Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

For our first post of the New Year, we take a look at the highly anticipated new Star Wars film. Directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Harrison Ford, the film is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

From IMDB: 30 years after the defeat of Darth Vader and the Empire, Rey (Ridley), a scavenger from the planet Jakku, finds a BB-8 droid that knows the whereabouts of the long lost Luke Skywalker. Rey, as well as a rogue stormtrooper and two smugglers, are thrown into the middle of a battle between the resistance and the daunting legions of the First Order.

9 out of 10

Star Wars Episode VII had the highest grossing domestic opening of all time, and has already broken 1.5 billion. It beat Jurassic World’s record of 13 days to reach a billion, which had the benefit of opening in China, the world’s largest country in terms of population. Star Wars doesn’t open there till January 9th. This movie is big. Really big.

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It is easily the most hyped movie I’ve been around for, shattering the excitement for Jurassic World, The Dark Knight Rises, and Avengers: Age of Ultron— some notoriously hyped movies of the past few years. Star Wars was going to be a major hit whether it was good or bad, which makes it so much sweeter when you realize that it is actually a great movie.

Admittedly, it has strikingly similar qualities to the original trilogy. From the trench run, to Adam Driver’s character (hint: he wears a mask), this film was either an excellent ode to the original or a carbon copy. I remember turning to Jenya in the theater and saying, “I think I’ve seen this before” at least 4 times. Regardless, it is still action-packed; there is hardly a single boring moment in the film. It is a fun, action packed two hours, if nothing else.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer

 

I loved the three new characters that look to be our new trio of heroes going forward. Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron portrayed respectively by John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac had great chemistry with each other (especially the first two) and are interesting characters that I am very excited to follow around in the next two films, wherever they may go. Boyega and Ridley, relative newcomers to the movie scene, were particularly excellent, doing an incredible job leading the film. Not to mention, the incorporation of older characters, namely Han and Leia, was done flawlessly. There were enough of them to make us nostalgic, but not enough to detract from the focus of the movie: Finn, Rey, and to a lesser intensity, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver), the primary antagonist.

JJ Abrams does an excellent job balancing CGI with practical effects. There’s nothing outrageous like CGI Yoda or CGI Order 66ing. The graphic effects are perfect in the sense that they look great, but more importantly they feel real. The lightsaber duels are not too special, but they’re engaging and fun. Abrams knows exactly what he is doing, and it’s really quite a shame that he’s not going to be directing Episode VIII or IX. Hopefully it won’t fall apart… fingers crossed… very tightly.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Teaser #2

Best of all, the movie is able to have a complete and cohesive story arc but is still able to set up two more films. There are plenty of questions that we want answered, plenty of storylines ready to be carried out, and plenty of original trilogy references to be made. Is Rey a Skywalker? What happened to Luke? How will the Kylo Ren storyline end? Just a few (spoiler-free) questions I am looking forward to having answered.

If you are uncultured and haven’t seen the original Star Wars, you can still enjoy The Force Awakens, though every Easter Egg and nod to the original is all the better if you have. This is my favorite movie of the year, as it provides a fun, exhilarating ride from beginning to end. Disney can have all my money if they keep throwing out gems like this. If you have yet to see this film, then stop reading this review and go see it. It could even be nominated for Best Picture, ya never know.
~Vig

9 out of 10

As I’m writing this, Force Awakens continues its surge past the billion checkpoint. I love it when my commentary doesn’t really matter! Alright let’s get going…

Did you like the original Star Wars trilogy? Great, you’ll love Force Awakens. End of story. Thankfully, there’s no prequel-esque treachery, no disgustingly excessive CGI and actually human sounding dialogue.

It’s Star Wars movie to its marrow. It has everything a diehard fanboy could crave: colorful characters and planets (Brought to life by a welcome return to practical effects), enthralling actions (Including some of the better dogfights and duels of the whole saga), and a giant, hulking space station that blows crap to smithereens (Carefully study your Star Wars history and take a wild guess as to whether it explodes by the end or not).

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That’s right. It’s more of the same on a bigger scale and, quite frankly, that’s what everyone wanted. Director J.J. Abrams played it safe with this delicate franchise this round and prevailed with especial gusto. The callbacks are precisely placed and as giggle-inducing as expected and, of course, our veterans of the original trilogy who guest in this one make a triumphant return to the universe (Each of them get their own cute little entrances to boot).

But that’s certainly not to devalue the brand new stuff: without spoiling, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega neatly carve out their places in the franchise as the headstrong Rey and the reformed stormtrooper, Finn, respectively. They’re incredibly likable and boast a chemistry that matches, dare I say, the original cast of A New Hope. All the while, Adam Driver proves naysayers wrong as the capricious yet calculating Kylo Ren (Emo? A little but just the digestible amount, I promise). As far as the new worlds go, Abrams’s team does a fine job of painting a post-war galaxy with some great set pieces that only boost the creative action sequences.

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It’s admittedly hard for me to criticize this one as a fanboy (Okay, you got me, I went on opening night. May’ve saved a seat for two hours and all…) but I guess the most I can say is that I did know what was going to happen about five minutes before at a time (For example: a group of rebels trying to free a prisoner? What could possibly happen?). However, that’s simply a consequence of the film adhering to the standard Star Wars formula, which is both this movie’s blessing and curse. I will say too that the rewatch value on this flick is a little low after all the reveals have been, y’know, reveal but I’d advise any viewer to just take it as it is: a beautiful piece of fanservice, by a Star Wars nerd for Star Wars nerds.

