Short takes: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mommy Dead and Dearest & more

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sizable leap forward from the first installment, a movie that feels like its own beast and has a distinct visual personality that is so often absent from other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again following the planet-hopping exploits of a misfit group of reluctant heroes, director James Gunn doubles down on the ensemble’s comedic banter while refining the action set pieces. The generic, indistinguishable eyeball assaults that I’ve come to expect and dread from Marvel movies are mostly gone here, replaced with fun, varied fight sequences. Gunn also divides the team up so he can focus on different character dynamics rather than throwing everyone into a big, empty spectacle that flattens them.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen occasionally. There are times when the movie trips over its own feet, skipping between plot lines by awkwardly cutting up scenes that would be better had Gunn just let them play out a bit longer. This is especially true of the ones between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Guardians’ leader, and the father (Kurt Russell) who abandoned him and his mother for a life of space conquest. Right as their scenes start to find a rhythm, the movie skips back to see what other members of the squad, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), are up to while trapped on a space ship lightyears away.

Since Rocket’s storyline in Vol. 2 is more interesting than Quill’s, cutting between them so abruptly weakens what is supposed to be the movie’s emotional core. Pratt’s performance, which isn’t up to the heavy lifting the third act calls for, further brings it down. These hiccups aside, Vol. 2 has an irrepressible energy to it. Whether it’s structuring an entire fight scene around Baby Groot’s dancing, or a dazzling prison escape sequence with Rocket and the remote-arrow-wielding space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker), Gunn has crafted an entertaining space adventure that shows the franchise’s potential.  Grade: C+

Mommy Dead and Dearest — Erin Lee Carr’s true crime documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest focuses on the kind of twisty, depraved subject matter that can easily turn exploitative. However, her examination of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Blancharde case is both a clear-eyed chronicle of jaw-dropping deception and an empathetic study of abuse. (Mild spoilers ahead).  Dee Dee and her daughter seem like a loving family dealt a brutally hard hand. Gypsy, her mother says, has been plagued by one medical setback after another for her entire life, from common things like asthma to even leukemia. She uses a wheelchair to get around, and uses a feeding tube. They tell people in Missouri they moved there after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, and even receive a handicap-accessible house from Habitat for Humanity.

All of this is bizarre deception that leads to murder and continues on well after. Structured around local news footage, home movies, police interrogation tapes and newly conducted interviews with friends, family, investigators and Gypsy, Carr peels back the layers on a series of private and public cons played out over decades on a baffling scale.  Sometimes Mommy Dead and Dearest revels a bit too much in its absurdities rather than interrogating them, only providing surface-level answers to some of the biggest questions it raises. Even when it stays on the surface, though, the story of the Blanchardes is terrifying and heartbreaking. Grade: B-

The Last Word —  Mark Pellington’s The Last Word is bloated and lacks focus. The movie, about a controlling, stubborn ex-advertising executive named Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) who wants to oversee the writing of her obituary, has too many different tones and subplots that either don’t work together or aren’t given enough time to work well. MacLaine’s performance is about the only thing that keeps the movie going, and even she can’t save it.  She gives Harriet blunt, sardonic life that is underscored by hints of regret. She’s able to convey this without Pellington’s lazy, redundant use of melancholic close-up throughout the movie. It needlessly hits the audience over the head with her sorrow.

To help with her obituary, Harriet enlists Anne (Amanda Seyfried), who writes them for the local paper. The problem with Harriet’s obituary, Anne soon learns, is that none of the “friends,” colleagues or acquaintances she interviews have a nice thing to say about her. Harriet initially refuses to accept this before coming up with a plan to repair/create relationships with people before she dies. This includes rebuilding a long-burned bridge with her daughter and mentoring a girl at a youth center.  She also wants a “wild card” moment, something for the lede of her obituary that will surprise people.

Harriet’s attempt at completing that plan would be more than enough to carry the movie, but the script packs in an overwrought, uninteresting plotline for Anne, too. There’s so much story in The Last Word that Pellington isn’t able to build on what’s done well. There are hints at better movies here, about Harriet discovering her love of DJ’ing, or the combative but ultimately friendly relationship between her and Anne (or Harriet and the child she mentors). The Last Word is marred by all kinds of annoying inconsistency.  It seems sloppily strung together, teeming with possibility at one moment and then jarringly boring the next. Grade: D+


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens was an almost impossible balancing act — a movie that laid the groundwork for a new era in the franchise while also relishing in the familiarity of George Lucas’ original film, A New Hope.  It was a clear-eyed, contagious nostalgia trip that didn’t feel like a cash grab.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t an “Episode” in the main story; it’s not a continuation of the Skywalker clan’s story, but rather an attempt to fill in a gap between Lucas’ prequel trilogy and the original films.  So, in a way, it’s still in orbit around A New Hope, and the events in the movie end right where that movie starts.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Rogue One, which is consistently entertaining if much more of a mixed bag than The Force Awakens, is the digital recreation of some key figures from the old films.  The replicas are either distractingly convincing or distractingly unconvincing. However, had director Gareth Edwards simply hinted at showing these characters, or showed everything but their faces, it would’ve been even worse. It’s a lose-lose situation, though for what it’s worth they aren’t nearly as bad as the digital footage that Lucas added to the original trilogy decades after their release.

Creepy recreations aside, Edwards does what he can with this scattered, underdeveloped spin-off.  Rogue One is set around a desperate attempt to steal the plans to the Death Star, a super weapon that the villainous Galactic Empire plans to use to destroy entire planets.  What’s most interesting here, other than a couple of of sleek battle sequences, is how the movie shows fractures within the Rebel Alliance, the group trying to stop the Empire. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the protagonist, is given information about the secret location of the Death Star plans, but because she’s new to the resistance, few are willing to trust her.  I wish the movie had explored this in-fighting dynamic more, so that the infiltration at the end had more of an emotional impact.

It’s still the movie’s best sequence, and Edwards navigates the contrast between space and on-the-ground combat as well as in any other Star Wars movie. As he did in the excellent 2014 reboot of Godzilla, Edwards also brings a sense of dark grandeur to Rogue One (watch for a stunning shot that shows debris from a destroyed city leaving its planet’s atmosphere and drifting toward the Death Star) that sometimes compensates for the thin, unmemorable characters.  Grade: C

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