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"Guardians of the Galaxy" Review

Marvel Studios has been knocking them out of the park with terrifying regularity since the first Iron Man arrived in 2008, paving the way for two Captain America and two Thor movies, not to mention the pair of Iron Man sequels and The Avengers, which is only the #3 highest-grossing movie ever (or the highest-grossing not directed by James Cameron) with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to Hoover up any remaining money to pay the cryogenics storage bill for Walt Disney's head. They could clearly just keep churning out Avengers crew sequels and check the mad chedda stacks while Warner Bros./DC are still two years away from their next stumbling steps towards a hoped-for Justice League movie, but with some serious cajones they've thrown down the (Infinity) gauntlet with their boldest departure yet: Guardians of the Galaxy.

Why bold? Because hardly anyone outside of the hardcore nerd corps has even heard of them. (My Culture Vultures co-host, Otto the Autopilot, knows all about them which makes the fact that he has a wife and kid seem even more miraculous.) A cult series of books in the Marvel pantheon, the Guardians are so obscure I have to admit I'd never heard of them when it was announced, though I was very intrigued by the promise of a talking raccoon with a machine gun in the announcement art. And if the idea of a machine gun-toting talking raccoon is enough to get you into a theater - and why shouldn't it? - then you're in for a treat because while that's the best thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, it's not the only good thing.

The plot is a blur of names and places, but here's what I can sorta remember: Chris Pratt is Peter Quill (but he's trying to make the handle "Star Lord" happen), a fortune hunter who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988 for no explained reason and raised by space pirates called Ravagers led by a blue-skinned Michael Rooker who has a whistle-controlled killer arrow. (This isn't even the weird part.) After retrieving a silver orb from ruins on a planet, he finds himself being hunted by forces ranging from minions of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree who seeks the destruction of the planet Xandar for reasons and wishes to deliver the orb to Thanos (a performance-captured Josh Brolin) to have him do the deed.

Also chasing him is Zoe Saldana's Gamora (this time she's green!) who is Thanos' adopted daughter and a pair of bounty hunters chasing Quill for reasons, voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper playing, respectively, a walking tree (think the Ents from Lord of the Rings) with a three-word vocabulary (i.e. "I am Groot.") and that raccoon. When they're all captured for reasons and sent to a space prison for reasons they encounter Drax the Destroyer (MMA/WWE star Dave Bautista), a bruising hulk of a man whose family was murdered by Ronan and seeks revenge. Prison breaks and hijinks ensue.

I haven't even mentioned what's so important about this orb, or rather what's contained within, because I'm afraid I'm making it sound like you'll need to take notes for a quiz. Suffice to say that if you saw Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers and Thor: The Dark World, it ties in with the magic items from those movies, but it won't really matter until the third Avengers movie in 2017 or 2018, so don't sweat it. Instead just sit right back and take a two-hour trip to the wacky weird side of the galaxy.

What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work despite its overstuffed and barely comprehensible plot is the wit and charisma of the cast, especially the computer-generated ones. It's easy to want to compare Pratt's Quill to Han Solo, but Star Lord isn't a charming rogue as much as overgrown man-child who has but two artifacts tying him to his home on Earth. Saldana is sexy as usual playing a cybernetically-enhanced assassin with a tender heart even when chased by her adoptive sibling, Nebula (Karen Gillen), because reasons. It's too soon to say that Bautista could be the new Rock in the "surprise acting chops" department, but he is very deadpan as an irony-deficient, ultra-literal warrior confounded by Quill's jargon.

Lastish, but not least, is the work of Diesel and Cooper. People seem to have forgotten that Diesel was the voice of The Iron Giant 15 years ago, but his challenge here is conveying emotion with only the same three words. He's helped by deft CGI, but it works. However, the standout is Cooper's Rocket (not exactly a raccoon), who steals the movie with his snarky, sarcastic dialog emanating from a utterly realistic raccoonish body. Of all the characters, Rocket is the most fleshed out especially in a drunk scene where he slips about his origins. When the trailers showcasing Rocket came out, I suggested that Marvel better have plushy toys stockpiled because they're going to be this year's Cabbage Patch Kids, but now I KNOW they'd better have all the child slave labor in Asia making them because they're going to be hot-sellers.

