By Lynn Venhaus

Equal parts salty, sweet, silly, sentimental, scary, and strange, this third chapter spotlighting freaky misfits saving the universe is a very busy mixed bag in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

Legendary Star-Lord Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) leads his rag-tag team through life-and-death situations, all in superhero service of protecting good galactic folks under siege. This time, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) wants to rule the universe by controlling all living things. Sure, it’s a lofty goal, but many obstacles are in the way, and inevitably, there will be an epic battle between good and evil. (We’re not allowed to divulge much)

The best part of these grandiose Marvel Cinematic Universe series is the chemistry of the superheroes, and having this motley crew back together one more time has deepened their ties, softened their tough exteriors, and created playful exchanges that enhance what is a dense and convoluted story.

Earth-born Peter Quill leads a rascally turbo-charged group that includes a hulking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, who is endearing as a gentle giant), intuitive Mantis (Pom Klementieff, lively as a smart and sweet says-it-like-it-is sentinel), intimidating Nebula (Karen Gillan, whose bark is worse than her bite), the versatile tree monster Groot (voice of Vin Diesel, who is able to morph into a number of effective sizes and shapes), and a sarcastic racoon named Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper as a big-brained, no-nonsense warrior). Zoe Saldana returns as an alternate Gamora, which is better left unexplained (No spoilers from me).

Does anyone remember the plots other than bickering and banter between the Guardians, gnarly ginormous figures wreaking havoc, chaotic flights and fights through space, and clever needle drops that make characters shut up and dance?

This third outing is quite complicated: Rocket’s origin story, Ravagers show up with some key characters, and then a power-hungry maniacal villain called The High Evolutionary messes with species and is focused on wiping out civilization.

Merry band of misfits

The action, while often well-staged with choreographed slow-motion and quicksilver derring-do, has the usual repetitive litany of explosions, flying chunks of concrete, interstellar mayhem, and grotesque creatures to become mind-numbing. The film feels every bit of its 2 hours and 30 minutes run-time.

Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the script with his writing partners on the other two, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, has again stamped his devil-may-care attitude on this quirky comic book series, but also built up the found family theme

The elaborately designed spacecrafts and hub of activity known as the Knowhere outpost seem to layer on excessive visual effects.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 was a breath of fresh air in the superhero realm, and the second one in 2017 capitalized on the original’s charm, laying on the kitchy pop culture. While Gunn retains his puckish sense of adventure, he has added more emotional beats this time around.

Newcomers include Will Poulter as Adam Warlock and Elizabeth Debicki as his mother Ayesha, characters introduced in the comics but not explained well here, and Maria Bakalova is the voice of the funny Cosmo the space dog. And Chukwudi Iwuji makes an impression as the flamboyant mad scientist who goes increasingly over the top.

For this final time, Pom Klementieff as Mantis and Dave Bautista as Drax are the standouts, creating a delightful comical dynamic.

But one of the bigger missteps is that this film is rated PG-13, for there are many elements that will frighten youngsters, especially about animals in cages.

The movie starts rather raggedy but ends with genuine emotional beats, and staying through the credits is a must. Also, it helps to be familiar with the other two.

When this overstuffed finale is hitting the right notes, it’s an earnest tug on the heartstrings, but because the story so often shifts tones and is stretched so thin – too many people! – overall, it’s frustrating.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a 2023: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action, Adventure film directed by James Gun and starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn and Maria Bakalova
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, strong language, suggestive/drug references, and thematic elements and run time is 2 hours, 30 minutes. Opens in theaters May 5. Lynn’s Grade: C+

Will Poulter as Adam Warlock

By Lynn Venhaus

Looks 10, story 3. Regardless of its visual splendor from state-of-the-art effects, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a bloated, confusing mess of a story.

Cinematographer extraordinaire Russell Christopher, who did “Titanic” and “Ant-Man,” and a team of hundreds of animators. motion-capture artists and graphics wizards make this sci-fi world fantastical, but a pedestrian plot can’t muster enough excitement to sit through 192 minutes of a curiously uninvolving scenario.

