by Philip Price
Anton Corbijn's “A Most Wanted Man” is one of those movies I can appreciate, but will likely never have the desire to sit through again. Funny enough, you could say the same of his previous film, “The American,” which was my introduction to the filmmaker. “The American” was a surprisingly restrained film in almost every aspect of its being - from the images we saw, the music that complimented them and on to the central performance from George Clooney. In many ways it was a break into the studio system for Corbijn while showing the suits he very much had his own way of telling a story. If “A Most Wanted Man” does anything with this kind of power it actually plays more in tune with what we have grown accustomed to in the genre of spy thrillers while still keeping the pacing at a slow boil and the action to a minimum. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course, especially when you have the source material of John le Carré to work with and as well pedigreed a cast as is on display here. By virtue of its cast and credentials alone this would strike most as an interesting film, but as a mature audience you come to actually appreciate the film for the line of thinking it promotes. It is a slow, methodical film that deals as much in the details of its plot as it represents the perceived perception of man in his many different incarnations. This theme, while heavily influenced by the title, is demonstrated in Corbijn's film by how individuals may be portrayed in certain circles as perfectly respectable, harmless even yet in others are wanted for possible terror motives. Obviously, the film depicts an extreme case of this nature, but it still conveys the necessary needs to see the bigger picture and describes how recognizing the smaller aspects might compliment said bigger picture rather than going bullet by bullet and crossing them off. It is an intriguing approach and one that makes you consider the nature of absolutes while never painting any of its multiple characters as necessarily bad or evil, but simply as people trying to do a job and come off as successful as possible. It is impossible to facilitate a fair and unbiased opinion in every situation, but the film’s characters strive for this ideal in each of their actions.
In the beginning a man climbs out of the ocean and onto a port in Hamburg. From here we see his story begin to unfold. There are spies, more specifically there is Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team that includes Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullmann). They are the team that is resorted to when the German government needs something done that isn't necessarily legal within German law. They are after a man named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who is a well-renowned Muslim speaker. Maximilian notices the man who emerges from the water as he scours the video surveillance around Hamburg allowing Bachmann and his team to zero in on this half-Chechen, half-Russian refugee and see if his new presence in their city might be of suspect. The powers that be who are running the German government and who deal in press releases are eager for Bachmann and his crew to take down this suspicious individual so that they may be patted on the back for doing their job effectively, but Bachmann is more interested in how this man, clearly hoping to integrate himself into Hamburg's Islamic community, might aid him in capturing the bigger fish. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is seeking refuge in the humble hopes of starting a new life and separating himself from the divides that destroy his country and the stigmas that surround his people. Karpov came to Hamburg in order to cash out some of the money his father left him and disappear into anonymity, though he struggles with the fact his father was a tyrant and dishonorable man and the money he'd be taking would indeed have blood on it. He finds asylum and is then put in contact with humanitarian lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) who assists him in contacting banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Unbeknownst to Issa both Annabel and Tommy begin working with Bachmann in order to protect their client in hopes that Issa will be a successful pawn in bringing about proof that Abdullah is funding terrorism.
Naturally, there is a certain level of interest around this film due to the fact it will be the last big screen appearance in a leading role by Hoffman. It is somewhat disconcerting to see the late actor smoking and drinking in almost every scene to the point his disheveled character clearly doesn't have a regard for his appearance anymore, but has devoted himself wholly to the task at hand. That said, if this were a Hoffman performance under normal circumstances he would be praised for integrating these small details into the character that develop the story beneath the surface without delivering it within the narrative. With his look and mannerisms alone Hoffman inspires high-minded conversation and this type of facade only does more to push forth the type of man his character is. Bachmann is a man searching for reason in the world and hoping to aid in striking a balance. The unfortunate side is that of course this can be an unreasonable and cruel society that is grounded on the importance of the individual and not the true improvement of the quality of life or to make the world a better place, as Bachmann so coyly returns the justification of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), the face of the Americans here, for reason as to why all the damage they cause and leave in their path makes their actions worth it. It is through Hoffman's character that we feel the labor of orchestration it takes to connect the dots that might eventually lead us to his larger goal, while the pressure is on in the form of time constraints who don't care for the patience of espionage or that some factors will rely solely on chance. Hoffman carries the film with a sluggish demeanor, his face constantly hanging, sulking through his accent, but he carries the film nonetheless. Of the other high profile names here McAdams is given the most to do and handles it (especially the accent) with much better care than expected. Both Wright and Dafoe are given little to do outside of playing archetypes though Dafoe is strangely engaging in his short scenes while it is unknowns Dorbrygin and Mehdi Dehbi as Jamal that deliver strong showings as the more complex characters in play. Daniel Brühl also shows up for a few moments, but is given nothing to do which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just slightly odd.
