What We Learned This Week: April 1-7

LESSON #1: BUILDING A CINEMATIC UNIVERSE IS HARD— With the impending arrival of Avengers: Infinity War marking a peak as the seventh film of the planned ten-film third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Patrick Shanley of The Hollywood Reporter asked the question “Can Anyone Besides Marvel Make a Cinematic Universe Work?” and it’s a good one.  We’ve seen Universal Pictures flop with its “Dark Universe” of movie monsters and Warner Bros. unable to find the same success with their DC Comics titles.  Franchises with sequels can be done (Transformers, Star Wars, Fast and Furious, etc.).  It’s the intertwining of standalone films and storylines that can exist on their own outside of the combinations that is key.  That requires developing more than one narrative and character.  Marvel did it right with by having patience with its unified vision.  Nothing was rushed.  The other attempts have not shown that level of patience.

LESSON #2: BELIEVE IN CINEMATIC GUILTY PLEASURES— The arrival of Pacific Rim: Uprising side-by-side with the nostalgic energy of Ready Player One calls to mind the idea of guilty pleasures.  Some movies are never going to win Oscars, but are just flat-out fun and garner repeat viewings for easy entertainment.  A fellow Chicago film critic buddy of mine always tries to assert that there are no such things as guilty pleasures.  If a film is good for someone to a pleasurable level, it must have some objective merit worth a higher rating without shame or the need to defend it.  I see his point, but I disagree.  I think it’s perfectly OK, realistically even-keeled if you will, to recognize the differences found between artistic integrity of a film and the fun value.  Honestly, we do the very same with the vice versa end of the highbrow other stuff.  For example, a film like Schindler’s List or any Terrence Malick film can easily be recognized for its artistic superiority and seriousness, but no one is going to Netlfix-and-Chill to a Holocaust film or an Emmanuel Lubezki slideshow of familial hate and trees.  If we’re going to put qualifiers on one end, why not the other?

LESSON #3: DON’T ALWAYS BELIVE FILM SNOBS— From guilty pleasures, we switch the gears to revered classics and faked bragging rights.  Film snobs exist in this world (I work amongst them constantly), but, let me tell you, the majority of them are full of sugar-honey-iced-tea.  First, they don’t admit to finding fun in those aforementioned guilty pleasures.  They were silly kids and teens once too, and I’ll put money on them geeking out to some adventure or playing princesses in a younger life.  They didn’t always watch French New Wave films on 35mm.  The second point of fakery stems from this Gizmodo article by James O’Malley presenting the top movies film snobs say they’ve seen but never actually have.  Those types of film snobs feel the need to rub our commoner noses with notions like “you’re not a true cinephile if you haven’t seen ____” or “you haven’t lived unless you’ve seen ___.”  If they are faking that, they deserve to be called out.  You have my permission to troll the hell out of these people with every meme of movie commercialism possible.

LESSON #4: AVOID PURVEYORS OF THE WORST CLICHES OF FILM REVIEW— Speaking of film snobs and piggybacking off of last week’s column, film critics are often guilty of hyperbole of their own.  Props to Feelin’ Film Facebook discussion group regular Jacob Neff for providing this Letterboxd list piece by Erik Bazjert on the worst frequently-used cliches in film reviews.  I adore this list and know too many film critics who fall for these and write with a pull-quote/pun methodology of little substance.  Worst of all, more often than not, these cliches are celebrated and even encouraged by every studio’s marketing departments to fill their posters, packaging, and signage with these overused and weak zingers.  Even if I never get to scratch off that bucket list item of having one of my reviews cited on a DVD/Blu-ray cover, I, for one, actively try to avoid every single one of these tired and ultimately meaningless expressions.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  He is a proud member and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on FacebookTwitterMedium, and Creators Media.