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At long last, one of our favorite fictional universes has been done its justice with a film that injects new all new, thumping life into the world. If you aren’t one of the millions who’s done so already, strap in and see it. When it’s over, I assure you all previous Star Wars-related injustices will feel like they took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
~Zach

 

The Martian

Hi everyone! Hope you had a great Thanksgiving. We’re back with our first full review in a long time with The Martian. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.

From IMDB: “During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.”

8 out of 10

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these, so please excuse the rust. Anyhow, I saw a funny quote on Twitter about The Martian that I thought I’d share; “From Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and now The Martian, America has spent a lot of money trying to retrieve Matt Damon”. While I think this does speak to Damon’s incredible star power, it also reflects an audience’s thirst for adventure, which The Martian has plenty of. Now I’m not saying it is comparable to Saving Private Ryan or even Interstellar, but it is definitely a very entertaining film that has deserved the praise it’s received.

It has an innate similarity to Gravity that’s impossible to avoid simply because they are both space survival films. However, beyond the basic plot, there is absolutely nothing else they have in common. The Martian is fun— rather than being solemn and dramatic, it’s lighthearted, almost cutesie. While I definitely appreciated this change of tone, I wasn’t sure I loved the writing of the humor. It was trying a bit too hard for me. 

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In addition to the heavy incorporation of humor, I thought there wasn’t enough depression on Matt Damon’s part. For a guy who’s stuck on Mars, I didn’t see enough of a struggle. There were moments of frustration but nothing more, no sustained moments of gloom and hopelessness, which is part of what made Gravity so powerful. While I do feel like this made The Martian a fun movie, it also made it less rewarding.

That being said, Damon did do an excellent job overall. It takes a lot of ability to drive a storyline like he does in this film, while also remaining genuine and entertaining. Unlike Bullock in Gravity, however, there is a supporting cast that gives the film a new dimension. Rather than Damon being by himself, his struggle affects many other people around him. This isn’t just a story about Mark Watney, it’s a story about the entire NASA program, and this angle makes the film more enjoyable. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Kate Mara round out a stellar cast that allows for there to be multiple interesting characters that are each important to Watney’s return home.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

And how can I write this without mentioning Ridley Scott, director of Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. He had the difficult tasks of 1) Distinguishing his piece from similar films (like Interstellar and Gravity) and 2) managing the slower pace of the film, since it takes place over almost two years. Fortunately for us, he passed both tests, while also making it an aesthetically pleasing film. It’ll be interesting to see whether Scott can get that Oscar win this year— he’s 0-3, and wasn’t even nominated for Blade Runner or Alien.

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This movie certainly has its flaws, but all in all, I came out of it having thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was funny, charming, and straight up just an interesting movie (it helps I’m a nerd, but either way…). It doesn’t have the depth of Gravity nor the poignancy of Interstellar, but it has got its own personal flair that makes it great in its own respect.
~Vig

9 out of 10

If you like the nitty gritty of space travel (The math, the science, the play-by-play engineering and tinkering and strict physical laws) but don’t particular enjoy Sandra Bullock’s heavy breathing, Gravity wasn’t for you. If you like the nitty gritty of space travel but aren’t into the “McConaissance” (“Murph! Murph! Murph!”), Interstellar wasn’t for you.

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If you like the nitty gritty of space travel now though and want to get in on the recent swell of realistic science fiction, your film has arrived and its name is The Martian. Let’s ditch the thesaurus here: it’s an awesome movie. It’s smart but accessible; slick with polished visuals and humorous while maintaining its sky-high stakes. Above all that, it’s just plain fun.

The setup of this film is relatively routine in comparison to the hefty, complex stories of some of its peers: Matt Damon’s character, Watney, is stranded and must be rescued (Again. Hollywood must really hate our favorite Harvard alum.). Armed with a few months of resources and a thumping 70’s playlist (Think Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack) one of his fellow crewmembers left behind, Watney has to simultaneously survive and signal back his group for an impromptu rescue.

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The story is actually not quite deliberately paced; it’s just a fun hodgepodge of dilemmas on the Red Planet that force out Watney’s inner-Macgyver for the first hour or so, in fact. But the movie’s snappy dialogue (whether credit belongs to the novel or the screenwriter, I’m not sure) and splendid looks keep everything rolling relatively briskly; simple tasks like sprouting a few potatoes or roving along the rocky planet with a busted plutonium core become enthralling challenges.

I found myself marvelling most at all the cinematic angles here. A film adaption of a book warrants its existence when it finds some new way to tell the tale and that quality is definitely present here. Mr. Ridley Scott takes advantage of everything from webcams to security cams and eases from basic shots to innovative angles throughout the entire film. In short, in a relatively bare atmosphere, everything just looks intriguing.

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Damon, of course, impresses as the headstrong Watney in a bit what plays out as a one-man show. I have to give credit to any character that moves through his “how-to”s and explanations with such a relaxed attitude that surviving on a desert planet seems, well, doable. He doesn’t carry this trek alone though: the whole star-studded cast delivers (Donald Glover and Jeff Daniels specifically come to mind here, not to exclude any of the other talented actors).

If you’re a fan of the disco genre (God and Spotify know I am), I’m sorry, but the retro style takes beating in one of this film’s funniest running jokes. Otherwise, I really can’t sum up the best quality of this movie better than one of my friends coming out of the theatre: “It was a ton of fun. I’ve really missed having a good fun movie.”
~Zach

Jurassic World

Up this week is the highly anticipated and box office hit, Jurassic World. Directed by Colin Trevorrow and staring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, the film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.

Set 22 years after the events of the first film, Jurassic World takes us back to the Isla Nublar, which now features a fully functioning theme park called Jurassic World, having replaced the failed Jurassic Park. After years of successful operation, attendance has begun to drop. In order to pick up interest, Claire (Howard) leads the establishment of a new attraction, one that ends up backfiring horribly.

