Movie Review ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

The Facts:

Synopsis: Still reeling from the loss of Gamora, Peter Quill rallies his team to defend the universe and one of their own – a mission that could mean the end of the Guardians if not successful.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone
Director: James Gunn
Rated: pG-13
Running Length: 150 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:   Marvel diehards may be united in their overall fandom for the ongoing adventure series seen on film and television, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded, it’s clear that specific groups are finding their niche favorites. In one corner, you have your Thor defenders (even if they were on shaky ground with 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder); on the other side of the field, you have the next-gen crowd looking forward to 2023’s The Marvels, which hopes to combine elements introduced on two Disney+ series with the long-awaited return of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel.

Over at the snack bar with their Air Pods in are the Guardians of the Galaxy stans. They’ve eagerly anticipated this (supposed) final volume in a trilogy shepherded by outgoing Marvel hire and new Warner Bros. kingpin James Gunn. Initially fired from the project over an old controversy that got him canceled, he was hired back after an outcry from fans and big-name stars attached to this third sequel. Disney mea culpa-ed their way back into Gunn’s good graces, and I’ve got a feeling the free-wheeling nature of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the November 2022 release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was the result of their hands-mostly-off deal to get him to come back.

I’ve never been a massive fan of these films, finding them the epitome of Marvel Humor run amok. What has worked in doled-out doses in other movies of the MCU throughout the various phases is unleashed at full volume in Gunn’s swan song. The result is a fitfully entertaining, overlong, self-indulgent space race that aims to give the true-blue fans what they’ve waited for. I’m sure those devoted to these grungy Guardians will gasp in delight at every needle drop pulled from the kind of classic rock greatest hits you’d expect to hear before a Monster Truck rally. However, it’s so devoid of surprise and basic imagination that you wish Gunn had spent less time putting together a playlist and more on giving the audience breathless unpredictability. 

To its credit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 works mainly as a stand-alone entry and doesn’t have many ties to previous (or future) films in the MCU, so if you’re a bit behind in the movie or television series, then you won’t be at a total loss as the movie begins. (As opposed to Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, which, while visually superior to Vol. 3, was narratively too intertwined with other projects.)  Residing on Knowhere, an intergalactic port of call they chill on between missions, the Guardians continue to grieve for the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña, Out of the Furnace), who met her end at the hand of her adopted father Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Unbeknownst to several, a new Gamora with no memory of her past life has found her way back (as shown in Avengers: Endgame – a detail I’d completely forgotten) and taken up arms with the Ravagers.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) blames himself for losing his love and continues his self-pity spiral we’ve seen in several films/specials. He’s still wallowing when Warlock (Will Poulter, Midsommar) crashes into Knowhere, disrupting the tranquility and causing intentional critical damage to one of their own. Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) is seriously injured, and the only way he can be healed is to locate the lab where he was given his genetically engineered strength. In doing so, the gang will unlock a secret from Rocket’s past and draw the ire of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, Daniel Isn’t Real) that created him. Eventually reuniting with an indifferent Gamora will put Quill, Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick),  Drax (Dave Bautista. My Spy), Nebula (Karen Gillan. Oculus), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) on a final mission that might save their friend or kill them all in the process.

There’s a lot of shouting in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which becomes aggravating as Gunn moves into the final act. The chief offender is Iwuji, who goes right off the rails with the villainous role he plays to the back of the movie theater and then some. It’s one thing to fill up the space on the screen and make yourself into a commanding presence, but it’s another thing to make the viewer want to plug their ears every time you speak. Iwuji is a strong actor and one of the more intriguing villains the MCU has created, but the performance is so enormous that it becomes a painful distraction. The rest of the cast also tends to deliver their lines with a guttural shout, as if they shot the movie in a machine shed. Gillan digs so far down for her coarse voice that you expect to see her tonsils sweeping the floor.

