Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017): Trying Too Hard (Review)

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-2-Main-CastDirected and written by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (which uses a whole slew of characters created by other folks from Marvel) is entertaining but it does seem to be trying a tad too hard to keep up with the first volume in the franchise.  The music from the mix tape is not as catchy as the first film’s and Baby Groot is used far too much when things get slow.

(In the instance of Groot, the character feels like a Marvel version of Lassie, or the kangaroo with a heart from Down Under, Skippy. “I am Groot” is now understood as a language all its own. Sort of like Skippy making kissing noises or Lassie barking. “What’s that Skippy/Lassie? Old Mrs. Wilson has fallen down the well?” Or…in the parlance of this setting, a myriad of meanings is derived from the twig’s single utterances.)

The film does entertain. It was always, however, going to have a hard time living up to the first GotG. In 2014 when the movie about lesser known Marvel  characters opened, one left the cinema in a state of joyous euphoria. In 2017, the film is slower, although somewhat grandiose in plot – Kurt Russell does play a seed implanting planet, after all – but it loses something betwixt the first film’s fun open.

Chris Pratt’s character is less precocious and Zoe Zaldana’s Gamora is less everything. Dave Bautista’s Drax is funnier but less literal and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket comes across much calmer than before. Michael Rooker stays pretty much the same as the blue skinned Yondu and Kurt Russell, as the omnipotent daddy figure has apparently had a lift and a tuck after working on Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight.

The plot, in volume two of Guardians of the Galaxy allows a family reunion between Peter Quill and his daddy; Ego. Rocket annoys the heck out of the Creel (a group of genetically engineered gold skinned people) by stealing some their batteries. This places a death sentence on all the guardians and they must flee/fight their former clients while  dealing with Ego.

While the film does appear to be trying too hard to please, it does still entertain. There were a number of laughs, a few teary moments and a clever bit of plot interweaving going on. Karen Gillan reprises her role as Nebula to fine effect and Elizabeth Debicki is splendid as Ayesha, the leader of the Creel.

Stan Lee appears on a rock talking to some Watchers, Sylvester Stallone has a cameo as does Michelle Yeo and Ving Rhames.  At the start of the film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 utilizes some “Tron-like” CG to rejuvenate Russell into a younger version of himself. This would have been more impressive had Russell not had his wrinkles ironed out to play the immortal Ego.

Essentially, Volume Two of the franchise is a bit of a rehash of the first film.  There is an overwhelming enemy hoard to deal with and a big bad that almost kills everyone. In terms of trying too hard, there are a slew of cameos in this second film.

The first movie had John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, along with Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro to fill out the cameos. (Nathan Fillion voiced a character in the prison scenes and this go around Miley Cyrus was the celebrity VO artist.)

Perhaps the only real “sin” committed here was that in terms of originality and freshness, Volume Two was always going to have an uphill struggle after the magical open of “Volume One.” Peter Quill is less funny this time around and Drax laughs far too much.

Still…the film is great fun and while it drags just enough to notice things like how big and beautiful Zaldana’s hands are, compared to Pratt’s, and observing how intricate Gillan’s Nebula make up is, Gunn’s effort is still worthy of the big screen Marvel-verse.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a cracking ride, despite its overall tone of trying too hard the film earns a full 4.5 stars. It is still playing in a cinema near you and even with a few loud people in the audience, it is well worth the price of a ticket and the two hours and 16 minute length is acceptable.

(Note: Stick around for the end credits to completely play out. There are a number of teasers at the end.)

A Fighting Season (2017): Surviving With Clayne Crawford (Review)

A008_C005_1204U7Written and directed by Oden Few Roberts  A Fighting Season stars Clayne Crawford (Lethal Weapon, Rectify) and Lew Temple (The Walking Dead, Wicked City) as Army recruiters post 9/11. The film is a harsh indictment on the system of an all volunteer military and surviving an unending war on terrorism and truth.

Roberts’ take on the system of recruitment after the hysteria of the 9/11 attacks, which saw all time high numbers of volunteers for all branches of the service, is one that is tinged with cynicism and includes a world weary warrior. Sgt. Mason (Crawford) is classified as a war hero. Wounded in action, the soldier has injuries that are much deeper than anyone knows. He is struggling to survive life outside the war zone.

The man tagged to work in a local recruiting office by Sgt. First Class Harris is suffering, apparently, from PTSD,  flashbacks of murdering an enemy in the field and some personal image problems. He dislikes the term hero and Harris, a strutting bible quoting wannabe, desperately tries to keep his numbers up while bullying everyone within his reach.

A Fighting Season looks harshly at the whole system of Army recruitment and paints a pretty unflattering picture of the men who prey on America’s youth to fill their numbers.  The pencil pushers in the office all participate in drunken pistol practice and respond to Harris’ bullying tactics and delusions of grandeur.

