Movie reviews: 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2' brims with superhero fun
Published Friday, May 5, 2017 6:30AM EDT
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: 4 STARS
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens with a battle scene that would not be out of place in almost any other superhero movie. The set-up has the Guardians—Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper)—working for the Sovereigns, a thin skinned race of aliens who have hired the heroes to protect valuable batteries from an inter-dimensional monster called the Abilisk. In exchange they will receive Gamora's estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).
It’s a lot of names and intrigue to keep straight right off the top. The action is as wild and woolly as we’ve come to expect from these big CGI extravaganzas, but the thing that sets the scene apart from all other superhero movies is the sheer, unbridled joy brought to the screen by Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like being too small to take part in the fight. Instead he blissfully dances throughout to “Mr. Blue Sky,” the lush, Beatlesque ELO song that underscores the sequence.
The scene and the movie brims with the missing element of so many other big superhero movies—fun.
Anchoring the rock ‘em sock ‘em action is a subtext about family; you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. Gamora is bound by blood to a sister with an extreme case of sibling rivalry while Peter must choose between his birth father, a small ‘g’ god named Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), his adopted dad Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his Guardian posse.
Set to a soundtrack of 70s radio hits and a cavalcade of pop culture references “Vol 2” is less story driven than the first film. With the origin tale out of the way it focuses on the characters and their relationships. Director James Gunn doesn’t allow the characters to become overwhelmed by the computer generated imagery. From Rocket’s wisecracks to Peter the semi-inept action hero and Gamora’s pragmatism—“If he does turn out to be evil will just kill him.”—the characters are front and center. Like the true scavengers they are, Drax—with Bautista’s deadpan delivery—and Baby Groot—“He’s too adorable to kill,” says Taserface (Chris Sullivan)—steal the show.
Fans will get what they expect—loads of goofy, gross and gooey cartoon action and cool Day-Glo creatures—but it’s the characters that make it so enjoyable. They spend as much time laughing as they do in action, bringing with them an infectious joyfulness. The movie is at it’s best when the characters are hanging out, when Peter finally gets to play catch with his dad with a ball made of pure energy, when Drax is ribbing Mantis (Pom Klementieff) or when Baby Groot is perched on the shoulders of his Guardian pals.
But Gunn also stages interesting action. The “Come a Little Bit Closer” sequence with Yondu’s deadly arrow is a showstopper, an imaginatively staged set piece with a huge body count and just as many laughs.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a mix of high-tech and lowbrow that breaks the sequel curse. It’s a tad too long, succumbs to CGI overload in its final moments and the not-so-subtle anti-bullying and free-to-be-you-and-me messaging feels tacked on but is so much fun (there’s that word again) you’ll forgive its transgressions.
There will be a time when the “Guardian of the Galaxy’s” formula of 70s kitsch and wisecracks won't work but we're not there yet.
JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT: 3 ½ STARS
Jeremiah Tower is the most famous celebrity chef you have never heard of.
Martha Stewart calls him “a father of the American cuisine.” Anthony Bourdain says he changed the world and Mario Batali calls him “the darling, the glamour puss, the sexy guy, the smart guy and the innovative chef that everybody wanted to know something about.”
The man himself, who pulled a D. B. Cooper style disappearing act at the height of his fame, after defining what an American restaurant could be says, “I have to stay away from human beings,” he says, “because somehow I am not one.”
A new documentary, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” from director Lydia Tenaglia (and executive produced by Bourdain) aims to shed light on this enigma of man. “I’ve known Jeremiah for forty years,” says former Town and Country Magazine food and wine editor, James Villas, “and I am one of his oldest friends but I still don’t know Jeremiah.”
Born into wealth and privilege Tower had a troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father he refers to as “a prick.”
“From early on food was my best pal, my companion,” he says. Trips to the world’s grandest hotels and voyages on ocean liners ignited a love of glamour—the Queen Mary, he says, “made me fall in love immediately with first class”—and restaurants. He read menus before he read books.
It was his mother’s elaborate garden parties that began his cooking career. His mother was usually drunk before the food was ready so he would help out, jumping into the kitchen to prepare the food.
At Harvard he studied architecture but spent much time seriously cooking for friends on a dorm hotplate. At school his friends encouraged him to get off his butt and join the 1960s youth revolution, but he was too busy cooking. It was there he created ideas about changing the culture through food. Cooking and the quest for a “utopian ideal of living” kept the darkness of his childhood from taking over.
After Harvard he was at loose ends. He had never worked and wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in architecture but had to get a job. He applied at Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, California resto Villas described as “a hippie, drug ridden explosion in a playpen.” “If I hadn’t been so broke I wouldn’t have paid attention,” he says.
As chef de cuisine he applied all he had learned eating around the world to the menu. Everything that had gone before in his life, the theatrics, the complexity, all of it, came into play and it became a sensation when he dropped the traditional French menu in favour of local California produce, dishes and wines. It was the match that started the fire of the new American cuisine revolution.
