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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Five Easter eggs you may have missed in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Hilarious image stolen from hilarious interwebs

Heads up. This is spoiler country.

I'm about to tell you about some of the specific nerdy foiled-wrapped chocolate nuggs James Gunn and his Marvel overlords left behind for you to find in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

So if you stumbled in here by accident, you can still leave now without doing yourself any spoiler-related injuries. I'm just padding out this top bit of the article in case you did stumble in here by accident. It happens all the time on the internet.

If you were looking for an actual review, here's one I prepared earlier. It's spoiler-free in the sense that it doesn't give away anything that wasn't already shown in a trailer. Like, did you know the movie stars a talking tree named Groot?

He's adorable, by the way.

Ok, still padding. In all seriousness, and talking in a totally unreviewy way here, I will say that Vol. 2 didn't hit me like Vol. 1. After seeing Vol. 1, I felt like I was five again and had just seen Star Wars for the first time. That's how fresh and exciting and thrilling it felt. Gunn had opened up a window to a whole new cosmos and I loved every minute of it (flaws aside). 

Vol. 2 was never going to stack up against that, but trying to put aside my juvenile sense of awe from Vol. 1, Vol. 2 is definitely a weaker film, but still a wonderfully enjoyable and fun film (flaws aside). It suffers by comparison, but is also structurally inferior and has more pacing and plotting issues than its predecessor. But it's still awesome. Go see it.

Anyway, have I padded enough? Are you ready?

But first, forgive me if I mess some of these up - I've only seen Vol. 2 once and am going from memory.

Stan Lee & The Watchers

Image from Cracked.com

Stan Lee's regular cameos have sparked one of my favourite net-nerd theories - that Lee is actually Uatu the Watcher. For those that don't know, Uatu is a supposedly passive and immortal cosmic figure in the Marvel universe who records what happens in his neck of the galaxy, which is Earth. Naturally, he can't help but meddle, making him the ultimate deus ex machina in several comics. Given Lee's frequent appearances in plenty of significant Marvel happenings, it's a neat idea that in his cameos he's actually playing Uatu (or at the very least one of the Watchers - Uatu is just the best known of the bunch). Gunn nods at this theory with Lee's cameo, in which a spacesuited Lee is shown telling stories to a group of Watchers while Rocket, Yondu and Kraglin hyperjump their way across the galaxy. Net-nerd theory confirmed (kinda).

Adam Warlock

The Collector's digs in Vol. 1 had Marvel fans pausing every frame of the Blu-Ray release, hunting for Easter eggs. One of the main ones was this horrible thing, which looks like something Jabba The Hutt dropped off in the porcelain bus after a big night on the suds.

Gunn apparently confirmed in a podcast that this was in fact Adam Warlock's cocoon only to later take it back, probably when he realised he could do bigger, more amazing things with the character than just have his cocoon somehow end up in The Collector's possession. Warlock was reportedly a major player in Vol. 2 but was cut out so he could be used in Vol. 3. So that shinier, prettier cocoon Ayesha is talking about (mid-credits) containing someone who just happens to be named Adam ... well, it's definitely Adam Warlock.

And who is Adam Warlock? At various times in the comics, he has worked with The Avengers, had the Soul Gem (AKA one of the Infinity Stones) stuck to his forehead a la Vision in the MCU, died (repeatedly), been the champion of Counter-Earth, fought Thor, served as a Christ metaphor, become an evil preacher named Magus, and been a Guardian Of The Galaxy. At the cosmic end of Marvel, he's kind of a big deal so expect the usual pointless bitching when his role is cast.

The original Guardians

At the very end of the film, Sylvester Stallone turns up again to remind you that yes, he was in the film earlier for no apparent reason. Turns out he's only in there to tease another cosmic team. In the context of the film (Stallone says "let's go steal some shit" or some variation of, I can't remember exactly), it sounds like his team is an alternate Guardians-style gang, possibly doing more bad than good. What's really interesting though is that the make-up of his team is pretty much the original '60s-era Guardians Of The Galaxy line-up. 

