Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3


Before seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, I wondered, as I always do with these sorts of “finales” to long-running franchises, how difficult it was going to be to review Marvel Studios' latest without diving into spoiler territory. As usual – and here's your official warning – I'm gonna have to dive just a little. Thankfully, though, most of writer/director James Gunn's trilogy-ender can be easily discussed without addressing significant plot twists or which of our eccentric world-savers, if any, fail to make it to the end credits. It turns out the stuff that bothered me, which was about 80 percent of GotGV3, is right there in the open.

Those who hope that Marvel never, ever veers from its proven formula will be delighted to learn that one of the main plotlines here concerns a malevolent psychopath who wants to be ultimate ruler of the universe, and another concerns a planet-hopping quest to find a magical geegaw. Both of these narratives, meanwhile, are tied to a third favorite from the comic-book canon: the origin story, this one detailing how Rocket “I'm Not a Raccoon” Raccoon got so smart, dexterous, and talkative – though no explanation is given for how he acquired Bradley Cooper's distinctive tough-guy accent. Really long (two-and-a-half-hour) story short, Vol. 3 finds the mortally injured Rocket embedded with an internal kill switch that makes a life-saving operation impossible, leading the Guardians to hunt for an override code while their comatose pal reflects on his sadistic history with the High Evolutionary, who's like Josef Mengele with a more lunatic god complex. Beyond covering all the traditional Marvel bases, this blend of beat-the-clock action and flashback introspection provides a perfectly workable, even promising setup for the Guardians' “last” feature-length adventure, and I completely get why audiences appear to love the film – especially considering how disappointing, if not outright crummy, the studio's releases of late have been. How I wish I could add to the praise.

Strike that. I will add to the praise, because despite leaving GotGV3 unhappy and really irritated, there were a few elements I actively enjoyed. Unexpectedly, my chief pleasure came from Zoe Saldaña, primarily because she seemed as annoyed to be in a Marvel movie as I've been with the last two years of Marvel offerings. I won't pretend to fully fathom how her green-skinned Gamora, who perished during the Infinity War with Thanos, returned from the dead with no memories of her tenure with the Guardians or her romance with Chris Pratt's Peter “Star-Lord” Quill. It's enough that she's back and she's pissed. Grudgingly accompanying her former teammates on their interstellar journey, the “new” Gamora has absolutely no patience for the Guardians' strategic incompetence or Peter's puppy-dog mooning or everyone claiming to understand the myriad conversational subtleties of “I am Groot!” This enables Saldaña to be far more interesting, and way funnier, than she was in previous Guardians, and also gives Pratt a lot more to play, continually vexed as Peter is to realize that his charm offensive not only doesn't work, but isn't being allowed to work.

Without question, and even though I only laughed out loud once, the movie's highlights are all comedic ones. My lone audible laugh came when Karen Gillan's Nebula made fun of the faces that Pom Klementieff's Mantis was making to represent “stupid” and “dying” – expressions that the blue-hued Guardian insisted were identical. (She wasn't wrong.) But Nebula, who has somehow morphed into this outfit's most consistently amusing figure, also has a terrific bit with Peter as she attempts entry into a 20th-century automobile, a tortuously protracted routine that results in one of the most winning F-bomb drops in PG-13 history.

"Bradley Cooper" in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Dave Bautista's Drax, if given too little to do, is reliably endearing, and Maria Bakalova supplies some charming vocals as the space canine Cosmo, despite having to spend most of her time bantering with the secondary Guardian Kraglin played by Sean Gunn. (Kraglin is given so many unnecessary closeups yet exudes so little charisma that you look at him thinking “This guy must be the director's cousin.” But he's not. He's the director's brother.) While I wish that Nathan Fillion, in an extended cameo, had been given stronger material, it's always nice to see him. And even if, like me, you groan at the return of Sylvester Stallone, who looks as though he almost committed his lines and blocking to memory, at least we're treated to some delicious nastiness with Elizabeth Debicki, plus yet another sampling of Vin Diesel in my favorite of his screen roles – the one in which we never see the actor and his dialogue is almost completely restricted to three words. With one crucial exception, the performers deliver what fun there is in Vol. 3, and Gunn's talents are never more evident than in the occasionally witty lines he writes for them. It's everything else that goes weirdly, sometimes offensively wrong.