Crawford’s character, although flawed, is the most honorable man in this mix of soldiers whose only casualties are the naïve youth they target. While the rest focus on fear of the enemy and ignorance, Mason takes a different road. He is ultimately put in charge but the promotion is an empty one and his victory is, in the end, hollow.

A Fighting Season is less about the youngsters that the Army woo in an effort to fill boots on the ground and more about the people actually in military service who have served their country. Harris is a desk jockey who dreams of leaving “no man behind” while Mason has scars from his actual combat experience.

Harris is a straw soldier who has no real substance, a perfect example of the modern volunteer career military member. At one point in the movie, he bemoans the possible loss of his pension, medical benefits and GI Bill. Mason, who has taken and lost blood for his country never mentions any of these “vital” components of the “new” Army.

Roberts’ message shows that whatever the reason the Army promotes bonding as a family, not too dissimilar to the gang culture of picking one’s brothers and sisters. The Army also utilizes whatever technique works, whether it be bullying, sexual intimidation or lying to achieve their  recruitment numbers.

There are things in the film that jar. As a veteran, the sloppiness of the recruiters’ uniforms was annoying. (As was the propensity of every character in BDUs to call their sergeant “sir.” This simply does not happen, NCO’s are addressed by their rank.  “I work for a living” being the angry response from any sergeant called “sir.”)

These, and other, gaffes are forgivable however. Roberts shows, overall, how the Army struggled to fill positions after the initial furor of America’s first attack on the home front in 2001. It shows the anger, the uncertainty and the confusion faced by soldiers and the prospective entrants they court daily.

A Fighting Season is a 4 star film. It is available on VOD and is worth watching just for Crawford and Temple.  The message is clear and while it may leave the viewer with a slightly sour taste after viewing, the film does attempt to show the cynical  mechanizations behind those recruiting posters.

 

To Be Alone (2017): Cold Grief (Review)

Timothy J CoxWritten and directed by Matthew Mahler, To Be Alone charts William (played by Timothy J. Cox) as he deals with grief in a cold environment. Mahler takes the audience through a short journey with the disturbed, and recent, widower, and uses a number of settings to show just what has happened here.

William’s wife is upstairs in the bedroom, lifeless under the bedsheets, and he spends his time watching television evangelical programs when he is not constructing something in the back garden. Clearly the man is grieving but struggling to deal with the reality of the situation.

Mahler plants a number of messages in is film. To Be Alone works on a number of levels. Its imagery implies suicide, check out the line on the woman’s arm and the noose at the end of William’s rope, and the opulence of the kitchen.

His theme seems to suggest that material things cannot make us happy or give us the ability to cope. The voice over preaching of the church lady, who really does sound like Dana Carvey’s SNL creation, implies that grasping at conventional religion is not the answer.  William does take some of the “gospel” in but he alters it to fit his needs.

Timothy J. Cox makes the most of his silent portrayal of a man attempting to cope with unexpected death and the devastating time spent alone  after the event.  Watching TV and eating, almost automatically, is only part of the emotional response and Cox manages to snap out of his robotic trance in a manner that convinces.

There are many questions generated by Mahler’s coldly shot film. Why did Mary kill herself?  Did she, in fact, commit suicide?  William is clearly upset about the death, but did he orchestrate it? Is this the reason behind the “ornate” cross in the back garden?

To Be Alone is a 4 star film that looks at death, survivors and the grieving process without a lot of dialogue. The film moves forward with external inputs: the church lady, the sheriff’s phone calls, and William’s silent journey to complete his ceremony.

Repeated viewing of the film reveals more details and raises more questions. It is an interesting offering that prompts the viewer to think about the events unfolding.

 

Lincoln, Arkansas Rodeo: 43 Years in the Making

Bull RidimgIt  has been 43 years since I last attended the annual Lincoln Rodeo in the state of Arkansas. In the time period between visits, I have been overseas(for over years), married twice, fathered two children and only recently moved back to the country of my birth. The rodeo, which runs over three days, started on Thursday and as I am working on the latter two nights,  I opted to attend the first night of festivities.

Time has marched on for me since that last visit and time has moved on for the small venue as well. One particularly telling moment was the sighting of a young cowgirl, dressed in all her finery, texting on her iPhone while easily sitting and riding her mount.

It was a surrealistic moment which spoke volumes about the female of the species being able to multitask and the technology that these modern rodeo participants have access to.

(Sadly, I was not able to get a picture. Besides the sight momentarily throwing me, it was far too dark and using a flash seemed ill-advised.)

Arriving that little bit late, the first thing I did was grab a rodeo burger and a cup of rodeo coffee. A long standing tradition that dates back to my childhood. My late father always headed to get food the second we arrived at the rodeo grounds.

Another tradition involved getting new cowboy hats, boots and a rodeo shirt, all ivory poppers and with the long tails that kept the thing tucked in. While I did not sport new boots, or a brand new hat, I did have on one of my father’s old western shirts. Memories of attending the rodeo in days gone by flooded my mind as the smells of horses, cattle, burgers and freshly raked dirt caused a bit of olfactory overload.

