The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in 2014. It was something that introduced the more sci-fi elements, yes, but also something that broke the superhero fatigue, at least temporarily. Sure, there have been Marvel moments that feel unique: Thor 2‘s climactic subway chase taking on a Bug Bunny-esque madcap style, The Winter Soldier‘s surveillance paranoia. But Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than Iron Man 4, taking a ragtag crew and letting them hop around a universe that had no restraint in reality, or even preconceived mythology given their relative obscurity to figures like Thor. And everything clicked for it, from its well-tuned cast that benefited from just-pre-superstardom surprise turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, its colorfully constructed universe, its memorable quasi-irreverent soundtrack, and the instantly iconic Groot.

When the marketing cycle for Vol. 2 started, there was immediately reason for concern. Not because these elements were missing, but because the trailers seemed to lean into these elements incredibly hard. Liked Drax being obtuse? We’ll focus the first clip released of precisely that. That Baby Groot dance everyone loved at the end of the first? You bet he’s going to be everywhere in trailers being all adorable and stuff. Looking for ’80s hits? We’ll release the soundtrack in a bag of Dorito’s to make sure you hear them. Looking for references to Night Rider? Fuck it, we’ll have David Hasselhoff on the soundtrack. For something that was a breath of fresh air three years ago, everything looked pretty stale.

It’s no surprise that Vol. 2 delivers on these items, for good and for bad. What does come as a surprise is that, rather than build on the previous film to make a tighter experience, Vol. 2 is a much looser film, both stylistically and plot-wise, than maybe any other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It very much feels like the Marvel execs put their complete faith in director James Gunn, as the DNA of his previous films Super and especially Slither is all over Vol. 2Vol. 2 is nearly a best-case scenario in giving a genre auteur a whole bunch of money and telling him to have fun, and as a result Vol. 2 wears influences from Star Wars (obviously) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hilariously inventing and immediately exploiting the rules of its universe) to The Thing (magnificently nearing body horror more than once). Taika Watiti’s Thor Ragnarok has a chance of pulling a similar trick soon, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers clearly had his fingerprints all over it, but Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor. In a way, it feels more like Darkman than Iron Man, which at this point is a very good thing.

As for the old characters, there it is a bit more mixed. Drax is probably the biggest victim of sequel fatigue, as the surprise of discovering that character’s quirks was a big part of the pleasure in the first. There are no new dimensions to Drax here, so the gags involving him simply aren’t as surprising. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. Sure, he’s adorable, and the kids in the audience loved him, but he’s often used as a vehicle for considerably darker humour than expected. As for the others, Gamora is generally a bit wasted, and Quill is a bit less of a wise-ass thanks to his position in the plot, but Michael Rooker’s Yondu is brought back to great effect, and Rocket Raccoon is still a lot of fun. On the new front, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a slithery presence, oozing that old-school cool in fitting with the 80s stylings. Considering the general failure of MCU villains to make any impression, Russell is top-tier. Even the secondary villains, a race of genetically engineered bourgeoisie, are a ton of fun and would have been interesting enough to carry their own movie if called upon to.

Plotwise, Vol. 2 is focused on family, especially the bond between fathers/father-figures and sons, but extending to sibling relationships and, of course, teams. While there’s plenty of boilerplate talk about the Guardians being one big family, the film overall nicely focuses on relationships between two people, putting together as many combos as possible and examining their familial stance. Sure, Quill/Gamora comes back up, and Quill/Ego is all over the trailers, but the film finds some depth in the bipartite relationships between Quill, Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon, even giving Yondu a father figure of his own, and further explores the Gamora/Nebula sisterhood to surprising effect. Yes, it does boil down to a dastardly plot eventually, but it avoids magicla MacGuffins like infinity stones or whatever and ties its developments into actual, believable character interactions.

But more than anything else, Vol. 2 is stock full of a few deliriously fun setpieces. The final battle goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should have, but the opening scene beautifully sets up a major battle only to have it occur out of focus in the background, while a fight involving Yondu, Rocket, and a horde of space pirates can only be described as a beautiful composed spree of violence. Throughout these sequences, Vol. 2 is willing to be completely cartoony, which weirdly makes it a standout among superhero movies. It takes risks, and is sure to dismissed as dumb by some, but it entertains in ways that are novel for a film of this budget and scale. It successfully transplants low-budget cult-horror visuals and ideas to the biggest budget scale there is, and is by a huge margin the best future midnight-movie in the MCU. Bring on Volume 3.

A-

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Michael Rooker
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

  • Line of the film that literally no one else laughed at: “We got a whole box of hands back there.”
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The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Let’s look at the poster for Free Fire, shall we?

