Monday, September 1, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 1, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” Now that we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming, I can admit that I was in Disney World the past two weeks... so in recognition of that fact, let’s look at a movie covertly filmed in The Cinema King’s favorite vacation destination!

Escape from Tomorrow (2013) – More an experience than a movie, Escape from Tomorrow is on the one hand a David Lynch-esque narrative about family man Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) and his slow descent into madness after losing his job while on vacation with his family at Disney World.  This film is oddly compelling, a surreal journey through the Happiest Place on Earth as seen by a man with a detaching grasp on sanity.  It’s weird, in a puzzle-box kind of way, but the audience’s attempts to put the pieces together never really come to fruition; the more memorable miscellaneous pieces – like the mysterious cat flu, the shady scientist operating beneath Spaceship Earth, and the deranged princess-turned-abductor – never really coalesce into a unified statement.  Eraserhead it isn’t, though it’s trying very hard to be.  For me, the more interesting element of Escape from Tomorrow is not the bizarre (and often unintentionally funny) plot of the film; I’d recommend seeing the film more on the grounds of director Randy Moore’s somewhat remarkable achievement of surreptitious filming on Disney grounds.  Indeed, it’s more engaging to watch the film as a frequent tourist, pinpointing where shots were filmed (especially when the shooting location changes between Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando, while the narrative setting remains consistent).  It’s more fun to think about how Moore accomplished certain shots, where and when he had to assemble a clandestine cast and (I’m guessing minimal) crew, and where he had to cheat using mock-ups, both practical and computer-generated.  There are intriguingly strange setpieces, as when the family rides it’s a small world amid an array of demonic dolls and possessed children, but the film is ultimately more a technical curiosity than a narrative success, one of those films that is more fun to ponder and discuss than actually to watch.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, and don’t forget that this Sunday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month, Brosnan’s final Bond!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Eh.

Oh, you wanted a full review?  Okay, here goes:

When Oliver Twist asked, “Please, sir, I want some more,” he didn’t have to wait nine years for a second pot of food.  As I recall, he didn’t get any at all, so maybe we should be grateful that we even have Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, a pre/sequel to 2005’s Sin City.  “Gratitude” isn’t, however, the word I would use to describe Robert Rodriguez’s second adaptation of Frank Miller’s hardboiled comics; the proper word is somewhere between “bored” and “disappointed.”

As before, four interlocking narratives give us another look at Basin City, where the tough guys are tough and the women are all prostitutes of one kind or another.  Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is pulled back into a spiderweb woven by his femme fatale ex Ava Lord (Eva Green), while lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself across the poker table from the evil Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).  However, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) also has her sights on Roark, while Marv (Mickey Rourke) lumbers around punching things.

Here’s the thing about this film:  you’ve already seen it.  Aside from the numerous films that have taken cues from the first Sin City, particularly vis-à-vis spot color and neo-hardboiled ethos, there is very little in the sequel that wasn’t already in the first film.  To name a few (veiled spoilers follow):  a cop’s suicide, shooting a woman mid-kiss, and Marv breaking into fortified compounds – which actually happens a couple of times in this movie alone.

The points deducted for originality really sting because Sin City was, on its initial arrival, heralded for its innovative approach to adapting comics to the screen.  Nine years later, though, Rodriguez has changed nothing, and the result feels quite stale, almost dated beyond the way that film noir usually harks back to a previous era.  This, for my money, is among the worst sins a film can commit.  For those that own Sin City on DVD, it’ll be cheaper to go back to the original.

If you’re playing the home game and can remember Machete Kills, you’ll recall that Rodriguez is now oh-for-two on sequels, and I’m wondering if the director has lost his edge (or if, a decade later, I’ve perceptibly matured as a moviegoer).  As in Machete Kills, Dame is overfull of very good actors, Gordon-Levitt and Boothe among them.  Post-Deadwood, I’m especially glad to see Powers Boothe get an expanded role here, since his particular brand of scenery-chewing is always a delight.  But where Rodriguez seems to be phoning it in lately, the cast too aren’t at their best.  Alba is trying, you can tell, and so is Brolin; even Green, seemingly inspired casting as the vamping Ava Lord, seems to be overplaying the part – I suspect, though, based on her performance in Dark Shadows that that’s deliberate (Ava Lord is essentially Angelique Bouchard sans clothing), but I might be giving her the benefit of the doubt.  One wonders if all that green-screen filming is getting to them, because the visuals appear to be doing most of the heavy lifting.

