FILM REVIEW: GET HARD (2015)

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Darnell Lewis: When life throws you Dick you make Dick-ade!
James King: Dick-ade doesn’t sound like a significant improvement over dick.

Director: Etan Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson

Synopsis: When wealthy hedge fund manager, James King, is framed for fraud he is sentenced to maximum security prison, San Quentin. Worried about how to handle prison life he turns to his car cleaner, Darnell Lewis, who he falsely presumes knows what it’s like to be in prison because he is black. Needing the money to start his new business Darnell agrees to the offer even though he’s never actually been to prison.

A modern spin on the 80s classic comedy ‘Trading Places‘ with Will Ferrell as the stiff rich white man replacing Dan Akroyd and Kevin Hart as the poor black man (this time not homeless but a struggling business owner with a wife and daughter) replacing Eddie Murphy. It’s not officially a remake but it does borrow a lot from that film bordering on copyright.

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This is an enjoyable comedy not in the league of Ferrell’s superior comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers but better than most modern comedies. Hart brings his manic energy to the screen and after his hilarious stand up shows he’s beginning to bring that energy to his films after the disappointing Ride Along. Hart and Ferrell work well together but the film relies heavily on dick and rape jokes rather than their stars natural comedic talent.

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Ferrell stars as James King a wealthy hedge fund manager engaged to the smoking hot Alissa (played with wicked delight by Alison Brie). He has it all – gorgeous house, wealth, power and prestige however he soon finds himself the victim of a false accusation and faces time in prison. He turns to his car cleaner Darnell (Hart) for advice on how to survive in prison. He offers him $30,000 for his help. Darnell accepts even though he’s never been to prison. What follows is a series of sketches involving Hart preparing a disillusioned Ferrell on prison life including how to act tough, how to suck dick, and how to fight strangers. Not all of the sketches work and the dick/gay jokes feel dated in 2015. If this film came out ten or twenty years ago it would have been a lot edgier and in your face but after shock comedies such as Borat, Jackass and the American Pie series unfortunately most comedy fans have seen it all before.

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It is an enjoyable time if you enjoy the humour of Ferrell and Hart but unfortunately little else for contemporary audiences.

Rating: 2.5 Stars

FILM REVIEW: FURIOUS 7 (2015)

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Dominic Toretto: I used to say I live my life a quarter mile at a time and I think that’s why we were brothers – because you did too. No matter where you are, whether it’s a quarter mile away or half way across the world. The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room, right here, right now. Salute mi familia. You’ll always be with me. And you’ll always be my brother.

Director: James Wan

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell and Dwayne Johnson

Synopsis: After the death of a close ally, Dominic Toretto, brings his gang back together to seek revenge and also go on a worldwide mission to help the government get their hands on a new form of GPS tracking equipment that can trace anyone in the world.

Unfortunately franchise fatigue and tragic behind the scenes events weigh heavy on the seventh instalment of the Fast and Furious saga. It has been said again and again but it is quite the feat to have a b level action film from 2001 with no stars or credibility to go on to become a billion dollar franchise over ten years later. After the original The Fast and the Furious (2001) was a surprise hit and made street car racing popular the studio quickly went on to develop a sequel with the partnership of Vin Diesel’s stoic bad boy car racer, Dominic Toretto, and Paul Walker’s good boy charming undercover cop, Brian O’Conner to recapture the magic of the original. However Diesel didn’t want to be a part of it (believing he’d have a stronger career in more dramatic roles) so the studio went ahead and replaced him with Tyrese Gibson’s bad boy, Roman, who was essentially a more charming version of Toretto in 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (great title). Then in 2006 Universal released The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, which essentially strayed away from the buddy cop genre conventions of the previous two and went with a new story revolving around a troubled youth who has to move to Japan and discovers car racing and drifting. The film was the least successful of the franchise but did introduce Sung Kan’s Han who would become a series regular. The film also ended with a surprise cameo from Vin Diesel tying the film to the franchise. Perhaps the most important asset the third film brought was the introduction of director Justin Lin who would go on to re-establish the franchise for the better. In 2009, Lin brought the original four back together with the reunion of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. It was a fun reunion and was a huge success at the box office showing that the franchise could live on. In 2011, Lin directed the best in the series with Fast Five, taking the gang on a wild heist and introducing Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Hobbs a federal Marshall on the hunt for Toretto. Johnson brought swagger and charm to the role of Hobb’s and Lin brought breathtaking action sequences to new heights and the series was now a phenomenon. In 2013, Lin made his final bow with Fast Six, which was another action masterpiece with incredible set pieces. However Lin decided to leave the franchise when Universal wanted to rush production and have Furious Seven released a year later. James Wan, successful from horror hits such as Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring was brought in to complete the film. Wan a talented director wanted to explore an action film and things were on the way however only months into production, Paul Walker tragically passed away in a car crash. The film appeared to be over however with time away and further negotiations, Diesel and crew decided to complete the film as a tribute to Walker. With CGI, Walker’s brothers as stand ins and existing footage they were going to complete the scenes of Brian and also send him off with a farewell from the team/franchise.

