Sally Forth! (Onward, 2020)

Onward_PosterIt is Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Shy and reserved, he really has no friends and has always felt like his life was missing something very specific.  His dad.  When his mother was pregnant, Ian’s father died.  Sixteen years later the family has rebuilt itself with his big brother Barley and mother and his centaur stepfather.

Oh, yeah, by the way, Onward is set in a universe where the world is populated by elves, centaurs, ogres, mermaids, goblins and unicorns. Years ago there was magic, but as it was not something everyone could do, technology developed, starting with electricity…eventually, magic was largely forgotten.

On his sixteenth birthday, his mother hands him a gift from his father.  What they find is a wizard staff, a jewel and a spell that will bring their father back for one day so he can see who his sons have become.  Things go wrong and they bring him back from the waist down…this sets Ian and Barley on a quest to find a new jewel to complete the spell before sundown robs them of their time.

Onward keeps its world building deceptively simple.  The opening couple minutes set up exactly why we basically see a world a lot like our own, just with mythical creatures.  They have a lot of fun with a concept where technology has caused natural things to the different creatures to atrophy, so when Barley tries to tell people how things used to be, they laugh at him (why would a centaur need to run up to 70 miles when they have a car?) or become angry (are you telling pixies they are lazy for not flying?). And Barley seems easy to write off, all his knowledge is based in a Dungeons and Dragons style game that he claims is historically accurate.

I really found the characters endearing.  The side plots are also engaging, especially the boys’ mom who teams up with the Manticore (Octavia is delightfully manic) to secure a sword that can end a curse the boys are on track to unknowingly release.

The character designs are solid, though not groundbreaking for Pixar.  But they are fun to watch and the voice cast gives them a vivid life.  I also love how colorful the film it.  Even when they are contrasting the world without magic with a more grimy look, it is really nice looking.

I had a great time watching Onward and think people of all ages will really enjoy it.

Clearing House (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, 2018)

Jurassic_World_Fallen_Kingdom_PosterWell, after the debacle at the end of the last film, the Jurassic World Park was closed down. Now, the island is about to explode, because it is actually a dormant volcano.

There is controversy about people who want to save the dinosaurs on the island and those who think we should let them die.  But of course, there are those with darker plans.

Claire, the icy business woman from the previous film who learned the importance of getting a guy and having kids over a career from her nephews is now campaigning to save the dinosaurs. She is no longer involved with Owen, the cool sexist seventies throwback from the first film. She is hired by an estranged associate of the late John Hammond to go and save as many dinosaurs as possible to set them loose on a private island reserve. They bring Owen so they can save Blue (the good velociraptor from the last film). Things go awry, because this is a film in the Jurassic Park series.

The dinosaurs look great and I find both Owen and Claire far more likable in this adventure. The mystery behind the one kid in the film is kind of an interesting twist on the film’s themes, though it seems like it was played up as being a much…bigger deal than it really is.

The film continues the ideas began in the last film of militarized dinosaurs. And this film pretty much takes the perspective that the dinosaurs are the heroes now. But I am actually very intrigued by the way the chose to end the film.  Other films in the franchise hinted at this…but the next film could be quite interesting.

While the film is violent, it tends to be about as gory as any of the entries. Most of the kills are either offscreen or obscured. For the most part, I enjoyed Fallen Kingdom and felt that, for the most part, the story works and the film is pretty entertaining. And honestly? That is really all I want from a movie about genetically created dinosaurs.

All Stand Together Pt 5 (The Magnificent Seven, 2016)

Magnificant_Seven_2016While there had been a two season TV series in the late 90’s, the Seven Samurai inspired franchise had remained quiet. Certainly, plenty of films have used the “group of gunslingers or outlaws step up to help people in need.  It is one of the most popular western motifs.  But it took until 2016 for it to come back to life.

Set in 1879, Tycoon Bartholomew Bogue has overtaken the town of Rose Creek.  He owns the Sheriff and has had his men deputized. Forcing the people into labor, they are living in misery.  After he has some of the towns people killed to “lay down the law”, they seek the help of Sam Chisolm, a U.S. Marshall.  Chisolm starts recruiting people, starting with gambler Joshua Faraday, who is trying to get his horse back, but lacks funds. As they work their way back, they reach out to various individuals…a Mexican Outlaw named Vasquez, an old trapper named Jack Home.  He also brings in former Confederate officer named Goodnight Robicheaux and his partner Billy Rocks. Finally, they bring in exiled Comanche Warrior Red Harvest.

