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Trippy Marvel fun continues with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a big, nutty, spiraling sequel that brings the fun—along with a lot of daddy issues.

Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), had him some major mommy issues in the first movie; this time out, dad takes a turn at messing with his head. Dad comes in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell … yes!), who we see hanging out with Quill’s mom in the 1970s during the film’s prologue. (Both CGI and practical makeup were reportedly used to de-age Kurt Russell, and it looks great.)

After a killer opening-credits sequence that features a battle with a giant slug thing while Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra, the Guardians—Quill, Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (David Bautista) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper)—find themselves on another quest. They are quickly diverted to Ego’s planet, where Quill finds out more about his celestial origins.

Russell proves to be perfectly cast as Quill’s bombastic father, as Pratt possesses many of the legendary action film star’s alluring traits. Seeing them onscreen together—at one point playing catch with an energy ball Quill conjures with newfound powers—is one of the film’s great joys.

That scene also proves to be misleading, as writer-director James Gunn isn’t going to settle for an easy story about a wayward son reuniting with a dream dad. As it turns out, Ego makes Darth Vader look like Mike Brady as a father: Vol. 2 is as dark and nasty as it is silly and action-packed.

Quill’s daddy issues don’t end with Ego. Oh, no, that would be too easy. Gunn and his cast have come up with a story that is far more complicated than that of your average comic-book movie. Of course, there’s also the whole sibling-rivalry thing between Gamora and her twisted sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). When these two fight, it goes way beyond kicking each other in the shins.

Another subplot—the film has quite a few—involves Michael Rooker’s disgraced Yondu looking for redemption. This storyline results in one of the greater surprises offered by the franchise so far. Rooker, an underrated actor, makes Yondu’s journey compelling.

All the story threads hold together well as the film ratchets up the action at a frantic pace that Gunn always manages to keep under control. The director has a way of going crazy with his visuals and pacing—yet making it all comprehensible and coherent.

Bautista, good in the first film, graduates to greatness here, providing most of the film’s big laughs. His newly minted relationship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s travelling companion, and his frankness about her physical appearance make for one of the film’s great running gags.

Sylvester Stallone makes a brief appearance as a renegade thief; while he doesn’t share screen time with Russell, we’ll just go ahead and call this a Tango and Cash reunion.

A couple of years back, Yes album cover illustrator Roger Dean took James Cameron to court, claiming Avatar’s production designs looked a lot like his work. He might want to fire up the lawyer brigade again, because Ego’s planet looks like it was completely inspired by Dean’s paintings. Whenever there was a pan of the planet’s landscape, I had Yes’ “Starship Trooper” playing in my head.

While Yes doesn’t make the classic-rock soundtrack, songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” do. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 works as an ode to classic vinyl rock.

The Guardians will be back in another sequel, along with an appearance in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, so the fun is just beginning. As always, stick around for the credits; there are scenes still to be had after the main movie is over.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

In The Fate of the Furious—easily the dumbest title in the Furious franchise, even dumber than Tokyo Drift—you get to see the most disgusting, stomach-churning moment in cinema so far this year.

That would be Charlize Theron planting a big, sloppy kiss on Vin Diesel, the visual of which creates a “girl from Monster meets the Pillsbury Doughboy on steroids” nightmare. Five years ago, I made a list of five things I never wanted to see, and that came in at No. 3, right under “Donald Trump as President” and “Spiders in My Scrambled Eggs Being Served to Me by a Man With Weeping Hand Sores.”

Somewhere along the way, the Furious franchise went completely bonkers and became less about cars racing around and more about dudes, with upper arms the size of a bull’s torso, who think hair on the top of their heads is total bullshit. It also went off on some sort of international-spy-team tangent. That worked to a hilarious degree in Furious 7, but in The Fate of the Furious, the trajectory becomes ridiculous without much fun: It’s just dumb and plodding. The big thing here is that Dominic Toretto (Diesel) has gone rogue and turned on his family, which has something to do with a cyber villain named Cipher (Theron) and her crazy dreadlock extensions.

The film opens with Dominic and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) having a good old time in Cuba, where we last saw them. Dominic gets into a car race that involves his vehicle catching fire, and him speaking in a growling, marble-mouthed manner. Post-race, he’s approached by Cipher, who is wearing a stunning outfit involving denim shorts. Dominic takes a look at something on her cell phone, mumbles and groans a bit—and the international intrigue begins.