Episode 098: Black Panther

Black Panther has arrived and Marvel’s latest film is shattering box office records and receiving plenty of praise in its first weekend. We’re joined by Emmanuel Noisette of Eman’s Movie Reviews to discuss the cultural importance and quality of entertainment that Ryan Coogler’s film brings.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:02:12

(Aaron – Hamilton: An American Musical)

Black Panther Review – 0:09:21

The Connecting Point – 1:30:15


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Music: Going Higher – Bensound.com

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MOVIE REVIEW: Black Panther

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

GOING IN

This is the most excited I’ve been for a Marvel film in several years. Black Panther looks to be set in a completely unique world that feels like an African Asgard. The importance of this superhero film for African Americans is significant, too, and cannot be dismissed. With a cast of incredible actors of color plus two of my favorite Tolkien-universe stars, and director Ryan Coogler whose never made anything less than an excellent film, expectations are high that this will be a comic book movie to remember. Plus, his superhero persona is a cat. I mean, c’mon… who doesn’t love cats?

2 Hours and 14 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

There’s nothing quite like that feeling when a highly hyped movie delivers the goods. It’s euphoric and can lead to long bouts of smiling the rest of the day. When that film is in a genre that has largely become stagnant and routine, a diamond emerging from the rough is an even bigger deal, and cause for great celebration. Those who have followed Ryan Coogler’s brief career thus far (Fruitvale Station, Creed) knew the young director had the chops to pull of a great Black Panther movie, and boy did he ever.

Early in the film, T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) tells him “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This little nugget of wisdom feels like foreshadowing because that is exactly what Coogler and this fantastic cast have done with Black Panther. Marvel movies make money and are highly enjoyable, so the formula thus far has worked just fine. But Coogler, who also co-wrote the film, has definitely elevated that formula and created something with so much more depth than the majority of comic book films. Fans are constantly clamoring for these films to be more than just jokes and great action, and to have some genuine stakes. Because of the more personal level of the conflict in Black Panther it has those necessary stakes, both for T’Challa as a king and the nation of Wakanda. Coogler’s film also tackles the reality of African American history while comparing that to an incredibly advanced civilization free from colonization and bondage. The subtle but strong way the story handles all of these topics is what makes it so special.

Well, that and the acting. Black Panther features a standout cast that just rocks it in almost every role. Andy Serkis steps out of the motion capture suit to play villain Ulysses Klaue and promptly steals every scene he is in. It’s a performance that is dripping with that exaggerated comic book style and I ate up every second he was on screen. Pairing with him in the villain role is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, who unsurprisingly is phenomenal. Goodness gracious can this guy act! I’ll be blunt – these two together are the best Marvel villains we’ve seen. In Killmonger, for once Marvel has given us a villain worth caring about, and the difference in personality and motivation between he and Klaue makes for superb entertainment. Other standouts are Danai Gurira as Okoye, as T’Challa’s Wakandan General and absolute bad-ass warrior. Her performance is fierce and she epitomizes the strength of Wakandan women who may live under a patriarchy, but are every bit as equal and valued as the men. I could go on and on, but the aforementioned Letitia Wright also was excellent. As T’Challa’s sister, she provides an interesting picture of someone who has grown up with the comfort and technology of a secret tribal country yet still has the sensibilities of a wide-eyed teenager. She gives the film plenty of its humor and is the primary vessel for us to learn about and fall in love with Wakandan vibranium tech (which is AWESOME).

The setting of Wakanda is a beautiful, at times breathtaking, fascinating sort of African Asgard. The filmmakers took great care to make each tribe look and feel unique. Everything about this world felt so vibrant and traditional, from the rituals to the manner of conversation. Much of the score features tribal music with beating drums that fit perfectly, but at times it also switches up to modern musical styles. This is best shown in one particular fight scene where the style of music alternated back and forth based on which character was shown in battle.

Black Panther is truly great, but it isn’t quite perfect. My two biggest complaints about the film are its CGI and a few of the narrative choices made during the climax that felt like shortcuts. The climax also felt a little long to me, but that’s a minor quibble. The CGI being wonky was a major problem in a genre that showcases its heroes using their abilities. Many times it was so bad that it took me out of the moment and lessened the intensity of the action sequence taking place. There are definitely great moments, many relating to the Panther’s kinetic reflecting suit, but overall it was still a letdown from a studio that should be acing that element.