6.5 out of 10

A little over 20 years ago, Jurassic Park hit theaters and became an instant hit. In those 22 years since its release, it has become one of the most iconic films of all time. One of those films that if you haven’t seen, you can’t call yourself a movie fan. Or a human being for that mattered. Jurassic Park’s sequels, however, were not as successful. I admittedly haven’t seen them, but I’ve heard plenty. Despite the futility past the original film, there was plenty of excitement regarding Jurassic World because, man, its 2015! The graphics have to look awesome (which they did). And its got Chris Pratt, the modern day King Midas. Ultimately, Jurassic World stands up as a decent film, but an unworthy sequel to Jurassic Park, though it is a bit much to expect that. 

Let’s start with the good. Jurassic World is chock full of easter eggs, a little feature that I really appreciated. From the casting of B.D. Wong (who as also in the first movie, and has not aged a bit) to the countless references to the old park, I was really able to appreciate this film’s sentiment towards the original.

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Chris Pratt, who is slowly ascending to the top of my list of favorite actors, was excellent as he has shown us of recent. He was awesome in both The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy and has proven that he is bonafide Hollywood gold. Jurassic World only cements that status. He is what makes this movie exciting, fun, and a solid action movie. He is a badass, which is all we need as an audience to stay interested. People say he’s only good because his character is written that way, but I can’t think of anyone who could have done this better. Fingers crossed that he is the next Indiana Jones.

Bryce Dallas Howard, on the other hand, has ascended to the top of my least favorite actors list. There’s just something about her that annoys the hell out of me. Spider-Man 3, 50/50, The Help. It doesn’t help that in half of these movies she’s supposed to be despised, but it doesn’t change anything. She is just not a convincing actress. I can’t tell if we were supposed to like her in this movie, but considering she is really the main female protagonist, I think the answer is yes. Could have easily fooled me.

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 Don’t even get me started on the child acting. The scene where Nick Robinson (the older brother) talks about how he will always be there for his brother… *shudder*. Whether it’s immature acting or poorly written dialogue, the scenes with the brothers were not enjoyable. Their entire storyline, which tried to teach us good family values, was also not enjoyable. More dinosaurs and Chris Pratt, please!

At this point, the film would have been solid. It had good action, good effects, and a nice climax. And usually, I would judge this film independently of its predecessors. However, I can’t overlook the fact that the premise is almost a carbon copy of Jurassic Park. Using genetics to modify the creatures, a massive dinosaur is on the loose, a competitor tries to steal from the par; It’s way too similar for my liking. Talk about a breath of fresh air, this isn’t one.

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Overall, Jurassic World is a successful action film. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough of that. There was too much focus on genetics, business, and family values. I’m not saying the movie isn’t successful because of these areas of focus, the focus on this just failed to actually contribute to making the movie enjoyable. The writers should have stuck with its gut and focused on what people came to see: the dinosaurs.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

Jurassic World was thoroughly entertaining. Sure, it wasn’t as ahead of its time as Jurassic Park, nor was it as layered or as chilling. It was, however, exactly what it was supposed to be: a summer popcorn blockbuster poised to make billions.

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In fact, last weekend Jurassic World became the fastest movie ever to gross $1 billion across the globe. It had a massive domestic opening weekend gross of $208 million and followed that up with another $100 million dollar showing. It’s performed exceptionally well overseas as well. Many have it pegged to surpass Avatar as the world’s highest grossing movie of all time. Unfortunately for World, though, any records it creates will undoubtedly be shattered when Star Wars hits theaters.

Alas, much of Jurassic World’s success capitalizes on the legacy of the first movie. Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies of all time, despite the fact that I first saw it just a few years ago when it was re-released in theaters. It was thrilling, deep, and it featured exceptional animatronics and special effects. It was a wild ride and a box office success, but differentiated itself from its sequels because of its depth and originality. Subsequent movies in the series, including Jurassic World to an extent, were mere rehashings of the original with prettied up special effects.

Jurassic World features the fulfillment of John Hammond’s vision: a fully functional Jurassic theme park. Unfortunately, he is not there to see it, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s character has taken his place. In many ways, she is very much like him, and in fact, many characters in this film are modernized versions of characters in the original. There are two kids exploring the park, one very enthused about dinosaurs; there is a naturist, cautioning against the attempt to control potentially deadly dinosaurs; and there is the slimly, greasy villain, attempting to manipulate events at the park to serve his own monetary goals. Many, including some of my friends, have protested that the characters in the film are wholly flat and unlikable, that they mean nothing to the story. And sure, in any Jurassic Park movie, the characters are not center stage, but rather they play a supporting role to the big, teethy, and deadly creatures stalking the park. What the original did so well was that it combined the dinosaurs with an exceptional supporting cast of eccentric humans. Personally, I enjoyed the characters in World, perhaps simply because I consider myself a Chris Pratt fan and Bryce Dallas Howard was, in my opinion, very convincing. Still, there was definitely something missing without Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, and Sam Neil.

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Many have also attacked the concept of the movie. Frankly, I think it was inventive and clever. In the film, in order to raise attendance levels and interest in the park, Howard’s character, the director of the park, okays the creation of a new dinosaur, part T-Rex and part a smattering of other creatures, both dino and not. Working genetic modifications into the plot is a real win, in my opinion, especially because of the rising calls against GMOs in our foods. It was an interesting next step in the series’ continuing cautionary advice against the advancements of modern science.

