Stop-motion has been around since nearly the invention of cinema itself, the first usage of the animation technique employed in the 1897 film The Humpty Dumpty Circus. The art of physically manipulating objects, photographing them through a series of tiny incremental changes as a means to express movement, has become incredibly sophisticated in the last century and one Portland-based animation studio can take credit for consistently pushing the medium to new extremes: Laika. Read More
I Kill Giants, Anders Walter’s adaptation of Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s popular graphic novel, is a movie left searching for purpose in a post-A Monster Calls world. Sure, the 2016 J.A. Bayona fantasy drama was a bomb domestically (with a paltry cume of less than four million) but remained a hit overseas and was celebrated by critics and audiences alike who noted the film’s deft ability to tackle large thematic material through the prism of fantastical monsters. I Kill Giants not only involves a young outsider struggling to adapt to real-world issues through metaphorical monsters but does so for precisely the same reason, aiming for a similarly moving but also unwaveringly sullen coming-of-age drama. Read More
Like the US government, the big whigs at Marvel have a sordid history of interventionism. Professed “creative differences” drove visionary Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, ran Patty Jenkins off Thor: The Dark World and kept Ava DuVernay at bay from Black Panther. The films in the MCU are larger than any standalone film; they must click and connect in complicated corporate webs, webs that have given us material such as the infamous Thor in a sauna scene in the widely forgotten Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film written and directed by one man, James Gunn, such a wildly fresh breathe of air.
Beyond darkness. Beyond logic. Beyond hope. The latest Star Trek film zooms beyond at hyper speed, rarely pausing to strike a Thinker’s pose. (Though it would rather like you to think it does.) Whereas Auguste Rodin’s bronze baby heralds contemplation, Star Trek Beyond plows through any fleeting semblance of intelligence like a horde of metal space bees engaged in kamikaze. Failing to ruminate on why audiences ought to care one iota about its disposable, busied antics. Hurrying from one expense-sheet-filling green-screen scuttlebutt to the next. Over-relying on character relationships that are age old but still skin-deep. Just another blockbuster puffy with CG steroids that’s lacking a brain, passing off sentimentality as heart and blahly going where we’ve all certainly been before. Read More
In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. Neither studio execs nor film critics could have ever predicted the momentous cultural phenomenon that Lucas’ strange little space opera transmogrified into; how it would touch every corner of the globe to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars; how it would leave an inimitable legacy for people to talk about from Boston to Beirut, Maine to Myanmar; how it would, quite simply, become one of the most important movies to ever be made. Everyone has seen Star Wars and if they haven’t, there’s a 97% chance it’s because they were born blind. Culturally, it’s a behemoth. Socially, it’s a must-know. Taste-wise, you like it or you’re a POS. It is the hive mind dictator itself; the all-encompassing King Shit. I’ve owned Star Wars toys since I could walk because who hasn’t?
Even now, almost forty years later, the prevailing zeitgeist within the science fiction community – from books to movies, TV shows to comic books – is populated by Star Wars‘ DNA, nearly to the point of pollution. Even when Lord Neckfat himself tried to capture lighting in a bottle again by making those junk jettisons that are the prequels, he forgot that his magnus opus was never about the special effects. Consider that Star Wars was for all intents and purposes a space samurai movie that shoed in equal parts Eastern philosophy and glo-stick swords. So what if the effects don’t hold up? We’re still dealing with giant slug gangsters and unforgettable cantina tunes and little green dudes who knew the force. And this is why we’ve witnessed such vehement backlash against Lucas’ irreparable re-tweaks, his ‘special ed’-itions: they take us out of the feeling of his dusty, late 1970s sci-fi sprawl. And it was always all about the feeling. And the feeling was good.
And like that untouchable trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy may be poorly acted (Chris Pratt aside) but I’ll be damned if it’s not the closely thing we’ve ever got to that 1977 original masterwork. It’s wonky, weird, wild, completely cartoonish and fun as fuck. It’s Star Wars Revisisted. Its space crawl is Chris Pratt dancing to 70s top forty songs. It’s got an emperic baddie lording over all on Hologram Skype. It’s everything that Harrison Ford has every done melted down into one. It’s even got a Chewbacca. There’s quirk overflowing from every end, and enough tips of the hat to Star Wars to make even Sam Elliot nervous. I’m already Indiana Jonesing to revisit it because it feels good and frankly, I’m hooked on a feeling.
