Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – review

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If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain… then you’ll have liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Which came out of leftfield at the time and was (yet another) risk for Marvel studios, banking on unknown characters that were not hugely connected to the existing Avengers universe.

And Chris Pratt, as a leading man, was also a gamble. A mostly funny, slightly tubby guy, not known as a big hunky heartthrob, suddenly turns up in an action film as… a big hunky heartthrob. Who would have thought? But, to be fair, Pratt was easy casting when you look at the other leaps of faith Marvel took. With characters that included a foul-mouthed raccoon, a tree that only says three words, a tough guy played by an ex-wrestler, and a purple bad guy that seemed to sit on a throne in space doing very little. (That’s Thanos by the way).

Anyway, the completely laboured point I’m trying to make is that, after Guardians became a huge – albeit unexpected – hit, a sequel was inevitable. It also turned out to be one of the funniest the studio had put out too, which gave the follow-up more license to play in the comedy sandpit.

Which, in a pleasing way, it really embraces. And in the same vein as Doctor Strange, this set of characters really helps expand the Marvel universe, adding more background to the Infinity Stones storyline and getting us, as an audience, thinking about space as a viable addition to the Marvel storytelling canvas. (Thor: Ragnarok, we’re looking at you.)

But that’s all strategic stuff.

In terms of Guardians alone and this film as a sequel, it picks up fairly soon after the first one, where the team have become somewhat of a unit for hire. We start with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fighting a giant monster, whilst Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances joyfully front and centre. It’s fun, playful, ridiculous and will put a silly smile on your face. Ok, we can rest easy. This sequel will be good.

Story wise, first time round the plot touched on Peter Quill’s heritage. But here it’s expanded as the main arc and centres around Kurt Russell’s character (yes, you read that right, Kurt Russell is in this) and his link to Quill.

However, this tale also gives more moments to the rest of the gang as well. And whilst they play much the same beats they did first time round, each becomes more well-rounded. We see Drax’s sensitive side and a sort of bonding between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) get some rather unexpected scenes.

And then there’s Baby Groot.

Possibly the cutest thing in cinema since Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. And the sheer inventiveness in terms of the ways they use this tinier, child-like version of Groot will warm your cockles. From his impossibly huge eyes – looking at you with wonder – to his infectious spirit, he lights up every scene he’s in. He’ll have you at the first ‘I am Groot.’

It’s also worth noting that most sequels cannot hold a candle to the original. This, however, might just be better. There, I said it. It’s funnier. It gives more of the characters more to do. The stakes are higher. It has Kurt Russell. It also has another famous movie star (don’t ruin it by looking it up if you don’t know, just go see it). And it’s really just a blast from start to finish.

Where it sits, in terms of the Marvel filmography, is hard to say. It has to be top five, definitely. Although, with the Thor: Ragnorok trailer looking pretty special, perhaps Marvel have found even more ways to delight us with their characters and their universe. By golly, DC have some catching up to do.

Magnificent Seven: all glory no guts

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Ok, I fess up. I’ve not seen the original. There, I’ve said it. Yet another classic Western that’s passed me by. And yes, maybe one day I’ll get round to it, but for now at least, I have to make do with the modern version.

And I say make do because it’s OK.

Not bad, just not that great either. Which, let’s face it, is a darn tootin’ shame given the cast and director. I mean you’ve got Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Antoine Fuqua – the dream team, reunited after their success on Training Day. Plus Chris Pratt, everyone’s favourite leading man these days. And Peter Sarsgaard as the bad guy, complete with suitably evil moustache.

Slam dunk, surely? Sadly not. I’ll explain why, but first, the story.

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Should you be unfamiliar with the plot, it centres on sauve man in black, a bounty hunter called Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington); who gets recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk as they’re being bullied and oppressed by evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), because he wants their gold mine all for his greedy self. So Chisolm – initially after the bounty but his motivation evolves as things go on – recruits six sharp shooters/brave idiots to help protect the town and the whole thing builds to one almighty dust-up come the finish.

Simple right? As we know, simple stories are the best. Now all the filmmakers need to do is add character and they’ll be on to a winner. Make us care about the whole gang, make us see things from the bad guy’s point of view, and perhaps even sympathise with him. Surprise us. Do something unexpected. Take risks.

Unfortunately we don’t really get any of this. Granted, the film treads the path you expect it to, ticking the Western boxes, it looks good enough and is shot well. And yes, people like Denzel can do charismatic with his eyes closed. Yet you need more.

Ensemble films are tough when it comes to building character and, whilst I feel like a broken record here (after saying much the same thing for Suicide Squad), it can be done. Marvel, for example, are great at it. And so are Disney, with J.J. Abrams having a crack at Star Wars. Oh, and the modern Star Trek franchise (Abrams again)

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My point is you can make audiences care about numerous characters in a short space of time, but you can’t rely on gunfights and beautifully framed shots to achieve it alone. Or if you do take that route, you’ve got to pepper the action with character beats. Otherwise it’s just a Western we’ve seen a hundred times before… or a battle scene from Gladiator or Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. Take your pick.

