Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The visual dazzle of another 'Spider-Man'


   At two hours and 20 minutes, Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse is too long, too glutted with characters, and too stuffed with visual invention to keep track of it all. 
   You'd think that a couple of hours would be sufficient to complete a comic-book story, but no. Across the Spider-Verse ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the next installment. 
  OK, those are my main gripes, but it's also worth noting that Across the Spider-Verse mounts an all-out effort to dazzle the eye, simulate a comic-book environment, and flood the screen with vivid swaths of color.  At its best, the movie entertains and impresses in roughly equal measures.
   The story? Well, there's a lot of it.
   I'm sick of multi-verse movies, but this Spider-Man doubles down on space/time hopping, zipping through numerous dimensions at breakneck speeds. 
   Characters also abound. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), now 15, still occupies the story's center but Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who's also Spider-Woman, grabs significant screen time, as well.
   Miles and Gwen come from similar backgrounds. Gwen's father (Shea Whigham) is a cop who learns about his daughter's identity. Miles, on the other hand, keeps his Spider-Man secret from his police captain father (Brian Tyree Henry).
   A rooftop party celebrating Dad's NYPD promotion is artfully rendered with Mom (Luna Lauren Velez) adding welcome Latin flavor. 
  The Brooklyn portions of the movie, where Miles tries to balance school with superhero chores, have their charms, and, to be honest, the movie's many parallel universes can overwhelm in ways that sometimes made me wish the story never had left home.
  This edition amplifies its diversity, making room for a Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), for Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), a.k.a. Spider-Punk, and for Issa Rae, a Spider-Woman character who looks as she might have leaped from a '60s movie. 
  Villains dot the teeming landscape, as well. They include The Vulture (Jorma Taccone) and The Spot (Jason Schwartzman). The Spot allows the animators to swell the screen with cleverness; the character's spots become holes, portals if you prefer, that swallow opposition, projecting them into new dimensions.
  Oscar Issac gives voice to Spider-Man 2099,  a superhero who has convinced himself that he's responsible for maintaining the multiverse, a responsibility that has distorted his values and inflated his ego.
   Enough.  The filmmakers seem committed to the idea that there can't be too much of a good thing. I think some pruning might have helped, but Across the Spider-Verse reflects a commitment to a visual vision that's meant to dazzle the senses -- and often does.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A father/son comedy that sinks

    Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco stars in About My Father, a comedy about a second generation Italian/American who wants to marry a Waspish young woman (Leslie Bibb). 
   The story's prospective fiancee identifies as an artists but makes paintings that illustrate little more than narrow imagination.  It risks overstating the case, but the same might be said of a movie that can’t escape its formulaic culture-clash arc.
  Sebastian's Sicilian immigrant father (Robert De Niro) built a life in Chicago as a hairdresser, a trade he still plies. 
   After a brief setup, De Niro's Salvo Maniscalco insists on  accompanying his wary son on a visit to meet the prospective in-laws, a preposterous group. Dad (David Rasche) runs a hotel Chaing. Mom (Kim Cattrall) is a US Senator. 
    Two brothers complete the cast of characters. One, an Ivy-League empty head (Anders Holm), has gone into the family business. The other (Brett Dier) aspires to be a spiritual healer, soothing himself by playing sound bowls. 
    Maniscalco, who wrote the screenplay with Austen Earl, slathers the story with class consciousness. Salvo insists that his son won’t fit into an upper-crust mold. He thinks his in-laws will view Sebastian as an intruder in a world of gated communities. 
   The major comic set piece, viewable in the trailer, tries to make a broad splash. On a yachting outing with his in-laws,  Sebastian dons  jet boots that propel him out of the ocean. His private parts are exposed (thankfully not to us) to the on-deck observers when his bathing suit slips.
   Directed by Laura Terruso,  About My Father gravitates toward such broad strokes as it moves toward its predictably sentimental ending. 
   De Niro probably could sleepwalk through these kind of comic roles but doesn’t. I guess that's something.
   Set during the course of a Fourth of July weekend, the movie’s main virtue is its brevity. About My Father lasts for one hour and 29 minutes.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A CIA operative on the run for his life

