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Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

GuardiansOfTheGalaxyVol2-300A buoyantly silly sci-fi romp, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is completely enjoyable, if more than a bit familiar. That’s by design, of course.

By the time James Gunn rewrote Nicole Perlman’s script and then directed Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released in August 2014, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was feeling hit-and-miss, quality-wise. (See Iron Man and its sequel, or Thor and its sequel.) Adding to the malaise, just a few months earlier Edgar Wright had departed Ant-Man after years of development due to “creative differences.”

Around that same time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier started to set the ship aright, as far as introducing new, if still straightforward, textures to the Marvel series, and then the first Guardians of the Galaxy represented the first full-bore science-fiction entry.

The film introduced a ragged team of misfits who were less familiar to the general public. Even though it was still an origin story, it felt fresh, in part because it wasn’t tied specifically to any other Marvel films, and in part because it wasn’t focused on an apocalyptic threat to planet Earth. Instead, the action was set against a rich variety of colorful, invented backgrounds, following, in effect, a gang of thieves who slowly bonded. And Gunn told his tale in a sprightly fashion.

As the 15th installment of Marvel’s series — and the seventh sequel — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 inevitably follows well-worn patterns. Gunn’s sense of humor, though, notably his tendency to ridicule anything that appears grand or showy or pretentious, once again serves the characters well and also tends to undermine self-serious grandiosity.

By the story he chooses to tell, Gunn falls more in line with the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell). He also must sort through his feelings about Yondu (Michael Rooker), the belligerent pirate who raised him and who has now been hired to capture him.

That allows family relationships among the guardians to take top priority: Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his now infantile “brother” Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); even Drax (Dave Bautista), who talks of his lost wife and child to the sisterly Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who, in turn, cares for Ego like a daughter.

In between the family talk and character reveals, Gunn also weaves in a tale of revenge and retribution pursued by the arrogant Sovereign race, led by the haughty Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), who hired Yondu to capture Peter Quill and the guardians.

It’s all perfectly harmless, as one expects nowadays from a Marvel comic book movie. The foes are vanquished, the heroes are validated, and the importance of family above all else as the key to happiness is driven home. Funny that the film, which dares to feature a god, never touches on issues of worship or divinity or religion or anything that might be genuinely troublesome.

Then again, that’s not its intention. Essentially, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an animated film, well-integrated with live-action players, that is targeted at the young adult audience. Its sole purpose is to entertain, not to disturb or question the order of things; it’s a goal that it meets quite well.

The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, May 5.

Review: ‘Jurassic World,’ Not Quite Garbage, But It Smells Like It

'Jurassic World'
‘Jurassic World’
A very expensive piece of junk, Jurassic World features a surfeit of dinosaurs rendered with incredible, photo-realistic detail, whether they’re running, chomping on people, or chomping on each other. Yet it’s likely reassuring for the technophobe that they still look incredibly artificial when placed on screen with human beings; the most advanced technology in the film world still can’t make us believe that dinosaurs can be brought back to life.

Perhaps that’s for the best. As long as the dinosaurs are stomping around the picturesque scenery of an island in Costa Rica that’s been transformed into a giant theme park, Jurassic World may convince younger viewers that it’s presenting something new and/or different. The film’s resolute insistence on not only rebooting the basics of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park but also trading heavily on nostalgia for its appeal grows tiresome, however, especially because the characters are so thinly drawn and soaked in such a wistful, juvenile fantasy for how men and women should behave.

The film imagines that Isla Nubar, first visited in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster (itself based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel), has overcome its past, er, “troubled” history and become an incredibly successful attraction, drawing thousands of visitors daily. Apparently this is largely due to the largess of billionaire Masrani (Irrfan Khan), described as the seventh wealthiest individual in the world, who accepted the torch from benevolent founder/funder John Hammond before he died. Masrani mouths platitudes about doing good for mankind, but is too busy with his other business interests to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

In that, Masrani is not alone. Indeed, for a park as successful as Jurassic World, it’s rather amazing how few people that work there actually know anything about dinosaurs. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who runs things, appears to have walked on from a 1930s screwball comedy. Masrani has blithely authorized the creation of a new breed of dinosaur that is more fearsome, lethal, and intelligent than any animal on Earth, and Claire’s main job appears to be … what? It’s never made clear, except that she barks orders as though she’s in charge, except for when she acts like a damsel in distress around Owen (Chris Pratt), the hunky “man’s man” who has somehow trained a pack of velociraptors to respond to his commands.

Owen, too, appears to have walked on from a past historic era. His skills as a “dinosaur whisperer” are meshed together with his status as the Only Park Employee Who Can Handle Himself When Things Go Wrong. Again, given the park’s past history with “dinos gone wild,” it’s as though all the employees were hired because they know nothing about that history, yet were willing to move to Costa Rica to work there. (As an aside, despite the location, none of the employees appear to be locals. Perhaps the locals were too smart to work someplace where they might be eaten?)

