“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” Review

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is a film every bit as full of color and character as the first, a bit lighter on laughs but heavier with drama. Like the first, I spent most of the time smiling. But unlike the first, the sequel doesn’t launch to the top of films in the MCU or comic book movies in general. I enjoyed it, I recommend it, but it is middle-of-the-pack for me.

 

All of the actors gave great performances.I don’t have a complaint about a single one. A couple stood out, though: Michael Rooker as Yondu has some great, unexpected moments. Chris Pratt surprised me by making a potentially cheesy scene feel real. And Kurt Russell brought just the swagger his role needed (and made me happy every time he was on screen).

 

The action was great. Even in scenes where multiple characters were fighting on multiple fronts, I was never confused as to who was where or why. I always knew what was going on. And all of the carnage was both gorgeous and funny.

 

Anyone going into Guardians 2 expecting a fun, Sci-Fi/Action Comedy will be happy.

 

What brings it down for me, then? A couple of things. First, its pacing is all over the place, almost to the point of being nonexistent. Its plot is disjointed, due to the first half hour being an extended prologue. And yet, what really hurt the movie is harder to explain.

 

The movie doesn’t know the meaning of words like “subtle” or “understated”. That’s fine when they’re blowing things up. But Guardians 2 prides itself on spending more time on character. And in drama, a lack of subtlety can kill a movie.

 

Warning: I am going to spoil the original Guardians. Yeah, I know, I’m spoiling Guardians for the second post in a row, and focusing on the same scene! But it’s a safe bet that many of the people who might want to watch the sequel have seen the original. And I need something to compare to in order to explain what Guardians 2 gets wrong.

 

Imagine when Groot surrounds the group to save them from the crash, and Rocket tearfully says, “You’ll die!”, and Groot smiles sagely down to him and responds, “We are Groot.” Imagine that punch to the gut, and how you felt the first time you saw it? What does that phrase mean to you? If you’re anything like me, it has layers of meaning, layers of emotion. It’s such a resonant, powerful phrase, because it lets the viewer understand through context.

 

Now imagine Groot saying that, and then Rocket explaining just what it meant. “It means he sees us all as part of him. We’re together, we’re family. We’re one. He will survive as long as we survive, because we are him. Oh, and also, he stashed a bit of himself away and will survive and regenerate eventually.” How robbed would you feel, if Guardians had built that beautiful moment, and then interrupted it, and your own emotional reaction, to tell you how you should be feeling?

 

But no. All it gives us is Groot’s zen, and Rocket’s pain.

 

Guardians 2 constantly sets up meaningful moments that would have impact, and then rips away any emotion by giving us the lines that make explicit what we had been processing emotionally before. It got to the point where an emotional scene started to build, and I never fell into that raw emotional place, because I was waiting for the line to betray it. And I was rarely wrong.

 

It’s the difference between Batman movies where we focus on Bruce Wayne’s dead parents, and movies where they’re never mentioned.

 

The other problem that emotional scenes had was that they didn’t feel properly motivated. Why are these characters in the mindset to spew sappy backstory? And why are the characters they’re speaking to the ones they trust with this information?

 

In a movie where absolutely everyone is doing their best, the writer brought their B game.

 

The last main problem I had was with the villain. And this coming from someone who usually thinks Marvel’s villains are fine for what they’re doing (and thought Ronan was awesome). I’ll be writing very carefully here to avoid spoilers, but if you don’t want to risk it, I’ll just say: The type of villain in this movie needed more screentime than they got.

 

In the first movie, Ronan was a villain unto himself, and a threat that had very little to do with the main characters except by way of Thanos. Because Ronan was so self-contained, having only a handful of scenes worked perfectly.

 

However, in Guardians 2, the impact of the villain is in direct proportion to the main characters. It is the villain’s relationship with these characters that makes us care about them. Because of this connection to the characters, and the reliance on them, the villain here needed a lot more time with the heroes than they got.

 

(I’m going to go into much greater detail on this last point in the spoiler section.)

 

The movie is pretty awesome. It’s a good follow-up to the first, remains true to the characters and the world they’ve established, actually brings some meaningful development to those characters. And it’s a ton of fun. None of that can be taken lightly.

 

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SPOILERS

 

Sylvester Stallone is in this movie? I should have been focusing on the scene itself, the backstory involved, but all I could think about was that question, in all caps. (Sly and Rooker would make an amazing buddy action team, by the way.)

 

When Yondu turns to look at the prostitute android, she deactivates herself. I found it a thoughtful establishing of his loneliness. That whole shot re-introducing Yondu belonged in a darker, more meaningful Sci-Fi movie. Blade Runner-esque.

 

Yondu’s funeral did NOT warrant ten minutes. I understand that they’re closing out the conflict from Yondu’s first scene, but it breaks the pacing of the ending. Spock got less than half that time in Wrath of Khan!