If the two films of Corbijn's that I've seen so far are any indication it is clear the director has a very cold and precise style about him. Both this and “The American” possess an almost stale or dated aesthetic that places them not only in a world of their own, but gives the kind of detached feeling one must have to operate in the field the film is documenting. It is clearly a choice that allows the audience not to get caught up in the look or style of the film (yet in doing this the film ultimately has style), but instead it’s straight-forward and rather plain approach mimics the qualities of the personas our characters put upon the world. This slightly under-the-radar style also helps to compliment the way in which our characters choose to operate as opposed to what we might typically think of when someone classifies a film as a spy thriller. “A Most Wanted Man” is sly and smooth in its execution and effectively demonstrates how the powers of strategy and intelligence can be granted submission. This is, of course, until the outliers have run out of patience and resort to more blunt methods of getting what they want in which we come to hate them for backhanding our protagonist. It is to the films credit that we indeed become caught up in the tension that is held in a pen and not in a gun, but it is also clearly making a statement about the over-eagerness of those in charge of public relations who need instant gratification rather than a more satisfying and effective payoff that might come given more time. The film is engaging due to the process these characters take on and live their lives by while, as I said earlier, never simply "hunting the bad guy" in typical fashion but rather truly hoping they are good people and people who they will not have to bring in. Sure, I imagine it can only be gratifying when someone you've been watching for months or even years allows themselves to be caught, but it might almost be more so were they never able to find any concrete proof the person had negative intentions-it would help in making the world a better place much easier it seems. It is in these pockets of insight that we understand many of these people are in situations out of their depth, but never digging for something that isn't there and reaching for the highest form of truth is an action to commended in an age of spies, terrorists and secret organizations.
by Philip Price
It's somewhat disappointing this is going to likely end up as a one off. As a kid, I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as I suspect most did who will be writing reviews of this latest incarnation and were born between 1980 and 1993. We identified with one of the personalities, we latched onto one of the colors and had to have everything in that hue while collecting all of the action figures and devouring the animated series and Jim Henson movies. For me,TMNT were the definitive super heroes, the pre-cursor to Power Rangers that grew to be a place of nostalgia where one could always retreat and find comfort in something as discomforting as green ooze. I can even remember becoming excited for the post-Power Rangers attempt to rejuvenate the series with The Next Mutation, but I felt the same way as it seemed most did as the series only lasted one season. I grew up, things changed and I didn't hear from the Turtles for a period of time. It seems though that Nickelodeon is trying to capitalize on their recently purchased rights of the Mirage Studio characters as they have a new CGI animated TV series airing and have partnered with a few other studios to bring the heroes in a half-shell back to the big screen once again. It always felt like an inevitability that the Turtles would one day return in the form of a feature film (2007'sTMNT certainly didn't do anything for me), but I never had much ambition for what it could be or what direction it might go given the advancements in technology and the touchstones the early 90's films have become. It seems breaking that stigma has refused to give in as the press surrounding this latest live-action movie hasn't been the best. With each film I try to walk in with an open-mind and sense of optimism though (it's what I like to think keeps me distanced from the jaded critics who allow the amount of movies they see to change the perspective of how mainstream audiences might receive a film) and when it comes to something with as ridiculous a premise as turtles who are not only teenagers, but mutants and ninjas fighting a guy who now looks like a transformer you can only hope the filmmakers realize what they have for what it is. For me, Jonathan Liebesman's film is exactly that while doing its best to incorporate the look and feel of what super hero movies have become in this day and age.