Speaking of Gillan, when she isn’t giving gravel voice, she’s offering a finely shaded performance that helps give the film some emotional arc, because it isn’t getting one from Pratt. While Pratt looks far more invested in this film than in the Jurassic World movies, he never feels entirely present. At least he has solid actors like Gillan and a surprisingly activated Saldaña to share scenes with. Watching the film also reminded me how much we undervalue Bautista as a successful presence onscreen. My mileage has always varied with Cooper voicing Rocket. I can appreciate that Cooper sounds like he’s having fun, and Vol. 3 is most definitely the Rocket show, giving extended glimpses into his origin story (one that reaches a peak with an emotional payoff I wasn’t exactly prepared for) and allowing a healthy amount of time for the Oscar-nominated actor to emote using only his voice. Painted Goldfinger gold, Poulter and especially Elizabeth Debicki (hidden behind a tousled stringy Gwyneth Paltrow wig) are wasted in their roles, undefined and only there to distract.

The fans of this trilogy (and the other MCU films the characters have turned up in) will undoubtedly walk out of the movie with a full belly – there are just too many Gunn-isms that I know will send them reeling with pleasure. I wish Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 had stuck to its, erm, guns more and trusted its finale status as just that. Promises of loose ends tied up are left slack, and windows that we think are locked when the final frame fades to black are already cracking before the last credits have run. That feels like giving us a slim slice of cake dripping with more frosting than it can support and then letting us watch while you eat a second steak dinner at your table.    

Movie Review ~ Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: In preparing for this review, I looked over the various covers of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, that have been released over the years, and marveling at how the front designs have changed with the times. A simple artist sketch in the first publication followed a more detailed illustration for the school paperback, giving way to a literal photographic interpretation of the central character on a recent reissue. Some designs are sparse, with only the title and a small flourish to make it pop or tie into a series of Blume YA novels. If you’ve read the book over the last five decades, you may spot a familiar scene depicted or any number of artist renderings of Margaret.

What hasn’t changed is what’s inside the front and back covers: the landmark story that Blume first published in 1970 and has remained a top-selling favorite among its target audience (growing young adults) as well as a hot-button issue for those that contest it being made available to that very population due to its mature subject matter. Countless books get their movie rights snapped up, often before they are even published, but Blume has always guarded her material closely and seldom grants requests to anyone for adaptation. With the book approaching its 50th anniversary, she put her trust in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and experienced producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) so that they could finally bring her gem of a novel to life for a new generation.

The summer before sixth grade has been good for sensitive Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, Ant-Man and the Wasp). She’s spent it at sleepaway camp in upstate New York and made a host of new friends, and while she’s wistful to see it end, she’s excited to get back home to see her parents and grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell). The warm fuzzies don’t last long because before mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Game Night) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza) can break it to her gently, Sylvia spills the beans that the three of them are moving to New Jersey. Leaving her friends, her spry grandmother, and the allure of the Big Apple behind is tragic to Margaret, but she’s assured this new beginning and a new job for her father will be the first step in accomplishing shared family goals.

It’s an adjustment for everyone. A former art teacher, the free-spirited Barbara is now a stay-at-home mother and throws herself into the suburban PTA domestic life while Margaret begins the school year with a leg up on the social circuit. She’s living close to Nancy Wheeler (Elle Green, She Said), a popular girl that wears a bra and expects all of her friends to wear one too, not that Margaret or Janie (Amari Alexis Price) or Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer, Widows) need one yet. That’s an embarrassing bridge to cross over with their mothers (definitely NOT their fathers) at a date yet to be determined, preferably in a neighboring town. 

The real issue weighing on Margaret isn’t the pressure from her friends about identifying each part of their changing bodies and highlighting who is growing faster and hitting milestones first, but in the tumult growing in her household. A child of interfaith parents, she realizes that with a Christian mother and Jewish father, their hands-off approach to religion and preference to let her make up her mind has left her even more confused about what she believes. So she begins to have (often nightly) conversations with God, probing discussions about her tiny corner of the world and its major impacts. As the school year goes on and adolescent hormones start to rear their raging head, Margaret and her friends experience the pains of growing up, the beauty of understanding yourself, and the joy of owning your path toward adulthood.

