Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Irreverent and Heart-Warming "Guardians of the Galaxy" Demonstrates the Mastery of Marvel

The chemistry of the central team makes Guardians a roaring success.
With Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and X-Men owned by other movie studios, Marvel was forced to focus on lesser known superheroes when it began releasing films as an independent studio six years ago. Many questioned their plan to build multiple movies in an interconnected universe around the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but Marvel pulled it off with aplomb.
 
Since taking those initial risks in the lead-up to The Avengers, the studio has been coasting a bit, chugging along on the strength of sequels as they put the pieces in motion to continue cultivating an expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe.
 
But could they get people to show up for a truly obscure property, and what did it mean for the company's long-term hopes if one of their films failed? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes, and the answer to the second question will have to wait until next summer, because Guardians of the Galaxy is a smash hit, and a deserving one at that.
 
One of the things I've enjoyed most about the Marvel output thus far is how willing they've been to mix things up by embracing elements from other genres. Captain America: The First Avenger was a period war film, more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than a typical run-of-the-mill superhero outing. Thor played up the Shakespearean overtones, and from what I've heard, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes more than a few cues from the political espionage thrillers of the '70s, while next summer's Ant-Man is said to be a heist film.
 
This marks the third sci-fi franchise to cast Zoe Saldana as the female lead.
Although Guardians hits most of the beats you might expect in the super hero genre, it's actually more of a space adventure in the vein of Star Wars. In fact, one could argue this is practically the Star Wars film fanboys were hoping to get back when George Lucas announced he'd be making a prequel trilogy.
 
Like Star Wars, Guardians focuses on a rag tag team of assorted underdogs ultimately growing into a pseudo family with the common goal of thwarting an intergalactic evil. The team includes a kick-ass princess, a tough-talking mercenary with a gigantic partner whose vocal intonations only he understands, and a leader with a mysterious lineage. There's no robot side kicks -- instead they've got a bad ass warrior looking to avenge the death of his family -- but, overall, it's pretty damn familiar.
 
That being said, this isn't just some Star Wars clone. Even though they are similar in broad strokes, the lead characters here are all uniquely defined and well inhabited, and beyond that, they are surrounded by a world that is densely populated and  feels authentically lived in. Besides Guardians operates on a way loopier energy -- in truth, it plays like a film you'd find in the middle of a spectrum that had Star Wars at one end and Spaceballs at the other.
 
As Peter Quill/Star Lord, Chris Pratt officially announces himself as a movie star, proving more than capable of carrying a blockbuster on his shoulders. He's been doing a nice job of modulating his ascendance in Hollywood over the last few years, parlaying his successful comedic performance on Parks and Recreation into a number of diverse film roles in the likes of Moneyball, Her and Zero Dark Thirty. With this, The Lego Movie and next year's Jurassic World, things are going into overdrive for the hardworking actor.
 


A post-credit cameo by Howard the Duck is a nice nod to the last time a
Marvel property this weird made it to the big screen. That film was produced
by George Lucas, whose Star Wars clearly influenced Guardians.

But the best-in-show work involves the motion capture characters. Watching Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), it's hard not to think of Jar Jar Binks -- how this movie could do this type of thing so perfectly after The Phantom Menace flubbed it so badly is astonishing; and I don't just mean that in reference to the quality of the special effects.
 
Some reviews have commented that the film wastes many of it's best known actors in little roles (and this beside casting the two biggest draws as CGI characters). However, while that is sometimes true (Glenn Close's presence is pointless), the likes of John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro get to steal a few scenes while adding a believable depth to the proceedings.
 
The film isn't all perfect. Freshness and tone represent the film's greatest strengths, but there are parts where Guardians gets a little too quippy, and it's ultimately just another in a long line of action movies that require the heroes keep a powerful doohickey out of the hands of the bad guys (snore).
 
Furthermore, this is yet another Marvel movie where said bad guys barely rate. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is little more than window dressing, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is only a marginally better version of Malekith, the super shitty baddie from Thor: The Dark World. However, I will give the film one thing -- it does include Yondu (Michael Rooker), who, in just a few scenes, becomes the most interesting non-Loki antagonist the Marvel movie universe has to offer (for those keeping track of the Star Wars parallels, he's kind of the film's Jabba the Hut).
 