To start with what even fans of the film would likely call its most troublesome aspect, the High Evolutionary, as portrayed by Chukwudi Iwuji, is a total dud of an über-villain. Despite the character being a pale rendition of a Thanos type, there is something to the idea of a mad scientist who wants to bio-engineer perfect species to populate his theoretically perfect planet; given the coded Nazism, this isn't an unworkable comic-book-flick conceit. Yet there are a few problems with Gunn's and Iwuji's conception of the High Evolutionary. For one thing, he's stupid, with the movie's entire plot resting on the H.E.'s breathtakingly dumb decision (shown in flashback) to kill Rocket rather than keep him around for in-person analysis. For another, he's an officious priss, and future screenwriters should note that their antagonist will instantly lose all credibility as a threat the moment he denigrates a minion by calling him “twit.” And for yet another, Gunn's and Iwuji's perhaps mutual decision to have the tantrum-prone H.E. shout all of his lines at top volume with no shading or variety makes the High Evolutionary about as terrifying as Boss Hogg on a Dukes of Hazzard rerun. Like the movie's other examples of sterling makeup effects, Iwuji's nutjob boasts an arresting look, suggesting that his face is being held in place by clothespins and fishhooks. Yet at no point does this man come off as scary, or even formidable, and he keeps showing up to vacantly bray at us again and again and again.

Incredibly, however, I was less off-put by the High Evolutionary than by Gunn's relentless shamelessness and blatant manipulation, which might very well be the tenets that make some audiences fall hard for this movie. Listen: GotGV3 is a cinematic comic book, so I know the drill. I know that heroes will be killed so that their friends and the paying crowd can have a cathartic sob before said heroes are miraculously, inevitably brought back to life mere minutes or a whole movie later. I still wasn't prepared for the extents to which Gunn would indulge in that dispiriting practice here, nor for how routinely he'd goose the audience's tear ducts with shots of adorable victimized critters who are abjectly anthropomorphized even before they get super-sentient à la Rocket. The very second that one of the raccoon's fellow test subjects brightly says “It's good to have friends!” – the first of two-and-a-half eventual times – you just know she's being both figuratively and literally set up for the kill, and composer John Murphy pours on the maudlin goop with each subsequent shot of a traumatized bunny or otter.

Chukwudi Iwuji in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Yet the sucker punches continue when (mild Spoiler Alert) it's discovered that the High Evolutionary isn't merely practicing his sociopathy on animals, but also children, having apparently decided to kidnap the entire touring casts of Annie, Oliver!, and Newsies for experimentation. (The film's central villain shouldn't have been the High Evolutionary, but rather W.C. Fields.) It's almost as if Gunn knew that we wouldn't buy the H.E. as the monster he intended unless his victims were all sad-eyed kids and furry creatures. If so, he was right, but that doesn't make the deck stacking feel any less cheap, and Gunn grossly overdoes it with his images of tykes in rags looking hopeless. Then again, there's very little here that the writer/director doesn't overdo to death: the slow-motion shots of our determined heroes moseying toward the camera; the requisite needle drops for rock songs that are thematically, and painfully, on-the-nose; Peter exclaiming some variant on “Let's go save our friend!”

As Gunn's third Guardians is purportedly the last, at least with this particular cast of galaxy-hoppers, you'd expect most every plot point to be neatly tied up (momentarily) with a bow. So why did I leave Vol. 3 with so many bothersome lingering questions? Why give Will Poulter's gold-tinted manufactured creature Adam Warlock such an extraordinarily destructive and ugly introduction before turning him into a punchline-prone sweetheart whom we were meant to like? What's the point of seemingly murdering Drax, and leaving Nebula spitting up blood, when they're both perfectly healthy in the following scene? What are we to make of Mantis queasily using her superpowers to get Drax to forget a momentary insult? (Picture a male with Mantis' abilities and no compunction about using them on teammates and he wouldn't be a Guardian of the Galaxy; he'd be a rapey slimeball on The Boys.)

Why would the High Evolutionary, in imagining his idyllic version of Earth, choose to make that Eden paradise indistinguishable from the 1950s suburbs in middle America – did he get his “perfect world” ideas from Leave It to Beaver? Why, due to some strangely senseless editing choices, are there flashbacks to Rocket's experiences when Rocket himself isn't around to be having them? And why tease us with Linda Cardellini's appearance in the opening credits, prompting those in the Marvel-know to ask “How is Hawkeye's wife going to fit into all this?!”, only to cast the performer as a completely different character? (To be fair, Cardellini is “merely” providing a vocal performance here, but her cadences are as easily recognizable as Dave Bautista's.) None of these niggling issues will likely matter to the hordes who will find exactly the thrills and laughs and tears they want from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, particulars be damned, and I don't want to begrudge anyone their good time. But if you, too, left Gunn's film underwhelmed and a little angry, at least know that you've got company. For many, the headline from the experience will no doubt be “Marvel's back!” For some of us, though, it's just the same old song.

Priyanka Chopra Jones and Sam Heughan in Love Again


A showcase for Indian celebrity Priyanka Chopra Jones, ambulatory block of wood Sam Heughan, and the apparently insatiable ego of French-Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion, writer/director James C. Strouse's Love Again is nothing if not a tireless compendium of romantic-comedy clichés, and one of my favorite scenes in this hysterically wretched movie lands just after its halfway point. It's the first home date for Chopra Jones' children's-book author Mira and Heughan's music reviewer Rob, and because this is a (bizarrely serious-minded) rom-com, they end up accidentally burning the dinner. So instead, this purportedly cute-as-buttons couple decides to salvage their planned dinner engagement with the simple, charming alternative of bowls of cereal – corn flakes, as I recall – that they consume with accompanying glasses of red wine.