The problem I had is that I kept thinking of relatively modern Westerns I’ve preferred (Tombstone, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma all sprang to mind), ones where I was hooked on the fate of the characters almost from the off, which is never a good sign in this case, because it just didn’t grab me the same way. I suppose there’s one thing going for this film, in that it’ll never be a franchise as (spoiler!) not all the seven make it through to the end. It is what it is, but it’s a stand-alone story.

Maybe I’m being harsh.

Maybe there was a lot of subtle character development buried deep within scenes that I simply missed. Stuff that really made you care about their fate, you know? Maybe it gets better on repeat viewings. Some films do. Or maybe Antoine Fuqua will just have to chalk this down as a swing and a miss. Or a misfire, wahey.

Either way, it’s worth a watch if you spot it on TV, or fancy a fairly mindless night at the cinema where thinking caps are not required. But no more than that. Sorry Antoine, the wait for you, Denzel and Ethan to strike gold again continues.

Guardians of the Galaxy: release your geek

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“Unruly geeks change the world” ― Alexandra Robbins, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

In a world… That’s how those voiceover guys (and gals, occasionally) do it right? At least for the big blockbusters they tend to. Let’s start again, shall we?

In a world where big summer blockbusters dominate the box office throughout spring, summer and autumn; in a world where superheroes we’ve known for decades continually get rammed down our throat; in a world where studios get accused of playing it safe, trotting out sequel upon sequel… It’s so damn refreshing to see something different that’s been given a big budget, but also allowed the creative team behind it a lot of freedom to realise their vision.guardians-galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is doing great numbers at the box office. Audiences seem to be taking to it. Is it just the power of Marvel studios? Trot out any old half decent film and we’ll buy into it? I don’t think so. Modern audiences (especially comic books fans) are too savvy for that, their power to sway internet message forums is simply too strong.

To put it another way, Guardians is good. It’s entertaining, bright, breezy, moves along at a fair old pace but not an overwhelming one. Plot wise it’s solid. Not overly complicated, not too simple. And it’s funny, very funny.

Individual characters get some great lines, but when you team up this newly formed gang you don’t half get some zingers. Some of the best lines (or moments more accurately) come from a tree that can only say three words.Yondu-in-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy
The geeks shall inherit the earth. A phrase you’ve no doubt heard before. Well, with Marvel Studios and directors like Rian Johnson, Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro and others, that happened a long time ago. Films like the Avengers gave us a team on earth. Some geeky (Bruce Banner), some cool (Tony Stark), all of them outsiders. And that’s probably a large part of why this film is doing well. It’s a ragtag bunch of outsiders. Loveable ones.

So where’s the next step after geeks inherit the earth? Space of course. If you’re not fully clued up on Guardians think of it this way: part Star Trek, part Galaxy Quest, part Star Wars. As a lead – the alpha male if you will – we have Chris Pratt, whose character is a kind of modern version of Han Solo, but a bit more of a goofball.

His performance really does drive the whole thing along. He’s practically in every scene and very compelling as a leading man. There’s no doubt he’ll be competing with Star Trek’s Chris Pine for future similar roles. God knows Hollywood is crying out for new leading men who are a bit different.
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There’s also Rocket, a raccoon like creature voiced by Bradley Cooper. We all know Cooper can do comedy but he works wonders with this character and gives him genuine depth and believability (as far as you can believe a machine-gun-wielding raccoon outlaw has depth).

Groot, the walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel, was one of the true surprises of the film, proving that you don’t need dialogue to have a profound impact. Then there’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. Switching from Avatar blue to racy space green she fitted nicely into this motley crew of galactic losers, sorry guardians. She even managed to maintain an effective bit of chemistry with Pratt’s Star-Lord. Will they? Won’t they?guardians-of-the-galaxy-rocket-raccoon-what-did-we-learn-from-the-guardians-of-the-galaxy-preview
Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer made up the rest of the gang. Often acting as the dense one, taking comments as literally as you can for comic effect, his performance was, actually, surprisingly funny as a result. Not bad for a former wrestler. Where Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson leads, others will follow I suppose.

So, those geeks eh? Not content with inheriting earth, they’ve aimed their sights at space. Still, this is hardly news. Star Trek – one of the true original geek shows – has been doing this for years. Now that Marvel have got in on the act be prepared for more space adventures. Not just from them as a studio, but probably others too. I’m sure DC will eventually catch up with their roster of space heroes and villains.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as far as stepping in a new direction goes, Marvel has laid down the gauntlet pretty smartly with this film… And it’s paid off. Hurrah to them. And hurrah to the geeks and outsiders. We salute you.

Now where did I leave my light saber?