Others have stated that certain elements of the movie, ones into which I cannot delve into too much detail without revealing key plot elements, are gimmicky and ridiculous. And yeah, that’s true. Dinosaur alliances are a little bit dumb and gimmicky, and are really just a way to bring out all the big dinosaurs at the same time. The brilliance of Jurassic Park was that it never got so ridiculous that it brought you out of the trance and thrill. Sure, there were living, breathing dinosaurs stalking around an island near Costa Rica, but within the basic constructs of the film it all felt logical. Jurassic World seemed to make up its own rules as it went, and didn’t bat an eye at making two vicious, killer dinosaurs team up.

While Jurassic World many not recapture the magic of the first film, it is undoubtedly an entertaining and thrilling, albeit ridiculous, ride that just might make the most money out of any move, ever. It’s worth a watch.
~Will

Into The Woods

As we wrap up 2014, we take a look at Sondheim’s famous musical Into the Woods, reimagined on screen. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film stars Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and Chris Pine. It is Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.

Into the Woods takes some of the most famous fairy tales of all time and ties them all together by an original story featuring a baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt), and their attempt to lift the curse of a wicked witch (Streep).

5.5 out of 10

I am, unashamedly so, a theater kid. If you asked me what home was to me, I would tell you that home was ‘the four building’, the area of my school where the auditorium is. I’ve helped to direct numerous shows, from A Chorus Line to Hello, Dolly! But I’ll be honest, I’m not all too familiar with Sondheim’s stage version of Into the Woods. This was the first time I’d experienced the entire thing from start to finish. However, I do know the basic gist of the story and Rob Marshall’s film stayed pretty true to it, hold for one or two parts. But this is a blog reviewing movies and not plays, so of course I have to stay on course. Therefore, I’m going to try and look at it through two different lenses: one as a theatergoer and the other as a moviegoer.

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Looking at it compared to the show, the movie is generally the same. The main characters are the same, the plot is the same, the music is mostly the same. But there are a few differences. First, the two Princes, played wonderfully by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, are utilized a lot less than they are in the show and a lot less than I would have liked. There is an entire subplot cut out about the Princes having affairs that really would have given the movie the humor it lacked while also making the ending more sensible. Secondly, there is a character in the show named ‘The Mysterious Man’. Now here’s a bit of a spoiler for the stage version, but the Mysterious Man ends up being the Baker’s father, and plays a huge part in the Baker’s motivations and his character in general. This motivation is highly lacking in the film, and while Corden is still very solid, he is definitely not helped by this vacant hole in character motivation.

A friend described a Sondheim show to me as “Love it, love it, when the hell will this be over, love it!” For me, it was just ‘when the hell will this be over’ the entire time. It felt begrudgingly long. The first two-thirds of the movie, which follow the first act of the show, was good but not great. But the last third, which follows the second act of the show, was where the film completely lust its luster and the little interest I had left totally disappeared. The second act of the show is dark and that is why it is so good. The last third of the film lacked this emotional depth, part of the reason I lost interest. 

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Now that’s looking at it compared to the stage version. As a movie, Into the Woods does a lot of things right. The set design, costume design, makeup, and all those visual effects are downright stunning. Everything is spot on in creating such a perfect fairy tale universe. Marshall, an avid supporter of practical effects over CGI, uses real set pieces and they look great. Kendrick and Pine reportedly got lost on set one day because the set pieces were so gargantuan to the point where they lost their way in the production building.

The cast is also pretty remarkable. I don’t have a complaint against any one of them. Chris Pine was surprisingly great and one of the only sources of humor. Anna Kendrick was stunning and the two kids, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, were both cute and charming. James Corden was really good, despite his character being slightly ruined like I mentioned. Johnny Depp, though criminally underused, was solid. Meryl Streep, despite her character being more whiny and pathetic than wicked, was good as always. Though, to be honest, I feel like some of the laud she is getting is because she’s Meryl Streep rather than her being incredible. SHADE THROWN! She’s still pretty good.

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Now as I said, I got really bored and uninterested and I think this is due to Rob Marshall’s failure at nailing the right tone. The casual moviegoer never thinks about tone as to why they didn’t like the movie, but it really is the reason they don’t. Marshall was going for family friendly (hence the PG rating) and didn’t go far enough with the dark stuff, which, like I said, is part of the reason the second act is so great. Anyhow, since he’s going for this light-hearted family friendly tone but is also using darker lighting and eerier camera shots to do so, they conflict and leave the audience stuck in limbo; “should I be laughing or crying? Scared or happy? I don’t know, maybe I just won’t do either”. That, mixed with failed attempts at humor, made the movie pretty boring.

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When talking with other theater people, a lot seemed to really enjoy the movie. They said it was true to the stage version and the performances were great. And taking Into the Woods and adapting it into a film is a tall task. I was turned off by it’s length and its inability to justify the depth of Sondheim’s stage version, but this should not stop you from seeing it. The fact that Rob Marshall cast away the dark tone to gain younger viewers is annoying. However, it is a visual spectacle and all the singing and acting is pretty great.  It is a better movie than it is adaptation, so if you don’t care for it as an adaptation, then it is definitely worth a view.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

I’m not much of a musical person, both in the instrument and stage-show sense. I played the violin through ninth grade but stopped because I had to face the fact that I can’t keep a beat or play the right tone 95% of the time so I just mess the whole thing up. And I can’t sing worth a damn either (though in my humble opinion my falsetto is spot-on).

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How odd, then, that I enjoyed this movie significantly more than Vig, the theater director who is around musicals for hours each day. Maybe there are some theater sins the director or actors committed that I just didn’t pick up on, but Rob Marshall has directed multiple musicals before and had working with him the man who originally penned the Into the Woods score, so I doubt that. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we sat three rows back from the screen and had to crane our necks the entire time.

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What follows are my observations as a movie, not necessarily musical, fan.

