Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
(James Gunn, 2017)
The original Guardians of the Galaxy grossed more than three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide in 2014, making this sequel inevitable, and clearly volume three is in the works, to judge by the closing credits of the current film. Volume two, which made nearly $150 million its opening weekend, has not disappointed its backers, and promises to make an even bigger fortune in the weeks to come. There is enough of what made the original film successful carrying over into part two to ensure the continued success of Star Lord and his crew.
Chris Pratt is back in his role as Peter Quill (aka “Star Lord”), and he is joined by his kind-of sort-of love interest, the green-skinned alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the terribly literal strongman Drax (Dave Bautista), along with the engineered raccoon-like scaliwag Rocket (voiced frenetically by Bradley Cooper). You may remember, too, that the original Guardians included a giant talking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who sacrificed himself to save the others at the end of that film. Being a tree, Groot provided a cutting that the other Guardians kept, which has now grown into a new Baby Groot—still voiced by Diesel, though, as a baby, the infant Groot has a very limited vocabulary, so Diesel doesn’t get many lines, beyond a baby-talk “I am Groot” kind of thing. But Baby Groot pretty much walks away with this film, he’s so incredibly cute. Preparing us, we can be sure, for a massive marketing campaign of Baby Groot action figures in the very near future.
Another popular aspect of the first film was the mixed tape that Quill’s mother left him at her death in 1988, creating a best-selling soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s songs that were the soundtrack of Quill’s life through the adventures of Volume One. Volume Two begins with two set pieces: The first is an idyllic love scene set in 1980, played out to the tune of Looking Glass’s hit song Brandy, involving a liaison between Quill’s mother and a CGI-youthened Kurt Russell (as a visiting humanoid space lover) that recalls the popular 1984 film Starman, for which Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination. How awesome would it have been to have gotten Bridges to play this role in Guardians? But I digress. Russell shows up later as Quill’s fugitive father, but more of that anon.
The second set piece incorporating the mixed-tape soundtrack is a battle that the Guardians fight against a giant slug-like monster while they are trying to protect essential batteries for a gold-skinned race of obnoxious little snobs called “the Sovereign” that takes place in the background while Baby Groot is grooving out to the vibes of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” And, in the meantime, the opening credits roll.
If you see the film in 3D, which I am unconvinced is ever worth the exorbitant surcharge laid on it by the profit-obsessed Hollywood film industry, you will actually be entertained by the way things swing out at you and Baby Groot during this battle. And that is the third aspect of Film One that carries over into this one: top-of-the-line action sequences and CGI effects that dazzle the viewer, making this film a true feast for the eyes. If, and that’s a big if, it is ever advisable to pay for the 3D version, this is the time. Trust me, I wouldn’t tell you if it wasn’t true.
But what really made the original Guardians of the Galaxy such a huge popular hit, more than any of these qualities, was the irreverent attitude and tongue-in-cheek cynicism of the characters, especially Quill, and at base the ironic view of the whole film toward the conventional “it takes a bunch of superheroes to save the galaxy” theme inherent in these comic-book movies: A healthy awareness of the absurdity of the basic notion behind these kinds of fantasies—the feeling that, if you can’t make a joke about it, it doesn’t belong in the film—is a healthy perspective to keep. Indeed, that’s what originally differentiated Marvel from DC comics in the first place. Those straight-as-an-arrow, super-serious DC heroes like Superman and Batman were really expected to be taken seriously in their quest to save the world. But Spiderman? Is he strong? Listen Bud: he’s got radioactive blood. Marvel heroes had more psychological complexity, and were wise enough to laugh at themselves. That essentially has held true of the films coming from these two traditions. Iron Man, for instance hits that irreverent note pretty strongly. And the first Guardians hit it out of the park.
Not so much this one. Somewhere around Act II, Kurt Russell shows up riding an egg-shaped craft and saving the Guardians from the hot pursuit of the Sovereign (from whom Rocket has cavalierly stolen a precious battery), and he no sooner meets Quill than he announces that his name is Ego (seriously—do you think that might signify anything?) and that—hold onto your hats—he is Quill’s father.