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With Walker’s death changing everything the film suffers on two levels. One it is hard to watch Walker drive into death defying situations without feeling uncomfortable knowing he died in reality doing the same sort of thing. Also his later scenes feel clunky with him speaking on the phone filmed from his back or fighting Tony Jaa in the dark to obscure his face it shows that despite their noble efforts the filmmakers still couldn’t hide the fact that Brian was no longer played by Walker. Also the films narrative switches to accommodate his characters departure from the franchise. Although in previous films Brian partnered with Torreto’s sister, Mia (played by Jordana Brewster) and even had a child with her. Now he decides to leave the gang and live with her far away. The final scenes are an emotional tribute to Walker and Brian however after further thought his character could have had a stronger exit.

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Now for the rest of the film the gang is on two missions. One is to fight Jason Statham’s new character of Dereck Shaw, brother of Owen Shaw from Fast Six that was put into a coma by Torreto. As Torreto and his gang fight Shaw they meet a new ally in Kurt Russell’s Mr Nobody, a shady government agent who gets Torreto’s crew to work for him to find a GPS tracker which can find anyone in the world. Despite some great action scenes the films multiple plots are hard to keep track of and at 137 minutes of exploding cars, helicopters, city streets it all becomes a bit too much. Lin was better equipped at handling action scenes in FF 3 – 6 with slower panning and longer edits. Unfortunately Wan films his action in quick cuts and it is hard to keep up with the space of the characters, cars, helicopters, etc in most of the action scenes. Wan shows some impressive camera angles in the first fist fight between Johnson and Statham however as the film moves on to car chases and explosions Wan suffers under the pressure to top the last films action creativity.

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With a confusing plot and action scenes with jarring quick cuts unfortunately Furious Seven ends up being one of the least enjoyable in the franchise. The film isn’t terrible with a moving tribute to Walker and a few enjoyable action scenes. It is disappointing as the previous entries have set the bar extremely high. Only Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs saves the film with a bit of humour but he is also taken out far too quickly in the opening scenes of the film.

Rating: 2 Stars

Ranking of the Fast and Furious Franchise.

1. Fast Five (2011)
2. Fast Six (2013)
3. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
4. Fast & Furious (2004)
5. Furious Seven (2015)
6. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

FILM REVIEW: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

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Stephen Hawking: There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Synopsis: The story of physician Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane.

The Theory of Everything is an above average biopic which unfortunately doesn’t rise above its strong subject matter. The problem with biopics is that they end up being clips of important parts of a famous person’s life. Biopics such as A Beautiful Mind and The Aviator although have strong performances from its lead actors only skim the surface of powerful lives. Films such as The Social Network and Schindler’s List provide an accurate take of a part of that person’s life (possibly the most important part). The Theory of Everything unfortunately falls into the former category by trying to fit in twenty or more years into a two hour frame. Therefore we don’t quite get into Hawking’s theories or how he came to them (except for clumsy scenes depicting a look into a fireplace birthing his theory of the black hole). Where the film succeeds is in its extraordinary performances. Eddie Redmayne’s performance of Hawking captures the physicality and heart of a man paralysed by ALS. His performance never feels false and this is quite an achievement to capture the speech and physical bodily tension of Hawking over the years as his body slowly degenerates. Felicity Jones also excels as his wife Jane. She could have played it as the sad wife constantly trying to help however Jones fills Jane with a strong spirit and a will all her own as she tries to find her own identity as a wife of not only a successful and popular physicist but also a man whose body is failing him. Also she must take care of her children and find time for herself to finish her own studies. It is a powerful and heartbreaking story which elevates this biopic to something greater.

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The film is visually striking and captures its time quite perfectly. Overall a better than average biopic which often falls into the pitfalls of telling a vast story in two hours but the lead performances make it memorable.

Rating: 3 Stars

FILM REVIEW: FOCUS (2015)

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Nicky: It’s about distraction. It’s about focus. The brain is slow and it can’t multitask. Tap him here, take from there.