Blume’s wonderfully rich and insightful novel had been around for eleven years when director Kelly Fremon Craig was born, and Blume was wise to wait for her to grow up to adapt it for the big screen. A thread of confidence runs through the core of each film frame that gives it such power that it’s almost like electricity. Even if the performances weren’t so incredible, I think it would still have been a high achievement. Blessedly, the stars have aligned, and Fremon Craig landed the perfect actors to play these roles many of us had imagined over the years. 

Margaret Simon is a literary figure many young girls looked up to, and many boys had come to understand by reading Blume’s novel. Fortson embodies the character, all the emotional highs and lows, with marvelous grace – she understands Blume’s creation at its very center. The young actors from top to bottom are strong, from Margaret’s close friends to the well-cast members of her class (I was howling with delight at the one boy in class no one wants to be paired with), and Safdie continues to prove himself as interesting an actor as he is in the director’s chair. It’s a pleasure to see Bates all dolled up, looking like she just stepped out of Bergdorf Goodman and getting the chance to play a little broad comedy again. She needs to do more of it.

Though it’s Margaret’s movie, no question, I have to say that I was knocked out by what McAdams was doing in her supporting role. McAdams has always happily flown under the radar in Hollywood, content to do good work with strong directors and her fellow co-stars. She is attracted to roles that she can get passionate about no matter how high profile they are, and while I doubt she took this film thinking she’d get buckets of bouquets, I wouldn’t count her out for a strong Oscar push for Supporting Actress. Fremon Craig allows Barbara to grow in a different kind of awakening, and McAdams leaves us as wide-eyed as she is. 

The kind of tear-jerker that gets them out of you without resorting to cheap rug pulls or by going down the expected routes, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret represents the correct way to adapt a beloved novel. Patience is a virtue and key in ensuring you have found the right team to hand over something special. In my recent review of the document Judy Blume Forever, I expressed my eternal thanks to the author for providing us with rich characters and novels that helped us feel less lonely as we grew up. Now, there’s a movie that gives a similar feeling. 

Movie Review ~ Polite Society

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ria Khan believes she must save her older sister Lena from her impending marriage. After enlisting her friends’ help, she attempts to pull off the most ambitious wedding heists in the name of independence and sisterhood.
Stars: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Shobu Kapoor, Ella Bruccoleri, Seraphina Beh, Shona Babayemi, Nimra Bucha, Jeff Mirza, Akshay Khanna
Director: Nida Manzoor
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Mesdames and Messieurs, your attention, please. We have an audience-pleasing banger on our hands, and it’s not even summer yet. A clash between the refined snooty toots of the Bridgerton set, and the high-kicking, fast-paced zing of an undiscovered VHS Bollywood actioner, a breath of fresh air never smelled so confidently fragrant. Indeed, Polite Society comes roarin’ into theaters off a much-talked-about premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and a rapturous reception at the 42nd Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in seeing the film, make sure to avoid the trailers like the plague; marketing for this one gives an incredible amount of footage away – I mention this immediately because even if you read no further, make sure to skip the trailer and any footage you come across.

Now that you have my warning, we can get down to business and discuss Nida Manzoor’s action comedy built on feminist principles but not relying on them to lead their narrative. Manzoor gained notoriety in 2021 with her Peacock TV Series We Are Lady Parts, a sitcom following a punk rock band in Britain made up of all Muslim women. Highly awarded in its native country, its short run got a lot of attention for its creator, and soon after, Manzoor was hard at work bringing Polite Society to the screen. Several film festivals runs later, the movie is released to the general public, and I’ll be interested to see how it fares among other films that don’t provide a quarter of the brains or entertainment.

