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 ~ Dual

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second.  I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500.  What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame.  It’s the same way for movies.  No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.

We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns.  The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release.  That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction.  Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods. 

That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison.  The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment.  Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite.  Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is.  Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.

The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see.  One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know.  Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip. 

When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect.  You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall.  By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks.  As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.

This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death.  Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.

There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter.  Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down.  Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another.  Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack.  As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion.  Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.

Movie Review ~ Gunpowder Milkshake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret sisterhood comes to the rescue of a mother-daughter assassin team.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Chloe Coleman, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson, Adam Nagaitis, Michael Smiley

Director: Navot Papushado

Rated: NR

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As the credits were rolling on the new hyper-stylized action film Gunpowder Milkshake (which features copious glamor shots of both, I might add), a small but lively debate raged on between my partner and myself over the age-old notion of style over substance.  He argued the film was basically plotless, just a shell for Israelian director Navot Papushado to exercise some considerable effort in filming extensive action sequences where a whole bunch of people get shot, stabbed, beaten, maimed, bludgeoned, squished, and squashed.  I took the position that what is an action film but a basic set-up which leads to a series of events that bring resolution to that initial set-up?  With most of our deliberations, movies or otherwise, it ended with a détente, reasoning that we were essentially both right in the case of this admittedly sleight but nonetheless entertaining technicolor-hued romp. (I’m a little more right…because I’m the one with the blog 🙂 )

Originally intended for major theatrical distribution when it was announced for production back in 2018, the film was bought by Netflix from its original production house STXfilms for its continuing summer series pledging new movies every week.  Gunpowder Milkshake fits right in with early 2021 title Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead thanks to over-the-top action and a willingness to go the extra mile with gore and ultra-violence throughout.  Unlike that earlier “zombies in Las Vegas” epic which was always meant for a major Netflix debut at home after its awards qualifying run in theaters, Gunpowder Milkshake feels as if it should have been first experienced on the big screen to allow audiences to truly be immersed in the environmental space Papushado and his collaborators have created.

After being abandoned by her assassin mother (Lena Headey, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) fifteen years earlier, Sam (Karen Gillan, Oculus) has followed in the footsteps of her estranged parent and learned to detach herself from the jobs she is sent on.  Under the wing of The Firm (not the Tom Cruise movie, the other one) and her contact Nathan (Paul Giamatti, Saving Mr. Banks, appearing far less blustery than usual), she has survived not only on her skill but her ability to do what she’s told and little else.  Her latest assignment has left a pile of bodies in her wake, one the son of a prominent gangster (Ralph Ineson, Dolittle) that now wants her dead.  To save themselves embarrassment and willing to lose their great asset, The Firm offers her up…a decision made easier by the fact that she just lost them a tidy sum of money.

Along with the money issues, Sam comes into a guardianship role for Emily (Chloe Coleman, My Spy), a precocious tot Sam feels she owes a debt to.  The Firm first sends a trio of their own henchmen to snuff her out, leading to a spectacular hallway battle where a disadvantaged Sam manages to come up with a clever way to gain the upper hand on her opponents.  It’s not the first of Papushado’s numerous breathless action sequences but it’s the one I remember feeling my jaw drop open out of surprise more than once.  A bowling alley, a library, a fantasy forest, and a fictional shipwreck are all locations that pulsate with color and provide ample playing space for cinematographer Michael Seresin (with a career spanning titles like 1980’s Fame and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes) to capture Gillan, Headey, and a trio of butt-kicking friends of the two women duke it out with a never-ending onslaught of henchmen.

Surprisingly, it’s the three reasons most will be enticed to see the film that may prove the most disappointing for some.  Those hoping to find Gunpowder Milkshake to be one featuring equal time for Angela Bassett (Soul), Carla Gugino (San Andreas), and Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) could be vexed at the long gaps the three vanish from sight.  Despite an early appearance, which shows good promise as Sam visits the library lair the women use as a front as well as a watchtower of sorts, we have to wait a solid 40-45 minutes before they are back again.  While all three get in on the action, it almost feels like Papushado waited too long to release his secret weapon.  Up until then, Gillan has remained strangely strained in her role, confusing detached for clipped and robotic.  Finding some moments of levity and lightness when Coleman enters the picture, Gillan comes to regard the youngster with some of the motherly protection she never received.

