Saturday, May 13, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, King Arthur, Snatched, Free Fire Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Dir. James Gunn
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Back in 2014, who knew this group of intergalactic a-holes would make Guardians of the Galaxy the #1 movie of the summer? James Gunn's first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced us to a ragtag group of fun, new iconic antiheroes in a world infused with equal parts space battles and pop music, making a refreshingly crowd-pleasing, hilarious, well-written romp out of the typically "stuffy" sci-fi genre. And as with any successful blockbuster, a sequel was fast-tracked immediately. With everybody back on board, the characters are still just as fun to hang around, the banter is just as witty, the music just as danceable, the visuals just as colorful... but we've seen it all before. While both films are enjoyable to watch in their own right, Guardians Vol. 1 felt completely original at the time (keep in mind, it was released before JJ's The Force Awakens), whereas Vol. 2 feels like the familiar groove on a well-played record. The sequel does almost everything that made the original great, but with diminishing returns.

Although it wasn't necessarily the plot of Guardians Vol. 1 that made it my #1 movie of 2014, I will admit that there's a little more going on in the story department in Vol. 2, for better or worse. The main narrative involves the discovery of Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a powerful space god whose hobbies include delivering long, protracted pieces of expositional dialogue. Ego invites Peter to his home planet, effectively splitting the Guardians into two groups: Star-Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) travel to Ego's world alongside Ego's assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who has to power to "feel" and change people's emotions via touch, while Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) stay behind to keep an eye on Gamora's recently captured sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). As if all that wasn't enough to keep track of, hot on their trail is a group of pompous gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign - whom the Guardians stole some MacGuffin Co. batteries from - and bounty-hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter's former boss whom the Sovereign have hired along with his wild, piratic group of Ravagers.

The first Guardians smartly kept the plot simple so as to make the character interactions shine. Vol. 2 literally does the opposite, splitting up the team in favor of a complicated father-son story that didn't quite do it for me. One of my favorite characters from the first film was Star-Lord, who was the cocky, smart-assed, but likable protagonist. Here his personality feels surprisingly stripped away, mostly reacting emotionally to daddy stuff, which is not really Chris Pratt's strong suit. Rocket and Baby Groot's relationship is also slightly different from the first film - instead of a Han/Chewie relationship, here Groot feels more like a pet or a toddler. Drax likewise has changed from a beefy warrior who literalized jokes that "flew over his head" to a character who has fully embraced humor, though lacking the self-awareness to know what's offensive or crossing the line. While some of these character changes took interesting new directions (Drax is great, Rocket/Groot interacting is almost like a perpetual vaudeville act), the humor wasn't nearly as strong as Vol 1 and something about it feels rote. Even the use of licensed music felt less congruous this time around (though it was much better integrated than Suicide Squad).

Although Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, colorful, predictably entertaining summer blockbuster, it does feel disappointingly uneventful. The biggest sin this movie commits is separating the characters, and without any serious stakes involved in the main story (the central "villain" isn't even revealed until the third act), the middle of the film starts to drag with uninteresting backstories and repetitive, CGI-filled action sequences. That being said, Marvel's track record continues to hold steady, and Guardians Vol. 2 is yet another enjoyable galaxy-traversing adventure, even if it is but a shadow of its predecessor.

Rating: B

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Dir. Guy Ritchie
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The last time the legend of King Arthur came to the big screen was in 2004 with Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, riding on the successful coattails of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although it made its money back overseas, it earned a meager $51 million domestically on a $120 million budget, hardly indicating a thirst from general audiences for Arthurian narratives. However, since then we've seen Game of Thrones reignite sword and sorcery stories into the public consciousness; it's no surprise that Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword borrows Thrones alumni Aiden Gillen and Michael McElhatton. Guy Ritchie, best known for his kinetic British crime dramas like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, is an interesting choice for director to bring the Knights of the Round Table back into relevance - perhaps his unique, heightened perspective on the material is the key to infusing the story with new life? ...the answer: apparently not. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a long, dumb, boring, inconsequential chore that has absolutely nothing on its mind and doesn't even express its nothingness in an interesting way.

The story follows a pre-king Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), growing up the hard way in back alleys after his father, Uther (Eric Bana), is murdered when he's only a child. Arthur's power-hungry uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law) now has control of the crown, but when fate calls Arthur to pull the sword Excalibur from a stone, he basically becomes Superman and fulfills his destiny to avenge his father, take the crown from his uncle, and do a lot of physically-impossible slow-mo sword moves along the way. Like Ritchie's previous "take something old and make it cool" movies Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Legend of the Sword is the definition of style over substance.