In a fierce battle to protect their home, the Na’vi must face a familiar threat on the extrasolar moon Pandora. Big bad military = evil territorial bullies, noble blue people = at one with nature.

With some nods to his previous mega-hits “Titanic,” “Aliens” and “The Terminator” franchise, director James Cameron has built a stunning panorama of flora, fauna, and water, lots of water. He’s also showing off in 3D and high-definition rate.

For all his excess, the man knows how to corral a team to create magic. However, his self-indulgences hamper smooth sailing in storytelling. He could have trimmed the film by half, and it would be far more engrossing with less repetition. (Four editors!).

A tribal plot involving family and loss offers nothing new – and five people came up with this unremarkable story that seems to have recycled some familiar “Lion King” beats (Come on! “Circle of Life”? Really?).

The monotonous video-game like screenplay, by Cameron and the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, whose work includes “Jurassic World” and the “Planet of the Apes” reboots, has this smug self-important air, and lacks even a smidgeon of wit.

Even superhero movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have some chuckles, and I’ve seen cartoons that are far more entertaining. Why so serious?

While we weren’t exactly waiting for a sequel to the highest grossing film of all time, it’s been a long time in coming – 11 years. Since 2009, technology has created even more worlds of wonder, and real-world problems of climate change and political colonialism have been added for relevance.

“King of the World” Cameron has planned three more sequels, with principal photography already completed for “Avatar 3,” which may happen in 2024, and others expected in 2026 and 2028. Whether it will be a global phenomenon like the first remains to be seen, but if they are as insipid and interminable as this one, don’t bother.

With the wow factor, this sequel seems headed to only earn Academy Awards nominations in the technical fields. The original won Oscars for art direction, cinematography, and visual effects out of nine nominations. The intricate makeup and hair work is also award worthy.

If you can’t remember much of the first one, here’s the condensed version: It’s the 22nd century and humans are colonizing Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, because they want to mine unobtanium, a valuable mineral. That threatens a local tribe’s existence – the Na’vi is a humanoid species.

Here, an avatar is a genetically engineered Na’vi body operated from a human brain in a remote location, which interacts with the natives.  

Is this making your head hurt? Second one recaps how protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) fell in love with a Na’vi woman Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and converted to that culture. They went on to live a blissful sparkly life and have four children – two boys and two girls.

Because he crossed the line, from being one of the military ‘sky people’ to a sympathetic outsider, his former Marine commander, Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), seeks revenge, but the motivation is murky. With a target on his back, Sully has endangered the Na’vi, and the Metkayina clan leader, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), is not too happy about this turn of events. And neither is his snarling pregnant wife, Ronal (Kate Winslet). (Before you think, Kate Winslet is in this? It’s merely a voice-over).

Yet, an army of mighty warriors are ready to double-down, riding on some primordial-looking sea creatures. Only Quaritch has brought a force that look like the Na’vi. Good luck figuring out who are the good and bad guys, for it’s not always clear.

Clan leader Tonowari

The kids get in all sorts of scrapes, but telling them apart is tough, too, especially the two sons—Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton). Kiri is the offspring of Sigourney Weaver, and they are her guardian. The youngest daughter named Tuk is designed to be the cute little charmer (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). And then there is Miles, aka Spider (Jack Champion), a human who was left behind, and is like an adopted son.

Lots o’ macho posturing, women fretting, outsiders vs. natural-born, and kids being scolded for putting themselves in harm’s way. For three hours and 12 minutes, no intermission.

It is only epic is scope, not in any captivating way, for the imagination seems to have stopped at the art direction. Pretty pictures of ethereal thingamajigs floating in the water, and creatures plugging into energy sources that light them up for some reason are dazzling, so are the skies full of stars, and wavy tendrils that wrap themselves around various shapes, with different results.

