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Is there a more instantly iconic cast in Hollywood?

I am pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (I’ll refer to it simply as Vol. 2) is, as many of you have found out for yourselves over the past week, every bit as good and in some ways much better than even the first one. Vol. 1 was a great surprise and still the boldest movie Marvel has yet made. Vol. 2 doubles down on the world it created and the characters that inhabit it, losing the freshness a little (which is being overstated as a complaint) but managing to improve on those few significant weak spots the first one did have.

One of those is the way certain characters were shorted much of an arc as the plot took over the movie. In Vol. 2 this never happens and no character, and there are so fucking many of them, gets shorted. They all have satisfying arcs, even Kraglin (Sean Gunn), wisely depending on interactions with each other. For people who like Marvel movies and fans of The Fast and the Furious franchise, this will feel familiar. It’s in pairings, parallels and polar opposites, that juggling so many characters and arcs becomes possible. Vol. 2 pulls this off with aplomb and manages to weave through tonal shifts, some of which are pretty shocking and risky. A stronger commitment to the sadness and loss hinted at in Vol. 1 is also demonstrated here, giving this goofy space movie an emotional core that is hard to find even in serious dramas. If I could compare that to something, it’d be a Pixar movie, where they definitely understand that the juxtaposition of light heartedness, humour, and fun against deeper, darker, and unresolved feelings provides a strong base for engaging drama and characterization. Not only this, but James Gunn managed to infuse this one with some pretty heavy existential and philosophical weight, which I’ll get to later on. I didn’t expect that.

All the way back when testing revealed that Vol. 2 was the MCU’s first movie that scored 100s (whatever that means), the hype has been real. There’s already a pretty misguided mini-backlash against this movie, fixated on gags that don’t quite land or the way the second act dismisses the overarching plot in favor of briefly becoming a shaggy hangout movie, but this stuff seems nitpicky to me. At the same time, I totally understand just how hard it is to deal with a movie as anticipated and hyped up as this one was. Your mind always wants to find that one thing wrong with it, so I take these nitpicks as a great sign personally. If the worst someone can say is that the space fruit ripeness joke feels a little forced then this is one helluva movie, right? It so is. Read the rest of this entry »

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That’s got to be a metaphor for fucking something.

Jurassic World would be an embarrassingly stupid and pandering movie if it didn’t have so many things going for it. And this is almost in spite of itself. Jurassic World is a pretty good time while you’re watching it, but a lot of stuff doesn’t hold up when you sit down and think about it. Even then, though, the movie is full of spectacle and (sometimes accidental) glimmers of awesomeness. It’s also criticizing the exact thing which it happens to be, and with that comes a certain degree of cognitive dissonance that accounts for much of the stupidity. The pandering comes from its total reliance on the still-amazing Jurassic ParkWorld “spares no expense” and no fucking dignity in reminding you that it is the bastard offspring of that far better and far more coherent film.

And yet… and yet… Jurassic World isn’t quite as stupid as some would have it. Nor is it such a huge crime for it to be reminiscent of Park and aware of itself as a mega-budget creature feature. The whole project started out with director Colin Treverrow taking a leap beyond the establishment of a Park that actually works and all the way to what happens when people get bored of it, when the people running it get complacent or greedy (again) or, even worse, creative. This is a cool idea, and the movie even tries to explore it. However, even as it thematically punishes hubris and showmanship for its own sake, it traffics in exactly those elements, delivering as bombastic and “more more more” a movie as can be imagined. That is a weird balance and World never strikes it with the cleverness of, say, The Lego Movie, which is kind of a master class in being subversive and commercial at the same time. World isn’t even close to that. But it does try.

Most people will enjoy Jurassic World as evinced by its ridiculous earnings and the fairly good natured reception it has gotten from moviegoers. Critics have been somewhat less kind, for a variety of really good reasons. Where I fall into it is basically some sort of middle ground between acknowledging the flaws in a deeply flawed movie, and also being able to put that aside and appreciate what it gets so right. In theory, anyway. I had a sense before sitting down to write this that I might write myself into a negative review. We’ll see. Read the rest of this entry »

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What a bunch of a-holes.

This is the best Marvel movie. It’s funny how each has been better than the last. It’s amazing that you can actually subcategorize each one to say what they’re best at, because it isn’t simply a matter of hierarchy. Each of these movies is after something else. This is why The Avengers can be the best out and out superhero movie and The Winter Soldier can be the best proof of concept that Marvel movies can and should be genre movies alongside being superhero movies. But as a complete, self-contained whole, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best. It’s no contest.

But why is Guardians the best? Because it’s got it all. It’s fun, exciting, action-packed, heartfelt, and so well executed that you get that awkward feeling about other big budget movies where you sort of want to pat them on the head for trying. Guardians makes being a blockbuster look easy. Maybe it’s the love affair with the 80’s that James Gunn (writer and director) infuses in the movie. The 80’s was the time of the fun, high concept blockbuster with heart. The 80’s was the time of Star Wars and of Steven Spielberg, really.

