Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.

A Spectre of its Former Self

In 24 films over 53 years, the James Bond franchise has had hits and misses, though recently the Daniel Craig incarnation has done quite well. Casino Royale rejuvenated the franchise and made believers of all the nay-sayers about Craig taking over the role, while Skyfall was a phenomena – the most successful Bond movie ever. Of course, in between was the hiccup of Quantum of Solace, a movie that was truncated due to studio problems and a writer’s strike. (At 106 minutes, it was the shortest Bond film ever.) The newest entry, Spectre, isn’t short – at 148 minutes it’s the longest entry in the series – but it doesn’t match the highs of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Overall, it feels a bit like a retread.

The movie begins with a long tracking shot during the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City as Bond moves into position to monitor a meeting. Ever since Touch of Evil, an extended shot like this has been a tour de force for the director. Last year’s Birdman extended the one short to almost the complete movie. Digital effects do allow for cuts, though Birdman still did takes of 10 or more minutes, which for film is like staging “Hamlet.” But it means the shorter tracking shots no longer have the level of difficulty of the past. The sequence does lead to a fairly involved fight that brings down a couple of buildings and has a fight to the death in a helicopter, but it suffers in comparison to Skyfall’s thrilling and surprising opening, or the uncharacteristically rough beginning of Casino Royale.

From there the movie follows the usual pattern of a Bond film, trotting around the globe – London, Rome, the Alps, North Africa – as Bond digs into the depths of Spectre, the criminal collective that’s been behind the plots in the past three movies. The action has its thrills and some surprises, but it isn’t as involving. Part of it is the main challenge of any Bond film, that the movie is only as good as its villain. Here you have two: Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Waltz is debonair and suave, but we don’t really get to see him until the last third of the movie. Bautista stands in as the villain until then, but he’s almost silent and with little personality beyond his strength. Former wrestler Bautista was excellent in Guardians of the Galaxy, but this role is more just a single note played over and over. After Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Jarvier Bardem’s Silva, Oberhauser and Hinx are a letdown.

Along with Spectre, Bond, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are dealing with a new overall head of British Intelligence, C (Andrew Scott). C is negotiating an unprecedented sharing of intelligence between multiple agencies, which could be a powerful tool against terrorism, or in the wrong hands a gateway to huge abuses. Scott also plays Moriarty on the BBC’s “Sherlock” and is excellent there, but in this role he’s more annoying than threatening. Q does get out into the field briefly, which is a rarity. The only other time Q’s been out is in License to Kill, when he was played by Desmond Llewellyn who originated the role. Whishaw’s fun in the fish-out-of-water scene, and it’s one of the better sequences in the film.

As always there are Bond girls, though in the recent films they’ve become women. One is the gorgeous Monica Bellucci, but unfortunately her time on screen is limited. The other is Lea Seydoux as Madeline Swan, who holds the key to finding Oberhauser. She’s kind of a Vesper Lynd lite who gives Bond someone to save. Seydoux was effective as the female assassin in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and she followed that with roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Blue is the Warmest Color. Spectre will increase her recognition, though the other movies were better roles.

Three writers worked on the story, and a fourth came on board to help with the actual script. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have done the Bond films since The World Is Not Enough, and John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) joined them for Skyfall. Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) helped with writing Spectre’s screenplay. It’s clear by multiple references in the script that they want Spectre to be viewed as the third (or third and a half if you include Quantum) movie in a trilogy. However, the constant references simply serve as a reminder of how Spectre is a lesser movie. It’s not down in the Spiderman 3 or X-Men: The Last Stand level of totally awful, but it also doesn’t rise to the Return of the King or Return of the Jedi level of excellence. The script also turns on an coincidence that’s painfully contrived. Sam Mendes is an excellent director, but where Skyfall felt like a labor of love from a fan of the series, Spectre is more of a mechanical exercise.

Where Spectre does drop to the awful level is in its opening credit song. After the sublime ”Skyfall” by Adele, any song would be a bit of a letdown, but “Writing on the Wall” by Sam Smith is one of the worst Bond movie songs ever. The only good thing about it is it’s completely forgettable once it’s over.

Craig has said this is his last outing as Bond. While he’s been the best Bond since Connery had his first vodka martini, it’s been 9 years since Casino Royale, the same amount of time between Dr. No and Connery’s last contiguous performance as Bond in Diamonds are Forever. There are several good names being floated as his replacement, including Tom Hardy and Idris Elba, so Bond will continue on. Spectre has had a wonderful opening both in the States and worldwide, so it will be a success financially. But it would have been nice for Craig’s final turn in the role to be an artistic success as well. It’s not bad; it’s just not great.

Not Long Ago but Still Far, Far Away

Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.

On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.

After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.

Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.

What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.

Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.

It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)

Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.