This film has a very conscious eye towards diversity.  Billy Rocks is a Korean immigrant skilled both with knives and guns.  Chisolm is a black man. And even the Confederate is explicitly portrayed as “not the racist kind”.  He clearly has a longstanding friendship with Chisolm and his relationship with Rocks is an equal partnership.

But this works in the favor of the film.  These characters all come from desperately different backgrounds, but come together to form a solid unit that trusts each other.  I found myself genuinely liking these characters.  Granted, a certain amount of this is due specifically to the cast.  Denzel Washington tends to bring a sense of authority to every role.  Chris Pratt of course has a likeable sweet boyishness that tends to run through his roles. Byung-Hun Lee is just kind of a dashing hero type.  You can always depend on D’Onofrio and Hawke to deliver terrific character performances.

And Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue? He is a clear cut, unambiguous bad guy. He does not even see himself as the hero of his story.  He just believes in “might makes right”.  When we are introduced to him, he steps into a church and shows no sense of respect for the faith of the parishioners.

Overall, this film is quite exiting and smartly chose to create an entirely new set of “Seven”.  It is also a bit darker and grittier.  That is not to say it is not fun, it definitely has it’s moments of levity.  I feel like the addition of a revenge element for one of the Seven was unnecessary, and even kind of undermines the idea of the willingness of these guys to sacrifice themselves for the town.

But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter and the Equalizer) delivers a pretty solid energetic modern western with the Magnificent Seven.

Father-Son Bonding (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, 2017)

guardians_vol_2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy was a bit of a risk for Marvel Studios.  It was really their first film that had little name recognition.  It also was their first film not closely tied to the Avengers.  And yet, under the guidance of James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded with a healthy dose of humor and action.  Towards the end of the film, Yondu mentions knowing who Starlord’s father is.  In this sequel, we meet dear old dad.

While fighting an inter-dimensional beast, Rocket steals some batteries from the Sovereign.  This results in a chase through space that culminates in Starlord meeting his father Ego. Ego is a “living” planet.  He has a human avatar who sired Starlord.  In the meantime, they are being hunted by Yondu and the Ravagers to collect a bounty for the Guardian set by the Sovereign.

Volume 2 carries forward with the same tone and attitude of the first film, making it a lot of fun to watch.  The opening credits are a blast to watch.  Easily one of the best opening sequences for a comic book film.  The cast has really come together and it shows in their performances.

The new cast adds to the fun, with Kurt Russell being a high point for…well being Kurt Russell.  He is one of those actors you hire because you want a “type” that is specific to a particular actor.  Call it the Goldblum Effect if you will.  You hire Jeff Goldblum for a movie because you want a “Jeff Goldblum Type”.

In addition, Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames and Michelle Yoeh have small but pivotal roles (obviously setting up Volume 3).  The film is full of blink and you might miss it fan service, but with James Gunn, it is not distracting (for the most part) and for people unfamiliar with the comics will be unnoticed.

Of course, the soundtrack is integral to this film, each song clearly chosen carefully by Gunn.  Marvel was wise to stick with Gunn for the Guardians brand because he has a very specific vision that allows these films to stand out from the Marvel Pack.

A lot of the humor this time around is coming from Drax (Dave Bautista) and Baby Groot. Some of the more surprising emotion comes from Michael Rooker’s Yondu.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 can be pretty intense and it is not really for young kids.  But teens and adults alike will find a lot to enjoy here.  Personally, I found Volume 2 to be a very fun film-going experience and find myself anticipating the next outing.

Oh, and by the way…there are five mid to post credit scenes.  So do not get up and head for the door right away.

Hooked On a Feelin’ (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014)

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_PosterWhen Marvel announced Guardians of the Galaxy, it was met with a pretty collective “huh?”  The announcement of director James Gunn was not much help.  Gunn had directed 2 films prior.  The Sci-Fi comedy Slither and the dark super-hero satire Super.  His writing credits were a bit more substantial.  While comic fans knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were, the masses did not.  And this did not bode well for early anticipation.

