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.

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Driven to Succeed

No one expected The Fast and the Furious to develop into a billion dollar franchise. The original was a solid hit, earning $200 million plus worldwide, and the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious had a similar box office, though it cost twice the original’s $38 million. Paul Walker, the lone holdover for the sequel, thought the idea had run its course and chose not to do the third installment. It looked like the series would go the way of most sequels, with new movies featuring unknowns trading on the original’s name before disappearing onto video. If you were to go back to 2005 and tell Universal executives that the seventh movie in the series, Furious 7, would obliterate the box office record for an April opening, beating out the fourth and fifth entries that also set records, they’d likely have laughed in your face. Funny what can happen in 10 years.

But it did, and there are two main reasons for it. The first was finding the perfect director to get the series on track. Justin Lin was born in Taiwan but was raised in Orange County in a working class neighborhood. He got his MFA in film down the road at UCLA. Lin’s first solo directing project caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival. Better Luck Tomorrow told the story of Asian-American kids caught up in a spiral of crime, and in the Q&A after its premiere Lin was asked if it was irresponsible to portray Asian-Americans in a negative light. Roger Ebert stood up and took the questioner to task, stating that the person “wouldn’t say that to a white filmmaker.” After a forgettable first studio film – Annapolis – Lin did the third entry in the series, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, and guided it to a respectable world-wide gross of $150 million. Lin was brought back for the fourth movie, and continued through the sixth installment. He’s currently in preproduction on Star Trek 3, and has also been tapped for the next Jeremy Renner Bourne picture.

The second reason was that in the fourth movie they return to the heist feature of the original with the first film’s cast. For Fast and Furious, the main characters returned: Vin Diesel (Dominic), Paul Walker (Brian), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), and Jordana Brewster (Mia). The movie recaptured the intensity of the first film right from the opening sequence where Dom’s team hijacks the load from a four-trailer gas truck while it’s driving. But what was more important was the group became a family, augmented by Tyrese Gibson (Roman) and Ludacris (Tej) who’d appeared in the second movie, Sung Kang (Han) who’d come to the series during Tokyo Drift, and Gal Gadot (Giselle) who started in the fourth film. Such a multi-ethnic cast is unusual for a Hollywood film, even though it reflects more families these days. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joined the cast in the fifth film as Federal Agent Hobbs it cemented the series as the current pinnacle of the action universe.

But while families grow, they also suffer losses. Giselle died during the climactic sequence in Furious 6, and Han is killed after the credits. But no one was prepared for the death of Paul Walker during the filming of Furious 7. That a car accident took his life, after all his daring action behind the wheel in this series, was the bitterest of ironies.

Justin Lin had turned over the director’s chair for 7 to James Wan, more known for his horror pictures (Saw, The Conjouring) than for action movies. But the opening sequence eliminates any questions about Wan’s abilities. It was set up in the tag after the credits of 6 that Jason Statham would be gunning for Dom and his crew. Statham plays Deckard Shaw, the older brother of the bad guy in 6, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). 7 begins with Deckard standing over the bed where his comatose and broken brother lays, and he vows his revenge. The camera then follows him out of the hospital, revealing the carnage that Deckard has wrought on his way inside.

Deckard takes out Han in Tokyo, as previously shown, and almost eliminates Dom, Brian and Mia. Then comes a match action aficionados have dreamed of when Deckard squares off against Hobbs, a battle that pretty much destroys a building. But Deckard’s vendetta is interrupted by a shadowy government operative who goes by the name Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, in a wonderful piece of casting). He promises to give Deckard to Dom, but his price is for Dom, Brian, and the rest of the crew to rescue a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) from the terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and recover a surveillance program she created that can find anyone in the world.

The plot mostly gives excuses for the extended action sequences, and 7 has three chase and fight sections that match and exceed anything the series has done so far. The first, with cars parachuting from a transport plane, has been featured in the trailers. Much of that sequence was done the old school way, rather than with digital effects. There is also a sequence that involves jumping a super car between the towers of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. But those are just lead-ups to the climatic chase and battle, back on the streets of LA where everything began.

In the aftermath of Paul Walker’s death, it was clear that the fans of the series felt like they’d lost a family member as well. Director Wan rallied the cast and crew to finish the film. Walker had completed most of his scenes, and for shots that still needed to be filmed Wan used Walker’s younger brothers and computer graphics to overlay Walker’s face on them. But the original ending, which was meant to set up the next film, was thrown out. Instead, the film ends with a graceful and cathartic tribute to Walker.

See Furious 7 for the characters and the action, the two hallmarks of the entire series. But make sure you have a couple of tissues in your pocket for the end.

 

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.

A Giant Parable

Brad Bird is one of a handful of directors to find success in both animation and live action films. Working with Pixar, he did both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and he helmed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is the best movie in that series. But before those successes, he made his feature debut with the classically animated film, The Iron Giant.

The movie is based on a 1968 children’s book, “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes. When the book was published in the US, the name was changed to avoid confusion with Marvel Comic’s character. Hughes was known for his poetry and was Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998. (Today he’s also remembered in connection to his first wife, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar.”) Bird adapted the story along with screenwriter Tim McCanlies (Second Hand Lions, “Smallville”). They move the story from England to coastal Maine in 1957, at the height of the Red Menace fears. Instead of the intergalactic threat to peace in the original, The Iron Giant has an all-too-human villain who is motivated by fear and paranoia.

The giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) crashes to earth just off the coastal town of Rockwell, Maine. He accidentally sinks a fishing boat, though the fisherman survives. Rockwell is the home to 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who’s a waitress at the town’s diner. Hogarth meets the local junkyard man and aspiring artist, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), when the squirrel he wants to keep as a pet gets loose at the diner.

Hogarth is home alone that night, watching a forbidden sci-fi horror flick on the TV, when the picture turns to static. When he checks on the antenna, he finds it’s gone, and he sees a trail leading off into the forest. Armed with his BB gun and wearing a plastic Army helmet, Hogarth investigates, and comes across the Giant. The Giant has a ravenous appetite for metal, and when he tries to eat a power substation, he gets hung up in the high-tension wires. Hogarth saves him by cutting the power. Hogarth runs from the scene, only to be found by Annie, who’s searching for him after finding the house empty. Later the next day, he returns and finds the Giant who, because of a blow to his head, is like a very large child himself. He introduces the Giant to McCoppin, so the junkman can help satiate the Giant’s hunger for metal.

The report by the fisherman and the blackout cause at the substation has raised the suspicions of a government operative, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald). He’s at first dismissive of the assignment, but that changes when he finds his car half-eaten by the Giant. When he finds the remains of Hogarth’s BB gun at the substation, he suspects he has a way to find the Giant.

Along with the actors noted above, others who supply their vocal talents to the movie include Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney and M. Emmett Walsh. The animation, done by Warner Brothers, is on par with later Disney films such as The Fox and the Hound, though in style the film is more complex, closer to live-action movies. Its closest spiritual cousins are The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, not the Keanu Reeves mess), both of which were comments on the paranoia of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

While it’s an animated movie and can be enjoyed in that way, it also works well for adults, especially those who remember what it was like to be a child in the middle of the last century. It draws you back to that more innocent time of friendship and imagination, and it grabs your heart strings and plays them shamelessly with its theme of sacrificial love. That’s a good thing, for as long as our hearts can still be reached with a message of love and understanding, there’s hope for us yet.