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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2


Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

When the first GotG was released in 2014, few expected the rabid reception it would receive.  And it wasn't just the August release date when competition was nil.  Its ragtag team of heroes, including Groot, a laconic, ambulatory tree; Rocket, a violent, larcenous raccoon; Drax, a clueless man-mountain; Gamora, a beautiful green badass; and Peter Quill, a likable lug who calls himself "Star-Lord" seemed like a recipe for a crapfest (see Suicide Squad, 2016).  But thanks to eye-popping visual effects; James Gunn's fun, exciting script adaptation, and his direction that coaxed enthusiastic performances from its stars, Volume 1 turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year.  The bar for "Vol. 2" was set high--too high?  That depends on your perspective.

We open with a visually-enhanced youthful Kurt Russell tools across the 1980 Missouri heartland with free spirit Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) singing "Brandy" at the top of their lungs. She knows he is an alien, but they are in love.  Cut to 34 years later, and the Guardians have made a name for themselves.  They've been hired by the Sovereign, a race of golden perfect beings led by the regal Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to prevent a gigantic tentacled creature from raiding their hoard of super batteries.  While Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Drax (Dave Bautista) squabble and face the leviathan in the background, toddler Groot (voice-altered Vin Diesel) dances to the music in the foreground, yanking us back to the bold iconoclastic vision of the first film.  The creature vanquished, the Guardians appear before Ayesha, and in true character, they manage to both charm and alienate before they depart with their booty, both earned--Gamora's sister and avowed enemy Nebula (Karen Gillan) is turned over to them to be sent to prison--and unearned--Rocket steals the very batteries they were hired to protect.  Soon, the Sovereign fleet of remote-control pursuit craft is on their tail.  Just when the odds seem overwhelming, the fleet disappears in a flash, dispatched by a strange egg-shaped craft.

Meanwhile, on a rest and relaxation planet, we meet up with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his even more ragtag band of Ravagers, enjoying themselves until they run into the Capo di Tutti Ravagers, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone).  He accuses Yondu of breaking the Ravager code by selling children, an act that banishes him from the greater group.  There is more to the story, but Stakar won't listen.  Yondu is devastated.  He soon becomes heartened, though, when Ayesha hires his band to apprehend the Guardians and return them and the stolen batteries to the Sovereign for capital punishment.  Aware that his men resent the soft spot he has for Peter, and that the bounty has put giant "unit" signs in their eyes, Yondu accepts the job.

Back to the Guardians.  They land on a planet to catch their breath, followed soon after by the egg ship.  Out of it emerges a familiar, though older, Kurt Russell who identifies himself as Ego, along with his empath servant, the socially stunted Mantis (Pom Klementieff).  Ego quickly reveals the secret to Peter's lineage and invites him, along with Gamora and Drax, to his planet, where Drax and Mantis strike up a friendship that is every bit as strange as you'd expect, and Gamora senses that even stranger things are afoot.  Rocket has been left behind to repair their wrecked ship and guard the shackled Nebula (Gamora gives Rocket permission to kill her if she tries to escape).  As expected, Yondu and his Ravagers soon complicate matters for Rocket.

If you think a lot is going on and much of it is disjointed, you aren't alone, the plot is minimal.  Thankfully, GotG2 does continue its predecessor's example in following its own path, not taking itself too seriously, and emphasizing fun.  Whereas the original was about building a team, Volume 2 is about building a family, with all of its fits and starts, and all of the interpersonal relationships that add complexity. There are the carryovers: the "unspoken thing" between Peter and Gamora; the lethal sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula; Rocket's self-loathing hostility toward everyone; the resentful bond between Peter and Yondu.  And there are new developments: the impossibly literal Drax and the sweet but clueless Mantis bring one of one of the most bizarre relationships in modern screendom; Baby Groot is now the innocent baby, who adds cuteness but needs care; a certain Guardian and a Ravager finding themselves as unexpected kindred spirits.  And, of course, the nascent father-son relationship of Ego and Peter is central to the story.  Or is it?  This is, after all, GotG, so within all of those relationships are surprising twists and touching moments, none so surprisingly touching as the one at the end of the film.