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

Synopsis: Veteran con man Nicky teaches a young apprentice Jess in the art of the con. Never lose focus, however as Nicky grows feelings for his apprentice their latest con may become more difficult for everyone involved.

The old school charming Will Smith is back in form in his latest con caper romantic drama, Focus. Smith was the hottest star of the 90s with blockbuster hits such as Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997). In the 2000’s he began to explore his dramatic side with the biopics Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) but still found time to provide blockbusters such as I, Robot (2004) and I Am Legend (2007) however the 10s haven’t been as kind to him with the box office and critical failures such as After Earth (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014). As a comeback vehicle Smith has chosen a con artist caper film in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and American Hustle (2013) however this film is a pale imitation at best.

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Although Smith returns to form with his charming one liners and buff muscles flexing through his stylish clothes, the film has a flawed script which never lives up to the potential of its excellent leads. Matching Smith’s charm is the beautiful Margot Robbie hot off her impressive debut in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Robbie is not only a sexy foil for Smith but she also has the acting ability to stretch her character from inept pocket thief to a skilled, sexy and appealing hustler. The plot revolves around Smith’s Nicky training Robbie’s Jess into a skilled con artist. Soon enough Nicky falls for Jess and decides to abandon her so he doesn’t “lose his focus” as a skilled con artist who can’t have anything or anyone stop him from completing the long con. Predictably they meet again three years later as Nicky is planning his next con which could make him millions.

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In a film like this I was expecting plenty of plot twists and clever set pieces involving people getting conned. Unfortunately there aren’t many twists and the final act is a convoluted mess which should have left the audience surprised instead of scratching their heads wondering what the point of the last two hours were. With impressive cinematography and good actors unfortunately the script and its surprises aren’t impressive and leaves this film feeling like a waste of everyone’s time.

Rating: 1 Star

REVIEW: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

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Koba: Caesar weak!
Caesar: Koba weaker.

Director: Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Gary Oldman

Synopsis: In a dystopian future where genetically advanced Apes now rule the earth, Ape leader Caesar struggles with keeping the peace when a band of human survivors seek shelter and help from the apes.

The last entry into the Planet of the Apes series (for now) which is a direct sequel to 2011’s reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as we follow the aftermath of the events from that film. Mankind has fallen due to the virus which Will Rodman (James Franco) developed in Rise. This film is set ten years after the events of Rise and is essentially a remake of 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which is a direct sequel to 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes which was also remade into 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Make sense??) However whether you are a fan of the series or if this is your first ape film to see you will definitely be impressed with this epic tale filled with parallels to Shakespeare’s classic Julius Caesar, as well as modern news headlines including threatening viruses, terrorism, politics, global warming, fear of technology all wrapped up in a sci-fi cgi heavy blockbuster.

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Andy Serkis reprises his role of Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar now leads his ape community with his right hand man Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (played by Karin Konoval). In the opening sequence he leads his army into an attack on some deer. This sequence is breathtaking as the camera and sound follow Caesar and his apes into the forest. No dialogue only subtitles showing their communication highlight the sounds of the forest and its slow build-up of suspense and foreboding. The cgi is once again top knotch the geniuses at Weta have again sculpted living, breathing apes with actors portraying them through performance capture technology. Andy Serkis has already become a master in this medium with his iconic performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series however who truly shines in this instalment is Toby Kebbell as the tortured Koba who hates all humans and begins to disagree with his leaders outlook. It is an iconic performance and is easily the best villain of 2014.

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After the opening deer chase a group of humans lead by Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke) cross paths with the apes and seek help in order to bring back electric power to their small community of survivors. Caesar begins to remember the human who helped him as a child and helps out the group of humans in an effort to work and live together in peace. However with all great stories the search for peace isn’t easy and with man and animals nature peace can only exist in short bursts of time. Soon Koba plots to get rid of the humans despite his leaders frame of mind. What ensues is an action packed final battle between the humans and apes.

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This film is brilliant, strong plot, characters, set design, special effects, sound design/soundtrack and direction. It is not an ordinary blockbuster and although previous ape entries have been parallels to our current time this one really gets all the beats right. This is very high on the list of best films of 2014 and also very high on the list of Planet of the Apes films. Strong recommend.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

REVIEW: THE CONJURING (2013)

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Ed Warren: The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges on which we decide to follow.

Director: James Wan

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor

Synopsis: The true story of ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who must help a family deal with paranormal activity in their new home.

