Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest blockbuster from Marvel and a decidedly different one than what we’re used to, works because it walks, with all the seemingly effortless adroitness of a funambulist, the fine line of not taking itself seriously and taking itself seriously. That’s the most intellectual line I could come up for this film, because it is a mess, but an entertainingly endearing mess, make no mistake. It’s a space opera that is entertainingly madcap at best and barely comprehensible at worst, burdened by a substandard Marvel storyline involving a glowing blue MacGuffin and indistinguishable bad guys but also, weirdly, liberated by it: since the plot is so uninspired, the emphasis devolves onto the characters which, luck would have it, provide a beguiling mix of goofiness and seriousness, and are the best thing about Guardians. You have the newly emergent Chris Pratt, a truly charismatic, enjoyable presence mostly because, I suspect, he wasn’t asked to do things that weren’t already in his wheelhouse. As Peter Quill, A.K.A Starlord, a scruffy thief of little galactic renown (think Han Solo and/or Indiana Jones), he gets to groove to 1970s music and trade quips with the rest of the Guardians: a green-skinned Zoe Saldana, both flinty and vulnerable; an mostly genial talking tree (think Lord of the Rings’s Treebeard) named Groot who says “I am Groot” to everything and is inexplicably played by Dwayne Johnson, somewhere under all that bark; an belligerent anthropomorphized raccoon with issues and a lot of firepower named Rocket, voiced snarlingly by Bradley Cooper; and former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista’s muscled brute out for revenge, Drax, whose defining trait is his literal interpretation of everything (“Nothing goes over my head—my reflexes are too fast”). They’re a silly bunch, and not always funny, but still hilarious enough. Mostly, they’re a lot of fun to watch, and that’s the joy of Guardians of the Galaxy: It’s pure, unfiltered fun. I say “pure” because the humor exists solely to please and not to self-deprecate. Sure, Guardians occasionally pokes fun at the self-serious pseudo-portentousness of many Marvel movies, including itself (most notable during the wonderful opening sequence), but it does so organically, without trying to; there’s no negativity to be seen. It embraces its inherent absurdity and stupidity instead of attempting to be a postmodern or obnoxiously “smart” superhero movie; rather than “We know you’re laughing at this angry little raccoon, but we’re laughing right alongside you! Doesn’t that make it so much better?” it’s “We’re having a lot of fun here. Come laugh with us.” And with that in mind, there becomes very little reason to not give Guardians of the Galaxy the utmost respect it most deserves. A–
I don’t usually post trailers, posters, and other stuff hyping the release of a film here, because attempting to assess the quality of an upcoming movie by its promotional materials usually resorts into rank speculation. It’s especially ludicrous seeing as this nonetheless popular pastime relies on whether a studio’s marketing department is actually doing a good job at what they are paid to do; that is, vigorously whipping up excitement based on a few carefully curated frames or still images, all gussied up and looking nice. That being said, I’ll make an exception for Mad Max: Fury Road’s Comic-Con teaser. Not because I think it’s going to be a spectacular film, per se, but because it is a spectacular trailer and therefore whatever I just said doesn’t apply. All the potentially disappointing bits that will emerge scandalously when the film is released next year have been ruthlessly trimmed away, leaving only the most visually impressive moments. It’s a standalone work of art, if you will, that has absolutely no lasting value besides the fleeting sensory pleasures it provides. Shut off your brain, brace your eyes and ears, and indulge yourself.