I could probably go on and on about the film for quite a while, but all you need to know is that it works like gangbusters, mostly because the central characters are so fun to watch together, but also because it has a lot of heart. There was a real chance for disaster here -- two of the five leads are a tree who constantly says "I am Groot" and a short-tempered raccoon -- but writer/director James Gunn and his cast and crew have really pulled off something special. A-

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Casino Royale"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of Casino Royale, which I originally reviewed in December of 2006. The film relaunched the James Bond series with Daniel Craig in the lead, resulting in what I believe is the greatest run on Bond movies in the franchise’s 50 plus years. Other than a ridiculous torture scene, Casino Royale is perfect, which is why you’ll see I called it the greatest Bond film (although Skyfall challenged that title six years later).
The whole movie, and really a great deal of this Daniel Craig run of
Bond films, hinges on the relationship with Vesper Lynd.
After 44 years in Hollywood, James Bond has finally received a notable makeover. Obviously, he’s changed a bit over the years, with five different actors and various levels of campiness pervading the first 20 films.
 
However, with the hiring of Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to play the super spy, Bond’s gone through his most significant changes ever. He hasn’t just gone blonde; no, with Craig drinking the martinis and wearing the tux, Bond has also made a play for three-dimensionality.
 
While it will always remain debatable if Craig’s portrayal is as good as Connery’s iconic depiction, one thing is certain: Craig is without a doubt the best actor to carry a license to kill. Connery may have an Oscar on his shelf, but he’s got a sliver of the range that Craig, a long-time character actor who’s given great performance after great performance in films like Road to PerditionLayer Cake and Munich, brings to the table.
 
Turns out that range, which would’ve been unnecessary in many past Bond films, is of utmost importance in the latest Bond outing, Casino Royale. This is a Bond that screws up, bleeds (a lot) and gets down and dirty with his kills. He barely uses gadgets and when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
 
Most importantly, although he’s a cold-blooded killer, he shows surprising sensitivity and genuinely falls in love. Craig pulls all of this off, but he can’t be given all of the credit. After all, the excellent script is what demands these things of his James Bond.
 
Like last year’s Batman BeginsCasino Royale aims to reboot the legend of its hero. The film opens very stylistically, with director Martin Campbell (who helmed Goldeneye, the best Pierce Brosnan flick) utilizing black and white, grainy film stock and obtuse camera angles, as Bond gets his first two kills to achieve double-O status.

Once the color kicks in, so does the plot. The film is divided into three acts. The first, the most Bondian by previous movie standards, has two thrilling chase scenes, and shows Bond at his smoothest, upstaging bad guys and charming one of their wives, while trotting all over the world looking to identify his mark: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Le Chiffre needs to win the pot at an exclusive poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, as he recently lost a good bit of some very bad people’s money (due to the meddlings of Bond in the first act). A great poker player, Bond gets shipped to Montenegro with an accountant named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) along for the ride.

The second act slows things down considerably, taking place mostly at the poker table. Despite minimal action, this portion is tension-packed, both at the table in interchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre, and in the fatal way Le Chiffre attempts to take Bond out of the game. The budding romance between Bond and Vesper further builds the tension.

I won’t get into the third act, other than to say it goes in an unexpected direction, showcasing a fallible Bond scraping to keep things together.

Bond hasn’t been this real since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the last time producers attempted to humanize him with an actual love interest (as opposed to a sexual conquest). It works a lot better in this film, with Craig successfully essaying a Bond that still hasn’t learned to detach himself from life.

For her part, Green cuts out a memorable character. She’s vulnerable, conflicted and, to appease the purist, beautiful. She goes toe-to-toe with Craig in their verbal bouts, and is totally believable as the woman who could melt the heart of such a cold secret agent. She’s a big reason why the romantic relationship, and thus Bond’s conflict, works so well.

Mikkelsen does a good job showing the desperation of Le Chiffre, a man with a tell even worse than Malkovich’s in Rounders. Dame Judi Dench, the lone holdover from the Brosnan days, is given much more to do this time around as M, and she’s perfectly matched with Craig. In a smaller role, the dynamic Jeffrey Wright shows up as Felix Leiter, a mainstay in the Bond tradition. It is noteworthy that Felix and M seem to be the only two returning characters; Moneypenny and Q are nowhere in sight.

Over the years, the James Bond series has adhered to a very specific formula. While a handful of the films have been good in their own right, specifically the first few Connery films, the rest have managed to coast along on explosions, babes, charm, ridiculous schemes and gadgets.

Casino Royale screws with the formula by adding a sense of reality to the world Bond inhabits, while simultaneously adding depth to the super spy himself. It’s a welcome change of pace, and the series seems to be headed in an exciting new direction with a riveting leading man. So, if you’re looking for an action film in the midst of the holiday season, Casino Royale is the film to see. It’s the best action film of the year, and the best Bond film period. A

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Capsule Review: "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which I originally reviewed in January of 2008. At the time, my friends and I anticipated the terrible films Uwe Boll “adapted” from video games, but in retrospect this was the peak of his career for us.