 

YOUNG KURT RUSSELL! And he didn’t look creepy! I know exactly what young Kurt Russell looks like, and even knowing that it was CG, he looked ripped straight out of the 70’s and 80’s. Bravo, Disney/Marvel. It worked this time.

 

Ego, The Living Planet, turned out to be a bad guy, eh? Go figure. I didn’t know much about the character, but I knew enough about the meaning of the word that I wasn’t exactly surprised. Was him being a villain supposed to be a secret? It’s written that way, but any even slightly savvy viewer knows he’s bad from moment one, don’t they?

 

Speaking of which! The part I mentioned above, about the villain. Ego works as a villain in direct proportion to the attachment that Peter has with him. It is a villain who, in essence, gains the hero’s trust and then betrays him. So the most essential part is to show that relationship developing. We need 15-20 minutes with Quill and Ego together, see Ego become important to Peter not as an idea, but as a person (well, give or take). What do we get? A game of energy-ball and a story about how I met your mother. To look at this done right, watch Frozen. Yes, I said it.

 

“I guess sometimes we’re looking for something, and it turns out it’s been right next to us all along.” Paraphrased. Are you kidding me? This is a basic character arc, a simple children’s story moral. It’s fine, if uninspired, to give your character this journey. But here’s the thing: You do not, under any circumstances, put this in your film. It’s almost like the director gave Pratt motivation for his scene, and Pratt threw it in there as actual dialogue. How did this make it to theaters?

 

Even if that was supposed to be Peter’s journey, where is it? Where is the part where we establish that? The Point A of everyone’s journey is eaten by the prologue. If Part C is him learning that he has a family beside him all along, then Part A is him starting his search for his father (which he doesn’t; Ego finds him), and Part B is him rejecting his real family in favor of the pleasant lie of his father. There is some of Part B, but again, that’s in the rushed, antsy-to-get-to-the-ending second act, and I never really feel it. So Part C just becomes, “Oh, is this what the movie was about?”

 

All the raunchy humor in this movie, the innuendo and genitalia jokes. The movie uses a villain that’s all about male fertility, is all about toxic fatherhood from multiple angles. In a more subtle script I’d say that the humor was just trying to play up this theme? I’m not sure it works. It just feels out of place compared to the first.

 

And Nebula! She continues to be my favorite character! Yes, more than Groot. Yes, more than Drax, who gets all the best lines in the movie. Nebula. And I love that she basically goes good, but retains the dignity and strong will to strike off on her own. She’s the Vegeta of Guardians, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rogue One: Making Character Death Hurt

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One! Yes! Now I get to tear it apart!

 

No, in all seriousness, I loved many things about this movie. The acting was good, the music was good, the action was good. The set design and cinematography make me sad I didn’t see it in theater. This is the most beautiful Star Wars movie yet, and that’s saying something.

 

Even the dialogue, characters, and overall plot are fine. Really, I strongly recommend watching Rogue One, if you haven’t already.

 

If you haven’t yet, I also suggest clicking away from this post, because I’m going to go into full spoilers from here on out. (I’ll also spoil Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy.)

 

This is a long, dense post. You’ve been warned.

 

Like many movies, I find one thing captures my attention to the exclusion of all others. Like Doctor Strange, which I loved despite its many flaws because I could only think about how well it executed its magic, or Ant Man, which I couldn’t enjoy despite it being a fun movie solely because it broke its own rules.

 

In the case of Rogue One, it’s this: I didn’t feel anything when the characters died.

 

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the characters, didn’t enjoy my time with them. With only a couple of exceptions, the large ensemble cast all stood out and offered memorable moments. For the most part, they had solid motivations, and I believed that they were in this to the end.

 

However, when the dying starts, you need more than that. You need it to hurt.

 

Rogue One had a couple of serious disadvantages on this front. First, it is a large cast. There’s not all that much time to introduce characters and get the audience attached. And second, let’s be honest: most of us went into the movie assuming everyone was going to die by the end.

 

The main failure to counteract the first problem is that our characters only talk about the war. That’s it. There is nothing else, for any of them. There’s only the struggle. Where are the hopes and fears that they have completely separate from the immediate plot?

 

Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy get this right.

 

In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller talks about his wife, and we learn that he used to be a schoolteacher. Matt Damon’s Ryan talks about his brothers. We get a sense of where they’ve come from. They want to go home. See their families again. They mourn the losses of people we never see on screen, and try to make peace with the very real possibility that they are just going to end up as names on a wall.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax and Gamora talk about the ways that Thanos has caused them pain. Sure, that’s great. It works for motivation, and gets us to understand and even like the characters. But the scenes that affect me most, particularly on rewatches, are the opening scene in which Peter loses his mom, and when Rocket breaks down crying after the bar fight, tired of others viewing him as a freak (and tired, too, of fearing that they’re right). These moments have little to do with the immediate plot. And yet they make our hearts ache for these characters.