ALIENS (James Cameron, 1986)
Mr. Cameron’s film, Aliens, is certainly more galvanizing than its predecessor, Alien: he expanded Ridley Scott’s classic no-frills horror film into a clamorous war film. It’s still perfectly respectable because the minimalism is carefully maintained, to a certain degree, but elevated accordingly with the stakes. Instead of one alien versus seven increasingly hapless people trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic spaceship, it’s a hive of aliens versus a dozen decreasingly cocksure Colonial marines and a few civilians trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic compound. The badinage and brashness of the soldiers, all decked out with cool weaponry, only makes it more gleefully tragic when they all inevitably succumb, one by one, to the resourceful aliens. Mr. Cameron, helpfully, actualizes Ellen Ripley’s motherly instincts (and brings out Ms. Weaver’s ferocious warmth) by replacing her cat with a little girl, Newt, whose welfare becomes so primordial to Ripley that by the end of the film she is bawling “Get away from her you bitch!” to the Alien Queen while wielding the full strength of an exoskeletal power-loader. It’s the most satisfying scene of the film, mostly because it solidifies Ms. Weaver’s character as unequivocally badass. Like most of Mr. Cameron’s movies, Aliens isn’t subtle, but as a complement to Alien’s conscientiously measured terror, its excitability is welcome. A–
ALIEN³ (David Fincher, 1992)
By no means perfectly respectable, at least when regarded as the third Alien movie, Alien³ however possesses certain charms that might even be considered redeemable, were the viewer in a charitable mood. Ripley crash-lands in a off-world penal colony full of God-fearing lunatics whose self-established monastic society is quickly upended by this unwelcome temptation. Their hostility is not unwarranted however because tagging along with Ripley is, unsurprisingly, an alien who has already, surprisingly, killed Newt and placed an embryo inside of Ripley. Good heavens, what gall! Now Ms. Weaver, with shaved head but a magnetic presence as always, has lost her only child and gained an unborn demon. Mr. Fincher is at the helm and he takes great delight in, when not ruthlessly destroying any gratification gleaned from Aliens’s conclusion, swooping his camera down endless underground tunnels with dizzying stylistic abandon while the alien, skittering around obligingly, pursues the wailing damned. Alien³ is a shabby, seemingly low-budget production that produces chills and thrills, mostly due to the inherent, inspired spookiness of the prison setting and its inhabitants. But alien fatigue is setting in, and the rampaging extraterrestrial, so central to the film, no longer inspires the same raw fear in the audience. As Ripley says, “You’ve been in my life for so long, I hardly remember anything else.” B–
ALIEN: RESURRECTION (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)
Where to begin with Alien: Resurrection? It’s impossible to treat seriously, and is generally a fiasco from the beginning to the end. An elaboration of the plot would be a misuse of everyone’s time. I was expecting strange things from Mr. Jeunet and was not disappointed, but the greatest surprise came from the screenwriter, who is none other than Joss Whedon. You see, I really like Firefly, and therefore it’s striking to note that apparently five years before that brilliant show began its regrettably short-lived television run, Mr. Whedon was already toying with the concept of a motley crew of space smugglers in a remarkably similar tone. The shadows of familiar characters are beginning to surface, particularly the ones of the uncommonly perceptive, peculiarly gifted young girl (here played by Winona Ryder, and in Firefly, Summer Glau) and the gung-ho, thuggish moron (Ron Perlman, and later Adam Baldwin). So it’s somewhat disconcerting to recognize Mr. Whedon’s distinctively grounded touch among all the more outlandish aspects of Alien: Resurrection: the re-imagining of Ripley as a simultaneously predacious and aching superwoman infused with alien DNA; Ms. Ryder’s vexingly melodramatic performance; the violent debut of yet another new and evolved anthropomorphized alien; all that superfluously garish blood and gore. You’d be better off just watching Firefly. C
