Monday, May 8, 2017

REMIXED: "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2" Succeeds Despite A Looming Shadow.



Sometimes, the best expectation is no expectation.

Remember when Marvel Studios first announced their intention to produce a film based on an obscure Marvel comic called "Guardians of the Galaxy"? A collective head scratch ensued. To the uninitiated, the question was "who are the Guardians of the Galaxy". To those familiar with comics, the question was "why the Guardians of the Galaxy".  There were concerns that Marvel was about to make its first tactical error in the planning of what had become a box-office juggernaut of successful films. Expectations ranged from low to 'nil...until the film was finally released.  No one expected how much fun, and ultimately how successful, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ultimately became (including this reviewer). It was so crowd-pleasingly good, that it set the bar high for its inevitable sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., as good as it is, falls short of it.

(At this point, I should caveat in interests of fairness that this author went into this film with those same aforementioned expectations, so some of these points may not be as salient as they would be in a completely unbiased review. Regardless, they are as they are).

Some time after the events of the first film, the Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired by an alien race to protect a powerful set of intergalactic batteries. When Rocket ironically steals the the batteries, it sets off a chain of events that attracts the attention of the celestial being known as "Ego" (Kurt Russell) which leads young Quill not only to discover the secrets of his heritage but his possible destiny as well.

"Of course I'm celestial.  I was the last person Walt Disney thought of."

That's not to say that the movie isn't entertaining; it’s extremely so. However, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, by comparison, is a victim of its progenitor’s success.  Divested of the surprise factor, James Gunn, acting as both director and screenwriter, has to rely on characterization and plot to carry the film. While Vol 2 excels in the former, it’s stilted in the latter.

The majority of the plotting issues stem from the fact that the Guardians films are ensemble pieces, with "Big Names" attached to each character. As such, each character is given a spotlight, which means more scenes and extra run time. There’s definitely a sense that Marvel was paying attention concerning what worked in the previous film because the principal of remixed "escalation" is all over Vol. 2. In some cases, they work. In others, they lead to situations that go on longer than they should; which makes for a film, who’s run time is two-and-a-quarter hours, seem longer than it is (mostly in scenes involving Baby Groot, who is surprisingly NOT the breakout character in this film. More below). For instance, Drax should change his sobriquet from “the Destroyer” to “the Comedian”. Whereas his humor previously evolved naturally from a character trait, here it comes across as forced, with mixed results. Some of these issues could be resolved with tighter editing, but it leaves one to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, given that what remained is still creative.

Another issue is that, in trying to balance the showcasing of characters as fairly as possible, the “B” plots are far more interesting than the “A”. That’s not to say that the main plot isn’t interesting; it’s to say that the peripheral story lines are more so. This development has more to do with the engaging performances by Michael Rooker as “Yondu” and Karen Gillan as “Nebula”, whose personal journeys are the most compellingly developed. While Pratt, Saldana, Batista, Cooper, and Diesel are all top notch in their own efforts, it’s Rooker’s that’s the breakout performance here, and the film is all the better for it. Returning to the Disney fold as the planetary Celestial “Ego”, Kurt Russell is an energetically engaging enigma. Pom Kelmentieff’s “Mantis” serves as a good foil Drax, in some ways reflective of the character as we first encountered him. Elizabeth Debicki’s courting typecasting with yet another cold-as-ice character, but her “Ayesha” is an arresting sight; an Oscar statuette come to fetching, angular life.

However, the faults are relatively minor considering the whole package. The film is an enjoyable romp with thematic heft. All of the actors, from the principals to the cameos (and there are a bunch of them, with many nods to Marvel Comics lore for the initiated), are clearly enjoying themselves to such a point that it's difficult not to be infected by their enthusiasm. Detractors might dismiss this film as another live action cartoon film, but it's one with resonance, earning its emotional beats in a way that one would have to have a heart of an (infinity) stone not to feel...feelings that are enhanced by the musical choices which, as with the first film, are as much a character in the film as the players. This time, however, each pop/rock entry is more thematically connected to the scenes they play in than before to great, and in one case hilarious, effect. Tyler Bates continues to convince Marvel Studios that he's their go-to scoring pro, delivering a score that is in turns rousing, comedic, and poignant. This film should definitely be viewed in IMAX and 3D, but one risks visual overload in doing so as it takes its 70's rock fantasy album cover aesthetic to an almost distracting extreme (a conceit that, going by the preview, the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok will likely heavily borrow),

In essence, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, may fall somewhat short of its predecessor, but it's still a high mark for the Marvel Studios film library. It's thrilling, engaging, and surprisingly heartfelt. Take a magic carpet ride to another galaxy far, far away.  You'll be glad you did. 


