Movie Review ~ The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

The Facts:

Synopsis:  On a mission to make Christmas unforgettable for Quill, the Guardians head to Earth, searching for the perfect present.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon
Director: James Gunn
Rated: NR
Running Length: 42 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  In 1978, the now-infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired for the first and only time on CBS, becoming an example of how pandering to fandom can be dangerous.  While that special has become the punchline for jokes over time, it’s so legitimately terrible that even a revaluation can’t change public opinion.  The joke has now extended so far into the meta-verse that a popular franchise (which draws from much of the same fanbase) is throwing caution to the wind and creating its own holiday special.  Released as the second Marvel Studios Special Presentation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is intended as an early gift to unwrap but might be a lump of coal for some.

Shot during the production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (due out in May 2023) by writer/director James Gunn (The Suicide Squad), this 44-minute short film is a standalone adventure that mainly focuses on Drax (Dave Bautista, Riddick) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) attempting to cheer up Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World: Dominion) during the holidays. (A classic set-up.)  Mantis thinks it’s due to the recent loss of a loved one and a secret she’s keeping from Peter, so she’s extra invested in making this season merry and bright while Drax is volun-told he’ll be helping her out.  Their big plan?  Bring back Peter’s favorite Earth-bound hero as a surprise for Christmas.  If only they knew where this Kevin Bacon fellow lived…

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) is a term growing in shorthand popularity, meaning that your experience with something may differ from others.  That applies perfectly to The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.  Watching it, I got the distinct impression the comedic bits of physical comedy and juvenile-level jokes were meant for a specific group instead of a broader base that could join in the appreciation of it.  A litmus test is the opening credits which play over a cracked song about Santa performed by the band the Old 97’s.  If you aren’t guffawing through the number, the next 40 minutes may be rough-going. The humor is stagnant and half-baked in an exhausting “we’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, too” sort of way.

The first Marvel Studios Special Presentation, Werewolf by Night, had a more serious tone. While it was meant as a standalone story in the overall Marvel Universe, it felt like it invited the audiences into its orbit.  Conversely, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special doesn’t have to work to introduce new characters, so it’s a bit freewheeling and unfocused. Drax and Mantis dipping into a gay bar feels like a badly timed bit, made worse by the lame zingers lobbed while inside.  Gunn tightens things up when Bacon (They/Them) enters, playing himself.  Demonstrating again that he’s a good sport, he lets Gunn, and the oddball Guardians characters gently rib his persona and fame, likely because he gets the last laugh (and sings a closing number), and the whole thing is generally received in good fun.

Not destined to be the kind of Christmas perennial classic like a Rankin/Bass feature nor relegated to the “never-watch” wasteland like the misguided television special from which it drew inspiration, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special will get the laughs from the fans but isn’t likely to capture any new followers.  The filmmaking feels a bit like we got the B-Team of effects techs, and if you told me they had a quick turnaround time to get this done, I’d believe it based on how soft the completed film looks.  I wouldn’t put it on my naughty list; just more of an obligatory watch for most. I hope these Special Presentations will start feeling a little more ‘special’ in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Jurassic World Dominion

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dinosaurs now live—and hunt—alongside humans all over the world. This fragile balance will reshape the future and determine, once and for all, whether human beings are to remain the apex predators on a planet they now share with history’s most fearsome creatures.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise, Isabella Sermon,  Mamoudou Athie, Campbell Scott, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Scott Haze, Dichen Lachman
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 146 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Recently, I was asked to list a handful of my most memorable summer movie experiences. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park in June of 1993 easily came in at #1. There was something so special about that time, a pre-internet era where all you had to go on before a movie was released were clips shown on entertainment news programs or movie magazines tailored to your interests. For this movie in particular, so much was kept under wraps beforehand that audiences truly had no little idea about what was in store for them. I miss having those unspoiled viewing pleasures, and in the decades since Jurassic Park opened its doors, the odds of walking blindly into a film have decreased every time society introduced a new social media platform.

When Universal Studios revitalized the Jurassic franchise in 2015 with the super-blockbuster Jurassic World, many of those same early feelings of excitement came back to me. New director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), personally selected by Spielberg, took the reins with that same sense of fun and adventure. Even if nothing would match the spirit of the original visit to the park (including The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 and Jurassic Park III in 2001), I was thrilled with what the creative team had worked up. Trevorrow wasn’t on hand for 2018’s Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, which suffered as previous sequels did with being set in a climate that didn’t feel contained enough to create appropriate tension. I liked it better than my colleagues, but it didn’t move the dial like it should (or could) have. 

