Category Archives: Films

“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” a deeper look into the heroes

In my opinion, the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film is the best entry of the MCU. It pokes fun at the superhero tropes that have become so familiar while offering some truly emotional moments (the death of Star-Lord’s mother, the death of Groot, the heroes joining together as a makeshift family after so many years of hurt). So I’m happy to say that it’s sequel still has that extra deeper layer that makes it more than just another forgettable superhero movie (sorry, Dr. Strange).

The film opens with the Guardians working for hire. Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) all return and encounter a new threat to the galaxy that comes from a more personal place. While the first film had a rather bland villain, the sequel tackles an antagonist that reveals a personal connection to Star-Lord and in so doing draws in each of the Guardians. This emotional heft adds to the story.

Also along for the ride are a returning Yondu (Michael Rooker) in an expanded role, Peter’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Writer/director James Gunn obviously has a close attachment to these characters and it shows as he gives each of them a deeper context. All of them must grapple with their past (Peter’s parentage, Gamora’s sister issues, Drax’s lost love, Rocket’s anger, Yondu’s regret) and the results are not clear-cut or easy to accept. They feel real, more real than a super soldier, a billionaire playboy or a thunder god. Perhaps we feel such a strong attachment to these characters and empathize with their journey more because they are so flawed and so similar to us.

Many critics say that the film is forgettable, but I wholeheartedly disagree. There are real stakes in the narrative beyond just life and death and that sticks with an audience. Themes of parentage, familial bonds and regret are tested and the characters emerge changed from their journeys. The growth in Peter especially from lost youth to surrogate father to baby Groot is great to witness. This makes these films deeper than the standard Avengers fare, where a viewer can generally miss an entry here and there, and be no worse the wear in the grand scheme of things because the characters do not change.

This is not to say that “Guardians 2” is perfect. There are pacing issues, some jokes that don’t pay off, a little too much going on, some relationships that needed to be beefed up to generate a stronger emotional impact, too many explosions and a villain twist at the end that is entirely predictable. The first film in general is stronger.

But this second entry does what any good sequel should do: elaborate on the first’s themes and delve deeper into the characters.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ a strong entry in MCU

It seems as though a new superhero movie is coming out every few weeks. Most of them pass by and out of memory just as quickly as they came, but there are a few superhero films that stand above the rest, that peak more interest than the normal reboot/sequel, and fans had circled “Civil War” on their calendar ever since it was announced.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film features Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) struggling to keep the Avengers together as the government cracks down on their exploits as civilian casualties pile up. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of registering with the United Nations and the proposed Sokovia accord, but Steve is not sure. When his friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a terrorist plot, the Avengers fracture between those siding with Captain America and maintaining their independence and those siding with Iron Man and starting public accountability.

Some of the action scenes are a bit nauseating as shaky cam takes over in place of actual dynamic action, but the set piece between the two rival teams of superheroes is one of the greatest in any superhero film; fun, interesting, action-packed and dramatic.

Marvel has always had a problem with maintaining dramatic stakes in its films. They are not going to kill off Iron Man or Captain America (they are worth billions of dollars) so how do you keep a movie engaging when there is literally no chance of your heroes biting the bullet? “Civil War” solves this issue by focusing on the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man. The characters may not die, but the relationship between them may come apart and the audience is kept interested by focusing on how Steve Rogers and Tony Stark develop as friends, turn enemies and how they will ultimately end.

Captain America is not a complex character. It is difficult to give him an internal dilemma and once he makes his decision in “Civil War”, there is not a lot going on internally. This is a detriment, but not a fatal one for the film. His actions serve as a counterpoint and seeing how far he is willing to go to maintain his friendship with Bucky and his independence is engaging enough.

And no MCU film has quite gone to the lengths of digging deep into the character’s soul a la Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Doubtless this is to keep the audience as wide as possible, but there are moments for “Civil War” to go a bit deeper, especially with Iron Man in particular. With Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) out of his life, guilt plaguing him and his best friend leading a resistance against him, the film suggests the depths of his sorrow, but could go even deeper, perhaps hinting at his alcoholism as it does in the comics. It is a wasted opportunity to build some escalating themes into his character.

