“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

I am Groot… I am Groot…  I am impressed with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s the first MCU sequel done right since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

After completing another successful mission, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) meet the enigmatic Ego (Kurt Russell). He helps the group and reveals himself to be Peter’s dad, shocking the group.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return to settle their scores, Peter and Gamora must deal with their feelings, Rocket Raccoon comes to terms with who he is, and Baby Groot dances adorably.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” maintains its predecessor’s energy, colorful effects, kinetic action sequences, and killer soundtrack. It takes the humor and character moments up a few notches, resulting in a surprisingly hilarious and emotional sequel. If “Vol. 1” is “A New Hope,” then “Vol. 2” is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Without getting too much into the plot, the Guardians split into two groups where alliances form, betrayals occur, and revelations are revealed. Quill spends a portion of the movie torn between family and his destiny; it’s bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Vol. 2” is fun, though! Don’t let my description fool you. The standout sequences are a delightful opening credits sequence, a space ship battle that’s an obvious nod to the arcade gaming era, and any scene involving Yondu (Rooker kills it).

The cast is once again great with their chemistry and comedic timing; they’re even better in their dramatic moments. Kurt Russell’s performance is a little too exposition-heavy, but his charm and charisma make it acceptable.

I could have done without Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord. He literally has two minutes of screen time, angrily delivers exposition about Yondu, and leaves until the end. For a hyped character, I expected more for Sly to do.

The MCU has a bad history with sequels, but “Vol. 2” proves you don’t have to one-up all elements for a sequel; it’s okay to slow down and expand on the characters’ back story. You don’t see that in a superhero film often, which is admirable.

Grade: A-

“The Space Between Us”

Gary Oldman utters the phrase, “You had one job,” halfway into “The Space Between us.” Correction, the screenwriters had one job.

Nathaniel Shepard (Oldman) launches a space expedition to colonize Mars. When the lead astronaut discovers she’s pregnant and dies in childbirth, the orphaned Gardner (Asa Butterfield) grows up on Mars. He eventually returns to Earth, only for Nathaniel to realize that Gardner can’t physically handle the planet’s gravity. And a chase begins.

“The Space Between Us” is “The Martian” meets a young adult novel, minus the scientific accuracy. I wish I had a glass of wine watching this movie because it’s cheesy as hell. How is it a human can’t physically handle one planet versus another?

The writers rely too heavily on conveniences and exposition and there isn’t any real suspense or drama. It’s amazing how many times Gardner and his love interest Tulsa (Britt Robertson) successfully steal a car with the keys left inside.

Butterfield and Robertson both have good chemistry and their back stories make them fitting star-crossed lovers. Carla Gugino plays Gardner’s mother-like guardian and her performance is fine, but the script weighs her down. Oldman is quite frenetic, as he rotates from supportive to antagonistic. Once we get to the ending, we understand why Nathaniel is this way.

I feel like the writers had a strong character-driven script, but were forced to make heavy rewrites in favor of the romance. The romantic scenes are occasionally witty and sweet, but mostly awkward. Maybe the producers shouldn’t have forced that?

“The Space Between Us” isn’t bad as Rotten Tomatoes says (it has an 11% approval), but that doesn’t mean it’s a good movie either. We have a strong roster of sci-fi movies this year, so I’m sure “The Space Between Us” will soon be forgotten.

Grade: C

“Arrival”

When you encounter another being (human or not), don’t aim a tank at them! “Arrival” is a topical reminder to stay together to solve a problem.

Linguist Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) class is interrupted by ringing phones, until one student asks to watch the news. We then learn that several large, mysterious space crafts have landed around the world and everyone wants to know why. US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) enlists Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find answers before conflict escalates.

Much like “10 Cloverfield Lane” last March, “Arrival” is a film you want to watch knowing little about, so this review will be spoiler free. In short, “Arrival” is the most challenging film I’ve seen all year. It’s also beautiful, timely, and a strong contender for best of 2016.

There isn’t a shred of destruction or violence in “Arrival.” Director Denis Villeneuve, who recently directed the grim and brutal “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” trades in nihilism for optimism. Louise is a peaceful protagonist, compared to Villeneuve’s past on-screen protagonists, and her main tool is communication.

The film dives into the science of linguistics, and how it’s important to translate another language, observe tone, and understand the meaning before taking action. Adams delivers an expressive performance as the quirky linguist, arguing her point with military personnel.  Her best scenes are in the opening and closing acts, where we learn of her journey.

There’s a unique spin on Louise’s background story that I won’t get into, but it will demand a second viewing. Villeneuve has once again crafted a thought-provoking, gorgeous film that will leave you thinking for days; I’m confident in him directing the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel.

Grade: A+

“The Lobster”

As a single person, I would be fucking horrified to live in the “Lobster” society! No masturbation? No physical contact allowed in the woods? Happiness not guaranteed in relationships? Gah!

“The Lobster” stars Colin Farrell as David, a newly single man who’s transported to a hotel where the guests are put together for matchmaking. If he can’t find a match within 45 days, he’ll be turned into a lobster.

