Category Archives: Action 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.

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.

‘Rogue One’ explosive but lacks soul

Are you ready for a “Star Wars” movie every year until the end of time? Disney is. After rebooting the franchise last year with “The Force Awakens”, the next film in the series deviates from the Skywalker storyline and focuses on a Rebellion troop who manage to secure the plans for the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia.

The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade whose father, Galen (Mad Mikkelsen), was forced to build the Death Star by the Empire. Meeting up with Cassian (Diego Luna), a member of the Rebel Alliance and a few other allies, she intercepts a message from Galen that contains information on how to destroy the weapon. She and her team must retrieve the plans before the superweapon is operational.

The action is strong and exciting, the last thirty or so minutes of the film a breakneck war film that recalls memories of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Dirty Dozen.” It is refreshing to see a darker tone and something a little bit different.

However, when confronted with a story where the audience pretty much knows the ending, the filmmakers have to establish a basis for the audience to care. That starts with strong and empathetic characters, but there is nothing particularly compelling about Jyn. The story is a simple stop-the-bad-guys type of affair, which by itself is pretty boring. Jyn and her rebel friends really need something to drive them internally.

For example, take a look at “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The film’s conclusion is about an army trying to save a planet from a warlord trying to destroy it, but that is not really what it’s about it. It’s about a team of losers who have been alone for so long and have found friendship and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other. We are given time to really know them and to understand their fears and desires, what has held them back, what they want in life and they build off each other.

In “Rogue One”, we are rushed through from scene to scene, never quite identifying with Jyn or Chirrut (Donnie Yen) or Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) or any particular character. We don’t really understand their past or why they are fighting for the Rebellion so the resolution to the story lacks meaning and emotional punch.

Perhaps Jyn’s father was a loyal Imperial and she has to correct his evil deeds (similar to Luke in “Return of the Jedi”). Or she has been running her entire life from responsibility and ditches the fight only to be lured back at the end (similar to Han in “A New Hope”). Perhaps Cassian was a stormtrooper who couldn’t stand the killing anymore. Perhaps Chirrut and Baze (Wen Jiang) lose their home to the Empire after it begins ethnic cleansing and want to take revenge. We just need a little backstory to care.

It’s a shame because there is so much that “Rogue One” does right. It’s direction and visual style are strong, it’s action scenes are top-notch, the premise is precise and interesting and it elaborates on the “Star Wars” mythos. But without a heart behind it all, it is just a pretty facade.

‘Interstellar’ gets most of it right

What are the limits of mankind’s ingenuity? Can we understand the forces that exist in the universe? Is our capacity to feel love quantifiable in the vastness of space and time?

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar examines not only our role in the cosmos, but how our emotions influence science and vice versa. It tells the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who has been forced to become a farmer like everyone else since the world’s problems (climate change, overpopulation) have rendered the globe a wasteland. He has to leave his home and his daughter, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn as time fluctuates), to go on a last-chance-for-mankind space mission to discover another planet for humanity to live on. Organized by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the crew consists of his daughter (Anne Hathaway) as well as a couple of others.


The film is really an exploration into the bond of parent-child and how much that bond can be tested over the course a lifetime. Through wormholes and gravity-induced time suppressing, Cooper tests his own limits and must decide which is more important: the immediate love of his family or the future of the human race. It is an interesting dilemma (even if it is just an expanded episode of Lost in Space), but one that is unnecessarily hammered into the viewer rather than allowed to develop naturally. The story is also bogged down by unnecessary explanation of scientific theory (similar to Nolan’s issue in Inception (2010)), slowing the pace of the story and expanding the runtime (the film clocking in at almost three hours). Rather than try to explain every little detail of fifth-dimension travel and time-space continuum, the film should just let the actions of the characters and the environment speak for themselves. A common problem across cinema today is filmmakers not trusting the audience to just go along with the ride, thinking that everything needs to be explained in order for the viewer to appreciate the story. Just showing the action and letting the audience come to their own conclusions rewards our ingenuity and keeps the plot moving.
Though clunky at times and confusing at others, the film is emotionally resonant and never lacks in dramatic tension after a ponderous opening act. One of the criticisms often levied against Nolan’s films is that they are cold and detached, a critique often hurled at Kubrick as well, neither of them true. Nolan counters those naysayers with his latest offering, with McConaughey letting the tears flow and showing his agonizing struggle, perhaps too much at times.
The emotional core relationship between him and Murphy keeps all the other elements in check, providing the audience with something to hold onto. Even though it becomes somewhat overdone and soap opera-ish at times, without it, the stunning visuals would go nowhere. This is the same structure that Nolan has used throughout his career, firmly establishing a core emotional struggle (giving hope to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight (2008), rectifying Cobb’s guilt in Inception, figuring out the identity of the killer in Memento (2001)) that grounds the film even as elements of the story become incoherent and confusing.

Though one of his weakest entries in some years, for those audience members who appreciate Nolan’s efforts, the film will be a satisfying space journey about a man trying to save the human race and his family. For those who can not get past the gaps in logic and somewhat pedestrian dialogue that have become common in his work, this is an adventure best left unexplored. For this viewer, the good outweighs the hokey.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ one for the ages

At first glance, another Mad Max movie feels like Hollywood just reaching deeper into the apple barrel looking for more franchises to bring back from the dead. So what should an audience member expect from a film whose last entry was 30 years ago? Few would expect one of the best action movies of all-time.

The film starts in the middle of dystopia, the earth a desolate wasteland with few survivors. These survivors quickly organize themselves into gangs of biker-riding, flame throwing hooligans intent on waging war against each other and securing the most precious of resources: food, water, milk, gasoline and fertile women. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is the leader of one particular faction, having taken a number of wives.. These women however are stolen from him by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who intends on taking them to a promised green land where they will be free from his rule.  Caught in the middle of this storm ,and just trying to survive, Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself forced into helping the freedom seeking women out of necessity.

The first thirty minutes of the film are nearly flawless, the camera seemingly delving straight into Max’s subconscious as the shots are quick, the effects loud and the score thundering. There is barely any dialogue as we are led into the realm of these road warriors as they pillage at a frantic pace yet the story is still conveyed to us dramatically.

Director George Miller, having directed the other Mad Max films, returns to the franchise seemingly determined to use modern technology to create the dystopia that he never could in the 1980s. Special adoration must also be given to editor Margaret Sixel, cinematographer John Seale and composer Junkie XL for creating such a strong cinematic environment.

The action scenes are so wonderfully done that you forgive the filmmakers for their occasional bloatedness. The combination of stunts, ingenuity and occasional CGI effects create breathtaking sequences.

Mad Max: Fury Road may be Hollywood again refusing to try anything new, but it is a breathtaking adventure film that should not only entertain fans of the original films, but the casual action film moviegoer. It is already an instant classic, one that people will reference for years and years.