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Guardians of the Galaxy review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interstellar adventurers

Disney/Marvel's latest success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy movie review

On Sunday, 27 July 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for a matinee of Lucy. We liked this action movie, but it's more science fantasy than science fiction.

Lucy 2014

Luc Besson directs Scarlett Johannson

Plot: As you may have seen from the trailers, Scarlett Johannson plays a young woman in modern Singapore who becomes an unwilling drug mule and develops superpowers after exposure to a synthetic hormone. Lucy has to stay one step ahead of a criminal gang, and she travels to Paris to meet with Prof. Norman, a scientist played by Morgan Freeman.

Lucy does repeat the myth that most humans use only 10% of their brains. While much of the organ's processing power is still mysterious, we know that bodily functions and consciousness require an impressive neural network.

In addition, expanded awareness and intelligence isn't the same thing as being able to manipulate reality, tap into wireless networks, or use telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation, but it's fun for a metahuman movie. I am glad that Lucy didn't show the so-called singularity (merging of human and technology) as necessarily good or evil.

Cast: Johannson plays a naïve blank slate who becomes more than human, continuing her genre streak from The Avengers and Under the Skin. She may not exhibit great emotional range, but she is attractive and manages to convey the physicality needed for Lucy's transformation.

As he did in The Lego Movie, Freeman plays his usual sage self, gently spoofing his narration of nature documentaries. Some movie buffs will recognize Min-sik Choi as crime lord Mr. Jang, and Amr Waked is a sympathetic French detective, who is much more competent than usual for a police officer in such movies.

Direction/cinematography: While Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC may be reluctant to produce a female-led superhero movie, Luc Besson is unafraid of such heroines, as seen in La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, one of my favorite genre films of the past 20 years. (On television, Orphan Black covers similar territory well.)

I thought some Prof. Norman's exposition and the surreal flashes were a bit heavy-handed, and while Besson brings up some big questions about the human condition, evolution, and the responsibility of power, he doesn't try to answer any of them. Still, the action scenes are satisfying, and car chases involve massive collateral damage, but at least no cities are doomed in Lucy.

Rating: Overall, we liked Lucy, which I'd give a 7 out of 10, three stars, or a "B." Of the two movies I saw last weekend, I enjoyed Hercules slightly more. Lucy was rated R for violence and language, and I'd recommend it to fans of transhuman fiction, superheroines, and action. Up next is Guardians of the Galaxy!

How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

On Saturday, 21 June 2014, Janice and I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the recently renovated AMC Burlington Cinema 10. We enjoyed the computer-animated fantasy sequel, which had character development and visuals that were at least equal to those in James Cameron's Avatar or several recent Disney/Pixar films.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Animated fantasy sequel

Plot: As with most sequels, viewers who skipped the first How to Train Your Dragon won't appreciate the new movie as fully as they might. Loosely based on Cressida Cowell's children's books, the movies (and the Nickelodeon TV series) focus on Hiccup, a scrawny Viking who breaks with tradition in learning to ride dragons rather than fight them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup's hometown of Berk has learned to coexist with dragons, and we see a quidditch-like race involving his friends.

Restless Hiccup and his Night Fury steed Toothless explore ever farther from his home island and finds his long-lost mother (already "spoiled" in trailers), as well as ruthless pirates who share his gift for communicating with flying reptiles. As in the first movie, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Cast: Jay Baruchel returns as a slightly more mature Hiccup, with Gerard Butler as his gruff father and chieftain, Stoick. Cate Blanchett, who hasn't gotten to interact directly with monsters as Galadriel in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies, brings weariness and hope to Hiccup's mother Valka.

Other returning voice actors include Craig Ferguson as Stoick's counselor Gobber, America Ferrera as the winsome Astrid, and Jonah Hill as obnoxious Snotlout.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Fishlegs, who vies with Snotlout for Ruffnut's (Kristen Wiig) attentions while her twin Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) looks on and scoffs. The dynamics among Hiccup's family and friends are more fully explored in the television show, but there are many nods to them in the movie.

Newcomers include Djimon Hounsou as the pirate Drago and Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington as the swashbuckling Eret, who captures Ruffnut's eye during one of several narrow escapes from the pirates. Everyone is well-cast in their roles.

Direction: Dean DeBlois, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does a good job of building up the action while also providing some character moments. Any lack of originality in the story is more than made up for by the appealing characters, heartfelt story, and strong visual designs. (No, I haven't yet seen Frozen, but understand it's one of Disney's better recent efforts.)