The setup is that Claire’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) have arrived for a long overdue visit. Zack acts too cool for school and checks out all the young chicks, while Gray alternates between childish bliss and juvenile despair about their mother (Judy Geer) and father. (The true purpose of the trip is to get the boys out of town while their parents work out a divorce settlement.) Claire is too busy to spend time with them when they arrive, so she sends them out with her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath).

Claire is busy because she is dealing with three overbearing men: Masrani, her boss; Owen, a dinosaur trainer she dated once; and security chief Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio). Business at the park is down, which explains the creation of a new dinosaur, which has been kept secret. The dinosaur is smarter than it looks, of course, and soon escapes from its compound and threatens every living thing on the island.

Like the leads, the supporting cast, which includes casually evil scientist Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong), Owen’s loyal assistant Barry (Omar Sy), and two command center button-pushers who function as comic relief (Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus), is certainly competent, even though the material often fails them.

Plot machinations and stick-figure characters aside, Jurassic World exists to showcase dinosaurs running free in the modern world, and it certainly delivers on that promise. If Jurassic Park and its two sequels have faded from memory, the creatures will be a welcome delight to behold. Spielberg’s film was built on two strong pillars: the novelty of CGI dinosaurs, which was magnificent at the time, and Spielberg’s superior ability to stage and film extended exciting action sequences.

Colin Trevorrow, who made the refreshing indie Safety Not Guaranteed, directed and also co-wrote the screenplay. He does a competent job with his action scenes, but he’s hampered by the predominance of CGI in all of those sequences. And, of course, CGI is now commonplace, so that particular thrill is gone. Veteran editor Kevin Stitt stitches together a plentitude of quick-cut sequences, and Michael Giacchino’s musical score certainly helps to keep the excitement level as high as possible but the threat level to key characters has been tamped down; it’s easy enough to guess who will survive to the inevitable sequel(s) and who is expendable.

The score samples extensively from John Wiliams’ score for Jurassic Park, especially in the early going, and why not? Like numerous other nods to the original, Jurassic World is conscious that it’s following in the giant footsteps of a beloved modern classic, and so it reboots with great respect and careful obeisance to what came before, without ever establishing its own identity.

Unfortunately, that means Jurassic World tastes like leftovers that are no longer fresh. It’s not quite garbage, but it smells like it.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, June 12.

Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ More of the Same From the Marvel Dream Factory

'Guardians of the Galaxy' (Marvel)
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (Marvel)
Bright and personable as it is, Guardians of the Galaxy can’t help but feel like another product issued from the Marvel Studios assembly line.

Sure, the characters are not the same — they even have different names! — and only one of the team members is a confirmed member of the Earth-based human race. But for all the green skin and tattooes and animal skin involved, the characters are mix-and-match assemblages of the familiar Marvel personalities. They are defiantly, resolutely likable, darn it, and resolutely unselfish, kind-hearted, and good-humored.

They are the kind of heroes that kids imagine they’ll grow up to be some day. That is, if the kids confine their reading material to Marvel comic books, television shows, and movies.

The 10th installment of the ongoing Marvel Studios saga, Guardians of the Galaxy distinguishes itself in its setting, which, after an emotionally-affecting prologue, takes place entirely in a science-fiction universe. Humans make up only a small percentage of the population, which is pleasant to see, although, for all the different-colored skin and rampant body modifications, English — middle American dialect, please! — remains the predominant language.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, friendly and charming) is a bounty hunter who runs afoul of aliens while pursuing his latest treasure. The treasure is highly sought by fellow adventurers Gamora (Zoe Saldana, painted green) and the team of the feisty Rocket Raccoon (given a brisk, brusque old-school New York gangster accent by Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, evidently for reasons that have more to do with promoting the movie than anything else). The foursome are sent to jail, where they soon befriend the vengeance-minded Drax (Dave Bautista, who sounds like a professional wrestler).

The film functions as an orgin story for the team, with primary emphasis on Peter Quill. They do things that we expect from modern superheroes –fight in quick-cut action scenes, exchange peppy banter, scowl aplenty, stick up reluctantly for one another — but little that we don’t expect from modern superheroes. It’s amusing enough as far as it goes, yet there’s nothing in the movie that’s authentically daring or different; instead, it’s more of the same from the Marvel dream factory.

Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, delivers an experience that is familiar, despite the very different settings. The harsher edges that were present in his previous directorial efforts (2006’s Slither and 2010’s Super) have been sanded down to meet the PG-13 rating requirement of Marvel films. Actors who have been distinctive in other roles sacrifice their individuality so as to bring to life one-dimensional comic book characters. Chief example: Karen Gillan as the “evil” Nebula, who is permitted but one expression and one tone of voice.

Guardians of the Galaxy is fine, if anonymous big-screen entertainment from a company that appears intent on a course that is slowly flattening. As long as the money keeps flowing, expect more of the same in the future from Marvel Studios.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, August 1.