“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If your Playstation isn’t enough to keep you entertained this weekend, you can go to the theater to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” a 2 hour and 16 minute video game of real people shooting at CGI garbage. It’s another superhero movie that strives to be funny and loved simply by being different when in reality, it’s just the same as every other raucous, overstuffed Marvel exercise.

In this unbalanced sequel, Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is searching for his lost father (Kurt Russell). All the Guardians gang is back, including love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana), superstrong Drax (Dave Bautista), the loyal friend-yet-jerk Rocket raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and the baby version of Groot (Vin Diesel).

Audiences are treated to yet another annoying performance from abrasive jackass Pratt (remind me why this guy is a movie star again?), and the movie milks the cuteness of baby Groot to the max (the character is visibly meant to appeal to the smallest of children; take note as the doe-eyed Groot shimmies and shakes his way through the opening credits). Jokes are repeated from the first film, including referring to Rocket as a rat. It feels old and stale.

Director James Gunn is relentless in his insistence on using obscure 70s ballads to score the film that the music choices sticks out like a sore thumb, being used so much that the movie at times feels like an overly long music video. Half of the scenes don’t mesh with the (supposedly) tongue-in-cheek accompanying songs, and the soundtrack is as irritating as it is distracting. I lost count of the number of times a character is seen walking in slow-motion to a crappy retro tune.

The movie also tries to steal the core message of the meaning of family from the popular “Fast and Furious” franchise, taking their earnest, heartfelt sincerity and pushing it to the point where it comes off as awkward, phony, and forced. The irreverent humor flops as often as it succeeds, and the film at times resorts to lazy reference jokes (yeah, yeah, we get it, but just name dropping 80s-era icons like Pac-Man and David Hasselhoff doesn’t a genuine laugh make).

Thankfully it’s not all bad. The action-packed storyline kept me engaged with characters that I find hugely unlikable, the special effects (read: cartoon drawings) are colorful and cool, and the ending is absolutely fantastic — but none of these things can completely excuse what comes before.

This movie is really nothing more than a flashy and boisterous Saturday morning cartoon on steroids, something by design that’s made to appeal to adults and kids alike. You can take your whole family and everyone will probably agree that it’s the best movie they’ve ever seen because it’s the last movie they’ve seen. There’s not much craft nor artistry to “Guardians Vol. 2”, but it’s as good as the first movie and it’s still fun enough to not become a total disaster.

“The Fate of the Furious”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

As a car lover and a huge fan girl of the entire franchise, I set the bar almost unfairly high for “The Fate of the Furious.” As started with “Furious 7,” the films have been slowly evolving towards more of an action-packed cyber thriller than a classic parade of drool-worthy dream cars and engine-revving stunt driving.

So what does that mean for you? Well, it means newbies should have no trouble following along with the story or figuring out who’s who, but longtime fans aren’t ignored either. While there aren’t quite as many car-centric scenes as I’d like, the film remains true to its characters in the familial fashion for which the series is known. There are also plenty of fun throwback references to the old films and surprise cameos for die-hards too (you’ll know when they turn up based on the audience cheers and applause).

Initially I was very disappointed in the direction this film takes, fantasizing about how I wanted to grab director F. Gary Gray by the shoulders and shake him while hollering “less tech plot, more cars!” But as the story progressed, I realized something: if you just let go and embrace this movie as more of an action blockbuster than a gearhead race picture, all will be right with the world. If you are expecting heart-stopping stunt driving and racing throughout, you’ll find this installment to be a bit of a letdown. There are nearly as many bullets flying as there is rubber burning.

And that’s where the majority of the criticism I have for this film lies: it NEEDS MORE CARS. If you’re going to make a Fast and Furious movie, you need to have it packed with flashy driving scenes that employ actual stunt drivers. For example: one of the most creative and exciting scenes involves zombie cars that are obviously animated with CGI, which is a far cry from “Furious 7” where the production crew dropped actual vehicles from the cargo bay of a plane — but I’ll let it slide this time because the idea behind it is So. Freaking. COOL!