 

One spot where I feel Rogue One succeeded at this was right after the council, when Cassian reveals that he’s haunted by the things he’s done, that it’s become a Sunk Cost Fallacy: “If I quit, I can’t live with myself. The evil I’ve done won’t have been for any greater good.” It’s a moment of vulnerability and pain that, yes, is still centered around the war. But it’s intensely personal. It means something.

 

But every character needs these scenes in order for the movie to work as intended.

 

The Jedi Temple Guardians (Played in half by Donnie Yen! Yes!) have lost their entire purpose in being, their home, and any family and friends they might have had. Obliterated in an instant. And we get a single reaction shot from them. Where’s the scene talking about the food stall on a corner that made their favorite dish? The child that they’d taught to kick a ball properly?

 

K-2SO was built and programmed to serve the Empire. He’s been reprogrammed and repurposed. Where is his worry that his free will means so little, that his very personality is a whim of anyone with the skills to change it? He has a sense of self, so is he afraid of losing that self again?

 

Bodhi Rook, the pilot, defected from the Empire, risking his life and likely the lives of anyone he cared about in order to do what was right. And for that, he got tortured, driven to brink of madness. Is he resentful? Does he doubt that the Alliance is really any better than the Empire?

 

Even Jyn Erso, our star, doesn’t talk too much about her father. Certainly not enough for us to develop an emotional link and sympathize when he’s killed. We’re left to rely on their acting alone to sell the relationship.

 

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as some of these examples. But step one to making a character feel real to the reader is to give us glimpses of their life outside of the plot.  

 

These things go partially into solving problem two: The savvy viewer goes into Rogue One having written everyone off as dead already. Even without realizing it, this means we have our defenses up. “You won’t get me!” we (or at least I) think, holding back from truly caring about any of these characters so I can save myself the pain of losing them.

 

Making the characters feel real to the viewer is the most essential step. The urge to connect is stronger than the urge to avoid pain in most people. If you can make them real, you can get the viewer to let down their guard, just a little. But that won’t get a story all the way there by itself.

 

The other part to this, which I feel Rogue One completely fails at, is to make the deaths surprising, make them emotionally meaningful.

 

In Rogue One, once the dying starts–too late and too close-together in the story, but we’ll get to that–a pattern is set and never deviated from. Character A accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character B accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character C…

 

I understand why they did it. They wanted to make the characters’ deaths feel like they meant something. But here’s where I feel they made a mistake: We don’t need the character’s death to mean something to the plot. We need these deaths to mean something to us.

 

For instance, back to Saving Private Ryan. Out of all the deaths in the movie, the one that really sticks to me is that of Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo. Tom Hanks’s character undoubtedly has the most meaningful death, from a plot perspective. But it’s poor Caparzo, bleeding out in the rain, that makes me feel like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. It feels like a betrayal. Caparzo shows a little compassion, and he dies for it. He fumbles for his weapon, too late for it to help him. His death isn’t heroic. As he’s dying in the rain, it’s other characters who are competent, who are heroic. All that Caparzo has is his heart. But even as he’s dying, he has a lot of it.

 

In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Groot. Groot’s death should be silly, right? He’s a giant, talking tree, he can only say one phrase. The most meaningful reaction comes from a raccoon with a Brooklyn accent. And yet, “We are Groot” has become a meaningful and enduring line, and the scene itself hardly ever fails to make a viewer tear up. (Marvel ruins it by bringing Groot back immediately, but what are you going to do?)

 

Why do these deaths affect us? What makes them different than any of the half-dozen main character deaths in Rogue One?

 

These deaths work because they surprise us. Sure, we might call that the kindhearted Caparzo, who has no place in this war, might not make it to the end. And certainly, we might figure that Groot would be able to use his regenerative ability to shield the rest of the Guardians. But could we guess that Caparzo would complain about the blood that was now on the letter to his father? Could we guess that Groot would face death with joy, speaking words that cement the family that the Guardians have become?

 

Maybe that’s why the death of K-2SO is the only one that completely works for me. It was surprising that a droid who had to this point been cynical and blase at the prospect of the crew’s deaths chooses to lock the humans away and hold the door. It was surprising and gratifying to see him finally get to wield his blaster. And it was definitely surprising–and a little scary–to see him carry on under a dozen wounds that should have stopped him, in a way that brought the T-800 to mind.

 

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the rest of the main character deaths. The cycle of success and death, self-sacrifice that never really means much to me as I watch it because it’s utterly impersonal. This cycle actually grew boring, which is something you should never be able to say about main character deaths.

 

They should never have stuffed all of these main character deaths into the last fifteen minutes. Character death has diminishing returns. You can’t rely on sheer volume to make the viewer feel something.

 

Instead, they should have paced the character deaths. When they’re killing characters who have one or two scenes of screen time, they should be killing main characters. Make it feel like anyone can die, not just the wizened mentor and the father-who’s-served-his-purpose. Make us fear for the main characters, and mourn with them.