The revelation underscores the theme of the whole movie, affecting each of the characters in his or her own way. Quill must deal with suddenly having a father when he has grown up without one, and come to terms with his father’s abandonment of his mother. In the meantime, Gamora is at odds with her criminal cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whom she has arrested and plans to turn in and with whom she is engaged in a kind of “Dad liked you best!” sibling feud. Even Rocket begins to examine his emotional traumas as a fatherless youth, and Yondu (The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned disgraced Ravager who kidnaped Quill as a child, emerges as a kind of long-lost father figure for our hero. This is balanced against the new “family” that the Guardians have forged themselves into, a relationship underscored by the presence of Baby Groot and the need for all the Guardians to watch over him as the new baby in their family. The chief question of the film becomes whether Quill will be forced to make a choice between his newly revealed father and the group of misfits who have become his surrogate family.
Ego himself raises even more serious questions—questions of a theological nature, and questions that may suggest a spoiler alert on the way, so if you want, you might skip this paragraph until you’ve actually seen the movie. Ego, you see, is not simply a humanoid alien being. Essentially Ego is a god, and his motivations are the sort of motivations that human theologians attribute to the creator God as they try to understand him. Even the father’s name—Ego—recalls Yahweh’s declaration to Moses that his name is “I am.” This is all fine for an omnipotent being, but as it turns out Ego is not omnipotent, and the “Ego” name may suggest a darker side, a kind of sociopathic Narcissist. But I don’t want to give too much away.
If all this seems a bit heavy for this little band of sardonic misfits to carry, that’s probably the one real drawback of this movie. It seems out of character for the wisecracking Quill to be so bogged down with existential angst, and when it affects Rocket, well, that might just be going too far. Fans of the original Guardians are still going to find enough here to delight them. And Russell, Rooker and Pom Klementeiff as Ego’s timid little servant girl Mantis give winning performances to complement the lead ensemble. Some may find that the serious turn takes away from the irreverent cynicism that made the first film such a treat, but I’m sure they’ll all be back for Volume Three. It will be interesting to see whether that installment continues this new introspective trend or returns to the cheeky tone of the first Guardians. But for now, I’ll give this one three Tennysons. It’s definitely worth a look.
Review No. 25: Blackwood’s Gyros and Grill
803 Harkrider Street (parking lot and entrance off Main)
16 percent finished reviewing Conway restaurants
He Said: Blackwood’s has been around for nearly 25 years. It’s a Conway institution, so it’s time we came and checked this place out. It’s right downtown, so you can see the Christmas tree looming above the area from their parking lot. At the beginning of November. In 85-degree weather. Ho, ho, ho, puts me in the spirit for lunch.
She Said: We’d been here once or twice in the 13 years since we’d moved to Conway, and we knew it was a longtime Conway establishment, so we had it high on our list to review. I found the place originally because I was looking for Middle Eastern food when we first moved to Arkansas, and I saw the magical “gyros” word in the name. I “trained” in this cuisine when I lived in the Detroit metro area in the early 1990s, an urban sprawl that boasted the largest Arabic population in the world outside the Middle East at the time, so they know good hummus, pita and shawarma (another word for the meat in your gyro); therefore, I have strong feelings about my Middle Eastern cuisine.
He Said: It’s a comfortable enough place, a little like a sports bar, with several TV sets turned to sports channels. It’s not a very large space, so it did fill up fairly quickly before noon, and there were a number of folks coming in for takeout. Being right downtown, Blackwood’s seems to get a lot of business from businesses, as folks pop in on their lunch hours and bring Blackwood’s food back to their desks. You do get your drinks in disposable cups, which makes it feel a little bit fast-foody.