Stallone's character's name is Stakar Ogord, who in the comics is Starhawk, an original Guardian. Also appearing at the end is Aleta (Michelle Yeoh), Charlie-27 (Ving Rhames) and someone who I presume to be Martinex (the diamond-looking fella hanging with Stakar earlier in the film as well). I can't remember who the other ones are (they're only together in one shot at the end pretty much) but there's a red fishy looking guy who I have no idea about. It's worth noting Yondu was an original Guardian in the comics. Other possible early Guardians we could see are the fiery Nikki and Vance Astro. I can't be bothered hyperlinking all those names. Just browse the Marvel Wikia at your leisure.

Howard The Duck

You won't have missed this one unless you blinked for an abnormally long time. Like three seconds. That's more like a micro-nap than a blink really. Anyway, Howard The Duck is back, chatting up a woman in a quick cameo, proving that Gunn is going to milk that joke (ie. that Howard The Duck is a joke character) at least once in every Guardians film. Expect him to turn up in Vol. 3 for a one-liner. Personally, I think it's great. Howard The Duck's comics, especially in the early Steve Gerber days, are cool, and short silly cameos suit the character down to the ground.

The Grandmaster's cameo

During the credits, on either side of the scrolling text (and frequent "I am Groot"s) you can see '80-style bubbles featuring the cast doing dorky dance movies. Among them is Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster (as well as Cosmo the telepathic space dog, who cameoed in Vol. 1), who is appearing in Thor: Ragnarok. This means one or some of several possible things:

1) Taika Waititi gave Gunn footage of Goldblum dancing in costume for no reason and Gunn decided to use it.
2) The Grandmaster had a cameo in Vol. 2 that got cut.
3) The Guardians have cameos in Thor: Ragnarok.
4) It's in the credits of Vol. 2 for no reason other than to make Marvel nerds like me flip out.

I'm sure there are other Easter eggs, but these are the ones I spotted. Did you see some more? Apparently Miley Cyrus voices Mainframe, but I don't know what that sentence even means. Comment below and tell me what foil-covered chocolate nuggs you noticed in Vol. 2.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

(M) ★★★½

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sylvester Stallone.

Baby Groot loved his homemade Atari.

MARVEL has done amazing things with its Cinematic Universe (AKA the MCU) but there have been two things that have repeatedly tripped it up.

The first thing has been sequels. The two weakest films across the 15 (!) entries in the franchise have been Iron Man 2 and the second Thor film (The Dark World). It's as if after striking gold once with a character, a giddy nervousness sets in and nobody's quite sure how they did it the first time (the exception to this, of course, is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which came after Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, so maybe Marvel is learning from its mistakes).

The second thing has been villains. Outside of Loki and Ultron (and I would also argue Red Skull, though many disagree), the villains of the MCU have rarely matched up to their heroic counterparts, tending to fall into the forgettable category.

These two issues rear their ugly heads again in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, though not as prominently as in Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World. It must be stated that GOTG2 (as it shall be henceforth referred to) is fun, hilarious and utterly enjoyable, and it's only when stacked up against its predecessor (which also had a somewhat generic and unmemorable villain too, to be fair) that GOTG2 suffers. The first one was more fun, more hilarious and more enjoyable, and while this one is still great, it's just not as great. The symptoms of sequelitis can be seen, but thankfully it's only a mild case.

In the wake of their successes in the first film, the so-called Guardians - cocky rogue Starlord (Pratt), super-serious warrior Gamora (Saldana), socially inept man mountain Drax (Bautista), trigger-happy space raccoon Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the slowly regenerating sapient plant Groot (voiced by Diesel) - are in hot demand as heroes for hire.

But when a job protecting a valuable asset belonging to Ayesha (Debicki) and her people goes slightly awry, the Guardians find themselves being hunted once again. Intervening is Ego (Russell), a mysterious figure who claims to be Starlord's long lost dad, which raises all manner of questions.

Much like every Fast & Furious movie, the key theme here is family. Starlord has daddy issues and the presence of Ego brings them all bubbling back to the surface, as does the return of Yondu (Rooker), Starlord's surrogate dad for many years. Then there's the sisterly hatred between Gamora and Nebula (Gillan), which rumbles along as a nicely violent subplot throughout the film.