 

Another mistake they made was copy/pasting the way the characters died. No, I’m not talking about the means with which the Empire killed them (although grenades OP, please nerf). I’m talking about the emotional content of each death.

 

Why are all the deaths in Rogue One bittersweet heroes’ deaths? No one dies a coward, a failure, a victim. Imagine if, instead of having five separate objectives, there were only two. Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO are off accomplishing one, and the rest of the crew are working on the other.

 

Imagine the first character, say Donnie Yen’s Temple Guardian Chirrut, starting toward the switch. He’s repeating the mantra, just as he does in the movie as is. But he gets blasted. Right in front of his comrades.

 

Rook, the pilot, folds in on himself, too traumatized to go on. Perhaps as a call-back to his ongoing fragility after the horrors of war that had led him to defect, and the torture that had driven him to the brink of madness. And yes. Weak, whimpering in the corner of a bunker, Rook dies.

 

Baze, the other Guardian, steps up. He’s clearly terrified of the overwhelming power raised against him. But he walks out into the open, closes his eyes, and repeats his friend’s mantra: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

 

This is a call-back to an earlier scene that should have been, where the friends mourned their home, and Baze confesses to doubting the powers he’s been loyal to for his entire life. In this moment, he’s decided to put his faith in his fallen friend, and walks into danger with nothing but the Force to protect him. He takes glancing hits, but forges on, mantra on his lips. He activates the switch, and he dies.

 

Chirrut’s death is a shock. Rook’s death is sad and kind of pathetic. And Baze’s death has earned the heroism of the moment. Each of those deaths elicits an emotion from the audience. And it makes the sequence dynamic, rather than a loop.

 

The movie has some other flaws kind of related to character death. Wasting characters, and great actors, in particular. Neither Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelsen were allowed to do everything they might have and their characters might have, unfortunately.

 

Mostly unrelated to the rest of the post, I was disappointed by Vader’s limited role. They respected the character and didn’t embarrass him, as some other movies might have. But I always had a very different vision for his use in this movie than the one to which they eventually put him.

 

See, in my mind, Vader would have a handful of scenes. And each time he showed up, a main character would die. Each time he was on screen, the movie turned into a slasher flick, essentially. I wanted to have dread in the pit of my stomach at the first notes of his music.

 

Instead, we get a guy who’s just never quite there when he’s needed (through no fault of his own), until the end. The equally glorious and spectacularly stupid ending, where the plans for the Death Star are passed around like the basketball at the end of Space Jam. Vader amazingly keeps up with it by annihilating anyone in his way, but never quite snatches it out of the air using the Force.

 

He is just the right amount of sassy for my liking, though.  

 

I really liked Rogue One. I think I’ll like it even more on future viewings. However, they wanted to be a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, but still wanted it to be upbeat and kinda sappy. I’m not sure you can have both, in this day and age.

 

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Tie for best moment in the movie:

 

Using the Star Destroyers to shatter the shield. So good. So beautiful.

 

Or:

 

“Are you kidding? I’m blind!”

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange begins with a bonkers fight between magic-wielders that gives a glimpse of the inventive action we’ll be seeing in the rest of the film. It sets the tone of the movie—dark and in places violent, but with loads of awesomeness—and before we even meet most of the main characters, we’re eager to learn about this new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we trust the movie to teach us.

 

And teach us it does. There is a ton of exposition in this movie. More than half of the conversations in the movie are about communicating plot or worldbuilding information to a character and to the audience.  It should, by all rights, either bore or confuse us. But I found myself enthralled throughout the entire movie. So much so that I forgot to take mental notes for this review and had to take stock after it was over—a feat only a handful of movies have managed since I started writing reviews.

 

What is this movie’s secret? How does it introduce what is essentially an all-new, complex world, with rules different than our own, without alienating viewers?

 

Partly because, while the events in the movie involve fantastic and imaginative magic, the characters almost without exception are grounded. Their emotions and motivations are familiar to all of us. These are people who have known pain and regret, people whose pride has been or is hurting them, people who are trying to do what they think is right or what they feel they must to survive. There’s even one beautiful scene that made me empathize with the villain.

 

The acting helps. Most of the speaking roles are taken by Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, and I didn’t feel a single performance was phoned in. Cumberbatch cemented himself as the only Doctor Strange that I think of when I hear the name, and Chiwetel Ejiofor played his role with a sincerity that I found heartbreaking in places.

 

The standout performance was Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I wasn’t expecting to say that going in, between the casting controversy and the failure of the trailers to convince me that she was a fit. But she had a presence that kept my eyes on her and made me pay attention to every single word she had to say.

 

Having great characters and fantastic actors helps to mitigate many of the problems that such an outlandish story can create in terms of keeping viewers invested. But instead of settling for not bored, the makers of Doctor Strange worked to make sure that their audience was enthralled.