THERE’S NO MONKEYING around in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The title may indicate only an incremental advancement in the global conquest of our favorite rampaging simians, if any, from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes—how many more synonymously monikered installments must we be compelled to watch before the thesaurus is milked dry, I wonder?—but make no mistake, James Franco and the sunshine of San Francisco is long gone. This plot of this spectacularly grim and surprisingly violent movie ultimately culminates in ideologically extremist apes orchestrating the death of the wise, pacifist Caesar (played once again brilliantly by Andy Serkis), who has led a thriving isolationist community in the Muir Woods, in order to instigate unmitigated warfare against one of the last remaining bastions of human civilization. If you’re think to yourself, “These bad apes sound liked they learned a few tricks from us humans,” congratulations, for you have seized upon the theme of the movie. And that’s even before you’ve seen a scarred, snarling ape, consumed by bloodlust, riding into battle on horseback while firing assault rifles willy-nilly. All the simian scheming and warfare makes for compelling drama, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Perhaps the somewhat hackneyed unfolding of the story, derived from countless literary and historical sources, was intentionally made to reflect the humanization of the apes. Perhaps it serves to reinforce, subtly and pervasively, the disheartening realization of Caesar’s that his apes are not so unlike the humans they are pitted against, that they go through the same struggles, the same joy, the same heartbreak, the same fraternal bloodletting and betrayal. If this is what the filmmakers intended, then they should have figured out that you don’t need apes acting out lackluster melodrama in order to effectively convey their humanism. Anyhow, I suspect something else: laziness. Not that it matters—the audience, for now, doesn’t notice the banality because they are still struck by the relative novelty of seeing emotionally identifiable apes, thanks to the virtuosity of the special effects and the marvelous acting efforts of Serkis and the rest of the cast. But that laziness, if preserved, has the potential to rear its ugly head to much more inauspicious consequences. As is seen in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the human elements of the story are slowly diminishing in importance, which opens the door to, among other things, an all-ape cast. We certainly don’t want a bunch of talented actors hooting and hollering away under motion-capture suits in an uninspired all-ape interpretation of, say, Coriolanus. Or do we? B
I DON’T EVEN KNOW where to begin with The Lego Movie. As evidenced by the financial success of the film and the Rotten Tomatoes rating that is as high as Monsters Inc. (a remarkable achievement in itself), the great majority of moviegoers and critics found themselves enchanted and even enamored. Pity me, then, as a lonely anomaly, who will never understand the innocuous joys that The Lego Movie has to offer me, or decry me as a contrarian, for what could I possibly find wrong with such a beloved kid’s movie? Everything. The Lego Movie is constructed as a formulaic action-adventure fable, where the unassuming everyman discovers he’s the Chosen One, and is compelled to discover unorthodox methods of defeating a fearsome villain, most involving inner fortitude and peppy assertiveness, after being recruited by a motley crew of goody-gooders. I can only presume it’s meant to be this way, and that its envisioned redeeming grace is that is it supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of such movies. To this end, inspirational claptrap is mixed with irreverent silliness and satire, and a few funny gags—the percentage of those that elicit more than a mild chuckle is Lilliputian—punctuate long stretches of run-of-the-mill tedium in which you’re not quite certain what the filmmakers hoped to achieve. You keep waiting for something to change but no, the only twist that comes is a cringe-worthy cop-out that destroys any interest you might have had in the ongoing onscreen proceedings. The Lego Movie wouldn’t have been so frustratingly humdrum if it had really gone and plumbed the depths of absurdity rather than being superficially quirky. In essence, it’s an unimaginative film masquerading as something smarter, funnier, better. It’s none of these things and the few qualities it does possess pretty much vanish after the first ten minutes. The Lego Movie, it turns out, is not a postmodern masterpiece but a bafflement, and a mediocre one at best. This is a film where a thousand Lego pieces go flying in every direction each millisecond, and yet I found myself bored by the story and increasingly weary of the throwaway witticisms (when they occurred). Not to mention, speculating on whether I was supposed to find this film visually appealing. If you squint, everything looks like a pixelly jumble; if you open your eyes wide and strive to spot every detail, everything looks like a painful mess to step on. C–