The car scenes unfortunately feel more like bookends than a fundamental core of the movie. It starts out with a spectacularly boisterous nitrous-fueled drag race through the streets of Havana and ends with a not-long-enough car chase across a frozen lake involving a hijacked Russian nuclear submarine, a million dollar neon orange Lamborghini Murcielago, and heat seeking missiles. Both scenes had me sitting up in my seat and whooping with glee, making me forget all of the plot filler that is stuffed in the middle. There are several truly amusing sequences sprinkled throughout though, from an entertaining as hell (yet oddly bloodless) prison riot to a baby-juggling fistfight on an airplane. What is truly incredible is that while it’s undeniably over the top, none of this feels THAT ridiculous.

The acting is mildly hammy but fun (with Michelle Rodriguez once again delivering the standout performance as Letty). The majority of the dialogue consists of musclehead rivals Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) hurling insults at each other while Tej (Ludacris) and everyone’s favorite alpha-male Roman (Tyrese Gibson) exchange their trademark barbs for comic relief. Dom (Vin Diesel) doesn’t have all that much to do in this installment and for the first half it’s the Statham and Johnson show. Charlize Theron is a welcome addition as cyberterrorist Cipher, and both Kurt Russell and Nathalie Emmanuel reprise their roles as government agent Mr. Nobody and hacker Ramsey. One new casting choice that rubbed me the wrong way was the addition of Scott Eastwood as agent Little Nobody who (obviously) is also an expert driver. He is likable enough, but it really, really felt like he was brought in as an attempt to replace Brian (Paul Walker). I just wish the series would address that Brian is gone for good and retire his character in an honest and respectful way. I know it hurts (I was crying like a blubbering baby after Walker’s untimely death), but Brian needs to be killed off.

The plot has a few trademark surprise revelations (which I won’t spoil here), including a twist that creates an opening for a beloved character come back in future installments (fingers crossed)! But don’t stick around after the movie ends, as there’s no post-credit sequence.

What anchors this franchise is the exceptional chemistry from its cast, who have an overwhelming sincerity and loyalty to their onscreen personas as well as to each other in real life. The fact that these guys all truly love each other (with the exception of Johnson and Diesel, who famously had a big fight on set) leaps off the screen. The films are thrilling but they are also all about family, and you can’t help but smile, buckle in, and hang on for the next ride.

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“xXx: Return of Xander Cage”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

You have to love a balls-to-the-wall action flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is outrageous, mindless fun. This is an insane adrenaline fest fueled by massive shootouts, fiery explosions, and extreme skateboarding. It’s packed with cartoonish stunts and playful humor, all adding to its irresistibly rambunctious spirit.

The presumed dead secret agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is back to save the world like an intense, badass, tattooed James Bond. This time he has to recruit his own team of slightly insane buddies (including Rory McCann and Deepika Padukone) to help him fight the bad guys and reclaim a secret weapon known as Pandora’s Box.

The plot is basic and no new ground is covered as far as Hollywood big budget action movies go, but it’s the film’s tongue-in-cheek style that is so deliciously amusing. Case in point: each character is introduced with a sarcastic title card that gives their personal stats, including things like their “favorite movie” and their “go-to karaoke song.”

There are a couple of familiar faces that show up (including regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube), along with fresh newcomers Nina Dobrev (who is very, very funny as a mousy CIA agent who is easily impressed by sizable muscles) and Toni Collette (wickedly hamming it up as the government lady in charge). There’s some astonishingly polished stunt choreography from martial artist Donnie Yen as well as several delightful, whimsically staged scenes like a table full of firebrands playing hot potato with a trio of live grenades and a raucous brawl that breaks out onboard a free falling cargo plane in a nosedive.

This film may be loud and ridiculous, but it’s also tons of fun. I had a smile on my face throughout, and many of the creative and thrilling action pieces had me cheering out loud. This is the perfect display of mindless, escapist action cinema, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” proves there’s lots of life left in the franchise. I can’t wait to watch this movie again.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

LOUISA: 1.5 STARSMATT: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The shockingly weak screenplay is one of the many elements that completely ruin “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a disappointingly lousy movie from Oscar winning director Ang Lee (“Life of Pi,” “Brokeback Mountain”). The film gave me the overwhelming feeling that Lee and the majority of his cast were emotionally detached from the subject matter in a way that radiates through to the audience. Something is definitely amiss. Nothing hits home here, and it’s a real shame that I felt a close to zero emotional connection to the story or the characters.