I won't defend the movie by saying I had high hopes for it going in because even as casting announcements were made and production began I was convinced this was a back-burner type project in which the studios figured they could cash-in on without putting much thought into. Naturally, I was hoping I was wrong, but Megan Fox as April O'Neil in a Michael Bay produced film based on another iconic 80's brand? Seemed to scream a prime example of stunt casting. Not to mention the whole turtles as aliens idea that circled for a bit before Bay's Platinum Dunes shut down those rumors with clarification they wouldn't be ruining anyones childhood didn't bode well. When it comes to the final product though, things are much more in tune with what I remember from my adolescence than I could have imagined. Sure, I guess there was some level of expectation here in that it was low due to the fact it stars Fox (though I like to believe she's a good actress who just sells herself on her looks in parts she knows teenage boys will see) and that the turtles would be more special effect than living, breathing characters, but hey, at least hard-core fans will be happy to know William Fichtner (who can usually play a good villain, but is given nothing to work with here) simply plays the middle man between the foot clan and the big bad instead of having to yell racism. Sure, I was hoping this might turn out to prove the naysayers wrong, but somehow had to really believe it would end up being a mess of a movie that would now be laughed at by tweenagers for having a talking sensei rat teach four teenage turtles ninjutsu. After all, numbers don't lie and the fact 55% of Guardians of the Galaxy's audience last weekend was over the age of 25 seems to advocate the fact Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't necessarily making any new fans off this excursion. I couldn't tell you if the new animated series is any good as I haven't watched Nickelodeon in years, but if it has pulled in any of the younger audience the studios co-producing this thing can only hope their nostalgic parents decide to take a trip to the movies this weekend.
Enough talk about the politics surrounding this thing (though if you didn't have a context for this film before, I'm glad you do now) so let's get into why I think, for the most part, this film defies those who were determined to hate it from the get-go. First of all the characters are still intact, at least the main four, and the movie knows how to use them without over-using them. In fact, as I left the theater the one thing I wanted more of was the interaction between the brothers. This isn't to say the film focused too much on the human characters and didn't have enough of the titular heroes, but instead that the personalities and relationships between each of them were brought out in a way that was fun to witness and experience first-hand, while the secrecy around them in the movies New York City-setting also adds a veil of shadow to their presence in the film. There is a fair amount of action, including a trip down a snowy slope that, for what my money's worth, is a contender for one of the best sequences of the year so far. Second, there is the actual visual approach to the film. In short, it fits the style of what I remember the turtles being as a child. As of late, I've read that the original comics (which I have no knowledge of) were much darker stories made from the point of satire rather than seriousness, but what I took away from the hit animated series and the first set of live action films was an attitude right in line with Bay's directing style that Liebesman has clearly taken to mimicking here. The design of the turtles is the idea of what these things might look like were they to truly exist in a grounded reality (I realize how ridiculous that sounds), but the quick editing combined with stylized visuals and intent to bring out each of their major personality traits all combine to form a mix of what audiences expect today and the highlights of what we remember from yesterday. And third, Fox isn't that big of a deal which means she isn't a detractor. As per usual, she ends up delivering a passable performance (which might be worth more credit than she'll ever get here) while Will Arnett is only here to provide a little extra comic-relief when Mikey isn't around.
The big detractors from this thing naturally come in the form of story given what is being re-packaged here is the characters that have survived for so long now. It begins when we realize the one too many writers on this project (Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec usually work together while I imagine Evan Daugherty was brought in Damon Lindelof-style) have re-worked the origin story to include April in the development of how these turtles came to be mutants while keeping intact that Splinter (an on-set Danny Woodburn with Tony Shalhoub voicing) raised them and made them ninjas. It all seems a little too similar to the reincarnated Amazing Spider-Manstoryline in which a deceased father figure was in on a secret science experiment that he disagreed with and paid for with his life that has come around to haunt his offspring by their off-chance involvement. Still, I was able to look past these similarities and have a good time with experiencing seeing these childhood favorites on the big screen again. I will admit there was even a fair amount of giddiness in seeing Shredder take the stage again with an appreciation for the films unabashed eagerness to introduce this major villain rather than digging back into the annals of TMNT history to find some obscure bad guy that might be a prelude to the one we all want to see. What didn't mesh as well is the constant downfall of these types of films and that is the motivation of the bad guy. Fichtner's character Eric Sacks is the deceitful businessman who wants to be both the destroyer and savior of New York City while his mentor and father figure, the more menacing Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), is the source of the science that fuels the turtles and the only cure for the contagion they plan to release upon the city. Power, greed and money-the same ole things fuel the desire of the antagonists actions and results in paper-thin tension when our heroes finally do face their arch-nemesis despite the fact it looks super awesome.