Into the Woods is impeccably cast. We knew Anna Kendrick had serious vocal talent from her role in Pitch Perfect, and she delivered yet again as Cinderella. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, as Red Ridinghood and Jack were both fantastic, but again we already expected great performances from them given Huttlestone’s role in the film adaptation of Les Miserables just a few years ago and Crawford’s titular role in the Broadway show “Annie”. It was the typically dramatic or comedic celebrities that had surprising vocal strength that really wowed me. Meryl Streep as the Witch had numerous solos, and though at first it seemed as if the directors were trying to hide her voice, by the end she was alternatively belting out some songs and crooning others. She was great. Chris Pine, as Prince Charming, was another one of those actors who was pleasantly surprising. He often provided much needed levity and comedic breaks. Even Johnny Depp was fantastic as the Wolf, underused as he was. His voice was just a little bit gravelly, which actually worked for his character as the sly but dangerous wolf. All these characters were great, but Emily Blunt was my favorite. I was already a fan of hers after watching Edge of Tomorrow, among other things, and the fact that she’s married to John Krasinski from “The Office” just makes me love her that much more. Objectively, though, she sang beautifully and, like Pine, provided that comic break right when the movie started to seem a bit too ridiculous. Most of these funny moments came when she poked fun at the sheer silliness of Into the Woods as a play and as a movie.

baker and wife

I’m having a little trouble reviewing this next part. I want to talk about the plot but have arrived at an issue: do I fault the movie for the straining plot, or can I not take away points from it given that the movie’s plot was tied directly to the play’s plot and thus couldn’t fix its length and repetition? I think the movie has to be taken as a whole, and so its ties to the musical have to be ignored for the moment, so here goes:

The first two thirds of the movie were great. I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to some of the most iconic characters in the fairy tale world and the A-list actors portraying them. The songs were catchy and groovy, the jokes were frequent, and the characters’ banter was hilarious. Then the movie seemed to end, albeit in in a corny fashion. The character’s had run their course and the running time had reached an hour and a half – the perfect timing for a kids’ movie and a musical that will start grating on the nerves before long. But then the play just kept going, and it was bereft of but a few songs for the entire remaining 40 minutes. It was just the actors falling into caricatures that quickly grew tiring, and that enchanted feeling that was palpable in the theater up to that point was shattered by people shifting in their seats and checking their phones. What Into the Woods had was lost, but again, how much of that is to blame on the moviemakers and how much is to blame on the source material?

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Ultimately the final third of the movie is not able to drag down the ethereal first two thirds, and with the vocal and dramatic talent that the film boasts, Into the Woods will prove to be a massive box-office success, even if it comes away relatively empty this awards season. It would be a shame if none of these actors get nominated for an Oscar (Blunt and Streep were nominated for Golden Globes, but in the diluted comedy and musical category), but don’t expect them to take golden statues away from any of the many accomplished actresses vying for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Into the Woods is also nominated for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, but it won’t usurp the superior Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then again, the Golden Globes are as much about star power as cinematic power, and Into the Woods has star power in excess.
~Will

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1

Happy Thanksgiving! To celebrate, Zach and Will take a look at the highly anticipated Mockingjay, the third fixture in the Hunger Games series. Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, this film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.

Mockingjay continues the events of Catching Fire, with the Games destroyed and anarchy breaking lose throughout Panam. Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), along with a few allies from the Games, finds herself in District 13, a district that was originally thought to have been destroyed. Under President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the counsel of friends, Katniss attempts to become the symbol of rebellion for the people of Panam and take down President Snow and the capital.

6.5 out of 10

It’s no secret that I’m a Hunger Games fan. I’ve read and enjoyed the books and watched and enjoyed the movies. I’ve gotten some flack from my friends about liking the series, but in my opinion it’s absorbing and compelling.

That being said, the third book in the Hunger Games series was borderline awful. It was stale, contrived, and it compromised the strength and appeal of its characters. Katniss, for example, devolved from a headstrong, independent female to a drug-addicted, man-needing complainer.

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The moviemakers of Mockingjay were already going to have a tough time matching the quality of the previous two films, given the disparity in quality of the source material, and Lionsgate’s decision to split the already thin book into a two-part finale, a la Harry Potter, simply exacerbated the situation. I guess, though, Lionsgate is more about making money than about making good movies. Even for a text as thick in pages and story as The Deathly Hallows the result was a meager first act, so it’s no surprise that Mockingjay Part 1 was entirely disappointing.

It was almost completely devoid of action, save for a few split seconds of frenetic camera shaking here and there, which prevented the movie from ever achieving the level of intensity that characterized the first two installments, and Katniss’s touring of the districts with her camera crew felt like 120 minutes of set-up for the next movie. I essentially watched a poorly conceived 2-hour trailer for a movie that I’m not so sure I’m dying to see anymore.

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It’s also no secret that I’m a Jennifer Lawrence fan. I think she was fantastic in Silver Linings Playbook, and she rightly deserves the praise she gets. Her acting in Mockingjay, however, just felt awkward. I don’t know if she was trying to hard, the lines were just cheesy (likely) or whatever, but I actually felt like laughing at how silly she seemed some times, which is a feeling I should definitely not be getting from someone whose boyfriend is being tortured in the Capitol.

The rest of the A-list cast didn’t really help out either. Elizabeth Banks has always been fantastic as Effie Trinket, but she was way underused, Josh Hutcherson seems to only have any worth as an actor when he’s with Lawrence, and Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin was just completely cold. The only star worthy of such a distinction was Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the terribleness of the rest of the cast served only to highlight just how good he is.