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First off, the tagline “All Guns, No Control” feels like it was tossed off in the first marketing meeting for Bowling for Columbine, only to dusted off in a moment of ah-fuck-it by whoever picked up the rights to this one. Secondly, the poster looks like something released direct-to-VHS two years after Reservoir Dogs, getting a quickie re-release after Brie Larson’s (well-deserved) Oscar win. After Tarantino made it looks easy to make an engrossing crime flick in almost a single location, a flood of imitators came out, and Free Fire is a twenty-year late entry into the genre of lazy Tarantino ripoffs. Unlike more forgivable entries in this storied genre, Free Fire has a well-known team behind the camera (Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley) and a reasonably well-reputed cast. But instead of being the fun lark its Rotten Tomatoes rating would suggest, Free Fire is an example of why great writing exercises don’t always make for great movies. Or even good ones.

Aside from twenty-odd minutes of table setting, Free Fire takes place entirely within a single location, within a single firefight. A deal goes bad between a American/South African arms dealers and IRA rebels, all decked out with the appropriate ’70s attire, leading to both sides hiding behind warehouse crates and scrambling to get their hands on the briefcase of money in between them. The setup is simple, and could have been a lot of fun if the characters were fun to watch. Unfortunately, they’re shit. The characters that don’t go full ham are essentially non-entities, and the often great lead actors (the aforementioned Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer) and usually memorable character actors (Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor) never get enough individual focus to make them pop in any way nor provide even a baseline of character motivation. As for the characters who get some personality, they’re uniformly irritating, especially Sam Riley’s Irish junkie Stevo, but more especially Jack Reynor’s hotheaded asshole Harry, but MOST especially Sharlto Copley’s idiotic arms dealer Vern. The movie could devolve into a bit of slasher-esque scorekeeping, where you could keep a bit of a fun betting pool going as for who’ll make it alive, but none of the characters make enough of an impression to be worth rooting for, and Wheatley and Jump seem interested in giving the absolute worst of the lot the most screentime.

What may catch many off guard is how quickly things turn to shit once they turn to shit in Free Fire. Pretty quickly, every character has at least one wound on them, resulting in a whole lot of immobility and people crawling at each other. Free Fire could have said something about the futility of violence here, or at least injected some colorful dialogue to make it a bit of fun to watch, but instead it tells the same joke over and over: ohh Stevo/Harry/who cares got shot again, looks like it hurt eh? Even at only 85 minutes long, that joke gets old.

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D

Free Fire (2017)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley
Rotten Tomatoes (79%)

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Catching up on Get Out a little later than most, I knew to have my expectations high, but I didn’t know precisely how high. Based on the trailers and director Jordan Peele’s sketch comedy pedigree, I expected a subversive and satirical take on suburban racism, kind of like if Cabin in the Woods was more interested in the world around it than horror tropes (the presence of Bradley Whitford certainly didn’t hurt that expectation). Suffice to say, Get Out is not the film I prejudged it to be. It’s insights into white-collar racism are sharp, but I expected that. It has its moments of deadpan hilarity, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect is how terrifying and tense the film is, and how visually distinctive and original Peele’s production is. This is not only a movie that deftly highlights a rift in the modern discussion about race, but it is also 2017’s answer to It Follows and The Witch as an original vision in horror, and an announcement of Jordan Peele as a filmmaker well worth following.

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Let’s start by looking at the frame above, which despite its presence in the trailers caught me completely off guard during the film. The push-in is uncomfortably close, actress Betty Gabriel’s face uncomfortably strained, all of which would be textbook unnerving scene-setting. But then there’s that damned bedpost on the left side of the image, which is ever-so-slightly tilted, temporarily destroying our frame of reference, and dark, making the push-in feel even more closed off. There’s nothing objectively scary in the image, no jump scare introduces it, but it’s among the most effective in the film. As the film slowly details its situation, the type of horror it plays with naturally shifts, and Peele constantly finds interesting ways of expressing it. His sense of humor certainly comes in handy to break the tension (a VHS recording late in the film manages to end on a note that’s equally unsettling and hilarious), but don’t be fooled by Peele’s sketch-comedy resume: Get Out is self-aware but not self-satirical.

Of course, Get Out is being discussed mostly for its social commentary, which makes nuanced points that beg further dissections (sample titles for the inevitable undergraduate papers on Get Out: Deer, Colonist Avatar or Symbol of Bondage?, and Appropriation Reappraised: The Folly of Colorblindness). Peele avoids making its upper-class white villains unbelievable Stepford-esque twats or hood-wearing cartoons; at the start, they feel very much like well-meaning but out-of-touch suburbanites (Bradley Whitford’s Dean Armitage would have voted for Obama a third time, after all). Get Out doesn’t engage with the alt-right; such a target is too easy. Instead, it questions the post-racial line of thinking, exposing the often unintentional and non-malicious white supremacy that is pervasive in liberal communities. That it doesn’t fall into hamfisted preaching, nor feel the need to pat its white audience members on the back, is great. That it seamlessly marries its commentary to visceral terror is masterful.