For those who enjoy the MCU films, “Captain America: Civil War” will be an enjoyable experience, one of the best of entries alongside “Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But for those who have issues with the previous MCU films, those issues (lack of deep character revelations, franchise-building, cluttering narratives, uninteresting villains- though that is better in this film) will find more to complain about to some degree.

But kudos to the studio for making “Civil War” more than just another superhero film. There’s heart, fun and dynamism here.

‘Get Out’ delivers interesting social commentary

Horror movies like “The Wicker Man” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” use the “you” against “the world” formula to generate their scares. There’s an eerie strangeness to everyone knows something that you don’t, and everyone is out to get you. What Jordan Peele has done with “Get Out” is to take those same principals and apply them to current themes of race relations.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, is nervous about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents. Rose (Allison Williams) tells him that everything will be fine. They voted for Obama. Everything will be great. When Chris gets to this faraway, secluded wilderness house however, things start to unnerve him. The black help there don’t act black. They act downright bizarre. The white people ask him probing questions. Rose’s mom, Missy (Catherine Keener), claims that she can hypnotize Chris so that he’ll stop smoking. Her dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), introduces him to a bunch of the family friends in a very strange manner. As Chris learns more and more about those around him, a terrible secret is revealed.

Blending horror and comedy, the film succeeds as biting satire by posing the truth that even though you may not be overtly racist like a Ferguson cop, you can be racist in a very polite, complimentary way. Who knows if any of this based on Peele’s personal experiences or if it’s just a crazy idea he thought up one night, but the film asks interesting questions about what it means to be black, the white eye in regards to black identity and the forces at work behind the friendliest of smiles.

Are the X-Men the new preeminent superhero franchise?

Ever since the proliferation of the superhero genre, sequel-making and universe-building have overtaken movie studios. As rights are sold and potential franchises rise and fall, from the dust, three central pillars have emerged as the tentpoles of the superhero movement: Disney’s Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor), Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and Fox’s X-Men (Wolverine, Deadpool, Magneto- they also technically have the Fantastic Four, but no one likes them). There could also still be a case made for Sony, who have the rights to Spider-Man, but they have signed a deal with Marvel, and Spider-Man is now essentially part of the MCU.

It has been widely assumed for years that the MCU was the best that superhero films had to offer. Marvel stuck to a strong formula, building up their heroes in individual films before releasing team features. They utilized strong wit, relatable characters and easy-to-digest narratives to build their brand and it has worked, delivering billions of dollars in sales and strong critical response.

Meanwhile, the DCEU is still trying to get itself together. Attempting to differentiate itself from its Marvel cousin, their films are darker, more intense and full of characters right from the get-go. Unfortunately, audience and critical response has been more tepid. By trying to appeal to so many people while being different, the films are a mess of half-ideas, rushed plotlines and shallow characters. They feel more like board room projections, broken down into audience demographics, rather than singular visions made by committed storytellers, especially in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s preceding Dark Knight trilogy.

And in the background, Fox’s X-Men, one of the first franchises to start the superhero extravaganza, has lingered. Never the biggest in terms of box office, the critical and commercial response has ranged from great (X2: X-Men United (2003)) to terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)). And yet in the past few years, the landscape has started to change, and it’s worth proposing a new thought: Are the X-Men now the best superhero franchise out there?

Diehard MCU fans would likely guffaw at such a notion, but something is starting to seep into the MCU that wasn’t there before: blandness. While the quality of the films has not deteriorated, innovation has not been present either. “Doctor Strange” was far too similar to “Iron Man.” “Captain America: Civil War” was equally similar to being an Avengers film, which are also growing more and more alike. And the lack of stakes is starting to decrease the interest in the characters. Marvel is never going to kill Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. So putting them in more and more dangerous adventures is not really keeping us emotionally involved. It’s becoming more and more a case of been-there, done-that, and it’s starting to seem that while Marvel continues to excel at making decent movies, they are just making the same movie over and over again.