She Said: I thought it was diner-y and somewhat utilitarian, but I was completely comfortable. It also felt energetic, due to the business-lunch traffic you mentioned, Ruud. The tables vary for large and small parties, as well as higher, bistro/bar-style tables interspersed among the typical (I think) more comfortable lower tables, as well as a counter for seating as well. I would be comfortable dining here alone, but I don’t think I’d want to sit at that counter—I’d want a pleasant table mid-dining room.
He Said: Coke products, so, Dr. Pepper. With generous refills.
She Said: I went for the unsweet iced tea, of course. It was very good, and had that yummy clear, crushed ice. They kept it filled up for me, and it comes in a to-go cup (marked “Un”), so I could take it with me when I left, which was very convenient.
He Said: This is a huge menu, with quite a few Mediterranean entrees, but a whole bunch of traditional “American” sandwiches, burgers and such as well. My personal go-to dish at Mediterranean restaurants is Dolmathes—i.e., stuffed grape leaves. Surprisingly, that’s not one of the items on Blackwood’s huge menu. So I opted for the Souvlakia, which the menu describes as “marinated chicken served open faced on a hot wheat pita fold, topped with Tzatziki sauce, fresh tomatoes and onions.” Tzatziki sauce, in case you’re not up on your Middle Eastern sauces, is made mainly of Greek yogurt and cucumber. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that for medical reasons I need to limit my fat intake to 50-60 grams per day, which is not easy to do if you actually eat three meals. Unlike most creamy sauces, yogurt is low fat, and chicken of course is much lower in fat content than red meat, so the Souvlakia was a good choice for me. It looked good when they brought it, the tzatziki on the side. The chicken was tender and tangy, and the tzatziki sauce tasted fresh and creamy. I have to say it did seem a little dry though—probably would have benefited from more sauce than I had. But I would consider ordering it again—perhaps asking for extra sauce at the time of the order. For an appetizer we had hummus, which was pretty average. The pita bread here is very soft in the middle and a little crispy on the outside—it wasn’t my favorite, though some may like it that way.
She Said: As I mentioned above, Mediterranean food has been a favorite cuisine of mine since my late teens, and when I’m given the opportunity to partake, I will often pick it over any other restaurant. It’s comfort food for me, as I went to a lot of Middle Eastern eateries with friends and family in the summer of 1990 in the Detroit ’burbs. I have expectations, and my hummus bar is high. I think Blackwood’s hummus is on the good side of ok; this is because I prefer creamy hummus, and theirs is grainier in consistency. However, I want to be clear that the flavor was spot-on, and I ate a lot of the serving we shared as an appetizer. The pita they serve is also a little different than I’m used to; it’s a little fluffier, with a crispier crust and soft, bready inside. I like it, though it’s a little more filling.
I chose the gyro sandwich from the huge menu of appetizers, salads, burgers and sandwiches (lots and lots of sandwiches) and vegetarian fare (yay!) because that is one meat dish I have a lot of trouble resisting. I love the tender beef and lamb marinated in those Mediterranean spices that smell and taste so good together. The gyro here comes with onions, chopped tomatoes and tzatziki sauce, and Blackwood’s is fresh, light and delicious—it goes well with the heavy meat as well as their pita bread. The sandwich is big, and it’s tasty, so I wanted to eat it all, but about halfway in, I gave that up, having filled up too much on the hummus and pita appetizer, so I opened up the sandwich and ate the tzatziki-coated meat out of the middle of it. (I also scraped off a lot of the tomatoes, though they looked quite fresh and hand-chopped.) I was determined not to leave any of that meat behind; it was tasty and, indeed, comforting.
Instead of Ruffles, which come with the gyro, I spent a little extra for fries. These are definitely what I would call “steak fries,” as they are huge, crispy on the outside and light and fluffy inside. They come unsalted, so we had the shaker handy as we ate. I couldn’t finish them, either, though I wanted to. The dish also comes with a large, crisp, delicious pickle. I ate until I couldn’t anymore and looked sadly at my plate, disappointed in my stomach’s lack of endurance.
