Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Disclaimer: I have tried but there are a few spoilers ahead, so be warned.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was a surprising gem of a movie, with James Gunn bringing a smaller, more obscure Marvel team to the big screen and expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos. It’s among my favourites of the Marvel movies and so this follow up arrives with additional pressure the first didn’t.

Luckily it never allows this pressure to effect it’s performance and while a couple of gags are revisited, this strikes out into fresh territory.

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Having saved the universe Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) discovered his father was not of Earth. This mystery continues to bug him, but he pushes it awau as he leads the Guardians. We find them defeating a gigantic space beast to the backing of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, the action largely in the background as Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the child reincarnation of the team’s living tree, dances about happily.

The team has been hired to stop the monster by the Sovereign, led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). The Sovereign, a gold skinned race have bred their people to be the best they can be, and so view their citizens as too precious to risk. Their fee is the handover of Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) villainous adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) who they plan to hand over to the Nova Corps.

All goes well and they leave. Aboard the ship Peter apologises to Gamora for having flirted with Ayesha, but she brushes this off. Drax (Dave Bautista) advises Peter that he has no chance with Gamora and should instead find someone “pathetic” like he is. Shortly after the Sovereign chase them as on their way out the gruff, gun toting raccoon Rocket  (voiced by Bradley Cooper) stole valuable and powerful batteries from them.

Rocket and Peter argue about who is the better pilot and their struggle for control damages the ship. Luckily, the remote controlled pursuers are destroyed by a mysterious figure who arrives astride his own ship. The Guardians escape but crash land, their ship severely damaged.

Ayesha’s next move is to recruit Yondu (Michael Rooker), the alien who abducted Peter as a child to capture the Guardians. We learn that some of the crew think Yondu is going soft and that his team of Ravagers are outsiders to the other clans, with his old friend Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) who says he is an exile because he broke the code, and traded in children.

The Guardians meet Ego (Kurt Russell), who is Peter’s father and a Celestial, beings with great power who live for millions of years. Ego takes Peter, Gamora and the musclebound Drax to teach Peter more of his past.

Rocket and Baby Groot remain to fix the ship and keep an eye on Nebula. Unfortunately, the Ravagers arrive. Yondu announces he has no intention of handing over the Guardians, as there is more money to be made from taking the batteries and selling them on. The crew view this as proof he is too soft on Peter, and they mutiny. Nebula, released by Baby Groot, intervenes and Yondu and Rocket are imprisoned.

Nebula heads after Gamora for revenge, and Yondu and Rocket learn they will be sold to former enemies. Yondu is also not happy to learn that Peter has gone to Ego’s home world.

Ego’s planet is an idyll where he lives almost alone aside from Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who he treats almost as a pet and who has no social skills due to being alone for so long. Ego reveals he is the planet and that Peter shares his ability to create things, and Ego wants to teach him about his powers and his purpose.

Gamora, however, is suspicious which causes friction between her and Peter. After an argument she storms off alone where Nebula attacks, they fight and then discover something Ego has hidden from them.

Can they trust Ego? Can Yondu and Rocket escape? Will the Sovereign ever stop hunting them?

I loved this movie, which captures the same vibe of the original, with solid action sequences, likeable characters and a funny, clever script. The plot hooks you in because early on the characters win you over, particularly Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, who’s cocky swagger is still in place but mention of his father in an early scene obviously hits close to home. It’s a great performance with Pratt managing to make the character cool despite his buffoonery and the fact that he often trips himself up.

The rest of the Guardians are solid throughout, and it’s a nice touch bringing Nebula back as her relationship with Gamora is fleshed out slightly. Also, the “unspoken thing” between Star-Lord and Gamora develops nicely, and a lot is gained by underplaying it.

A lot of the publicity for the movie has focused on Baby Groot, and it’s easy to see why as he is straight up adorable and centre stage for some of the funniest moments of the film.

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For me, however, the film’s strongest asset is Michael Rooker as Yondu. Rooker is consistently dependable on screen (Cliffhanger, Mallrats, The Replacement Killers, The Walking Dead, Tombstone), and has far more to do this time round, which is good as he impressed me in the original. Here we learn more of Yondu’s past and it adds to the character, as does the development of his relationship with Star-Lord and Ego. The plot that sees him in exile from the other Ravagers gives him a certain vulnerability, and he’s brought low early on.