Calf ropingAlmost the entire event was spent in the company of my “cousin-in-law” who works for the same organization that I do. Good conversation, good vantage points and an overall sense of good bonhomie from the crowd made the night an entertaining one.

Only a handful of people were competing in each event, unfortunately I missed the bareback bronc riding, but each gave their all and this was a good buildup to the Springdale rodeo later in the summer.

There were not as many people as there used to be and I seem to remember the grounds being much brighter in terms of lighting. Cowboy hats were not in overabundance, although I did wear my straw one along with my Cornwall western boots.

The rodeo has changed somewhat since my childhood. Girls were now competitively roping calves, which was the biggest difference, and the bull riders all wore protective helmets. One thing that has not changed, however, is the innate beauty of the young women riding their steeds around the rodeo arena.

Each one possesses a poise and incredible confidence that is displayed by  their expert handling of the horses they ride. Whether  moving around the grounds “backstage” or racing barrels, they are one with their mount and are pictures of grace and control. It is easy to be thrust back to one’s teen years and fall in love with these western lasses.

All had long hair that streamed down and out under their cowgirl hats as the rode hell for leather to beat the timer. While it was impressive to see, one could easily imagine that each one had extensions rather than naturally long tresses. It did not detract from the sight, but, like the iPhone texting rider, it seemed like it could be another sign of the times.

(It is also lovely to see the connection these young ladies have with their animals and family. One young rider was cutting tight circles around her father, on her horse,  just before heading out into the arena to do her bit in the barrel race. The amount of trust between the two was incredibly touching.)

Youngsters at the rodeo participated in a calf catching exercise (although they grabbed a flag off the creatures tail rather than actually wrestle with the animal) and it was a cute display that warmed the heart. There was also a goat roping event outside the arena…

The rodeo kidsAll through the night the announcer kept the crowd informed about a line of thunderstorms headed the way of the event (which contained several tornadoes) and after things wound down the storms did finally arrive.

It may have taken me 43 years to attend a function that was a memorable part of my childhood and things might have been that little bit lowkey, but, it was an enjoyable night and one I would not have missed for the world.

The Lincoln Rodeo runs for two more nights and is an inexpensive way to spend an evening. The weather is meant to be a bit blustery but that only adds to the atmosphere.  Stop by and check it out if you can.

 

Don’t Breathe (2016): Scary Disinterest (Review)

Stephen Lang

Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez (Rodo Sayagues was the co-author on the project) Don’t Breathe is an exercise in scary disinterest. No one character is appealing or sympathetic enough for the audience to ever really care about the outcome of this odd home invasion film.

At its core, this is what the marginally scary film is all about. A wounded veteran, played by Stephen Lang, who has been blinded in Iraq and been driven mad by the death of his only child, is targeted by three vapid and unlikeable young people. The trio decide to rob the old man of his settlement money after knocking him out with chloroform.

The vet is apparently immune to the homemade gas bomb and his dog is as well. The first of the three goes down (Daniel Zovatto as “Money” dies in a particularly graphic and impressive way – shot in the face; his lips blow out in what looks like a very realistic display of the gun’s power.)

This leaves Rocky (Jane Levy) and “Good Guy” Alex  (Dylan Minnette) to battle things out with the blind vet. There is no doubt that Lang’s character will end up on top. (The very casting of Lang ensures that the “victim” of this piece will win.)

By the end of the film, Lang’s blind man has almost impregnated Rocky, with a turkey baster, and nearly killed the young home-breaker as well. As scary as some of this film was, it lacked much in the plot department and did not feature one character that the audience could really care about.

The best parts of the film are those that feature Lang’s cold blooded but decent; “I a not a rapist,” he says while filling the baster, homicidal maniac who pulls out all the stops to defend his home and his self impregnated kidnap victim.

Don’t Breathe leaves things wide open for a sequel, where presumably the blind man hunts down the trailer trash survivor who robbed him of his replacement child and money.  He will have to travel to Los Angeles and may be a more grim version of that old blind warrior Zatoichi (which was re-imagined with Rutger Hauer in the 1989 action flick “Blind Fury.”) who uses guns instead of a sword walking stick.

The sequel may be more affected but will still suffer from having shallow and unlikeable characters. Without any one to really cheer for, apart from Lang’s vet who dishes out some well deserved retribution to those who would rob from a “helpless” veteran, this scary film’s second chapter will no doubt disappoint as well.

Lang kills it as the dangerous “cripple” who almost silent dispatches his home invaders. The rest of the young cast are adequate considering the lack of depth given their characters. Minnette, who was quite good in “Goosebumps” does not really shine here as his character is the least offensive of the three protagonists and is not really the good guy at all.

Fans of horror films may like this offering.  It is a 3.5 star effort that has some jumpy moments, no nudity, a lot of violence and a close call with a turkey baster.

Don’t Breathe is on Cinemax at the moment for steaming and can be rented via other platforms.