For all the disappointment that A Dame to Kill For engenders, it’s never patently bad, which is almost worse.  Making a genuinely bad film is in some respects more of an achievement because it elicits a reaction; an uninspired outing like this one can be reviewed with an unenthusiastic shrug.  I wanted to be swept away by this one like I was with the first, but instead it seems like a relic.  The gender politics are horridly outdated despite the film’s attempt to “empower” its female characters, and the Day-Glo blood sprays are no longer visceral enough.  Instead, the whole film plods out blandly, the cinematic equivalent of Josh Brolin gritting his teeth for two hours.  When he says “Don’t let the monster out,” we’re shouting back, “Please let the monster out and do something creative!”

Instead, the film pulls its punches and plays it safe.  If you enjoyed the first film but wanted more of the same without that feeling of freshness, you’ll have a great time here, but I suspect that this sequel will not be well remembered, if indeed it is remembered at all.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is rated R for “strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use.”  Stylized is the key word with the violence, because a lot of the time it looks like someone pouring out white paint; a few severed limbs and heads are seen, and usually the blood there is more red.  The middle segment of the film features all of the nudity, a man’s bottom and a frequently topless woman with her lower regions obscured in shadow; other scenes show strippers and prostitutes who keep their skimpy clothes on.  Surprisingly, the language is pretty tidy, with only one F-bomb in the batch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #2-1!

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”  And now we've made it to the Top Two, so without further ado...

2.  The Avengers (2012)
“It works because the movie is so infectiously fun that it quickly sweeps the audience into its world and recruits us into the superteam. ... Honestly, I can’t sell short just how fun this movie is.”
From day one, we knew the Universe was building toward The Avengers, but I don’t think that any of us was quite ready for what we got.  Joss Whedon, nerd-king and archduke of seemingly effortless storytelling, writes and directs the hell out of what might have been a disastrous omnishambles of multiple storylines and vastly different characters.  Instead, all the moving parts coalesce into what might be a perfect film; no knowledge needed of the various franchises at work, because the film introduces them, gives them all something to do, and keeps all the plates spinning while sacrificing neither momentum nor entertainment value.  While some of the final action sequences may be derided as mere cannon fodder, note the way Whedon uses them to wrap up character beats and give closure to the impracticality of uniting so many disparate elements.  Perhaps best of all, The Avengers doesn’t feel like a lowly best-of cover band, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like Whedon is betraying the characters; their trajectories and behaviors fit perfectly with the earlier characterizations while moving them forward in exciting ways.  Dang, now I just want to go rewatch The Avengers – who’s with me?

1.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Winter Soldier’s willingness to tackle pressing issues in current events might mark a sea change toward greater cultural relevance beyond merely making a literal ton of money.” 
As incredible as The Avengers was, I always had a nagging thought in the back of my mind that it was too big to fail – there was no way we’d get a disappointing Avengers film, not after how good the lead-up had been.  With Captain America, though, we’ve got a “Most Improved” winner on our hands.  The older I get, the more I find myself seeing films more than once in a movie theater; though this is often a casual decision, in the case of Winter Soldier it was a compulsion – I needed to see this film more than once.  While this is, in a sense, Avengers 1.5, Winter Soldier is a perfectly contained unit with an impressive amount of risk-taking and innovating.  The former I won’t spoil because it’s one of those fantastic slack-jawed moments, feeding into the film’s intensely relevant message about surveillance and oversight, but the latter comes in the form of a contagiously compelling performance by Anthony Mackie as The Falcon, a veritable scene-stealer in a film littered with scenes worth stealing.  It moves from character beat to action beat without stalling the plot, a relentless espionage piece that you’d be excused for forgetting was a superhero film to begin with.  This isn’t a “comic book movie” in the derisive sense of the word – this is a proper film.  Plus it has the best Stan Lee cameo to date – ’nuff said!