Monday, January 23, 2017

LOVE IT OR HATE IT: "Split" is M. Night Shyamalan's Best Film In Years.


[MINOR SPOILERS]


"'Trauma' is 'Drama'" It's a statement I just made up (as far as I know, and apologies in advance to anyone who may have coined it first), but it also seems to be an edict that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan relies upon, as his filmography attests. But never has this mantra been more evident than in his latest thriller Split, written and directed by Shyamalan, and starring James McAvoy (The X-Men reboot films, The Conspirator (2010)), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch (2015)) and stage-and-screen veteran Betty Buckley (Carrie (1976)), The Happening (2008)). In this film, Taylor-Joy plays “Casey”, a teen aged loner who, through an unfortunate twist of fate, is kidnapped alongside intended victims Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)) and her BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula, Honeytrap (2014)) by Kevin (McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (“DID”) and possessed of (or is that “by”?) twenty-three different and distinct personalities. It’s a race against time for Casey to outwit her captor(s) and free herself and her friends before Kevin’s nascent twenty-fourth personality is unleashed. 

Shyamalan has been a controversial and divisive cinematic auteur. Reception to his films has run the gamut from acclaim (The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000)) to ridicule (The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013)). The low budget Split is perhaps his most challenging work. Trauma propels this film and examines its existence or lack can affect not only a person but the world around them, with one of its main considerations being the polarity of deep feeling versus disaffected superficiality; a theme that speaks to the polarizing nature to the film as a whole. It’s layered both thematically and in execution, demanding total immersive attention from the viewer. For anyone looking to be entertained and suspend thinking for almost two hours, this is not the film for you. Even scenes that seem innocuous and throwaway either add insight to the proceedings or ratchets up the tension. However, unlike most of his films post-Unbreakable, none of this layering feels gratuitous or self-indulgent. Everything is measured (at least until the climax) and effectively makes its point without belaboring it.

Unfortunately, one of the film’s other difficulties stems from its very nature as a character-driven thriller; one wherein one of the actors is playing 24 different personalities. This leads to a lack of character focus in the beginning which is incongruously both asset and detriment to the film. No stranger to playing a character with a multiple personality disorder (see Filth (2013)), McAvoy ups the proverbial ante by playing a multitude of characters and doing so convincingly. His performance is subversively arresting, exhibiting fully realized personalities while at the same time exhibiting a sense of not quite being all there. Betty Buckley’s plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, whose almost-maternal patient relationship is at odds with her need to validate her unconventional treatment regarding his psychosis. As the primary damsel-in-distress, young Taylor-Joy is as mesmerizing as McAvoy, but for different reasons. She evinces a strength, maturity, and vulnerability that belies her age, yet still appropriate for her character. It’s layered performance both aesthetically and viscerally. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula’s supporting yet strong performances also bolster the proceedings. Personally speaking, there is not one performance that rings false, nor is there a moment that feels extraneous.

Oddly enough, the film is disturbing in a clinical fashion while it also cleverly subverts the conventions of the horror/thriller genre. Given the nature of the story and the main players, one would naturally expect the occurrence of creepy and repulsive themes of regarding older men and scantily-clad teens. Credit Shyamalan's direction wherein the creepy “ick” factor comes without titillation factor whatsoever. On the contrary, the first two-thirds of the film are positively antiseptic, where whatever horror is gleaned there comes from implication…provided the viewer is paying attention. Arguably, the only true moment of intimacy occurs in what is perhaps the movie’s most tragic and horrific scene; a scene made more effective because of that aforementioned layering, and perhaps one of the best scenes this director has ever executed. Yet still, the film, as a whole, is uncomfortable, eliciting conflicting yet wholly appropriate emotions, with moments of comedy and horror taking place simultaneously.

The (almost) totally original score by newcomer West Dylan Thordson is minimalist yet effective, blending into the proceedings and intensifying each scene without distractingly calling attention to itself. The cinematography by Michael Gioulakis is full of mood and imagery that draws one in and heightens the film's enveloping, oppressive, and terrifying atmosphere.

Of course, there’s that narrative hallmark that’s served to be both Shyalaman’s trademark and bane: the twist ending. All that will be said about it here as that it will either hit or miss…depending upon your familiarity with Shyamalan and his work. Needless to say, it will make you see the film in a completely different light.

What few flaws the film has does not negate the fact that this is the best film that Shyalaman has made in years. It’s a film that merits repeated watching as it is so densely, meticulously rich and sublime in its presentation and dialogue. In fact, it is arguably too dense, for it requires that the viewer's attention from the first second to the last. It also requires a major suspension of disbelief, but the story carries it to acceptability and the payoff is worth it.  It’s a thinking person’s thriller, one that will leave the viewer both repulsed and excited. Love it or hate it, Split will stay with you.