Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Let’s be clear, you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. Your emotional reaction to a previously experienced event will always be influenced by that previous experience. So, inevitably, a second helping is going to go down differently than the first. That said, Volume 2 of this franchise from Marvel Studios, maintains the right tone, humor and high production quality of it’s predecessor, while adding some interesting layers to the story and characters. It is a great follow up which will leave you with another sense of euphoria, but it won’t quite be like your first piece of the pie.

I swore five years ago that I would stop going to these late night preview screenings on Thursdays. After having left the house at six am, worked at my desk for almost three hours, taught for more than four hours, attended a meeting late in the afternoon, drove to another campus, taught two more hours, rushed home, took the dogs to their training class and finally returning home at 9pm, I got up after eating and went to a 10:30 pm screening. With trailers and movie, I did not get to bed until 2 am. I’m not whining, I’m simply explaining that it was a long, complicated day and I’m bushed. Still it was totally worth it and if my prose comes across a little toasty in this review, well, that’s the reason why.

For several years now, I have used an example in my classes about how cultural references from different generations can be misunderstood. For instance, one time in class, as I was passing back grades, one of my students was named Phillip, and when I called his name I joked that I really just need five bucks worth. People who who have only ever pumped their own gas might not get that. Another time, my student got her quiz back and when I called her name, “Brandy” , I said , “you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be”. I got horrified looks from millennials who thought I was hitting on this poor girl and did not get the pop culture reference. After this movie, that will never happen again. As much as this film is a product of today’s Hollywood, the cultural appropriation of late seventies and early eighties pop music and culture is one of it’s strongest points. Hearing the great Kurt Russell, quote the lyrics of a pop song from 1972, as a way of summarizing his characters plot line was just perfect for an old guy like me. Baby Groot should sell a million copies of ELO’s greatest hits, and if you don’t have Fleetwood Mac’s “the Chain” on your music feed, you will.

Our main characters are known quantities at this point. There really are not a lot of surprises when it comes to the way they act and talk. Writer/Director James Gunn and his screenwriting collaborators have a clear understanding of the emotional neediness of Star Lord and match it with cocky bravado at every point. Rocket is a badass for some clearly emotional reasons, but you don’t expect them to be as poignant as this film manages to make them. There are several new characters in the story but the best narrative belongs to two characters from the first film who take a more prominent role in Volume 2. Nebula has daddy issues like everyone in the story, but she is taking them out on Gamora. Their relationship continues to splinter, mesh and then separate again on a regular basis.  The surprise feature character is Michael Rooker’s Yondu. This turns out to be the key reason for this movie working as well as it does to supersede comic spectacle and actually achieve some emotional resonance. Who’d have thought that?

 

Drax continues to be one of the oddest comic relief characters in films. David Bautista’s deliver of deadpan insults and bon mots earns him some acting cred in the range he handles very well.  Zoe Saldana has the narrowest story developments in the film, but Gamora still manages to be an important presence in the story. New character Mantis has the sincerest demeanor in the plot and her by play with Drax is a highlight.

Peter Quill gets to be the hero of the story, but it ends up being a position that is well earned and paid for. The Guardians add a few new enemies to their list of folks they have to watch out for. You can see a few threads of future stories lurking in the background, but the one major story from the previous version is cleanly tied up here. Not having heard of this comic series before it became a film, much less having ever read one comic, the denouement of  the family story was a good twist that made the film a lot more interesting.

 

The special effects of the film are impressive. We went to a 3D IMAX showing and it showcases the space battles and weapons very well. The soundtrack is loaded with music that if you don’t yet know, you will because it is used so well in the story. There are some nice details in the film that you may miss if you don’t watch closely.  For example, I’m pretty sure Peter’s grandpa is in one shot very briefly. It wasn’t necessary but it shows that the film makers care about details and in this Universe, details seem to be pretty important. If you liked the first film, you should be more than satisfied with Vol. 2. And if you like Mary Poppins, you’ll love Yondu the most.

AMC IMAX Bonus Cards for Stubbs Members, Jealous?

SPECTRE

In case you had not noticed over the last few weeks, I am a James Bond fan. I may even be an apologist, since I managed to find things to like in all the Bond films, even the ones at the bottom of my list. From a critical point of view, it’s best not to let your passions interfere with your judgement, but as someone who has listened to a lot of argument, I can tell you that passion often trumps good judgement. A thoughtful idea is often no match for an instance of visual gratification or nostalgic touch on ones memory. I can’t really pretend not to have a prejudice in regard to these films and everyone reading this should be forewarned, this is an opinion influenced by fifty years of conditioning.

[Spoiler Alert] A plot point is discussed in the next paragraph that might reveal more information than you want on characters in the film.


“SPECTRE” is a solid action film, with the requisite 007 tropes, and several terrific sequences.  It was very satisfying in my opinion, but it does not rise to the levels of greatness it’s predecessor achieved. That it suffers in part from that comparison is largely the fault of the screenwriters who found it necessary to inject every Daniel Craig Bond film with a continuing story line concept. “Skyfall” is the Craig version of our hero with the least degree of attachment to the previous films, and one of the reasons it works is the stand alone nature of the script. “SPECTRE” reaches into the grave to pull a thread that suddenly becomes the link between all of these stories. There is an intriguing idea in having the greatest threat to humanity and humanities greatest protector be connected in  a very essential way, but it strains the story to make it work in the quick way it has to develop. “The Ten Commandments”, “East of Eden” and “Thor” all explore the same territory but manage to do it with more aplomb than can be mustered here. There is not enough time to go into Bond’s history again, and then make him the “Good Twin”. 


