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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

I think my shockingly lustrous eyelashes got singed watching Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg’s harrowing account of the worst oil-rig disaster in American history.

Berg’s film drops viewers into a situation where fire and explosions are so realistic that it seems like you can feel the heat and disorientation of the 2010 disaster, which claimed the lives of 11 men and led to an oil spill eclipsing all other oil spills.

Mark Wahlberg is first-rate as Mike Williams, a real man who was on the rig at the time of the disaster. Kurt Russell equals Wahlberg’s power as Jimmy Harrell, a man who questions the integrity of the rig—and then proceeds to have the worst cinematic shower since Janet Leigh had a showdown with Anthony Perkins.

The setup is a doozy: Williams and Harrell head out for a three-week stay on the Deepwater Horizon along with a couple of BP stuffed shirts. Much to their amazement, men who were supposed to be conducting all-important tests leave shortly after their arrival without conducting anything; that gets Russell’s Harrell all riled up. Seeing Russell all riled up is always fun.

The lack of testing leads to a showdown with a sleazy BP employee, played by a slithery John Malkovich. Some backward reasoning leads to the acceptance of some bad drill results, and Deepwater Horizon is cleared to start up. Unbeknownst to the higher-ups and technicians, there’s a cataclysmic clog, and mud explodes upward. You probably know the rest.

Berg puts his film together in a way in which the mere sight of mud oozing from a pipe is terrifying. When the disaster goes into high gear, Deepwater Horizon is as scary as any horror film to hit screens this year—and there have been some pretty good horror films in 2016. The staging of explosions and fire, many done upon an oil rig built exclusively for this film, are award-worthy.

There’s a true sense of isolation and disorientation when the action goes full-throttle. Props to the editor for creating a sensation of being utterly lost in the mayhem that escalates until the final two survivors jump many stories to the ocean below.

It’s not all about the fire and explosions, as Berg, his writers and his performers all give the movie a true heroic element—one that results in heartbreak after the film plays out. Some good people perished in this disaster, and the movie pays solid tribute to them, including a nice epilogue featuring real footage and photos of the victims.

Kate Hudson plays Williams’ wife, who is having a Skype conversation with him when everything starts to go south. Hudson has always been good for waterworks, and she gets an opportunity to show off that talent here. Other standouts include Ethan Suplee as one of the men in the ill-fated drill command center, Gina Rodriguez as an employee who must endure the incompetence of a co-worker, and Dylan O’Brien as a drill worker who couldn’t have been closer to the initial stages of the disaster.

To call this a disaster film similar to those put out by Irwin Allen in the 1970s is both a compliment and a bit belittling. (Some of those where pretty great, including The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.) While this film follows a similar, schlocky blueprint at times, it has a little more substance and heart than those goofy blockbusters.

Berg and Wahlberg, who also collaborated on the very good Lone Survivor, aren’t done in 2016. Somehow, they worked it into their schedules to deliver Patriots Day, a film about the Boston Marathon bombing, on Dec. 21 in limited release, before an expanded release in January 2017. These guys are busy with their true-life epics.

Deepwater Horizon is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Quentin Tarantino returns to form after the just-OK Django Unchained with yet another masterpiece in The Hateful Eight, a grandiose Western that boasts his best dialogue in years—and an Oscar-caliber performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I didn’t dislike Django, but the film was a little sluggish and not quite up to Tarantino’s usual standards. I thought he had a better, grittier Western in him—and this film proves he did.

Many Tarantino regulars return, including Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Kurt Russell. Russell, who delivered his career-best work in Tarantino’s Death Proof as Stuntman Mike, gets another chance to go to town with a Tarantino script, and he embraces it with much enthusiasm. Russell plays John “The Hangman” Ruth, a bounty hunter renowned for bringing in prisoners alive so that their necks can meet the noose. Riding in a stagecoach to Red Hook—with the notorious Daisy Domergue (Leigh), his latest bounty, chained to his arm—he comes across another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson). This is where the fun begins.

The party rescues future Red Hook Sheriff Chris Mannix (an outstanding Walton Goggins) from an oncoming blizzard. The stagecoach heads for Minnie’s Haberdashery as a means of shelter, where they meet the rest of the cast—and tensions soar. Ruth deduces that one or more persons in the party aim to stop him from reaching Red Hook with Daisy Domergue and her huge bounty.

Russell is doing his best John Wayne here, and he’s scrappy fun, still sporting his mustache and chops from his other 2015 Western effort, Bone Tomahawk. Jackson hasn’t gotten a chance to be this devilish since Pulp Fiction, and he goes off.

However, the performance likely to make the most waves is that of Leigh as Daisy. John Ruth elbows and punches Daisy in the face throughout the movie, and the looks Leigh gives him are proof that this lady is not to be messed with. Leigh’s Daisy is definitely full-bore crazy, but she also gives us something to sympathize with in her plight. She’s a marvel in a role that almost went to Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is a great actress, but Leigh proves she was the right woman for the role.

The film is being offered in a 70-millimeter Roadshow version, complete with an intermission, for those of you willing to take a drive to see it in the old-school format. The impact and beauty of the film will not be lost in the digital projection, I assure you.

After expressing some anger with how Tarantino used his music in Django Unchained, composer Ennio Morricone re-teams with the auteur for a soundtrack that will more than likely put him into Oscar contention. The film is drawing some comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing, which also contained snow, group paranoia, Kurt Russell and a Morricone score. That score, along with the camerawork of Tarantino mainstay Robert Richardson, makes this perhaps Tarantino’s best-looking and best-sounding movie.

With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino finds his rhythm with editor Fred Raskin, who replaced the late Sally Menke on Django. Menke had edited all of the previous Tarantino films, and her presence was sorely missed on Django. As things turned out, Django was a decent warm-up for Tarantino and Raskin, because every beat is on the mark in The Hateful Eight. There’s a beautiful sense of tension from the first frame through the three-plus-hours running time.

Tarantino has been saying he will retire from filmmaking in the classic sense after 10 movies. If you count the Kill Bill movies as one (as he does), The Hateful Eight is his eighth movie. That would mean that there are only two left, which means modern cinema could take a serious hit two Tarantino films from now.

The Hateful Eight is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Kurt Russell essentially transplants his character from John Carpenter’s The Thing into the Old West as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a lawman looking for some kidnap victims, in horror-infused Western Bone Tomahawk.

The victims are in the hands of a cannibalistic tribe that’s ready to give Hunt and his cohorts a truly sick time. Those cohorts include Richard Jenkins as his clumsy deputy, Patrick Wilson as a hobbled man looking to rescue his wife, and a never-been-better Matthew Fox, along for the ride and offering swift justice to those who dare to approach their camp.

Writer-director S. Craig Zahler makes a very impressive debut, crafting not only an authentic Western, but a truly memorable monster movie. Russell, as he so often does, owns his part and makes Hunt one of his best roles in years. Jenkins seems as if he’s made hundreds of Westerns before; he’s right at home in dirty saloons and by the campfire. Fox makes his best effort since getting his face licked by a dog in the Lost finale.

Watch out, because some of the things that happen in the film’s final act are the stuff of nightmares.

Bone Tomahawk is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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