Cipher is after nuclear launch codes and electromagnetic pulse contraptions, and Dominic becomes her pit bull. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham) are eventually employed by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to get with Dominic and see what’s going on in that big, Barry Bonds-sized head of his.

The portions of the film that involve Johnson and Statham are good—good enough to inspire thoughts of a spinoff film in which their characters join up and solve crimes while fighting Batman, Sylvester Stallone, Godzilla, etc. However, a very real chance at something like that apparently got squashed because Diesel screamed, “Mine, mine, mine, all mine!” and put the kibosh on it.

The biggest problem is that the film takes itself too seriously, with heavy doses of drama being ladled into the mix. The movie even makes way for Vin Diesel to have his Denzel Washington-in-Glory tear moment—that moment in which a single, solitary tear rolls down his cheek while the actor does his best to remain stone-faced.

The whole premise of Dominic going rogue has zero dramatic tension; I’ll simply say that there’s little mystery behind his “traitorous” actions. Also—and this goes without saying—he mopes a lot.

Theron is a great actress, but her supposed computer-genius Cipher is a character who mostly stands in a room barking out commands while everybody else does the legwork. Yes, there’s a scene or two in which she types really fast on a keyboard, but the notion that she is a cyber-terrorist goddess gets lost somewhere in those crazy dreadlocks.

The Furious franchise will go on, obviously. Hopefully, producer Diesel will remember what makes the whole thing fun and shift the emphasis from him squirting tears back to cars going, “Vroom, vroom!” and jumping between skyscrapers and over the Grand Canyon.

And, hey, let’s keep these things around 90 minutes in the future. This one clocks in at 156 minutes. That’s almost an entire other movie too long.

The Fate of the Furious is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Furious 7 says goodbye to Paul Walker while taking car chases to seriously outlandish and fantastical extremes. In some ways, the film is more of a science-fiction offering than a car-chase movie.

That’s fine by me.

I have to admit: Part of me was uncomfortable watching Paul Walker racing around in cars after he died in a fiery car crash. You can say Walker died doing something he loved, but I’m thinking irresponsible and reckless speeding dropped way down his “favorite things” list during the final moments of his life. That said, Furious 7 does spark some life into a tired franchise by going totally bananas—and it’s pretty remarkable how Walker, who had only filmed half of his scenes before he died, is inserted into the movie posthumously.

Yes, you can spot some of the moments when his face is grafted onto one of his brothers’ bodies, or when archival footage is inserted, but it still looks pretty darned good. It’s not too distracting, like when Ridley Scott sloppily pasted Oliver Reed’s face onto a stunt double in Gladiator.

Director James Wan, primarily known for horror movies like Saw and The Conjuring, has delivered the franchise’s best offering since the first film. He goes balls-out crazy with stunts and scenarios. It’s still a task to watch and listen to Vin Diesel, but the addition of Jason Statham as a seriously bad guy helps balance things out.

This movie gets my blessing for the sequence involving Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Walker’s Brian O’Conner jumping a car through not one, but two skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. There’s no way in hell that anything like this could actually happen without people getting creamed, but you won’t care once you see how Wan and friends present this nuttiness. Logic doesn’t matter when the special-effects choreography is this good. While Wan won’t necessarily make you believe that cars can fly, he will put a stupid smile on your face as you watch watch cars fly.

While the skyscraper sequence is far and away the franchise’s high-water mark, the film contains a couple of other sequences that garner second and third place: A car chase in the mountains that ends with Walker’s character trying to escape a truck teetering on a cliff is epic, as is a parking-garage street fight.

The film also features Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson battling a helicopter with a really big gun, Rambo-style, and Toretto avoiding capture by driving his muscle car off a mountain. This is a movie that gets a big rush out of continuously topping itself, and it could care less about things like reality.

On the bad side, there’s a stupid subplot involving Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) having amnesia (Christ, I hate amnesia subplots!) and another stupid one involving the home life of Brian and Mia (Jordana Brewster). Then there are the moments when Diesel is required to emote, which is always a sketchy affair.