He Said: Prompt, courteous, and friendly. I couldn’t think of a thing to fault them on. And I tried really hard. Even if you’re not a big fan of Mediterranean food, you might want to come here for a burger and the service.
She Said: I was pleased with the service from start to finish. Our waitress was efficient, helpful and friendly. The food runner who brought our orders offered to refill our drinks, and the woman running the cash register (you pay at the counter), was chatty and friendly without being fake. This restaurant has been here for almost 25 years, and the service, I’m sure, is a good part of why.
What We Got and What We Paid: Hummus and pita appetizer to share, gyro sandwich with steak fries subbed for chips, souvlakia plate, unsweet tea and Dr. Pepper for $26.86.
He Said: A good place for Mediterranean food if you don’t want to make a trip to Little Rock. It’s pretty handy for lunch if you’re downtown, and there are a lot of choices on the menu so you’ll probably be able to find something you like in any case.
She Said: I’m putting this on my comfort food local list. The gyros are tasty and filling. I might get my hummus somewhere else, though.
So…He Said and She Said: Find your comfort food at Blackwood’s, and save room for the huge fries.
Ron Howard (2016)
I did read The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s first Robert Langdon novel, the runaway best-seller about Catholic conspiracies and historical puzzles interspersed with Wikipedia-level art history lessons. I couldn’t figure out why it was such a huge success. It was really not very well written—it was full of cliches, had a very predictable plot, and pretty one-dimensional characters, and was full of things that really didn’t make much sense but were included blatantly for exposition or to further the plot (Langdon had to explain to his female sidekick Sophie Neveu—a professional cryptologist—how a simple code worked). Needless to say, I haven’t read any of his other novels, but I have seen the movies, because, well, Tom Hanks. But let’s just say that what we’ve got with the latest Dan Brown movie directed by Ron Howard is not the Tom Hanks of Saving Private Ryan, Castaway, Forrest Gump, or Philadelphia, but something more akin to the Hanks of The ‘Burbs, The Money Pit, or Joe vs. the Volcano.
I really needed to see this movie because the trailers made it appear that Brown had turned Dante’s Inferno into some kind of cryptograph (“Dante’s Inferno isn’t fiction, it’s prophecy,” says Hanks-as-Langdon in the trailer), but that simply isn’t there in the film. What is there is just about as absurd, though. Part of the problem is simply wrong information. At one point, it is implied that Dante wrote in the fifteenth century. He died (and completed his Divine Comedy) in 1321. There are repeated references in the film to the “Black Plague,” which is not a thing. There was, of course, the Bubonic Plague, the first iteration of which in 1347 was popularly known as the “Black Death.” Calling it the “Black Plague” is, simply put, a demonstration of ignorance, or else laziness in research. More importantly, the film seems to suggest that somehow Dante’s vision of Hell in the Inferno was in some way inspired by the plague. But of course, as I’ve just told you, that would be impossible, since the plague did not appear until 26 years after Dante’s death.
These kinds of details are not things that will be noticed by most viewers. The part of it they will notice, though, is the fuzziness about exactly how Dante’s Inferno is related to the plague, and what that has to do with the rest of the plot. Though the plot is, from the beginning, deliberately fuzzy: Langdon lies in a hospital room, suffering through hallucinatory visions of people walking with their heads on backwards, or blood flowing in the streets, or people walking in flames. These, of course, are some of the punishments from the Inferno. But why should they be in Langdon’s mind? When he wakes up, he can’t remember anything from the past two days, and his doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones of The Theory of Everything) explains that he is suffering from a head wound, which explains the amnesia. When Langdon looks out the window and realizes he is in Florence, he is completely confused. But when a Terminator-like woman disguised as an Italian police officer comes into the hospital to hunt him down, Langdon must flee—accompanied, of course, by his doctor (why not?). Now Langdon needs to start figuring things out.
