“Look at us! We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” Guardians of the Galaxy

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Marvel Studios (and, of course parent company Disney) seem to understand key principles of comic book film-making (or any film-making for that matter) infinitely better than rival DC Comics (and their owner Warner Brothers): make it fun, make it light, give it heart.

I was always a DC over Marvel fan. To me, Superman and his pals have richer history and greater visual interest, but, more often than not, DC’s flicks (Man of SteelGreen Lantern – blech.) are self-serious, ponderous, deadly dull (narratively and chromatically) while Marvel zips past on a celluloid sleigh made of gumdrops and cheekiness (Captain America, Thor).

Yes, Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films are great and artistic and DEEP! but they ain’t much fun, and I don’t see myself re-watching any of them when I’m bored on a Saturday afternoon. Iron Man or The Avengers on the other hand …

Please don’t mistake this as saying Marvel has no depth. They do – see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They just don’t think a message has to be stultifying to be taken seriously. And, yes, they’ve had their share of missteps – notably Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2. I may have been the only person who enjoyed Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk as well.

My apologies for the by-way into the always-inconsequential “DC vs. Marvel” debate, about which only we fanboy nerds ever seem to care, but I was reminded yet again this afternoon of just how well Marvel gets it while watching the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy.

Whether or not you know that Guardians is based on a comic book (it is – a really irreverent and subversive one), you will have a great time with the movie. Director James Gunn (Super, Slither) and the Marvel production team (thank you, Kevin Feige) know that, for an adaptation to work it has to understand what makes cinema (particularly in the summer) sing: pithy dialogue, solid character development, sympathetic underdogs in improbably silly circumstances, poignant back-story, Keystone Cops-meet-Paul Greengrass action sequences, and comedy arising naturally from absurd situations.

The Guardians are comprised of the following oddballs:

  • “Star Lord,” a wiseacre space cowboy (expertly played by Parks and Recreation and Everwood TV veteran Chris Pratt), masking his man-with-no-family sadness with a reckless joie de vivre and a love of bad 70s “AM Gold” pop rock
  • “Gamora,” a deadly assassin (a smooth and witty Zoe Saldana of Avatar, Star Trek, and the recent Rosemary’s Baby remake) who may or may not be interested in saving the universe while burying her accidental teammates
  • “Drax the Destroyer,” a heartbroken tattooed thug (a surprisingly soulful, deftly comic portrayal by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) seeking vengeance for his lost wife and daughter
  • “Groot,” a walking tree (voiced with one singular, repeated phrase “I am Groot” by Vin Diesel) and one half of the film’s comedy duo, stealing the spotlight with Looney Tunes anarchy and gleeful mayhem
  • And (my favorite) “Rocket,” the other half of said duo, a rat-a-tat 40s gangster trapped in the body of an adorable (and deadly) anthropomorphic raccoon (voiced hysterically by an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper)

These characters are tossed together by a slapstick prison break on their way to pursuing some galaxy-destroying bauble called an Infinity Gem (ok, it is a comic book movie after all). They are chased by assorted creepy baddies like Lee Pace’s nightmare-inducing genocidal maniac “Ronan the Accuser” and Michael Rooker’s dentally-challenged space pirate “Yondu.”

The plot really doesn’t much matter as it is there chiefly in service to one whimsical set-piece after another. What gives the movie heart is the sheer broken-ness of each hero. At one point, Pratt observes, in one of his character’s many earnest but misguided Yogi Berra-esque “inspirational” moments, “I look around and I see losers. We’re all losers … well, I mean we’ve all lost something.” We laugh but we know exactly what he means.

(Not surprising to anyone in my immediate circle, but I was moved to tears when an inconsolable “Rocket,” after a drunken brawl, laments how soul-crushing it is when people call him “vermin” or “rodent,” not understanding the pain he has experienced in his short life. Said pain is in fact quite literal as his very existence is a result of invasive and cruel experimentation. I assume that’s a thread future films may explore, but, for this animal rights and comic book nut, it was a touch that I appreciated.)