Unlike the pantheon that is the MMU, cross-pollination with the outside Marvel Universe is kept to a minimum (with no mention of Tony Stark, Steven Rogers, or that big green head-case). Guardians of the Galaxy is able to stand on its own two feet and for it, I’m willing to stand on mine and applaud. After all, it was this ceaseless commercialization that cheapened the massively over-rated Captain America 2; the same sludge that made Iron Man 2 such a nightmare. Rather than lean on the platform of a larger universe, Guardians creates its own, expanding on the worlds that Marvel’s created naturally and with a sense of lively misadventure largely missing from its more club-footed counterparts.
In this regard, Guardians just might be Marvel’s crowning achievement. It’s pure unadulterated fun, made magical by hundreds of millions of dollars in top-of-the-line computer animation and made lovable by its plenitude of quirk and its narrow-yet-mammoth scope. The guardians may be set to save the entire galaxy but there’s an intimacy that’s lacking in similarly-sized superhero blockbusters. And did I mention how weird it is?
Guardians, more than anything that I can think of in the past decade, celebrates said strangeness like it’s a Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. It’s not dark, it’s not gritty, it’s not “an untold origin.” It’s double-filtered, locally sourced, FDA-certified organic mirth. An anthropomorphized tree and a shit-talking, gun-firing, whiskey-slugging raccoon aren’t even the weirdest elements of this symphony of strange. I mean James Gunn isn’t known for being reigned in so you better believe there’s plenty of weird to go around.
Michael Rooker (because who better?) is dyed blue and rocks a glowing metallic mohawk. His signature weapon is a magic arrow that zips around when he whistles. Gunn even let Dave Batista try to act. Sure he fails desperately but it’s not like Mark Hamill was ever a shining beacon of thespian promise. But seriously, Batista is a talent vacuum. The guy couldn’t act his way out of a First Grade Thanksgiving play.
As for the story, it starts on Earth with Peter Quill (Pratt). His death-bed occupying mother reaches out for his hand and he runs away, too frightened to face the reality of his mother’s demise. Cue a looking up at the stars bit as the heavens open up, a beam shoots down and little Quill is sucked up into a space ship. Alright, alright, alright.
Twenty years later and Quill’s an outlaw ravager, scavenging planets for goods to pawn. When his sights are set on a mysterious orb, a series of mishaps land him under the gun with a sizable bounty on his head. This is all a MacGuffin to assemble the eponymous Guardians as they all come together looking to score on Quill’s asking price.
This ragtag collection includes Groot (Vin Diesel), the walking, not-so-much-talking tree; Rocket (Bradley Cooper who sounds nothing like Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting, vest-wearing, expletive-yelling raccoon; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a mean, green, alien-fighting machine; and Drax the Destroyer (Batista), a simple-minded, scarification-covered thug with a dead family. They’re as rag-taggy as the Millennium Falcon’s passengers, as disjointed as the Fellowship of the Ring. Some characters are better than others – I could do without Batista’s Drax ever opening his mouth and Saldana is surprisingly flat – but that’s par for the course.
The whole tree/raccoon angle though works wonderfully, their odd relationship giving weight to what could otherwise feel distant or simply strange. Continuing with my ploy to mainstream Star Wars analogies, Groot is very much the Chewie of the equation. His only utterances consisting of “I am Groot”, he offers little to a conversation other than a sympathetic expression or some much needed shrub violence. It’d be smart to avoid playing him in a round of Dejarik. Rocket, like Han Solo before him, is the only one who understand Groot, a bit that Gunn returns to whenever he needs to conjure up a chuckle or two. It’s weird but dammit, it works.
And for how much we fawn over Groot and his pet raccoon, our relationship with Quill isn’t one that neatly fits a description. There’s a distance we feel to him and his wise-cracking ways, but it’s a distance by design. Born of the general distrust of the world around him, he’s an alien that just happens to be human. Him being an abducted orphan and all, you sympathize with his armor of sharp witticisms, you sneer with him at a galaxy that’s too tidy and needs to be knocked down a couple pegs; you’re ok with him being a butterfingered outlaw.
Chris Pratt’s sarcastic banter is a weapon that he wields like a lightsaber. His each and every retort earns a snicker and Pratt has earned the right to play dumb and bumbling and yet oddly charming, a combination he wears perfectly here. From our first encounter with him, he’s a goon of an explorer, a whiff of an adventurer. He wants to be called Star Lord but he just hasn’t earned the handle (his ongoing relationship with said handle goes on to be one of the film’s many highlights.)