For the supposed final film (at least in this trilogy), Trevorrow has returned and brought back the trio of original co-stars from Spielberg’s first outing. That alone is worth booking passage to Jurassic World Dominion, but audiences will have to wade through a fair share of thorny underbrush in this 146-minute finale ultimo. Boasting surprisingly less than cutting edge special effects, some downright silly contrivances, and performances from dinosaurs that often best the humans they are acting alongside, you’ll want to see it with a packed audience to get your maximum enjoyment. They’ll help smooth out the rocky ride between the star attractions if they’re anything like my enthusiastic crowd.

In the four years following the events of Fallen Kingdom, when the dinosaurs escaped their island and integrated into the ecosystem around the world, most of the population has grown accustomed to seeing these bio-engineered creatures roaming the globe. Exploited to varying degrees for their exotic appeal, they’ve gone beyond park attractions to curiosities you can own as a status symbol or wield as a tool against an enemy. That’s what a growing horde of pre-historic locusts is doing, decimating crops not planted with a synthetic seed from seemingly benign company Biosyn Genetics led by a character that will be familiar to trivia buffs of the first film. While Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man) didn’t play this part back then, it’s a wise choice to have an actor of his stature (and oddity) take over.

Researching the raging locusts is Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, Little Women), who has been tipped off by old friend Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) that Biosyn is behind the revived insects and gets her access to their private labs in the Dolomite Mountains. She needs an experienced witness to vouch for her findings and turns to former flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, Dead Calm) to fly with her and provide a second set of trained eyes. Little do they know it, but Biosyn is also a sanctuary for many of the dinosaurs that have been rounded up from around the world, and they’re about to welcome another set of visitors to the facility under very different circumstances.

After escaping with the first human clone, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard, Rocketman), and Owen (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) are trying to keep her hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only did she release the dinos into the wild to begin with, but her very existence is valuable to scientists seeking to do good and evil. Staying close by is Velociraptor Blue, still ornery but keeping an eye on a new baby raptor Maisie nicknamed Beta. When both Maisie and Blue are captured by Biosyn cronies, Clare and Owen team up with a non-nonsense former Air Force Pilot (DeWanda Wise, The Harder They Fall) to break into Biosyn and retrieve both precious assets.

Much of Jurassic World Dominion is spent with the two stories working separately from one another, and only one holds much interest. That would be the thread that follows Dern and Neill (and sometimes Goldblum) as they travel to Biosyn and get a lay of the mysterious lab/land. Meeting up with Scott and his team (including franchise stalwart B.D. Wong, The Space Between Us, still causing nefarious trouble and then feeling guilty after), one can’t help but be reminded of their trip to Jurassic Park…and Treverrow doesn’t let you forget it thanks to several Easter Egg callbacks to the original. These are fun, audience-pleasing moments that land with welcome warmth. 

On the other side, Howard and Pratt are heading up the more action-heavy side of things, globe-trotting from the Sierra Nevadas to Malta before heading to Biosyn.  All of this added movement does little to stir up much in the way of tension, despite some decent attempts from Howard to get into the action and shockingly little effort from Pratt to do anything more than the minimum required to move from one scene to the next. It’s like Pratt forgot what he liked about being in movies in the first place. He’s never been close to a movie star, but now he’s not even working to prove it anymore. His process is starting to show, never changing up his look or approach, and it’s never more evident here. Wise can get a few good moments out of him, but even her material is so weak that you can sometimes feel her wanting to roll her eyes and the tired dialogue she has to say. 

Frustratingly non-committal in certain areas (count how many people get snacked on in comparison to how many dinosaurs get finished off) and tossing whatever light science was present early on right out the door (T-Rex suddenly loses all sense of smell here), Jurassic World Dominion has a handful of thrill-park esque sequences that are effective but double the number of slogs that could have been so much more. It feels like two partial movies that never got finished smashed into one…I wish more time were spent fleshing out the revisit with our old friends rather than trying to make time for the newbies. Then you’d have a movie worth waiting in line all day for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jurassic World: Dominion


Synopsis: The epic conclusion of the Jurassic era.
Release Date:  June 10, 2022
Thoughts:  I have friendly neighbors who never would have called the police on me today when I screamed watching this new trailer for Jurassic World: Dominion.  If the police had arrived, I would have invited them in and brought them to the part of the first full look at the sixth film in the long-running franchise when original stars Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum appeared.  Actually, more like when Dern shows up and reunites with Neill in a setting that feels familiar to those that remember how the first movie began. 