His comeback is impressive and one of the strongest parts of the film, and the sequence where he and Rocket escape, and he gets revenge on the crew who mutinied is a masterpiece, one of the most visually impressive, inventive and darkly funny action sequences I’ve seen in years, and worth the ticket price alone. And his “magic arrow” weapon is just badass.

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Rooker’s softening of the character doesn’t mean that Yondu loses anything, and in fact, the character’s slow acceptance of his softer side coincides with the film’s major theme, which is about creating our own families. Yondu and Star-Lord’s father and son vibe, is well handled and Yondu is thereby placed opposite Ego, who slowly reveals a more sinister, cynical nature.

Ego is brilliantly played by the legendary Kurt Russell, who brings an easy charm to his early scenes. His laidback, jokey manner is similar to Star-Lord’s character and their bonding over the music Peter’s late mother loved is gentle and sweet.

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Kurt Russell, legend

Of course, all is not as it seems. Having won over Peter, his facade slips and the invented history he has created is shown to have been romanticised, but the film holds back one more revelation which delivers a gut punch to Peter and the audience, and serves as the turning point for the film.

The action, set on strange new worlds is glorious, the fights have energy and verve, with moments of humour dotted between the blows. The visuals are striking, and there are some nice nods to other Marvel worlds throughout.

But more than just looking great and keeping the laughs flowing, this movie has a strong emotional core. Ego’s shocking statement leaves the audience reeling, but come the end of the movie the other characters and how they work together has you emotionally invested, and breaks your heart. I’m not ashamed to say that during a sequence soundtracked by Cat Stevens I found myself welling up.

Thanos, the villain Marvel have been hyping since the first Avengers movie still lurks in the background, but this serves less as a movie to move the MCU forward, and more a film to move the characters forward. The films pulls the team closer together and the promise at the end that “The Guardians of the Galaxy Will Return” is one I’m very happy about.

A strong contender for the best Marvel film yet, and current frontrunner for film of the year.

Verdict: Builds well on the first movie, adding more to the characters and their relationships. It’s entertaining from start to finish, with superb action, humour and a decent plot. An utter gem. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My 10 Favourite Films of 2016

So, I saw a fair few new movies this year and these were my favourites.

10. Doctor Strange

Marvel goes magical as Benedict Cumberbatch dons the cape as the sorcerer supreme in a hugely entertaining and gorgeous to look at movie of a selfish man forced to reassess his priorities and become a hero. Full review.

9. Ghostbusters

Rebooting a much loved and well crafted movie was always going to be tricky and the makers of this flick caught a fair amount of flak. I loved the original but the new version worked for me. It kept the laughs coming and the four leads all did their jobs well. As good as Murray and Co? No, but still pretty damn good. Review.


8. Captain America: Civil War
The biggest Marvel movie so far pits hero against hero as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) clash over new restrictions on the heroes. Great fight scenes and a solid story ensure this is an entertaining super flick up there with the best in the MCU. It also introduced the latest on screen Spider-man who’s probably the best so far, and that’s just after a few minutes.

I’m Team Iron Man, by the way. Find out why.

7. Pete’s Dragon

A gloriously warm and charming story about a boy raised in the wild by a dragon and his journey to find a new family. Reduced MWF to tears and left me a little choked up too. Magical filmmaking. Review.


6. The Revenant
A gritty and at times grim tale of survival features a fantastic central performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and is utterly gorgeous. Thoroughly gripping throughout. Full review.

5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I have mixed feelings about the Harry Potter films but this prequel/spin-off really worked for me thanks to the fantastic beasts living up to their hype and a core group of very likeable characters. Really charming film. I rave about it here, but there are spoilers.

4. Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds gets the superhero he deserves as he plays the crude, wise cracking mercenary granted superpowers and out for a cure. Gloriously OTT violence, postmodern humour and a real sense of fun this movie was a real winner for me. Read me barely containing my man crushing here.


