Sunday, July 27, 2014

A STAR [LORD] IS BORN..."GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY" Is a Gamble That Pays Off With Interest.

Of all the movies in Marvel Studio's current staple, Guardians of the Galaxy was the hardest sell as there was virtually no name or brand recognition with the public at large, and even comics enthusiasts were left with a slight case of head scratching at the idea. As such, this was Marvel's biggest gamble, the one film that had the most probability of being the first major...possibly disastrous...flop of it's impressive cinematic track record since the Iron Man six years ago. 

Given the presentation, Marvel Studios has absolutely nothing to worry about. Guardians of the Galaxy is everything a summer sci-fi popcorn flick should be.

During the lead up to release it's been described as the figurative love child of Star Wars and Firefly and, while there are similarities to both (unsurprising, since much of Marvel's original space opera epics were heavily influenced by the former, even discounting the fact that the company held the comics license for it), triple threat director James Gunn (who serves as director, primary writer, and very minor actor) manages to take those tropes and rework them into something fresh even as it trods familiar territory. 

The story begins in the late 80's when young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) is alien abducted soon after his mother's succumbing to cancer.  Decades later, the grown up Quill (Chris Pratt) is a rakish rouge bounty hunter going by the name "Star Lord" who is on the hunt for an Orb of mysterious origin and power.  When he refuses to give said Orb to his employer/father figure Yondu Udonta the Centaurian (Michael Rooker), Udonta puts a bounty on Quill's head that attracts the likes of Rocket (a cybernetic raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a Tolkien-esque tree named Groot (Vin Diesel, who probably did not have to spend a lot of time rehearsing his lines). Meanwhile, a interstellar Kree religious zealot/despot named Ronin (Lee Pace) sends a "daughter" of Thanos (first seen at the end of Marvel's The Avengers) named Gamora ("Uhura" as Orion Slave Girl Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin of considerable skill, to retrieve the Orb for his own nefarious purpose.  In their mad gamble to retrieve the film's MacGuffin, they come across Drax the (self-proclaimed) Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who loves solely for revenge against Ronin and Thanos for the death of his family.

Why would I check myself out? Is there something wrong with me?
While the main story sounds very straightforward, it is surprisingly and entertainingly not. The film has a strong ironic bent, yet it is perhaps the most sincerely unironic modern sci fi film in terms of it's overall themes of family and righteous action for its own sake.  One of the most amazing things about the film it is that it's so bright! Even at it's darkness there's a pastiche of mesmerizing color. On the flip side, the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps (Think Green Lantern Corps with cooler outfits), is the inevitable result of Epcot and Tomorrowland over-running the state of Florida. No matter how you feel about Disney's theme parks, it's an impressive sight. The soundtrack is a combination of the compositions of Tyler Bates and an 60's/70's rock mix tape, encapsulating the tone of the irreverent space epic. The film's CGI is spectacular, even if the 3D presentation does reveal its weak spots as per usual. The visual style is a combination of retro and modern.  Again, influences of previous sci fi films are in evidence, such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and so forth. But here they're combined to provide something that, if not quite new, is at least fresh. It is a visual feast and one worthy of the 3D presentation. In fact, the movie's visuals blend with the selected rock anthems of the 60's and 70's to create an aesthetic evocative of films like Heavy Metal (1981), some shots taking their cues from the works of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. Speaking further on the score, Tyler Bates possibly cribs certain stylistic motifs from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World (both scored by Brian Tyler). Given the former film's secular tone and the latter's mythical bent, Bates' efforts here fit this movie's sardonic yet operatic bent while at the same time complimenting the Billboard Top 40 soundtrack.
But like any film, it is the performances that either buoy or sink a production. As the Captain Kirk/Han Solo amalgam Peter Quill, Chris Pratt proves he'll never have to be relegated to playing just "the friend" again. He's rakishly lovable; a straight version of Spaceball's Lone Star, presenting an earnest, forthright performance even as his character tries to establish himself as an interstellar bad ass. Zoe Saldana's Gamora is a more than capable warrior, with a soft center belied by the tough exterior. The biggest casting gambles in this production were Rocket and Groot.  To say that the two of them steal the movie is an understatement. There's no "cute and cuddly" here.  Rocket is perhaps the most capable of the misfit Guardians, and its presentation in character, both in performance and CGI, gives credence to it. As the main antagonist Ronin, Lee Pace's performance is noteworthy. He makes himself a force to be reckoned with, and one wishes that it were he that Thor had to battle against in Thor: The Dark World.  In what amounts to an extended CGI cameo, Josh Brolin lays to rest any fears about a Texan-drawled Thanos, who emanates menace in a small scene that leaves you wanting more. The most surprising acting standouts in the film, however, are Bautista and Rooker. Drax's character has no grasp of metaphor, which Bautista uses to great comedic effect, proving he's more versatile than one would have believed. As Yondu (in the film the head of the bounty hunters known as The Ravagers but in the comics was a founding member of the Guardians) Rooker is reminiscent of Jason Robard's Cheyenne from 1968's Once Upon A Time In The West, if that character were played by a cross between Woody Harrelson, Mr. T., and Wesley Snipes in blueface. A noted character actor, Rooker has never seemed to have as much fun in character as he seems to have in this one; which is especially evident in a scene that takes place in an alien pawn shop. The story is engaging and tightly paced (even despite a couple of scene drags involving John C. Reilly as a Nova Corps member), which strikes an appropriate balance between tongue-in-cheekiness and sincerity.
I pity the fool who messes with my hemp and my blade.
In short, if you have any trepidation about seeing this film, don't.  Guardians of the Galaxy serves as the apex of this summer's action fantasy output. It works despite (and perhaps because of) it's lack of cultural identity. Without the baggage that comes from preconceived notions, it surpasses all expectation (or lack thereof); a cinematic rockabilly, rollickin' good time. Reportedly, Marvel Studios has already announced Guardians of the Galaxy: War of Kings for a July 28, 2017 release date.