IT’S ALWAYS RARE, and rewarding, finding a sequel to an animated film that surpasses the quality of the original, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy candidate for that honor. The first film combined heart, humor, and heroic adventure to create the winning story of an unlikely duo—the friendship of young Viking Hiccup and his dangerously cute and questionably named dragon,Toothless, was fraught with danger, love, and a substantial amount of initial misunderstanding. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there’s more harmony, to be certain; the worlds of burly, bumbling Viking warriors and snarling, goofy dragons have been united thanks to the efforts of Hiccup and Toothless. But on one of their enterprising forays outside the island of Berk, our heroes discover an inconvenient truth: not everyone understands dragons like they do, and some, most worryingly, have different ideas of what to do with them. Heart, humor, and heroic adventure once again ensue in even greater capacity . But it’s worth seeing How To Train Your Dragon 2 just to see the most memorable five minutes of animation in recent years. As Hiccup, stubborn as always, sets out on his own to seek out the fearsome dragon conquerer Drago Bludvist and plead the case for mutual appreciation among earthly creatures, he and Toothless find themselves soaring over a vast dreamlike carpet of golden clouds. You just know they will encounter someone or something, but you aren’t prepared to see an armored figure terrifyingly rise up from the clouds below them—some kind of a pagan sorcerer, tall and terrible with a spiked mask and a staff, standing erect on the back on a gigantic dragon. Who is this person? Are we still watching How to Train Your Dragon 2, the blockbuster sequel from Dreamworks Animation? It’s a beautifully haunting, uncomfortably strange and wonderful scene that words cannot define appropriately. While dragon-flying is usually relegated to energetic, frenetic showcases full of gutsy swooping and elated hollering, and while those scenes, of which there are plenty in How To Train Your Dragon 2, possess their own thrills, to be sure, they appear commonplace compared to this magnificent sequence that truly makes your jaw drop. I would wish for more of these stunners, but once is more than enough. A
IT WAS QUITE the genius stroke of Hollywood cleverness how the promotional materials Alfonso Cuarón’s stuck-in-space thriller Gravity touted the ominously suggestive line, “Don’t let go.” After all, if there’s one universal and unimaginable fear that 99.9% of moviegoers have never experienced but can nevertheless vividly imagine without much effort, it must be the sheer terror of losing grip on whatever was tethering you to humanly existence and tumbling off into the farthest reaches of cold, dark space. But throughout the film, the protagonist of Gravity, an emotionally injured and increasingly beleaguered astronaut played by Sandra Bullock, regularly finds herself not in danger of letting go but rather facing the dire consequences of not letting go. And therein lies the beauty of Gravity. “Don’t let go”—if you let go, you die—represents what Gravity is on the surface, which is a survival thriller set in space, a race-against-the-clock actioner that physically pits our heroine against incredible odds and overwhelming obstacles on her journey to get back to Earth. “Let go”—if you don’t let go, you won’t ever live—succinctly sums up the psychological journey that Ms. Bullock’s character must undergo in the length of ninety minutes. This paradoxical parallelism sounds cheesy, and while it is, in a way, Mr. Cuarón presents the two themes together without embellishment or emphasis on the melodramatic, which results in a naturally occurring and wonderfully organic kind of cheesy. Gravity is not high art but perfectly entertaining— the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that enraptures you on the edge of your seat by value of its dramatical purity as much as by the stunning visual effects and other expensive technical achievements (the sound design and score is notable). Some have claimed that it’s the “smallest” Hollywood blockbuster in a while, or an intimate indie film cloaked as a big and loud movie-event experience. It’s not. It’s a big, loud movie-event experience pulled off with sophisticated restraint and minimalism. With George Clooney as George Clooney, a suave veteran astronaut with a penchant for listening to country music while lazily jetpacking around in Earth’s orbit. From 2013. A
STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1964 satirical black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is, most of the time, an exercise in seeing how far absurdity can go while still maintaining the sense of realism that comes inherent with playing on Cold War anxieties and alarm. The notion of an Air Force commander in the throes of anti-Communism passion-slash-paranoia ordering a decidedly unilateral preemptive bombing of the Soviet continent and kick starting World War III, because “war is too important to be left to the politicians,” still has the potency to make one uneasy and queasy. That the maverick Colonel Jack Ripper goes over the edge out of fear for the sanity and safety of his precious bodily fluids makes Sterling Hayden’s performance, played dead straight if unrestrained in its lunacy, seem like one long deadpan skit of