And yet…James Gunn managed to deliver one of Marvel’s best films to date.  A traditional “Mismatched Crew Saves the Day” tale, the writing and performances make the most of the weirdness to carve a very fun film.

The film opens with young Peter Quill at the bedside of his dying mother.  When he runs off, he is abducted by aliens.  Because in Marvel’s world, that is just the kind of stuff that happens.  After a heavy-hearted beginning, we are introduced to grown up Quill.  In what seems like a serious sci-fi moment, Quill walks the landscape of a dead planet.  He pauses and puts on earphones and the booming sound of Come and Get Your Love.  This sets up a tone for the film that is highly effective.

We learn that Quill is not the brightest and gets by on luck.  As he tries to pawn off the magical McGuffin he steals from an old temple, he finds himself dealing with the green skinned Gamora who is after the McGuffin.  At the same time, Rocket (a talking raccoon) and Groot (a talking tree) are bounty hunters pursuing Quill.  This leads to all of them being imprisoned.  They are forced into a team, getting a late addition of Drax (Also green skinned and also tattooed).  Drax wants to kill Gamora, because she is an associate of the mad Kree Warrior and religious zealot Ronan.  Ronan killed Drax’s family and he is seeking his vengeance. Quill talks the other four into a prison escape, as Gamora knows someone who is interested in the McGuffin.

The prison escape is both action packed and highly entertaining.  Gunn keeps everything moving, and even when the film slows down?  It has momentum.  Gunn makes sure not to ignore the development of the Guardians.  They have opportunities to grow and Gunn (along with initial screen writer Nicole Pearlman) and overcome their situations.  Vin Diesel has one line, yet manages to imbue different emotions every time he says it.  When Drax discovers that Ronan does not appear to remember him or his family…he is lost and beaten.  He was entirely of no consequence to Ronan.  It causes him to alter his perspective.  He also starts to get the value of his friends.  Even if he does not understand how to talk to them.

The film focuses on the Guardians as David’s to Ronan’s Goliath, and it really works.  The cast is effective,  Probably the biggest flaw of the film is Ronan.  This has not been uncommon, a lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films seem to be thin on their villains (usually expecting to be overcome by good casting).  Otherwise the film is full of humor and excitement.  Gunn took an unknown group of characters and made a strong tale of friendship and misfits overcoming adversity.

No Way This Will Go Wrong (Jurassic World, 2015)

jurassic-world-posterIt has been 14 years since we saw a Jurassic Park movie.  And they opted to bring us one thing we had not seen.  A fully operational space station.  Wait, that is not it.  I meant a fully functional theme park.  Considering the last two film trod similar ground (small group of people stuck on the island running from dinosaurs) it makes sense that they went bigger this time around.

It is years later and the Dinosaur Theme Park has been running for at least a few years, successfully. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is preparing the most daring exhibit yet.  A genetically modified dinosaur, a creature that has never walked the earth before.  Nothing could go wrong, except that her nephews are visiting the park this weekend.  So Mayhem will ensue.

The plot is not really the point here (there are some big plot points that just disappear from the film entirely), it is cool dinosaur scares.  And the film delivers there.  There is a lot of fan service to the previous films (One I really liked was the return of BD Wong as Dr. Henry Wu, given a much bigger presence than the original film).

The characters seem all over the place, early on Chris Pratt’s Owen comes off as the stereotype of the charming misogynist.  I find this trope absurd.  Never have known a charming misogynist in the real world.  But this personality trait drops pretty early, and does not resurface the rest of the film.  Claire is introduced as the “Woman Who Is Sacrificing a Family To Have a Career”, but it is pretty clear when she realizes her nephews are in danger she considers them important, risking her life to save them.

From the minute characters are introduced, I started trying to figure out who was going to get eaten, and it is not to hard to tell.  Faceless guys with guns, random park attendees and a couple big names because they are over confident or greedy.  You can play this game in most Jurassic Park films, but the first film still invested in all the dinosaur food.  We knew a lot about those people who got chomped.  Little to no depth is provided here.

It probably sounds like I hated this film.  But I didn’t.  I actually enjoyed it.  It has a very likeable cast, solid effects, cool dinosaurs and plenty of adventure.  It kept me into the story, even when Claire ran super fast in high heels.  It is a fun adventure, but not a deep one.

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