Bright Colors and Nostalgic Music: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians 2

Spoiler-free review

I didn’t like the first Guardians of the Galaxy.

Sorry! Almost everyone loved it. People who hate Marvel loved it. People who hate studio films loved it. People who hate puppies loved it. It was loved.

Now I don’t say that to be a special snowflake. Just to say that this movie had to earn my trust back. It had to convince me that these characters were different, worth watching, not total heathens (that’s right, I didn’t find any of the characters likeable, even Chris Pratt) and this franchise wasn’t, in the words of Drax, a giant turd (with good tunes).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up where the 2014 one left off, with the team being heroes of the galaxy, now mercenaries for hire. You’ve got Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly assassin who, previously, only had two emotions- screaming and annoyed. You’ve got Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), who is lashing out against his team because he is afraid of caring too much. There’s Drax (Dave Bautista), who is either really sweet or really mean or making a poop joke, so don’t expect much nuance there. There’s Baby Groot, the miniature version of the one-phrase talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel (yeah you work those acting muscles bud). And then you have Star-Lord aka Peter Quill aka Chris Pratt, who takes a bit of a charisma backseat in this film despite it being all about him.

You see, Peter’s mom is human, but Peter is half… something. You’ve gotta be half something awesome to be able to win a dance battle with an alien and then hold an infinity stone in your hand.

Turns out, Peter’s dad is Ego (Kurt Russell) the living planet. A god. And dear old dad has a few tricks up his sleeve to show his prodigal son.

There is a trend happening in movies these days that I have mixed feelings about. These days, corporate America is trying to be your friend. Not just your friend, but your community. Not just your community, but your family. You’re family if you are a rewards customer. You’re family if you come into our store. Come on into our Family Sale. We are flesh and blood, the automated coupon email that spells my name wrong says.

The same thing is happening in movies. You start hearing more and more in trailers and promos and actor interviews the words, “we’re family.” The characters are family. The team is a family. The Fast and The Furious is best known for this, and after eight movies, I’m going to give them a pass. I can imagine sixteen years would result in strong ties.

I’m a big sucker for the family dynamic in films, too. If, by the end of a film, the characters seem to be family-like I’ll be into it (see Now You See Me 2 review). I’m really relaxed about this cliche. However, there are movies that I just cannot get behind. No, Transformers, you can’t be family with some pieces of scrap metal. No, Justice League, you’re not a family. “Martha” is not a strong enough foundation. Avengers, I get you, and I sympathize, but you’ve got some stuff to figure out. Pitch Perfect, stop it.

Guardians of the Galaxy tries to go this family route. The characters call themselves a family. They use the word. They bicker and fight and hug and date each other. Peter goes through his daddy issues and comes back, saying he already found his real family.

Hmmmmm.

There were a lot of good parts in the film, where the script, directing, and acting came together to create something a little magical. The chemistry between the cast is good. They look like they’re having a blast, which makes me want to have a blast, too. So sometimes I could buy that they were a family. Maybe not the likeable family next door. Maybe the one in the sketchy house at the end of the street. But nonetheless.

However, the biggest problem with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is its inconsistency. In one scene magic is being created, and in the next scene my entire row and I are cringing. And there are some really, really bad scenes in here. Some of it has to do with director James Gunn’s cocky script. Nothing wrong with being secure in your work, but sometimes Gunn writes something that you wonder, how did the suits let him get away with something so bad and  distasteful? Then you realize, he probably did get notes. He just tore them up and did what he wanted, then stopped the suits from retaliating by throwing all the cash the first Galaxy movie made at them.

Then some of it is the acting. Now, I don’t think it is too much to expect that my Marvel movies be well acted. This is the same studio that has Robert Downey Jr, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Ruffalo in leading roles. This is the same studio that has had Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and numerous other celebrated actors join their ranks.

But boy, there are some weak performances here. Maybe the worst offender is Gamora. As I said before, Zoe Saldana does nothing but scream or be a frustrated party-pooper. While the script doesn’t do her any favors, her “emotional” scenes are hard to get through. And most of those scenes are shared with the other worst performer of the group, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula. Her entire performance is basically the following lines, and I encourage you to read them as she does, in a huffy, grunting, teeth-gritted fashion, “I (grrrr) already told you (spit) GAMORA, SISTER OF MINE (pulls out gun) I HATE YOU (does a sexy pose with gun) and I am evil! FEAR ME!” (does not shoot gun. Walks away, but like, in a super cool leather-bound fashion.) (While watching these scenes of sisterly bonding, I had the sobering realization that this is the first Marvel movie, out of 15, where two women have had any lengthy screen time together that passes the Bechdel test. This is why we can’t have nice things)

On a positive note though, this film feels different, at least in structure, from other Marvel movies. In the second act, the characters split off into three mini-missions, and by the end, reunite for a truly unique battle. This is the fourth in a series of Marvel movies that have had unique endings, starting, I think, with 2015’s Ant Man. That is a positive trend. While this film did have the galaxy at stake, it showed the battle more small scale size-wise, and more large scale emotion-wise.