Back in his hotel with his beautiful young British doctor who for some reason seems to be practicing medicine in Florence, Langdon finds a laser pointer in his jacket that projects an image of Sandro Botticelli’s Abyss of Hell, a map of the Inferno modeled on Dante’s poem. Langdon notices that the levels are out of order. In addition, there are words hidden in some of the images, spelling out an elaborate clue. A clue to what we’re not completely sure yet, but all seems to be connected to the suicide in Florence of a biotech billionaire named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster of Hell or High Water). Zobrist had been known for a campaign of dire predictions concerning the overpopulation of the human species, warning that humans were potentially facing extinction because of their overtaxing the planet’s resources. Accordingly, Zobrist apparently developed a virus that, like the Black Death itself, would kill half of the human population. Zobrist believed so strongly in his vision that he killed himself rather than allow his plan for “thinning the herd” to be thwarted. What Zobrist apparently has done is left a series of clues for his closest devotee to follow in order to find the virus and release it into the world. Those clues are inspired by Dante’s text to begin with, and lead Langdon and new female sidekick, the young Dr. Brooks, on a scavenger hunt. This takes them around Florence, looking for Dante’s death mask, on which Zobrist has written another clue that sends them running to Venice and then to Istanbul.
And they aren’t running alone. Everybody seems to think that Langston knows, or remembers, more than he does. So two different and apparently rival groups from the World Health Organization are chasing him—one led by an old flame of Langdon’s named Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babbet Knudsen, currently being seen T.V.’s Westworld), the other by the earnest Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy of Jurassic World)—and Langdon has to figure out which, if either, to trust. At the same time, just to keep things confusing, there is a shadowy security firm of some kind chasing Langdon, headed by a playful and witty Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi) whose memorable character is beyond question the best thing in this movie.
It’s hard to say what the worst thing in the movie is. There are just too many things to choose from. All that running is one of those things: Hanks and Jones run so much and so often that I actually fell asleep at one point and didn’t miss a thing except a little more running. There might have been less running and more substance, and I suppose that suggests that David Koepp’s screenplay is a candidate for the worst thing about the movie. This can’t be blamed on Brown: it’s Brown’s geeky explanations of the historical and artistic clues to his overly-wrought puzzles that seem to be what his fans love. But Koepp’s script eliminates much of that kind of thing and replaces it with, well, running. And the script also apparently changes the ending of Brown’s novel in a way that, as I understand it (not having read the book), will not make fans of the book particularly happy.
The title of the story puts Dante at the center of the film’s world. But the association of Dante with plague, and the implication that he was somehow obsessed with the horrors of a plague-like world in creating his version of Hell, is certainly a complete misreading of his text, and ignores the fact that Inferno is only the first part of The Divine Comedy, a story that ends in heaven and is at heart a celebration of the grace and goodness of God.
But my personal vote for worst thing about this movie is the absolute absurdity of some of the plot elements (and these, I’m afraid, probably are attributable to Brown): Why on earth would Zobrist have set up this elaborate puzzle to lead his prime disciple to the pandemic virus, instead of just, I don’t know, telling that person where it was? And what about that Dante death mask? How did Zobrist get the message on the back of the mask? Did he steal it, write the message on it, and then put it back without anybody in the Pallazzo Vecchio realizing that the mask was gone? For that matter, why are Langdon and his followers able to run around the great landmarks of Europe without running into any police, or even any of the thousands of tourists that would be there? Okay, I admit that last one is probably just me refusing to suspend my disbelief, but there are simply too many implausibilities in this plot.
I will admit that as a travelogue, the movie is interesting, giving us some excellent background shots of the Duomo and Baptistry of Florence, San Marco’s Cathedral in Venice, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. But those shots plus Irrfan Khan are not enough to save this film. It’s also refreshing to see a protagonist who wins out in the end by using his brains instead of blowing people away with a gun or beating the sense out of them with his mad hand-to-hand combat skills. So I will give this one two Jacqueline Susanns. And that’s a gift.