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Certainly I think much of the lackluster work from the cast stems from poor source material with ridiculous dialogue, but still, with all the assembled talent and all the funding I’m sure this project received, Mockingjay should have been better. Even so, the movie will certainly gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Hordes of tweens and dashing movie reviewing teens will throng into the theaters and pay a steep $11 dollar ticket price for a decidedly mediocre movie simply because it’s Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson (and probably no mention will be played to Banks, Moore, and Hoffman). And I can’t blame Lionsgate for wanting to capitalize on that by splitting the book into two movies for double the profit (early reports show that Mockingjay grossed $123 million in its opening weekend, by far the biggest opening in the last few months), I just wish it had turned out better.

The film’s one redeeming quality was its interesting portrayal of wartime politics and, specifically, propaganda. Throughout Mockingjay, Katniss is pressured into making staged and incendiary propaganda pieces to inspire the rebellion in the districts. Mockingjay’s directors use some intriguing subtext and satirize the abuse of rhetoric that is rampant in politics and military campaigns (which I’m sure amused all my AP Lang buddies out there) but ultimately it wasn’t near enough to save the movie. Still, it warrants a 6.5 simply because I enjoyed it. I am a Hunger Games fan, and so I was more than happy to go see Mockingjay. If you’re not already invested in the series, though, don’t bother fronting the $11 for the ticket. Go see the vastly superior Big Hero 6 instead.

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As one especially keen 12 year old who sat behind me in the theater pointed out when Jennifer Lawrence came on screen for the first time, “That’s Jennifer Lawrence! I love her!” Yes, that is Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s about all you’ll be able to get out of Mockingjay.
~Will

7.0 out of 10

Just how much does context excuse a movie?

With the new trend of final chapters being axed in to two installments, that’s a question I have to ask myself a lot. Just how slow can a first part of the end be, running on the excuse that “It’s only the first part”? Just how necessary is it? Just how many CEOs were jumping for joy and screenwriters’ days were ruined when they announced the end would be split?

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Well, I can’t get that last scenario out of my head. A bunch of my fellow writers laboring over how to pace some first half without slowing to a crawl just kills me. Mockingjay is a film that both defies and perfectly adheres to the tropes that plague “Part One” movies.

We’ll address the pacing first and, yes, it’s pretty languid (After Interstellar, this one felt faster than Barry Allen however). And a byproduct of that sluggishness is a cramped, claustrophobic feeling. In the books, as far as I can tell, Katniss spends the first quarter or so shacked up in a bunker and gets in on the action. Here, she spends 70% of her precious screentime in a base. A base that the movie flat out compares to a prison because it practically is.

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In fact, that’s one of the limiting reagents of Mockingjay. Around the fifty minute mark, I asked myself “Why am I not invested in Katniss’s story? She had my attention the first two movies.” and that query is easily answered: Katniss is a great hero but she’s an awful victim.

The very driving force of Katniss is that she’s “The Girl on Fire”. These movies repeat that ad nauseum. When we’re introduced to her, literature has conditioned us to think that she’ll be either a weak damsel in distress or a hero who will ultimately have to rely on someone else’s (Usually a man’s) help. But, no, she was a determined, strong character and she held up all the way through. In fact, she couldn’t be a damsel in distress for the cameras in-universe. Katniss was constantly shaping the plot and soaring to new heights in survival.

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And how does she spend most of this movie? Begging for a guy to return to her (When did she start caring that much about Peeta above everything else? The extents she goes to are a bit extreme) and staying locked underground.

Now, that being said, I do get what they’re trying to do. This series has often been about interdependence versus independence and it would be interesting to see Katniss have to lean on others for once and subsequently learn about finding strength in humility and compromising personal desires for larger stakes.

But Katniss does not get to learn about it by the end because this isn’t the end. All development seems to be braked by that “Part One” label and the need to stall to get to the “Part Two” label. I recently spoiled Mockingjay for myself in a moment of weakness and, if the producers opted against the two-part structure, it could be an incredibly exciting, tightly plotted movie, packed with mountains of character development.

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Yet this is where that conflict I talked about in the beginning of the review comes in to play. Since this is The Hunger Games, I trust the filmmakers a lot more than I usually would and I’m going to allow them to take their time. Until then, this installment still had plenty of creative action scenes to keep us occupied (Even if they didn’t include the characters we care about most).

I’m still impressed by how the films lampoon our insatiable appetite for the carefully-manipulated images that we’re often fed (The interview scenes where the characters have to exaggerate and tap-dance to earn sympathy are as relevant as they were when the series started). And the actors crush the material given to them. I can’t imagine it’s easy to play a character who’s practically playing a character.

So, Hunger Games, impress me with your (actual) final chapter a year from now and maybe this part will be retroactively boosted by its twin. If you haven’t read the books, there’s certainly new territory to see in this film. If you have, get ready to maybe check your watch if bunker-scenes don’t float your boat.
~Zach

Like Mockingjay? Hate it? Let us know in the comment section below!

Interstellar

Up next (in Zach’s long awaited return) is Christopher Nolan’s latest feature film, Interstellar. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, the movie is rated PG-13 for intense perilous action and brief strong language.

In Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s bold, daring space adventure, the Earth and its inhabitants face extinction, fueled by drought and famine. When a mysterious rip in the galaxy is discovered, mankind is given the opportunity to explore a new solar system and start life anew. The crew of the journey is led by Cooper (McConaughey), who faces the tough decision of saving the human race or leaving his children forever. Amidst the greatest battle between love and science, the crew embarks on the most difficult, important task in the history of mankind.

8.5 out of 10

I have been waiting for this movie for literally two years. Ever since the credits rolled for The Dark Knight Rises, I’ve been waiting for Nolan’s next feature film. With Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, he has simply released great film after great film. And even though it sadly does not surpass the expectations Nolan has laid out for us, Interstellar is a very good film in its own light. 

