but they’re worth sticking around for because a couple are quite amusing.

More guardians, more... galaxy? I dunno.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an uneven film, which manages to be entertaining as a whole thanks to its likeable and funny characters — even if the best gags have all been played in the trailers (and some of them played better in trailers, too), it’s trying so hard (so, so hard) to be a good time that much of it works. It’s strongest at the beginning and the end, which almost makes you overlook that it gets a bit thumb-twiddly in the middle, with one plot more of a short story than a movie and the other feeling a little like a waste of time. However, the surprising focus on and awareness of the characters’ psychological lives makes up for that somewhat — oddly, Marvel’s most comedy-driven and alien-starring movie may also feature their most effective understanding and representation of characters’ emotions.

But don’t worry, there are still jokes about poo and penises.

4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now. Except Japan. Sorry, Japan.

I am Baby Groot.

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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

2017 #57
Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Magnificent Seven

Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve Martin, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

The magnificent action

Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

The diverse seven

I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

4 out of 5

The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3D (2014)

Rewatchathon 2017 #8
James Gunn | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the Galaxy 3D

So, I just got a 3D TV. Well, it’s a 4K TV, but we’re interested in the fact it does 3D right now. And, to cut a long story short (literally — I wrote a 1,200-word post about this before deciding it was rambling and pointless), the impetus to get one now came from the fact that all TV manufacturers are ditching 3D from this year and I always kinda wanted it. (As to why I got a 4K one, apparently it makes for better quality 3D; plus it’s future proof — “future” being the operative word because I’m not replacing my Blu-ray player, I don’t keep a regular Netflix subscription, and Amazon Prime’s UHD selection (found on an otherwise-secret menu when you access it from a 4K device!) is quite pitiful.)

The first thing I watched was… the opening seven minutes of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode, actually (which has superb 3D). But the first thing I watched in full was Guardians of the Galaxy, because I’d been meaning to rewatch it before the sequel lands at the end of the month, and because I’ve long been curious about the 3D version’s shifting aspect ratio.

Regular readers may remember that I love a good shifting aspect ratio, and Guardians does not disappoint. As usual for these things, most of the film is at 2.40:1, opening up to 1.78:1 for selected sequences. Director James Gunn uses it in a similar way to Christopher Nolan, with a scattering of expanded shots here and there alongside some whole sequences, mainly used for action scenes and epic establishing shots. (That’s as opposed to something like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which has more-or-less half the film in one ratio and the second half in the other.) Even on a TV the effect is immense, the screen-filling interludes feeling genuinely larger and more impactful. This was helped no small amount by my new TV being 12″ larger, which doesn’t sound like much but actually makes a huge difference (as the actress said to the bishop). That said, pausing a moment to do the maths, it’s nearly a whole third bigger than my old TV, so no wonder the difference is noticeable. But I digress…

Knowhere's better in 3D

As with so many 3D blockbusters nowadays, Guardians was a post-conversion. Nonetheless, I commented in my original review that some sequences seemed to have been designed with 3D in mind — specifically the chase through Knowhere, which I described as “little more than a blur.” I feel like past-me was correct, because I had no such issues with the sequence this time out. Even though I enjoy it, I’m still one of those people who regard 3D as fundamentally little more than a gimmick (though I’ve yet to see Hugo, so I guess there’s still room for my own conversion to considering it a Serious Filmmaking Tool), but it does lend a scope, scale, and pizzazz throughout the movie that’s a lot of fun, especially during the big action sequences. Indeed, particularly when combined with the shifting aspect ratio, it makes for some very striking moments.

I’d hesitate to say the 3D improved my opinion of the film as a whole, but I think the second viewing certainly did. My aforementioned original review was pretty darn positive, though I think I’d remembered enjoying it less than I did because the praise it received in some other quarters went into overkill. On this viewing I didn’t feel the problems with pace that bothered me before; and while I continue to think Nova City could do with more development before the climax (I still can’t even remember its proper name), I found said climax to be less overlong and more structured. Obviously the film itself hasn’t changed (well, other than that extra visual dimension), but my perspective on it clearly has (in addition to that extra visual dimension).

Badasses of the Galaxy

For all the benefits of bigger screen sizes, extra dimensions, and an adjusted appreciation of its pacing, Guardians’ greatest asset remains its characters and how much fun they are to be around. They are primarily what make it a mighty entertaining movie, whether in two dimensions or three.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy is on BBC One tonight at 8:30pm — in 2D, of course.

Jurassic World (2015)

2015 #154
Colin Trevorrow | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

22 years ago, Jurassic Park was the first film I saw at the cinema. I was still of an age when all boys seem to find dinosaurs awesome, and of course everyone was talking about this spectacular film and its groundbreaking effects. Plus it was from Steven Spielberg — it feels daft I’d’ve known that at the time, but I was already a certified fan of the Indiana Joneses, so maybe. Either way, I was suitably awestruck, and have always been a little pleased my first big screen experience was such a good movie.

It seems now that I’m of a generation which has secretly held Jurassic Park in a level of esteem that earlier generations had for, I don’t know, Star Wars, maybe. Secret, that is, until Jurassic World came out this summer and, quite to everyone’s surprise, blew all predictions out of the water with the largest opening weekend gross of all time, both in the US ($208.8m) and internationally ($315.6m), totalling the first time a film grossed more than $500 million in one weekend. It ultimately passed The Avengers to be the third highest-grossing film of all time, taking in 40 days what the Marvel team-up needed 133 to achieve.* It was largely well-reviewed too, albeit with some dissenters, so it had a lot to live up to.