VERDICT

Black Panther may not be king of the MCU, but it certainly is a worthy challenger for that mantle. The film’s deep themes and focus on developing characters makes it linger in your thoughts even after the high has passed. This is the first Marvel film in a long time that I immediately purchased tickets to see again. There are so many great lessons and they’re all contained in a beautifully unique wrapper unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Representation matters and Black Panther is certainly an important step forward in film, but it’s also just a damn good comic book movie and reminder of what the genre can be at its height. Wakanda Forever.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 084: Thor: Ragnarok

For this week’s episode we find ourselves leaving travelling with the mighty Thor on his third solo adventure. Indie filmmaker Taika Waititi takes the reigns of the MCU and molds Thor: Ragnarok with his signature comedic style. The result is an aesthetically unique, visually striking, and hilarious new superhero film. But is that enough? We both enjoyed the film, but its absence of emotional weight provides us with an opportunity for a big conversation about how important stakes are in the comic book film genre.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:04

Aaron (The Room)
Patrick (Burnt)

THOR: RAGNAROK Review – 0:20:21

The Connecting Point – 1:11:49

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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What We Learned This Week: November 5-11

LESSON #1: SADNESS AND DISAPPOINTMENT SHOULD BE AMONG THE FIRST EMOTIONS EMERGING FROM UNEARTHED SECRETS— Let me just start this whirlwind week to state what will be my universal stance.   I choose to stand on a shorter and calmer soapbox than others on the topic of revealed allegations of sexual misconduct that are popping up all over.   I choose to speak to something different than the immediate damning outrage and knee-jerk reactions that are becoming the norm with these headlines.  When these headlines arrive, from Kevin Spacey to George Takei, my first emotions are not anger.  They are sadness and disappointment.  I am sad that a person whose talent I recognize and work I admire and respect is now being torn down by their potential mistakes.  Even larger than the sadness is my disappointment in common people and their uninformed hot-takes that pile on top of allegations and not facts.  More on that comes in Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: WHERE ARE THE LIMITS?— A great deal of Lesson #1 echoes a fantastic Facebook discussion thread started by Feelin’ Film co-founder Aaron White this week.  It asked the essential question: “…at what point do we require more than just an allegation to ruin someone’s life forever?”  I will always be an “innocent until proven guilty” believer.  I don’t condone the content of the claims, but I refuse to label people until the label is proven to be proper.  However, I fear we have a majority society that reverses it to “guilty until proven innocent” with no basis, conscience, or respect.  I’m beginning to hate that lack of empathy and patience in people, from the clickbait press on down to trolls on Twitter.  When someone is found to be innocent, how willing will a public be to move on and let that previous hate and disdain go?

LESSON #3: THERE MAY NOT BE A BOTTOM TO THIS PIT— This might sound overly obtuse, but sexual harassment and misconduct is nothing new.  Expect more names and confessions for years.  That’s how alarmingly pervasive the behaviors have been.  For example (forgive the Fox News link) actress Maureen O’Hara was brave enough 70 years ago to try and get her story and voice heard on potential crimes committed and it created career consequences.  If you talked, even in truth, you lost your standing.  What is new is the ability of the public to listen and the landscape becoming more progressive to seek the proper justice, and that remains a very good global change.  The guilty deserve the consequences coming to them, but, again, let’s establish that guilt first.

LESSON #4: RESPECT AND SEEK CONTRITION—  Circle back to Lesson #2 for a seed in this next lesson.  Is there ever a good way to admit or reveal these mistakes?  What would happen if an actor or actress came forward on their own and admitted past mistakes before a story of allegations broke?  How much of a career suicide would that be?  More importantly, would you respect such honesty?  That’s where my sadness and disappointment and patience for innocence becomes a heart that respects those that seek contrition.  I think that’s huge and a step to a level of forgiveness that other folks aren’t willing to seek while they tweet and judge. Of all people, Louis C.K.’s admissions this week were really something.  Again, I can’t condone the behavior he admits, but I can respect his honesty and attempt at contrition.  I call that more positive than most of the ways these stories are spiraling out of control and temperament.