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There are a lot of truly incredible things about this movie. The special effects are on point, the story is intricate and deep, and to top it off, the intensity is as high as it gets. McConaughey delivers a solid performance that drives the film, specifically through the relationship that he forms with his daughter Murph. Throughout the first thirty minutes, we see their similarities, we see the joy they experience when they are together, and we see why their love, the driving force of this film, is so meaningful. It is the reason Cooper is driven to continue his journey to save the Earth and it is the reason Murph is driven to solve the extinction problem. Without this strong relationship, this movie would have gotten really boring really quickly.

Speaking of boring, it would seem that this movie, at two hours and fifty minutes, would end up being mundane at some point. However, it is justified in its length partially because the themes are so compelling. Selfish desire vs the greater good is prevalent throughout the film, as pretty much every character experiences this inner conflict at some point in the movie. This is what makes them so human. You can empathize with every single one of these characters because of how unintentionally selfish they are. Save the universe or stay with your children? It’s a lot harder than you may think. 

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Nolan manages to keep you invested regardless of how damn confusing the subject can be. None of us really understand how black holes and wormholes and blackworms and everything work, but Nolan keeps the explanations short and sweet. Why try and confuse us with intricacy? He does a good job of keeping it simple… until the end that is.

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The ending was not great. Without spoiling anything, the realism of the movie absolutely fell apart. All the science, mixed with the dark tone, set us up for one really nice ending, but instead, Nolan ran off that path. For a long time, I actually sort of believed that the events of this movie could actually happen (except for the whole baloney about a fifth dimensional entity trying to save humanity), especially since the film respected the rules of science. And then, the black hole came and everything fell apart. The story became dilute, the tone shifted way too abruptly, everything became absolutely surreal, and I was left dazed and confused. Lazy writing seems to be the only explanation for this wreck.

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There are a few other problems; some apparent sound mixing issues towards the beginning that Nolan intentionally put in place (sure…) and a relatively unimpressive soundtrack from Hans Zimmer. So is this the best film this year? No way. Is it Nolan’s best film? Not a chance. But is it a good film? No doubt about it. All in all, Interstellar is an exciting, intricate love-driven journey that travels through both space and the human heart and will leave you both rattled and entertained in spite of its imperfections.
~Vig

6.5 out of 10

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” – Albert Einstein

If there was ever a director whose name belongs under that epigraph, it’s Christopher Nolan (Maybe Michael Bay too but this isn’t Transformers). Nolan’s films have grown increasingly convoluted yet well-researched. Maybe strange but definitely deep. About as dry as a desert but still brimming with provoking dialogue. Interstellar is all of the above.

I usually fall in Nolan’s favor. He’s made two of my favorite movies ever, leveled the landscape of action movies and brought complex pieces to the forefront (For better or worse). But poor Chris has suffered a bit of a backlash in the wake of Dark Knight Rises. Many now say he chronically writes himself into corners, relies heavily on leaps and jumps in plot and that he paints his colorful characters in dull greys and blacks.

And (sigh) I’d be lying if I said Interstellar didn’t embody all (Yes, all) of these criticisms. All of them. It’s a very languid movie that presents us with a pretty unexciting earth (Was this the same guy  that gave us the dreams from Inception?). The characters are one-note and the plot crawls from hour to hour until it grunts, drowsily shakes the tired out of its head and roars to some life in the final twenty minutes.

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But hold on there. I said unexciting earth. Let’s not forget people, this is Christopher Nolan. And when Nolan likes something he cradles, nurtures and develops it to fruition. Maybe in a complicated way that some people disagree with but he does it anyhow. And, in this movie, his love is space. This movie is a love-letter to astronomy, time and quantum mechanics. He really did his homework here and I appreciate that to no end.
Nolan’s space feels scary yet intriguing like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Almost this film’s spiritual ancestor). It’s beautiful and new territory but both the audience and the characters know it could kill them at any time. It’s a vast, vast vacuum. The cold technology that surrounds our characters compounds this feeling. The planets also feel this foreign.
So what about those pesky characters that get Nolan’s script’s way occasionally? Well, I can’t really lengthily dive into them because there isn’t too much to dive into. They’re bland. They spout that dry wit and emanate that stoicness we expect from Nolan. They’re cogs in the script’s intricate machine and not much else. Occasionally, we’ll touch on an interesting trait but these moments are fleeting and barely enough to excuse the three hour runtime.

In fact, if Nolan shaved off an hour or so, I may have been writing a very different review. And, though the research he seems very legitimate and interesting, it too serves to suffocate all the breaths of humanity (You know, the thing the movie’s supposed to be about saving) coming from the film. From there, it’s left to gasp for character development in its later quiet moments and it doesn’t get that much.

There are moments where this casts shine though. Nolan’s actors aren’t given a lot but they’re occasionally tossed a few bones and, boy, do they make the most of them. McConaughey’s star is rising and he plays a solid, ten minute one-man scene in this movie in such a way that it earned some mercy from me (I won’t dare spoil the specifics).

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And the plot, though convoluted, had some neat twists and turns that half-resuscitate the plot. It’s just hard to follow those twists when you’re too fatigued to invest and the roads that led you to them were tiring. But if you could follow those curvey roads, good for you. You probably had helluva better ride than I did.
Nolan, I still love you. This film shines like a supernova every so often and occasionally escapes the blackness of the world it has framed for itself. Those moments are few and far between but had they been closer, I’m sure we’d be hailing this as another astronomical masterpiece, akin to Gravity or 2001.

As always, I still can’t wait for Nolan’s next feature however. But I won’t be rushing into any blackholes or time-space portals to get there.
~Zach

Like Interstellar? Hate it? Let us know in the comment section below!

