Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself “Star Lord” after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos’ minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel’s cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they’re not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community‘s Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana’s comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers
Disney/Marvel’s latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill’s piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they’re recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora’s blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who’ll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn’s love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous “Easter eggs,” or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I’m glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and ’80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill’s mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today’s visceral reactions.

Rating: I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel’s savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review

On Sunday, 4 May 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Bruce K. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in downtown Waltham, Mass., for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We enjoyed lunch at The Grill on Pine St. and the latest superhero sequel.

Amazing Spider-Man 2
Spidey swings back into action

Plot: Amazing Spider-Man 2 takes place shortly after the events of 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which rebooted Sony’s franchise of the 2000s. Our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has successfully defeated Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard but at the cost of the life of NYPD Capt. Stacy, the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen.

Haunted by tragedy, Spidey isn’t able to rest for long, when a Russian gang member, a onetime fan and industrial accident victim, and an old friend challenge his vow to protect his fellow New Yorkers, especially Gwen.

Peter also learns more about the mystery surrounding his parents’ disappearance years before. I didn’t think it was necessary to tie Spider-Man’s origin so tightly to his parents or to the creation of various villains, but superhero movies tend to do that.

Acting: Since Amazing Spider Man 2 focuses on Peter more than his costumed alter ego, it’s good that Brit Andrew Garfield is a strong anchor to the film. Despite his lanky frame, he conveys both Peter’s world weariness and Spidey’s joy in swinging through Manhattan’s steel canyons.

Garfield is again ably supported by winsome Emma Stone (his real-life girlfriend) as Gwen Stacy and Sally Field as hard-working Aunt May. Jamie Foxx gets the most screen time of the villains as dweeby Max Dillon, who becomes Electro, but Chronicle‘s Dane DeHaan provides more emotional resonance as Peter’s wealthy childhood pal Harry Osborn.

I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” beyond what you may have seen in posters and previews, but any Spidey fan knows what happens to troubled Harry. Of course, creator Stan Lee has a brief cameo. Paul Giamatti’s appearances as Aleksei Stytsevich/the Rhino are almost as brief and clearly setup for the inevitable “Sinister Six” sequels.

Direction and cinematography: Marc Webb, who directed this film’s predecessor, clearly understands the characters, and he wisely focuses on Peter’s relationship with Gwen, his Aunt May, his absent parents, and Harry. Amazing Spider Man 2 starts out a little slow, with a few set-piece battles, and it gradually picks up speed.

The web-slinging and fight scenes are very good, but not ground-breaking. I’m glad to see Spidey’s classic costume restored. As much as I appreciate the occasional slow-motion scene, showcasing poses from the original Marvel Comics pages, audiences have become a bit jaded by plentiful computer-generated visual effects and pyrotechnics.

As a native New Yorker, it was nice to see an upbeat portrayal of my hometown despite all the destruction, as well as the celebration of everyday heroism provided by police, firefighters, and brave civilians. While Disney/Marvel has little to fear, it’s the one area where Spidey complements and competes with the four-color Avengers.

Soundtrack: The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s musical score is good, with optimistic themes that Man of Steel could have used. It’s not quite as stirring as for the earlier Spider-Man flicks, but I noticed it more than for several other recent films. Peter’s cell phone ring tone also harkens back to the 1960s cartoons.

Rating: Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has gotten mixed reviews. Yes, like most superhero sequels, there are too many villains and leaps of logic, but the acting and dialogue make up for obligatory fisticuffs.

I’d give The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B or B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. I liked the first Spider-Man 2 and Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier slightly more, but this is a solid entry for Spider-Man fans and certainly better than Spider-Man 3.

I’m looking forward to the latest incarnation of Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past (which got a non-sequitur of a teaser during Spidey’s end credits), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I recently saw and liked Rise of Planet of the Apes), and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Age of Marvels: Thor 2 and SHIELD reviews

On Sunday, 17 November 2013, Janice and I met local role-players Sara F. & Josh C. and Bruce K. for lunch and to see Thor [2]: The Dark World at the AMC Burlington 10. All of us enjoyed the latest superhero sequel, for which we had modest expectations.