What do you think, true believers?  Excelsior or excrement?  Sound off in the Comments with your picks for the Top Marvel Cinematic Universe film!  As for next Monday?  Well, we wouldn’t spoil the surprise just yet – in the best Stan Lee tradition, to be continued!

PS - This is the 400th post here at The Cinema King - thanks for reading!  Here's to 400 more, eh?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #4-3

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

4.  Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians proves that Marvel is unstoppable, taking everything that worked about their earth-bound adventures and applying that to space.” 
It’s the Cinderella success story of this summer blockbuster season, and for good reason.  Guardians, like Iron Man 3 before it, demonstrates Marvel’s unique ability to blend distinctive directorial voice with the studio’s unique house style.  More importantly, though, Guardians is an accomplishment for presenting a veritable cast of unknown characters to an audience for the very first time and succeeding wildly.  Granted, it’s tough to resist the lure of a talking, gun-toting raccoon, but how many filmgoers (diehards aside) knew a Groot from a Gamora?  They sure do now; box office numbers rightly made this one a winner.  Under the capable hand of James Gunn, C-list characters get the A-list treatment – compelling narrative arcs, infectiously fun personalities, and an impressive sense of scope without overwhelming the audience.  To boot, it’s impossible to undersell just how fun the film is, leaving me with a wide grin in the face of such improbabilities as an opening credits sequence scored to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”  More of this, please.

3.  Iron Man (2008)
“This is a phenomenal picture, at once an accomplishment on celluloid and an exhilarating breeze of a picture - in total, the perfect summer blockbuster.” 
Iron Man earns its place on the countdown for many reasons, but one of the big ones is innovation.  This is the fun uncle of the modern comic book superhero film, and without it you wouldn’t have something as zany, original, and enjoyable as the aforementioned GuardiansIron Man presents an astoundingly deft origin story for Tony Stark, brought quite literally to life by Robert Downey, Jr.  A two-hour montage of RDJ’s in-character riffing and improvisation would have been just fine, but director Jon Favreau also gives us an immensely engaging character arc, from weaponer to weapon, from war-monger to penitent man.  It follows the classic format established by the Christopher Reeve Superman – origin, adventures, character development, big showdown – but in bringing the genre back to its heretofore finest hour, Iron Man reinvents the wheel but makes it lightyears better by creating a breezy and seemingly effortless expert work.  It’s no wonder that the mere post-credits mention of “The Avengers Initiative” had audiences salivating – the promise of more to come never tasted sweeter than at the end of Iron Man.

True believers know what's left on the list, but come back on Wednesday for the final two, in an order that may surprise you...!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #6-5

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

6 (tie).  Thor (2011)
“Branagh brings his background in Shakespeare to bear in Thor, which blends perfectly the high theology and overwhelming pride of Asgard and the Norse deities with the restrained and comic scenes on planet Earth.” 
Released the same year as Captain America, Thor is a fantastic example of how effortlessly Marvel can render the incredible, thanks largely to Kenneth Branagh’s directorial hand, which deftly juggles gods and mortals in a film that never feels unbalanced.  The sweeping Shakespearean quality of Asgard is so impressively crafted that we could spend a whole movie there, but the fish-out-of-water plotline which finds Thor exiled to earth is correspondingly mesmerizing, heavier on the humor but no less aware of the mythic quality of the narrative.  As noted earlier in the countdown, Tom Hiddleston delivers a star-making performance as the trickster Loki, but Chris Hemsworth is no slouch as the swaggeringly confident God of Thunder.  It edges out Captain America only ever so slightly, solely by virtue of remaining self-contained, but the entertainment value between the two movies is almost indistinguishable; filmgoers will have an equally fantastic time with either. 

As we enter the Top Five, not to disparage the preceding five films too much, we’re headed into a higher caliber of film.  The earlier five films are fun enough, diverting enough, but the five films to follow are truly remarkable – not just as Marvel films, not even just as superhero films, but as films in their own right.  It’s especially true of the #1 choice on this list, but we’ll get there in due time... on with the show!

