Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Fast & Furious 8 (AKA The Fate of the Furious)

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 8 

Director : F. Gary Gray
Cast : Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Elsa Pataky, Scott Eastwood
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

The driving force behind the Fast and Furious franchise – besides international box office – is ‘family’. Groan-inducing though it may be, many moviegoers have warmed to the crew led by Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel), and audiences around the world feel a kinship with this team. In this, the eighth entry in the franchise, we watch the family get torn asunder.

Dom and his wife Letty (Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The couple is called away for a mission in Germany, where the team must prevent an Electromagnetic Pulse generator from falling into enemy hands. Dom, Letty, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), motormouth Roman (Gibson), mechanical whiz Tej (Bridges) and hacker Ramsey (Emmanuel) pull off the mission without a hitch – until Dom betrays them. The woman who has somehow convinced Dom to cast aside his loyalty is elusive, powerful cyberterrorist Cipher (Theron). To track down Dom and Cipher, spymaster Mr. Nobody (Russell) places the team’s nemesis Deckard Shaw (Statham) alongside them. Everyone, especially Hobbs, is upset that they must work with Shaw, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This latest adventure takes the team from New York City to the frigid Russian tundra, as they try to stop Cipher and win Dom back to the side of good.

Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed Straight Outta Compton and the remake of The Italian Job, takes the wheel from Furious 7 director James Wan. While it’s officially titled ‘The Fate of the Furious’, it’s promoted as Fast & Furious 8 in several territories. With the superstar cast and key behind-the-scenes personnel including writer Chris Morgan, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, composer Brian Tyler and second unit director/stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos returning, not too much has changed, even with a new director.

Under the guidance of Justin Lin, who helmed the third through sixth entries in the franchise, the series has morphed from being ostensibly about car racing culture into a globe-trotting military action/heist behemoth. Fast & Furious 8 opens with a street race in Havana, to remind viewers that the series hasn’t forgotten its roots. It takes confidence to open the film with a relatively humble set-piece, especially when compared to the mayhem that follows.

When the sixth film came out, some viewers were wondering just how the series would continue to top itself in the outlandish car stunt stakes. Just when it seemed there’s nothing new under the sun, Fast & Furious 8 launches a submarine at the crew. This is a series that’s always in danger of swallowing itself up, but Gray presides over things with a firm-enough hand. A sequence in which Cipher orchestrates unbridled vehicular chaos on the streets of New York City is inventive, and in between all the big-budget bombast, we get to witness a good old-fashioned prison brawl. Once again, Razatos deserves credit for staging grand, entertaining spectacle.

Watching the action scenes is like watching a penguin glide gracefully through the water. Sitting through the dramatic scenes is like watching said penguin waddle on land: it’s ungainly, but endearing. The soap opera quotient is even higher than before. Dom goes rogue! Shock, horror! While Morgan’s screenplay heaves with cheesiness and Gibson’s ad-libbing tends to make scenes less funny, we have to admire the logistics of it. Not just the logistics of staging the action, but the sheer mechanics of constructing the screenplay, such that each member of the ever-expanding cast gets their time to shine. There are a few twists, a cameo or two and a reasonably clever gambit is put into play, but it’s nothing as audacious as the chase with the safe(s) in the fifth film. While the seventh film made a fair few viewers tear up with its closing tribute to the late Paul Walker, the emotional scenes here make considerably less impact.

The massive ensemble works like a well-oiled machine, anecdotal murmurs of friction between Diesel and his castmates notwithstanding. Gray wrings a good amount of tension from the premise of Dom turning against his teammates, with Rodriguez’s Letty naturally being the most hurt.

Johnson and Statham play off against each other wonderfully, trading juvenile barbs. Having the big bad villain of the seventh film get all chummy with the crew does run the risk of diminishing Shaw’s intimidation factor, but that’s not too much of an issue because there’s a new villain in town.

Said villain is played by Theron, reuniting with her Italian Job director and co-star Statham. Theron’s awesome in pretty much everything (we like to pretend Æon Flux doesn’t exist) and she has just enough fun with this role. Cipher is coolly evil and her dastardly scheme is very Bond villain-esque. However, unlike the Shaw siblings from the last two instalments, Cipher is mostly a passive villain, standing in front of a bank of computers, shouting things like “hack ‘em all” to her minions. It’s not the best use of Theron, but we’re glad she’s in the series anyway.

Perhaps it’s because she was only introduced in the previous film, but Emmanuel’s Ramsey doesn’t really feel like a part of the team yet. Scott Eastwood plays Mr. Nobody’s apprentice who gets picked on by the crew and feels extraneous. But if you’re already invested in the series and its characters, this is a fun ride that feels shorter than its 136-minute running time. Gray does a fine job of preserving the series’ personality while furthering the team’s delightfully ludicrous exploits.

