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 ~ Thunder Force

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world where supervillains are commonplace, two estranged childhood best friends reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them powers to protect their city.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Melissa Leo, Marcella Lowery, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Ponzio, James H. Keating, Braxton Bjerken, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Sarah Baker

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When the promos for the new Netflix comedy Thunder Force directed by Ben Falcone and co-starring his wife Melissa McCarthy started running, I had to go back and check some dates.  Wasn’t it just in late November that Superintelligence, their last collaboration arrived on the airwaves of streaming competitor HBOMax, having skipped a theatrical release due to the pandemic surge?  Turns out audiences have been without a new Falcone/McCarthy comedy for a little less than five months, so the biggest question I had going into Thunder Force didn’t have much to do with how well the duo could pull off a comedic twist on the superhero flick but if there was an appetite for another round quite so soon.  After all, though Superintelligence felt lighter than their other features (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party), it was still plagued with their brand of specifically tuned laughs and tendency toward lengthy bits that leaned into their own amusement rather than one for a broader audience.

What’s good to report about Thunder Force is that like many superheroes, this film has a secret weapon and it happens to be the Oscar-winning actress who beat McCarthy for the top prize at the Academy Awards the year both were nominated for Supporting Actress.  Lifelong friend of the Falcone/McCarthy family Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) helps give the movie some balance when it sorely needs it, grounding it less in the normalcy of reality but more in plausibility filtered through the lens of wild flights of fancy.  That’s due to the way Spencer conveys such inherent trust; you easily buy what she’s selling and it plays as a perfect ying to McCarthy’s bull in a china shop yang. 

Beginning in 1983 and leaping through the kind of complex origin story Marvel or DC would have taken 12 movies and four television series to tell in full, Thunder Force brings us up to speed quickly on how cosmic rays struck Earth and genetically transformed a select few into superhuman villains.  Turns out these were people were always bad but the interstellar blast brought out their most evil side and gave them powers to keep on being wicked.  Known as Miscreants, they terrorized the city while the world watched and world leaders subsequently tried to find a way to combat their seemingly unstoppable super powers.

It was a Miscreant attack that leaves studious Emily (who grows up to be Spencer) an orphan and attending an inner-city school where she quickly becomes the target for bullies.  She finds a protector and best-friend in Lydia (played by McCarthy’s own daughter as a youngster before handing the reins to mom) until a silly fight separates them for the next two decades. (Side Note: I always find it amusing in these films that childhood best friends, while still actively in high school, just stopped talking to each other entirely and never made up ever. Doesn’t that say something about the friendship to begin with?)  Years later, Lydia is a blue-collar worker in Chicago while Emily has finally found the answer to defeating the Miscreants after years of study, which is why she has to miss her 25-year high school reunion.  Intending to finally make-up with her estranged friend at the reunion, Lydia decides to force the make-up to happen no matter what and finds Emily in her lab…only to press the wrong button and receive an injection meant for her ex bestie with a formula for super strength.  However…that’s only half of the solution and under the watchful eye of an all-business former CIA operative (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby, Breakthrough), Emily also undergoes a transformation of her own (find out what it is for yourself!), eventually joining Lydia in training to become the city’s only hope in overcoming a horde of rogue criminals.

In the press notes for Thunder Force, I read that writer/director Falcone came up with the basic plot of the film on a walk to work and that the script was one of the fastest things he’d ever written.  At times, this shows, because while there are plenty of inspired moments throughout the film (a dinner at Emily’s grandmother’s house is quite fun as is a musical fantasy sequence that pops up out of nowhere) a number of ideas and characters are introduced for effect only to be tossed aside and never heard from again.  The film is filled with loose ends and unanswered questions and not all of them can be saved for a sequel.  That leaves a viewer feeling like they get something with flavor in the moment but nothing that truly lasts.  While Superintelligence seemed like it had more focus than previous Falcone/McCarthy outings, Thunder Force veers off course early on and it’s most often when McCarthy is left to her own devices, something I’m realizing isn’t always the wisest choice.

There’s no denying the best scenes in the film are when it’s just McCarthy and Spencer and not even when there’s comedy involved.  We already know what Spencer can deliver but it says something that we have to continue to be reminded that McCarthy has depth as well.  The two actresses are so good at what they do that as entertaining as they are together in Thunder Force, at the same time they are absolutely resting on their laurels and not exhibiting much stretch either.  If Falcone, McCarthy, or Spencer had really wanted to shake things up, they would have had the women switch roles and see what could happen when Spencer was permitted to really (no, really) let her hair down and if McCarthy would step aside and be the straight person for once.

Falcone also has a strange penchant for featuring himself or friends in supporting roles that steal precious time from the characters we want to see more of.  Countless henchmen pop up for one liners that are just this side of not funny, not to mention a number of everyday workers are gifted one or two lines which always left me wondering who they were related to on the crew.  The villains of the piece are a little on the “eh” side and feature Bobby Cannavalle (Lovelace) as a crooked mayoral candidate out to suppress more than just votes, Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as The Crab, sporting crab claws for arms after a wince-inducing radioactive accident, and Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the psychotic Laser who loves to dryly announce her plans for her prey before carrying them out. 