Guardians, in all rights, is about the creation of a mythology. It’s about carving out your stake in the world. It’s about grabbing a whip and a fedora and making the name Indiana Jones mean something. It’s about calling yourself Star Lord and not being satisfied until everyone else calls you that too. Darth Vader didn’t become the most feared name in the galaxy overnight. You gotta hone that shit (*hangs head that this was NOT what the prequel trilogy was about*).
Unlike previous Marvel movies, Guardians doesn’t rely on a cliffhanger; it’s not a sleek, flawless package; it’s not busy setting the table for what’s next; it’s not just another commercial for the inevitable team-up with Iron Man and Thor and Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver and Captain America and The Winter Solider and Falcon and War Machine (er, Iron Patriot?). It’s a well-balanced breakfast in itself: it’s properly buttered toast and scrambled eggs and orange juice and a little bit of Dave Batista trying to act all served up with a smile.
For once, you won’t demand “But where are the other guys?!” Gunn’s triumph is happy to exist in its own little universe and for it, trumps Marvel’s other heroes. In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. In 2014, James Gunn gifted the world Guardians of the Galaxy, in all its strange glory.
If you ever wanted to see Andy Dwyer, the Hulk’s little sister, StarFox (er, StarCoon?), and a teenage Treebeard team up to wage a battle of galactic proportions, then you might want to check out the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy that released earlier tonight.
Marvel’s latest brand integration venture is based on a comic series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning that first ran in 2008. Guardians of the Galaxy follows a team of five outcasts as they find themselves accidentally caught in a cosmos-bending conflict after stealing a powerful orb from some evil maestro named Ronan the Accuser.
Coming off recent successes in The Lego Movie and Spike Jonze’s Her, Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill (the self-titled “Space-Lord”), a drunkard American thief who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. He’s joined by Zoe Saldana in green body-paint, Bradley Cooper voicing a space raccoon, WWE fighter Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, who plays an extraterrestrial plant monster (colloquially known as a “tree”).
If those names weren’t enough to catch your interest, then maybe John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan and Benicio Del Toro acting in supporting roles will. Even Lee Pace joins in as the story’s villain, continuing his recent trend of distempered characters.
Judging from the trailer, Guardians of the Galaxy has potential for some good laughs and jackassery. James Gunn directs what looks to be a crass, CGI-filled romp that will at least hold your attention until Avengers: Age of Ultron releases next year.
Guardians of The Galaxy is directed by James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro and Lee Pace. It’ll start maings boatloads of money starting August 1, 2014.
“Out of the Furnace”
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Out of the Furnace is not the movie you expect, it’s not quite the movie you think you want, and it’s certainly not a movie you’ll see coming, but it is one of the best movies of 2013. Petering along a solemn road of America as industrialized hellhole, the jet-black tone and snail’s pace cadence of the film may prove too overbearing for some but those willing to dive into the mire will find a film overflowing with themes of chaotic grace, personal sacrifice, ego death, spiritual deterioration, and unbounded duty. Many similarities to early Kurosawa samurai films and Drive – which itself is largely plotted like a samurai film – emerge and make the film rich with subtext, even though unearthing that subtext is a bit of a harrowing chore.
While the dark material present in the film – beat downs and drugs, depression (economic and mental) and murder – may yield endlessly gloomy circumstances, a trio of standout performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson showcases actors at the top of their game that keep you glued to the screen and cemented into the emotional stakes of the film. The first scene involving a dead-eyed Harrelson, a harlot, and a hotdog will take your breath away and doesn’t let up from there.
Cue Russell Baze (Bale), a genuinely good guy of the strong and silent persuasion, and lil brother Rodney (Affleck), a four-tour Iraq war vet trying to find his footing after his last deployment. In the barren, has-been Rustbelt of Pennsylvania, each face their own economic struggles while also, and more importantly, vying with their personal demons. Nightmares populated by decapitated babies, massacred friends, and piles of hacked off feet haunt Rodney, who can’t escape these grotesque images of war irrevocably burned into his tender mind. Russell, on the other hand, has never seen combat, but a drunk driving incident, where he was responsible for the death of a child, provides him with his own demons to combat.