It’s an absurd premise with a Dystopian sci-fi formula. It’s almost predictable that David  escapes the society later and joins a group of rebels in the woods (led by a great Lea Seydoux). The first half is filled with some darkly funny, albeit disturbing moments.

Between a man being punished for masturbating, singles forced to live with one arm shackled behind their backs, and bickering couples being mandated as parents, the satire and horror are funny and rampant.

The second half loses steam when David moves to the woods and finds (what he thinks is) true love with a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz). The world building grows less interesting and the quirkier elements seem quirky just to be quirky.

“The Lobster” has a slow pace beginning-to-end, but it’s more noticeable in the second half. Even the beautiful slow motion shots and haunting music score grow redundant after a while.

“The Lobster” offers a refreshingly emotional performance from Farrell and some sharp moments, but I would have liked more world building and resolutions in the second half. Even a montage showing resolutions would have been satisfying. I’m in the minority of not liking this movie, but I’m sicking to my guns!

Grade: C+

“Midnight Special”

It’s very rare these days we get a film that’s so original and mysterious, we’ll be thinking about it for days. “Midnight Special” is that kind of film!

We follow Roy (Michael Shannon), who’s rescued his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a dangerous cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). With the help of his ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy will do anything to make sure Alton reaches a specific destination.

Complications arise when Alton demonstrates great, majestic powers that can alter the world, attracting not only the cult’s attention, but the government’s, as well.

“Midnight Special” is writer/director Jeff Nichols’s fourth film. He’s also brought us great indie gems such as the psychological horror film “Take Shelter”, and the coming-of-age crime drama “Mud”. “Midnight Special” is nearly as great as those two, combining a thrilling sci-fi tale with an emotional family character study.

Roy, Alton, Lucas, and Sarah are a family on the road. Roy cares for Alton deeply and would die to protect him, Sarah’s given a second chance to act as Alton’s mother and doesn’t take it for granted, and Lucas takes on the role of the cool uncle.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The dynamic between the trio is moving with Roy and Sarah hesitant to give up Alton, despite knowing his extraordinary fate. Lucas, on the other hand, knows from the start that taking Alton to his destination is the right, and acts as his loyal bodyguard.

The cast’s performances are often quiet, but expressive. Shannon and Edgerton in particular give the best performances and are empathetic characters, expressing emotions of fear, wonder, and guilt. Dunst is just as good, while newcomer Lieberher delivers a wonderful performance. I normally don’t like kid actors, but he knocks it out of the park .

The mysteries of “Midnight Special” demand time to analyze and interpret after first viewing. We get some beautiful visuals and suspenseful sequences that emphasize Alton’s true powers, but that’s all we need. There’s no exposition tool characters here to tell us everything like in “Inception” or “The Matrix”!

The only thing that’s not well-developed is the cult. We get to know Calvin in the first ten minutes, but then he disappears for the rest of the movie. We don’t know the cult’s motives or why Roy left, and that can be frustrating since they are our antagonists.

I can forgive that flaw because the point of the movie is the relationship between Roy and Alton. Once Alton tells Roy he doesn’t have to worry about him and Roy replies with, “I like worrying about you,” we understand that this is a father-and-son movie.

Nichols wrote this movie as both a tribute to John Carpenter and his newborn child, thus “Midnight Special” feels personal without being too self-indulgent. When was the last time you saw a movie execute that?

Grade: A-

“The Martian”

I almost lost faith in Ridley Scott after seeing “The Counselor” two years ago. I’m so glad that “The Martian” restored my faith in the man because this is not only one of the best movies of the year, but also one of Scott’s best movies ever.

“The Martian” stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars after a mission goes wrong. After his second day of being stranded, he says, “I’m not going to die here,” and immediately begins an epic fight for survival. He finds an innovative and scatological way to grow food, entertains himself with disco music and “Happy Days” reruns, and eventually communicates with Earth, letting his superiors know he survived. NASA, Watney’s team, and eventually the whole world want to help bring Watney home.

What surprised me and charmed me the most about “The Martian” was its cheerful attitude and witty sense of humor. I was expecting something grim and tragic like most of Ridley Scott’s previous works, but this was a nice change for him. It’s also Scott’s most restrained film to date due to his focus on the characters instead of scenery. Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is beautiful to look at, but it’s a rare space odyssey (or Mars odyssey) about characters.

Matt Damon delivers one of his best performances of his entire career. I’ve always liked him, but he reminded me of how charismatic and funny he can be. With his likable personality, he portrays Watney as the most levelheaded and optimistic hero this year (Mad Max would hate him).

This isn’t “Cast Away” on Mars because we spend time on Earth and in space getting to know everyone else involved. And everyone in this movie are just as likable, sassy, and charming as Damon. We have the great Chiwetel Ejiofer as the protagonist on Earth, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Kate Mara as Watney’s team, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels as clashing NASA superiors, and Donald Glover from “Community” as a mad genius engineer.

It’s Drew Goddard’s (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Daredevil” (2015)) confidence and sharp wit that make “The Martian” work so well. We do get a few too many “We can’t do this in X time,” banters, but it’s forgivable. Scott’s grounded direction and change in tone paid off and made me wish I paid more attention in science class.

Grade: A