Summary: It’s as cheesy and outlandish as ever: Fast & Furious 8 sticks to what works for the franchise and even if it doesn’t break ground the same way that submarine did, it’s enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bone Tomahawk

For F*** Magazine

BONE TOMAHAWK

Director : S. Craig Zahler
Cast : Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig
Genre : Horror/Western
Run Time : 133 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : R21 (Violence)

Gun-slinging outlaws are far from the only terrors a small town sheriff needs to fend off in this horror western. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) of the frontier town Bright Hope leads a party in search of Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) and young Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Samantha and Nick have been kidnapped by savage troglodytes, cave-dwelling humanoid creatures who feed on people. The party comprises Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson), Samantha’s husband who is nursing a broken leg, the dapper sharpshooter John Brooder (Fox) and elderly “back-up Deputy” Chicory (Jenkins). It turns out that bandits Purvis (Arquette) and Buddy (Haig) have incurred the wrath of the brutal troglodytes by desecrating their burial grounds. With one member of their group already wounded and two of them elderly men, it seems the odds are stacked against Sheriff Hunt and his gang.

            Bone Tomahawkis the directorial debut of multi-hyphenate S. Craig Zahler, a novelist, screenwriter, musician and cinematographer. Zahler’s noir western novels have garnered him considerable acclaim, and it is clear from Bone Tomahawk that he has an affinity for the genre. The film is an old-fashioned western that segues into graphic, gory horror and it’s quite clear that this is intended to become a cult classic, to be screened mostly at film festivals to discerning audiences. As such, its appeal is very limited and this is obviously intended for a niche market, at the risk of alienating anyone else. The film has been described as a “slow burn”, but one man’s slow burn is another man’s slog. Indeed, Bone Tomahawkmeanders and dawdles, with not very much happening until its final half hour. We get non-sequitur conversations about how one would read a book in the bath without getting the pages wet and the minutiae of flea circuses, which are intended to provide texture but come off as pointless instead.

            Thankfully, Zahler has wrangled an excellent cast and the characters embody familiar genre tropes without being one-note caricatures, which is difficult to do in a genre piece. Russell, as expected, seems perfectly at home in the setting and brings an authority to his sheriff role without overplaying the macho man aspect. He gets to kick ass, but the film wisely avoids indulging in cheeky references to Russell’s iconic past roles. For an actor of his iconic status, this is quite a small project to headline and Russell was drawn to the part as an early supporter of Zahler’s novels. We’ll next see Russell in a western again really soon, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.



            Wilson can sometimes be bland, but he fits the everyman O’Dwyer and while the character seems set up as a bit of a milksop, he comes into his own and has us rooting for him to rescue his wife and survive this ordeal. Jenkins is on hand to provide most of the comic relief as the doddering old Chicory, but he is careful not to play the part too broad. Fox rocks a beautifully-tailored turn-of-the-century suit as the dashing, boastful rogue, though there are times when he doesn’t convincingly seem like someone from that time period. The same goes for Simmons, who comes off as a little too modern for a frontierswoman. She gets to perform a somewhat gratuitous sex scene with Wilson but is ultimately little more than the stock damsel in distress whom the valiant men have to venture into the unknown to rescue. She’s a doctor, so that counts for something, we suppose.

            Bone Tomahawkis somewhat hampered by its limited budget, the town of Bright Hope obviously standing on a backlot that’s been used in countless westerns before. While the film presents us with well-drawn characters portrayed by some talented actors, it lacks a crucial forward momentum and the flabby midsection is almost entirely devoid of urgency. The ending in particular packs in grisly scenes designed for maximum stomach-turning effect, but more impatient viewers are wont to grow restless before then. The smaller production gives Zahler the freedom to try many things which big studios would’ve forbidden him from doing and the most positive thing that can be said about the enterprise is that well, it’s different.


Summary:Kurt Russell’s strong performance gives this hybrid western/slasher flick some weight and gore-hounds might be pleased with the gruesome third act, but Bone Tomahawkis ultimately too slow and too spare to be a truly riveting genre offering.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Fast & Furious 7

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 7

Director : James Wan
Cast : Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Elsa Pataky, Lucas Black, Jason Statham, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 137 mins
Opens : 2 April 2015

Big wheels keep on turning, the rubber keeps on burning and Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew are rolling, rolling, rolling down the road in the seventh instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise. Dom and his “family”, comprising Brian (Walker), Letty (Rodriguez), Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Gibson) have been pardoned for their crimes in the previous films. Now, they’re sent hurtling back into their dangerous, high-speed existence when the lethal Deckard Shaw (Statham), looking to make the crew pay for almost killing his brother Owen, comes calling. With the assistance of spymaster “Mr. Nobody” (Russell) and Special Agent Hobbs (Johnson) of the Diplomatic Security Service, Dom and co. ride for their lives, this adventure taking them from L.A. to Azerbaijan to Abu Dhabi and back.