comedic gold. Indeed, Dr. Strangelove succeeds as so much more than how it seems on paper because it melds together humor and drama elements congruous to create something altogether unique. Case in point: when the actors play it straight—even Slim Pickens as the cowboy Major T.J. “King” Kong—the sequences in the B-29 Superfortress as the crew doggedly undertakes their first-strike mission (insinuatingly underlaid with a subdued, solemn adaptation of the Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) have a simple human poignancy and doomed nobleness to them that match the beautiful ending, where the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions rise to Vera Lynn’s cozy “We’ll Meet Again.” But whenever the manic gum-smacking theatrics of the bellicose, Soviet-leery General “Buck” Turgidson, who George C. Scott plays with an endearing go-for-the-gold nuttiness, dominate the screen, Dr Strangelove is the film with the best ratio of memorable zingers to lines of dialogue. Peter Sellers, of course, is brilliant in his triple roles, most especially in that of U.S. President Merkin Muffley; when Muffley, ever the pragmatist, calls Soviet Premier Kissoff on the hotline, Sellers shows how to make a one-sided conversation a side-splitting laugh riot. Mr. Kubrick’s spectacularly razor-sharp film is a bitingly subversive social commentary about nuclear annihilation and the stupidity of the human race that manages to be so hysterically funny you forget how smart it is. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
I don’t want to misspeak, but Thor: The Dark World might just be the comic-book-iest film that Marvel has produced yet, and that’s wonderful. And yet, to be expected. After all, between Iron Man, the Hulk, or Captain America, Thor, the hunky Norse god, is the only superhero that lives, quite literally, worlds apart from us. Sure, his heart belongs to Natalie Portman, on Earth, but his home is the golden, gleaming citadel of Asgard, galaxies away. Visually, such a level of world-building is always tricky, expecially, it seems, when a large budget permitting excess usage of CGI is involved, and Asgard is clearly not a matte painting (although that would have been nice). And thematically, how do you make the audience care without spending too much time doing so? The Asgard in Thor fails on many of these points, true. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s much more exciting, and frightening indeed, to see such a fantastical city coming under attack than seeing New York City leveled, if only because maybe we can’t imagine it as clearly. Asgard could have easily been Marvel’s Minas Tirith, if that had been the wish of the filmmakers, and, similarly, when Asgard comes under attack, it could have easily held the same emotional significance as when the White City was besieged (in The Lord of the Rings). Although it was not to be, still, Asgard and its denizens are realized satisfactorily enough. I particularly liked Heimdall, the all-seeing guardian of the Bifröst, an revolving portal to the planet of your choosing, attached to an impressively out-there rainbow bridge leading to Asgard. He’s played by Idris Elba, outfitted with a golden suit of armor—complete with a horned Viking helmet—and multi-colored eyes of unfathomable, almost doleful depths, which is not unusual considering that he stands gazing out at the myriad universes and the billions of lives arrayed in front of him all day. Although that’s literally all you know about him, you find yourself hoping Heimdall won’t be killed off, if only because he is a good reassurance that while onscreen, “Thor” is a comic-book movie that isn’t afraid to be a comic-book movie. Is Heimdall substantial to the plot? Not really. But if you’re making an off-world superhero adventure, why not indulge a little in the cool details of that faraway land, unbound by any expectations of realism? Since it seems superhero movies are required to culminate in explosive, expensive world-destroying that involves an alien ship descending on Earth and wreaking havoc, however, here the finale involves the alignment of the planets over the Greenwich Observatory, in England and not in Asgard. It’s another noisy, who-can-get-back-up-the-fastest-after-being-thrown-fifty-feet battle, although here the film experiments with Thor and the bad guy tumbling though invisible, randomly-situated “portals” that suck them up mid-brawl onto different worlds and then spit them back out again. True, it makes things marginally more interesting, but all super-important, fate-of-the-universe match-ups are getting stale. The superhero, out-matched but redoubtable still, needs to delay the destruction while his human friends scientifically fiddle with buttons and try not to get killed. Here in Thor: The Dark World it’s no different, and you wish that something other was at stake than our skyscrapers. Wouldn’t it be so much more exciting if Asgard instead recieved the attention it deserves?