Film Title: Get Out

A

Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener
Rotten Tomatoes (99%)

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

I’ve never been one for manga and anime personally. Not out of spite for the medium, or nativism, or unearned self-superiority about “cartoons”; there’s just too much damn fiction out there to ingest, and Eastern animation never managed to rise to the top of my to-do list. Which is to say that, while I’m aware of its influence on The Matrix and its ilk, I’ve not particularly familiar with the Ghost in the Shell source material. But even if I was completely ignorant of the source material, Ghost in the Shell betrays its manga origins in the same way Zack Snyder’s Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk betray their comic-book source. Ghost in the Shell tirelessly recreates scenes that feel like splash pages of a graphic novel, which works in small doses but feels engineered to be distant, kind of like an entire movie with the style of the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski. Rather than find a way to bring the story and characters to a style more suited to film, director Rupert Sanders has tried very hard to jam something that looks like a manga sensibility into every frame, exposing the weakness of film for these sorts of tricks (things that look slightly fake and dumb suddenly look *really* fake and dumb). The wanton attempts to create memorable visuals are rendered nearly completely moot by forgetting to first build an environment that we can imagine ourselves in, by forgetting to give us a reason to care in the first place.

The plot of Ghost in the Shell isn’t complex, and can in some ways be summarized as Shitty Blade Runner. After an accident, robotics developer Hanka has Mira Killian’s brain transplanted into an android shell, successfully fusing the human soul (“ghost”) with android strength and providing her with a decidedly fake-looking body suit. Because there is a need for action sequences, Mira is of course renamed Major and used as a supercop. In case this didn’t make it obvious that Hanka aren’t the good guys here, bad-guy CEO Cutter is introduced saying, out loud, in a line of scripted dialogue, “I don’t care about her, I want to use her as a weapon,” as if we couldn’t understand that through the next scene where she shoots about twelve goons after crashing through a window. Firstly, Cutter is the absolute worst, a completely forgettable, mustache-twirlingly evil villain played by an actor who is trying to chew scenery but completely unable to exert any kind of presence. Secondly, the entire first half of the movie is full of lines like this. One of the advantages of basing a movie off of an influential piece of work is that, even if the audience is unfamiliar with the specific material, you can trust them to be able to follow the general flow. Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its audience to be able to understand a single thing, and despite its emphasis on crafting capital-b Big visuals, very little confidence in using those visuals to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

There’s precisely one moment where the movie threatens to legitimately become something a bit more than a Hollywood actioner, where Major peels off fashionable artifice from a human plucked off the street to intimately examine the difference. It’s a short scene, cut off and never really revisited, but feels yanked in from a better movie (really, it feels like something out of Under the Skin, a much better Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film about what it means to be human). On the other side, at one point near the end, the great Takeshi Kitano’s Section 9 Chief character finally gets something to do and the movie threatens to become pulpy and fun, a kind of neo-Tokyo A-Team. But its attention span isn’t long enough to even pull this off, instead ending quickly in an cold showdown with a stylistically neutered final boss. The action sequences overall seem maybe better suited to a video game, interesting in concept and nicely loud but completely unengaging to observe. While I’m willing to live with a Hollywood sci-fi that doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential, but Ghost in the Shell does so in such a horribly uninteresting manner. It’s hard to get mad about something so completely dull.

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D+

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, and Juliette Binoche
Rotten Tomatoes

Stray Observations

  • While I can’t say for sure, I’m willing to bet the movie does a decent job of capturing the city design from the source material, only because it looks more like something people in the early 90s thought the future might look like rather than anything resembling a modern interpretation. The blocky holograms all feel supremely tacky, and worse than that, often feel decidedly less futuristic than what the world looks like right now. Sure, the billboards in NYC might not be 3D flying things, but at least they don’t look as poorly rendered as Brain Age guy.
  • I don’t want to get in the weeds about the casting controversy, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled about that. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about adapting foreign fiction to Hollywood (e.g. The Departed, which transplanted the basic plot of Infernal Affairs but made its new Boston setting an important part of its style), but Ghost in the Shell tries to have its cake and eat it too, retaining strong Japanese elements while casting all of its lead characters (Takeshi Kitano aside) as white folks, and putting it in the hands of a white Hollywood director whose only previous credit is Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s probably an interesting American adaptation out there, exploring the separation of ghosts and shells in terms of how our body, be it our race or gender or whatever, determines our self, but this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this version strongly co-opts its Japanese stylistic origin, which does make the whitewashed casting fairly icky.
  • That being said about the casting, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really work here (her understated style conflicts with the movie’s need to vocalize everything), but just in case that sounds like I’m dismissing Johansson getting these kinds of roles, I cannot recommended Under the Skin enough, where Johansson plays an alien who slowly grows empathy and curiosity about the men she abducts and her own human form, and I have an unabashed love for Luc Besson’s Lucy, that dumb movie where Johansson can utilize 100% of her brain and uses it to kick all kinds of ass. She can clearly fit both sides of the bill to play Major; the production here just does her no favours.
Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy