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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) reviewed

Filed Under ( ) by Andrei S. on Monday, 1 September 2014

Posted at : 4:06 pm
Thoughts? 

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” – Helen Keller


9/10

As James Gunn began paving a way for himself in the American moviemaking industry he brought a loveable kind of weirdness along for the ride. His feature-length directorial debut Slither, a seemingly standard horror fare by all accounts, exhibited a rare B-movie charm doused in alluring oddity almost a decade ago. The follow-up Super was downright transgressive in its content, but Gunn injected it with a similar brand of black humour found in his previous work, not to mention cranking the strangeness up to eleven with apocalyptic dream sequences and an otherworldly visual flair. The man then got himself a gig at Marvel Studios, and expectations were quite literally of galactic proportions. But with the transition to greener pastures often comes a loss of identity in this business. The James Gunn signature could well be lost amidst the butting of heads with industry higher-ups, in which case Guardians of the Galaxy would end up feeling as empty as some of its outer space panoramas.

The film is thankfully nothing of the sort. Guardians of the Galaxy is teeming with life, from colourful characters and lively humour to eye-catching scenery and blast-from-the-past music. Gunn’s mark is also present; there is an outlandish quality to the film which should not come as a surprise to those versed in the relevant section of Marvel Comics, but which is extended beyond the source material, as if to accommodate Gunn’s sensibilities as a director. The bouts of jovial violence and the distinct blend of comedy and drama are unmistakeably auteurist—Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a James Gunn vehicle. It is also a rather unique superhero movie as a result, particularly amongst the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. ‘Look at me,’ the film seems to declare, ‘I’m special.’ And it is.

Buffed up Chris Pratt plays ‘Terran’ Peter Quill, who is abducted from Earth as a child and raised amongst a group of intergalactic mercenaries. Twenty-six later he’s all grown up into a swashbuckling space rogue akin to Han Solo and Firefly’s Mal Reynolds, and now traverses the galaxy under the moniker of Star-Lord. A scavenger job gone awry leaves Quill in the possession of a mysterious orb sought after by Kree fanatic Ronan the Accuser and Thanos, the Mad Titan. To stop the orb from falling into the wrong hands, he teams up with four undesirables much like himself who all share a common goal.


This ragtag bunch of misfits stands at the heart of Guardians of the Galaxy. Aside from Star-Lord, there’s the deadly and beautiful Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos and infamous across the galaxy for her deeds as an assassin. Then there’s Rocket, a walking, talking racoon thanks to some genetic engineering and cybernetic implants, and his companion Groot, a living, breathing tree whose speech is limited to the sentence ‘I am Groot.’ Last is Drax the Destroyer, a warrior hell-bent on avenging his family’s death at the hands of Ronan. They are, of course, the eponymous guardians; or, rather, they will come to fill those shoes over the course of the film.

If it all sounds a little convoluted, that’s because it is. The source material is vast in scope, featuring a myriad of alien races and worlds spread across galaxies, and there is no easy way of packing all of it into a two-hour feature film. Guardians of the Galaxy is therefore a tad difficult to keep up with at times, and yet it maintains an enthusiastic grip on its audience throughout. The fact that James Gunn manages to cram a staggering amount of exposition into his project without losing sight of everything else is a testament to his abilities as a director, the writing for the movie, and the tight editing job. It all comes together nicely, and amidst visceral action setpieces, the bombardment of slapstick and witticisms, and the splash of colour on-screen surprisingly little is lost as the film advances at lightning speed, and certainly nothing that will not be stumbled upon during repeat viewings.


In Guardians of the Galaxy it is the characters who reign supreme while the plot takes a back seat. Although Joss Whedon’s ability to impart screen time evenly amongst the star-studded cast of The Avengers was a formidable achievement, he had movies upon movies of previous character development to draw from. James Gunn does him one better in that regard as he accomplishes the monumental task of introducing a colourful, bulky assortment of characters while also offering each of them a moment or two in the spotlight. The five titular heroes all shine in equal measure, from main protagonist Peter Quill to the mammalian and botanical members Rocket and Groot. Gamora arguably gets the short straw as she is occasionally required to play the straight man—or woman, rather—amidst the barrel of fun that are her fellow squad mates, yet put her in a different movie and that movie will be the better for having her around. There is definitely a sense of competition between the Guardians, but only because every one of them is exceptional in their own right.

This is owed in part to the excellent casting of these characters. Chris Pratt could not have been more adequate for the leading role. He handles the dramatic moments as well as he does the comedic ones—at times he is snarky, at other times he is charming, and then sometimes he is also perfectly goofy. Zoe Saldana embodies the green-skinned Gamora with the same conviction found in her role as the blue Neytiri for James Cameron’s Avatar, though with the aid of make-up rather than motion capture this time around. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel lend their voices for Rocket and Groot respectively, and while it’s hard to commend Diesel for uttering a single line repeatedly and throwing in a grunt every now and again, he certainly seems to make the most out of his minimal role. Cooper on the other hand gets plenty to work with and is a delight to listen to as the fast-talking, wisecracking Rocket. However, it is wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer who is the biggest surprise out of the lot. Drax himself turned out to be a far more interesting and funny character than what all the previews and trailers suggested, and Bautista handles the role with some impressive comedy chops and—whenever the scene calls for it—a menacing countenance.


The side characters are not to be trifled with, either. Take Quill’s marauding boss Yondu Udonta, for example. A remarkable antihero, Yondu opposes the would-be galactic saviours at certain points while elsewhere he provides comic relief or disposes of some of the baddies himself—all in the guise of none other than Michael Rooker. Then you have John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz portraying members of the Nova Corps, and Benicio Del Toro who reprises his role as the Collector. Somehow James Gunn finds the time for them as well, and as a result the film is packed with a variety of different characters—major and minor—who contribute to the comedy and generate drama in their own unique ways. There seems to be enough for everybody to go around.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. Guardians of the Galaxy finds itself lacking in the villain department. Lee Pace stars as Ronan the Accuser, the primary antagonist, but his character’s grave demeanour and limited screen time force Pace into a one-note role. Ronan is simply too serious to be taken seriously, as contradicting as it may sound. His sidekick Nebula almost suffers the same fate, but her relationship to her sister Gamora, exquisite costume and make-up design, and Karen Gillan’s own performance in the role keep her an intriguing counterpoint to the otherwise merry selection of characters inhabiting the screen. Djimon Hounsou also shows up as a supporting bad guy, but is similarly wasted as his character is reduced to little more than helping Star-Lord make a spectacular introduction.


And what an introduction it is—dancing away amongst the ruins of a desolate planet while Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’ blasts through a pair of 1980s headphones. That’s the kind of movie Guardians of the Galaxy is. It embraces its wacky nature to the fullest and wears its quirks on its sleeve. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of 70s and 80s tunes as well, peppering the film with an idiosyncratic soundscape where retro music and the noise of energy weapons unloading and spaceship engines firing up come together in a sort of backwards harmony. The score also comes through quite well—it’s the best one for a Marvel Studios production since The Avengers—thanks to composer Tyler Bates, whose collaboration with Gunn dates back to the director’s early work.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a one-of-a-kind comic book adaptation. It’s a Marvel Studios bet that has paid off immensely, expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond its earthbound roots and into a world of possibilities. It’s a directorial effort that propels James Gunn to the top of the American film industry food chain—and deservedly so. It’s a movie which proves that the unconventional can sometimes be as exciting and appealing as anything else. It’s a labour of love despite the payload attached to this type of project. It’s so much more than what it should have been, and its shortcomings pale in comparison to all that it achieves. Guardians of the Galaxy is a soaring success and without a doubt the film of the summer.

Weekly Updates #239 (18.8.2014 - 24.8.2014)

Filed Under ( ) by Andrei S. on Sunday, 31 August 2014

Posted at : 7:06 pm
Thoughts? 

This week’s update comes in a tad late, but that’s because I have also been working on something other than these numerous, seemingly endless Weekly Updates. Keep an eye on the blog over the next few days if you’re interested in reading more about the movie below.

Tuesday

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - 9/10
I’ve gone to see Guardians of the Galaxy twice in the cinema over the past week and I rarely partake in repeat viewings unless the movie in question is special in some way. Guardians of the Galaxy is just that good. James Gunn always struck me as an intriguing director, and even his sophomore effort Super, a film which I can’t say I found particularly good, had a fascinating vibe to it. It seems that Guardians of the Galaxy was the truly a perfect match for Gunn, who manages to inject his trademark wackiness into the Marvel blockbuster without losing the target audience in the process. It’s a smart film, an extremely fun one as well, and it’s also filled to the brim with loveable comedy. Chris Pratt exudes screen presence and is instantly likeable in the leading role. His co-stars Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, and many others make for an astounding cast and a thoroughly well-acted movie. The visual style of the film is remarkable thanks to impressive CGI—a rare breed nowadays—and outstanding costume and make-up design. The music is an absolute delight and a pleasant throwback thanks to an excellent selection of retro tracks, and the score is the best one for a Marvel Studios production since The Avengers. There is so much to love about Guardians of the Galaxy and I am eagerly anticipating its Blu-ray release so that I may go through it once again. I also have a proper review for the film looming on the horizon and I will hopefully have that up on the blog in few days’ time.

Weekly Updates #238 (11.8.2014 - 17.8.2014)

Filed Under ( ) by Andrei S. on Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Posted at : 2:38 am
Thoughts? 

This has been a rather hectic week by my more recent standards, but I have to say that I quite enjoyed myself. I got through a hefty amount of films from 2011, and I suspect that one or two more weeks like this one and I will finally be able to attend to my list of the best films of the year. Better late than never, eh?

Tuesday

The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) - 3/10
I thought it would be a good idea to check out The Inbetweeners Movie, a film which many see as Britain’s attempt to compete with the likes of the American Pie series and similar teen comedies from across the Atlantic. While I don’t normally seek out these kinds of movies—certainly not as I would have done back when I was still part of the target demographic—the reception for The Inbetweeners Movie was positive enough that the film couldn’t be brushed off as just another entry in the ever-expanding list of uninspired genre exercises. And so I like to think that I went into this promising teen comedy with an open mind, hoping that it would turn out to be something a worthwhile experience. I was proven bitterly wrong. The Inbetweeners Movie is an absolute cesspool of a film—easily one of the worst things I have seen in a very long time. I am completely baffled that some people actually derived enough pleasure from this to consider it anything close to a good movie. Aside from one or two exceptions, the humour is stupendously immature and downright moronic, the characters are little more than caricatures of the most contemptible kind, and the plot is ridden with clichés and predictable from start to finish. As if all that wasn’t enough, the film reeks of racism and homophobia, and is marked by a sort of casual sexism that is simply beyond the pale in this day and age. If it wasn’t for its budget, which provides the film with competent cinematography, and the cast who seem to be desperately trying to salvage whatever they can from the one-dimensional characters they’ve been assigned to, The Inbetweeners Movie would be an absolutely worthless and trite piece of filmmaking.

Wednesday

The Skin I Live In (2011) - 7/10
The Skin I Live In is a film I put off watching time and time again. Perhaps I had done so instinctively, having pieced together from what little I heard of it that it would not be an easy watch. As I have finally come around to watching it, I can attest that The Skin I Live In is indeed the kind of movie that does not make life easy for its viewer. Brilliantly directed by old-timer Pedro Almodovar and skilfully put together thanks to outstanding editing and well-placed flashbacks, The Skin I Live In hides its darkness behind an impressive façade. It is an incredibly disturbing film, the full extent of which is only revealed well into its running time. Antonio Banderas plays against type here, delivering an utterly chilling performance in the leading role, but the support from Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet is also noteworthy. Cornet struck me as most exceptional, his beautifully nuanced performance leaving a lasting impression on me. The Skin I Live In tells a frightening tale of obsession, sexuality, and lust, and will not be soon forgotten by anyone who partakes in its unfolding. Still, I found myself longing for a more conclusive finale, and wished Almodovar would have done away with the subplot involving a certain man dressed in a tiger outfit.

Thursday

A Better Life (2011) - 7/10
Despite the positive reception that this film has received, I was a little worried going into A Better Life; the reason being that it marks Chris Weitz’s first directorial effort since The Twilight Saga: New Moon—and we all know how that one turned out. Thankfully, A Better Life did indeed prove to be significantly better than the last time Weitz had a go in the director’s chair. There is a moving tale at the heart of A Better Life, and it’s told in a gripping fashion through the relationship between a father and a son. Demian Bichir and Jose Julian fulfil these roles, respectively, and while Julian performs admirably for his age, it is Bichir who steals the show with a rare performance of Oscar-worthy calibre. Los Angeles takes on a melancholy aspect as the film showcases its ugly side and the consequences of illegal immigration. Still, there is something of a jovial facet to A Better Life as father and son wander the streets of L.A. on an adventurous quest, all the while taking in both the good and the bad of what the city has to offer. The film has plenty of heart, even when the writing is lacking, and Bichir manages to elevate the material to something quite special.

Saturday

Perfect Sense (2011) - 6/10
There is an undeniably fascinating what-if scenario at the core of Perfect Sense. The end of world is brought on by people gradually losing each of their senses, in this case. It’s a rather unique approach to the apocalypse in a time when every other film attempts to prophesy the demise of humanity in some way or another. That’s only half of what Perfect Sense is about, though, and therein lies its ultimate fault. Romance is brought into the mix, dominating the plot and reducing the unfolding tragedy to something of a twisted decorum. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green star as the lovers, and while they perform competently and make for a convincing couple, it’s all a bit silly as chaos looms over the streets and people succumb to the mysterious epidemic. Based and shot in and around Glasgow, the locations are well-selected and the photography is occasionally stunning, particularly towards the end when scenes of urban anarchy dominate the screen. There is voice-over narration which tends to devolve into lyrical mumbo jumbo, and is as often heartfelt as it is overbearing. Still, the film ends on a strong note, tugging at the heartstrings as the inevitable finale kicks in. Everything before that is adequate and at times inspired, even, but it’s not enough to turn Perfect Sense into something truly memorable.

Sunday

Sleepless Night (2011) - 8/10
I rounded off the week with a French action movie which I had heard of back in 2011 due to the buzz it garnered at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. The film slipped under the radar not too long after, and nowadays it almost seems to have been completely forgotten. Which is unfortunate, because Sleepless Night is without a doubt one of the best action movies I have seen in recent years. Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of a nightclub, Sleepless Night revolves around the sort of gimmick that many genre films of its kind tend to employ, but which more often than not ends up being nothing more than just that—a mere gimmick. Director Frederic Jardin knows how to put it to good use, however, and the fact that Sleepless Night is something of a single location movie is simply one of its many fascinating aspects rather than the film’s defining feature. The action is visceral, but it occurs in short yet spectacular bursts—Sleepless Night is as much a suspense-laden thriller as it is an exercise in action filmmaking. Twists and turns are abound here, with every new scene seeming to turn the plot on its head thanks to inventive writing. The geography of the film’s limited locations is very well established, and by the end of the movie I had a clear understanding of how the nightclub was structured. As for the characters, many of them display a remarkable complexity for the sort of film they find themselves in, with the protagonist standing out in particular due to his amoral tendencies. Tomer Sisley stars in the role and turns in a first-class performance, not missing a single beat of his character’s sensibilities and actions. I also found Julien Boisselier, Lizzie Brochere, and Samy Seghir noteworthy in their respective supporting roles. Sleepless Night is an excellent movie in so many regards and I feel very lucky to have been able to experience this impressive piece of filmmaking, especially now that a significant time has passed since its release.

Weekly Updates #237 (4.8.2014 - 10.8.2014)

Filed Under ( ) by Andrei S. on Thursday, 14 August 2014

Posted at : 1:08 am
Thoughts? 