Gerard Butler action movies aren't among my favorite ways to spend a couple of hours. Butler's latest -- Kandahar -- didn't do enough to change my mind, although it contains a couple of impressive sequences and a few moments in which the characters try their hands at meaningful conversations. Butler plays Tom Harris, a CIA operative who helps set the stage for the US to blowup an Iranian nuclear facility. In the process, he implicates a journalist (Elnaaz Norouzi) who's taken prisoner by the Iranians and pretty much drops out of the movie.  After the initial job of sabotaging a nuclear facility,  Harris wants to return home. Not so fast, says his boss (Travis Fimmel), who throws a bunch of money at him and assures him that a "final" mission will enable him to care for his estranged wife and teenage daughter. Iran again becomes the target, Harris heads for Afghanistan where he hooks up with a translator (Navid Negahban) and prepares to cross the border. The operation goes belly up and Harris's goal narrows: get out of the country alive. An assassin (Ali Fazal) follows in pursuit trying to cash in on capturing a member of the CIA. Director Ric  Roman Waugh (Greenland) makes good use of the movie's desert locations (the film was shot in Saudi Arabia) but his attempts at freshening a familiar genre don't go far enough.

Men with mountains to climb

    A novelistic story about two friends, The Eight Mountains focuses on Pietro who we first meet as an 11-year-old boy whose mother takes him to the Italian Alps to escape the summer heat of Turin.
    The story, which begins in 1984, follows Pietro’s life into his 40s, charting his on-again/off-again friendship with Bruno, who enters the movie as a wild child of the mountains.
   Father/son themes underlie the story. As a boy,  Pietro can’t quite meet the expectations of his father (Filippo Timi,) an engineer who works in a factory but prides himself on his mountaineering skills. Timi's character is tied to his job, enjoying only occasional visits to the Acosta Valley, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ruben Impens.
    The adult Pietro narrates the story, which may remind some of the work of Elena Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend charted a life-long friendship between two women.
   Early on, the movie has the feel of a boyhood idyll as Pietro and his new friend Bruno play and explore the mountains. Bruno, the last child in the depopulated rural village, lives with an aunt and uncle. 
    As time progresses, we learn that Pietro doesn’t want to be like his father, a conflict that seems to involve a son’s disdain for a father who sacrificed his true calling for a workaday life. Dad failed to give full vent to his yearning for connection with the natural world.
   The adolescent friendship between Pietro and Bruno hits a snag when Pietro, the beneficiary of class privileges unavailable to Bruno,  objects to his parents offer to bring  Bruno to Turin for schooling. Pietro argues that school and the city will corrupt Bruno's free-spirited nature. Or maybe he's jealous because Bruno, by temperament, might be the son his dad wished he had.
    The cast does a fine job of conveying the passage of time. Lupo Barbiero and Cristiano Sassella play Pietro and Bruno as boys. Andrea Palma and Francesco Palombelli take over during the adolescent years, and Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, make dominant impressions playing the friends as adults.
     After a 15 -year pause in their friendship, the men reunite when Pietro's father passes away. Pietro learns that his father left him a pile of rubble on a mountain where he planned to build a home.  Pietro and Bruno  join forces to build the house, which becomes a touchstone from which each man’s life unfolds. 
   Pietro becomes a world traveler and writer, eventually finding a place in Nepal.  Bruno tries his hand at farming. He marries becomes a father, makes cheese, and upholds the agrarian virtues that he sees as his natural calling -- until a lack of business skills undermines his efforts and leads to tragedy.
  Directors Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, working from a novel by Paolo Cognetti,  might have done more to sharpen the movie's themes. They move slowly, sometimes skipping transitional material, thus giving the movie a vaguely episodic feel. 
   Still, The Eight Mountains becomes a moving story about  the bond between two men who sometimes are kindred spirits and who, even when compelled by qualities that push them apart, remain bound to each other. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Can a trans woman go home again?


Trace Lysette, a trans actress, takes the lead in Monica, the story of a trans woman who's alienated from her family. The drama is set in motion when Monica is invited by her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning) to travel from LA to  Ohio to visit her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson). We assume that, at least on some level, Monica craves reconciliation and acceptance from the woman who kicked her out when she was still a kid. Lysette cloaks Monica's feelings behind defenses that presumably have been years in the making. It's a legitimate acting choice but one that makes the character less intriguing while adding to the frustration that can result from the insularity of director Andrea Pallaoro's approach. Early on Monica reveals a bit of desperation, making repeated calls to a boyfriend who recently dumped her. Late in the movie, she travels to a nearby town for a night of sexual escape. Mostly, she cares for her mother as she tries to adjust to staying in the house where she grew up. She never tells her mother who she is and Pallaoro maintains ambiguity about whether Clarkson's character ever recognizes Monica. Monica springs fully to life when she plays with her niece and nephew, but she seldom lowers her guard. Credit the supporting cast with nice work. Monica's sister-in-law (Browning) and her brother (Joshua Close) may not fully understand Monica but they try to be helpful. Pallaoro finds tender moments but too often, the movie fails to click, perhaps because Pallaoro's insistently muted style (he's not much interested in verbal confrontation) keeps Monica from fully plumbing the expected  emotional depths.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

A slender but smart comedy

"The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
    So goes Humphrey Bogart's famous line from Casablanca, a smart reminder about the importance of personal problems in a world full of trouble.
    It's a memorable line. but don't repeat it for the characters in director Nicole Holofcener's You Hurt My Feelings, a comedy about characters suffering through what might be called mini-crises.
      Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Beth, a writer whose first book, a memoir, scored a modest success. Beth revealed that her father often was verbally abusive, not exactly a shocker on the level of being chained in a cellar, but it evidently did the trick.
      Riding a small wave of success, Beth tried her hand at a novel. Her agent wasn’t impressed.
     Already depressed and facing a growing loss of confidence, Beth suffers more mood deflation when she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) tell her brother-in-law (Arian Moayed) that he didn't like the book either.
     Don's confidence also is beginning to crack. Patients say he's not helping them, and one couple (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) spend session after session trading bitter barbs. When they finally decide to quit therapy, they deliver Holofcener's best joke.
      Beth's interior designer sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins) seems to operate on more solid ground than the rest of the cast, even when a client tests her patience by insisting that she find just the right lighting fixture, one that reflects the client’s true self.
      The woes continue. An actor, Sarah's husband (Moayed) is shattered when he's fired from the play in which he finally found work. 
      For Beth, Don's overheard confession proves confounding, particularly because he consistently praised her work during the writing process. 
       And if he lied about that, what else might he have been lying about? 
      Another question arises: When should encouragement be subordinated to the honest expression of one's feelings?
      Beth herself is a chronic over-praiser. Her son (Owen Teague) works in a pot shop. She's sure that the play he's writing will be terrific.
     Only Beth and Sarah's mom (Jeannie Berlin) can be counted on not to hand out plaudits.
      Slender but enjoyable, You Hurt My Feelings doesn't feel like a movie that wants to change anyone's life. Even better, it only takes Holofcener a refreshing one hour and 33 minutes to involve us with characters who have trouble seeing beyond the narrow frame of their own lives.
      That wouldn't be us, would it? 

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Stifled identity in a Pakistani drama

Set in Pakistan, Joyland introduces us to characters struggling to be themselves. Tradition,  social pressures, and personal failings block the way to self realization. Saim Sadiq directs in a no-frills style that focuses on Haider (Ali Junejo), an unemployed Lahore man who's married to a working wife (Rasti Farooq). Haider and his wife live in a cramped apartment with his patriarchal father (Salman Peerzada). Haider's brother (Sohail Samir), wife (Sarwat Gilani) and their kids also share the apartment. The pressure to have kids and uphold the family name doesn't need to be spoken, a problem for Haider who avoids sexual contact with Mumtaz, his wife. The drama advances when a friend helps Haider land a job working with an erotic dance company. Although he’s shy and not particularly talented, Haider learns to dance with Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who’s working to pay for the surgery that will complete her transition. A stern task master, Biba sees something in Haider and the two begin to fall in love. Sadiq builds to a shocking scene in which Biba and Haider learn something about each other -- and about themselves. Named for an amusement park where Haider’s family spends an evening, Joyland is anything but cheery. Sadiq touches many bases here — tradition, patriarchy, sexual orientation, lack of economic opportunity and arranged marriage. Instead of being swamped, he effectively tells a story in which the uneasy conflation of all these elements breeds a tragic outcome. Joyland leaves us in a mood of sad reflection.

Men in cars blowing things up


    First off, Roman Numeral fans: It's Fast Ten, not Fast "X," which sounds like the name of a quick-acting laxative. 
    Fast X, the latest in the Fast & Furious series, goes all in on preposterous over-stated action while acknowledging a trio of virtues: family, honor and faith.
    These virtues, and just about everything else, play second fiddle to blasts of fiery action. Let's be real, though. When a round, Volkswagen-sized bomb rolls through the streets of Rome, it's unlikely anyone will be pondering the qualities that define moral excellence.
   Fast X, by the way, is the first of two movies. It's no spoiler to report that director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) concludes his two-hour and 21-minute collection of explosions, gunfire, and insanely reckless driving with a cliffhanger. 
   Less fun than the best efforts of the franchise (take your pick), Fast X includes familiar characters, pays homage to past favorites (even offering a glimpse of Paul Walker) and drops cameos like breadcrumbs along its destructive path.
   Early on, Dom and Letty (Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez) are happily raising their son Little Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) in Los Angeles. Grandma Toretto (Rita Moreno) presides while the Fast family (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Nathalie Emmanuel) gather to hoist a few brews.
    It doesn't take long for the team to encounter this edition's villain. Dante (Jason Momoa), a Brazilian maniac, wants to avenge his father's death at the hands of the Fast team more than a decade ago.
    Credit Momoa with upping the movie's silliness quotient. Dante displays a mincing quality when it suits him. The most eye-catching scene occurs when Dante, his hair tied in schoolgirlish top knots, paints the toes of a corpse. 
    Other characters elbow their way into a fragmented plot, some with larger roles than others. Charlize Theron gets significant screen time as Cipher, a brilliant hacker and martial arts maven of variable loyalties.
    Michael Cena reprises his role as Jakob Toretto. In this outing, Jakob tales flight with Little Brian, who becomes a prime target in Dante's revenge plot.
    Blink and you'll miss Helen Mirren, who shows up as Queenie Shaw. Her son Deckard (Jason Staham) has a bigger presence in the movie, which adds Brie Larson as Tess, a rogue agent who works with Dom against the Agency's chief (Alan Ritchson).
    Ah yes, The Agency. Having once enlisted the Fast team's help, The Agency wants to corral Dom and his cohorts, giving them double trouble. Both Dante and the Agency are out for blood.
     Leterrier takes the action global, offering set pieces in Rome, Turin, London, Brazil, and at Hoover Dam. Cars drop from planes, fly off cliffs, and rumble up stairways. Downshifting earns a supporting role.
       Is any of this believable? Of course not. 
       But we've stopped expecting credibility from a franchise that has grown increasingly massive, including more paraphernalia, and turning itself into a mixture of demolition derby and Mission Impossible.
       Your job, should you choose to accept it. Sit through a movie that batters as much as at buoys and which has gotten so stuffed, it barely has room to accommodate the characters that once gave it a bit of humanity.


Thursday, May 11, 2023

'The Next Chapter': a page not to turn


Surely, someone could find something better to do with Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda than plop them into Book Club: The Next Chapter, a hokey sequel in which members of a Los Angeles book club swap books for travel to Italy. A post-Covid comedy, the story centers on a bachelorette trip the four friends make preceding the wedding of Fonda's Vivian, a woman who has resisted marriage but finally has agreed to settle down with her fiancĂ©, Don Johnson's Arthur, a character from the first installment. Bergen's Sharon, a retired judge hands out snark -- or at least this movie's  version of it. Keaton's Diane has a relationship with Andy Garcia's Mitchell, another leftover from the first installment. To travel, Steenburgen's Carol must leave her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) at home; he's on the upswing after a recent heart attack but she's worried about him. Once in Italy -- notably Rome, Venice and Tuscany -- the women meet various men, including one of Carol's old flames, a chef played by Vincent Riotta. Giancarlo Giannini shows up as a good-hearted cop. Life for the women isn't always easy what with stolen luggage, a night in the slammer, and suggestive jokes that can seem more adolescent than mature. The result: a featherweight comedy with a picture postcard soul. What else to say? Only that filmmakers either can't find or are ignoring better material for gifted actresses who have been on the planet for 70 years or more.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Michael J. Fox on living with Parkinson’s

 If you've ever known someone who has suffered from Parkinson's Disease, you know how debilitating affliction it becomes as it advances, a malady beyond cure. I've witnessed the devastations of Parkinson's and sometimes found it difficult to watch Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a lively documentary that charts Fox's rise as a comic actor while showing the ways in which Parkinson's now tends to dominate his daily life. As tough as it can be to watch Fox struggle to speak, walk (he often falls and breaks things) and proceed with his life, director Davis Guggenheim's movie demonstrates that Fox remains funny, reflective, candid and entertaining. Clips from Back to the Future and Family Ties remind us  that Fox, a Canadian high school dropout, had a career that catapulted him to a level of success that sometimes left him reeling. Fox talks about how he tried to continue his career after his diagnoses, devising clever ways to conceal the tremors that would overtake his left hand without warning. Guggenheim also takes us into Fox's home where we meet his wife, Tracy Pollan, and his kids. The boyish, engaging actor is now a debilitated 61-year-old man, but neither Guggenheim nor Fox asks for pity. The title has multiple meanings: It refers to Fox's tendency to speed from one project to the next, always on the run, primarily motivated by fear, he says. He also says that Parkinson's eventually allowed him to find a measure of stillness that previously eluded him. But for me, the title suggests something else, he's still here -- living as fully as he can and offering a story that's sure to inspire others.

Lovers on the run: Let’s dance


  French choreographer Benjamin Millepied makes his directorial debut by enrolling in the lovers-on-the-run school of filmmaking. We’ve raced through these corridors before, but not quite like this.
  Loosely following the arc of Bizet's opera, Millepied's Carmen casts Melissa Barrera (In the Heights) as a fiercely independent woman who escapes cartel killers in Mexico and takes flight to Los Angeles.
  During a skirmish at the border, Barrera's Carmen meets Aidan (Paul Mescal of Aftersun), a former Marine who did two tours in Afghanistan. To protect Carmen, Aidan kills a border patrol officer. 
   The two take flight.
   A plot summary doesn't do justice to Millepied's effort. Relying heavily on cinematographer Jorge Widmer (A Tree of Life and V for Vendetta) and composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight), Millepied turns his movie into a dreamy succession of set pieces, many featuring dance and song.
   Other musical contributions come from singer/songwriters Julieta Venegas, songwriter Taura Stinson, and rapper The D.O.C.
   The movie's opening sets a no-nonsense mood. Flamenco dancer Marina Tamayo dances on a wooden platform in the middle of a lonely arid landscape. The rhythms she creates with her feet are sharply defiant. Whatever these men want, Tamayo's character has no intention of giving it to them.
    Tamayo, who's playing Carmen's mother, dies at the hands of these cartel thugs, but her presence is meant to haunt the rest of the film.
   Millepied requires his actors to create a strong presence as much as to develop their characters. Mescal makes a convincing battle-scarred warrior with a tender side and Barrera shines during the dance sequences. 
   Pedro Amodovar regular Rossy de Palma brings her striking appearance to the film as the owner of a club where Aidan and Carmen find respite. De Palma's witchy blend of concern, menace, and eroticism almost turn her into a special effect.
   Border issues and the traumatic impact of war add topicality but Millepied seems to be aiming for more than a gloss on current events, possibly a story about characters who become dramatic archetypes.
   As a result, emotions often play second fiddle to Millepied's  formalized approach, a prospect that will bother those expecting torrid passion. 
   Carmen may not deliver on every level, but bold execution creates appreciation for a movie of artistic ambition and palpable daring.

The wild story of BlackBerry’s rise and fall


    With a robust and compelling story in hand,  BlackBerry begins by returning us to the Pleistocene days of the 1990s when a Canadian company known as Research in Motion (RIM) was trying to secure a place in the burgeoning tech world. 
    Tech entrepreneurs Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) led a team that invented a hand-held device that could tie into networks and deliver email, as well as phone conversations. A commercial revolution awaited a jump start.
   It took the arrival of ambitious marketer Jim Balsille (Glenn Howerton) to kick the geeky RIM group toward market dominance that lasted until the arrival of the iPhone with its spiffy touch screen and sleek design. 
    BlackBerry’s claim to fame was its keypad, which — if you recall — encouraged folks to compose with their thumbs as clicks of accomplishment sounded. BlackBerry users were in touch.
   A screenplay by Johnson, Jacquie McNish, and  Matthew Miller rides the waves of comic energy that rocket a trio of unlikely characters toward life-changing success.
   Johnson, who also directs, bases his movie on a true story, using it as a source of satire fueled by three strong performances: Howerton's as Balsillie, Baruchel as Lazaridis, and Johnson as Fregin, a free-form techie who insists that movie night become a company staple.
   Baruchel creates a character who eventually feels slighted by the developments that sunk BlackBerry; Lazaridis credits himself with making mobile devices essential to a generation of strivers. He's like the groundbreaking artist who's surpassed by those he's influenced.
   Howerton's Basilile moves through the movie like a bullet. A demanding exec, he sometimes seems to follow a ready-fire-aim approach, displaying a genius for spreading the word -- and upping sales. 
   Johnson's character-driven movie doesn't shortchange business aspects, including the way BlackBerry made deals with networks such as Verizon, allowing for the ascendance of its signature device.
  The decline part of movies such as BlackBerry inevitably suffers when compared to the rise. We love success stories, even if we know that failure eventually will undermine hope. The trouble with rocket rides is that they sometimes crash.
   When the iPhone debuted in 2007, a sleek new, touch-screen device became the one that consumers never seemed to look up from.
   It's hardly news that the technology business moves quickly,  spraying causalities throughout its digital wake, but Johnson brings the BlackBerry story to life in ways that are funny and smart.
   Perhaps that's because Johnson and his team give the story the kind of mordant spin that comes from knowing that any endeavor has the potential to become the butt of what feels like a karmic joke.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Love, culture and romcom ploys

 Predictability isn't fatal in a romcom. It doesn't matter that we know who'll wind up with whom within the first 10 minutes, which is the case with What's Love Got To Do With It?, a cross-cultural romcom about a British documentary filmmaker (Lily James) and a Pakistiani/British doctor (Shazad Latif). The two grew up as next-door neighbors and best friends. James' Zoe wants to make a documentary about Latif's Kazim's arranged engagement to a woman (Sajal Ali) who lives in Pakistan. Kazim insists that there's more to marriage than love. Love may not even be the most important ingredient. He agrees to allow Zoe to film the arrangements preceding  the marriage even though she's skeptical about the idea of a wedding  between two people have never met. Watching Zoe handle a camera leaves little doubt that no film could result from her work, but that's a minor point. Emma Thompson signs on as Zoe's flamboyant mom; she accompanies her daughter to Pakistan for the nuptials. Kazim's sister (Mariam Haque) has been ostracized from the family for marrying a white Brit, a story that might have made a better movie than the subplot it becomes here.  Director Shekhar Kapur fills the Pakistan scenes with color, adding travel-brochure appeal. James essentially carries the film as it moves through situations designed to deal respectfully with Muslim culture while still upholding western ideas about romantic love. This is less a severe clash than a cultural pillow fight. A mild-mannered movie that tries for a sentimental, tear-jerker of a conclusion, What's Love Got To Do With It? proceeds pleasantly but quickly melts away after having ruffled very few feathers.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Guarding the Galaxy one more time


 Watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, I slouched in my seat, looking upward at the screen, wondering whether reality hadn’t played a trick on me. Had I regressed into an alternate reality that resembled a slightly demented version of Saturday morning TV?   
   As the characters in Vol. 3 appeared, I felt as if I were being reintroduced to a tired crew that needed a plot — or something resembling a plot — to jolt it back to life.
    Director James Gunn finds one — or more accurately several. 
     Gunn stitches a movie together from a variety of story threads, a principal one revolving around the need to battle a fiendish villain called The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). 
   An intergalactic criminal, The High Evolutionary wants to give the various creatures he cruelly imprisons genetic upgrades. He tries to create an environment in which perfect beings can live perfectly. 
  Of course, he’s the one who gets to define perfection, a power that turns him into a genocidal maniac. He tends to wipe out populations he regards as "mistakes."
  The screenplay, also by Gunn, ties the main battle into an origins story for Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the wise-cracking badger who keeps reminding everyone that he's not a raccoon. 
  Gravely wounded in an early-picture raid on Knowhere, the sadly depleted Guardian headquarters, Rocket spends most of the movie in a coma while Pratt’s Peter Quill races through episodes built around the search for a device that can save his friend.
  Time to wave a Guardians thematic flag: The Guardians may be disorganized and even dissolute but friendship still means something.
   Quill also pines for his girlfriend, Zoe Saldana's Gamora, who reappears but not as the green-skinned beauty of Quill's memory. She looks the same but her personality has been altered. I leave it to series aficionados to explain how this happened.*
   Despite his leadership role, Quinn doesn’t dominate the movie; he’s one more cog in the many-spoked Guardian wheel.
    Other familiar characters turn up, notably Vin Diesel's Groot, who wears out a joke in which he repeatedly announces, "I am Groot." Pom Klementieff reprises her role as Mantis, the sweet Guardian with antennae springing from her forehead.
     New characters include Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a warrior who flies through action sequences like a guided missile.
      A surfeit of characters fosters confusion, but, hey, simplicity never has been a Marvel virtue.
     At times, Guardians functions as a parade of creatures -- Cosmo, the Talking Dog included -- that are spun from the narrative, sort of in the way Marvel spawns movie after movie from its own DNA. 
   Watch for bulbous creatures with teeth who, at one point, reconsider their destructive nature. 
    Gunn summons the movie’s better angels whenever he can. One such moment finds expression in a conflict between lovable strong man Drax (Dave Bautista) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).
   Does Drax's capacity for empathy outrank Nebula's warrior intelligence? Take a guess.
   Despite splashes of profanity, a PG-13 rating, and a fair measure of destruction, Vol. 3 seems intent on taking a sentimental journey that synchs with the idea that some of these characters are taking their leave. 
   At two hours and 29 minutes,  Guardians can be accused of bloat. But Rocket’s origin story settles the movie down, building toward what many will regard as an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
   So to get back to the Saturday morning TV experience of it all; I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I wasn't sometimes tempted to change the channel, but I felt a jolt of mood improvement as the movie worked its way toward a feel-good finale that helps conquer resistance.
     I guess this could be described as the third-act redemption that makes Guardians 3 tolerable. 

*Sure enough, one such aficionado provided an explanation:
"Gamora was killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and brought back to life in Avengers: Endgame in the form of an alternate universe version of herself who has no memory of their relationship."
As for me, I've always found it a bit of a burden to try to keep track of all the connections among characters in the MCU movies.