I'm interested in my diligently non-nerdy, not-particularly-into-comic-book-movies girlfriend will make of the blizzard of plot and references that jam-pack Guardians of the Galaxy. (She'll probably like the AM-radio greatest hits soundtrack of Bowie, Runaways and other soul-pop hits that's used instead of some current wubby techno bleep-bloop; not that there's anything wrong with that.) My sidekick really loved it and I really, really enjoyed it, but the avalanche of story caused by combining origin stories and a Big Bad plot cost it a half-point. I recommend just rolling with it because it's not really that important to enjoying the loose, breezy humor and wackiness. Sure, real people would have their skeletons pulverized by the beatings dished out in the numerous fight scenes, but what's real in these sorts of movies? Make sure to stick through the credits for the traditional button scene which is either a hint at a future Marvel movie or merely Marvel showing that no matter what happened in the past, they're mighty enough to own it.

Score: 8.5/10. Pay full price.

One warning: If you are sensitive about a loved one dying of cancer, the opening may be emotionally troubling. I was talking to a woman whose step-mother recently died suddenly from cancer and I suggested she wait until it hits video to catch it because it may be too soon. 

"The Monuments Men" Review

"Historical" dramas (note the quotes) which claim to be "based on real events" are tricky because they blur the lines between fact and fiction often leaving viewers with a misleading impression of how things actually happened. (e.g. The Social Network invented Zuckerberg's girlfriend credited as the incitement for creating Facesmash and "Wardo" wasn't screwed as badly as they made out, though he was only a low-end billionaire after they diluted his shares.) Thus warned you should approach George Clooney's latest, The Monuments Men, with due caution to enjoy this somewhat entertaining, though uneven "historical" dramedy.

It's WWII and Hitler is looting the art treasures of Europe for a massive museum he has planned for when his Thousand-Year Reich has secured victory. Stolen from museums and churches and private collections (mostly Jewish families), art historian Clooney is concerned that as the Allies advance and liberate Europe, historical cathedrals may be bombed and the art within lost as well as seeking to recover what the Nazis stole. He proposes that a team of art historians and architects go through Europe treasure-hunting. The building of the team plays out like Ocean's 7: WWII Art Hunters as Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) are assembled and rushed through basic training (ha-ha, fat Goodman can't get over the obstacle course wall and doesn't know they use live rounds, guffaw) before landing at Normandy, much pacified in July 1944.

From there the team splits up and the film's tone sort of fractures as well. Director/co-writer Clooney and long-time collaborator and co-writer Grant Heslov are trying to balance an old-fashioned feeling war movie with a caper flick with  broad comedic moments and somber sad times and it's just too tricky an act for them to pull off. One example is when the gently bickering duo of Murray and Balaban are bunked with troops during the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas time. They receive packages from home including a record from Murray's family. While he showers, Balaban pipes the record over the camp's PA system allowing everyone to hear Murray's family crooning "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" (one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever!) while in another part of the camp a mortally-wounded soldier found by the road by Clooney is tended to. It's very well done as filmmaking, but totally manipulative and it's not an isolated instance of jarring tone switches, though even deaths are handled lightly.

A plot thread involving Damon trying to convince Cate Blanchett, a French Resistance sympathizer unwillingly working for the Nazis hauling away artworks, goes nowhere over a long period of time and her reluctance to trust him because she fears recovered art will be spirited away to American museums (because it would be better if the Nazis or Russians keep/get it?) is hard to believe. Urgency is increased when they learn that Hitler has decreed that if he's killed that all the art is to be destroyed and the Russians closing in on the eastern front are claiming recovered art as reparations for their tens of millions killed.