If you liked 2011’s Thor, you’ll like The Dark World, which takes place after the events of The Avengers, one of the best and most popular adaptations from Marvel Comics so far. Despite the ominous title, The Dark World is closer to its four-color roots than Man of Steel or even Iron Man 3.

Plot

The story of Thor 2 is fairly straightforward. Ages ago, the mighty Asgardians defeated the Dark Elves in battle and hid the source of their (pseud-mystical/technological) powers. Malekith, the Dark Elf leader, reawakens after Earthling physicist Jane Foster stumbles on the hidden “aether” and resumes his war on the godlings and humanity.

After a devastating attack — is there any other kind? — Thor is forced to turn to his stepbrother, the mischievous Loki, for help. As Thor and Loki defy king Odin’s edicts to take the fight to Malekith and his brutal henchman Kurse, Jane and her friends race to thwart the Dark Elves’ plans before an alignment of the Nine Realms (note that Thor is only loosely based on Norse mythology and its apocalyptic visions).

Direction

Just as Kenneth Branagh brought Shakespearean and operatic sensibilities to the first Thor movie to prove that cosmic-level superheroes could be successful in live action, director Shane Black keeps the action moving among multiple planes of existence. His action scenes are about as good as those in Man of Steel and better than Iron Man 3‘s, and the characters are funnier and more sympathetic, thanks in part to script help from fan favorite Joss Whedon.

Cast

Chris Hemsworth is still beefy and appealing as Thor, and Natalie Portman isn’t just a damsel in distress as Jane. They’re also supported by a strong returning cast, including Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as his queen Frigga, Idris Elba as all-seeing Heimdall, and Jamie Alexander as winsome warrior (and Thor’s potential love interest) Sif.

The Dark World
Mighty Marvel heroes

The Warriors Three also have brief moments in the spotlight, with Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun returning to his home, Chuck‘s Zachary Levi as swashbuckling Fandral, and Ray Stevenson as big guy Volstagg. Jane’s colleagues are as wry as ever, including Kat Dennings as snarky Darcy Lewis and Stellan Skarsgard as mad scientist Erik Selvig.

Of course, as with Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, Tom Hiddleston’s charismatic and smarmy Loki is the highlight of both Thor films, as well as the first Avengers. Unfortunately, former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston gets short shrift as Malekith, with relatively little screen time for motivation.

Cinematography

Today’s audiences are spoiled compared with those who thrilled to the Donner/Reeve Superman or 1970s TV’s Incredible Hulk. The visual effects are as good as we’ve come to expect, with shining Asgard, gloomy Svartalfheim, and besieged Greenwich and London fully realized. I was glad to see the destruction of English cities rather than the old standby of New York, and the carnage was less wanton than in many recent movies, such as Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Comic book readers will recognize the influence of artists such as Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, and Mike Mignola. Stan Lee of course has a small cameo. As with the other Disney/Marvel movies, there are brief scenes during the end credits that set up the inevitable Thor 3 and tie into the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.

Overall, I’d give Thor: The Dark World, which is rated PG-13 for violence and language, a B+, 7.5 out of 10, or three out of five stars. It was one of the better genre flicks of the past year, and I definitely recommend it to fans of Marvel Comics and superhero movies.

Agents of SHIELD

Speaking of tie-ins to that cinematic universe, I haven’t yet reviewed this autumn’s genre television. The most relevant show to Thor 2 is Agents of SHIELD, for which Whedon is a producer but is missed as a writer.

Last night’s episode tangentially dealt with the aftermath of the battle in Greenwich, but many people still hope that ABC’s TV show will become more about weird superspies in the Marvel universe than weekly procedurals involving snarky rookies that feel as if they’re written by committee.

I’d point to WB/DC/CW’s Arrow, now in its sophomore season, as a better example of mining comics for ideas and steadily advancing storylines and characters. It’s telling that, aside from all the Comic-Con hype around Agents of SHIELD, the new shows garnering positive buzz this season are the fun supernatural Sleepy Hollow and cyberpunk Almost Human, not SHIELD.

Coming attractions

Of the trailers we saw, I’m cautiously looking forward to The Hobbit [2 of 3]: the Desolation of Smaug, 47 Ronin, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Captain America 2: the Winter Soldier. I’ll report on the recent Rhode Island Comic Con after I attend the annual Super MegaFest this coming weekend. As Stan “the Man” says, Excelsior!

Catching up again on comics

The Batfamily, late 2011
The "Batfamily"

In addition to celebrating the holidays and catching up on movies in the past few weeks, I picked up comic books at New England Comics, Newbury Comics, and The Outer Limits near Boston. There’s still a sense of community at these shops that no digital subscription can yet replace.

My tastes run toward mainstream superhero comics, which I’ve been sharing with college chum David I.S. in return for some indie and horror titles. Despite controversies around its revised continuity and treatment of female creators and characters, I’ve enjoyed much of DC Comics, especially its various Batman titles. Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batwoman, and Birds of Prey are among my favorites, with a young Superman in Action Comics and the latest attempt to refocus Wonder Woman coming close behind.

On the Marvel Comics side, I’m still following Captain America, even if I can’t keep up with the various teams of Avengers and X-Men. Of the indie comic books I’m getting or looking forward to, I like sword and sorcery (Conan, Red Sonja), high fantasy (Mouse Guard and Avatar: the Last Airbender), steampunk and pulp (Zorro), some humor (Muppets and Liberty Meadows), and science fiction (Warlord of Mars and Flash Gordon).

Dave and I are looking forward to TV adaptations of Powers and other comics and graphic novels, not to mention upcoming movies and direct-to-DVD releases such as Justice League: Doom. We’ll have no shortage of viewing or reading material for 2012!

Comics Wednesday, July 2009

Justice League Unlimited

Friends, please note that my blog is no longer available at Yahoo 360. You can find it at MySpace.com or under my “edemaitre” Yahoo Profile. As promised, here are some of my thoughts on recent comic books.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, the San Diego Comic-Con is this week. While I
haven’t yet made the hajj to the largest annual genre/popular culture event in the U.S., I have closely followed coverage of it for the past few years. Movies, comic books and graphic novels, action figures, television shows, games, and more are announced or previewed at this convention. I hope to get to smaller shows here in the Boston area, such as November’s Super MegaFest.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying DC’s Wednesday Comics, a 12-issue experiment in weekly comics on tabloid newsprint. The quality of the writing varies, but the art is
impressive
, and it reminds me of lying on the floor reading Prince Valiant in the Sunday funnies.

DC‘s big summer storyline crossing over several titles is Green Lantern: Blackest Night, which addresses the temporary nature of death among costumed superheroes (and villains). Although I don’t plan to spend even more on comics than I do now, it has gotten good reviews so far.

I have continued picking up the Batman family of titles, as Bruce Wayne is presumed dead and former Robin/Nightwing Dick Grayson has taken up the mantle. I wasn’t a big fan of Grant Morrison’s trippy run, but he, Paul Dini, and company have upped their game with the creative freedom granted by the temporary change in lead characters.

Similarly, Marvel Comics is winding down its run of Bucky Barnes as Captain America with the imminent return of Steve Rogers. Unlike the regular shakeups for Superman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men, Rogers has been gone for a few years now of continuity (fictional history), and the espionage/thriller tone of his title remains engaging. I’ve been avoiding most team-based Marvel and DC books lately because of overly convoluted continuities and gimmicky crossovers designed to sell more issues.

Speaking of alternate histories, I’m still catching up on collected editions. I’ve recently read Dark Horse’s convenient omnibuses of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and I look forward to getting to the next installment of the steampunk The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (not the weak movie adaptation), the metahuman procedural Powers, and the political Ex Machina. Dynamite, which I’ve praised previously for its handling of licensed properties such as Buck Rogers, will also be handling the next batch of Stargate comics.

Typically, fiction is adapted from print to television or movie, but in the case of Nickelodeon’s excellent Avatar: the Last Airbender, a fantasy cartoon is being adapted to a live-action film series directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Last Airbender shouldn’t be confused with James Cameron’s upcoming science fiction movie Avatar.

The first previews and still photos of the young cast have appeared online. I sympathize with those who feel that Last Airbender should have had more actors of Asian descent in its cast, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ll have to wait and see whether planned movie reboots such as Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, Astro Boy, and Green Hornet are closer to Watchmen or to Dragonball in quality.