While it starts strong and begins to lose major steam as we cross the halfway mark, Thunder Force takes a weird downturn of energy the longer it goes on, ending oddly with a disappointing coda.  It’s still worth watching to see McCarthy and Spencer work up some sparks and sing a few tunes en route to kickin’ bad guy butt; if only we had more of these moments and less of the schtick that has proven time and time again to not dependably hit the target for Falcone and McCarthy.  They’ve got a series and a Christmas movie in the works for Netflix so let’s hope they keep on taking two steps forward and resist the urge to go one step back.

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)

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two

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 ~ Oldboy (2013)

oldboy_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, James Ransone, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’m always amazed when a director with an impressive list of credits lines up a remake as their next project.  Some directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, remade their OWN films and that practice still happens occasionally today with a foreign director helming an American version of the film they popularized on their home soil.  Then there are the directors that take on Hollywood studio adaptations of foreign products for American audiences.

For me, I get the impression that these US directors choose these foreign films to remake as a way to say “This was good but I can do it better”– though they very rarely can.  If anything, they wind up creating a film that’s just as good but can exist in the same universe as their overseas counterpart as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  That film was a tremendous success in Sweden and had David Fincher as a director when it jumped shores…both films are impressive and I’d watch them back to back if the spirit moved me to do so.

It’s strange, then, that Oldboy even happened at all.  Nearly a decade old when discussions for the remake began, it’s easy I suppose to see why it attracted the attention of Hollywood and director Spike Lee.  The 2003 original, Oldeuboi, had amassed a certain fervent fan base in America thanks to an impressively twisted narrative, strong performances, and skilled direction from Park Chan-wook (Stoker) which bumped it to a level of sophistication that set it apart from its more minor peers.

Lee has been a troublesome director as of late, known more for his ranting outbursts toward fellow filmmakers than he was for making some important films in the early 90’s.  With a flagging career and a penchant for taking forever to finish his work, the revenge thriller Oldboy seemed almost too easily commercial for the director to latch onto.

If Lee had done something, anything, of interest with the material then I could maybe get behind an argument for this remake moving forward.  Though the film does have some classic Lee elements on the technical side, it’s lacking the depth that he’s brought to his earlier efforts like Do the Right Thing and more recent work like documentaries surrounding the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  His work in Oldboy winds up feeling like a director-for-hire and it permeates every level of the film.

It’s a shame, then, that Josh Brolin (Labor Day, Men in Black III) is so good in the leading role of a man without scruples that’s abducted and held in confinement for twenty years by an unseen captor.  It’s within these shoddy walls that he watches a television news report where he finds himself the number one suspect in his wife’s death.  With his young daughter in foster care and his life seemingly over, there’s not much more for him to do but wait to die…until he awakes one day in a field, free.  Or so it seems.

Up until the man is released the film follows the original quite closely.  It’s after Brolin is let loose that the film takes an approach that favors more explanation than necessary and less of the ominous mystery surrounding a menacing caller employed to good effect in the original.  In Brolin’s quest for answers to why he was held, there’s still a plethora of well staged fight sequences with one of the central passages of the original being recreated, Spike Lee-style, with sweeping cranes that allow little to no cuts in action.

The violence is way more visceral in the remake and that’s where Lee lets down the film a bit.  It’s as if Lee needed to justify Brolin’s revenge by allowing him to enact sadistic acts of violence toward anyone/everyone that may have been involved only remotely.  That didn’t work for me…especially when Brolin is cutting sliver sized chunks of flesh from the neck of an Oscar nominated actor in a wacky cameo role.

A Florence Nightgale-like nurse played by a sleepy-looking Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) is an unlikely ally for Brolin and her involvement with him never makes a whole lot of sense.  He’s bad news and she can tell but either she loves a charity case or chunks of her storyline were excised in order to speed the film along.  (Side note: the 105 minute film was cut down from a reported three hours, perhaps a director’s cut will give the film more shape).  Sharlto Copley’s role is one I can’t go into much detail on but Copley (Elysium, Europa Report) winds up doing a great disservice with a cartoony performance in what could have been a much more engaging role.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich gets points for largely keeping this remake in alignment with the events of the original film…including its controversial dénouement.  I’d also say that while the ending winds up looking poles apart than its inspiration, what Protosevich lands on could arguably be called the very same ending just under different circumstances.

If you’ve never seen the original film Oldboy is based on, I’d guess you’d find yourself mostly engaged in this revenge crime drama which, faults aside, is quite well made and executed.  Fans of the original also shouldn’t be concerned that their precious film has been tarnished nor should they riot at some of the changes employed here.  Still…it’s a remake that didn’t need to happen.

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