Published August 14th, 2014 by

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–

Published July 27th, 2014 by

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.

Published June 24th, 2014 by

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

Published April 26th, 2014 by

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 

Published January 28th, 2014 by

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.