Not much thought might have been put into it, but there is clearly a large amount of sincere effort here. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits the beats, no matter how predictable, and is still able to make them fun and deliver the audience a good-natured and mercifully swift time at the movies. As a fan of the animated series and original films I wasn't greatly offended by anything this new version had to offer other than maybe Johnny Knoxville as Leonardo (Pete Ploszek played him on set). Why they decided to bring in a name for the voice of the leader without doing so for the others seems an odd choice as the other turtles including Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) all have the personas to better fit the voices that come along with them though it is worth noting Leo is the least developed of the four in terms of personality and arc. All in all, this could have been a lot worse and I realize that sounds like an excuse of a criticism to say that it is good, but the fact of the matter is this isn't bad and it isn't great. Liebesman has crafted a paint by the numbers action/comedy that had me laughing at times, involved in the action at others and reminiscing throughout all while viewing through the lens of horrible 3D. Actually, the fact I still enjoyed the film despite this hindrance makes me appreciate it all the more.
by Philip Price
When it comes to biopics of famous musicians they are a tough act to pull off these days. The formula is well known by now: the drive as a young artist, the obtaining of fame, the inevitable fall and the career redemption and life reflection in the final act. We can see the beats coming from a mile away and so it was with caution that I approached the story of James Brown in “Get On Up” from the director of “The Help,” Tate Taylor. While being cautious though it is difficult for me to not get caught up in these types of films and especially this one as I'm a big fan of funk music and was looking forward to how Taylor might encapsulate the full span of a life as tumultuous as Brown's. There was a manic energy to the entertainer that he seemed to carry with him everywhere that he clearly poured into his stage show, a place where he arguably felt more at home than anywhere else. I draw attention to this characteristic because it is an important quality in any entertainer and yet in the majority of these biopics there seems to be little focus on their passion for the music, but rather on the drama of their personal lives. No, this film is being made about this person because they became significant enough in their field for an entire film to be centered around them and so why don't we focus on what pushed them to such significance? With a nickname like "The Hardest Working Man in Showbiz" though it would have been difficult for a James Brown film to avoid the man’s drive and passion which was purely the music and the performance that came along with it. There are scenes wholly dedicated to Brown's interpretation of a rhythm, his thought process on where it could go and his imagining of what he needs to feel in order to get himself and his audience on their feet. It is a testament to screenwriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth as well as director Taylor that they have not delivered a vanilla film in the vein of what we have seen before from this genre, but more something that skips through time highlighting the scope of Brown's varied life in non-linear fashion that culminates in an experience that feels it may actually justify the real man.
We begin in 1988 with the incident of Brown walking into an insurance meeting at a company he owns and firing off a shotgun because someone used his toilet. The film literally starts with a bang. We are then transitioned to the ‘60s as Brown and a reduced number of his band members are flying to Vietnam to put on a show for the troops. More bangs. Things start to quiet down as we move to the late ‘30s in the backwoods of South Carolina where we meet his abusive father (Lennie James) and his mother (Viola Davis) who eventually abandons him. The film keeps with this kind of sporadic structure, if that makes sense, and in many ways is the difference between what could have been a rather boring film and one that takes on the persona of its subject in that it mimics Brown's ever-evolving style and tone. We are taken through to when James' father drops him off with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) who runs a brothel and sells illegal moonshine and has James (referred to as little junior here) dancing at the bus stops where the soldiers dock for the night in attempts to get them to come visit their pretty girls. The next scene might have us front and center with Brown and his Famous Flames as they are demoted from headliner to opening act as a pre-fame Rolling Stones want to close the show and Chadwick Boseman as Brown addresses us directly so we get the sense the stories we are hearing are coming straight from his perspective. The film then cuts back to the late ‘40s as a 17 year-old Brown is put in jail for trying to steal a man’s three-piece suit and might end up with an eight to 16 year sentence for it. While serving his time though he becomes more in tune with gospel music, something he seemingly hasn't been connected with since wondering into the local Baptist church and seeing the preacher "perform" when he was a young boy. Through the music he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis in as affecting a performance as Boseman), an aspiring singer, who convinces his parents to let James move in with them. The core of the film is Brown's drive and the size of his necessary ego to go from where he started to what he became, but the relationships formed between he and Byrd as well as with his long time manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd in a nice nod given it was his idea to include the real Brown in the original “Blues Brothers”) serve as high points that help shape the kind of man and businessman Brown was.
James Brown was known by many names. In this review so far it has been noted that he had at least two different nicknames, but there are plenty more. When he was a teenager in prison he was known as "Musicbox", on the road in the ‘50s he was referred to as "Mr. Dynamite", then came the aforementioned "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" title. He became "Soul Brother No. 1" in the ‘60s for his activism and in the era of disco and the following decade he was referred to as "The Minister of the New Super-Heavy Funk" as his influence became apparent in the hip-hop community eventually leading to the title of the "Godfather of Soul." It is in these titles, these markings that “Get On Up” draws its storytelling flair that categorizes the time periods by the stage of its subject as an entertainer. It is refreshing to not have to witness the aforementioned formula for these types of films in order of how we expect to see them and while the film doesn't spend much time of Brown's drug or tax problems it instead chooses to focus on his work ethic. As I witnessed the film unfold I began to wonder how much Taylor wanted his movie to come across as a piece that idolized the man at the center of it all for the innovations and strides he made not only in the music business, but in the black community or whether he simply felt the need to capture an unadulterated look at who this man was without padding the turbulent and tough times the singer faced. It became clear Brown wanted to be a good person and was always well-intentioned, but that he could be just as tyrannical (his closed rehearsals where he fined members if they messed up, his abuse towards second wife Deedee as played by Jill Scott) as he was generous (handing out money to the community on Christmas, making sure his mother was taken care of despite her abandoning him). Some of the more interesting filmmaking choices on display here result in the answer to my question for Taylor. When he inserts the young actor playing Brown into certain moments such as when he climbs out of his truck in 1988 after a high-speed police chase it gives the audience an insight into the emotions and state of mind the character is in. How much of the film succeeds can certainly be attributed to Boseman's show-stopping performance, but it is little ticks such as this that help with the empathy we feel for Brown.
Speaking of Boseman, it is without a doubt his performance elevates the film from an interesting experiment in editing and performance numbers to something more real and raw. The scene in which Brown performs in Paris with a brand new band after letting his others go if not for a sense of pride or ego, but to teach them a lesson is the epitome of the film and the energy it is able to convey. Taylor flashes back between the performance of Boseman as Brown and a flood of small highlights that have built him to this moment in a way that feels completely organic. The scenes of the aforementioned rehearsals in which Brown became the ultimate perfectionist give way to Boseman constructing songs and rhythms out of nothing-his band members including Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson) and Pee Wee Eliis (Tariq Trotter) being pushed from their conventional thoughts of musicality and into the range of simply what feels good and what sounds right without getting caught up in the technicalities is a wonder to behold. What Boseman is especially good at playing though is the darker side of Brown. When it comes to holding back in front of his older mother after his famed show at the Apollo and breaking down after she exits the emotion is there and we understand what we are supposed to feel, but when true feelings are actually conjured up it is when we see Brown talking with Byrd about why he would try to upstage him. Instead of the film focusing on the many marriages, multiple children or much of the historical context in which Brown's career flourished the film decides to put a good amount of focus on the relationship between Byrd and Brown. After all, if it wasn't for Byrd we may have never come to know Mr. Brown as he is thought of today. In this relationship Byrd was the original one with the ambition, but realized from the moment he met Brown that he could never match his talent and from then on flew under the radar, just on the outskirts of the glow of the headliner yet never managed to falter in his loyalty. So, when Byrd expresses his interest in a solo record and performance the paranoia and distrust that followed Brown his whole life sets in as he can't fathom the thought of someone being better than him. It is here the insight into Brown is most prevalent and Boseman plays these perfectionist, tyrannical, paranoid traits to infuse his stage performances to a point they never feel like imitation, but more second nature to a seasoned pro.
by Julian Spivey
I think everybody loved Robin Williams. At least that’s what I’m seeing from all of the outpouring of sadness and tributes following the breaking news of the Oscar-winning actor’s death from suicide yesterday (August 11). It’s incredibly remarkable, especially in this day and age, for somebody to be nearly universally beloved. That just shows the kind of talent and man that Williams was.
From his very beginnings in Hollywood as alien Mork from Ork on the ABC sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” Williams has brought the world to tears numerous times through laughter, and more than once through his terrific dramatic acting in more serious fare like “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” the film that won him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1998.
Williams would also be nominated three times for the Best Actor Oscar, win four Golden Globes, two Emmys, two Screen Actors Guild awards and five Grammy awards for his comedy albums.
While Williams is no doubt one of the greatest and most successful stand-up comedians of all-time what he will likely be most remembered and known for is his terrific output of films from the early ‘80s throughout the ‘90s.
Films like “Dead Poets Society,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Aladdin,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Patch Adams” and countless others have no doubt left an indelible mark on filmgoers over the years, as represented by the frequency of their mentions in the hours following Williams’ death. At one point about two hours after news of his tragic passing broke every single trending topic on Twitter was either a title of a film he was in or related to the actor/comedian in some way.
My personal favorite Williams’ performance is that of Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The performance is the first that earned Williams an Academy Award nomination and is the absolute perfect mixture of comedic and dramatic acting that few but Williams could muster. The character’s manic rebelliousness, which describes Williams’ himself, just drew me in and spoke to me and numerous others.
Another thing that I always loved about Williams was his frequent appearances on late night television shows like “Late Show with David Letterman” were he would absolutely take over an interview with his rapid-fire manic improvisations and impersonations. In fact, Williams might have been the funniest guest on late night television, but that’s not really saying a whole lot as he might have been the funniest man in Hollywood.
I hate that Williams didn’t find much success after the dawn of the new millennium, being forced into family-type movies and other vehicles that were frankly beneath him. I’d hoped that he’d find a new start in the recent CBS sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” which was good, but unfortunately seen by few leading to its cancellation this past spring. Williams’ performances and mix of comedy/drama proved that he could’ve done anything and it’s a surprise to me that he didn’t/couldn’t find roles to suit this unique talent. His health issues like emergency open heart surgery in 2009 could’ve played a part in this.
The way that Williams died in taking his life after reportedly dealing with terrible depression is one that is hard for many of us fans to digest. Not necessarily because it’s hard to imagine a celebrity wanting to end his life, but because it’s hard for us to deal with the thought that a man who did nothing in his life but provide us with absolute joy could have felt so much pain and torment.
As previously mentioned, Williams was one of the few actors who could just as easily leave you in tears from his comedy as he did his dramatic acting. Sadly, once again he leaves us in tears, but this time they aren’t tears brought on by his timeless art, but his untimely, tragic death.
We will always remember Williams for the crazy amounts of joy he gave us and I’d like to end with a fantastic quote from this genius of a man: “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
by Philip Price
In the late summer of 2006 a friend and I went unsuspecting into our local dollar theater to see a few movies we'd missed earlier that year. One we had no idea of what we were getting into, but were interested in due to the fact it featured Elizabeth Banks in a starring role was “Slither.” It was one of those experiences you walk away from as a nineteen year-old kid and wonder what the hell you just watched. At that age everything needs to fit squarely into a category, it has to have some semblance of order for you to think it is acceptable in the adult world and this was an R-rated horror film so that was what we expected, or at least that is what had been advertised. What “Slither” actually turned out to be was a literal gross-out comedy that played on the several homages it contained to horror films of days past and was more in the vein of “Evil Dead” than anything else. I say all of this not only to reference my introduction to the work of director James Gunn, but more to put into context the kind of non-expectations I'd set for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I didn't want to know what to expect, I didn't want to understand the universe and I certainly didn't want to have any preconceptions about who these characters were given their ridiculous appearance. I'd walked into Gunn's strikingly strange Slither with zero expectation and walked out fully appreciating it for its wackiness and ability to transcend genres while clearly doing whatever it wanted. I hoped for the same thing from ‘Guardians’ despite the fact Gunn had submitted himself to the powers that be at Marvel. I don't look at Marvel as this monster who assumes creative control and only hires directors willing to do their bidding because it is clear they have a plan for where they want all of this to go and they are looking for those willing to work with them on that ultimate goal, which anyone should be able to appreciate. What I do worry about with each Marvel film is the lack of any original voice coming through in conveying these necessary stories. The stories can be cohesive without the tone or style being the same and while the earth-bound Avengers began to feel more serialized in phase two, ‘Guardians’ is able to break that mold not only by taking place in the cosmos but by brimming with creativity in every scene of its execution.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” doesn't spend much time on earth, but it does open here on a young Peter Quill in 1988 as he watches his mother (Laura Haddock) slowly slipping away from cancer. In a moment of extreme emotional stress the young boy runs outside and into a foggy open field just outside the hospital where a large space craft appears above him and sucks him up through a portal of light and vanishes into what we assume are the deepest reaches of space. Cut to 26 years later and we are indeed on a ruined planet in deep space where an adult Quill (Chris Pratt) is searching for an orb that seems to be highly sought after. Just as he is set to retrieve the object he is ambushed by Korath (Djimon Honsou) and his small army who attempt to steal the orb from him. We are tossed into these worlds without any real knowledge of what is going on or what the motives are of these characters or what side of the line they fall on, but we are intrigued regardless because of the tone Gunn spreads over the proceedings. As Quill (who likes to call himself Star-Lord) journeys through the remains of the structure that holds this coveted orb he dances to Redbone's 1974 hit "Come and Get Your Love" while using an alien reptilian creature as his microphone. If this doesn't set a playful tone I don't know what would plus Gunn chooses this mood and setting to display his title card, so the implied style and tone is enhanced all the more.
After escaping from Korath Quill heads to the planet Xandar where he plans to sell the orb for a nice price, but somewhere else in the galaxy Korath's leader, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), has a different idea. Ronan is pissed about some peace treaty being signed between his people and the sector that contains Xandar and so he intends to destroy the planet while retrieving the orb for his boss, Thanos (the guy from the end of The Avengers who we've been hearing so much about, but finally catch a glimpse of here as voiced by Josh Brolin). In an attempt to get the orb Ronan initially wants to send Thanos' daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) to retrieve it, but Thanos' foster daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) insists she take the mission. Getting the orb back means hunting down Peter Quill and so Gamora heads to Xandar while two bounty hunters, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) the brains and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) the muscle, want to capture Quill for their own purposes after a price is put on his head by Youndu (Michael Rooker) the alien who originally took Quill from earth and wanted the orb for himself. Quill was supposed to return it to Yondu after he retrieved it, but he may be trying to get the full profits from it for himself. The convergence of Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot in the same area on Xandar is cause for quite a riot that lands them under arrest by the Nova Corps operation (headed by Glenn Close as Nova Prime and featuring John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz as cronies) and places them in prison where they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Without telling anymore of the story let it simply be known it is one of the few aspects that pulls the quality of the film down. Becoming slightly convoluted in the middle with an unnecessary trip to Knowhere that involves The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) that feels more a device to speed along the unavoidable events we know are coming and to include details and locations for later installments.
We can look at the story hiccups as only slight distractions though for the truly shining moments in “Guardians of the Galaxy” are those that are devoted to helping audiences get to know this rag-tag team. As the leader and main protagonist of the story Chris Pratt carries the film with ease. It is a role and a film that will catapult him to mainstream fame (with his voice in “The LEGO Movie” only becoming more recognizable and “Jurassic World” next year only adding to his mass appeal). As Peter Quill aka Star-Lord Pratt takes the fearless leader role and smacks it with a sense of humble narcissism. He isn't anywhere near the level of Tony Stark, but more someone who thinks highly of himself in his own mind yet is somewhat timid to make great claims to those around him lest he actually end up failing or not being as good as he thought he was. That Pratt's delivery and persona make us believe him screwing up is an actual possibility makes the overall effect of the film more interesting and ups the stakes. Gamora is widely considered a deadly assassin, but her allegiance to Thanos is what she seems to first be known for despite that title being inaccurate. As the deadliest woman in the galaxy Saldana comes away with the kind of intimidation factor needed to earn such a title. As we've seen in her roles in “Star Trek,” “Avatar” and even “Colombiana” she has the confidence and swagger to become a substantial force, but with so many other characters floating around here and with no particular characteristics Gamora is the one who suffers from not standing out as much. As expected, Groot and Rocket steal much of the show as Groot is purely a lovable presence who has the ability to do some serious damage while Rocket is a smart ass genius in many respects who Gunn's brother Sean (who also plays one of Yondu's cronies) portrayed on set and Cooper lathers with charisma in his voice work. In all honesty, Diesel couldn't do much as he only says three words with different inflections each time, but he will clearly get more credit as Groot will truly be the breakout character of the piece. As for Bautista, in his first major big screen appearance he is better than I expected and is boasted by a certain characteristic that inherently gets him more laughs by being able to play it straight.