LESSON #5: THE BOTTOM LINE STILL MATTERS MORE THAN IT SHOULD— Social media can have their flag-waving moments of championing this entire cause of stomping out the atmosphere where harassment and misconduct are no longer accepted.  But make no mistake, the studios and corporations care about that flag-waving unity a distant second to the almighty bottom line.  They can say replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World is for the right reasons, but what they are really trying to do is save a costly project from getting a bloodbath haircut from box office protests.  They’re willing to spend millions in order to renew attention, save face, and, more selfishly important, save more millions.

LESSON #6: DISNEY IS NOT AFRAID TO THROW MONEY AND CLOUT AROUND— Disney has spent billions in the past to buy the worlds of Marvel and LucasFilm and has banked even more billions because of those properties.  With an air of “if you can’t beat them, buy them,” Disney has engaged business talks to flat out buy the majority of 21st Century Fox.  Fanboys go straight the dream of seeing the worlds of X-Men and The Fantastic Four welcomed into the MCU.  They miss what could lead to the erasure of 80+ years of proud studio history.  Put caution with the coolness of this.

LESSON #7: IN ADDITION, DISNEY IS GREEDY— As mentioned in this column earlier this year, theater companies are reeling.  AMC is losing a fortune and Regal is desperate to raise prices to cover box office bombs.  Yet, here comes Disney with an unprecedented profit grab focused on securing their take of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Read the details here.  Sure, Disney has the product everyone wants, but it’s the theaters that bring them in and sell the tickets.  This should be a partnership, not a dictatorship.

LESSON #8: DON’T F–K WITH JOURNALISTS— Speaking of studio bullying and big-wig hubris, even the supposedly unstoppable and untouchable Walt Disney Company can lose a staring contest with the First Amendment and public pressure.  After blacking out L.A. Weekly from screenings in retaliation to some previous bad press, several critics groups united to disqualify Disney properties from their upcoming year-end awards to back their fellow journalists.  The display of justified critical brotherhood drummed up the right public support.  Disney blinked and lifted its sanctions.  I guess like Midas, they can’t resist the urge for gold. Let that be a lesson to the big-wigs.  You can’t silence the newsmakers.

LESSON #9: DON’T COUNT YOUR CHICKENS BEFORE THEY ARE HATCHED— Universal Studios threw a whole of bunch of money and hullabaloo at their “Dark Universe.”  They secured high-end talent and made big plans, but forgot one thing we mentioned earlier: the almighty bottom line.  These plans and projects have to sell.  Tom Cruise’s The Mummy vehicle bombed at the box office and was ravaged with bad reviews.  Now, mutiple levels of sunk costs are lost and Universal has pulled the plug.  Studios, take your time and let connections grow organically.  Start small and pace yourself.

LESSON #10: LUCKILY, RIAN JOHNSON MADE OUR WEEK— This week has seen plenty of hate sent in Disney’s direction and endless scandal.  One really nice story of good news to come out of Disney, especially considering their recent string of disposable directors, was to hear that they are empowering Star War: The Last Jedi and Looper director Rian Johnson to create a new Star Wars series trilogy with original stories and characters away from the Skywalker/Solo universe.  In a day and age where many of us call out all of the sequels and remakes, something fresh applied to a big property is an exciting step.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

What We Learned This Week: October 29-November 4

LESSON #1: SCOUTING THE RIGHT TALENT IS KEY TO MARVEL’S SUCCESS— How does this low-risk MCU blueprint keep coming up with winners? One way is by scouting comedic talent in front of and behind the camera. Look first at the casting of Marvel’s core leads: Robert Downey, Jr.Chris EvansChris PrattPaul RuddBenedict Cumberbatch, and, in Thor: Ragnarok‘s case, Chris Hemsworth. Each of them (follow the links) bring an easily-activated range of humor to not take themselves so seriously. If you’re shooting for overall levity, you call on the nimble and agile.  The same search for farce can be said for many of Marvel’s directorial choices: Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Anthony and Joe Russo, James Gunn, and Peyton Reed. All have witty and wisecracking credits on their resumes. Add director Taika Waititi’s name to that list. The peppy New Zealander behind Hunt for the Wilder People and What We Do in the Shadows merges his wholesome storytelling sensibilities with a frisky and playful side of sarcasm to sharpen the camp of the comic book content of Thor: Ragnarok.