In the six years since In the Name of the King was released, Boll has worked at a furious clip, direction 20 films and producing even more according to IMDb. Unfortunately, his burgeoning near-competence behind the camera has led to films that, while still pretty damn bad, just aren’t as fun.
See the film for this scene alone. 
This review demands a prologue. Not because its subject, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, is of any great weight or depth; in reality the film is nothing more than a very poor Lord of the Rings rip-off. No, this review deserves a prologue because of the man, nay, the legend-in-the-making, behind its splendor: Uwe Boll.

Here’s an abbreviated biography for you. Boll bought up the film rights to a bunch of lower-end videogames a few years back, and he’s gone through them one by one, making some of the most god-awful films of the last decade. So far he’s “directed” five of these properties—House of the DeadAlone in the DarkBloodRayneIn the Name of the King and a straight-to-video BloodRayne sequel—but a quick look at his Internet Movie Database page shows that there is far more to come (including four more this year alone).

Each of these films has bombed terribly, both critically and commercially, and rightfully so. Everything, from the scripts to the acting to the scores, hell even the blocking, has been laughable. And yet somehow, through the magic of some sort of tax loophole in Germany, he’s kept procuring bigger and bigger budgets.

Even more amazing than that, Boll has managed to get a whole slew of name actors to appear in his dreck, including Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez and Sir Ben Kingsley, an Oscar winner. Under his inept direction, these performers have given the worst performances of their careers (I can only assume the paychecks were well worth it).

All the while, Boll has garnered a serious reputation as the worst filmmaker alive. Drawing unfavorable comparisons to Ed Wood, he’s elicited the scorn of the gaming community and pretty much become a punchline. At one point he even challenged a few of his more fervent critics to boxing matches (he blindsided all of them, as they had no idea he was an amateur boxer).

I consider myself a serious cinephile, and so I know I should despise Boll because he’s amassing money and talent that could be far better used elsewhere (give the guy credit, he’s a decent producer). However, against the odds, my friends and I have become fervent fans of the man we affectionately call Uwe. He may make terrible films, but he’s the king of guilty pleasure; his films are hilarious in ways that Walker, Texas Ranger doesn’t even begin to compare to it.

Take In the Name of King, for example. The beats of the story are okay: A sorcerer joins forces with the king’s evil relative to take over the kingdom and kills the son of an honest farmer in the process. The farmer (who turns out to be more than a farmer) joins the king’s cause to rescue his kidnapped wife and save the kingdom. Throw in some epic battle scenes, a few comic side kicks and some family dynamics and you got yourself a movie. Sounds clich├ęd but not all that terrible, right?

However, Boll couldn’t just make himself a lame, but serviceable, movie. No, Boll had to inexplicably add ninjas, Cirque du Soleil jungle women and a ridiculously cheery score. He had to switch the color saturation midway through for no apparent reason and encourage a multitude of nonsensical editing choices. He had to commission a terrible script with horrible lines like, “Those who you fight, we will help you fight them” and direct every one of his performers to overact to the hilt. But you know what? Boll’s decisions to do these things took a film that could’ve been inane, and made it into an extremely fun experience.

The chief enjoyment in this film derives from the actors giving life to Doug Taylor’s terrible screenplay. With Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Burt Reynolds, Matthew Lillard, Ron Pearlman, Brian J. White, Leelee Sobieski, Claire Forlani and Ray Liotta, the cast sounds solid. Some of them defy the odds, and manage to be just that: Statham (as the farmer called Farmer), Rhys-Davies (as the king’s right-hand mage) and White (as the king’s right-hand commander) all turn in competent work, and manage to not embarrass themselves.

However, everyone else is pretty damn terrible and, thus, enjoyable. Reynolds, who looks totally out of place in the setting and kingly garb, is an utter treat as King Konreid. At one point, upon hearing some mumbo-jumbo from Rhys-Davies, Reynolds hilariously responds with, “What the hell does that mean?” Might as well be a sly statement on half the stuff that happens in the film. Furthermore, Reynolds has what is potentially the funniest deathbed scene in memory, during which he talks about seaweed being good for crops and all sorts of crazy nonsense. It’s truly a sight to behold.

As the evil mage Gallian, Liotta is just as bad. To his credit, he brings intensity to the role, but his scenery chewing and reaction shots are pricelessly bad. The conviction he gives to lines like, “When I am king we won’t have a word for madness. We’ll just call it power,” makes them even loonier.

Lillard plays the conniving Duke Fallow and is also a “standout.” Playing most of his scenes like a drunk, he delivers a ridiculous portrayal that, in fairness, is intentionally meant to cull laughter. His character’s pointlessness (Gallian doesn’t actually need him), which I’m pretty sure is unintentional, does add to the proceedings.

To be fair, this is Boll’s best movie to date, and he could be well on his way to making a mediocre movie, and then, fingers-crossed, a competent one. But for now, I’m happy that he’s churning out the total camp-goodness. D

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aronofsky Ambitiously Adapts Bible Story With "Noah"

Here's a picture of Russell Crowe running from bad guys, because there
aren't any good pictures of rock monsters (this article delves into why).
Darren Aronofsky makes a very particular type of film. The word visionary gets thrown around a lot when describing directors, but with someone like Aronofsky, the designation is warranted. He employs an artistic approach, one that is sometimes opaque, often impressionistic and always overflowing with ideas.

In general, Aronofsky doesn’t build films in predictable ways, concerning himself more with provoking reactions by ambitiously exploring various emotions, themes and concepts than with things like story, character and traditional structure.  He’s not afraid to go big, which is why he does things like include gigantic rock monsters in his adaption of Noah’s Ark.

Yes, you read that right. Noah, Aronofsky’s retelling of the well-known tale from the Book of Genesis, has rock monsters. I know it sounds ridiculous, and initially it certainly plays that way, but it actually has a way of making the story more plausible. At least, it helps explain how Noah (Russell Crowe) and his small family could build such a gigantic ark – when you’ve got a bunch of rock monsters to do most of the labor, it’s not so impossible. And really, if you’re willing to make the giant leap of believing in God, it’s just a small step to buy into the notion of fallen angels turned to rock as punishment for attempting to help humans after they were cast out of the garden.

That’s the thing about Aronofsky – at their most bizarre, his films are unexpectedly penetrable – even when he’s jumping down rabbit holes, he’s guiding us along readily, not leaving us in the dust and challenging us to catch up the way someone like Shane Carruth does with something like Upstream Color (which I reviewed here).

Honestly, the rock monsters aren’t the most surprising part of the film. Instead, I’d point to the reimagining of Noah as a stubborn and self-righteous brute who deems humanity unworthy of a second chance but is then tormented by survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the storm. He condemns his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) to a life of loneliness when he does not help him to bring a woman onto the Ark and threatens to kill the child of his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) if the baby is a girl since that would allow the possibility of repopulation. Like the rock monsters, this interpretation has biblical precedence, but it does clash strongly with the pious interpretation of Noah most are familiar with. It plays like a critique on modern day religious zealots, but it also humanizes the story, exploring the toll such a horrible task would take on even the most decent of men.

For the latter half of the film, Noah is very Jack Torrance-like, but early on, he’s portrayed as the one upstanding and honorable man in the world. He comes from the line of Seth, while the vast majority of humanity comes from the line of Cain, who killed their brother Abel. Although Noah is a vegetarian who forages only for what his family needs to survive, the descendants of Cain are meat-eaters who have destroyed the land with industrialism. And thus it is clear – Noah was the first environmentalist.

At one point, Noah tells his family the creation story – it’s a beautifully realized scene that visually combines creationism with evolution. In so doing, he indicates that when the creator looked out at what he had done, he saw that it was good and made man in his image to protect the world. However, the film’s antagonist Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) tells a different version of the story. In his version, the creator looked out at what he had done, felt something was missing, and so he made man in his image to hold dominion over the world.
There’s a clear distinction there, and Tubal-cain raises a worthwhile objection to the idea of saving mere animals while leaving woman and children to die. Unfortunately, he’s broadly drawn and undeniably evil, so his viewpoint isn’t given the fair shake it might’ve been given with a slightly less barbaric approach. I think the film is aiming for us to see a middle ground – to disagree with the wasteful and destructive ways of Tubal-cain and his kind but to be wary of the radicalism that Noah descends into – but it gets muddied a bit given the lack of nuance from the villain.
Noah is a very easy film to laugh off or laugh at. Ham could be dismissed as a pouty horn dog out for a piece of ass, the Lord of the Rings style battle scenes could easily distract, and I mean, come on, rock monsters. Oh, and I can’t forget about Tubal-cain randomly grabbing live animals and taking a bite (putting that appendix to use I guess) and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, a guy with super powers who just wants to eat berries. And did I mention the rock monsters?
However, there’s a clear effort to engage the material here, and Russell Crowe is more than up to the task of portraying the various shades of this complex and flawed Noah. The story of Noah’s Ark is so well established at this point that it barely has any impact for modern audiences – but somehow Aronofsky has adapted it in such a way that it actually registers. He digs deep to deliver a film that makes you think and makes you feel.
That’s pretty impressive. Even when the film seems a bit bloated, the CGI overwhelms the story and the script doesn’t live up to its ambition, Aronofsky is still doing his thing, provoking reactions with a big approach to big ideas. Sometimes this works like gangbusters (Black Swan), and other times, it’s a bit less successful (The Fountain). Either way, it’s always interesting, as it is here with Noah, and I’ll take that any day of the week in lieu of a more traditional, snore-worthy adaptation. B