And, well, Guardians has Spielberg and Star Wars beat too. Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably thinking hard about whether that claim has some merit. Especially these days. If you haven’t, you’re probably shaking your head. Go see Guardians. Don’t read this review until you have, because I’ve got to gush. I mean it when I say this is a definitive blockbuster movie. Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you believe in the awe and spectacle possible if more filmmakers and studios put real love into their creations.  This kind of shit is the reason blockbusters exist at all. How wonderful, then, that it pays the debt it owes to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by surpassing them? It is the bastard child, the space-faring orphan, of the precious movies that influenced its creators and us. All parents exist for their children to surpass them and that’s why it’s beautiful when they do.

THINGS ABOUT TO GET SPOILERY IN HERE.

Read the rest of this entry »

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I like to think they are beholding me, tapping away at my keyboard and writing about them but the truth is far more horrifying.

I haven’t written a movie review in almost 2 months. Picking The Lego Movie to be the comeback review is a bit daunting since it’s liable to be one of the best films of 2014. It’s also one of the best all-ages films I’ve seen, even among all the other great ones that have been coming out lately. Is there a more consistently good subgenre right now? I doubt it.

The Lego Movie comes to us from Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (with almost a third director credit deserved by Chris McKay who will be doing the sequel). These guys not only gave the world Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, they also took what should have been a terrible idea with inevitably terrible execution, and made it work, when the took the jump to live-action with 21 Jump Street. One of that film’s major strengths was its self-awareness. Lego is no different. This is as self-aware as movies get. With respect to their other films, Lego maintains the Miller-Lord package of bedrock sweetness with coatings of absurdity, social commentary, industry wit, and strong characterizations.

I shit you not. Every time you sit back in your seat and think about how fucking crazy it is that Lego is lighting up your life, it pulls out some new stop that piles on a new layer of nuance, excitement, and meaning. Many have wanted to dismiss this as little more than another glitzy Hollywood toy commercial. It goes way beyond that, though, finding time to even comment on The Lego Group as a company, the philosophical underpinnings of what Lego can and does represent as a “toy” (both good and bad), and so on.

This is a movie where it’s perfectly okay to ignore one level of commentary whilst walking away enriched by another. You know how I spend tons of time ranting about a thing called the “Hero’s Journey” on this blog? Well Lego might just present the best skewering of the model that I’ve ever seen. But it does have something for everyone. Honest.

It has that much going on. And full disclosure, I’m a huge fucking Lego fan. This could be why it’s taken me a while to write this, as the urge to just gush like a motherfucker was more difficult to control when I first walked out of this. After seeing it a second time last weekend, I think we’re safe and ready for some actual analysis. If you’ve been skeptical of this up to now, I invite you to read the entire review even with spoilers as I’ll make a pretty good case for why you should get over your skepticism and make this the next thing you watch.

It’s been out for like a month but meh, here’s a SPOILER WARNING. Read the rest of this entry »

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Jessica Chastain carries the film admirably.

Zero Dark Thirty is a problematic and frustrating film. It has been critically received from every end of the spectrum: pernicious, propaganda, subtly subversive, and the best movie of 2012 for those who saw it before it went wide. Everybody seems to have weighed in, even the head of the CIA. He warned people that this movie endorses torture and this is not accurate to the events it depicts; in other words he says torturing people didn’t work but this movie seems to be saying that it did. The use of torture and its efficacy clouds the real issue of its morality.

I could watch a movie like Zero Dark Thirty and be okay with its fucked up (mixed) messages. If we grant that the movie does pretty much endorse torture and draws a fairly straight line between its use and the demise of Bin Laden, what does this actually do to the quality of the movie? Well, if it was 24 the answer would be “not much”. I mean, we can consider the level to which torture has become a staple of American fiction (everything from The Vampire Diaries to Far Cry 3) on a sociological level and what this implies. We can consider the implications of this, both moral and psychological, and how perhaps Zero Dark Thirty is a reflection of a very muddy and complicated relationship between society and what is perhaps one of the ultimate moral compromises imaginable.

I prefer the latter way of looking at it, and this forces me to deal with the movie on that level. I can’t wave away what it’s doing and saying because it’s ostensibly “fiction”. It purports to be more, its opening scrawl claiming a past-fantasy level of veracity by saying that it is based on the firsthand accounts of the people involved. The key words there are “based on” and the amount of room within those simple words, room to get away with lying for the sake of a good story in most cases, is huge. I don’t claim to know how accurate Zero Dark Thirty is and I don’t really care. There’s thematic content here that deserves analysis beyond nitpicking accuracy or dismissing the whole thing as torture-porn or ‘Murica chest-thumping. Zero Dark Thirty is not, whatever you might say about it, the same kind of thing as Act of Valor.

And it’s complexity is probably what’s so frustrating about it. So let’s get into it. Read the rest of this entry »

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