Both men are bent by society and by themselves and seek means for redemption. As Rodney turns to bare-knuckle underground fighting – a gig he says is just for the money but we suspect that these acts of supreme self-mutilation provide some fleeting escape for his tormented soul – Russell courts serenity in the things of everyday living, like fixing up his Dad’s house. Also finding solace in the gentle monotony of manual labor at the soon-to-close steel mill, Russell tries to move past his spotted history while Rodney’s battle-worn psyche prefers to bask in dreams of grandeur; a grass is greener on the other side mentality that sees him losing his path and descending into Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat personal circle of hell.
In Russell, Rodney, and their fading pops, the Baze family represents the backbone of America: the laborer, the solider, and the invalid; the maker, the doer, and the needy. These three are a cross section of blue collar America caught in a deteriorating socioeconomic climate. Juxtaposed against DeGroat’s wealth (his financial stock culled from dealing crank and heroin) and utterly maniacal temperature, the Baze’s are the 99% to DeGroat’s brand of “elite” class. As they struggle and toil, he lumbers around, shooting spikes of crank into the crevices of his toes and growling intimidation at his underlings while his stacks grow higher. But rather than beat these metaphors over the head, the burrowing screenplay from Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper is wildly subtle, allowing you to make up your interpretation about many elements scattered throughout the film.
While the marketing has played up aspects of this film as a gritty revenge story, these elements don’t really emerge until the final act (and I would strongly urge you not to watch any trailers for Out of the Furnace as they give away 90% of the film.) Instead, more than anything, this is a tale of two brothers who have lost their way.
Making up their own humble sub-nuclear unit, Russell takes the role of big brother to distant but loving Rodney very seriously. When Rodney wracks up a debt gambling on racehorses, Russell plays provider, silently going to the bookie, a pitch perfect Willem Dafoe, and silently pays his struggling brother’s debts. But unlike Rodney, Russell doesn’t crave praise, just peace. As Rodney gets deeper into DeGroat’s playground, Russel loses his opinions of peaceful negotiation and must take up arms to fight for his brother’s honor.
From playing the watchful protector, Russell evolves from almost effeminate – a character trait hinted at through his soft spoken intonation and general aversion to conflict and violence – to a stone cold but silently compassionate hunter of men. Like a shepherd left to herd his flock, one can only rely on his shepherd’s crook for so long. When the wolves come, it’s time to take the old rifle out of storage and switch to old testament mode. And, like the wrathful God of the old testament, Russel doles out his own variety of penalty. Again, biblical themes are open to interpretation, and may entirely just be something that I alone got out of the film, but there is something palpably holy in Russell’s aura and his journey in the film.
As Russell, Bale puts in one of the strongest performances of his celebrated and illustrious career. Entirely captivating and utterly committed, the greatness of his performance is hard to put your finger on but it shines from beginning to end. The final scene we spend with Russell juxtaposed against a heartbreaking sequence shared with ex-lover Lena (Zoe Saldana) showcase Bale’s awesome range. Providing yet another masterclass of acting prowess, Bale excels at making his craft look effortless. It’s as if he’s changed skins since playing the shleppy Irving in American Hustle as he has once transformed himself physically to “become” someone new.
Affleck too puts in a performance for the books and has finally begun to prove to this previously unconvinced critic that he may just be great actor. He balances camaraderie with solitude, laughs with anguish while having to sell his character both as a physical brute and an emotional mess and we buy every second of it. For his part, Harrelson’s DeGroat is the best, and most vile, villain of 2013. Despicable though he may be, his bridge-burning demeanor turns being cavalier into a bloodcurdling game of conversation, making him just about the worst person you could ever bump into at a bar. And though Saldana and a gruff-voiced Forest Whitaker don’t get the screen time they deserve, both bring complex elements to characters that could easily have been one-note and forgettable.
Adding even more depth to the film, the technical elements racket up the tension and help to accentuate the ripe metaphorical elements planted throughout. Dickon Hinchliffe‘s score, largely leaning on Pearl Jam’s “Release,” lends itself to the harrowing nature of the film as bleak yet bold cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi puts the rust back in Rustbelt. This is a dirty, decaying world the Bazes populate and the technical elements help prop up that fact, giving weight to the film and the metaphorical elements boiling within. All these elements – the stellar performances, crisp and dark direction, surging score, crunchy landscapes, an open-ended conclusion – all add up to a film that demands to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be dissected by its viewers.