5.  Iron Man 3 (2013)
“It evolves the character of Tony Stark in a number of intriguing ways, and the promise that “Tony Stark will return” (shades of James Bond?) was never more fascinating.”
Tony Stark famously remarked in the second film in the trilogy, “Oh, it’s good to be back!”  But it’s not until the third film that the Iron Man franchise really lives up to its inaugural installment.  RDJ is joined by writer-director Shane Black, who had collaborated with him on the downright fabulous sleuth/caper flick Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the result is everything that worked about KKBB with a heavy dose of everything that works about a Marvel movie.  The Christmas setting is inspired, and I particularly love the way the story takes Tony Stark to rock bottom, builds him back up, only to reveal that (no spoilers) the only reason he was able to become Iron Man in the first place was because he has always been Iron Man.  If this is RDJ’s final solo outing as Tony Stark, it’s a fitting farewell, but here’s hoping (Avengers aside) we haven’t seen the last of this iteration of Iron Man.

Come back on Monday, true believers, as the countdown continues into the Final Four!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films: #8-6

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

8.  Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World is so full of top performers giving their all ... that it almost doesn’t matter that the story doesn’t break much ground.” 
The difference between Iron Man 2 and this sequel to Thor?  Tonal consistency.  As insubstantial as some critics said Thor: The Dark World was, it never felt like parts were grafted on.  Instead of attempt to pull closer to the larger franchise, this sequel takes the Norse god of thunder in his own thematic direction, closer to the action-comedy genre like Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean.  Fresh off The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston is still killing it as Loki, and his upgrade from pure villain to compelling antihero with mysterious motives is compelling enough to be its own movie.  It’s a good thing, because the primary antagonist is a little undercooked, and Thor’s own character arc leaves something to be desired.  What the film does have is a smashing score, an abundance of confidence, and a dexterity with fun action sequences that advance the plot without feeling like a narrative pause for a set-piece.

6 (tie).  Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
“I was always a fan of Joe Johnston’s other superhero flick, The Rocketeer, and Johnston channels his WWII nostalgia here, creating a perfectly retro atmosphere without feeling less than modern.” 
I will acknowledge the possibility of rose-tinted glasses in this case; as the quotation above attests, I grew up on The Rocketeer, and the idea of a version of that movie starring Captain America is positively dazzling to the child at heart.   This is such a feel-good movie, though, that it’s hard to imagine filmgoers not feeling those pangs of nostalgia that are so intrinsic to the character.  A man punching Nazis while literally clothed in the American flag will never get old, and Chris Evans shoulders the role of Steve Rogers perfectly, playing his patriotism in earnest.  The film is littered with great supporting players – Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell – in very memorable roles, but what keeps this film out of the Top Five is the same complaint I’ve had about a few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries:  a lack of a cohesive ending, largely because this film leads directly into The Avengers.

Come back Friday to see what tied for sixth place with Captain America as the controversial countdown continues apace!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #10-9

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

10.  The Incredible Hulk (2008)
“All that said, there's something... off about this movie. I'm not sure what it is.”
It’s only the second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so perhaps we can excuse The Incredible Hulk for not finding its feet very well.  It’s not a bad film by most stretches of the imagination, but it isn’t very engaging; the supporting cast is rather unmemorable (though I wouldn’t mind seeing William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross show up somewhere else in the MCU), but the biggest disappointment is Edward Norton’s turn as Bruce Banner, a tepid and wiry character who pales in comparison to Mark Ruffalo’s more intriguing portrayal.  There’s a disjunct between Norton and his gamma-sized alter ego, one that makes Hulk and Banner feel more like separate characters.  Perhaps it’s the story, focused around eliminating the Hulk persona – but only insofar as he’s not needed for an obligatory action sequences.  The special effects are gee-whiz, a step up from the Ang Lee film five years earlier, but even with an RDJ cameo this Hulk is not quite incredible.

9.  Iron Man 2 (2010)
The film thrives because of Downey's personality; he's impeccably cast here in a character who's larger than life.” 
Loyal readers may be surprised by how low on the countdown Iron Man 2 lands, and in spite of how much I’m enamored of Robert Downey Jr. I put Iron Man 2 just above Incredible Hulk mostly on the grounds of narrative unity.  As engaging as RDJ is as Tony Stark, as fun as the movie can be, it feels very much like a friend with an ulterior motive.  As much as I admit to being a Marvel shill, there’s a degree to which I resent how much of Iron Man 2 is devoted to teasing The Avengers.  I love Samuel L. Jackson as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but wonder if an Iron Man 2 sans tie-ins might have been as strong as the first; the glimpses we get of that film – in which Tony Stark wrestles with his legacy while facing a competitor – is fantastically fun, but it feels put on hold whenever the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew stroll in.