Cinematography: Although I didn't see How to Train Your Dragon 2 in 3-D, the regular visual effects have continued to improve, with human skin, dragon scales, choppy seas, and fire all spectacularly rendered.

Hiccup's gliding scenes with Toothless early in the movie are particularly good, and even though the large-scale battles toward the end are familiar to fantasy fan, they manage not to completely overwhelm the viewer.

Soundtrack: The musical score echoes the themes from the first movie and the TV series, and it properly accompanies and builds with the action. As in Cowell's books, there is a Scottish lilt to the music, and the opening and closing credits drew us into the superficially slapstick setting.

Rating: I'd give How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is rated PG for action and "some rude humor," a solid 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. I liked it about as much as its predecessor, if not as much as the TV show, which expands on all the characters.

Don't let the relatively disappointing box-office returns dissuade you from seeing it. I'd recommend this movie to fantasy fans, children looking for their summer cartoon fix, and those looking for comedy and drama in lighter measures.

In other family-friendly animation, I thought the third season premiere of Avatar: Legend of Korra was strong, and I look forward to The Boxtrolls. Janice and I also joined Thomas & Kai-Yin for dinner at Noodles & Co., which just opened in Burlington, Mass.

Coming soon: More gaming updates, a Star Trek convention recap, and Byron V.O.'s visit…

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) review

Since the latest Godzilla flick, I've fallen behind with this year's genre movies. I haven't yet seen Chef or Edge of Tomorrow, which will probably have to wait for video, but I did catch X-Men: Days of Future Past. This Marvel Comics adaptation cleaned up some of the continuity problems of past films, but its appeal is probably limited to fans of the ever-growing mutant ensemble.

X-Men roundup

More mutants

Plot: For those not familiar with the original Chris Claremont and John Byrne storyline, in one bleak future (actually 2013 in the comics, but probably the near future in the movie), mutants and their allies are hunted by robotic Sentinels and put into concentration camps. This is a direct allegory of the Nazi death camps and U.S. internment of Nisei during World War II.

A few survivors are sent back in time (to 1980 in the comic, the early 1970s in the movie) to stop fellow mutant Mystique from assassinating someone and thereby preventing or at last delaying war between fearful humanity and the mutant minority.

This movie shifts the time traveler from Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat to the popular Logan/Wolverine, and the person who must not be killed changes from Sen. Robert Kelly (who has already appeared in other X-films) to Dr. Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels, and Pres. Nixon.

While many details have changed, the overall story and tone of Days of Future Past are faithful to the source material. Like Watchmen and the Captain America films, this X-Men outing successfully juxtaposes different time periods, national crises, and superheroes.

Cast: Arguably, the best part of Days of Future Past is seeing the actors from the first batch of X-Men movies (from 2000 through 2009) plus the cast of X-Men: First Class (2011). Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still burly and wry and serves as the glue holding Days of Future Past — and arguably, 20th Century Fox's whole franchise — together.

While I would have liked to see more of buddies Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as mutant leaders Prof. Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, respectively, it made sense for them to pass the torch to younger actors James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in the same roles.

In the dystopian future, we get glimpses of Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe/Storm, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, Daniel Cudmore as Piotr Rasputin/Colossus, and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman. Unfortunately, Anna Paquin's cameo as Anna Marie/Rogue was all but cut for time.

In addition, we see some impressive fight scenes between numerous tough Sentinels and acrobatic newcomers Omar Sy as Bishop, Bingbing Fan as Blink, Adan Canto as Sunspot, and Booboo Stewart as Warpath. With exotic names such as these (and I applaud more diverse casting), the X-Men should start a baseball team.

Most of the character development takes place in the past, however, with the aforementioned telepath Prof. X and master of magnetism Magneto. Jennifer Lawrence, who inherited the role from Rebecca Romijn, is again part of their triangle as the shapeshifting Raven Darkholme/Mystique.

Also noteworthy are Evan Peters as wiseguy speedster Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage as the misguided Dr. Trask. There are too many characters and battles for a lot of character development, but that's typical for any non-print incarnation of the X-Men.

Direction: Bryan Singer, subject of troubling but as-yet unproven allegations, returns with a sure hand to direct the franchise he helped create. The action scenes, actors' performances, and overall pacing are solid.

While time travel can be an overused plot device, it's central to this story, in which Singer fixes some of the fictional history that was needlessly convoluted in past films in this series (to say more would give away "spoilers"). Days of Future Past did a better job than Star Trek: Into Darkness of straightening out continuity kinks.