Things blow up in spectacular fashion and gigantic whale-shark-looking hybrids, feared for their viciousness and sheer magnitude, wreak major havoc. The battle scenes, with Down Under-accented enemies, are well-executed – wait, did I just see New Zealand comic treasure Jemaine Clement?

With the avatars and Na’vi appearing so similar in looks and expressions, performances fail to register. The characters are one-note without much depth. Outstanding actress Edie Falco is wasted as a general and I’m not sure who ace character actress CCH Pounder plays.

New age-y dialogue is cringe-worthy, sounds like something from blacklight posters in the ‘70s. “The way of water connects all things. Before your birth, and after your death,” one son says. Whatever that means.

For all its posturing as an event film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is unnecessary. It’s a gussied-up mash-up of ahead-of-his-time genius Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And I would like four hours of my life back.

Kiri, under water

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is a 2022 action fantasy film directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet, CCH Pounder, Jack Champion, Britain Dalton, and Jamie Flatters. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language and runtime is 192 minutes. It opens in theaters Dec. 16. Lynn’s Grade: C-.

How five-time Oscar nominee David O. Russell, director and writer of “Amsterdam,” could squander such a star-studded award-winning cast in one of the most eagerly anticipated fall releases is more of a mystery than this convoluted period piece.

Set in the 1930s, the basic structure is that three friends witness a murder, are framed for it, and uncover one of the most outrageous plots in American history.

Russell, in his first film since the lackluster 2015 “Joy,” has crafted a historical comedy-drama that is not as funny as he thinks it is, which serves as a cautionary tale about the evils of fascism — but is too heavy-handed to be a sharp social commentary.

After a zippy opening introducing a quirky cadre of characters, midway through its 2 hours, 14 minutes’ run time, I thought: “What is this movie about?” “What is going on?” and “Why was this made?” The climax – especially DeNiro’s strong showing as military brass — prevents the story from totally going off the rails, but still, this is a major disappointment.

It’s mind-boggling, really, that you can have a cast, top to bottom, that does quality work but is either under-utilized or poorly drawn. Oscar winners Christian Bale, Rami Malek and DeNiro are joined by Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola.

The A-list cast isn’t the problem, for this ensemble gives it their all, but can’t convince us of caring about a messy murder-mystery that reveals political intrigue and nefarious conspiracy theories.

For every attempt at a madcap 1930s screwball comedy, it becomes a chore to sort out what’s credible in the global arena.

Perhaps you have heard of the “Business Plot,” a 1933 political conspiracy to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt so his socialist “New Deal” agenda couldn’t happen. It was funded by a Wall Street coalition of affluent businessmen who wanted to install a dictator instead. Obviously, the plan failed.

Of course, Russell is trying to connect what’s happening now in the U.S. to what took place then, making sure we get the references to the rise of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy and the resulting White Supremacy – not to mention parallels to Q-Anon conspiracy theorists

When a U.S. Senator is killed, three friends – a doctor (Bale), a nurse (Robbie), and a lawyer (Washington)– who were on the front lines in World War I, are accused of the crime.

Thus begins a race against time and a never-ending parade of eccentricities, undercover agents, and people with a hidden agenda.

As the three friends, the always superb Bale, a well-suited Washington, and a riveting Robbie gel quite nicely, and I think Washington does better in ensembles than he does in some of his leading roles. Robbie excels as a smart and savvy artist who uses shrapnel to craft designs.

Among the supporting players, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon are very funny as spies who are quite enthusiastic about birds.

At first, the film is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s distinctive landscapes, in the vein of “The French Dispatch,” but then it unravels quickly because Russell fails to make things cohesive, and the pacing turns sluggish.

Russell was Oscar-nominated as director of “American Hustle,” “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter,” and screenwriting for “American Hustle” and “The Silver Linings Playbook.”

However, the look of the film is exceptional. Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who often collaborates with Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity,” “Birdman” and “The Revenant”), makes the night settings glow and his overall look is striking.

Costume designers J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky outfit the characters in stunning vintage attire while production designer Judy Taylor has enhanced the European settings in fitting details.