For me, it met that watermark. Okay, the plot is fundamentally a rehash of the first movie, but the devil is in the details, and in my book Jurassic World does enough new to shrug off any kind of “stealth remake” allegations. What it does definitely retain is a faithfulness to the Spielbergian tone of the first movie — a stated goal of director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow, and one I feel he’s absolutely pulled off. There’s adventure, humour, a sense of scale and wonder. Even the music’s right: in the same way his theme to Star Wars is the herald of a classical epic, and his theme to Indiana Jones is a call to adventure, John Williams’ equally-peerless theme to Jurassic Park is an ode to wonder, and composer Michael Giacchino deploys it wisely here, saving it for key moments when that sense of awe is front and centre once again. Even some of the film’s ‘problems’ aren’t, in my eyes. Does it spend too long wandering around the park before the big action starts? Not for me… which I guess is a viewpoint that comes with all the caveats of my opening paragraph. I rather suspect this is a movie that was very literally made by fans, for fans.

In that respect, I saw Jurassic World as a movie that was eager to please its audience. It may not always full conform to logic, and some of its plot developments may be a little far-fetched for some, but it’s been crafted in a way that’s designed to tickle the fancy or scratch an itch among a spectacle-and-fun-seeking blockbuster audience. Sure, the film was greenlit to make loadsa money — what sequel (heck, what film) isn’t — but that doesn’t mean the people who were actually writing, directing, filming, designing, CGI’ing, and everything-else-ing the movie didn’t have pure intentions. Goodness knows how Trevorrow — whose sum total previous directorial experience is an overrated indie rom-com with a vague, underdeveloped sci-fi element — landed this gig, but he does a bang-up job with it. No wonder they’ve given him the keys to a Star Wars saga movie. (That’s a helluvan escalation across just three films, though! Has any other director ever shot so high so fast?)

I realise this review is a bit of a vague gush of praise, so one element that particularly intrigued me was the decision to shoot the film in a 2:1 aspect ratio. There’s some detail on the reasoning here (as well as general information on shooting choices, like the types of film and digital photography used), but essentially it was a compromise between Trevorrow and DP John Schwartzman favouring the blockbuster-standard 2.4:1 (so as to not look like a TV programme) and producer Spielberg wanting 1.85:1 (to favour the dinos’ height). I can’t speak to how it worked in cinemas, but 2:1 is actually a really pleasurable ratio for home viewing. Some 1.85:1 movies do just feel like big-budget TV episodes nowadays (which says as much about how far TV has come, in terms of its visual style, as it does anything else), but 2.35:1 can feel a little too wasteful of screen real estate (as a believer in presenting films in their original ratio (as we all should be) you tend not to question it, but looked at objectively, 2.35:1 on a 16:9 telly is kinda silly. (Not that I’m advocating those daft-looking 21:9 TVs they made a couple of years ago, mind.)) I’ve no idea if 2:1 is likely to catch on more widely (I bet Vittorio Storaro hopes so), but I would quite like if it did.

I kind of felt like Jurassic World plugged directly into whichever part of the brain is responsible for pleasure and just downloaded itself there. I know it’s flawed; even as I was watching it, there were bits that made me go, “really?” Consequently, this review was originally pegged with a four-star rating — no doubt in part influenced by all the other not-completely-praise-filled opinions out there. But, thinking back on it, I just enjoyed it. I think I’ve outlined the main reasons why that was the case, and why I’m able to put aside the niggles. Maybe I’m going soft? (See also: my reviews of poorly-received 2015 blockbusters Tomorrowland and Terminator Genisys.) On the bright side, I watched Jurassic World and had a really good time — that’s what blockbusters are fundamentally for, isn’t it?

5 out of 5

Jurassic World placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* Obviously The Force Awakens has already obliterated most of these records (but not all of them). Nonetheless, Jurassic World’s still-phenomenal success remains part of an extraordinary year for Universal, who have also had two other films (Furious 7 and Minions) surpass $1 billion in 2015. They even broke the previous record for full-year studio gross (Fox’s $5.53 billion) in August. They’re not normally so successful (their best result in the ‘studio league table’ for the past decade was third, but they’re usually fifth or sixth), and I rather like Universal — possibly just because of their awesome logo and fanfare, possibly because of their cool theme parks, or possibly even because of their rich history of great movies — so this story has made me unduly happy as it’s developed since the summer. ^

The Lego Movie (2014)

aka The LEGO Movie

2014 #132
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO MovieDespite looking like a 100-minute toy commercial with an irritating theme song, plus a moral message about nonconformity that seems like it’ll get bungled (but doesn’t), The Lego Movie is so much more — and better — than that.

Boundlessly creative, clever, and witty with the possibilities of its titular topic, featuring technically incredible animation (the close-up detail!), and boosted by a talented cast including leading man du jour Chris Pratt — plus a completely unpredictable final act twist — the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs co-directors have, against the odds, produced another charming and immensely enjoyable animation.

The song is awful, though.

4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.