Guardians of the Galaxy

Hey all! Today we’ll be taking a look at Marvel’s biggest risk yet, Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn and starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper, it is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fiction and language.

The latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows Peter Quill (Pratt) after he steals a mysterious orb that puts him right in the center of a manhunt led by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). However, Quill, after being thrown in jail, makes four unexpected allies that help him combat Ronan and preserve the safety of the galaxy.

8.5 out of 10

Ever since the first time we heard the steady beat and tribal chants that prelude Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling in the very first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy we were excited, for the soundtrack if nothing else. This was Marvel’s riskiest film yet, taking a bunch of “D-List superheroes” (as one article called them) and throwing them on to a slate that already features Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor: all A-list superheroes. But boy, did it pay off big time. What we received was a hilarious, action packed film that stands its ground with Marvel’s best.

I will admit that the beginning of this film did not have me. After the first five or ten minutes I was starting to wonder how this movie, which looked so awesome, could be the biggest disappointment since Iron Man 3! The first scene was pretty unexpected, as his mother dies and then he is taken by a spaceship (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler). It was too abrupt a shift from something so sad—something that established a really tragic tone—to something as unrealistic and bizarre as being taken by aliens. It was just too much for me at first. 

Additionally, the first few minutes after the beginning credits served as an adjustment period for the audience, as the dialogue was difficult to enjoy at first. It was extremely different depending on what characters you were talking about. Ronan and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) have a formal, more strict way of speaking when compared with Quill and Rocket Racoon (Cooper) who are laid back and snarky. And then of course, there’s Groot, who only knows how to say “I am Groot”. I can’t really explain it, but  the contrasts made it hard to really enjoy at first, but after 15 minutes or so, I was really loving it.

Last criticism. Ronan the Accuser wasn’t incredibly exciting as a villain. He reminded me of Malekith from Thor 2, which is not a good thing considering how notoriously boring he was. Ronan was an improvement, but not by much. However, he did seem a bit threatening, especially towards the end. Even more threatening than Thanos. Which I’m not sure is what you want.

As much as I’ve talked about the bad stuff, this movie really is awesome. The characters are among the most interesting comic book movie characters I’ve seen and, even better, they mix very well together. Expect for Zoe Saldana’s character, who is kind of boring but still likeable, all the characters are unique, important, and interesting.

Rocket Raccoon and Groot steal the show. Their love-hate relationship is one of the best things about the film. Both characters are such a contrast to each other that it makes it believable that they’re a talking raccoon and (somewhat) talking tree respectively. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel nailed it.

Chris Pratt, likewise, is very good. He’s funny, heartwarming, and courageous without being annoying at all. People are talking about Chris Pratt potentially being one of the next big action stars and consider me on board. Peter Quill has become one of the best characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, largely thanks to Pratt.

The movie also features some of the best written comedy of any Marvel film. As I’ve pointed out, I didn’t love Iron Man 3, largely because I thought it forced its comedy. This, however, was so well done. The timing was absolutely spot on. Pop culture references, Groot-Raccoon moments; everything. It was a very funny movie.

What lets this movie be so successful is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It knows how silly it’s concept is and capitalizes on this. It’s a funny, action-packed adventure that proves to be one of Marvel’s finest to date.
~Vig

9 out of 10

Two years ago, Marvel Studios released what many consider to be its magnum opus: The Avengers. In fact, any future Marvel adventures seemed unneeded. So, naturally, once Marvel announced it was producing a second phase, a lot of questions were raised. The main one being what are they going to top The Avengers with? To which Marvel stood up and proudly announced that it would follow up with an exciting, epic sci-fi team: The Guardians of the Galaxy.

And, as far as I can remember, there wasn’t too warm of a reception. Don’t get me wrong, people still poured their faith into Marvel but nobody knew what to think of Guardians. They thought they could top Robert Downey Jr. with a talking raccoon? And the whole rest of the team with a bunch of no-names?

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And two years later….they did. In fact, I think they surpassed the standard set by The Avengers in my opinion. Let us go over why:

The comedy: I laughed more in Guardians of the Galaxy than around 75% of the comedies I’ve seen. This film is very self-aware; it knows its dealing with a pretty ridiculous set of characters and it never takes itself too seriously. The comedic bits tied all of the film’s elements together and utilized humor in such an effective way that it sits on top of the list of funniest Marvel films.

The characters: As I said before, people weren’t too thrilled about this team of misfits. A less professional studio would labor over these new characters’ backstories and tell rather than show anything about their development. Not Marvel: it trusts in the characters’ attitudes and dialogue to tell their story and they do.

The universe: Guardians goes so far out of Marvel’s usual realm that its a wonder it belongs the same continuity. But special effects paired with original designs really made the sci-fi atmosphere. In a weird way, seeing all of these new settings reminded me of the first time I saw Tatooine or the starship Enterprise. Very original, new world that opens itself up to so many plots and characters.

Speaking of, I’m actually anxious to see the Guardians interact with the usual Marvel suspects. It seems like a bit of a challenger but I’m convinced Marvel is up to it. Considering how they were able to integrate five heroes into one movie, I’m sure they can fit two teams.

Gamora (left), Rocket, Quill, Groot, Drax

Gamora (left), Rocket, Quill, Groot, Drax (right)

My one criticism (And it’s an incredibly small one) is that it was so good at crafting little sincere moments that they could have delved into them a little more. That’s a small complaint and, hey, there’s always the sequel, am I right? This is Marvel, so of course I am.

There you have it. All of these elements combined created such a great superhero movie that I daresay it cracks my top five superhero movies list. But I really can’t describe the fun, you’ll have to experience it yourself: see it.
~Zach

IMDB: 8.2
Metacritic: 76
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%