Despite those elements and an all-in cast, this movie lands with a thud.

Chris Rock

“Amsterdam” is a 2022 comedy-drama-mystery written and directed by David O. Russell and stars Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Robert DeNiro, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola It is rated R for brief violence and bloody images, and has a run time of 2 hours, 15 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: C-

By Lynn Venhaus
A vibrant mix of bright colors and snappy Latin beats, the animated musical adventure “Vivo” pops with personality.

Set in Havana, Miami and the Everglades, this computer-generated effort from Sony Pictures Animation features multi-level humor and a cadre of lively characters to amuse. Most delightful is how it will tug on your heartstrings, and does so genuinely, not in a manipulative way.

Vivo, a Cuban kinkajou — a tropical rainforest mammal in the same family as a raccoon, known as a ‘honey bear,” spends his days playing music to the Plaza Vieja crowds in Havana with his beloved owner Andres. 

The elderly Andres, once part of a musical duo with Marta Sandoval, receives a letter from the now-famous singer inviting him to her farewell concert in Miami. She wants to reconnect, and she is his ‘the one that got away.’ Vivo’s mission is  to deliver a love letter to Marta, reluctantly teaming up with Gabi, an energetic tween who bounces to the beat of her own offbeat drum.

At its heart is the incomparable Lin-Manuel Miranda, voicing Vivo with customary charm. He wrote the tuneful score, a captivating swirl of salsa beats, peppy percussion, rap lyrics and emotion-filled ballads.

The much-honored Miranda, whose first animated musical was Disney’s “Moana,” brings his trademark energy and unmistakable writing style to this work, with such memorable songs as “Keep the Beat” and “My Own Drum” playing on a loop in your head post-viewing.

Vivo’s look, with a jaunty little hat and scarf, adds to the character’s appeal, and the other characters he meets along his journey are just as vivid. Because of circumstances, the rapping, flute-playing, music-loving creature reluctantly teams up with Gabi, a spirited maverick tween, with purple hair and a quirky wardrobe, who soon wins over all the outsiders of the world.

Newcomer Ynairaly Simo shines as Gabi, and the voice cast is well-suited for their roles. Gloria Estefan is diva Marta Sandoval, dazzling in shimmering aqua; Zoe Saldana is Rosa, Gabi’s exasperated mother; and Latin musician Juan de Marcos González is Vivo’s kind owner Andres.

In Key West, amid the blazing hot pinks and cool aqua tones, we​ ​find the goofy spoonbill Dancarino, voiced by Brian Tyree Henry, and in the dark and foreboding Everglades, Michael Rooker is effectively creepy as the villainous python Lutador.

Co-directors Kirk DeMicco, creator of “The Croods,” and Brandon Jeffords, known for his work on “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” “Hotel Transylvania 2” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” put the characters through vigorous paces and propel the action logically through a zippy 99 minutes.

While this might not be as ground-breaking as Sony’s Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” or this year’s outstanding “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” “Vivo” has plenty of pizzazz to entertain. 

It’s visually attractive, capturing the tropical feel – and notable is a funny sequence with pink flamingos. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual consultant.

The screenplay, by DeMicco and “In the Heights” co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, with story by Peter Barsocchini, of “High School Musical” fame, has smartly created emotional bonds between the characters and injected humor in a natural way.

In animation, next up for golden-boy Miranda is Disney’s “Encanto,” out Nov. 24, featuring his music and lyrics. Indeed, his future is bright.

But as for the present, his winning combination of voicing Vivo and writing the uplifting music and lyrics is one of the summer’s sweetest smiles.

“Vivo” is a 2021 animated musical from Sony Pictures Animation co-directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords. Voice work is by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ynairaly Simo, Zoe Saldana and Gloria Estefan. It’s rated PG for some thematic elements and mild action and has a run time of 1 hour, 39 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix beginning Aug. 6. Lynn’s Grade: B+

Gloria Estefan as Marta Sandoval