Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

You’d be forgiven for being pretty skeptical of this latest Marvel entry. After all, it’s not every sci-fi superhero movie that introduces not one, but five new leads, among them a wisecracking raccoon and a talking tree. Moreover, this installment – ostensibly part of the larger Cinematic Universe involving the Avengers – is almost totally devoid of familiar reference points. Earth itself barely appears onscreen.

But oh, what a fantastic adventure “Guardians” is.

It’s hard to find enough positive things to say about this movie. I could say that if you watch only one big-budget blockbuster this summer, this should be the one. I could say that it’s loads better than “The Avengers” or anything else in Marvel’s cinematic stable. I could say that watching it evokes the same sense of wonder, joy and imagination that I felt as a kindergartener watching “Star Wars” for the first time. But instead, I’ll simply say that it’s the best sci-fi film I’ve seen since “Inception.”

When galaxy-hopping adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, bulked up and playing a slightly-more-adult version of Emmet from this year’s “The Lego Movie”) recovers a mysterious relic from a ruined world, he quickly becomes the target of evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and comely assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Unaligned bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper voicing a CGI raccoon) and Groot (Vin Diesel doing mo-cap for a talking tree) soon enter the mix, and are finally joined by the brutish alien warrior Drax (WWE veteran Dave Bautista, delivering a surprisingly strong performance). Oh, and meanwhile, underlying tensions between two celestial empires – the Nova and the Kree – threaten to boil over into all-out galactic war.

If I’d been in the pitch meeting when this was first engineered, I would’ve probably vetoed the idea. It sounds like the stuff of parody, destined to inspire an infinite number of SNL skits. But somehow, director James Gunn – best known for the black comedy “Super” starring Rainn Wilson – pulls off the impossible.

For starters, warmth, humor and exuberance permeate every inch of the film – from the rousing ‘70s-rock soundtrack to quippy pop-culture references that amazingly never feel out of place. Gunn embraces the opposite of the “dark and gritty” phenomenon present in so many comic-book movies today – “Guardians of the Galaxy” is effervescently kinetic, bouncing from planetary mishap to planetary mishap without ever losing its momentum. This isn’t to say that there are no dramatic moments – there certainly are – but never do these congeal into a humorless mess (cf. “Man of Steel”). Pratt – perhaps best known for his turn as bumbling Andy Dwyer on “Parks and Recreation” – proves to be a surprisingly effective leading man.

Additionally, this is one movie that it’s probably best to know as little about as possible before viewing. I had no idea what was going on at first, and for the casual viewer, there aren’t a lot of tie-ins to established Marvel film properties. This, however, is actually an asset: it allows the viewer to “get lost” in an unfamiliar, exotic world they’ve never seen before. Gunn heroically resists the temptation to resort to massive exposition, and instead leaves room for the audience’s natural sense of curiosity.

Here’s an example: about halfway into the film, the Guardians team stops by an outlaw city floating in the middle of space. This base has been constructed inside the severed skull of an unimaginably vast celestial creature, and mining operations in the city involve the extraction of cerebral matter from the skull’s depths. It’s absurd, but at the same time fascinating and different. What was that creature? I wanted to know. What else is out there that we haven’t seen yet? Thanks to earlier superhero films, I’ve seen nobodies morph into superheroes through the marvels of drug use and seen just about every major city on earth turned to rubble through the marvels of CGI – at this point, they’re blurring together into an interchangeable cacophony. Conversely, “Guardians” is truly fresh and original, from its casting to its art design to its thrilling resolution.

There’s not a lot of deep thinking or philosophizing to be found here – but for once, I’ll point to this as one of the film’s greatest strengths. This spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” tried so hard to be “edgy” and “relevant” that it ended up feeling kludgy and unsubtle; I, for one, would be fine leaving the “dark and gritty” to Christopher Nolan from here on out. (Most of the movie is suitable for all audiences, though there are a few winking innuendos that most younger viewers won’t get.)

I could go on, but I’ll simply say that “Guardians of the Galaxy” has my highest recommendation. It’s entertaining without ever feeling juvenile, a breath of fresh air in the midst of today’s cynically profit-oriented blockbuster grind. I only hope it turns into the smash it fully deserves to be.