Overall,  the film is uneven. It succeeded in some parts, not in others. It makes up for the first movie for me, but isn’t able to springboard me into a pile of superfans. By the end, I was satisfied. But not hungry for more, thanks. I have my fill. It’s been a meal full of meat seared in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and microwaved potatoes and something I can’t quite identify, covered in Sweet’n Low, but for the most part, it works.

Oh, and it’s family-style, of course.

-Madeleine D

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Ambiguity Does Not Equal Compelling : The Circle

the circle

The Circle, with its constant surveillance, data storage, and knowledge of your every move and secret, is not about the technology of the future. It’s about the technology of now.

Oversharing, the need to tell everyone of your every action, the ability to find anyone if you have the right resources, a camera with you at all times- that’s how technology works for many people now. If not now, maybe in a few years.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) plunges into the world of that technology when she lands a job at The Circle, a Google-meets-Facebook mega company led by Steve Jobs-y Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). When a series of events makes Mae decide to go “transparent” (wearing a camera on her at all times) she learns firsthand the consequences of being watched and analyzed with every move.

60% of The Circle is either Tom Hanks or Emma Watson giving Ted Talks about the future of technology. They stand on stage and talk about what The Circle will be doing next. If that sounds like fun to you, this may be your movie. If this sounds a little less like the exciting, thought-provoking drama you were hoping for, then you’re right. While both of these actors have the charisma to pull it off, getting long-winded explanations of exposition can be tedious, and sometimes they can’t even overcome the thesis-like script.

Now speaking of the actors, Emma Watson is the foundation of this film. She leads and keeps it, and for the most part, does an excellent job. She is very natural and is able to hold our attention. If you’re here for any other actor, though, you’ll be disappointed. John Boyega, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and Karen Gillian are all very, very supporting. Which is a shame, because they all do a great job. One small thing though- let John Boyega speak in his natural British accent. Please. He’s been forced to do an American one, and it sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent in Doctor Strange. And I don’t mean it in a good way. He sounds like he has a cold. Give him a tissue. And more lines.

On the technical side, we are used to studio movies being competently filmed and edited. It’s just a given that the cinematography, score, technical aspects of the film will be good. And for the most part, The Circle is a slick film. But the editing here is really odd in parts. The camera breaks the 180 degree camera rule. There is a scene where two characters, side by side in separate bathroom stalls, are filmed at the exact same angle, so when it switches back and forth, it just looks like the actresses are teleporting and/or the editor is making extreme jump cuts. It takes you out of the film, and makes it look amateurish.

Emma Watson’s Mae seems to represent the biggest failing of the script. She is a very reactive protagonist, one that simply reacts to the incidents around her, and then goes back to her natural disposition. That makes her turn to “the dark side,” not a surprising one, and not one that seems earned. If at the beginning of the film, she had been presented the opportunity to turn, considering her lack of development, I would assume she would have. Therefore, there is no conflict. There is no real antagonist, or resistance by anyone or anything. This film just presents the spiral into complacency as a natural one. While it shows the horrors of a future like the one presented here, if our likeable protagonist can get behind it, and nobody else seems to have a problem with it, then is it really bad? The film doesn’t have a stance on it.

So are we, the audience members, supposed to be the protagonist? Are we supposed to see this cautionary tale and the characters within it and decide whether it is right or wrong? Maybe. The pros and cons of each side are listed out, in essay fashion. But with no strong emotions in play here, the story, despite its relevance, feels unimportant. Lackluster. Not something to worry about dwelling on. It is almost like director and co-screenwriter James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) thought, hmm, maybe if I make the end ambiguous and all the characters flat, and I don’t make a compelling case for or against either side, they’ll assume I’m really smart!

So, there is where it ultimately fails. I can forgive it for its odd editing, poor use of Tom Hanks and John Boyega, and sloppy character development and exposition. But I cannot forgive it for being dull about its interesting premise. How did you mess this up? Everything was in your favor!

-Madeleine D