I liked the way Ritchie (and/or his editor James Herbert) plays with time and montage in some scenes, I adored the musical score from Daniel Pemberton (which creatively uses heavy breathing as an instrument in and of itself), the actors give it their all (Jude Law, bless his soul, tries his best to make his "nothing" character shine), the set design and cinematography look great, and some of the CGI looked amazing (A-plus goes to the designers of the squid ladies, giant elephants, and demonic skeletor monster), but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ultimately crumbles under the weight of its own pointlessness. It's totally vapid, with boring characters, even worse dialogue, an insufferably repetitive story, and cloying attempts to set itself up for sequels (we'll see how that works out).

All this is just to say - skip it. You'll forget you saw this movie while you're watching it.

Rating: D+

Dir. Jonathan Levine
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Goldie Hawn has been MIA (in movies) for 15 years; the once-bankable Academy Award-winning, decades-spanning movie star semi-officially retired after co-starring with Susan Sarandon in 2002's The Banger Sisters. However, somehow comedy's current "it" girl Amy Schumer pulled Goldie back onto the silver screen from retirement with Snatched, a mother-daughter action-comedy written by Katie Dippold (The Heat, Spy) and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies). With all four of these proven hilarious people - plus a crap-ton of comic cameos throughout - you'd think Snatched would have been a fun, R-Rated good time. Unfortunately, the laughs just aren't strong or frequent enough to transcend its threadbare plot.

The story follows Emily Middleton (Schumer), an aimless, selfie-obsessed white girl who's fired from her job and dumped by her boyfriend (Randall Park) on the eve of her non-refundable vacation to South America. With no one else available, Emily asks her risk-averse "cat lady" mom, Linda (Hawn), to go with her on this adventurous trip. After some daughterly coercing (and another reference to the non-refund policy), Linda agrees and they set off for Ecuador. Despite their differences, the two must work out their dynsfunctional relationship when they are eventually tricked and kidnapped by a gang on their fun trip abroad.

What makes Snatched even more disappointing, apart from its waste of all-star talent, is that there are glimmers of a better film in here. The idea of a pampered American traveling abroad and expecting to be taken care of wherever they are is an interesting idea, but there's not enough of it. The best parts of the film are the phone calls between Emily's brother, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz), and an unfazed U.S. Embassy Rep (Bashir Salahuddin) - primarily because it plays on that very theme of an entitled American thinking the "world police" will rescue them as soon as danger arises (at one point Jeffrey asks if they can send in the A-Team).

I think a major problem in Snatched, along with other recent Paul Feig films (he produced Snatched as well), is its heavy reliance on improvisation. Improv is a helpful tool, but you need to actually write a script to carry the comedy along. This current wave of modern comedies that started with Judd Apatow's work in the early-mid 2000s seems to adhere to the idea that if you simply put two or more funny people together in the same room, magic will happen. Sometimes it will, but when there's little-to-no connective tissue to make us care about the story, it all starts to feel very "throwaway." Snatched has bursts of kind-of funny moments, but just about everything else about it feels pretty slipshod.

Rating: C

Free Fire
Dir. Ben Wheatley
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It's 2017 - 25 years after the debut of Quentin Tarantino's breakout film, Reservoir Dogs, and still it's being ripped off! Free Fire is the latest film from English director Ben Wheatley (High Rise), and similar to the aforementioned crime classic, it takes place mostly in one location, with a bunch of criminals pointing guns at each other. However, unlike Tarantino's film, Free Fire lacks much in the way of good dialogue, interesting characters, an intriguing story, comprehensible geography or just plain old competent filmmaking. This movie is a pointless, childish, uninteresting waste of talent that feels like watching a group of kids at a birthday party wantonly shooting super-soakers at each other (only with live rounds).

The story details a black market gun exchange gone wrong. Justine (Brie Larson) is facilitating a trade between two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) and a gang led by a gun dealer, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and Ord (Armie Hammer), his representative. However, shots are fired during the handover when one of Vernon's goons remembers a previous incident between one of the Irishmen's goons and his sister. Then the movie quickly becomes one long, tedious gun fight.

I found this movie tiring as hell. I was the only person in the entire theater, and I actually took my phone out and started browsing for a few minutes here and there - an act I typically consider sacrilegious. Ben Wheatley is clearly not interested in giving his audience a compelling sense of "who, what, where, and why" regarding this shoot-out, so I had absolutely no reason to care about what happened. Maybe if the action was well-choreographed and intense I would have been able to forgive it, but it wasn't. The rapid cutting and unclear spacial relationships made knowing who was shooting at who next to impossible (on the Q&A Podcast, Wheatley said he edited this film "live" using a switcher, like they do on live television, with no further cutting... which explains a lot).

I've now written more words about this film than it's even worth. I hate to say this because I want to support independent film... but I'm glad this tanked at the box office.

Rating: C-

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