Cinematography: As with Disney/Marvel's Avengers, the state of the art is kept high for visual effects, fight choreography, and recreating bits and pieces of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. The dark future is less successful, featuring the same bombed-out urban centers, rainscapes, and computer-generated killer robots as many other dystopian films.

The scene with Quicksilver helping to break Magneto out of a cell beneath the Pentagon rivals Nightcrawler's attack on the White House in X2. In fact I missed Alan Cumming as teleporter Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler. 

Soundtrack: The musical score of Days of Future Past includes themes from previous X-Men movies, period songs, and the right level of punctuation for the action scenes. There were few really memorable moments, but I think this was a more fitting soundtrack than for several other recent superhero movies.

Rating: Overall, I'd give X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is rated PG-13 for violence, brief nudity, and language, four out of five stars, an 8.5 out of 10, or a B+. I found it a worthy continuation of Marvel's mutant saga, and here's how I'd rank it among its peers:

  • X-Men (2000) ***
  • X2 (2003) ****
  • X-Men: the Last Stand (2006) *
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) **
  • X-Men: First Class (2011) ***
  • The Wolverine (2013) — I haven't yet seen this.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) ****

Only longtime X-Men fans will recognize the allusions in the postcredits teaser for Age of Apocalypse, which will likely use a remixed version of the team. Other movies I'm looking forward to include over-the-top noir Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and stop-motion The Boxtrolls. I'll try to post my favorable review of animated fantasy How to Train Your Dragon 2, which I saw this past weekend.

I'll also try to get around to my impressions of the past year in genre television soon.

Godzilla 2014 review

On Sunday, 1 June 2014, Thomas K.Y. and I caught an early matinee of Godzilla at the recently renovated Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass. We liked the latest incarnation of the "big G," even if the film wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.

Gojira in San Francisco

Latest Godzilla

Plot

As with most of its kaiju (Japanese giant monster) movie predecessors, the first half of this Godzilla focuses on its human cast, including environmentally conscious scientists, grimly determined but often misguided military folks, and a young family in peril as huge monsters fight through multiple cities. That's all you ever need to know.

Acting

The mostly American cast plays it straight, with none of the camp of the fondly remembered Showa-era's monster mashups or the 1998 misfire. As you may have seen from Godzilla's trailers, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play nuclear physicists Joe and Sandra Brody, who are among the first to suffer from the kaiju emergence.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, who'll be playing mutant siblings in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, are young soldier Ford Brody and his wife Elle here. Alphas' David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe bring some gravitas as Adm. William Stenz and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, respectively. Their roles are mostly two-dimensional, but they provide a human's-eye view to the massive destruction.

Direction

While the cast is solid, the pacing of the movie is not as steady. I expect kaiju movies to start slowly and build to big battles, but director Gareth Edwards teases full views of Godzilla and his "MUTO" (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) opponents for a bit too long. Yes, viewers should identify with the human cast, but I would have liked to see more of the fights and fewer teary people or futile small-arms firing.

Visual effects

That said, the monster designs are all good, and Godzilla's latest look is properly regal. As I mentioned to Thomas, the MUTOs show that this is the first post-Cloverfield Gojira flick. Pacific Rim might have been more fun, but the newest Godzilla restores the beasts as manifestations of nature's wrath and nuclear horrors. 

Unlike 1998's "GINO" ("Godzilla in name only"), I rooted for Godzilla even as he and the MUTOs stomped through Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, which didn't look overly computer-animated or rely on shaky cam. The HALO jump seen in the trailer was also well-executed and actually had a connection to the story.

Like that movie and Cloverfield, however, there were subplots about reproduction, survival, and military secrets, and even a little humor might have helped relieve and build tension.

Soundtrack

Godzilla's roar and the music for this movie were decent, but nothing can top the ominous 1954 theme. (To be fair, as a longtime "G-fan," I also like Blue Oyster Cult's song and the late 1970s cartoon's song.)

Rating

Overall, I'd give the 2014 Godzilla, which is rated PG-13 for "mayhem," a 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B. I do think that some critics have been overly harsh, looking for subtle acting or political statements.

I don't know if it will be enough to reignite interest in the 60-year-old franchise, but I liked it more than other recent monster movies, and I'd love to see Godzilla take on new versions of Mothra, King Ghidra, MechaGodzilla, and evil aliens in potential sequels! Long may he reign!