A fall out over credit with owner Alice Waters turned ugly. Refusing to become a footnote in the Chez Panisse story he left in a huff to create Stars, a San Francisco restaurant that would become a super nova and one of the top-grossing restaurants in the United States for years. Instead of going out to a movie after dinner, at Stars dinner was the entertainment. The success of the place made him a superstar, one of the first celebrity chefs.
In 1998 the place closed and he disappeared, leaving everyone behind.
Tower’s decades long exile ended in 2014 when out of the blue it was announced he would take over New York City’s legendary Tavern on the Green, a place Bourdain calls, “one of the biggest, most thankless operations going?” Why? Tower cites Proust, “Work while you still have the light,” he says. “I wanted to see if my light was still on.”
“Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” isn’t a food network special. There’s no cooking competitions or Top Five Moments in the Career of Jeremiah Tower. Instead we’re offered a methodical look at the man behind a foodie revolution. Like a chef who over perfumes everything with truffle oil, Tenaglia overuses recreations of Tower’s young life. The footage is stilted and overpowers the telling of the rebellious chef’s troubled childhood.
Archival footage from the well-documented Chez Panisse years onward is livelier, adding a badly needed you-are-there element to the film’s tale of food as an emotional crutch. But then, just as the film works up a head of steam Tenaglia skims over Tower’s decades out of the spotlight, picking up the story again when he lands in New York.
Still “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent” is a compelling watch thanks to its charismatic subject. In his mid-seventies Tower is as elegant as he is difficult. The film plays a little too heavily into the tortured chef cliché but since Tower had a hand in creating the cliché the movie gets a pass on that count. As the portrait of an enigma, it’s entertaining enough but despite the backstory, the recreations and the myriad of heavyweight talking heads, by the end credits Tower is still an enigma. Perhaps Bourdain sums it up best when he says, “there is a locked room inside Jeremiah, I haven’t been there, I don’t believe anyone has.”
FIRST ROUND DOWN: 3 STARS
You can never go home again, particularly if you’re a former local legend gone bad. “First Round Down,” an offbeat new film starring “Orphan Black’s” Dylan Bruce is a story of hockey, hitmen and hometown expectations.
Split into three sections—or periods—Bruce plays Hamilton, Ontario’s Tim Tucker, a junior hockey star and prodigy on and off the ice. When an injury ends his NHL dreams he goes off the grid, disappearing, leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend Kelly Quinn (“The Republic Of Doyle’s” Rachel Wilson) and all traces of the life he once knew. After ten years of doing wet work as a Montreal mob enforcer he returns home after his parents pass away to look after his younger brother and get his life back on track. “Winning has been harder to come by since you haven’t been around,” says his old coach. “Winning has been harder since hockey hasn’t been around,” comes Tim’s rueful reply.
A job as a pizza delivery driver is less than satisfying—customers who don’t tip bring out his bad side—so before long he takes on the proverbial one last job to make money to look after his brother and possibly woo Kelly.
A Cancon soundtrack—heavy on Junkhouse, Sloan, The Northern Pikes and Triumph—fuels the action. “First Round Down” is working class Tarantino, a scrappy crime story that proudly wears its low budget status on its sleeve, wisely investing in story and characters instead of oversized set pieces.
Bruce, Quinn and John Kapelos (playing a mob boss) keep things lively but it is the filmmaking that impresses. Full of energy, it’s a grubby popcorn flick with the spirit of a hockey fight.
I, DANIEL BLAKE: 3 ½ STARS
For more than five decades Ken Loach ahs made powerful, realistic films about topics Hollywood steadfastly ignores. From “Cathy Come Home’s” bleak look at the inflexibility of the British welfare system to his twenty-fourth feature, “I, Daniel Blake,” the director has never wavered in his uncompromising approach to presenting social commentary on screen.
English comedian Dave Johns plays the title character, a Newcastle woodworker who suffers a heart attack on the job. He’s determined to get back to work as soon as possible but a paperwork snafu keeps him at home while his own computer illiteracy—“If you give me a plot of land I’ll build you a house but I’ve never been near a computer,” he says—stalls his plan to appeal his capability assessment. His once steady income reduced to dribs and drabs he protests, spray-painting, "I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve," on a building. He is arrested and released but still waiting for his appeal date and the dignity of being treated like a human being, not a number on a file.
“I, Daniel Blake” is bleak. From Daniel’s grim spirit-breaking situation to Katie (Hayley Squires), a desperate single mom who prostitutes herself to make money to feed her kids, the movie is a portrait of nightmarish bureaucracy, privatized public services and despair. Brimming with the filmmaker’s passion and anger, it’s a movie that doesn’t offer much in the way of hope but plenty in the way of outrage. Loach’s approach is unsentimental, naturalistic.
The first half contains some dark humour as Daniel tries to navigate Kafka-esque rules and regulations to collect his “jobseeker’s allowance” but by the time Katie is staving off starvation with stolen beans, things take a bleak turn.
Strong central performances from Johns and Squires give “I, Daniel Blake” its humanity but it is Loach’s rage against the machine that fuels the film. It’s a polemic, a story of people on the edge, people whose lives could be helped by the system instead of being crushed by it. Loach may be 80 years old but age has not blunted his powers or his anger.