VERDICT: 10/10
A superb thrill ride coupling the best elements of “Star Wars,” “Men in Black,” and “Serenity.” I can’t wait for the sequel.

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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “Hercules”

It is beyond question that if any man was ever born to play the role of Hercules, it would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose very presence in a movie is an inspiration to do more bench-presses. And accordingly, Brett Ratner’s big-budget epic doesn’t disappoint: the succinctly titled “Hercules” is a bang-up summer action pic with no pretensions of grandeur. (And, after all, there’s no better flick to watch at a bachelor party)

The film, set in the war-ravaged region of Thrace, picks up shortly after the completion of Hercules’ labors for King Eurystheus (Joseph Fiennes). While traveling with his ragtag band of mercenaries (a largely forgettable lot), Hercules is recruited by King Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) to put down a violent insurgency. It soon becomes clear, however, that all is not as it appears.

Is the plot cliché-ridden and formulaic? Sure. That being said, “Hercules” has a few tricks up its sleeve that lift it well above “Clash of the Titans”-level.

For starters, the battles are great – really great. If you’re tired of the “shaky-cam” style that has plagued action cinema for the last several years, look no further than “Hercules”: here, in classical fashion, it’s actually possible to discern what is going on in the midst of combat.

Johnson is a surprisingly charismatic lead, and one who’s clearly enjoying himself immensely. While most of the other actors are forgettable, it’s worth pointing out that this is no joyless “300”-style affair: there’s enough humor and momentum to keep things lively even in the midst of crisis.

What’s more, there’s even some interesting philosophical material just beneath the surface.

In this reimagining of the legendary hero, Hercules’ famed labors have been shellacked with the stuff of legend. (The slaying of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna, depicted early on in CGI-infused majesty, actually involved defeating a band of men in snake-inspired helmets). Given this, it may be easy to cast “Hercules” as a naturalistic subversion of the traditional mythology – a celebration of the human spirit rather than the divine.

This characterization, however, is not entirely accurate.

For starters, here there is a factual substrate underlying the legends that have arisen around Hercules: his labors clearly are more than folk accounts, even if some understand them with varying degrees of literalism. Moreover, the central contention of the Hercules legend – that he is the son of Zeus, and is a man in whom the blood of the gods flows – is not itself called into question: indeed, events near the end of the film drive this home with a vengeance. Who is to say, then, that the labors of Hercules are not still ways in which evil is defeated by the manifest power of divinity?

This theme – the participation of the spiritual in the material – is explored in a myriad of theological traditions. Sacramental theologies (Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) affirm the interaction between natural and supernatural elements of life: to use the Lutheran formulation, in Holy Communion the Body and Blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Conversely, newer strands of Protestantism are inclined to posit a neo-Gnostic disjunct between spirituality and materiality: hence the understanding of the Eucharist as solely a “symbolic memorial.” Such a rigidly dualistic sacramental framework is oftentimes coupled with a strictly literalistic biblical interpretation, in which miracles must be understood as dramatic violations of natural order.

An example serves to highlight this divergence in perspective: if it were conclusively shown that the first plague of Moses involved a dinoflagellate bloom (a toxic “red tide” that would have caused widespread destruction), rather than a literal “turning of the Nile to blood,” would it call into question the providence of God to the Israelites? Older Christian traditions would say assuredly not, since Divine power can and does work through the ordinary stuff of life – bread and wine, water and language.

And interestingly, this is the understanding suggested by “Hercules,” whether the film’s writers are cognizant of it or not. Hercules’ heroic acts are ways in which the supernatural is made manifest within the context of empirical reality – yet the empirical is not itself exclusive of the transcendent.

All that being said, most viewers won’t appreciate this dimension – and “Hercules” remains perfectly enjoyable regardless. (It’s probably worth noting, though, that this is a violent, frequently bloody movie that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating). Fans of old-school war movies will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will those looking for undemanding late-summer entertainment.

Well worth seeing.

An energetic, entertaining reimagining of the Hercules tale. Recommended.

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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Fantasy


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