 

For those of you who just came here for the review, and don’t particularly care about the nuts and bolts of writing, here is your stop. The movie is awesome, is great in Imax, and is the most fun 3-D experience I’ve had so far in theaters. If you like superhero movies, you’ll love this one.

 

For those still with me, how does Doctor Strange keep viewers informed and invested throughout the movie? By following foundational rules of writing Fantasy.

 

It starts us off with some action that shows us how cool their magic is, a promise that we’ll get to see more of it soon. As we follow the pre-origin-story life of Doctor Strange for a bit, that magic stays in the back of our minds. What happened in that scene? And why? What did the different magics do? We have mysteries to ponder, and to get excited about seeing solved.

 

That leads me to another thing it did right. It throws magic in our faces, but it doesn’t explain what or why (outside of seeing how said magic is used and what basic effect it seems to have). It lets us be confused when we are supposed to be confused, lets us feel in the beginning that this is something different than what we’ve seen in the MCU before. Then it teaches us, bit by bit, until the viewer can not only recognize each kind of magic without being told, but can also anticipate certain spells and try to piece together a solution based on what they have learned. It welcomes us into this world and rewards us for paying attention.

 

Whenever the movie gives us a rule—for instance, what a certain spell or item does—it sticks to it. It remembers that this is a rule of the world, and it can’t change. Action A has effect B, every single time. Other movies in the MCU could learn a thing or two—looking at you, Ant-Man. Some of these rules are explored in great depth, in ingenious ways I never would have guessed.  Some, on the other hand, still have room to be explored further, which gets me excited for Strange’s future appearances in both the inevitable sequel and the larger MCU.

 

None of the information shared is just one character telling another character something so that the audience can have the information. It’s always presented in a way that feels natural the characters will be talking about this. The information is always given in such a way that we learn something about the character providing it. The way it is provided helps to develop the tone for the scene, or foreshadow something later, or refer to events we’ve seen. In short, the information is presented in a way that feels real.

 

The final, and perhaps most important piece that Doctor Strange gets right is that, while it starts us off unsure of what’s happening, and while it only gives us answers in a breadcrumb way that keeps us salivating for more, it makes CERTAIN that we know what we need to know for the next scene to make sense.

 

Is Doctor Strange a perfect movie? No. Is it the best movie Marvel has ever made? Not quite. But it is a master’s class in exposition. And even days afterward, I still find myself happy that we’re living in a world where this movie could be made.

 

SPOILERS

 

Minor gripes:

Nobody pointing out how dangerous and stupid it was for him to keep the Eye of Agamotto on him while fighting. He’s a newbie, facing down a well-trained set of villains, and nobody suggests that he shouldn’t keep it on him? I realize there isn’t much time between fights in the second half, but come on.

Strange’s ascension to Sorcerer Supreme is very sudden. I’m sure there must be dozens of surviving members that are more qualified as of the end of the movie. I understand that’s where he’s going to end up, but it seems like it’s only been a few months. Having to accelerate him into position for Infinity War is probably the culprit here. Minorly annoying, but unavoidable.

He gets stabbed in the chest, almost dies, gets shocked in a way that should have killed him, and then he finishes the rest of the movie without resting? I find that unlikely. I haven’t found a workaround for this plot hole yet. I just choose to ignore it because I enjoy the movie so much.

 

Ok, now that those are done.

 

The rewind scene at the end! The one apprentice getting sucked up into the aquarium! The guy launched out of his car rewinding back into it! That whole scene is delicious. I wish it could have been longer, but it must have been ridiculous to make, both cost-wise, and logistically. I’m just grateful it happened.

 

The cape was great. Funny, but also super-violent. I love that Strange is so stubborn he ends up fighting with it.

 

The moment when Kaecilius is in the restraints, and he and Strange talk. The look of recognition on Strange’s face as he realizes that he very well could have become Kaecilius. The absolute understanding, and yet the horror. And the way that scene ended. Just amazing.

 

I couldn’t tell you how good the martial arts aspect of the movie is, because we got to the movies just in time for trailers, and only the front row was available. Imax 3-D from the front row? I might have missed some things, visually.

 

I…just realize that we walked out before the second end-credit scene. I’m sad now.

Suicide Squad Review

Suicide Squad was an incredibly fun movie. The first fun movie I’ve seen from DC since The Dark Knight. Will Smith is so good as Deadshot that it makes me miss him as the lead in action flicks. While I had problems with Harley Quinn’s character, Margot Robbie was fantastic in the role and still somehow captured much of what’s great about the character. Most of the supporting cast is good, the action is cool, and the humor works.

I meant every last bit of that. I liked the movie, and do recommend it. However, the main thing that stuck out at me, the thing I’m going to spend most of this post on, is a place where the film struggled.

How did Suicide Squad’s influences, and its anxiety about influence, keep the film from being truly great?

DC has been in Marvel’s shadow since Man of Steel. The tone they chose for their universe was mainly to set themselves apart from their rivals. The structure of their shared universe was specifically, intentionally inverted from the way Marvel did it. And yet at the same time, Suicide Squad wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a Marvel film.