As testament to the power of Marvel Studios, a myriad of heavy hitters show up for (and have a ball with) tiny supporting roles: John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. If the Harry Potter movie series was the place where BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company-British actors could get their genre ya-yas out, then Marvel now must  serve that same purpose for their Academy Award-winning/nominated American contemporaries.

In a summer 2014 movie season that has given us high quality (generally) but little joy, Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome throwback to hot-weather film fun of another era … well, my 1980s era, when Lucas and Spielberg reigned supreme. It’s a sparkling Valentine to all us misfits. Don’t miss it.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

 

This quote seems apropos, strangely enough, for the latest summer blockbuster to come down the pike: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a somber, sociopolitically murky take on the “man vs. monkey” classic sci-fi mythology rebooted in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Rise gave us a poignant tale of one man’s (James Franco) heartfelt connection with his evolutionary forebear (the chimp Caesar) as he searched for a cure for his ailing father’s (John Lithhow) Alzheimer’s. That film dealt with themes of a medical research industry that has little regard for nature (or for any of us, for that matter) and of the inevitably that man’s own hubris will lead to our destruction at the hands of the ecology with which we endlessly tamper.

The plot of Dawn is a logical continuation of the Pandora’s Box opened in that earlier film where primates who had been subject to cruel experimentation exact their revenge. Dawn is set ten years after Rise and depicts a society where humans have been decimated by a virus unleashed through the same experiments that gave the primates their super intelligence.

On the outskirts of San Francisco, Caesar and his followers reside in a commune that resembles something across between Return of the Jedi‘s Ewok village and a guerrilla (sorry) warrior encampment. On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, a small band of not-scruffy-looking-enough humans are barely hanging on, living in what looks to be the Presidio, retrofitted as a refugee camp.

Things start to go sideways when a small party of humans led by ape-sympathizers Keri Russell (The Americans) and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) set off into the simian-occupied forest to jump-start a dam that could provide much-needed electricity to all. This sets off a chain of events wherein the primates, justifiably mistrustful of humanity but led by Caesar who still has a James Franco-sized hole in his heart, decide to help the humans but are then betrayed by man and fellow ape simultaneously.

Gary Oldman, who has demonstrated that he is a jackass in real life, fortunately plays one on screen here as well. While Russell and Clarke are in the woods, he is actively stockpiling weapons to use against Caesar and his brood. As you might predict from the previews (and even the film’s poster) the apes discover the weaponry and make plenty good use of it against the humans.

Caesar finds himself on the wrong end of a monkey-sized coup (shades of Orwell’s Animal Farm), and the remainder of the film is spent with the audience wondering who will take charge of the chaos. I won’t spoil the ending, but the film resolves itself in a way that will satisfy both fans of the original series and those unfamiliar with the earlier films.

Directed pretty solidly by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), the movie is too long by 20 minutes and suffers a bit for having none of the sweetness of its predecessor. Given this installment’s subject matter and the progression the overall narrative ultimately has to make toward Mr. Posturing Charlton Heston showing up one day in a rocket-ship to see the Statue of Liberty in pieces and to exclaim “damn dirty ape!”, the darker tone is understandable.

Clarke and Russell are adequate as the soulful scientists who see themselves and their people darkly reflected in the increasingly contentious simian society, but Oldman is a hammy mess with a sloppily written character – like he’s recycling his Commissioner Gordon portrayal by way of Rod Steiger … on a really sweaty bad day.

There is a thematic density to the script that occasionally overpowers the popcorn fun with social commentary pretensions – a la The Dark Knight Rises. However, the implications for our present-day life are interesting and thorny: what devastating impact unfettered access to guns and ammo and other firepower can have on a society caught up in simple-minded bloodlust; how quickly our sophisticated human systems, processes, and other governance can slide right off the rails when faced with epic crisis; and who or what is really the dominant species on this planet when the chips are finally down.

The true star of the film is Andy Serkis with his motion capture performance as Caesar. His haunted eyes and physicality convey the pointed sadness of a leader watching his new society devolve into all the ugly excesses of the prior one – try as they might, the simian utopia can’t escape the ugly brutality they learned from their years subjugated by human “civilization.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.