By Marc S. Sanders

James Gunn continues his Looney Tunes odyssey helming Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. The silliness is grander, the story is weirder and the characters are now comfortably fleshed out.

Vol 2 is probably not better than the first installment. However, it is more inventive as Gunn takes his film along the hanging thread left over from before. Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his father at last in the persona of Kurt Russell who goes by the moniker Ego. This is all enthralling to Quill, though his love interest, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) sees beyond the facade.

Ego has invited them to his planet that he created. It pops with colors, serenity and cheer. This plays for a good story; maybe as a better and more developed Star Trek episode.

What differentiates this film from other Marvel films comes out in the third act. This does not consist of just space battles, laser swords and shootouts. The end is something else, something new, entirely. Thus, you are given the film’s greatest strength. I found it to be very imaginative.

Gunn however falls a little bit into his own trap along the way. There are too many relationships and characters that work as filler for side stories. Gamora vs her bitter sister Nebula. Drax (Dave Bautista) with a new, weird antenna on the head character named Mantis and Rocket Racoon and his big mouth with Yondu (Michael Rooker, in a bigger more significant role this time). Oh yeah! There’s also Yondu vs Sylvester Stallone (huh? why? how?) and Yondu vs his mutinous army, The Ravagers. It’s all a little too much for an already busy looking film.

I found it funny that The Ravagers reminded me of the motorcycle gang, The Black Widows, from Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way… bare knuckle comedies. Those guys were much funnier than these Ravagers. Gunn overstays their welcome as they randomly cackle and heckle poor Baby Groot, the toddler tree thing. That gets old quickly.

Gunn approaches a special kind of humor here. Repeatedly, because these are outer space characters, it’s apparently funny to lend them explaining the punchline of a gag. So if Drax realizes that Peter has the hots for Gamora, he’ll belly laugh and explain literally how Peter feels and do it bigger and louder. Variations of that gag occur quite often among most of the characters. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets old.

GOTG Vol 2 is a fun watch. I don’t foresee this installment carrying the legendary status the first one did or even standing out among the best of the Marvel series, but I will give props to the outcome of what Ego truly is and what his intent depends on. (I won’t spoil that here, of course.)

The cast is great. Saldana is one of the stronger female characters in the MCU. She captures a background to Gamora that is blatantly absent from other Marvel ladies. Bautista has become a great character actor as well. He’s a smart guy with good timing. With his extensive child and adult film resume Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Pratt’s father. Their personalities lend to some good chemistry.

James Gunn owns the Guardians films. No one else can capture his blend of humor and pop culture salutes. Yet, he overreaches a little trying to incorporate so much story and so many gags into one film. His vision is well defined, though.

Plus, Gunn stages another dance scene for Pratt and Saldana, and it’s great. As I noted in my Vol 1 review, that’s how you get to a viewer’s heart. Everyone loves to dance.

As well, Gunn accompanied his sequences with some tunes both fresh and familiar from Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra and George Harrison to name a few.

James Gunn was always going to make sure never to take his films seriously. So, when you see a baby tree groove along while trying to detonate a bomb, I defy you to be so serious as well.


By Marc S. Sanders

Rocky is a story about a bunch of losers.  It really is. It’s actually a film that does not represent or follow the standard ho hum formula that so many other well-recognized sports films that are so familiar, since it premiered on screens in 1976. 

If you examine Rocky, what you’ll find is a story about a boxer by the name of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone in a role that broke through everything for him), who is not shown doing much boxing or even training.  Instead, the southpaw boxer known as The Italian Stallion, is displayed as a heavy collector for a loan shark in and around the south side of a dirty Philadelphia.  Early on in the film, Rocky delivers monies to the loan shark and his driver asks Rocky “Did ya get the license plate?”  Rocky asks for what, and the driver snaps back with “For the truck that ran over your face.”  It’s delivered with a little humor but it’s also sad.  Is there anyone to uplift poor Rocky’s spirits?  His one-time trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), kicks him out of the gym because he’s tired of Rocky at age 30 wasting his life with the scum of the streets.  Rocky lives in a filthy apartment barely making scratch from underground fights.  About the only redeeming quality Rocky seems to show is his tender loving care for his two turtles, Cuff and Link.  So, it is surprisingly charming when he sweet talks a mousy, petite woman named Adrian (Talia Shire, truly in an underrated performance) for a date. 

Adrian is also a loser, or at least she’s treated like one by her brother, Paulie (Burt Young).  He’s constantly putting her down for her looks and lack of men in her life and any other opportune moment he can find.  It’s the only way that Paulie can build confidence in himself; by putting his sister down.  Beyond that, all he has going for him is his job in the meat locker.  His one dream is for Rocky to give him a job working for the loan shark.  Such aspirations.

By luck, Rocky is called upon by the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to fight him in the ring.  Anyone else would jump at this chance.  For Rocky, it’s just a way to earn a fast $150,000 and use his face as a punching bag for Creed on live television.