Come back Wednesday for the next installment of this sure-to-be-controversial Top 10 list!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

For those who play the role long enough, there’s a Rule of Three for Bond actors, suggesting that the performer’s third outing is his best.  Sean Connery’s got a perfect film in Goldfinger, Roger Moore has The Spy Who Loved Me, and Daniel Craig has the knockout Skyfall.  We’re at Pierce Brosnan’s third with The World Is Not Enough, which turns out to be the exception to the Rule of Three.  It is far and away Brosnan’s most boring outing with only a few redeeming features.

After the murder of a leading industrialist, James Bond (Brosnan) assigns himself to protect the dead man’s daughter, Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), while she moves to continue her father’s work on an oil pipeline.  Bond and M (Judi Dench) suspect that the terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle), who had kidnapped Elektra years ago, is behind the new wave of attempts on her life.  Denise Richards appears in a soulless performance as nuclear physicist (ha!) Christmas Jones, whose skills include wearing tight clothing and wearing wet clothing.  (The less said about her, the better.)

In a franchise full of diabolical villains, gorgeous women, and legendary action sequences, the worst thing a Bond film can be is boring.  But for the most part, The World Is Not Enough is exactly that – horrifically dull.  It’s not quite as dull as, say, Octopussy; TWINE does contain what is, for my money, the best opening sequence in the entire film series, in which Bond dodges a sniper before giving pursuit in a half-finished Q-boat through the Thames.  It’s a great action sequence with a fantastic score by David Arnold.

It is, however, the only great action sequence in the film.  Juding on this movie alone, Michael Apted is not an especially gifted director of on-screen action.  Aside from the linearity of the boat chase opener, Apted’s action scenes are muddled by angles akimbo and editing which makes it difficult to tell from which direction the baddies are coming.  In one scene, aerial and ground troops attack a dockside caviar factory, and it’s downright dizzying trying to keep track of who’s firing on whom; the shots are arranged in no particular order and defy Eisenstein’s idea of the montage to the point where the viewer simply gives up on trying to make sense of the collision of images.

The film’s other action sequences are a bore – a sinking submarine, a ski chase that comes nowhere near The Spy Who Loved Me’s opener, and a subterranean tunnel shootout – and the rest of the film isn’t much better.  There’s a lot of talking about the plot and where it’s going, but there’s little in the way of development until the third act. 

It becomes impossible to talk about the film without spoiling the big twist, so step down to the next paragraph if you prefer to remain unspoiled.  For those that are still here, I’m speaking, of course, of the reveal that Elektra King – ostensibly the Bond girl – has been conspiring with her former kidnapper to take over her father’s empire.  It’s actually a rather clever turn in the plot, and it takes the franchise somewhere it’s never really been; we’ve had evil women like Rosa Klebb and even most recently Xenia Onatopp, but the reveal that the Bond girl is also the Bond villain is quite smart.  As Elektra, Marceau is a very strong performer, and I wonder why her international career seems to have fizzled out.  In a better Bond film, Elektra might have been a top character, because Marceau handles the turn from performative victim to snarling villainess with ease.  As it stands, though, she’s a bit of a diamond in the rough here in the sense that the film insists on focusing on the thuggish Renard, whose fascinating character conceit – that he is a dying man who literally feels no pain – is fumbled and never given the life that a comparable character like Jaws had.

So between that and the memorable opening sequence, The World Is Not Enough simply lives up to its title – what we have in the film is not enough to be a winner.  Usually in moments like this, especially in reviewing the Bond films, I find that the good often outstrips the bad, as was the case with Tomorrow Never Dies.  But here there’s just not enough of redeeming value beyond a great set-piece and a great idea.  After a brilliant debut in Goldeneye, I do hope that Brosnan goes out with a bang in his next and final entry, but – spoiler alert – I’ve seen it before, and as I recall he doesn’t.