Intent on becoming stuntwoman like her idol, Eunice Huthart (played in voiceover by the real person), Ria (Priya Kansara) doesn’t recognize just how far into a depressive funk her sister Lena (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) has fallen. Dropping out of art school and wiling away her time at home in the house both sisters share with their parents, Lena’s so far gone that she’s eating an entire rotisserie chicken on the street in full view of her parent’s friends. Though Ria is otherwise occupied with her friends Clara (Seraphina Beh) and Alba (Ella Bruccoleri), it’s only after the family is invited out to an Eid celebration at the home of Rahela (Nimra Bucha) and her handsome son Salim (Akshay Khanna) that she begins to pay attention to the changes in her family dynamic.

Picking up on the odd behavior of Rahela and Salim, Ria assumes Lena will also write them off as bad news and thinks nothing more of it. However, Lena has been swept off her feet by Salim and soon finds herself engaged to the eligible bachelor. Actually, he’s only eligible because his young wife died under mysterious (but natural) circumstances…a factoid Ria can’t seem to forget about. Working with her BFFs, she hatches a plan first to split up her sister and potential future brother-in-law. Eventually, she concocts a plot to abduct her sibling at a lavish wedding celebration before it’s too late. She couldn’t be tapping into her wild imagination, could she? Salim and his mother offer reasonable explanations for their weird ways, or so it seems. Respected members of the “polite society,” neither would do anything to risk their positions in the community. Then again, mothers can be so protective of their sons…

In fairness, Manzoor’s film takes a few laps to get going. Surviving early on by the strength of Kansara’s ability to convey the right amount of non-annoying determination to pursue her chosen career and eventually the sheer gumption she uses to save her sister, Polite Society requires a bit of effort to settle in. Once it does, it connects in a big way. The fight sequences are bold and unique, and its rich color palette allows the actors and the scenery to pop. (Not that I could always see it. Once again, I was stuck at an AMC that refused to turn its bulbs up or replace them outright, so much of the movie was barely visible). 

Apart from Kansara, the actors playing her friends were nicely matched comic foils. Both have faces that lend themselves well to sizable comedic reactions, especially Bruccoleri. The casting, in general, was strong, with even the most minor roles utilizing actors I wanted to know more about, even if they were just popping in to buy an apple from a shop where the leads were getting groceries. Snagging the juiciest role is Bucha as a menacing figure who enters the sisters’ lives and doesn’t plan on going anywhere once she arrives. It’s an intense showcase, but the actress handles herself nicely, never quite showing her cards as to what she may have up her sleeve.

What a great time to go to the theater and see a movie like Polite Society with a large audience! The screening I attended was packed and nicely participatory throughout; you could feel the energy of viewers engaging with the material and the characters. That’s why there were random applause breaks throughout and at the end. While we’re known to be quite kind in MN, we don’t automatically dole out applause or standing ovations unless it warrants it. I’d strongly suggest catching this one at a theater near you. It’s fast, funny, and speaks volumes about this next generation of filmmakers with influential voices to keep amplifying.

Movie Review ~ Peter Pan & Wendy

The Facts:

Synopsis: Wendy Darling, a young girl afraid to leave her childhood home behind, meets Peter Pan, a boy who can fly and refuses to grow up. Alongside her brothers, Michael and John, and a tiny fairy, Tinker Bell, she travels with Peter to the magical world of Neverland.
Stars: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Jim Gaffigan
Director: David Lowery
Rated: PG
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: In 2016, I grumbled through the pre-release news of Disney’s remake of their fun 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. Now, it’s not as if that blend of live-action and animation (featuring a gorgeous Oscar-nominated tune sung by star Helen Reddy) was a jewel in the crown of the House of Mouse, but it was one of my childhood go-tos’s when I needed a pick-me-up. I wasn’t bothered by the other makeovers the studio had given their previous releases, but this seemed too sacred. I balked before giving director David Lowery’s take on the material a fair shot. And was I ever proven wrong!  

Lowery managed to keep the patina of the original film for devotees like me while coaxing a modern look at it that capitalized on its big heart. It was one of the best films of that year and still the best representation of how to do it right in the cycle of Disney remakes. With that success, Disney lined up Lowery to bring Peter Pan, another animated classic, to life, but it would take seven years for it to take flight. During that time, Lowery released four more films (A Ghost Story, The Yellow Birds, The Old Man & the Gun, and my favorite movie of 2021, The Green Knight) and produced four more. Thankfully the schedules lined up, and he’s made the time for Peter Pan and Wendy, a personal passion project he’s taken pains to get right.