This lightning bolt of nostalgia is just one of many thrills to be had in this maxed-out ride through the adventure awaiting audiences in the final chapter of a trilogy that began with 2015’s Jurassic World.  Though 2018’s sequel Fallen Kingdom didn’t meet the expectations of many, I appreciated its gentle attempt at pivoting.  Under the guidance of the first chapter’s director Colin Trevorrow and backed by a humungous production, the series has clearly course-corrected in a significant way.  Did I tear up a bit during this trailer?  Unashamedly I nod my head yes.  Already high on my list of anticipated films of 2022, Jurassic World: Dominion is now in the #1 slot.

Movie Review ~ The Tomorrow War

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ordinary family man is recruited by time travelers from 30 years in the future to fight in a deadly war against aliens.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Theo Von, Jasmine Mathews, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Director: Chris McKay

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s still been sort of a weird summer, hasn’t it?  While things felt like they were heading back on track with theaters re-opening, the business hasn’t exactly been booming.  Sure, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and F9: The Fast Saga unsurprisingly attracted devoted fans into seats based on their name recognition alone, the disappointing showing of the much anticipated musical In the Heights knocked the wind out of many sails just as things were getting going.  Approaching the traditionally jam-packed July 4th weekend, there’s not a smorgasbord to choose from in cinemas and definitely no major blockbuster release that historically debuted just ahead of the holiday weekend.

Instead, that action mega-ton popcorn film is making its premiere on Amazon Prime and while The Tomorrow War gets the job done as a frenzied, effects-heavy epic that just keeps going and going, it’s missing a few key elements that were magic ingredients to previous success in years past.  We’ll get into what those components are in a bit, but I want to say from the start that you absolutely should watch The Tomorrow War and not be deterred by a trailer and synopsis that suggests a bland sameness or Pratt’s waning promise as a capable lead in motion pictures.  Stumbling terribly at first, the film positively jolts to life about forty minutes in and hooked me for the remainder.

Several years in the future, Dan Forester (Pratt, Jurassic World) is a ordinary guy with a wife and daughter trying to get a better job after his military service.  Then, during a holiday party at their house when everyone is watching a soccer game on TV (at Christmas? I know…), the world changes when out of a center-field nebula armed visitors from the future appear and announce the need for volunteers to come and fight a war going on decades from now.  Over the next year, armies across the globe go forth and are decimated by alien creatures so terrifying the future visitors dare not share pictures for fear that they will have trouble recruiting present day citizens from traveling through time to battle them.  Eventually Dan is called up through a national draft and finds himself facing down these beasts along with others that have had no training in combat or evasive measures. 

These first forty or so minutes of The Tomorrow War that deals with all the exposition needed to inform the audience of a lot of plot details is pretty bad.  It’s awkward and gangly, sort of like Pratt’s weirdly uncomfortable look stuffed into a shirt/sweater combo during the holiday party.  The writing is poor, the acting is not much better, and all signs were pointing to 140 minutes of iffy effects to go along with the bad plot mechanics.  Then, something sort of amazing happens.  Director Chris McKay (The LEGO Movie) and writer Zach Dean put Dan and his untrained bunch face to face with an enemy that might just be one of the most terrifying creations seen in these alien beasts on Earth films yet.  I’m not kidding when I say that when we get our first look at the White Spikes I sat up rigid in my seat, jaw agape, and said “Oh no, I do not appreciate that.”  Much of this has to go to the effects folks who created this monster, seamlessly blending it (for the most part) with the live-action actors…but it’s a formidable foe that is nightmarishly ruthless.  That McKay keeps it hidden for an extended period of time also adds to its overall scariness when we finally do see it.

In time-travel movies, the filmmakers can play fast and loose with their rules, and they do so here as well, to some extent.  I won’t go too far into who Yvonne Strahovski (All I See Is You) is playing or how she figures into Forester’s life but the two join forces in the future which winds up having a major impact on the past.  Just when you think the movie is reaching its climax, you look at your watch and realize it’s only halfway done.  Then the next time you think it’s over, your watch tells you there’s a half hour left.  This happens two or three more times before the film actually wraps up and the multiple endings give The Tomorrow War an overall breathless pace but also contributes to a weariness after a time.  That extra time gives way for some slow dips in the action and dramatic scenes between Dan and his estranged father (J.K. Simmons, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) as well as a few fun sequences of Indiana Jones-style adventure.  It’s a big package to digest and while it wouldn’t have worked on the big screen because you’d have to take it a bit more seriously, on the small screen some of these quirkier asides tend to play easier.