The World Is Not Enough is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of action violence, some sexuality and innuendo.”  Bond beds three women, one of whom wears only a strategically-placed bedsheet in two scenes.  There’s a series of sexual innuendoes, including a particularly graphic one punning on the frequency of Christmas, and as far as action violence is concerned it’s a lot of shooting and exploding but with little to no blood visible.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Die Another Day (2002) on September 7, 2014!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

By now, we’re all familiar with the Marvel formula and its somewhat unique brand of adapting comic book properties into blockbuster fun.  Guardians of the Galaxy reads almost like a challenge to themselves – can the Marvel method work on characters the mainstream audience has almost certainly never heard of?  It worked at the beginning with Iron Man, and as we approach the second Avengers film, Guardians proves that Marvel is unstoppable, taking everything that worked about their earth-bound adventures and applying that to space.

Intergalactic outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) wants to live up to his self-applied moniker of Star-Lord, but what he gets instead is a bounty on his head, pursued by Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a machine-gun-toting raccoon and his talking tree partner.  After the trio is arrested, they align themselves with fellow inmates Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) to escape prison before preventing a mad warlord (Lee Pace, as Ronan the Accuser) from destroying the galaxy.

Has anyone called Harrison Ford to congratulate him on the buckets of money that Guardians has made thus far?  I ask this because Guardians feels like the love child of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, very heavily inflected by the cavalier confidence of Ford’s characterization of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.  It’s especially evident during the opening credits sequence, in which Peter Quill steals a precious artifact from a temple, only to incur the wrath of its protectors.  (The film’s conclusion, with one scene set in the Nova Corps vault, seems to echo Raiders as well.)  Indeed, from the start, there is question of who Peter’s father is, and I wonder – now that Disney owns Lucasfilm as well – if Han Solo might be up for paternity.

That aside, on its own merits, Guardians is enthusiastically engaging, taking the “band of misfits” conceit and injecting it into the space opera genre in a way that seems effortless.  Comics devotees will be amazed at the breadth of concepts introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the Celestials, the Nova Corps, the Kree – and for those who don’t know what those words mean, fear not, because Guardians delivers them with a deft expositional hand.  In short, Guardians works better than one might suspect because it immerses you in the fantastical world(s), explains quickly and capably what you need to know, and leaves you to wonder in slack-jawed awe at the rest. 

What Guardians does best, though, is characterization, especially through humor.  The movie is uproariously funny, even in places you might not expect.  All of it serves to give us characters that are astonishingly well-crafted, a double blessing for those of us who know next to nothing about them.  But where most of the characters’ personalities emerge through humor, as when we discover that Drax is incapable of understanding metaphor, director and co-writer James Gunn is careful to balance these gags with genuine moments where we sympathize with the characters.  Take for example the moment when a drunken Rocket Raccoon declares how he really feels about being the only one of his kind; it’s a surprisingly moving moment in the middle of a film where you wouldn’t expect it.  As fun as Thor: The Dark World was, I don’t remember feeling touched by it.

As much as the film links up to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its talk of Thanos (played well in a cameo by Josh Brolin, who is perfect in the part) and the Infinity Stones, I’m glad to hear that there’s already a sequel in the works, helmed once more by Gunn.  I’m glad, because here is a film that does many unexpected and wonderful things, a film which establishes its own identity without relying on anything more than the “Marvel” brand name.  The rumored appearance by Robert Downey Jr. does not occur, nor should it, because Guardians deserves to be its own thing before it lines up with The Avengers (as it inevitably will).  As fun as it would be to see Iron Man walk on screen, it might take the audience out of the mesmeric spectacle Gunn & Co. have crafted.  Come for the CGI walking talking foliage; stay for the heart and wit of a fresh direction and voice in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.”  Honestly, the action in it is roughly equivalent to most of the Star Wars films, with laser guns and explosions more than visceral gore; some bodies are pierced or thrown around, but even in one shot where a body is seriously maimed, it’s more limbs akimbo than bloody geysers.  There are a few defecatory profanities, one middle finger, and the occasional insult; overall, the grit is tempered by the wit.