It is the chemistry between the team and the naturalistic way in which they are brought together that shines through the difficult loops the story sometimes has to jump through. With a team-type film it is always difficult to make sure each member gets their due and at a strict two hours ‘Guardians’ is sure not to wear out its welcome, but is somehow able to give the core team their time to shine. In fact it was almost oddly fascinating how late Bautista's Drax was brought into the fold and yet was still able to make as much of an impression as he does. His initial contributions are purely selfish in that he wants revenge for the death of his wife and daughter whom Ronan murdered, but even the arc in which he comes to think of his new found comrades as true friends is well conveyed in the way he, along with Quill and Rocket, handle each situation they come to face where they don't always agree. This is true with each of our main characters though in that they are all in it for personal gain to begin with, causing internal fights and different points of view that divide and at the same time sustain the partnership through to the end. They are each honest with one another in a way where we understand each of their individual goals and they are completely open about them making the rapport and the attraction between the members mutual while consistently entertaining. The caveats of relationships formed between Groot and Drax or Quill and Rocket, the romantic angle between Quill and Gamora, the hesitance to understanding between Drax and Gamora and of course the already established brotherhood between Groot and Rocket are all elements that heighten the chemistry and bring us into a group we enjoy being a part of.
Beyond the relationships and in fact what helps compliment this ridiculous group of rag-tag thieves, assassins and bounty hunters more than anything in the film is the titular galaxy that more or less grounds them in believability. I realize that may sound a little "out-there" considering the host of names I've already mentioned that sound extremely dorky whether they be for characters or planets, but it is true because these worlds feel authentic in the setting they are given and so we buy into the fantastical components of it all. It is the little things, the things we might typically take for granted in a film like this that really stand out such as the character design, the difference in each of the worlds and more impressively the technology that rises above typical laser guns and lightsabers. While I understand these characters and worlds were taken from the comic and the costume and set designers weren't exactly being innovative here, they simply look fantastic on screen and that doesn't seem an easy task to always pull off. As Ronan, Lee Pace may come off as a Loki redux, but his appearance is inherently ugly (in a good way) and extremely intimidating. Gamora and Nebula both come off as credible alien beings rather than humans under heavy make-up and Del Toro (who really is criminally underused) is surrounded by a world all his own that feels enormous and which we only get a peek of. Even the technology in terms of the design of the Nova Corps ships and how they operate and function together to form a barrier between Ronan's ship and Xandar is aesthetically pleasing on a level we haven't seen recently while the execution of Yondu's favorite weapon is harnessed in exceptionally creative avenues that not only feel original, but truly threatening.
Of the few downfalls in the film is also the fact Gunn isn't necessarily an action director and in the scenes where there is hand to hand combat this shows in some major ways. Bautista is obviously a seasoned pro in fighting with his fists, but his talents here are undermined by the shaky-cam used to capture a fair amount of these fighting scenes while the mid-air battles among the clouds and stars are beauties to behold (especially on IMAX 3D). What gives Gunn a pass on these hand to hand combat action sequences are the fact there aren't many of them which in turn is refreshing due to the genre the film falls into. In a film that is so much fun though these complaints feel minor. ‘Guardians’ is surprisingly earnest when hitting the required beats of the story without ever feeling like it is flippant about the content and that is refreshing in a way that it isn't self-aware. I realize I've used the word refreshing a few times throughout this review, but it seems the perfect adjective to describe the noun that is fun which perfectly identifies what this thing is. Whether it be Groot getting his Hulk moment, Rocket executing his escape plan, Quill dancing around wearing his Walkman or Drax and Gamora kicking ass and taking names there is something to sit back and smile about while watching “Guardians of the Galaxy” and what more could you want from a summer blockbuster than it leaving a big, cheesy smile on your face?