All of these characters within this circle come out of their shells once Rocky is given the opportunity of a lifetime.  The first win for Rocky is when he wins over Adrian on an adoring, near penniless date when he takes her ice skating on Thanksgiving night.  They’re only given ten minutes to skate together.  The transition thereafter is quite revealing.  Director John G. Avildsen transforms Adrian’s appearance by removing her ugly glasses and hat.  Rocky is pleasantly surprised by the red winter coat she wears later in the picture.  Adrian becomes more talkative and expressive.  Initially, she couldn’t even look Rocky in the eye.  When Rocky gives her a shout out at a press conference on TV, Adrian laughs and cuddles up next to Rocky.  Someone has finally treasured her and she adores it so appreciatingly.  Shire really demonstrates a nice character arc, where she comes out from under the strong arm of her brother to find her independence and make choices for herself.  An amazing scene occurs near the end between Shire and Young.  The pent-up frustration the siblings have for one another finally boils over.  This scene is what won both of these actors their Oscar nominations.  It’s a moment in all of the Rocky films that doesn’t get enough recognition.

Mickey is the one who gives tough love to Rocky.  He shares with Rocky his own battles in the ring during the first half of his near 50 years in boxing.  All of the blood and sweat didn’t amount to much beyond the gym he has for the local fighters.  What he earned as a fighter was a cauliflower ear and no family except the poor kids who go in and out of his southside gym.  Now he has a chance at the big time and he has to win over Rocky’s affections so that he can train him properly for the fight that’s coming up.

The biggest loser of course is the title character.  Credit must first go to Stallone for an outstanding insightful script that looks much deeper than any of the numerous sequels that followed this film.  The original Rocky is not about punches.  The script eventually transitions into determination with Rocky giving a sorrowful monologue to Adrian acknowledging he’s a loser with no chance at beating Creed.  At the very least, all he wants to do is settle for going the full 15 rounds with the champion and never falling down on the mat for a count of 10.  Only then can Rocky triumph with a personal victory.

Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture and Avildsen won Best Director in 1976, beating out incredible films like Network, Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men.  I’ve thought about this endlessly over the years.  Why did it win?  I mean look at the competition it had.  The script for Network is one of the most admired and amazing scripts in Hollywood history; now it’s regarded for how prophetic it has become.  The other two films gave brutally honest, yet cynical portraits of the lack of innocence in the United States.  These other films rightfully question if America is the greatest and most thriving country in the world.  Just writing this, I think I answered my own question, though I will endlessly ponder anyway.  Rocky is the one positive entry of nominated films that year.  Rocky Balboa put aside the differences he had with others and overcame the adversity of those that would antagonize and guide him down the wrong paths. 

It’s totally cliché now to say this but Avildsen’s film, Rocky, is an awe-inspiring triumph.  It’s still okay to identify the picture as such, because it was the first to do what only so many imitations thereafter tried to duplicate.  The outcome of the fight within the film was not about winning the belt and the fortunes of money.  It was a breakthrough from a wasted life – the life of a loser; the lives Rocky, Adrian, Paulie and Mickey were all sadly living before the chance opportunity of supporting one another came to pass.  As Bill Conti’s unforgettable soundtrack closes out the picture, you are not just crying for Rocky and Adrian as they profess their love for one another in the middle of a crowded boxing ring.  You are crying because you realize you can believe in changing your life with will, stamina, endurance, personal strength, confidence and then…finally…love.


By Marc S. Sanders

Creed II is fortunate to have a stellar cast that includes an exceptional Michael B Jordan as the title character, Sylvester Stallone (again as Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad and even Dolph Lundgren back as Russian boxer Ivan Drago. It’s a cast with great chemistry, especially between Jordan and Thompson, rekindling what made their relationship so authentic in the first “Creed” film. I appreciate how all the characters genuinely care for one another without getting too schmaltzy. Nevertheless, that’s about all that works for this installment.

The problem with Creed II is that it is blatantly formulaic, almost to the point that I was getting drowsy. If not for the gentleman sitting next to me who could not get into a comfortable position, I might have slept through the whole film. The first hour is really a slog. Maybe this next door viewer was getting bored like me, and couldn’t fight his restlessness.

In the 2nd hour, after Creed gets beaten to a pulp mentally and physically by Drago’s gigantor of a son (am I really spoiling anything here?) does it pick up, because we are about to enter BEAST MODE where the staple training montages (this time in a desert where i guess sunburn and dehydration lead to exceptional athleticism) are about to begin, and Creed is gonna kick the Russian guy’s ass once and for all.

Hey! I didn’t give away the ending here. You’ve seen this movie before in Rocky III, Rocky IV and Rocky 99 1/2. So quit your cryin’.

That’s the thing with Creed II. It’s an exact replica blueprint of the Rocky franchise films before it. Stallone pulled up his saved script on Word, and simply changed a couple of names and pop culture references. Example: scratch out music by Survivor and insert modern age hip hop.

There’s nothing new here, except for maybe giving a little dimension to Ivan Drago as a one time heroic celebrity of a country that no longer exists and a people who no longer celebrate him. Now, he lives through the stamina and strength of his son, Viktor. Not bad writing for Drago. Just not enough material for him. Otherwise, again there’s nothing special here that you haven’t seen before.

Wait…scratch that…I gotta say I couldn’t keep my eyes off Michael B Jordan. This guy is a good actor, but man is he ripped. I mean not an ounce of fat on this guy. He’s practically an eighth wonder of the world. It’s great to see, but even that is not enough to see Creed II in theatres. Wait for Netflix and save 12 bucks.