            We’ll get straight to the point – the untimely passing of star Paul Walker has cast a dark pall over a franchise built on pure escapism. What should have been yet another fist-pumping, all-out action spectacular is now a bittersweet affair. Director James Wan, taking the baton from Justin Lin, has managed to create a flick where the audience is reassured up front that it’s okay to have fun, it’s okay to just go along for the ride – and yet Brian O’Conner’s exit from the series is handled with as much grace and sincerity as the series can muster. The film displays a level of self-awareness – early on, Brian tells his young son Jack that “cars don’t fly”. Later in the film, they absolutely dofly. Screenwriter Chris Morgan supplies dialogue that is as overripe and clichéd as ever and yet, there is an undeniable charm to it all. Surprisingly, the 137 minute run time passes at a decent clip.


            There’s something that makes this franchise very different from the Transformersmovies, even though they are aimed at exactly the same demographic and contain cool automobiles, explosions and leery shots of scantily-clad women. There’s an earnestness here as opposed to the cynicism that pervades the Transformers films. This is movie #7 and yet there’s the sense that all involved are still invested and are determined not to phone it in, embracing the over-the-top stunts with all they’ve got.

Wan must’ve broken out in hives trying to devise vehicular set-pieces that would top those of Fast & Furious 6, which involved a tank and a massive cargo plane. Here, we have cars inserted into a treacherous mountain pass via air drop, a Lykan Hypersport sailing out a skyscraper window and crashing into the adjacent building, and a finale in which our heroes are pursued by a stealth attack helicopter and a souped-up Predator drone. Props go to second unit director and stunt coordinator Jack Gill for putting it all together – those cars were dropped out of a plane for real. Unfortunately, as adrenaline-pumping as these signature sequences still are, there is a conspicuous increase in the reliance on computer-generated imagery, especially for the Etihad Towers jump and the helicopter attack. The scenes in which Paul Walker is digitally doubled also stick out. It’s not enough to pull one out of it completely, but it does lack polish.

For all of screenwriter Morgan’s unsubtlety, he’s done a fine job of distributing the spotlight among the ensemble cast. The moments of pathos are cheesy – Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty is still coping with her amnesia – but all parties involved know that’s not why the audience is present. Even then, the loss experienced by the crew following the deaths of Gisele and Han in #6 is palpable and does lend the proceedings an emotional backbone, however slight. The film serves a great swansong for Walker; he gets to go mano a mano with Tony Jaa in two blistering martial arts showdowns. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson continue to have amiable chemistry as the constantly bickering Tej and Roman, but Tyrese’s comic asides border on the excessive here.  

Jason Statham is a fittingly intimidating villain, essentially Frank Martin from the Transporter series if he had no moral compunction whatsoever. There’s a nice appearance by Djimon Hounsou as a secondary baddie even though the character doesn’t do much. Dwayne Johnson revels in the exaggerated action hero persona the material presents him with, trucking out one-liners like “you’ve earned yourself a dance with the devil, boy” and “I’m gonna put a hurt on him so hard, he’ll wish his mother kept her legs closed.” Ronda Rousey shows up as a bodyguard to furnish the requisite catfight with Michelle Rodriguez, a role fulfilled by fellow MMA fighter Gina Carano in the previous film. The show is well and truly stolen by Kurt Russell. The 80s action icon has still got it and looks like he’s having a ball. When he slips on the night-vision shades and draws twin pistols to get in on the fun himself, prepare to cheer.

As film critics, we hear the “it’s not meant to be Oscar-worthy high art” defence a whole lot. Well, for the Fast and Furious films, especially #5onwards, it applies. We’re not about to give the cheesy dialogue and sometimes-intrusive visual effects work a free pass, but Wan makes sure it all comes together nicely and delivers what was promised – a really good time for action junkies. In addition, the director shoulders the responsibility of fashioning this loud, brash extravaganza into an emotional send-off for its recently-deceased star. Vin Diesel has been open about how truly distraught Walker’s death left him and we do see some of that laid bare on the screen. We’re not ashamed to say we were left misty-eyed and in that respect, Wan has succeeded. There are no stinger scenes during or after the end credits and while this does seem like a great place to call it a day, Universal is intent on doing at least three more. Better to ride off into the sunset while you’re ahead, but that’s not how studios work, we suppose.

Summary: The spectacle is as bombastic as ever and the laws of physics are as irrelevant as ever; the series continuing to entertain. Fast & Furious 7 also manages to provide some genuine heart amidst all that cheese, bidding a fond farewell to Paul Walker.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong 

We are fast. We are furious. We are Groot.