We’re at ten Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, which sounds suspiciously like something ripe for organizing in ascending order of approval... could something like that be in your future?  Check back with us at the “Top” of next week to find out, and don’t forget that Thursday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Of the original trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the least fondly remembered.  It’s a prequel which departs somewhat radically in tone and in cast from its two companions, and it contains a few very ill-advised creative decisions, about which director Steven Spielberg has said that the best thing to come out of the film was meeting his wife Kate Capshaw.  But on revisiting, there’s more about Temple of Doom to enjoy than not, though it’s still far from the other two in my eyes.

A year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) careens off the heels of one adventure and into an Indian village where the children and a sacred stone have been abducted by the sinister forces of Pankot Palace.  His compatriots, lounge singer Willie Scott (Capshaw) and pint-sized Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), follow Indy into the eponymous Temple of Doom, where they face the brainwashed hordes who obey the devilish Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).

Let’s say the obvious – the film is culturally insensitive to the max, if not unspeakably racist.  It deals heavily in the “white savior” archetypal narrative without challenging that trope in the least, to the point where we literally have a British cavalry arriving just in the knick of time.  Now, it’s possible that Spielberg is playing with the old adventure serial formula from the 1920s and 30s – as suggested by some cliffhangery moments like the inflatable raft parachute over a cliff – and it does give him some of the ookier moments of the movie like the chilled monkey brains dessert, but the fact that the film seems at times virulently demeaning of India is a bit troubling.

The other major issue with the film is, perhaps surprisingly, Kate Capshaw’s performance.  After Karen Allen’s deft and empowering female lead in Raiders, Capshaw’s Willie Scott is a colossal step backwards.  She’s fantastic at screaming her lungs out and standing around rather uselessly, and if that’s the character the filmmakers really wanted to create, kudos to them.  But the result is something akin to the worst excesses of the “Bond girl” stereotype over in the James Bond franchise (to which, to be fair, both Spielberg and George Lucas claim Indiana Jones is partially indebted).  She is largely unwatchable and impossible to sympathize with, and I can’t help but wish Indy and the filmmakers had left her behind on this adventure.

Now for the good news:  I actually liked the film much better than I thought I would.  I’ve been going back and rewatching the films in order, and usually when I do this I skip over Temple of Doom in order to get to the vastly superior (and probably perfect) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  This time, however, I’m glad I stopped off in 1984, because the film does a number of things very right.  For one, the character of Indiana Jones is very well-developed in this film, following a compelling arc from an obsession with “fortune and glory” to a more sobered approach to archaeology and sacred artifacts.  Ford does great work as the protagonist, who’s still heaps of fun to watch.

And for all the cultural insensitivity at play in the film, it does give a very well-crafted tone to the film.  For any of the viewer’s qualms about Temple of Doom, it more than lives up to its name (and the PG-13 rating it inspired).  This original trilogy does seem to be a series of three masterpieces in setting a mood: the first, a sense of high-stakes adventure amid danger; the third, a rollicking romp through the feel-best action comedies.  Here, the tone is nearly relentless dread amid dingy and red-tinted sets; the darkness of the film pays off the character’s arc in a dénouement in which (spoilers?) all balance is restored and good triumphs.  In this sense, Temple of Doom uses its own gloom to say something important about morality.

That, and it’s an enjoyable ride along the way.  In terms of dark second installments in a trilogy, it’s not The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a film that, I think, deserves revisiting from older fans who brushed it off in their youth because it wasn’t as lighthearted as its companion films.  Surprisingly, the best part of the film on this most recent viewing wasn’t the infectious fun of Short Round (who remains a scene-stealer of the highest order and gets one of the best moments when he tells Indy, “You’re my best friend”) – it was the fact that Temple of Doom isn’t a creative failure.  It’s a much smarter film than it seems, and I’m surprising myself by how much I liked it.  I went in expecting to review it very much in the “Yes, but...” vein, but instead I’m coming away with a resounding thumbs-up.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is rated PG.  It’s probably the most intense of the four films, dealing with a human-sacrificing Thuggee cult who is fond of removing their victims’ hearts and then dropping them into a pit of lava.  There’s an aborted seduction scene in which “primitive sexual practices” are discussed, and Indy gets in one S-bomb.  Other scenes of violence – fistfights, shootings, stabbings, and being eaten by alligators – play out with either fake-looking or no blood.