This is a popcorn flick, kids.  With a run-time of 2:15, it might be a tad long, but we won't complain, as some of that time was used to provide cameos for Ving Rhames, Michelle Yeoh, Jeff Goldblum, Seth Green (reprising Howard the Duck), some guy named Zardu Hasslefrau, and Stan Lee, naturally.  And it takes a few gags and beats them to zaniness (just this side of a dead horse).  Does GotG2 amount to great art?  No.  And, as is the case with many sequels, the element of original surprise is gone.  But in its place, we know the Guardians better, and like a good family they are endearing.

8.5 out of 10 on an entertainment scale
7.0 out of 10 on an awards scale (possibly Visual Effects and Makeup)

 


The Circle


The Circle

Based on Dave Eggers 2013 novel, The Circle offers up an enticing story about an indeterminate future where no one has secrets anymore.  Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) steps into the sci-fi subgenre of techno-thriller.  The "techno" part is a high-risk, high-reward venture where sometimes you get a near masterpiece, like Ex Machina, sometimes you get a film that might seem dated or, worse, ridiculous.  Given the recent White House executive order relinquishing our right to Internet privacy, it seems the future is now, although The Circle has a few cards up its sleeve.  The "thriller" part is equally dicey; transmitting complex ideas in a thrilling way ain't easy, and it's even tougher when your protagonist's job is to sit at a computer monitor.  To these ends, the movie actually tells us that The Circle is "the chaos of the Web made simple" and explains it that way, and it whisks our heroine off to a Beck concert or solo moonlight kayaking beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is a recent college grad, working customer service and driving a clunker that requires attention from her long-time friend Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) who would like more than platonic attention.  She lives at home with her parents, who appreciate her income because her father (the late, wonderful Bill Paxton in his last film role) has multiple sclerosis and her mother (Glenne Headley) is his caregiver.  One day, Mae receives a call from her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy's Nebula) a rising power broker at a giant social media conglomerate known as The Circle.  Annie got Mae an interview at the dream company.

After nailing the interview, Mae goes through a whirlwind training and settles in professionally.  It seems, though, Mae is coming across to her colleagues as a mystery woman.  She is encouraged to bring more social media to her work presence and to take part in the many activities--and support groups, if needed--made available to The Circle "family." A loner and homebody by nature, Mae is uncomfortable.  At a "Dream Friday," the workforce gathers in an auditorium where CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), funny and self-deprecating, charms his employees into cult-like rapture as he paints the future for them.  Later, at a company party, she meets a strange man who seems put off by the revelry.  We later learn he is Ty (Star Wars' John Boyega), legendary genius co-founder of The Circle, who has been off the grid for years.

At her company physical, Mae is given a watch and a tracker, amping up her own skepticism until Annie suggests Mae's parents also be put on the company health plan, which will afford her father state of the art medical care.  Mae is so grateful that the melding of her personal and professional life seems a small price to pay.  Meanwhile, Eamon and his Machiavellian COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) learn of Mae's father, and she is catapulted from wide-eyed "guppy" to Kool-Aid zealot to the most famous person on the planet.  It's lonely at the top--she becomes alienated from everyone who was close to her--but with the help of Ty, she sees the sinister underbelly of The Circle's utopian promises.  Events spin out of control and in true techno-thriller fashion, the outcome is uncertain.

The Circle is a timely film, addressing several progressive talking points, and rather than lecture what is right and what is wrong, it shows the double-edged sword of the extremes of transparency, privacy, and argues the need for personal responsibility.  It is sensory candy, from Danny Elfman's riveting synthesized score to the flood of text bubbles that pop up as a superimposed running commentary on social media.  Still, there is a problematic lack of flow, choppy transitions that don't synch well with Mae's way-too-meteoric rise to worldwide celebrity.  A fitting conclusion almost makes up for that, though.  The cast itself presents an array of talent: Emma Watson is typically dependable but not exceptional; Paxton and Headley are wasted as plot contrivances; the most glaring variances, though, are seen among Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, and Ellar Coltrane--they have roughly equal amounts of screen time, but it seems that we don't get enough of Hanks and Gillan, yet too much of Boyega and Coltrane.  The cinematography is nothing special, so we'll give it a recommendation, but you can wait for streaming.

7.0 out of 10 on a popcorn scale




 
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