3. Moana
The latest Disney movie features a strong female lead embarking on an exciting adventure and a scene stealing turn from Dwayne Johnson. Great fun. The full review is here.


2. Zootropolis
A Disney film with a buddy movie vibe fused with a noirish conspiracy this is a wonderful movie with a good message at the heart. There’s also a fantastically creative and innovative world created. Loved it and it stands up to repeat viewings. Review.

1. The Jungle Book

A remake of a much loved classic that I was nervous about which actually blew my socks off. Fun, moving and gorgeous this was a masterpiece. The voice cast is good, the thrills gripping and the characters loveable. A gem of a movie and I gush about it here.

Have I missed one of your personal favourites, or picked a movie you hated? Let me know, but keep it civil!
You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Doctor Strange

Marvel continue to expand their cinematic universe here, taking a second tier character and moving into the more mystical aspects of the universe. I’ve always kinda dug the Doctor Strange character and the way the comics mixed magic into the superhero world and the movie works in much the same way.

Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who lives a life of luxury. His over confidence rubs colleagues up the wrong way but he is respected for his skills, especially by his ex, ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who he continues to have a flirtatious relationship.
While driving to a speaking engagement and distracted by his phone Strange crashes, severely damaging his hands. Unable to continue his career he burns through his savings in a futile search for a way to fix his hands and sinks into bitterness, pushing Christine away after he becomes angry at her perceived pity. Meeting a man who recovered from irreversible paralysis, Strange learns he was healed after visiting a place called Kamar-Taj, in Katmandu. Using the last of his money Strange travels in search of answers.

There he finds a mysterious group headed by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who speaks of spirit and magic. Strange dismisses this as nonsense until the Ancient One shows him his astral form and the different dimensions. She is reluctant to teach the arrogant Strange but her student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) urges her to take him on and finally she agrees.

Strange is introduced to a secret world, discovering the forces and powers at work I’m the universe and becoming adept at the mystic arts. Kamar-Taj is linked to three sanctums which exert a sort of force field that protects Earth from interdimensional attack.

His photographic memory allows him to learn spells quickly, and he frequents the library run by taciturn sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong). He reads a book which has been damaged, learning that pages were stolen by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who has gone rogue, aligning himself with a Dormammu a powerful being from the Dark Dimension who seeks to absorb more dimensions into his power. Kaecilius believes that this will save mankind from the ravages of time and death. He is disillusioned with the Ancient One and believes she has lied to her followers.

Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) practicing the dark arts

After they attack the London sanctum Strange escapes to New York where he attempts to stop Kaecilius and his followers. Despite his inexperience he manages to hold them off until Mordo and the Ancient One arrive to help, but New York falls. Strange and his allies realise that the final sanctum in Hong Kong must be protected and rush there to make a final stand against Kaecilius.

Can they stop the Dark Dimension from engulfing the Earth? Has the Ancient One been hiding things from her followers? And will Strange heal his hands, or does he now have a greater goal to pursue?

I really enjoyed this film which went in a slightly new direction for Marvel and was extremely good fun. The visuals, especially during a trippy sequence where Strange is sent flying through alternate dimensions are glorious and the psychedelic feel works. Plot wise it’s formulaic in places- arrogant self absorbed hero has to realise there is a bigger game at work, adjust his priorities and triumph.

But the formula is carried off well, in large part thanks to Cumberbatch, who can do arrogant genius in his sleep (Sherlock, The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness) and here he is entertaining as the strutting Strange. He also does a good job keeping the character’s glib nature even when he finds himself out of his depth.

It also works because he gives brief glimpses of vulnerability cracking through the bravado but like Marvel’s other bearded hero Tony Stark, he has the quick wits to get out of most situations.

The rest of the cast is a little less impressive, with Mikkelsen being a rather dull villain and the Ancient One not getting much depth. Worst of all is how criminally underused the always charming Rachel McAdams is. She has very little to do and it’s a shame that a good actress doesn’t get anything to sink her teeth into.