I can understand what Clooney and Heslov were going for - a bit of a romp with undertones of the horrors of war and the need to protect art as a collective historical memory of a people - but it just doesn't quite gel up with the episodic structure, predictable tropes, and wasted time on dead end scenes like when Murray has to go to a dentist which seems to only exist as a meaningless callback to his cameo in Little Shop of Horrors. Taken individually, the scenes and sequences are fine, it's just as a whole that they don't really amount to a fitting monument to the fictionalized heroes (ALL the names have been changed, so it's probably more fiction than fact) of The Monuments Men.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Lucy" Review

Well, this will save me the hassle of recapping; watch this:

In case you didn't watch it, ScarJo is the titular (this means title character; not a comment on her boobs) character, a party girl in Taipei, Taiwan whose current hookup entraps her into delivering a briefcase containing drugs, gets drugs sewn into her, they leak, she becomes a cross being Neo and Dr. Manhattan, hijinks ensue. That's pretty much it.

Writer-director Luc Besson has always had a thing for kickass chicks from his original La Femme Nikita - which spawned two remakes, the American Point of No Return (pretty good with a better 3rd act) and Hong Kong Black Cat (not very good); and two TV series, La Femme Nikita (bought the 1st season on DVD and gave up after 2-3 episodes) and the recently concluded Nikita which I quite enjoyed - and The Fifth Element with Milla Jovovich's Leeloo. Thanks to ScarJo's (she hates being called that, don't you ScarJo?) performance which starts off suitably terrified and ends up approaching god-like power (more on this in a moment), Lucy is another cool Besson creation.

While the movie moves swiftly and efficiently, there really isn't much more to the plot than what the trailer shows, there are so MASSIVE plot holes beginning with the whole drug mule concept (if it looks like blue laundry crystals, why not ship it in small detergent bottles that travelers would carry?) and why someone carrying valuable cargo for a brutal crime lord would be beaten up in the first place? I don't think we're supposed to think to hard about the details, but Besson used to be better with these things. (See Léon, aka The Professional, which was Natalie Portman's debut, for a good example.) At the end, after Lucy has amply exhibited superpowers, when the crime boss says, "I'll kill her myself," I leaned over to my girlfriend and whispered, "Based on what that has just happened makes him think he's going to be able to do that?" Indeed.

On one level, Lucy manages to answer the question of what happens when people get unlimited knowledge and power through technology much better than the stupid and woeful Transcendence did, but I wish Besson had scribbled more than his usual notes-on-a-cocktail-napkin I imagine he does for the projects he has others direct like From Paris With Love and the Transporter series. It felt like another reel of exposition could've easily been added to more gradually track her evolution as a superbeing at the cost of her humanity. There's a touching scene where she calls her mother under crazy circumstances and another where she announces that she's losing her old self, but it would've been interesting if there'd been something showing an in-between state as her emotions try to hang on while her intellect tosses them aside.

I've been seeing some weird things in the reviews and coverage of Lucy. Some hack at Forbes, in reporting that it's the #1 movies this weekend, rages repeatedly about how the marketing is "full of lies" and "blatantly misleading" - read what I just wrote, the trailer tells almost everything - and another (can't find) by some guy bashed ScarJo's "blank expression and limited range" which indicates he wasn't paying attention at all and to him I want to say: "Hey, Bub, she's not f*cking me either, but I'm not going to take it out on her in my reviews." Loser.

Score: 6/10 (bonus point for ScarJo's performance). Rent it.

BTW, the whole "we only use 10% of our brains" thing is total BS.

"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" Review

When you see a title like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, you can safely assume it isn't a documentary. As the trailer lays out...

...Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are witch hunters with a distinctly anachronistic manner about them as they battle witchy doings of a coven led by Famke Janssen. The fight sequences have a visceral Hong Kong flavor with lots of bone-crushing pounding going on. Side plots involved Hansel and a pretty girl with a secret and Gretel and a troll enslaved by the witches add variety, but there are little in the way of big surprises overall. It's a good-looking and decently entertaining popcorn flick that's worth watching if you come upon it.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's currently on Amazon Prime.)

"Transcendence" Review

When reviewing bad movies it helps when the trailer lays out almost every detail of the plot for me; so watch this:

Ok, where to begin? How about with the so-on-the-nose-it-IS-the-nose character name of Will Caster? Get it? Because he casts his will? Isn't that clever? Of course it isn't and neither is anything else about the dull and silly Transcendence, whose script was on the 2012 Black List of best unproduced screenplays despite having a will-casting character named WILL CASTER. (Cypher Rage from After Earth on line one for you idiots who didn't change this at the first notes meeting.)

The movie starts off with a series of gaping plot holes and logical missteps that cripple the proceedings before they ever get going. The opening scene is in a world out of the lame TV show Revolution where there is no power. Paul Bettany's character is narrating and speaking of Johnny Depp's WILL CASTER and wife (Rebecca Hall) in the past tense immediately draining all tension from the story because we know they're going to die, he's going to live, and Something Really Bad has happened.

Jumping back 5 years we're treated to the setup where Neo-Luddites are killing artificial intelligence experts in a coordinated attack of explosions, stranglings and poisonings. While WILL CASTER is shot, he's merely wounded and seems to be OK until - dun-dun-DUHN - he discovers the bullet was laced with polonium and he'll be dead in a month from radiation poisoning. Fortunately, this allows Hall and Bettany the time to upload his mind into the computer as if they never saw The Lawnmower Man and raises the 2nd fatal plot hole: What if the shooter had, I dunno, SHOT HIM IN THE EFFING HEAD?!?! Movie over! Donezo! It's sure lucky for the bad guys and our intrepid trio that they thought to make sure the bullet was radioactive in case they didn't kill him instantly like all the other victims of their scheme. Ferfryingoutloud.

The rest of the movie continues along the predictable and obvious path: Jobe, er, WILL CASTER builds a massive underground facility in the desert where he perfects nano-bots which can create matter and heal the sick as if he's Cyber-Jesus and so what if he's able to control these people remotely. Lots of "he's gone too far" and blah-blah-woof-woof. It's a sub-B-movie plot with AAA casting and production values. There are some germs of a potentially profound ideas buried under the schlock but they've been handled far better in films ranging from Ghost in the Shell to The Matrix to even The Lawnmower Man which can be forgiven a little of its cheesiness by remembering that it came out in 1992 ahead of the World Wide Web and the ubiquity of tech as now take for granted.

Ace cinematographer Wally Pfister (he shot all of Christopher Nolan's features from Memento to The Dark Knight Reloaded, winning an Oscar for Inception) makes his directorial debut (and finale, if the box office flop results are counted) and shows he wasn't paying attention to how Nolan told stories as the pacing drags and the performances from Depp and Hall are phoned in and blank respectively. Morgan Freeman and Bettany fare better with the latter actually able to bring some depth because he's the lone character written with some depth as he is torn between the promise of the tech and the ethical and moral downsides.

Pfister didn't DP Transcendence but that doesn't explain why it looks both slick and cheap with characters in near-silhouette most of the time. He also appears to have never seen an actual keynote presentation as anyone who has seen an E3 press conference/TED Talk/Apple product reveal/whatever will be distracted by the artifice of that opening scene. Also, how does such a massive underground lab get built without anyone talking out of school about it? And how did he get all the money - just by playing the market or cyber-stealing it. I'm thinking more about it than the filmmakers clearly did.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"I Know That Voice" Review

In between the writing of an animated film of any length and the actual animation process comes the critical, but generally unthought of by the audience, step of recording the vocal performances of the characters

Executive Producer John DiMaggio (Bender on Futurama and Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War games among many, many others) and Director Lawrence Shapiro interview dozens of performers behind many popular cartoons and video games as they discuss the process which is more acting than just making funny voices. Many do so many different roles that when they're identified in subsequent segments, different projects are listed. Unfortunately, probably due to the clearance issues, there isn't enough show footage to illustrate what each performer has done. There's more in the back half, but for a long time I wondered if they were just going to have people talking about their craft without seeing what they've done. (Imagine a film with people talking about an artist or photographer without showing the viewer any of their work. Exactly.)