The script, written by director James Gunn, does a good job of finding things for everyone else to do while Starlord grapples with understanding his lineage, and Gamora and Nebula beat seven kinds of crap out of each other. Drax is paired with the even-more-awkward newcomer Mantis (Klementieff), and Rocket and Yondu are forced to team up. The throughline of it all is everyone is messed up and everyone has their issues. But being part of the Guardians makes it palatable and survivable. It's a nice message, and means the film plays the "family" card in a far more dysfunctional, interesting and enjoyable way than the Fast & Furious movies.

However dividing the team makes the film less direct and more scattershot. It robs us somewhat of the group's wonderful chemistry as the characters wander off to do their own thing while Ego and Starlord sort out their stuff, but it does give everyone their little moments to shine. The story also avoids the catch-the-MacGuffin plot of the previous film too.

In some ways, this is darker than the GOTG1, which is the inevitable thing for a second film to do, but thankfully it is still funny. Some extended Baby Groot sequences are a hoot, including a clever long-take opening where he dances his way obliviously through a fire fight, or when he is given the task of retrieving an item for Rocket and Yondu, which becomes a prolonged series of gags.

Ego is an interesting character (and well played by Russell), but the whole "I am your father" bit, as vital as it is to the story, does drag on a little. Again, Gunn is smart enough to pull us out of it and back to something more fun frequently, but it does weigh the film down in its second act.

Gunn's love of nostalgia, particularly classic sci-fi is again evident, and the film is funnier than most so-called comedies. Basically, if you loved the first film, you will love this one. It's only by comparison that Volume 2 becomes the cliched "difficult second album". Sure the first one will always be your favourite, but you know you'll grow to love this one almost as much.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Going In Style

(M) ★★

Director: Zach Braff.

Cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Christopher Lloyd.

The Dark Knight reunion was going well, but Christian Bale had aged poorly.

FEW crimes are romanticised like bank robbery. It's because we all hate banks, so it's the perfect "victimless" crime (if you ignore the horrible trauma and psychological damage done to the staff by these robberies).

This film, however, is not a victimless crime. The victims are the cast, who do their best but are weighed down by bad direction and a bloated script, which makes director Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi the villains.

It's not that Going In Style - a remake of an old 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg - is a terrible film, it's just that it's unfortunately boring and toothless. But it's worst crime of all is wasting a brilliant cast, who are valiant in defeat.

Caine, Freeman and Arkin star as Joe, Willie and Albert, three out-of-luck pensioners headed for Skid Row after a corporate takeover leaves them without a pension. Joe, who witnesses a bank robbery in the opening scene, decides he's had enough of getting screwed over by society and decides to hit back by robbing a bank, and ropes in Willie and Albert to help.

The leading trio are great and definitely elevate this film. Caine, Freeman and Arkin have an effortless chemistry and wring the most out of every line. But there should have been more drama and more comedy for them to draw from this dramedy, which is sadly lacking in both departments.

The idea of old people being shafted by society and forced into crime is a powerful one and the idea of three geriatrics robbing a bank is a goofy one, but Going In Style is neither powerful nor goofy enough. We never get a true sense of how dire or cruel or heartbreaking their situation is - we know Caine is destined to lose his house, but the worst we really see of it all is they can't afford to order pie to go with their coffees.

This lack of drama is perhaps best displayed during the pivotal robbery sequence and will-they-won't-they moment of the subsequent police investigation. Because a key part of the robbery where it all nearly goes awry lacks the necessary punch, the follow-up "hallelujah" moment falls flat. This is emblematic of pretty much the whole movie.

As for the comedic possibilities, Going In Style has a couple of good guffaws but nowhere near enough. A warm-up robbery of a supermarket is a highlight, as is Lloyd's bit role, but either side of that the laughs dry up. There's a scene where the lead trio watch The Bachelorette and it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. It's almost as if the scene is a placeholder while everyone tried to think of something actually funny.

Braff, whose previous films have been indie-style dramedies, seems out of his league on this. The key scenes fall flat with depressing regularity, there is a lack of tension and gravitas, and it's only the presence of Caine, Freeman and Arkin that make this watchable. You could watch a whole TV series of those guys just sittin' 'round, talkin' shit. Everyone would watch that. Those are the best bits in this film.