Guardians of the Galaxy proved that an obscure, ensemble comic book movie could be successful. Suicide Squad borrows a lot of its style—underdogs in a funny action romp, iconic music playing throughout.

That’s not a problem, though. The Hulk wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Jekyll and Hyde, the Joker’s design was inspired by The Man Who Laughs. Influence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Making decisions solely through influence IS, however.

For instance, the soundtrack is filled to the brim with awesome, classic songs. Sound familiar? It should. Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty clear inspiration here. That’s not a problem, in and of itself. But watching the movie, it becomes entirely apparent that the decision to include the music wasn’t because it resonated emotionally, or because it informed character, tone, or time period, as Guardians uses it. Instead, it’s because it’s catchy, or because each character needs a theme, or because the soundtrack will sell. Or, sadly, because Guardians did it, and it worked.

On the other side, when the studio is too concerned about being accused of ripping something off, we get something like the new Joker. Jared Leto is a world-class actor. But I feel that he and the director spent too much time worrying about being too similar to previous incarnations, that in straining to avoid those, they completely missed the heart of the character. He’s psychopathic, yes. Zany? Unpredictable? Definitely. But I realized after I watched it that I couldn’t think of a single actual joke that the Joker told. Not a pun or a witticism or a snappy comeback. There’s some physical comedy. But the Clown Prince of Crime needs to make the audience laugh.

This struggle, to not allow other pieces to influence you too much, without stripping our own piece of its heart in the name of being different, is common among artists. We all fall too far to one side or the other at some point.

The trouble is, DC is falling into this trap consistently. Should we do this because it worked for someone else? Should we not do this so we won’t be accused of copying Marvel? Should we, should we, should we?

DC needs to find its own voice, its own identity. To stop with this bravado and find real confidence instead. Stop worrying about how others will see you, and focus on what will serve your story best. Until then, whether an imitation or aberration, you will ALWAYS be second-best.

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SPOILERS/RANDOM NOTES

Amanda Waller was CHILLING. I’d love to see her turn and have the Suicide Squad have to take her down in a sequel.

Killer Croc was a joke for the most part. Animal noises and weird fishy strut? I get what they were going for. But don’t cut away the character until all that’s left is a monstrosity, and THEN not show him being monstrous! He has superhuman strength and speed. Show him tearing through the enemy (like the single head-ripping-off I saw). EATING the enemy. Don’t downplay his disorder so that you can get the actor’s performance through his face. If you want to treat him like a monster, don’t quit half way. Neutered is the only word I can think of for what they did with him.

Jai Courtney was…good? Those words, arranged in that order, don’t make sense to me. But he was! He was funny, and likable in his own way. He WORKED.

The Joker/Harley Quinn romance. All I’ll say is, I didn’t like it, and I could write a post twice as long as this one on why I don’t.

The villains were cut-and-paste, both the underlings (cannon fodder, I get it) and the main villains (I’ll use thing to destroy world because reasons).

Half the cast was a bit short-changed to give Harley and Deadshot a chance to develop, but even then I feel like Deadshot is the only one whose development 100% worked.

Diablo’s transformation needed more foreshadowing, as well as his ability to see through illusions and Enchantress’s ability to CAUSE illusions.

From what I’ve heard, most of my problems with the movie come from the theatrical cut taking out essential pieces. I feel like I’ve heard that before. Maybe from now on I’ll skip the theatrical cut and watch the director’s cut of DC movies.

The Conjuring 2 Review

Let me start by answering the first question that most of you are wondering: Is The Conjuring 2 as scary as the first one? It wasn’t for me. But this is one of those cases where your mileage will definitely vary. One of the primary elements of the story, and a source of most of the scares for the film, is just something that I personally don’t find scary. You might, in which case you’ll find the movie as terrifying as literally everyone but me has.

So, that’s it, right? In Horror, the only important thing is that your movie is terrifying, right? And I’ve said that I didn’t find the movie particularly scary (for the most part).

Actually, I think that The Conjuring 2 is a fantastic movie, maybe better than the first one. And it is every bit as important for Horror as the first film was, if the genre learns the right lessons from it.

I won’t talk at length about the tense atmosphere or the breathtaking cinematography or the chilling music (although any of these make the movie worth its ticket price). I won’t even talk about the nice twist that leads to a much stronger third act than in the first movie, in my opinion.

Instead, I want to talk about the characters.

Almost without exception, the characters are fantastic. Every single character feels fully-fleshed, dynamic, and real. These characters are clever, brave, and goodhearted. They make you root for them, to a one.

There’s the downtrodden mom who’s still trying to do right by her kids as her world crumbles around her, one of the daughters who has become a target for a large part of the abuse from the supernatural entity, the siblings who try to stand up for her despite having no way to defend themselves, and even a neighbor family who stand steadfastly by the family through their descent into horror. I especially appreciated the neighbors’ dad, who reminded me of Samwise Gamgee when things got hairy.

But above and beyond all of these wonderful characters are the Warrens. Ed and Lorraine Warren are, off the top of my head, the best couple in any movie. I haven’t seen a functional, effective couple like this since The Thin Man (1934). They’re strong, sympathetic characters on their own, and either would make for a fantastic protagonist like Ellen Ripley from Alien or MacReady from The Thing.

But what really makes them amazing is the way they work together. They share with one another, comfort one another, and always, no matter what, respect one another. They’re a better couple than anyone in Horror, one of the best couples in any genre. And it never feels forced or overly-sentimental. It always feels grounded.

Did I mention these characters characters are smart? Because they’re incredibly smart. Any long-time Horror enthusiast will know how impressive the following statement was: There was only ONE instance in the entire movie where I felt a character was acting stupid (without proper motivation) in the name of giving the audience a scare. Only one character, one time, in the entire movie. Not once did I have to write off a character with “You deserve whatever happens for being so stupid”, which steals my sympathy from more Horror characters than not.

All of this comes together to make an incredibly engaging story that feels driven by the characters despite the supernatural events taking place in the story. This is what Horror needs to learn. Have all your characters smart and sympathetic, and when horrific things happen to them, we will care!

The Conjuring 2 scared me less than the first movie, but kept me at least as entertained. I’d highly recommend going to see this if you love Horror. Or if you like good characters and a good story and have a decent stomach for Horror.

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SPOILERS

The element that I don’t find scary? Possession. It’s a large part of the movie, and it’s just not something that scares me.

The moment that I felt they had a character do something stupid for a scare: When Ed peeks in at the music box near the end. WHO would stick their head into a tent that already has documented supernatural activity? Particularly when the demon has already nearly blinded you and you’re flailing around in a panic?

I found the Crooked Man to be TERRIFYING. Both of the big moments with that manifestation were incredible (yes, I did love the scare that I just complained about the setup for).

I didn’t find the nun manifestation that scary. In fact, I found her kind of silly. That said, once I saw the painting scare, I saw why they chose that appearance, and could at least respect their design for her in that light.

The biting really got me. The thought of a creepy old man ghost biting a little girl creeped me right out.

I love how everything leading up to the climax had plausible alternate explanations from an outside perspective. I almost found myself making a game of explaining to myself how that could have happened if the mom/daughter were behind it.

I do have questions left over. For instance: did the Warrens just happen to stumble across another house haunted by the same demon? Or did the demon draw them there somehow? I’ve been told that the Warrens’ house had the demon’s name all over the place (a detail I missed, suggesting that it had been following them, and maybe manipulated them.

Having the “man behind the man” trope used by a demon enslaving a ghost was pretty brilliant. I’ll have to rewatch to see how much sense the old man’s actions make in that context.

I do think that their fight against the demon was a tad easy after she learned its name, but I understand that they’d kind of written themselves into a corner. Just a bit more of a struggle during the climax there would have made the ending feel more complete, more definite. But it works ok as is.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is the movie that Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Winter Soldier wished they were. It’s unabashed fun that makes sense, remains driven, and keep its focus on its characters, from beginning to end.

This isn’t to say that it’s perfect—I’m looking at you, shaky-cam and quick-cuts in the first act—but it’s one of the better Marvel movies we’ve gotten in a while, up there with the first Iron Man, the first Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

I have a lot that I could ramble on about. And I will, I’m sure, in the spoilers section. But for the purposes of this review, I’m going to focus on one thing that Civil War gets right: theme.

Theme is important in a work. It helps to tie elements of a narrative into a cohesive, powerful whole.

The reason that, in my opinion, The Dark Knight is the best out of the Nolan trilogy, is because it sticks to simple, resonant themes. The Joker announces the main theme of the movie when he says, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”. The whole movie is about people placed into situations where they might have to compromise on their moral foundations in order to survive, and what it turns a person into when they do that. It’s repeated again and again and again, always from different angles, always asking different questions about the issue.

In Civil War, the theme is the past coming back to haunt the present. Whether that’s Tony being made to feel the lives they didn’t save, or Bucky being pursued for his actions as the Winter Solder, or the Avengers as a whole and the agreement that would put them under government control. Even the villain’s actions are bringing the past back to haunt the heroes.

The story has other themes, themes that tie in beautifully with the primary. Revenge vs. justice, yes, but also revenge vs. mercy. It asks the question: Even if revenge is sometimes justified, is it ever the right choice? What happens by a person driven by revenge as opposed to a person driven by justice, or driven by mercy?

These themes are present from the first minute of the movie to the last. They are the beating heart of the film. This movie is a master class in making theme work for you.

I’ve heard complaints about the villain, and I can see some of the flaws. He probably has little in common with his comics counterpart, and the plot he brews up is convoluted if not downright contrived in places. But he is essential to the movie, in my opinion, because of the way that he fits into this beautiful exploration of theme.

Almost everything is wonderful about this movie. The actors give their best performances so far, which is saying something, from Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans. Every character we know that’s in it gets their own moment to shine, including characters that you might truly expect to fall into the background. The two new heroes are fantastic, and the actors are great. The action is unbelievable, minus the shaky-cam and quick-cuts mostly isolated to the beginning of the film. There’s one action sequence that makes the movie worth the ticket price all by itself, and it’s far from the only great action scene in the movie.

This is in my top 5 Marvel movies. And if you know me, you know how much of a compliment that is. It’s tied for my favorite superhero movie of the year, and despite how excited I am for Doctor Strange, I don’t expect it to reach the heights that Civil War has climbed.

If for some reason you’re still on the fence, go see it. I can guarantee that anyone who likes comic book movies, and many people who don’t, will love this film.

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SPOILERS

Spider-Man! Every moment he’s on screen, I grin ear-to-ear. I love the fact that he reacts to his spider sense out loud. He’s very ADD, very talky, and that works perfectly for the character. He’s also able to hold up literal tons and can fight two other super-powered characters to a virtual stalemate. He’s my all-time favorite comic book hero, and I just got to see all kinds of awesomeness that I never thought I would on film.

Ant Man continues to annoy me. Not the character or the actor or the humor, which is all fantastic. The technology. No, wait, “technology”. I’ve started to just wave my hands and say “Magic!” whenever he’s involved, to keep him from ruining those scenes.

I’m not the first person to complain about it, so I’ll be brief. Shaky-cam doesn’t add tension to a shot. All that it does is cover up sloppy choreography, sloppy acting, or sloppy effects. If you’re a competent filmmaker, you NEVER need shaky-cam. Particularly not so much that it hinders the viewer’s ability to understand what’s happening.

Zemo at the end, talking to Black Panther, gave me chills. The fact that him listening to the message on his phone has entirely different meaning there at the end is just a stroke of brilliance!

Weren’t those title cards with the locations weird? They covered up the whole screen! I hope the DVD release will have normal, corner-of-the-screen cards there instead.

I loved Rhodey’s speech. I’d have loved for Cap to hear it, and it makes me look forward to possibly seeing a scene with Rhodes and Falcon together. It’s really powerful, and is a nice little stamp on the end of the movie. HOWEVER, I was incredibly disappointed that this takes place as he’s GOING TO BE COMPLETELY FINE because of Tony’s technology. Make us live with the repercussions of his injuries. Make him give this speech in the face of permanent disability. That would turn this ultimately throwaway scene into an emotional powerhouse.

Deadpool Review

Let me start off with this: Don’t take your kids to see Deadpool. I mean it. If your kid is over thirteen, then whatever. If your kid is under ten? Don’t be an idiot/monster/failure as a parent.

That may seem like strong words, purposely offensive. Let me assure you, that’s complete honesty from me. Any movie in which the best way to describe what happens to a character, ON SCREEN, includes words like “splatter” or “self-mutilation” isn’t a movie that I feel there’s any excuse for having a young child watch. ESPECIALLY when the movie has been completely upfront from the beginning with the sort of content you can expect.

Now that I’ve said that…

If you’ve watched a trailer for Deadpool, you probably know whether you’re going to enjoy the movie. If Weasel comparing Deadpool’s face to things made you laugh out loud, you’re going to LOVE this movie. If you feel like you’ll find the movie’s content offensive, YOU WILL. This movie is the hardest-R movie I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the funniest, right from the opening credits.

Ryan Reynolds was MADE for this role. This is the Deadpool we’ve been promised, on par with the best bits we’ve seen elsewhere. He makes us laugh with Deadpool, roll our eyes at his childish behavior, and root for him throughout the entire film, all without ever compromising the fact that Deadpool is not a role model.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was the fact that this film is shot absolutely beautifully. The action is as good—better—than 99% of the action in the larger-budget comic book movies. It doesn’t ever FEEL like a low-budget superhero flick. It feels like every dime was stretched as far as it can go to give the viewers value. The one place I feel they might have scrimped a bit was the CG for Colossus; his metal body isn’t completely on-point, but it never distracts.

Speaking of which: The supporting players. Every single one of them work in this movie. There are a half-dozen important characters other than Deadpool and the baddies, and each one fits into the role, gives a great performance, and makes me laugh. Colossus has got to be my favorite, though. When he first came onto screen, my girlfriend said, “Who is that?”. By the end of the movie, she was sold on this 10-foot-tall metal mutant with a heart of pure, soviet gold.

There’s a lot more I could talk about, but let me restate: Deadpool is hilarious, offensive, and NOT for children. Use your discretion.

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My favorites:

Counting bullets

Ryan Reynolds/pretty face

The infomercial joke

The way the flashbacks are integrated

Every moment in the trailer times ten!

The stinger