LESSON #2: NETFLIX CAN STILL BE A BIT OF A BALLHOG— Jeff Huston of “I Can’t Unsee That Movie” has an excellent editorial piece recently talking about the day-and-date release strategy of Netflix.  Thanks to their deep pockets to win some distribution bids on prominent international film festival performers like The Meyerowitz Stories, First They Killed My Father, and Our Souls at Night, high caliber independent films are available on their streaming service at the same time as a soft and limited theatrical release.  The article calls into question how this practice actually does a disservice to the theater end of things and I happen to agree, though I celebrate Netflix plenty (see next lesson) for getting the “gets.” While it’s nice that the arthouse theater scene is being filled with something, the Netflix availability dramatically shortens any helpful effect of attendance the arthouse could really use.  There’s got to be a middle stagger of compromise in there.  Give the arthouse 4-8 weeks of exclusivity and then Netflix gets it forever, something to that effect where both benefit.

LESSON #3: NETFLIX IS ALL-IN ON ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING— We’ve been seeing Netflix’s not-so-quiet surge all year with their self-financed original feature film offerings and have been amazed.  They keep getting bigger, especially with Will Smith’s Bright around the corner.  Now the ambition and push have a target number and it’s bigger than we thought.  Recently, the streaming giant said their 2018 goal is 80 original films.  That is an astounding number that runs circles around Hollywood studios that maybe put out a quarter of that into the multiplexes.  Love them or hate them, Netflix is quadrupling down on being a big-time player.

LESSON #4: DEMAND-BASED PRICING IS GOING TO BE AN INTERESTING EXPERIMENT— We filmgoers don’t often see the business dealings happening behind the curtain and multiplex doors.  For a taste of it, read the strict details Disney is placing on theater chains for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and you’ll get an idea of the bitter competition for the almighty dollar.  All we see is ticket prices going up and wondering why while we shake our heads and still open up our wallets.  In an effort to earn a little extra, the Regal Cinemas chain recently announced a trial of demand-based/surge pricing where the hits will cost more than the flops on your receipt.  Seeing the business end of that Last Jedi example, I get theaters trying to squeeze, but one has to wonder if such practice will work.  I don’t like its chances.  All I see are movie studios then asking for a bigger cut on top.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

MOVIE REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)




Going In

More like Thor: Ragnarock ‘n Roll, amirite? From what we’ve seen in trailers, Taika Waititi’s film looks to be a wild ride bursting with color, sound, and laughs. I am admittedly burned out on the superhero genre, but Thor: Ragnarok could be something fresh instead of the standard Marvel fare, and that gives me hope. Embracing the Asgardian mythology and combining Thor’s world with one of my favorite comic book stories (Planet Hulk) provides opportunities galore for rich storytelling. I have faith in Waititi and expect that at the very least he and this impressively assembled cast will provide viewers with a fun time at the movies.


COMING OUT

If Thor: Ragnarok is one thing, it’s funny.  No, that’s not a strong enough word. It’s hilarious. Laugh out loud funny. Multiple times. For those who are familiar with Taika Waititi’s filmography this should come as no surprise. The man’s comedic timing is truly great, and his role (you didn’t even know he was acting in the film did you?) steals the show. As a director, Waititi sets the film firmly in its comedic tone right from the start, and it never lets up. Almost everyone gets in the action, from Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric and entertaining Grandmaster to Tessa Thompson’s alcoholic but strong Valkyrie, and of course Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have plenty of fantastic banter between them. Thor: Ragnarok‘s humor really is its strongest feature and it’s some of the best the MCU has to offer.

But what about the story? If you’re looking for this to be the Marvel film that bucks the routine style of previous films, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The incredible electronic, neon, fantasy aesthetic is a very cool coat of paint on the same old formula. Heroic actions and sacrifice just don’t have much weight to them because everything is a joke in this world. There were numerous conversations where I thought that meaningful character development was coming, but there is never a dramatic payoff. The humor is a constant undercurrent and while it makes the film a lot of fun to watch, it has no depth or staying power because we never connect with the characters or events on anything more than a surface level.