In Diesel’s defense, he does look pretty badass during his street fight with Statham. Statham, who I can only take in small doses, is used perfectly in Furious 7. He’s this franchise’s equivalent of the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Throw in Kurt Russell as a craft-beer-loving federal agent named Mr. Nobody, and you really can’t go wrong, even with the dopey and sluggish moments. For the first time in a long time, the good outweighs the bad in a Furious movie.

Will there be an eighth film, even though Walker is no longer with us? Um, given that the movie made nearly $144 million during its opening weekend, I think it’s a foregone conclusion that Universal will find a way to keep the engines running.

The bigger question: How will they ever manage to top that skyscraper-jumping sequence? I think they are going to have to add dinosaurs or rampaging gorillas to keep things interesting.

Furious 7 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy is a goofy, dazzling and often hilarious convergence of inspired nuttiness.

You’ll probably hear comparisons to the original Star Wars, The Fifth Element and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension; all of those comparisons are plausible. Guardians marks a blessedly new and crazy direction for the Marvel universe, and director James Gunn (Super, Slither) has taken a huge step toward the A-list.

Also taking a giant leap toward the upper echelon of Hollywood royalty is Chris Pratt, who mixes great charm, action-hero bravado and premium comic timing as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. After a prologue that shows the Earthly origins of his character, Pratt sets the tone for the movie during the opening credits, grooving to his cassette-playing Sony Walkman on an alien planet and using squirrelly little critters as stand-in microphones.

After unknowingly stealing a relic that could have the power to take down the entire universe, Quill finds himself in serious trouble. Events lead to his joining forces with a genetically enhanced raccoon named Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper), a gigantic tree-person thing named Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), a muscle-bound angry alien named Drax (Dave Bautista) and an ass-kicking green woman named Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

Together, they become the Guardians of the Galaxy, an unlikely troupe of mischievous outcasts that plays like the Avengers met the Marx Brothers—if the Marx Brothers had a green sister. It’s a decent comparison. Quill is Groucho; Rocket is Chico; and Groot is Harpo. (He only has one line, “I am Groot!” while Harpo only had the honking horn.) I’d say Gamora is Zeppo, but that would be insulting to Gamora.

The cast, buoyed by a spirited script co-written by Gunn, keeps things zippy and always funny. Visually, the movie is a tremendous feat. If you see it in 3-D, you will be happy with the results, because every shot seems meticulously constructed to benefit the medium. As for the makeup, just as much energy has been put into the practical effects as the digital work.

Michael Rooker, playing bad-guy Yondu, looks especially cool with his blue skin and ragged yellow teeth. Josh Brolin shows up briefly as Thanos, a major villain in the Marvel universe, while John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro are along for the ride.

With her presence here, and her work Star Trek and Avatar, Saldana has officially inherited the Queen of Science Fiction mantle from Sigourney Weaver (and she’s incredibly hot when she’s blue or green). Pratt establishes his leading-man status here, something that could be fully cemented with his turn in the Jurassic Park sequel next year.

While Guardians is a terrific visual spectacle, it also packs an emotional punch. Rocket delivers a speech about alienation that is far more moving than anything you’d expect to see in a movie like this, while Quill’s mommy issues fuel some surprising emotional moments. The cast does some real acting; Cooper’s feat is especially impressive, since we only hear his voice. Heck, even Vin Diesel packs a sentimental punch in the many ways he delivers his “I am Groot!” line.

The use of classic rock on the soundtrack is a brilliant touch. Quill’s old-school Walkman, still working decades after he left Earth, churns out the hits like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Moonage Daydream” and “Cherry Bomb.” Like Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, Gunn is quite adept at using great music in unexpected places.

Guardians of the Galaxy rivals Edge of Tomorrow and Godzilla as this summer’s best blockbusters. As for its place in the Marvel universe, I’ll put it right alongside The Avengers as the franchise’s best.

Good news:  A sequel has already been green-lit for 2017, so this blissfully bizarre story shall continue.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens Thursday night, July 31, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Rest in peace, Paul Walker. I didn’t like a lot of your movies, but you were pretty damned good in many of them, including these silly fast-car movies. I really liked you in Eight Below, Pleasantville and especially Joy Ride.