My catching up with the year 2011 continues this week with three more films. While I enjoyed them all a good deal, I was sad to find that two of the films were brought down considerably by their shortcomings and as a result would likely not end up featuring in my top list as I had hoped.

Wednesday

Another Earth (2011) - 6/10
Every now and again a low-budget independent comes along and, against all odds, causes more of a stir amongst the film community at large than most high-calibre productions released in the same year. Such was the case with Another Earth in 2011, a film which, after making its rounds at numerous film festivals throughout most of the year, finally saw a wide release in several countries in autumn. It was a film which fascinated me a great deal at the time, having seen a trailer for it, and so I was sure that I would be seeing Another Earth not too long after. Three years later is when I eventually came around to doing so, and though it is unfortunate that it took me this long to watch the movie, I think that with the buzz quieted down I was able to judge it with a more unbiased perspective. Another Earth is indeed a very special film with a moving tale at its core and an unusual premise surrounding it. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and found it to be an extraordinary achievement considering its measly budget. That being said, the film is very much a product of its environment, so to speak. The camera work is lacking, the cinematography is unremarkable, and the acting is often pedestrian. It is not a visually striking film by any means, though impressive shots of the ‘other Earth’ manage to detract from this momentarily. Out of the minimal cast, William Mapother shines as the grief-stricken victim of an accident. Brit Marling is occasionally brilliant in the leading role, but is often overshadowed by the more experienced Mapother. The ending is heartfelt but problematic, but ultimately Another Earth accomplishes what it sets out to do. It is a worthwhile film, but budgetary constraints prevent it from truly excelling.
   
Thursday

Submarine (2011) - 7/10
I had the pleasure of seeing Submarine this week, a quirky little coming-of-age film directed by The IT Crowd alumni Richard Ayoade. Not only did I have a fantastic time watching it, but the movie also turned out to be a very good piece of filmmaking. Populated with eccentric characters in bizarre situations, Submarine is the rare independent that doesn’t simply take its weirdness for granted, instead putting it to good use. It’s a film that’s filled to the brim with deadpan humour and is thoroughly well-written, resulting in an engaging experience with more than a handful of laughs. Craig Roberts is perfectly cast in the leading role and delivers an exceptional performance as the memorable Oliver. Yasmin Paige stars alongside Roberts as the capricious love interest, and plays the part well enough. Veterans Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, and Paddy Considine also show up in various supporting roles, with Considine being given an especially playful role. There’s a lot to like about Submarine, even if its second half doesn’t quite live up to the preceding comedic splendour. I’m of the opinion that the film concludes too abruptly and rather awkwardly, but the finale might well land better with others. Have at it and decide for yourselves.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) - 6/10
I knew very little about The Secret World of Arrietty going into it; so much so, in fact, that it came as a surprise to me when the Studio Ghibli logo popped up during the opening credits. Despite not having any particular expectations, or perhaps precisely because of that reason, the film captured me instantly with its soothing music and eye-catching animation. The Secret World of Arrietty had me in its grip right off the bat, and for the next half hour my eyes were filled with childlike wonder as the story comfortably unfolded and the visuals continued working their magic on me. Sadly, with the coming of its second act the film gave way to a number of different problems. For one, the pace is picked up considerably, and while that might not be a problem in and of itself, most of the worldbuilding is consequently dropped in order to move the plot along. Secondly, the film introduces its antagonist, an utterly one-dimensional villain who possesses the sort of moustache-twirling malice that is completely out of place in the context of the rest of the movie. Another issue is the developing friendship between the two leads, which feels unearned due to the film’s frantic pacing, and loses some of its emotional resonance as a result. The finale is heart-warming, but not to the extent it clearly could have been had the plot not felt like such a race to the finish line. A lot of films are criticised for being overlong, but in the case of The Secret World of Arrietty its running time of an hour and a half feels stupendously insufficient. Still, the animation is delightful and what little substance there is is put to good use.