The Conjuring directed by James Wan is a classically styled horror film which relies on genuine slowly built frightening sequences and excellent characters to entertain and scare its audience. Unlike other recent horror films which rely on torture (Saw series) or found footage (Paranormal Activity series) to scare its audience, The Conjuring harkens back to the days of masterful suspense by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter and William Friedkin. Wan clearly a fan of these great auteurs gives his film a sense of respectability in not relying on gimmicks to surprise or shock his audience. He relies on mood, sound, atmosphere and a slow feeling of dread that surrounds every moment of this film. He utilises these elements extremely well in developing frightening sequences which admittedly we have seen done before, however he treats the scares with a genuine sense of authenticity and doesn’t pander to his audience. Although the film relies on haunted house and exorcism film genre conventions, Wan injects them with more than what we have seen in recent horror films and this easily excels all others in comparison.

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Wan coming off the respectable horror film, Insidious, and the original Saw is now a genuine horror auteur and has reached his peak with this horror masterpiece. The film centres on the Perron family, father, Roger and mother, Carolyn (both played earnestly by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five children. They move into a new house and soon begin to hear bump in the night. These early sequences are well choreographed and don’t rely on fake scares like a cat jumping out of the corner, instead cinematographer John R. Leonetti weaves his camera around the house and allows the darkness to creep into the daughter’s bedroom. His camera works wonders in setting up the shocking situation this family will soon be in. We also meet paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who bring a sense of genuine chemistry to their partnership. Vera Farmiga excels as the tortured Lorraine Warren and Patrick Wilson plays Ed as a protective husband and father, a man willing to help and has a sense of duty to those in need. They meet the Perron’s and immediately sense a demonic presence in their home.

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The film then moves towards its compelling and shocking finale involving an exorcism that matches the original The Exorcist (1973) in its horror and intensity. With excellent acting, direction and cinematography, The Conjuring is perhaps one of the best horror films of the last decade. One which many will be aiming to replicate in our future.

Rating: 4 Stars

REVIEW: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

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Maurice: Hurt bad?
Caesar: You know sign?
Maurice: Circus orangutan.
Maurice: Careful. Humans don’t like smart ape.

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Synopsis: A scientist testing a new drug to cure alzheimer’s uses apes as test subjects. The drug works and one ape named Caesar begins to grow more intelligent…

After 2001’s reboot directed by Tim Burton bombed critically and financially ten years later Fox decided to do another reboot. Only this time they moved away from remaking Planet of the Apes (1968) and made a hybrid prequel/remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). The one thing that differentiated it from the franchise (and had fanboys quite worried) was the fact that all of the apes would be completely CGI and not men in costumes. Although the one thing everyone praised in Burton’s reboot was the amazing costume design. This film opens in the jungle and provides a far more serious and compelling opening far removed from what we have seen in the past films. Thanks to the geniuses at Weta Digital we have amazing looking apes who look more like they are from a David Attenborough documentary than a Halloween party. The apes look and move exactly as real apes do and this opening is brilliant in showing not only this new universe but also the new tone this film/franchise will go in.

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After the jungle sequence opening we are introduced to Will Rodman (played earnestly by James Franco) who is a scientist experimenting with cures for alzheimers. We quickly learn that Will has a personal stake in this as his father is suffering from the illness (played heartbreakingly by John Lithgow). Will has a lab full of chimps who have been given a serum that increases their intelligence and gives them the IQ of humans. After a presentation goes wrong the experiment is called off and the chimps are all euthanized except for one baby chimp which Will takes into his own care. As weeks go by Will discovers this chimp has the AZL serum in his blood passed down from his mother and shows signs of increased intelligence far superior than any regular ape. The ape also befriends Wills dad, Charles and he names him Caesar based on his love of Shakespeare. The famous Shakespeare play Julius Caesar definitely has parallels to this story.

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As years go by Will begins dating comely Vet Caroline (played by Frieda Pinto) and Caesar grows claustrophobia as an ape with no jungle to explore. He watches outside the attic window at children playing and becomes depressed in his current predicament. Will begins to take him on trips to their local sanctuary where Caesar is able to climb trees and swing from the vines. These sequences are breathtaking and show the scope of the quality of Weta’s special effects. As with every Planet of the Apes film things soon begin to go wrong not only for Caesar but also for Will and Charles who begins to slide further into madness. Caesar ends up in a zoo owned by the nefarious John Landon (played with moustache twirling glee by Brian Cox) and his son Dodge Landon (played by Harry Potter villain Tom Felton). Here Caesar meets Maurice and Rocket and many other apes and begins to find a place among his primates. He soon becomes King due to his advanced intellect. Unfortunately Caesar also learns the evil of men and becomes distrustful of Will and sees his fellow apes as his equals. He rallies them together to rise up from their cages and take over the city. The action and special effects filled sequences that follow are truly breathtaking especially the action on San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.