Yes. You read that correctly. They pair red wine with milk. I would've worried about the gastronomic effects if anything about Mira's and Rob's behavior here and elsewhere remotely suggested that their spinal cords were touching their brains.

By an astronomically wide margin, Love Again is the worst movie of 2023 to date. I can't fathom what atrocity might come along over the next six-and-a-half months to steal the title. Yet I had the time of my life at this thing, because I had the good fortune to catch it in Chicagoland with my dearest friend of nearly 40 years, Angie, who has accompanied me to more awful films over the last four decades than I can count. Angie is precisely who you need accompanying you to an abomination such as Strouse's, because it's like co-starring in your own personal episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (This is true even at great movies: I wasn't there for the experience, but my brother will attest that when Daniel Day-Lewis plummeted into an oil pit at the start of There Will Be Blood and landed with a painful thunk, Angie whispered, “Ow! My left foot!”) In deference to her genius, I'll resist compiling a list of my pal's snappiest comebacks during our Love Again screening. But here's what she had to work with.

Mira is madly in love with John (Arinzé Kene), who, after a quick peck on the lips at a Manhattan coffee house, is killed by a drunk driver while crossing the street. (This is conjecture, by the way, as the camera remains fixed on Mira's face as she watches her beloved's demise – Chopra Jones' expression reading as either “I'm in generic shock” or “Did I remember to pick up my dry cleaning?”) Despite the valiant encouragement of her hyperactive sister (Sofia Barclay), Mira stays in hibernated depression for two years, until she finally thinks to start sharing her pain with her dead man's cell phone, composing texts about how much she misses John's smell. Little does Mira know, however, that John's cell number has been reassigned to Rob, a recently dumped basketball fiend who finds the text messages enchanting and has just been assigned a huge newspaper feature on Celine Dion's comeback tour. Rob seeks counsel for his confused attraction first from a female co-worker (best-in-a-sad-show Lydia West), and then from his gay bestie (the unconscionably smarmy Russell Tovey). And then, following an uncomfortable press junket at which the superstar berates everyone within earshot, Rob finds a sounding board in Celine Dion herself, who appears more than happy to devote their scheduled interview time to teaching Rob the Truth About Love – which, it turns out, can only be found in lyrics to Celine Dion songs.

Celine Dion in Love Again

But wait! It gets better! Because Mira keeps texting her feelings and daily plans to John's cell, Rob learns that she's planning to attend the opera, so he pays opera-ticket prices for presumably weeks on end in the hopes of running into this woman he's never met. (Why he didn't save the dough and simply wait outside the theatre for this opportunity remains a mystery.) Rob consequently becomes an opera buff – a point never referenced again. He also does meet Mira, and the pair hit it off, and within minutes, it's long walks through New York (portrayed, unconvincingly, by London) and a shared passion for cheeseburgers with French fries between the buns (blech) and Rob's late-night musings about why basketball is just like life … a soliloquy that promptly puts Mira to sleep. (Unless she's simply faking sleep, as Angie and I hypothesized, to escape the awkward moment.) They are, in short, In Love. Again. But will this relationship survive if and when Rob ever tells his new gal about the confluence of events that led to them pairing up? And considering that Heughan's resting face makes Rob resemble a deranged stalker with a severe bowel obstruction, will Mira be making the mistake of her life if she does forgive him?

Granted, that last question was just for me and Angie, because it'll be clear to anyone who makes it through the first five minutes of Strouse's film that this is pure Hallmark Channel material without the Hallmark logo attached, that Happy Endings will happen for all, and that Sam Heughan is meant to be a dreamboat despite emerging as perhaps the creepiest, most undesirable male lead in rom-com history. But it's a query you may well posit, too, if for no other reason than to take your mind off the brutal lack of sense regarding every plot point, the unbearably cutesy-poo cameo for Priyanka's real-life hubby Nick Jonas, and the staggering self-regard and abysmal acting of executive producer Dion. (In the most repellant of her many scenes here, Dion treats us to a reminiscence of the first romantic kiss ever plastered on her by her future husband René, whom she was initially introduced to when she was 12 and he was 38 – a moment somehow blech-ier than cheeseburgers with fries shoved in 'em.) Your heart will go on after Love Again. It's entirely possible, however, that your faith in big-screen romance never will, and if you somehow find yourself coerced into attending this unintentionally hilarious debacle, I pray that you'll do it with a half-dozen friends, all of you giddily drunk and/or stoned and ready to laugh your asses off. Or just see it with Angie. Same effect; less prep required.

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