It's all the bits around that, when we're supposed to buy into how shitty their situation is and how they're pulling off a very flawed "perfect crime" to hit back at society, that the film falls short. Some blame must be leveled at Melfi's script, which features an utterly unnecessary and distracting romance involving Ann-Margret's supermarket employee Annie and Arkin's Albert. This romance should make Albert less likely to participate in the robbery, not the opposite, which is what happens in the film.

But the majority of blame must fall with Braff. There is probably a decent film in here somewhere, but he can't find it. The laughs don't flow and the necessary tension and heft are missing. Watch it for the joy of seeing Caine, Freeman and Arkin share the screen, but even then your patience will be tested.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Fate Of The Furious

(M) ★★★½

Director: F. Gary Gray.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Kristofer Hivju.

Their mums are gonna be so mad.

It's been said before but it bares repeating - no one, not nobody, not no-how, could ever have predicted that The Fast & The Furious would spawn seven sequels.

Watch The Fast & The Furious back-to-back with The Fate Of The Furious and it is a baffling experience. To think the innocuous 2001 Point Break retread based on a magazine article would result in this OTT mega-explosive hurricane of muscle-car madness is unfathomable and implausible. But here we are, roughly $4.5 billion later, talking about Fast 8.

After rebirthing with the fourth film (which is confusingly the third chronologically, and equally confusingly titled Fast & Furious), the series found a new gear with Fast Five. Still the best film of the franchise, Fast Five jettisoned much of the car fetishism and replaced it with shoot-outs, fist fights, and insane heists. The series was all the better for it.

Now we have a Fast & Furious Formula that is more like a '90s Bond film than the cops-and-hoons starting point. Bigger explosions, crazier stunts, CG aplenty, overuse of the word "family", and physics be damned - that's the Fast & Furious way since Fast Five.

As such, The Fate Of The Furious does exactly what its three predecessors have done, albeit with one new neat conceit. Dominic Toretto (Diesel), honeymooning with his wife Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, is made an offer he can't refuse by Cipher (Theron), the cyber-terrorist to end all cyber-terrorists. Forced into her servitude, Toretto is made to work against his old team, who are understandably perplexed by his apparent change of stripes.

Enter Mr Nobody (Russell), the ambiguous government spook from Fast 7, who employs Toretto's old team to bring Cipher down and save the world, and hopefully save Toretto in the process.

Turning Toretto against his team adds some spark to a potentially dying engine, helping elevate The Fate Of The Furious, even if the mechanics of the plot are somewhat holey (for example, Toretto can orchestrate an amazing secret plan to save his hide yet can't let his old team know what's going on? Give me a break).

It's facile to say "leave your logic at the door" with these films - all movies should adhere to some kind of internal logic lest they devolve into incomprehensible insanity - but the Fast series has an uncanny knack of papering over its cracks with a rollicking good time. Thankfully the cracks are fairly minor and don't detract too much but once again, the action sequences, both human-driven and car-based, are deliciously and distractingly bonkers, including the batshit-crazy finale which involves a bunch of supercars, a mini-tank, a small army, a nuclear submarine and a frozen lake.

Beyond the action set pieces, the rogue-ish cast has been the other driving factor in the series' success, and Fast 8 is no exception. With no Brian (RIP Paul Walker) and with Dominic turned to the dark side, it's actually surprising how well the central line-up holds its own. Gibson and Bridges handle the humour, Johnson is a proven force who readily slots into Diesel's usual figurehead role, while Statham (whose character is a little-too-easily flipped) returns to give Johnson someone to butt heads with. Rodriguez adds heart, Russell's interludes add spice, leaving only Emmanuel to wander aimlessly, and Eastwood to awkwardly sit on the edge, just far enough back so as not to be labelled The New Brian.

As for Theron, she's easily the nastiest and most memorable Big Bad the series has had. Cipher as a character is nothing special, but Theron makes her something special. She's a very welcome addition.