Meanwhile, Fox’s X-Men have been changing the formula towards what the DCEU was presumably trying to do: darker and edgier. But where the DCEU failed by trying to appeal to the same demographics, the X-Men have decided to ignore the “traditional” superhero audience. Here, they may have discovered something very interesting; while other studios continue to view the superhero audience as kids and parents, the kids who grew up watching the original “X-Men” (2000) and “Spider-Man” (2002) have actually grown up. They have stayed fans of superherodom, but being in their twenties and thirties, their palettes have evolved and mature films with mature themes are no longer a detractor for them. As one of those kids, I have witnessed the effects myself.

What started with “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, which featured spy drama and Nazi hunting continued with “The Wolverine” in 2013, which was set in a non-Western locale and bared the weight of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. And 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” delivered a thoroughly satisfying sci-fi rumination on genocide and transformational hope. But what really blew up the formula was last year’s “Deadpool.” Here was a hard R-rated flick complete with cursing, violence and sexuality. And not only did critics love it, audiences made it the highest grossing R-rated movie of all-time. This was definitive proof that superhero movies did not need to be “fun-for-the-whole-family” type of affairs; they could be badass, violent, mature films as well.

Sure, “X-Men: Apocalypse” was a bit of a disappointment following such a run of success, but a fall every now and then is inevitable. Just this year, the X-Men have dialed up the ante even more, delivering another massive, mature success with “Logan”, a film that carries more visceral emotion than any superhero film ever made. It is violent, it is dour, and yet it is a beautiful story harkening back to the Western, a true innovation for the genre.

And appearing alongside “Logan” is the equally surprising TV series “Legion.” The first TV show based on the X-Men since the various animated series back in the 1990s and early 2000s, “Legion” is confusing, disturbing and wonderfully strange. The viewer has no real idea of what is real, what is fake, who is a friend or enemy, even what is happening at any given moment. There’s never been a TV show like it. It seems to belong more in the real of student surrealist exploration and yet here it is, presented on basic cable, with millions of dollars backing it and a second season already confirmed. Marvel’s TV series, “Agents of S.H.E.L.D.”, on the other hand is a far inferior, kind of bland experience.

And down the pipeline, the X-Men are looking at a second Deadpool film, an X-Force film, another live-action TV show and a rumored X-Men film with the younger cast featuring Dark Phoenix, a bizarre, cataclysmic character given poor treatment in “X-Men 3.” With confirmation that future X-Men projects will stray away from the Xavier-Magneto relationship and with castmembers Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and presumably Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender calling it quits, the X-Men are literally transforming in front of our eyes. It is very exciting to see the franchise adapt towards something new, something interesting, something beyond just the standard “family-adventure” type of affair.

So have the X-Men become the preeminent superhero franchise today? That is up for debate. The MCU continues to be the biggest box office draw, and the DCEU may somehow pull themselves up and deliver on the promise of the Justice League (I’m not holding my breath on that one though).

But when it comes to the MCU versus X-Men, you really have to ask yourself; is it better to settle for standard fare that hits just enough of the right notes or is the occasional risk that sometimes falters, but really tries to be more than its genre, more deserving of your love?

‘Logan’ a haunting ending for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine

To call “Logan” different from any other superhero movie would be a disservice. It shouldn’t even be considered a superhero movie at all. A tale this sorrowful and this bone-deep can only be considered a Western and set across the backdrop of the American West, that is exactly what it is.

Directed by James Mangold, “Logan” begins with the titular character (Hugh Jackman) in a rut. No mutants have been born in years. He works as an limo driver just to make small change. He cares for Charles Xavier who is ancient and suffering from some sort of mental deterioration. When a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), comes to him for help, Logan takes Charles’ advice and tries to deliver her to safety from a group of thugs known as the Reavers.