What is harder to take is Pratt’s clunker performance, a disappointing sign the actor isn’t delivering on some early promise that he had leading man potential.  An executive producer of the film, Pratt should have been even more on the ball as someone with a grander stake in the movie’s prospects but alas, he’s just missing that magical “it” factor that could have given all of his scenes more weight.  His jokes don’t land, his dramatic thrust isn’t felt, it’s just a vacant, mannequin type of performance that goes through the motions but doesn’t bring anything new.  That’s especially apparent as the film draws to a conclusion and becomes a one-man Pratt showcase even though he’s sharing the screen with likable actors like Sam Richardson (Werewolves Within) who outcharms him without even trying.

This is a big, big, big movie and not one you should be watching on a tiny computer screen or your phone.  You will want to check this one out and make The Tomorrow War an event if you can, trying your best to ignore it’s bad opening and enjoy when it shows what our heroes are up against.

Movie Review ~ Onward


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.

I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?

The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated.  On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.

The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.

The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.

It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.

 

Movie Review ~ The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO® invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than they can rebuild.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Channing Tatum, Tiffany Haddish, Will Arnett

Director: Mike Mitchell

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest champion of 2014’s The LEGO® Movie and I fully recognize I was certainly in the minority. In fact, while many were gnashing their teeth when the film failed the land an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature I was silently in my own little corner doing a small victory dance. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the film for its creativity but it was largely an obnoxious exercise of meta self-referential humor that took a misguided turn in its last act by bringing in a live-action subplot that failed to connect. Re-watching the film before heading out for the sequel screening only confirmed my original feelings that the movie was a colorful lark struggling to be more than the sum of its one-joke parts.

With the overall success of the original film and two other LEGO follow-ups released in 2017, The LEGO® Batman Movie (which I quite enjoyed) and The LEGO® Ninjago Movie (the one I haven’t seen), it was only a matter of time before Warner Brothers reassembled the players for a second outing and they’ve largely delivered more of the same. So fans of the original should be pleased while those that didn’t necessarily fall out of their seats for the first helping won’t find anything here to convert them. Sadly, the weakest element of the first film (the live-action scenes) is the one thing the filmmakers decided to expand upon here, creating an even greater disconnect between the action and the audience.

Nicely connecting with the original by picking up in the last few moments of the first film, the sequel introduces our heroes to an alien race (Duplo blocks) that sets about destroying the world they had just saved from the evil President Business (Will Ferrell, Daddy’s Home). Five years later, Emmet (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World). Lucy (Elizabeth Banks, People Like Us) and their friends have built Apocalypseburg out of the ruins of what was once their thriving community of Bricksburg. Even in the face of a life considerably less awesome, Emmet is resolutely positive, much to the frustration of his more grounded life partner Lucy.  Wanting a life of peace and harmony, Emmet even builds a quaint suburban style house for Lucy in the midst of the ruins they now call home.

It’s only when General Sweet Mayhem from the Duplo army arrives and kidnaps Lucy, Batman, and their other friends and brings them to the Systar system to meet Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) that Emmet is forced into action. The Queen wants to marry Batman and unite their worlds to gain ultimate power and it’s up to Emmet and his new friend Rex (also voiced by Pratt) to rescue his pals and stop the Queen before it’s too late. The adventure tests everyone as they are tempted by pop music distractions along the way, giving the movie ample opportunities to musicalize scenes and amp up the meta humor ten-fold.  (Reading this description back sounds like I’m telling a bedtime story to a toddler that’s only half-listening to me, doesn’t it?)

The first film saved the live-action reveal for the very end, showing the world we’d been watching was merely a playground for a young boy playing with his dad’s LEGO blocks. It didn’t make much sense then and it doesn’t make a lot more sense in the sequel that finds the boy and his sister having a turf war over their toys, forcing their mom (Maya Rudolph, Life of the Party) to step in and lay down the law. It never is clear just how the animated action is directly related to this live-action business and every time we switched to the actors badly going through their dialogue the movie ground to an interminable halt. Even the normally dependable Rudolph can’t turn the dial on this to make it funnier.