While somewhat interesting, many of the names and shows passing by were lost on me because I don't watch those cartoons due to the lack of young children (that I'm aware of) or not smoking weed and vegging in front of the tube.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable (it's currently on Amazon Prime Video).

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" Review

So, yeah, a new Transformers movie. Yep. That this is. Uh-huh. Over 2-1/2 hours of cutting edge visual effects and BAYSPLOSIONS!!! If you've seen/enjoyed/endured/hated the other three, it's more of the same with some differences which don't really matter unless you were the person who was seeing these for Shia LeBeouf because he's gone (along with all the other humans and most of the Transformers), replaced by Marky Mark and some new Autobots.

It's five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the ravaging of Chicago. Despite the Autobots cooperation in thwarting Megatron and Sentinel Prime's scheme, they are now in hiding, being hunted mercilessly by a CIA squad commanded by Kelsey Grammar. He thinks the Transformers, whether good Autobot or evil Decepticon, need to be vanquished from Earth. But he's not so anti-Transformer as to not be in league with a new Big Bad, Lockdown, who is a bounty hunter seeking Optimus to add to his collection. Apparently there are masters he's serving which I'm sure we'll learn more about in the inevitable sequel.

Marky Mark is a widower with a hot teenage daughter (natch). He's an inventor who hasn't gotten anything working well enough to fend off the foreclosures and shutoff notices, but he has a hunch about a rusty old truck he finds in a movie theater he's junk-picking. He suspects it's a Transformer and he's proved right as he's able to jumpstart it to life, learning he was nearly killed in an ambush by Frasier's death squad and he's been incognito. Of course, Frasier's forces show up at the farm and threaten Mark's family forcing Optimus to reveal himself, explosions, chase, reveal of hot daughter's secret boyfriend, chase, boom boom, silly stuff, BAYHEM!!! BAYSPLOSIONS!!!! and something about something.

Frankly, as I'm writing this less than 24 hours after seeing it, I can't really recall much of anything about Transformers 2014 because it's all inconsequential, silly, dumb and just there to connect the eye-popping visual effects sequences. But that doesn't make it a bad movie as much as another Transformers movie. After the third one, I didn't really need another one and I'm still good. While it's all perfectly well-made and elaborately executed on a technical front, it's just too much meaningless noise - truly sound and fury signifying nothing.

But it's still hella better than Pacific Rim - yes, I still have a raging hate on for that thing and the morons who blindly defend it - which isn't a compliment to Transformers as it is a knock on Pacific Rim's inept, vacuous and intelligence-insulting insipid drivel. Transformers: Age of Extinction doesn't have any characters to sympathize with beyond the basic "I hope the good guys don't die" level; the secret boyfriend's trait is that he's Irish and Marky calls him "Lucky Charms" repeatedly; the lack of good guy military personnel (like Oscar-snubbed Tyrese - yes, sarcasm) leaves a void that makes things even more downbeat and joyless as Optimus wants to wash his wheels of this stinkin' planet of ingrates.

Parts were shot in Detroit so it's fun to spot the Russell Industrial Center suddenly pop up in the middle of a chase. (Shooting last August caused some hassle for my radio show that week as the parking lot was closed for the film's use.) An area near Grand Circus Park was turned into a Hong Kong location which explains why the People Mover kept showing up and the top of the Ren Cen peeks over the tops of buildings where they didn't bother with sky replacement.

Score: 6/10. Catch it at a dollar show if they have a good sound system.

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