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The film is ultimately a tragedy and shows the problems with our modern society between different classes, ethnicities and groups of people. Also the cost of trying to advance science and technology to play God. The film is an allegory for many issues in today’s society and unlike the older Apes films it doesn’t hit you over the head with the obvious subtext. Instead it provides an action filled and at times heartbreaking story of man and ape who lose their way.

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One more thing I need to praise in this film and that is Andy Serkis motion captured performance. After playing Gollum and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Serkis has made body acting an art form. He is brilliant in this role and brings the ape Caesar to heartbreaking life. You follow his journey and side with his character more so than any human performer. Serkis’ Caesar has become one the greatest CGI characters in the past five years. He is truly a revelation and lifts this film from enjoyable to fantastic.

Rating: 4 Stars

REVIEW: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

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Gamora: We’re just like Kevin Bacon.

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper

Synopsis: A disparate team of thieves and bounty hunters join together to save the galaxy from an evil tyrant named Ronan the Accuser.

Review:

The latest blockbuster from Marvel Studios delivers all of the adventure and excitement of their previous comic book adaptations. A fast and enjoyable ride that will push these Marvel characters into the mainstream. The problem is it also doesn’t improve or transcend the genre either. This is not a complaint as this film not only delivers the thrills of the best superhero genre films but also subverts the conventions with quirky humour and a superb soundtrack of 70s and 80s hits. The only problem is that it doesn’t attempt to move beyond what has come before such as this years Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which delivered breathtaking action with excellent character drama. Perhaps it is too soon to compare this film to Captain America TWS because we have gotten to know those characters through multiple films and this is an origin story which ultimately must follow those conventions strictly to gain a wider audience. The inevitable sequel may use its time to delve into the characters further and create a deeper and more realised narrative. However what we have here feels somewhat rushed and fast paced to the point of shallow character development and more emphasis on special effects, action and humour. For the average movie goer this is sufficient for a good time at the movies and although this film is better than most of the blockbusters this year, including The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, it’s not a game changer either.

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The story begins in 1988 with a child named Peter Quill listening to ‘I’m not in Love’ the smooth 80s ballad on his Walkman, while waiting in a hospital preparing to see his ill mother. A heartfelt opening which is perhaps unlike any opening of a Marvel film we have seen. The heartfelt sequence is soon interrupted by Peter running off and randomly being taken by a spaceship. Cut to the future where Peter is a grown man still listening to his Walkman searching for a lost orb on another planet. We can see shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars immediately. Director James Gunn quickly subverts the genre with the Indiana Jones looking Chris Pratt dancing around the planet while he looks for the orb. This is a fun film with lots of humorous moments throughout and possibly the closest we’ll get to a great sci-fi comedy in the vein of Ghostbusters. Chris Pratt is almost a lighter Bill Murray. The film quickly gets into the space action and Gunn films it clearly and allows special effects to dazzle the audience. Peter quickly gets introduced to the other members of the team including Gamora (the sexy Zoe Saldana), Rocket, an anthropomorphised raccoon (voiced by a scraggly Bradley Cooper), the dumb and lovable tree, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the bulky Drax the Destroyer (played with deadpan humour by professional wrestler, Dave Bautista). The crew come together rather quickly and I didn’t completely buy their immediate friendship based on how they get together. The films biggest fault in my opinion is in their introductions and the fast paced plotting of having them immediately all come together to become friends and ultimately defeat the evil force threatening the world. It’s almost as if the writers thought “Hey, we’ve got a team of badass characters who all have individual quirky traits who need to get together to save the world and then become best friends just like the avengers!” However these characters would have benefitted with more character development in their earlier introduction scenes and also remain individuals by the end. I’m not sure if it was necessary to establish them as a great team by the end because of how independent their backstories are. *Spoiler alert* I have to say I didn’t buy the ending where they all got together to go on another adventure. The film set them up to get together to fight this evil but I didn’t believe that they would always stay together and remain a team because of their pasts. I guess the comic book might have developed the characters better, but I have never read a Guardians of the Galaxy comic and I didn’t quite buy them as a team in this film.

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However these complaints aside I have to say the humour, action set pieces and the characters were all excellent and I did have a great time watching this film. Narrative problems aside this was a fun ride.

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Rating: 3.5 Stars