This is too bad because the film is once again beautifully animated and rendered with dazzling color and clarity. Far more musical than its predecessor (Haddish gets two songs of her own and the ear worm song, Everything is Awesome, comes back in several versions), the movie doesn’t break much new ground in terms of forwarding the story and it’s severely lacking the spark of invention that made the first film at least interesting. Now it’s just a good-looking movie with some fun nostalgia bits for seasoned movie-goers (you may need to see the movie twice to catch all of the references to other films) and a quaint message of self-acceptance Disney’s been making bank on for years.  With a run time stretching past 90 minutes and the longest end credits I’ve ever sat through, this is one you’ll need to think carefully on if you want to devote time to in theaters.  You’ll lose nothing by waiting to see this in the comfort of your own home.

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Infinity War


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Avengers and their allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Sean Gunn, Tom Holland, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Dinklage

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The ultimate villain of Avengers: Infinity War is going to be anyone that spoils what happens in this all-star extravaganza, the culmination of 19 films over 10 years that have made up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a true believer in the power of a spoiler-free experience, I’m reluctant to even talk too much about the movie here, lest I give away even a whiff of the game-changing developments worked up by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. However further you venture to read, know that Avengers: Infinity War may be the first toll of a bell signaling the end of an era but there’s still a few clangs yet to ring out.

With the action picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film wastes no time in diving into the action as big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice) continues his quest to procure six Infinity Stones by any means necessary. With two stones in his possession by the time the title card is displayed, you get the distinct impression that Thanos isn’t going to be defeated easily no matter what brand of superhero gang sets about to stop him. Sending minions to Earth to gather stones protected by Vision (Paul Bettany, Transcendence) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County), Thanos searches for the remaining gems in truly out of this world locations.

If Thanos secures all six stones in his gauntlet he’ll have power over the entire universe and be able to wipe out half the population with the snap of his very large and in charge fingers.   Never fear, though, because according to Marvel there are about 64 main characters featured and while not all of them get as much screen time as you’d think, there is often more than enough action to go around. Markus and McFeely concoct some believable ways to separate the various heroes as they unite to stop Thanos from achieving his goal. Even better, the combos of who is working with whom are surprising and often quite entertaining…but in an effort to maintain some suspense, you’ll have to see the movie to find out who teams up.

With the exception of two notable stars (again…not telling) the gang is all here, down to supporting players that haven’t been seen for a while. Even if A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow (Thanks for Sharing) get limited screen time it’s nice to see these familiar faces along the way because their appearances act like mini Easter eggs, rewarding the actors as well as devoted audience members. Arriving a little over two months after Black Panther smashed all box office records, it would have been easy to do what Justice League did after the success of Wonder Woman and give a bit more attention to a breakout star like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) but the filmmakers wisely keep things level.

The main stars that anchor the action are Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation), and Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) with some nice supporting turns from Captain America (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). In hindsight, it feels like the popular Guardians of the Galaxy are favored in the action ever so slightly more than a few of the veteran Avengers but watching the movie in the moment there is a greater feeling of equity. There’s little room for new characters to be introduced and when they are, like Peter Dinklage’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) painfully serious but ultimately silly turn, it feels like time is being taken away from the people we want to see.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have stuffed this prize package with an abundance of get-your-moneys-worth riches, from eye popping visual effects to spectacularly pitched action sequences. The finale is a showstopper, an all-out blitzkrieg assault that takes place in multiple places with numerous characters and still it’s never hard to follow what’s going on. It takes a special hand to guide these types of action set-pieces and their fourth film for Marvel has the Russo Brothers finding full scale power in their directing. That style in direction marries nicely with Trent Opaloch’s (Elysium) stunning cinematography that isn’t overrun by the dynamite visual effects. Alan Silvestri’s (The Croods) score is, as always, instantly recognizable and eternally heroic.

Do yourself a favor and get your bathroom breaks out before the film starts because at 156 minutes from start to finish it’s a commitment. You can’t afford to miss much, though, so even a well-timed pee break might set you back, especially in the last ten minutes. As with all Marvel movies, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave until the final credit has disappeared because there’s only one post-credit scene and it’s at the very end. Missing this one in particular would be a mistake.

The next Avengers movie is set for release in May 2019 and by that time two more Marvel films will have seen the light of day (Ant-Man and the Wasp in July and Captain Marvel in March 2019). Not every question is resolved by the end of Avengers: Infinity War and I’m more than interested to see what gets answered between now and next year…just do yourself a favor and see this one before anyone can spoil what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…or that I let the cat out of the bag either.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Movie Review ~ Passengers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.

Release Date: May 5, 2017

Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014.  Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks.  The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers).  In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.