Underused- McAdams as Christine Palmer

However Ejifor carries himself with class as Mordo and his rigid world view sets him up to clash with Strange’s reckless use of magic and should develop nicely in further instalments.
The final face off is rather smartly done, and the effects are glorious. The fight scenes are well done, particularly a sequence where Strange and a foe battle in the astral plane and their actions cross over into the real world. Another nice touch is that Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is given a personality of itself, kind of like the magic carpet in Aladdin

It’s not the strongest Marvel movie but it’s incredibly good fun and takes the MCU in new directions while still feeling part of it in terms of tone and characters. Definitely left me wanting to see more of the good Doctor.

Verdict: Lots of fun and with great visuals, the film is carried by a charismatic performance from Cumberbatch. The action sequences are handled well and it’s an interesting and entertaining addition to the Marvel Universe. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers movie was such a success that you suspect afterwards Joss Whedon and Marvel might have been a bit scared, having built up their cinematic universe they delivered a grand slam which united several of their key characters for a team up and it won great reviews and took a bunch of cash. The movie was pretty much a flawless blockbuster which managed to include crowd pleasing action sequences with some great dialogue and characterization.

They’d raised the bar so high that a sequel was always going to be even more challenging.

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The bad news is that Age of Ultron isn’t as good as Earth’s mightiest heroes’ first outing, it’s still a hugely entertaining superhero flick, in fact, leaving the cinema MWG asked me what I intended to score it today and agreed with me on it being worth a “solid eight”.

But the script doesn’t have the same zing and some of the plot is a little convoluted. But these flaws aside it still manages to deliver action, laughs and jaw dropping spectacle while also succeeding in moving the Marvel cinematic universe onto it’s third stage.

The movie kicks off in some style with the Avengers in action against Hydra forces. It transpires that they’ve been chasing and dismantling Captain America’s (Chris Evans) old foes and are trying to reclaim the mind controlling sceptre previously wielded by Loki, brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder. During the mission the whole team represents, including a fantastic shot which seems like a comic book splash page come alive.

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During the attack two new superpowered enemies enter the fray, Hydra operatives referred to as “the Twins” Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). Pietro is gifted with extreme speed while Wanda has telekinetic powers and also the ability to mess with people’s minds, which she puts to good effect conjuring a nightmare scenario for Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) as he sees a world at the mercy of alien invasion and his teammates dead.

The Twins

The Twins

The Twins flee as the Avengers win the day, although Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is injured. We also see that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have formed a bond and it is her responsibility to calm him down after missions, returning him to Bruce Banner. Their bond is also shown to go beyond this and there’s a mutual attraction between the two.

Widow calms the Hulk

Widow calms the Hulk

Back at the Avengers HQ and in possesion of the sceptre, Stark talks to Banner about using its power and the Hydra tech to create an artificial intelligence that will govern Tony’s robotic legion and protect the world from future alien threats.

Before you can say “Terrible idea”, it’s all gone a bit wrong and the artificial intelligence Ultron (voiced by James Spade) has gone rogue, identifying the Avengers themselves as a threat and escaping online. Ultron begins building an army of robots, all of which are him in essence and teams up with the Twins, who have beef with Stark after his weapons killed their family, and they set about trying to eliminate the Avengers.

The first encounter in Africa goes wrong, with Thor, Black Widow and Captain America having their brain scrambled by Wanda. Ultron escapes with the rare metal he requires to “evolve” and Iron Man has to intervene against the Hulk, who has been sent into a rage by Wanda. They square off as Iron Man initiates his Hulkbuster suit and they smash about for a bit before the Hulk is subdued.

avengers ultron hulkbuster

On the run they have to work out what Ultron’s next move is and how they can hope to stop him. They also have to deal with the issues raised by the hallucinations Wanda gave them and also rebuild the trust which has been shattered by Stark’s secretive movements in creating Ultron.

Meanwhile, Ultron himself creates an android form, using the gem from the sceptre, which will grant him greater power, although Wanda begins to question his motives. When he tries to link with the android form she sees his true plan and the twins flee.

The Avengers head to South Korea get the android body, but Black Widow is taken prisoner. Returning to New York, Tony wants to implant Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), his computer butler/assistant into the android to give them an extra weapon against Ultron, although Captain America opposes this and tensions flare.