The film (based on the novel by Ben Fountain) is told from the point of view of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19 year old Private who suddenly finds himself a decorated military hero. After displaying an incredible act of courage on the battlefield in Iraq, Billy and his entire Bravo Squad are flown home to Texas to be paraded around as American heroes, culminating in an appearance at a halftime show during a big Thanksgiving day football game (the ballgame provides the majority of the film’s setting).

In an attempt to take a “seen it all before” war story and make it unique, you have to do more than simply change the setting. This is only one of the areas where the script fails this project’s ambition. Part of the story is told through Billy’s personal flashbacks to the war zone (as viewers would expect, everyday objects and situations remind him of the horrors he’s seen and experienced firsthand). I understand and can appreciate what Lee was trying to do with his juxtaposition of present-day events to connect with battlefield memories, but it’s visually done in a way here that is so obnoxious that it loses all meaning and effectiveness. Plus, it’s been done much, much better in other movies (“Brothers,” “The Hurt Locker”). There’s nothing visionary about this movie, and that’s a real shame.

The acting across the board is rough, including a wholly distracting performance from the miscast Chris Tucker as a Hollywood publicist and the worst Southern accent you’ve ever heard from Steve Martin as a the owner of a football team. Alwyn and Kristen Stewart (as Billy’s sister Kat) are the obvious standouts, but that isn’t saying much because neither are particularly memorable. Shame on any movie that wastes Stewart’s talent.

The rest of the supporting performances range from competent yet boring (Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Arturo Castro) to hokey, dinner theater caricatures (Makenzie Leigh, Tim Blake Nelson). The film feels much like a stage play with a stagnant pacing that is near agonizing to sit through. If you played a drinking game and took a shot whenever there was an extreme close-up of an actor’s face delivering a single tear soliloquy, you’d be drunk far before the film’s halfway point.

The film never finds its true voice and loses its footing early on. If there was a point to this dull exercise, then it was completely lost on me. Is this meant as a dramatic form of satire? A criticism of capitalism, our love for violence, and the American war machine? A rallying cry to enlist? A sentimental family melodrama? A celebration of brotherly love? A patriotic propaganda piece? You’d have to answer “yes” to all of the above.

I appreciate the film’s lofty goals and this negative review is in no way meant as a knock on our military or America’s brave servicemen and servicewomen. I’ve never served in the military but I’ve heard countless stories of how difficult (and at times impossible) it is to acclimate back to life as a civilian after being in combat, and I just wish this important idea for a story had been told in a more effective and worthy manner.

MATT SAYS:

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a film entirely lacking in both originality and vision. It’s not terrible, but director Ang Lee‘s first movie since “Life of Pi” is surprisingly uninspired. I’ve come to expect more from Lee and, given the level of talent in the cast, it’s quite surprising in its mediocrity.

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is an Army Specialist who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Billy gained national fame for a heroic rescue of his Sergeant (Vin Diesel) that was captured on camera, and is back at home in the states for the first time since the conflict. He and his unit Bravo Squad are taken on a publicity tour by manager Albert (Chris Tucker), which culminates in his squad’s taking the field during a halftime performance at Cowboy stadium during a football game.

“Billy Lynn” has nothing new or interesting to say about war and the men and women who fight for this country; what little the film does have to explore has been done before elsewhere. Much of the movie is devoted to the difficulties that some in our military have re-adjusting to civilian life when they are back at home. Throughout his time stateside, he is haunted by flashbacks of some of his more traumatic experiences in Iraq, which can be triggered on a moment’s notice by a noise, or crowds, or scenery. The problem for “Billy Lynn” is that other movies have explored these issues and have done it better. Films like “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper” portrayed the struggle battle-worn servicemen have had in returning to a country at peace. “Band of Brothers,” “Fury,” and “Saving Private Ryan” (among others) did a more effective job of showing the bond between soldiers and how important they are to one another. This same “it’s been done elsewhere better” problem plagues every facet of the film.

Even the acting here is uneven. While the veteran actors like Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel shine at times, in other moments their performances ring false, wooden, or histrionic. While the ever-dependable Kristen Stewart turns in a solid performance, it’s not one of her best roles. And as much fun as it is to see Steve Martin back on the big screen, he’s wasted in this movie.

To say “Billy Lynn” was disappointing would be an understatement. Skip it.