Both Jackman and Stewart have stated that this is their last hurrah in their famous roles and it’s easy to see why, as it gives both characters closure in highly dramatic ways. With a relationship that started in 2000’s original “X-Men”, the film completes the complex arc between them: teacher and student, captain and soldier and father and son. Charles has been trying to find Logan’s humanity throughout the course of nearly ten films and to help him feel joy and completeness once again. Is Logan more animal or man and can he ever recover from a lifetime of pain? The film finally answers that question. Indeed, the finale shows Logan literally fighting¬† with “himself.”

Filled with despair and longing, “Logan” is radically different than previous X-Men films, so much so that it is a tad disorienting. It is welcome in one way because it offers closure, something so few superhero films do anymore. This is definitively the end of the modern-day X-Men as we know them, a blistering monologue on the value of life in old age and the pain of regret. It is incredibly heavy stuff.

And it is incredibly well-timed. It is a film about inclusion, about accepting hope in a bleak world. Logan has to save the last remnants of mutantkind as they search to cross a border to a better world, eerily evoking current times and our need to be a haven for those struggling.

It is not a perfect movie, with some of the violence taken a bit too far and even drawing a few laughs for its over-the-topness. And the lack of any hope really drags on the viewer as I checked my watch a couple of times with just a few too many look-at-the-valley shots. It seems to revel in its misery too much.

I personally enjoy a bit of humor and fun in my X-Man movie, but there’s no denying the emotional power and beautiful story that Mangold and crew have made here.¬† It is a haunting journey of finding retribution in a world of despair, one that will linger with you for long after. Knowing the X-Men universe, death is never really permanent, but for Jackman and Stewart, their journey with these characters ends here, and it is solemnly graceful.

‘The Lego Batman Movie’ a tribute to the character

Batman is awesome. That is in itself the joke that runs throughout “The Lego Batman Movie.” But even the most awesome character ever needs a little help sometimes to feel whole.

Directed by Chris McKay, “The Lego Batman Movie” focuses on the relationship between Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and his fear of having a family again. Though he is awesome and the public adores him, Batman is lonely. When he accidentally adopts an orphan named Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera), he is set on the road to accepting family once again.

The film is full of jokes for everyone: kids, adults, Batman-novices and hardcore-Batman aficionados. It is not as strong as the original “The Lego Movie”, with the film serving as more a straight-forward acceptance story and it is pretty easy to see what is coming next. It is also not quite as ingenious, some of the jokes not really landing with the force they should.

But while the plot is rather ho-hum, the icing around the cake is colorful, fun and pleasing enough that the film’s 90-minute run time goes by smoothly.

Batman is a cultural phenomenon, a character that has bypassed the superhero genre into common vernacular. With so much history and such a huge fanbase, the creation of a parody of him in lego-brick form accentuates just how ingrained into our American mythology he has become.

In this age of superhero pandemonium, “The Lego Batman Movie” fits by taking our preconceived notions of Batman and playfully poking fun at him in a way that doesn’t debase the character, but complements everything we love about him: his coolness, his strength and his vulnerability. For those who love the character, it is an enjoyable ride.

‘Moonlight’ an intimate, touching portrayal

“Moonlight” is probably this year’s most intimate film. It focuses on a young man, Chiron, at three different periods of his life, from child to adolescent to adult (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively). As he discovers his sexuality and people hate him for being gay, he must find a way to survive, but it may be at the cost of his soul.

The film is a daring exploration into identity. Whether it is about being black, being gay or being masculine, Chiron is constantly challenged to change his natural instincts. He has different nicknames throughout the film, from “black” to “little” to “faggot.” As the world beats him down, he changes for his own sanity, but beneath the tattoos and gold teeth and machismo, he may still be the scared person underneath, searching for acceptance from his best friend.

It is a beautifully shot, poetic film. The different hues of blue echo throughout the story, changing meaning as Chiron changes. The film is wise to linger on shots of the actor’s faces as they deal with their emotions, most of the film told visually rather than through dialogue.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, it is a powerfully acted, beautifully imagined journey into one man’s life, but it is a universal story for all about identity, compassion and acceptance. It may indeed be the best film made this year.