By now, J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (aka Peter and Wendy), could be filed under the ‘oft-told’ stories section of our collective consciousness. We’re all familiar with the tale of the boy searching for his shadow in the nursery of a stately London home one evening and taking the children living there on a joyflight to Neverland. With his trusted fairy Tinkerbell giving them the pixie dust to buoy their “wonderful thoughts” that help them fly, Wendy, Michael, and John go on adventures with Peter Pan and his troupe of Lost Boys. 

Danger lurks in the form of the dreaded Captain Hook, always out to get Peter and only stopping to evade a crocodile stalking him. Pirate shenanigans ensue, with Tiger Lily joining forces with Peter to save a captured Wendy from walking the plank and forcing Hook to stare down his reptilian nemesis that has returned for seconds after getting a taste of his hand. With balance restored, the three children return home to their panicked parents with new friends who want to try this “getting old” business, but one boy holds back, determined to stay young forever.

I wouldn’t typically give such a complete description of the plot, even if the story of Peter Pan is one that we’ve seen numerous times on film in the 1953 animated Disney flick, on stage with Cathy Rigby, or in television specials starring Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan. Or perhaps we’ve waited in line for the ride at one of the Disney theme parks (an old-school track ride, for my money, it’s still the most enchanting one there) and are familiar with the storyline and could recite it in our sleep. It’s what Lowery does with that familiarity that makes this version so impressive.

Unlike Pete’s Dragon, a ‘lesser’ Disney title that Lowery could take some big swings with, there isn’t as much room to change things up in Peter Pan and Wendy, and that’s a smart move. Aside from rounding out the more problematic areas that have plagued the plot as the years go by and we’ve all learned about better representation, Lowery lets Barrie’s story speak for itself and instead focuses on creating a magical world with emotional performances that feel resonant. Performing a bit of a balancing of sorts to allow Wendy to be more in the equation where the narrative force is concerned helps the film not feel like it’s being ruled by the whims of an immature flying boy that only learns his lesson when a man-child (Hook) taunts him. In Lowery’s eyes, both have important lessons to teach the other, and the story isn’t complete until they understand what the other is bringing to the table.

Lowery has consistently shown himself fascinated with that transition from the young to the old. There’s a critical examination in Peter Pan and Wendy of not wanting to age and resisting it as long as possible for fear that life won’t be fun anymore. The tweaks made in Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks’s script make sense, including adding more nuanced interplay for Peter and Hook (an excellent Jude Law, The Grand Budapest Hotel, overdoing it slightly but only so far as the character he’s playing will allow it) and reducing the irritability of Tinkerbell (the lovely Yara Shahidi, Alex Cross) to make her more of an ally for Wendy (Ever Anderson, Black Widow) than a competitor for Peter’s affection. Peter (Alexander Molony) is also smoothed out a bit, asking him to be more responsible for his actions and behaviors than previous iterations have.

It’s silly that this is bypassing movie theaters and heading straight for Disney+ because Lowery has made Peter Pan and Wendy for the big screen. The production values are luxe, the art direction is meticulous, and the cinematography from Bojan Bazelli (Underwater) is creative without distraction. Watching it at home, even on a large screen, doesn’t do it justice. Also, a vague attempt at making sections have a musicality doesn’t exactly work…as much as I wish it had. Still, I enjoyed hearing the strains of the songs from the original used as recurring themes in Daniel Hart’s score. As with every Lowery production, it looks impeccable and easily puts you into the world the filmmakers have created.

Lowery waited so long to make the film because he wanted to get it right. I think the wait was worth it. The work is yet another showcase not just for the intuitive filmmaker Lowery is for tapping into emotions but for how to take a known property and change its form while retaining what was so special about it at the beginning.