That’s not to say that characters don’t have arcs – they do. This is a hero’s journey for Thor, but other characters must also find out who they truly are if Asgard is going to be saved from the Goddess of Death. That goddess, played by the incredible Cate Blanchett, had potential to be one of the best Marvel villains. Her backstory is intriguing and the film does a great job with the Norse mythology as a whole. Unfortunately, she has little to do other than sling knives around and recite history. She does definitely bring it in the action department, though, and is a worthy foe for Thor and his team. When she’s at her strongest and Thor goes full God of Thunder, it is a sight to see.

Verdict

Thor: Ragnarok plays in an exciting new genre for Marvel. Its overall aesthetic and tone commit fully to the comedic nature of the MCU and results in one of the funniest Marvel films to date. If a fun, entertaining, visually striking, and hilarious experience is what you’re after, this is a must see. It’s too bad that Waititi couldn’t give it a little more depth and heart, though, because that’s what would have truly been something new. As it stands, Thor: Ragnarok will wow you for a few hours, but you’re likely to forget all about it in a few days.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 066: Spider-Man: Homecoming

This week we’re excited to be talking about our friendly neighborhood web-slinger and his triumphant return to Marvel storytelling control. Spider-Man: Homecoming is fun, fun, fun. We discuss new tech, getting the high school setting right, and who our favorite Spider-Man of the past 20 years is.

What We’ve Been Up To – 001:15

(Aaron –  Board Games/Pandemic Legacy: Season 1)
(Patrick – The 48-Hour Film Project)

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review – 0:23:59

The Connecting Point – 1:12:47

Contact

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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Guardians of the MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For weeks, the Disney/Marvel marketing machine has been dropping 30-second nuggets of hype on our television screens, promising copious amounts of adorable Baby Groot shenanigans and Drax the Destroyer punch lines. And while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes good on those promises, this is a decidedly different experience from Volume 1, mostly in that there is a lot less galaxy guarding and a lot more reconciling with daddy issues. It’s a cinematic equivalent of spending two hours on a therapist’s couch, with a few action sequences thrown in to appease any of the natives who might be getting restless.

Spending time addressing personal relationships between characters shouldn’t surprise anyone up to date with Marvel’s film library. Marvel historically uses sequels as association points for their future cinematic plans. In order for the Guardians to move forward, it was necessary to take a step back to fine tune some character arcs and throw a few lingering contrivances to the curb. Despite somewhat fidgety pacing and Director James Gunn’s compulsion to wring many of his gags of every last drop of usefulness, Guardians Vol. 2 mostly succeeds as a fun, humorous addition to the Marvel pantheon, and a workable catalyst for the summer 2017 onslaught of blockbuster entertainment.

When Guardians Vol. 1 premiered in 2014, only ardent Marvel comic book fans were in the loop on this collection of characters, none of whom looked like any of the Avengers we had become accustomed to seeing on screen. It was considered a big risk for Marvel Studios- stepping out of their cinematic comfort zone- playing with toys from the back of the closet- hoping audiences would embrace these second tier creations. And it worked. But whenever something works, it undoubtably comes with an added burden to carry forward…. expectations.

So what is Gunn & Co. to do, now faced with the unenviable task of taking this ragtag cast of B-list characters to the next level? Fanboys are a brutal lot. Just look at the backlash lobbied against nerd demigod Joss Whedon when his vision for Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t meet with the ridiculous standard set forth from within grandma’s basements across the globe. Gunn could have taken the easy route. He had his golden ticket to fall back on- Chris Pratt, who’s boyish charm and charisma elevate even the most outlandish of flawed premises. He could have served up another helping of intergalactic cheese, ending with a typical, “and I’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids,” mustache twirling villain meets a predicable and mildly anticlimactic demise. Make no mistake, all of this exists here, but Gunn also layers in some emotional character beats that add a depth and complexity to these characters both as individuals and as a team.

Guardians Vol. 2 lays a lot of its chips down on dealing with family conflict, the need for acceptance, and the power of redemption. In Peter Quill (Pratt), questions about his past are answered, not necessarily to his liking, but in a way that allows him to determine the type of person he ultimately chooses to become. His curiosity about his father has always consumed him, yet what keeps him whole is the memory of his mother and the Walkman she gifted him. She was the one that was always there for him, until she wasn’t. Not even an all powerful, scene chewing Kurt Russell wielding promises of immortality is going to stand between that.

For Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), sibling rivalry- a construct of a father with ulterior motives- comes to a violent head, where festering animosities collide in a burst of emotion and enlightenment. Gillan’s tortured, angry Nebula is a stand out, and the catharsis she and her sister work toward is earned in every respect.

For Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the facade of being a wise talking douche-bag is challenged. What he discovers about himself is a true need for others- a compulsion to be a part of a family- and his propensity to distance himself from others is a wall of his own construct to shield himself from having to admit as such.

Refreshingly, much of the emotional weight of the film falls on the dark blue shoulders of Yondu (Michael Rooker). He is the Severus Snape of the series, altogether loathed and loved within the course of an hour. His is the redemptive spirit that holds court over the film, ultimately rebinding the family unit that has been tested.

Don’t be concerned with all of the Freudian psychoanalysis however, for when these themes start to weigh the film down, you can count on another influx of Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) antics or a bout of infectious Drax (Dave Bautista) belly laughing to lighten the mood. Gunn is fully aware that a need to see spaceship battles and explosions are requisites he cannot ignore completely, even if his dual commitment to developing his characters and his need to sate his audience’s desire for action sometimes struggle to play nicely together.

Visually, Guardians Vol. 2 sticks with the same motif that worked in the first film, using a color palate and set designs that feel like a space opera created by Dr. Seuss. The battle scenes are ambitious, but sometimes feel a bit too busy and suffer as a result from a cacophony of sight and sound that is impossible to decipher. The soundtrack is becoming an important “character” in the series as well, and again regales us with an eclectic mix of 80’s nostalgia, eagerly ripped from the stereo of our parent’s sedan or from the “middle-aged white persons” list in karaoke bars. Seriously, you know you’re cranking “Brandy” when the opportunity presents itself.

I suppose it’s apropos that Guardians Vol. 2 would be the film that topples The Fate of the Furious from the domestic box office perch. A series that roots itself in family, supplanted by another. Guardians and Furious seem to be kindred spirits, both harboring in over the top action yet allowing for room to breathe and grow. Guardians has positioned itself to move nicely forward, having rid itself of much of the personal baggage leftover from Vol. 1.

Yet, there will be a bit of backlash against Guardians. It’s standard for these types of films. I don’t like to throw around the term critic proof, as films like this are usually categorized. Everything should be considered for subjective analysis, even if it will rake in a mountain of cash regardless. Don’t tell me I need to lighten up, or that it’s a “popcorn movie.” Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any blockbuster film shouldn’t be held to the highest standard. The minute we stop caring about characters and how they fit into ongoing stories is the minute we start enabling studios to churn out cinematic chum that blind masses of filmgoers will swarm towards in any regard. Do you really think the majority of people flocking to the theaters for Marvel movies are looking for something with depth? Ask yourself…how many people got up after the screen went blank, oblivious to the five post credit sequences still to come? How is this still a thing with Marvel movie audiences? Marvel doesn’t have to try anymore. They could easily cater to the lowest denominator, and yet, they don’t. They still care about the fans, unlike that Michael Bay franchise that somehow continues to gorge itself on the shekels of middle class Americans. They still see a need for character development and conflict. I’m not saying don’t criticize, just be careful what you’re criticizing. Be upset about the way that Guardians handled Quill’s daddy issues if you need to, but don’t be upset that they brought them up and fleshed them out. Know the difference between criticizing and whining. We should always want the best effort, and I think for the most part Marvel has delivered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 being no exception. We are Groot.

Episode 056: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s The Fast & Furious, in spaaaaaaaace. Well, maybe not quite, but it’s close. With a strong theme of family resonating throughout, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives us much more to discuss than just really cool space battles (but there are plenty of those, too). The character depth here is a real strength and it’s clear that director James Gunn knows exactly the tone he’s going for. In our opinion, he mostly nails it. We have a fun conversation about this one. WE ARE GROOT.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:54

(Patrick – The Way, Way Back)
(Aaron – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Psycho-Pass, La La Land)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review – 0:20:26

The Connecting Point – 1:08:45

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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