In my opinion, that date cannot come soon enough. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

SOMBER DAWNING: Despite Some Minor Flaws, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Is A Marvel To Behold.

It’s rare when a fantasy-based film reaches a level of such sophisticated nuance it is on par with more reality based fare.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves that rarified standard despite some very minor missteps.
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).  In the interim, the human race is on the verge of extinction due to the Simian Flu (presented with brilliant yet chilling succinctness at the film’s opening). A relatively small colony of survivors living in the nature overrun ruins of San Francisco, led by survivalists Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), try to eke out a meager existence. Meanwhile, across the bay, a thriving simian colony exists, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising the role), and his “lieutenants” Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). When a search party from San Francisco comes across the sons of Ceasar and Rocket (Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw)), a misunderstanding occurs which sets of a chain of events which lead down the path to the inevitable conclusion that was presented in the original Planet of the Apes.
It has been said that the best science fiction has something to say; that it is allegorical to the prevailing concerns and issues that are taking place in real life. Where Dawn differs from most is that it is not heavy handed in terms of what is being critiqued (no doubt in part due to that one of the opposing sides is not human in the literal sense). Current foreign politics and affairs, LGBT rights issues, gun control, reactionary jingoism, generational disenfranchisement, tragedy engendered by fearful misunderstanding…all of these are represented…or maybe none of them.  The beauty of this is that this film boils down to the primal essence of all of these concerns…the need to survive; a need both sides share, but only a handful are forward thinking enough to understand that survival may only come from mutual cooperation…and that those few may not be enough to turn the tide.
For the first time, Andy Serkis is given top billing in a live-action film as a CGI character; and boy, does he earn it!  The motion captured, CGI rendered apes are a wonder to behold (though the CGI is far from perfect at times, especially when rendered in 3D). The film takes a similar route of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by devoting much of its first act to represent the simian society.  Unlike the latter film, there’s no human in evidence and, in effect, no analogue for the viewer to identify with.  Serkis, in effect, has the Herculean task of making a CGI character identifiable, if not sympathetic. His performance in Rise is child’s play to what he does so beautifully here.  Cesar is now a family man with a sick companion Cornelia (Judy Greer, whose character’s name implies an ancestral connection between Cesar and Dr. Cornelius of the original Apes) and a rebellious teenager (Thurston). These family issues, and the leadership of the tribe, weigh heavy on Cesar’s shoulders and Serkis conveys it powerfully. Praise in this regard cannot be effusive enough.  He is the literal lynchpin of this film and if he did not work, the whole thing would fall apart.  Just for the sheer scope of the responsibility the actor bears in keeping this film together, Serkis should get an Oscar nomination. On the flip (human) side, Malcolm similarly shares Cesar’s situation.  His own son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just as disconnected from his father in his own way, and initially unwilling to accept his father’s new lover, the medically capable Ellie (Keri Russell). He tries to keep the peace between the humans and the apes, but his partner Dreyfus fear and mistrust of the apes is a practically insurmountable stumbling block.
The only problem here is that this film’s 3D presentation is more three dimensional than some of the performances, which causes an odd disconnect between story and viewer at times to the extent that it quixotically lengthens the two hour screen time. In fact, Oldman is an actor of some respect and renown, yet the character he plays could essentially be played by anyone. There’s nothing here for him to really sink his thespian chops into. However, The Walking Dead’s Kirk Acevedo does stand out as a “racist” character that one would love to hate under normal circumstances; however the character’s motivations are so relatable as to make him borderline sympathetic (more on that in a minute). As does his simian opposite number, Koba (who you will recall as horrifically scarred ape who pushed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) off the San Francisco Bridge), who bears an irrational hatred for humans; but, given the events of the first film, is also understandable. The journey of father/son reconnection is handled well in the end by both Thurston and McPhee, but for most of the film they are so annoying you’re left with the sense of wanting to slap them aside the head (which, given that they’re playing self-involved teenagers, is precisely the point). However, there are practically too many characters for even an accomplished director like Matt Reeves (Felicity) to juggle around and make three-dimensional.
The film is lavishly shot, with the set designers and cinematographers working together to create a believably rendered post-apocalyptic world. The City of San Francisco looks to have been assimilated by the practically tropical woodland that the apes inhabit. Michael Giacchino’s score evoking a sense of foreboding unease even as it emulates his Star Trek efforts at times; an unease that is also engendered by the tone of the story by scriptwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback.
Ostensibly, there are two characters that can be characterized as the story’s antagonists, but the real villains are “fear” and “mistrust”.  There are no true villains in the fictional sense.  That sets this film apart from others even as it undermines it. The inevitable battle between humans and apes is a sight to behold (after all, who doesn’t want to see apes riding on horseback armed to the teeth with deadly ordinance?). However, the geek power of the scene is balanced by the tragedy that underlies it. What would be an “Aw, YEAH!” moment in any other film is instead a moment of somber tragedy.  There is no joy to be found in the slaughter of innocents on both sides just to satisfy the jingoistic agenda of a very select few. In the end, this film is also about differences; or rather, the existence of similarity within difference.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a standard, feel good summer blockbuster. It’s a film that takes risks, and does so with laudable, beautiful presentation.  While it does have some yawn inducing (i.e. boring) spots, it is a triumph in filmmaking, building on the world presented in Rise. For all its fantasy, it’s rooted in very real problems. Don’t expect any cheers or a pat resolution. This film serves as a sobering indictment of the consequences of allowing fear, antipathy, and hate to rule the day.