Miraculously, all of this finely dialed-up mayhem is an original work from Papushado and Ehud Lavski and not, as I had thought throughout, an adaptation of a previously published graphic novel.  You’d forgive me for thinking that, seeing that there are so many key points during the film where it feels like the filmmakers are paying fan service to something…else…that only specific audience members are meant to get something out of.  Mostly, it trends toward a mishmash of different styles from auteur filmmakers that need only go by their last name: Tarantino, Fincher, Bekmambetov, Leone, Besson.  For some, the nods may feel overly emblematic of a movie with no style of its own but I tended to enjoy the way Papushado took something we know as classic Leone (utilizing a haunting Ennio Morricone’s score) but giving it his own twist.

Running about ten minutes too long for my tastes, though with all the slow motion it likely clocks in around 104 minutes instead of 114, Gunpowder Milkshake’s vision may not be as boldly original as one might hope but there’s plenty of worth to be found within.  Despite Gillan’s uncharacteristically shaky leading performance, the supporting cast (especially Gugino) totally understands the tone of the film they’re in and plays it to the hilt.  I won’t spoil if all will come back for seconds but there’s enough story left to tell and you can bet an additional serving could be prepared if it proves popular with audiences.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: The Next Level


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie.  Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre.  As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting.  What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household.  So trust me when I say I take this seriously.

Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse.  Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it.  It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman).  Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?

It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results.  Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays.  Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi)  can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.

Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die).  All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive.  Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.

The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input.  You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting.  This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in.  Is it a better movie?  I don’t know.  It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film.  It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.

Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint.  This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me.  I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager.  Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.

If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group.  The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences.  Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well.  All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film.  At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies.  A coincidence?  Time will tell.

Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be.  I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way.  I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects.  There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time.  With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.

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 ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Big Short

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Synopsis: When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.

Release Date: December 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s an interesting move that Paramount Pictures decided to release this heavy hitter smack dab in the midst of a busy holiday movie season. That means they think they have a winner on their hands in this true-life tale, a bit of counterprogramming to the more obvious Oscar bait flicks that are being readied for the end of the year. If I’m being honest (and I always am), I’m a bit exhausted with these corporate level endeavors about the failure of big business. Like the wearying The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short isn’t lacking in star-power thanks to producer and star Brad Pitt (World War Z) looping in the likes of Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace). Still, I desperately hope it has a snap, purpose, and isn’t just another showcase for big stars saying big things about big problems.

 

 

Movie Review ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Director: James Gunn

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If I’m being honest (and c’mon, we’re close enough friends that I’ll always tell the truth) I’ll admit that at first I just didn’t know what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy.  After several years of recognizable Marvel comic book properties making their way to the big screen (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and The Avengers) I wasn’t certain where this new franchise film would fit in.  Not being well acquainted with the source material, I couldn’t quite warm to the first jokey preview that set fan tongues a waggin’ but had me scratchin’ my noggin.  And what was up with the raccoon and talking tree?

So I find myself hunkering down for a screening of Marvel’s latest attempt at superhero domination a little grumbly and prepared for my worst fears onscreen: an overblown yuk fest of an actioner with copious one-liners and inter-galactic battle sequences that pummel you with lots of noise and digital effects.  Who knew that’s exactly what this summer needed?

If the previous Marvel superhero films equate to a stretch limo with your cool aunts and uncles, then Guardians of the Galaxy is the party bus transporting your crazy cousins.  I ask you…which ride would you rather take?

Starting with an emotional Earth-bound prologue that segues into a silly credits sequence showcasing the first of several 80s musical hits, Guardians of the Galaxy hits its stride early on and never lets up as audiences are taking to various points throughout the solar system.  When overgrown kid/space pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Her, now primed for A-List stardom) steals a mysterious orb that looks like the Omegahedron from 1984’s Supergirl, he gets into all kinds of hot water from blue hued baddie Ronan (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) that wants to use its powers to do some planetary damage.  Additionally, Quill has a bounty put on his head from another Smurf colored character (Michael Rooker) that sent him to retrieve the orb in the first place.