Can the Avengers overcome their differences and stop Ultron? What is his plan? With the android in their possesion are they right to create another AI to attempt to stop Ultron, or is this a bad idea? What role will the twins play in the final showdown?

As you can tell the story jumps around the place quite a lot and there’s a fair amount going on. For the most part it’s easy to follow, but there are a few times when I had to take a beat to remind myself of what was going on and where. That being said, it is engaging once you remember where you are and the film has many strengths, most notably the cast.

Everyone seems more comfortable in their roles and it’s nice that the film takes the time to expand on certain things, and the relationship between Banner and Natasha is handled wonderfully and quite touching. Johansson does a great job of making the Black Widow believable and real, meaning that we understand why Banner appeals to her and their similarities, both haunted by their past and fearful of putting others in danger. Ruffalo is, as ever, extremely likable as the awkward, geeky Banner, haunted by having to unleash the beast within, even when it’s in a good cause and a scene where the human Banner threatens Wanda feels totally in keeping with the character. His rage at Wanda for causing his rampage reflecting his issues with the Hulk being used by others.

Best of all, for me, was the fact that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has a lot more to do this time around. Aware of his limitations compared to his superpowered teammates, Hawkeye’s background is fleshed out and we see his driving force- professionalism. He’s there to do a job, and he’s dedicated to it, almost fearless when confronted with danger and, barring Black Widow, the most vulnerable, he nevertheless joins the charge. It’s nice that they’ve expanded on the character, although I still doubt we’re going to get a Hawkeye movie, or even a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie.

Hawkeye in action

Hawkeye in action

Evans, Hemsworth and RDJ are all on top form, particularly RDJ, who continues to make Stark the most engaging character. The superficial suave air from the first Iron Man movie has been stripped away, and we see more of the man inside the suit, scared and worried for the future, even if he does still hide behind the quips (needless to say, he gets many of the best lines in the movie).

As for the newcomers, they do pretty well. The twins are pretty cool in the power stakes, and it’s a credit to Olsen and AT-J that they convince as being close, loving siblings. ATJ, after boring me senseless in Godzilla, is back on fine form here, conveying both sides of Pietro’s personality- the angry, vengeance seeking young man and also the big kid who revels and enjoys his powers.

Olsen is wonderfully cold as Wanda, single minded in her quest for revenge and remorseless in messing with the minds of others, although she does show flashes of decency and even at the start she and her brother believe themselves to be the good guys against the imperialist Americans.

Doing a wonderful job at the mic for Ultron, James Spade is a delight. The product of Tony Stark he has much the same sarky manner as his creator, and an even less secure grip on his ego. One of the things the movie does is have clear similarities between the two, they deliver the same quotes and make the same jokes. It’s all rather well done and Ultron is quite a menacing presence, especially given his unpredictability and rages.

Ultron

Ultron

The one downside with Ultron as a villain is that he’s made an army of Ultrons, meaning that some of the fight scenes, particularly with Iron Man, are a bit confusing and it almost tips into Transformers territory of metal hitting metal with no idea what’s what. The other problem is that despite their numerical advantage we see far too many Ultrons go down easily- if Thor or the Hulk smashes one, we’re impressed, but if they can also be taken down by a single arrow or shield throw they’re not massively intimidating.

It would help if the Ultron Prime was even more impressive, stronger and evolved than his minions, but the difference isn’t great enough and so his threat isn’t quite as pronounced. Still, his plan is fabulously OTT and the fight scenes do succeed in capturing that comic book feel, where everything is going on at once. Rather than cutting from one throwdown to another Whedon uses camera moves and flying debris to weave between the battle, picking out individual moments in the melee.

All in all, Whedon succeeds in making a sensational blockbuster and superhero movie, and the MCU continues to grow and impress (the final Avengers line-up looks pretty boss, and it’s nice to see some of the smaller characters get screen time). It doesn’t match the first, but that was always unlikely, but it’s still a solid movie and puts more pressure on DC’s Justice League reveal.

Verdict: Not as solid as the first, but still hugely entertaining and fun. The film expands on it’s characters and as with previous Marvel flicks leaves you eager for more. Roll on phase three! 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.