The Fate Of The Furious is still packed with all the inane dialogue and idiotic exposition you would expect, but it knows where it's going and it knows how to get there in style. There's a scene in here where it rains cars - I'm not even kidding - and you kinda wanna stand up and applaud the sheer audacity of the franchise. Scriptwriter Chris Morgan, who's written the last six films, understands what makes the series work and a string of solid directors have managed to bring that ludicrous spectacle to life, with F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) the latest.

If you hate what the Fast movies represent, this one is not going to win you over (try #5 or #7 for that). If you love the Fast movies, this one won't disappoint.

PS. Fast 9 and Fast 10 are due out in 2019 and 2021.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby

(G) ★★

Director: Tom McGrath.

Cast: (voices of) Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Conrad Vernon, James McGrath.

Timmy gives Boss Baby the old two-eyeball stare.

Here's a little test for you.

Step one: find a baby (keep it legal - I suggest borrowing one if you don't have one of your own).

Step two: dress the baby up as a business executive. You know, suit, tie, little black business shoes. The works.

Step three: sit back and laugh at how hilarious the business baby looks.

Now comes the question - how long does a baby dressed up as a business executive remain funny? Two minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes?

If this little baby experiment keeps you in chuckles for longer than 30 minutes, you'll probably be able to sit through The Boss Baby without wondering where the laughs are or why you're watching this film. If the answer to the latter question is because you're taking your kids to see it, then I'm sorry to say you'll probably find yourself experiencing few guffaws and feeling vaguely bored for 90-or-so minutes.

While it has its plusses, The Boss Baby's humour is monotone. So many of its attempts at getting a laugh depend on the incongruity of a baby being a boss, and once you get past the initial giggle of seeing an infant looking like a corporate arse-kicker (ie. the first couple of times you see the poster) the film has little else to back it up. This means it's unfunny for long stretches, which is not good in a CG family film that is meant to be funny.

This whole besuited baby image seems to have come first, with the plot being crafted around this short-lived sight gag. As such, it's about The Boss Baby (voiced by Baldwin) who turns up at the home of seven-year-old Timmy (Bakshi) and proceeds to unravel Timmy's perfect existence as the shining light of his family.

Timmy can see something's not right about the baby - he carries around a tiny briefcase for one - but his parents are besotted blind. So it's up to Timmy to get to the bottom of The Boss Baby's secret mission.

Maybe I just wanted this to be a lot funnier than it was, possibly because I swear The Boss Baby looks like my own 14-month-old son and I reckon if I dressed him up as a little businessman I'd probably laugh for at least 20 minutes. But the film's one-note gag gets old really fast, leaving in its wake an annoying tale of an only child having to learn to share his parents' affections. While it's well-intentioned and somewhat universal, it's unfortunately not terribly interesting. Or funny.

The film finally picks up momentum when Timmy and The Boss Baby are forced to work together to achieve a shared goal (even if the plotting of that goal makes no sense - they achieve the goal at the end of the second act, then for some reason go to Las Vegas for the finale ... I'm not even making that up. I mean, their own unnecessary action of going to Las Vegas partly creates the problem in the third act and spurs a rescue mission they've created, so if they'd just completed their mission as agreed and not gone to Vegas that could have both gone their separate ways, which is exactly what they both wanted. Ugh.). All of a sudden the two characters are more effective - it turns out having them playing as a team is funnier and more enjoyable to watch than their animosity. It's at this point you finally realise, hey, these characters are okay and you finally start to care about them and like their company and repartee.

But it's too little, too late. There's a crazy chase, then a bizarre trip to Vegas and then a typically ridiculous finale and we're done, with little to take away from it other than the fact Alec Baldwin does a great job voicing the baby.

The awkward plotting, so obviously built around it's baby-in-a-suit gag, struggles to hold itself together. As a result there are a couple of massive exposition sequences - one where The Boss Baby explains his existence and mission to Timmy, and another where the villain monologues - that are stuck into the script to try to make sense of things but ultimately grind the film to a halt.

The few choice gags are too few, and beyond Baldwin's performance and a surprisingly touching ending (with a clever reveal that explains the film's incongruities), there is not a lot to recommend The Boss Baby over, say, last year's baby-related comedy Storks.

Unless you find the idea of a baby dressed as a business executive continuously hilarious for an hour and a half. In that case, knock yourself out.