Bounty hunter raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines) and deciduous sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick, in possibly his best performance…heard not seen) aren’t the only ones after Quill.  Sent by Ronan to fetch the orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Out of the Furnace, trading her Avatar blue for wicked green) may have plans of her own for the strange object.  It all turns into your standard case of multiple people wanting to possess the orb for numerous purposes.  From prison breaks to narrow escapes, the movie has a breathless pace but never feels rushed or out of balance.  It’s a full meal of a film that blessedly doesn’t wind up feeling like a franchise jumping off point (which of course it is).

Director and co-screenwriter James Gunn packs a lot into his film and there’s a welcome point of view sorely lacking in films made from comic book tales.  He backs up strong characterization with an assembled design team that should get ready for Oscar nominations in visual effects, make-up, and costume design.  From the mechanizations of the evil Nebula (Karen Gillan, Oculus) to the body art of logic driven He-Man-esque Drax (Dave Bautista, who maybe would have been a better choice for Hercules), there’s a follow-through and attention to detail that acts as the sprinkles on top of Gunn’s visual sundae of a film.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny as well?  I was worried that the laughs would trump logic but from Gunn’s clever music selection and his willingness to capitalize on Pratt’s comedic gifts, there’s the sense that everyone is on the joke and relishing their chance to participate.  Gunn doesn’t let the humor rule the picture but instead picks wise moments to break up some of the overly nerdy bits.

In a summer of ups and downs, Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as the most satisfying big studio film I’ve seen all year (my favorite films of the year, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, don’t count seeing as they’re independent endeavors) and goes a long way in saving the Summer of 2014 from being remembered as three months of mediocre-to-terrible offerings like A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended, Jersey Boys, and the cinematic Ebola virus called Tammy.  It’s a mammoth sized two hour superlative treat – the one film of the summer worth seeing twice.

Movie Review ~ Oculus

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you were to dismiss Oculus as another haunted house horror flick made on the cheap and released in theaters right about the time that audiences are clamoring for some springtime terror. Further, the trailer for Oculus sells the film as a scream fest surrounding an old mirror that has dark secrets. What Oculus isn’t, however, is your run-of-the-mill fright flick that saves its best scares for the final moments. This mirror is polished.

I’ll take a good scare any way I can get it…be it slow burn (Sinister), all out gore-fest (Cabin in the Woods), or failed attempt to cash in on a better concept (Silent House, The Apparition, etc) so I went into Oculus willing to receive it however it chose to present itself. I’ll admit at first I didn’t quite know what to make of the film as it bounced back and forth between a brother and sister exorcising some old demons and a flashback to 11 years earlier when the siblings dealt with some deadly family issues.

At the center of it all is a majestic mirror, said to be responsible for the death of close to 50 people since the 18th century and highly valuable. How a software designer (Rory Cochrane) had the cashola to purchase such a coveted antique is a plot point best filed away under “Don’t Think Too Hard” but it isn’t long before the past and present collide with some seriously spooky sequences where the line between reality and imagination gets hazy.

With an adequate amount of gore that plays second fiddle to bump in the night style scares, the film has the feeling of a sequel to The Amityville Horror (actually, an Amityville TV movie did deal with a haunted mirror now that I think about it) mixed in with dashes of fractured reality of the bloody Mirrors from 2008. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has thought out his film well, introducing not merely themes of post traumatic healing but of mental illness brought on by a tragedy. The film isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tie everything together but the effort is clear and purposeful.

Dealing with a small cast, the film could have been a pain to sit through had Flanagan not assembled such a strong group of actors. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) ably handle the adult siblings while Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) are impressive handling with their heavy lifting in flashbacks. The first shot of Gillan is her fire red ponytail swinging back and forth almost as if it’s possessed and both she and Thwaites work cohesively to build a believable bond. Cochrane and Katee Sackoff (Riddick) make good use of their slightly underwritten roles.

If there are cracks in Oculus, they are of the minor variety and truth being told I’m not sure if the film will hold up on future viewings. Though the ending rises to the occasion for making the goose bumps rise on your skin, a too short wrap-up left me feeling a little cold to the whole affair. Feeling just a tad long at 105 minutes, Flanagan working as his own edtior could have benefited from having someone else edit the film that was more objective to pacing.

More spooky than terrifying, Oculus earns points for restraint and solid performances. The scares are mostly satisfying and I appreciated that Flanagan developed material that felt fresh and not your average shriek-out.