The first film in the Fast and Furious franchise was a blast, but it now feels like a million years ago. This franchise could’ve ended with that first film, and that would’ve been fine by me.

Vin Diesel mumbles his way through another installment—although I must admit that Fast and Furious 6 features some fine driving stunts. The plot involves nonsense about Vin and his crew (including Walker) going after some bad-guy driver who is threatening the world. He also has Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) working for him, even though she was blown up in a previous movie. Actually, I’m OK that she inexplicably survived: Rodriguez is one of the franchise’s better elements.

Dwayne Johnson is in there, too, as a bad-ass lawman, and future installments will also involve him, another one of my least-favorite action stars, if the post-credit footage is any indicator. I like to watch good pyrotechnics, yes, but I hate it when just about anybody in these films opens their mouths.

The next installment, which was due for release next year, has had its production halted in the wake of Walker’s death, and is now not expected to hit theaters until 2015. I don’t like these movies, but I am hoping they are able to salvage some of Walker’s final footage and give him a worthy goodbye in the next one. He deserves it.

Special Features: Director Justin Lin does a commentary, and you get some deleted scenes and various behind-the-scenes shorts. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Vin Diesel is back—and growling more than ever—as Riddick, the character that made him a star, in the creatively titled Riddick. The third movie in the shiny-eyed franchise is a decent-enough return to form—and much better than most of those vroom-vroom movies Diesel has been in lately.

Director David Twohy gave us the original—the above average Pitch Black—back in 2000. Diesel’s performance in that film remains perhaps his best ever, although that’s not saying much.

Then came The Chronicles of Riddick, an awful, bombastic PG-13 spectacle that felt silly after the barebones, R-rated horror of Pitch Black. Many of us who enjoyed the original were appalled to see a big-budget blockbuster showing the gritty Riddick hanging out with Judi Dench.

Riddick proves that producers understand how legions of fans were severely pissed off by the costume pageantry of the second film: Twohy and Diesel have taken the character back to his bloody, monster-movie roots.

The movie has a brief, costume-pageant prologue in which Karl Urban makes a brief appearance. Then, in a blink of an eye, Riddick is stranded on yet another alien-infested planet. The monsters are scorpion-like buggers that will eat their own guts if given the chance—and they love the rain.

A good chunk of the film features a lonely Riddick in survival mode. In a rather sweet touch, he rescues a dog-like creature, and they become friends. Realizing he won’t be able to fend off the scorpion things forever, Riddick sets off a rescue beacon, alerting bounty-hunters to his presence on the planet. Two groups show up, and the movie then becomes a series of scenes of macho guys (and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) growling at each other.

So, Riddick is two movies in one, with both of those movies riddled with monsters. One is basically Riddick in a variation of A Boy and His Dog, in which he’s hanging out on a barren planet, eating gross food, and talking to an animal. The other is a film starring a typical ragtag group of posturing meatheads, trying to determine who’s in charge of the whole “catch Riddick” thing.

I preferred the movie in the early goings-on, with Diesel and his dog. It’s cute, plus it has an occasional monster attack. As for the bounty-hunters, they felt too familiar, like something out of Pitch Black. The film even repeats that moment with Riddick in chains, rhythmically thumping his arms and getting off on the mayhem that is about to ensue.

Of the bounty hunters, I liked Santana (Jordi Mollà) the least; he looks like Andy Garcia after a meth bender. He’s one of those characters who should just shut up and stand in the background—but instead, he’s a major character, and he gets plenty of annoying screen time.

Another character, played by Matt Nable, has an interesting connection to a character in Pitch Black.

Thankfully, Twohy overcomes the film’s flaws, for the most part, delivering good monster action on a relatively small budget. Riddick’s dog is a reasonably well-done CGI creation, as are the scorpion-like creatures that are out to kill everybody. While I did prefer the quieter moments with the dog, the best scene in the film is the initial monster attack on the bounty-hunter station. Many characters meet their demise in slasher-film style.

Internet scuttlebutt says this movie happened only because Diesel really wanted it to happen, and because Diesel returned to the Fast and Furious movies. I reckon those films will never stop, so as long as Diesel shows up to mumble lines while driving really fast, perhaps the Riddick movies will continue as well.

Riddick is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews