Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dead on Arrival: Live By Night Flounders

Movie Reviewed: Live By Night

Director: Ben Affleck

Date: 29  June 2017

jamesintexas rating: **

I think reading the book prevented me from ever really liking this film. Of course, I think probably I would have seen all of its flaws and disappointments even if I had not been constantly comparing it. But having just read Dennis Lehane's rollicking, gripping novel by the same title, it was impossible not to wish that Ben Affleck tamped down his own instincts and instead just give a bit more of the novel, of Lehane's snappy prose and plotting.  Instead, Live By Night gets bogged down in the swampy plot concisions that make me care less about most characters, rob the story of its power, and provide little of the fun of the story and the time period.

A robbery of a card game leads to a romance between a Boston policeman's son Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) and Irish waitress Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Of course, Emma's the girlfriend of mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister), and a robbery turned accident leads to desperate measures when Joe has to flee, and Emma ends up lost in the crash of a sunken car in the river.

Part 2 of the story takes place in Ybor City, Florida, where Coughlin becomes a big boss working for Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and coordinates the rum-running business of the 1920's Prohibition era. He falls for Graciela (Zoe Saldana) who, sadly, is more of an idea than a fully-formed person in the film (unlike the book which delves deeply into her politics, her loves, and her psychology). Coughlin relies upon his wits and loyal friend Dion (Chris Messina) as he comes up against the KKK and the fervent anti-alcohol powers represented by born-again Christian Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), a compelling character whose return from Hollywood bears significant scars and horrors. Her storyline is a haunting one, but ultimately, the film just doesn't fully add up.

Affleck's got a good cast here with Messina and Saldana, Chris Cooper and Brendan Gleeson, but I think it might have been more interesting to cast himself as one of the feared bosses, Albert or Maso. Neither of the actors who play them has the gravitas to deliver a memorable performance, so the film has an imbalance. There's some action that is photographed well, and the film could stand to use more of its swampy, Florida locale. The ending does not have as much emotional power as it should.  For Affleck as a director, this film feels like a step backwards from Argo, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone. My recommendation? Read the book, and watch one of his other films.

Movie Reviewed: Silence

Director: Martin Scorsese

Date: 20 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ****

Silence is a four star film, a masterpiece of storytelling and thought, marrying some breathtakingly beautiful imagery with complex themes and characters. In 17th Century Japan, a horrific opening scene depicts brutal torturing of Catholic Portuguese missionaries as witnessed by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira disappears and is thought to have turned against the faith, but in this era, communication is scant. Rumors of rumors, whisps of letters exist of Ferreira's possible apostasy. In a nod to Joseph Conrad, two young fathers Garupe (Adam Driver) and Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) embark on a mission to enter the country and locate their mentor, to find of what happened to him, and to try to save his soul in the heart of darkness, as it were.

Catholicism was banned in Japan at this time. Garupe and Rodrigues's infiltration of the country involves a drunken, troubled Japanese fisherman Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) with a dark past, sects of hidden underground Christians in desperate need of ministering, and hiding during the daylight to avoid detection. The subterfuge takes a mental toll on them as they find themselves prisoners within their hiding spots, unable to enjoy the simplest pleasures. As they travel further and further inland, they put more and more Christians at risk who shelter them, feed them, and bring their babies to be baptized by them in the hopes of reaching Paradise. The two men face a crossroads and decide to separate, and the crux of the film is how each man faces his crucible in the face of astonishing adversity.

I was really stunned by this film. What happens to both characters is astonishing and heart-breaking, as well as the performances by Driver and especially Garfield are intensely memorable. Long-haired, gaunt, and hollowed-out, both are miles away from their pop culture roles as Kylo Ren and Spider-Man. They represent different aspects of faith and are punished by their chosen ways to adhere to that faith. Garfield, in particular, does some incredible wordless communicating of his character's pain and guilt in many scenes. A Japanese interlocutor Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata, truly remarkable) offers a departure from Scorsese's usual hyper-kinetic bad guys like Tommy (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas or Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Gangs of New York, also penned by Kenyon College alum Jay Cocks. Deceptively introduced and slow-moving, Inquisitor Inoue carefully and deliberately stamps out the flames of Christianity as they pop up across Japan, swiftly setting moral dilemmas with vast consequences. Physically, he is no opponent, but he wields power through others. Inquisitor Inoue is more like the Warden in Shutter Island (Ted Levine) who offers this nihilistic wisdom to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio): "There's no moral order as pure as this storm. There's no moral order at all. There's just this: can my violence conquer yours?"

Here, the statement that lingers far after the movie finishes has to do with the role of the missionary work itself: Inquisitor Inoue announces, upon heinous torturing of innocents, "The price of your glory is their suffering!" recasting missionary work as hubristic selfishness and forcing powerful questions upon the work itself and the individual. To relieve suffering is Christ-like; to sacrifice yourself, the same. How can a person stand resolute in the face of such suffering? When is refusing to break itself an act of pride? A character asks another "Do you have the right to make them suffer?"

The film takes on strange, unexpected turns, bringing in a very novelistic narrator of a Dutch sailor Dieter Albrecht observing the later events, reminding me a bit of Cloud Atlas. I found its ending to be profoundly spiritual and complex, offering readings of what faith, self-denial, and atonement can truly be. The notion of praying to silence, of hearing silence, of hearing the voice of Christ within or despite that silence is something that Scorsese has wrestled with in many of his films. His attention to the cloudiness and mistiness, the blurry divisions between land and water, the cavernous tunnels and rocky shores, and the persistent fog all seem Malickian at times in its stillness and thematically linked to deception and the unseen. There are images in Silence that I will never forget because of their horror and elemental brutality involving the sea and fire, shocking because of their rawness. With Silence (on the heels of The Wolf of Wall Street) Martin Scorsese continues to prove that he is as vital a filmmaker at age 75 as he was at any age. Silence should stand as a great cinematic spiritual exploration alongside Last Temptation of Christ and The Tree of Life. A film about 17th Century Japan has quite a bit to tell us about 21st Century America as well in its own oblique way with our nation's involvement in the complex, and some would say necessary, suffering of so many throughout the world. Scorsese leaves haunting questions behind. Is the price of our glory their suffering? And, do we have the right to make others suffer?

Healthy Comedy: The Big Sick

Movie Reviewed: The Big Sick

Director: Michael Showalter

Date: 20 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Kumail Nanjiani is the shining star of The Big Sick, a fictionalized account of his life and meet cute and relationship with U of C grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) where they both find themselves as a couple still learning about each other and hurting each other when a crisis occurs.

Emily's subsequent falling into a medically induced coma, resulting in a strange series of events with her out-of-town relatives. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Beth and Terry, Emily's parents, who fly in from North Carolina, and the awkward détente occurs in the uncomfortable chairs of hospital waiting rooms as both sides negotiate each other and this emotional territory. 

The script (by Nanjiani and the real-life Emily V. Gordon) balances Emily's family with Nanjiani's family, notably Azmat and Shereen (Anupam Kher, the wonderful analyst in Silver Linings Playbook, and the formidable Zenobia Shroff), with some dinner table scenes rich in quick humor and insight. Nanjiani himself, with his droll and straightforward delivery, hits some uproarious punchlines with memorable impact (one moment in particular is completely unexpected and uproarious), and his own comedic community of Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and Kurt Braunohler offers a warm, supportive environment. His friends support his dream of being a stand-up comic, stumble and shine in their own pursuits of the opportunity to earn a showcase at the fabled Montreal Comedy Festival. Showalter weaves the story in and out of these different groups, maybe not handling all of them as deftly (or equally) as he could but certainly in a satisfying way. I think the third act is a bit clunky, the film always has a sweetness to its storytelling. Part of that is the charisma of Nanjiana and Kazan.

The story really is about a clash of cultures between Nanjiani and his Pakistani family, forcing him to hide his skepticism of Islam and the arranged marriages promoted by his parents in a hilarious sequence of "drop-in" dates by young, available Pakistani women arranged by his mother. And the resolution of the conflict is messy and not easy. I'm catching up on comic/actor Aziz Ansari's new show Master of None, and it deals similarly with familial expectation and deception in the wake of the American Dream. The films asks the question of how a person builds his or her identity when the pull of family is so strong.

I liked this film, really liked it. Hospital waiting rooms are unlikely places to stage comedic scenes, but Showalter and his crew pull it off. They get the uncomfortable chairs and bland cafeteria food and the hyper-competent doctors and nurses which all still add up to terror when someone you love is in a room. The film's humor is powerful, and the humanity of all the characters is potent. The Big Sick is produced by Judd Apataow, whom I blame a bit for its third act faltering; he seems to offer similar tricks and tropes to his comedic films of self-discovery, and it was hard for me not to want the film to slow down and show Nanjiani's one-act show uninterrupted or in a larger form, instead of using it as a standard Apatow-montage ala Seth Rogen cleaning up his apartment in Knocked Up or Amy Schumer throwing out her bottles in Trainwreck.  Romano and Hunter are given some pretty nice scenes together with some pathos and humor, and I think their work here is brilliant. Both are such professionals that it is great fun to see each of their characters build a different relationship with Nanjiani with unique epiphanies and quirks. Kazan suffers, ostensibly, because of lack of screen-time, but when she is onscreen, she is memorable and tough and fun to watch. Concluding scenes are robbed a bit of their power because Emily is simply off screen so much that the lags behind everyone else in terms of development and arc. Ultimately, the film is touching and warm and works as a comedy with genuine emotional moments. Well-done.

A final note: the film is ostensibly set in Chicago with references to Northwestern Medical Center, but I think it lacks any real touch of the Windy City, even in the final scenes, which I think do not do a great job hiding that the street is filled with cars bearing New York plates. The poster, alas, is misleading but still striking. 

Image result for images of The Big Sick

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Driven to Succeed: Edgar Wright Wins

Movie Reviewed: Baby Driver

Director: Edgar Wright

Date: 6 July 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Propellerheads-"Take California." 
So, with his marvelously fun new film Baby Driver, Edgar Wright has taken us on a kinetic and sonic ride forward into the future, integrating music and sound into his film in a way that mirrors our modern world, where so often people walk through the aisles of HEB with earbuds in, soundtracks to our lives blasting in our ears, the stars of our own imaginary films. Or, maybe that's just me? On my Walkman, I jammed out to specific work-out mix tapes in high school: hodgepodge assemblages of TV themes, movie soundtrack songs, James Bond title sequences, and wonderful randomness taken from my parents' record collection: the theme from Miami Vice would bleed into U2's Batman Forever song into Duran Duran's "A View To a Kill." Here, the music comes from mix tapes and old iPods ("one for each mood" the characters says). The eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted wheel man, rocks out to a raucous opening bank robbery scene, set to "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, using his wheel, windshield wipers, and whole car as an instrument before the bad guys jump in and the real synergy begins, and all hell breaks loose with a kaleidoscope of sweet driving moves, highway-defying mayhem, and general high-octane anarchy, although always able to be followed. We aren't in the world of chaos cinema, here; Wright always knows how to show us what we are seeing and have it mean something. And the music does not just rock in the background. The music continues to be punctuated by the intricate editing and world of Baby's soundtrack: music and movement in concert. I feel it is groundbreaking, a new kind of cinema experience.

Soul Coughing-"Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago" and "super bon bon."
Set in Atlanta where cavernous underground floors hide gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby sets to complete a number of heists with a multitude of different partners Griff, Darling, Buddy, and Bats (Jon Bernthal, Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jaime Foxx). Their crime wave is dictated by Doc, with Baby awaiting a call on a burner phone, powerless to say no (because of certain debts that he owes) but aching to leave this life behind him. Wright wisely shows us Baby's home life, a warm relationship with foster parent Joseph (CJ Jones) who knows the score and asks Baby the key questions about his actions of which he can surmise enough. Their signed conversations add an emotional resonance to Baby's actions. Flashbacks hint at a violent interlude early in his life, and Wright sets up Baby as a compassionate, good guy who falls for Debora (Lily James), a plucky waitress at a local diner he frequently visits. Debora describes a longing for the open road and music, and Baby connects this "one last job" to the beginning of a new life, possibly with her.

And that's where Darling, Buddy, and Bats come in: deeply violent and dangerous and mistrustful of Doc's confidence in Baby. Gonzalez, Hamm, and Foxx ooze menace, though Hamm gets the most screen time with his violent yet seemingly reasonable Buddy, who plucks an earbud from Baby occasionally to share in what he is listening to. Foxx is a Charlie Day-esque Wild Card, and his low growl works off of Spacey's non-nonsense businessman. It is fun to see so many strong actors and actresses playing off of each other. And, everything that can go wrong will during a surprising heist, appearing to endanger Baby's plan.

Duran Duran-"A View To a Kill."
Wright's plotting and characters careening off of each other is no match for his real achievement here: the integration of music completely into the film's rhythms. I have been in awe of Scorsese's use of the Stones, say, or everything Quentin Tarantino has done with his music, which has shaped my life and my own musical tastes. But what Wright does here is simply incredible.

U2-"Stay, (Faraway, So Close!)
From his opening scene to his last, the film's soundtrack blares, but it does more than that. It syncs, it integrates, it becomes a vital part of understanding Baby and the film. Baby walking to pick up coffee becomes an almost ballet-like sequence of balance and artistry, a modern day Singing in the Rain-esque homage with words from the song that he is listening to appearing in the graffiti and in the mouths of characters walking by him. It is a daring, striking scene, which my memory says consists of long takes (maybe one take), that just marvelously displays the possibilities of cinema. But Wright does not stop there. He's taking it to another level by having gunshots coordinate with drum beats in songs, from Queen to Blur, making the music a part of the movie's storytelling in a uniquely intimate and completely memorable way.

Tomoyasu Hotel-"Battle Without Honor or Humanity."
A car trunk slam. A car crash crunch. A smashed window. All become part of the music, part of the film. Baby listens to music the entire film, and so do we. A use of R.E.M.'s "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" underlines a nice scene with CJ and Baby; Queen's "Brighton Rock" is discussed by Buddy and Baby and then used later in a parking garage chase scene for the ages. The music infuses the film and is impossible to discuss separate from the film. Baby nearly always has one earbud in, listening to his tunes, and at one point, he asks the criminals whom he is driving to wait for him to start his mix over and then GO! Wright shows Baby's love of iPods (big and small, bedazzled) in a way that is really charming; (I cannot believe that the iPod has been out long enough to now be a throwback, worthy of a smile).

Franz Ferdinand-"Take Me Out."
Wright opened the film in a promising way, and there has to be a version of Baby Driver which featured more of this supporting cast circling in and out, various jobs and hilarity (confusion over movie character masks is a winner for me) and wheels spinning. Yet, Wright is content to tell Baby's story with its own arc, the wheels grip the ground, and the chase sequences always kept my interest and, at times, took my breath away. There is a substantial amount of heart alongside all of this style, and never did I feel like I was in the hands of a soulless technician, someone only concerned with how things looked and worked. The film has such humor and fun as befitting an Edgar Wright film. I think this film's propulsion reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that I similarly praised initially and gave 3 and a 1/2 stars, and it wound up being my second favorite film of that year, 4 stars, and deeply worthy of my admiration and love. I suspect more viewings of Baby Driver will only lead me to love its charms more.

Kenny Loggins-"Danger Zone."
Wright has done an amazing thing here. A summer movie that is fun. A driving heist musical. A novel cinematic experience that fully integrates an eclectic soundtrack. Kenny Loggins says, "You never know what you can do until you get it as high as you can go," and I think Edgar Wright can really do anything, even at high speeds, veins coursing with adrenaline, music working in tandem with image and story. Baby Driver is a leap forward and truly remarkable in so many ways.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Squadless: Suicide Squad Needs to Go Away

Movie Reviewed: Suicide Squad

Director: David Ayer

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: Zero Stars, maybe 1/2 * for make-up

So, I don't usually do this. I see fewer movies than I always want to, and I do not read reviews of recently released films before seeing them. I avoid trailers, generally, and I skip reading the puffy articles in Entertainment Weekly about upcoming films. So, I avoided much of the hype of David Ayer's Suicide Squad even though I do admit to having a color photo of Jared Leto's tattooed, grill-wearing Joker outside my classroom door. It is about government bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her recruitment of a super-secret-task-force of evil villains. But when high school students stopped by my door to tell me it was disappointing and they did not like it, I paid attention. How did such a big-budget spectacle go down in flames (especially if teens disliked it)?  And now that I have found time to watch Suicide Squad, I can confirm it is one of the worst movies that I have ever seen.

1. It feels edited in a way that hurts my head. My basic understanding is that the film was taken away from the director and recut by a film company that composes movie trailers. That makes a ton of sense because the film is a series of two-minute montages and quick cuts which replace storytelling and character development.

2. The film relies on clichéd musical cues that seem weird and strange. The soundtrack itself is fun, but I don't know why we are hearing Creedence, Eminem, and others in these little snippets that feel way too forced and too frequent.

3. There's bait and switch. This film is not a Joker film, and Jared Leto offers little more than a cameo. Sadly, the shadows of Harley Quinn's (Margot Robbie) origin story and his Arkham Asylum time are more interesting than anything else in the movie. And that's less than 90 seconds.

4. Characters spout off nonsense at a high ratio, including vagaries about being family (a family of misfit toys, I guess) in some attempt to offer camaraderie. Or, you get version of this tripe: "And we're the BAD GUYS!"  Or, this, "And, WE'RE the bad guys!"

5. Characters say "shocking" things to show how shocking they are.  It reeks of someone trying too hard to prove they are outrageous, like a kid cursing and looking around to see who hears.  I remember students carrying around 50 Shades of Grey and just waiting for an adult to ask them or challenge them about reading it. You are trying SO HARD.

6. The CGI is not good.  The villains (of the villains) are boring.  The twist is ho-hum.

7. There are too many characters in the film to care about or follow. I think there is a guy named Boomerang who has a Boomerang, an Australian accent, and slams beers. That's about it for character development.

8. Will Smith. His acting choices are just strange, devoid of his charisma and his intense power. A scene of his character Deadshot punching a bag in his cell reminded me of Ali and how much I wished that I was watching that film.

I was going to come up with 9 and 10, and then I gave up. This film is not worth spending more time than I have already spent thinking about it. I am just really glad that I didn't waste movie ticket and babysitter money on this dreck, though I did waste my time and space on my DVR. And, sadly, I think this was a compelling premise, undermined from within, and ultimately a missed opportunity.

Here's a parting shot: Vertigo never won an Oscar; Suicide Squad has one.

Wondrous Woman

Movie Reviewed: Wonder Woman

Director: Patty Jenkins

Date: 16 June 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, "Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." We are in a better world in many ways than the one that I grew up in, and I welcome Patty Jenkins' new film Wonder Woman which delivers as both an origin story of the Amazon warrior and a very fun adventure film. Gal Gadot's performance as the eponymous warrior is so winning, so full of charisma and strength, that this film is impossible not to like. For whatever its flaws are, Wonder Woman offers a contrast to the conventional tropes of these films. Strong women are welcome as are more movies that pass the Bechdel Test.

The most powerful scenes in the film are in its roughly thirty minute opening scene in Themyscera, where the Greek mythology is outlined and where we meet a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) and her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and various mentors including Antiope (Robin Wright) doing all kinds of intense combat-training. There's swordplay and bows and arrows and daring stunts completed while riding horses. It is akin to Rosa Klebb walking through the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. training area in James Bond's second film From Russia With Love: each physical task is more intense and amazing than the previous.  Diana yearns to be trained by Antiope despite her mother's warnings. When World War 1 fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on their beach, being chased by Germans who want to recapture plans that he has stolen, a brutal battle ensues that changes the insular world of Diana and her previously hidden life. Now, she must decide to engage with the world or to continue to hide behind a protective shield.

The scene shifts to war-era London after a wonderful conversation on a boat between Diana and Steve which is about as intense about gender and sexual politics as one would ever believe possible in a comic book film. We begin the conventional march towards completing a mission, with several memorable supporting players joining the cast: secretary, as Diana calls it, "a form of slavery" (Lucy Davis); sniper (Ewen Bremner); actor (Said Taghmaoui); guide (Eugene Brave Rock). Jenkins balances the film's intense themes and action with humor and various fish-out-of-water scenarios as Diana encounters the modern world. However, the central conflict is a powerful one: in a scene located in the trenches surrounding a No Man's Land, Diana encounters a woman cast out of her village by occupying forces, listens to her story, and is so moved by it that she is called to action. A ferocious battle ensues, heavy on the CGI and the Zack Snyder slow-motion fighting, but the impetus is a conversation and an emotion felt by the character. It is a human decision, an impulse based on grief, pain, revenge that leads to a decision which shapes the rest of the story. I cannot express enough that the strength of this movie lies in its quieter scenes and its construction, not necessarily in its big action scenes.

A word about those action scenes.  I loved the opening hand-to-hand combat training sequences and even the Germans on the beach, with the camerawork always being clean enough to follow the story and the action. It was riveting, reminding me of the opening of Gladiator. Then, the film descends into murky CGI and over-the-top jumps and flips, and I find myself a bit taken out by it. When Diana has super-powers and fights another similarly strong foe, I do not really understand the stakes and the rules. What does it take one person to defeat or kill another? I had the same problem in Superman when I just couldn't wrap my ahead around all of this throwing of people into buildings. How does Zod defeat Superman? How do we know when someone is winning a fight like this? Those concerns are no different here than in previous films of this type. I worry that these films have a director and then another director for the CGI fighting, and how do you mesh the two?

The film has a strong conclusion with a wonderful sequence that we get to experience twice due to the concussive ringing in the ears which Jenkins replicates for the audience. I forgive the film's telegraphing of its villain from a mile away and its sometimes clumsy handling of scenes. (The morning following an important shift in the characters is treated inconsequentially, as if the film is too shy to think about the implications of what it has done.) The examination of photographs on a bulletin board at the film's end has a quiet, powerful resonance, and it adds a haunted, elegiac quality to its frame. It is a very good movie which offers me hope for the future. I am excited to watch this film with my son and daughter someday.

Wonder Woman soars over the Bechdel Test. It has two or more women in it, all with names, who talk to each other about something besides a man. It has many strong, intelligent, compassionate, and wise women in it, all with names and importance (Antiope's legacy casts a shadow over Diana), who talk about their world, their lives, their feelings, their losses, and their legacy. So much more than what women characters have been regulated to in traditional superhero films.

Leia Organa, Clarice Starling, Leeloo, Trinity, Lola, Yu Shu Lien, and Beatrix Kiddo welcome you to the club, Diana. It needs to be larger.

Smash the door open for as many others as you can.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Guarding the Franchise: Fun Thrills and Tears in Capable Sequel

Movie Reviewed: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Date: 27 May 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

I think it is a testament to James Gunn's quirky weirdness as a director of perhaps the biggest film of the year that what I mostly remember, several weeks after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is the murderous interstellar rampage set to "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. There's slow-motion walking, Tarantino-esque nods, fun special effects as Yondu's whistle directs an orchestra of death, and it recaptures a bit of that jarring tone from the first film, the tone established by the unconventional placement of early 1980's pop music alongside space battles. Overall, I think that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 remains fun throughout, despite being overlong and overstuffed with battles, though I do not feel as enraptured with it as its original. That film was one of the best of the year and earned four stars from me.

After a mysterious opening scene with a flowy-haired, digitally retouched Kurt Russell driving a convertible on earth, Gunn opens the film with the familiar characters.  In a wonderful title card scene which undercuts our expectations, Gunn establishes that the Guardians are now tasked with protecting the universe for hire while squabbling within themselves. He carefully stages the scene with a ferocious monster but seems uninterested in showing us what we want to see.  Instead, we follow Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) as he runs playfully around the periphery of the scene. It is a charming beginning and establishes the relationship with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her race of golden warriors who trade protection for Gamora's seething sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The guardians must flee and separate as a result of Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) stealing some batteries and coming into snarky opposition with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), but another ship seems to rescue them at the last minute. A crash landing on a strange planet leads to both reunion and separation as Quill confronts aspects of his past, Rocket rejects the dynamics of the group, Gamora and Nebula discuss their tenuous relationship with their father and each other, and then there's Drax (Dave Bautista), who just seems to awesomely exists to be gigantically huge and titanically funny in his one-liners. When the strange ship lands, the Guardians separate, but unknowingly, they are being hunted by Yondu (Michael Rooker) with a price on their heads for their betrayal.

I won't say more because I don't want to reveal the plot's twists and turns, but Gunn crafts a satisfying tale set to an awesome soundtrack. At multiple moments, the screen is filled with such beautiful imagery and colors and planetary skyscapes that I marveled at Gunn's artistry and patience in holding the camera to let us enjoy the world. However, my main criticism is that the film is too long and too big-battle heavy, taking us away from the weird conversations and the relationships that ultimately distinguish this film among others of the genre. I think Guardians is at its best when the main characters are talking to each other, and there are just too few conversations like that is in this film. Gunn sacrifices those quieter moments for an expansive story, one in which sequel cultivation is a priority. That's why you get Sylvester Stallone showing up briefly and some other cameos at the very end. I think the best decision made by James Gunn was to promote Michael Rooker's character to featured player with more screen time and dialogue and more of a character arc. Rooker's Yondu is endlessly fascinating in look and action, and Yondu and Quill provide the emotional heft of the film in a surprising way. Gunn's use of Cat Stevens and Fleetwood Mac charms, and despite feeling like everyone needed to talk to each other more, I think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, often beautiful, meticulously crafted film that keeps laughter balancing tears, yes tears, in a summer blockbuster that showcases a ferociously violent Baby Groot in an off-kilter, strange twist on the traditional action-adventure. A welcome twist.