That having been said, let’s talk about the stuff that makes the movie worth your time and money. The Bond girl in this film is a bright psychologist who is half Bond’s age. She is also fairly self sufficient when it comes to some of the action bits. Léa Seydoux is a blonde innocent trapped in a world of venomous manipulators. The fact that she becomes part of the story is a result of one of those threads I mentioned before, being tugged at in a pretty effective scene. A recurring character is a victim of Polonium type poisoning, and his only desire is to protect his daughter. James is traditionally  a misogynist in the chauvinistic style of the past. He dismisses women and he treasures them simultaneously. The writers give Madeleine Swann enough to do to make her not be an impediment that Bond must drag around for the last third of the film. They do however fall back on the oldest of story telling shortcuts in modern suspense films and it is a bit tired.  Daniel Craig’s James Bond has been on a train before, but usually on the outside getting a beating as the scenery passes. In this film, his character finally gets to appreciate the romantic elements of train travel that made previous  versions of Bond so happy. Of course he does get the beating as well. 


Three characters get used more in this film than they have in previous films. “M” is a player in the story and not just a spear holder as as so often been the case. This is a continuation from the previous film that is welcomed. The political angle of the story is an opportunity for “M” to do something not just say things that advance the plot. Ralph Fiennes might have played Bond twenty years ago, now he is well cast as the civilized version of espionage, that the world will see. “Q” is the resident geek who gets a chance to make choices that will give Bond the ability to act more freely than he might have, and “Q” gets to work in the field a bit more as a consequence. Moneypenny is the least used character, but she does ultimately get out from behind the desk or computer and helps out as well. These are all improvements that a Bond fan like me will be glad for. They were the kinds of things I anticipated at the end of the last outing.  

Now when I saw a year ago that the title of the new film was going to be “SPECTRE” , it was inevitable that the head of that criminal organization would return in this re-booted universe. There was not really any doubt that Christoph Waltz was going to be that character. If there were a grand plan that the organization was responsible for and Bond was sent to stop it, I’d have been alright with that. As it is, we have a more insidious plot that draws on recent films to make us doubt our allies and ourselves. The paranoia factor is ratcheted up so high, it makes the quislings of Quantum seem like pikers. As it turns out, they and every other foe that our current version of Bond has faced end up being tied together in an unnecessary complication of previous plots.  Yet somehow, with the stakes as high as they are, it feels like this is a showdown between figures that really have not had a relationship before. The story tries to build a background but it is under done and unsatisfying. There are still some sequences though that make the mano a mano approach work anyway. When Bond boldly enters into a meeting trying to pass himself off as a member of the organization, the shadowy image and disembodied voice work at building some suspense and tension. There is also a good scene back in London, late in the film , which contains the viciousness of the organization and it’s leader quite well. The scene of torture in the desert is a bit anti-climactic but it turns out to be the penultimate confrontation rather than the final one, thank goodness. 

Waltz does not get as much screen time or character development as a villain probably needs. Le Chiffre and Silva in the two highwater marks of this iteration of Bond were the models of that kind of storytelling. Here it all relies on moods and asserted links to previous actions to make Waltz the bad guy. When he finally acquires a signature feature of the character, I thought the real plot was kicking in, unfortunately, this takes place in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. So the challenge that Bond usually faces is the formidable substitute, Mr. Hinx. David Bautista is a modern version of “Oddjob” or “Jaws”. He is relentless, tough and resilient. He also has enough charisma to pull off the silent role and get away with having a single verbal line in the film. Although Bond ultimately prevails over his enemies, they may not be down for the count permanently. I’d be fine with that as long as the story were more direct and the pacing a bit stronger.

All of this criticism might make you think I did not like the film, as I’ve already said, far from it, I enjoyed the heck out of it.

This is the unique ticket I bought from Regal Entertainment, it entitles me to admission to see “SPECTRE” every day that that it plays in a Regal theater. They only sold 1000 of them across the country, so it is a unusual souvenir and a threat to the financial foundations of that company, because I plan on using it a lot. The opening scene by itself might be worth a visit or two. There is a really solid car chase through Rome that provides some thrills and a couple of the humorous beats that a Bond film should have. The fight scene on the train is another few minutes that make a return visit worthwhile.  

I don’t care much for the Opening Song, it seems to lack a melody and there is never much drive to it. I have learned over the years though that some things can grow on you and I finally appreciate the Chris Cornell song from Casino Royale” so maybe this will work it’s way into a more favorable status down the road. The “Day of the Dead” setting in Mexico City was visually interesting and the lonely trek through the Austrian Alps to try and track down a lead was a solid moment of loneliness. There were some aspects of the secret desert lair that were also interesting, so I can say that the movie looks great. I just think it needs to be a bit tighter, and it would have benefited from starting a fresh adventure rather than dragging in parts of the past few films. Monica Bellucci was hailed as a breakthrough in casting a mature woman as a counterpart to Bond, but her part is brief . It did have an awkward sexual element to it but there was also the most sensual image of the film in one of her scenes so if you are a fan it might be worth it to you but it was frustrating that she was gone so soon. 

 

I may come back and offer a different view of the film, maybe after the tenth trip I take on my dime and Regal’s foolishness. For now let’s just say 007 fans will be satisfied and the world is safe for a couple of more years.