The Guardians of the Galaxy

In The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel expands its movie universe to include…well, the universe. Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt, is abducted from Earth when he is eight years old by a crew of ethically questionable scroungers. Twenty six years later he is a semi-independent operator, trying to find artifacts and sell them for profit. When he steals an orb from a decimated planet he finds himself in over his head.
The orb, which is one of the Infinity Stones, a series of McGuffins in the Marvel universe, is coveted by Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace. Ronan is a fanatical Kree warlord who is out to “purify” every world in the galaxy that does not meet his expectations of piety. At the moment, he most upset with the planet Xandar, which appears to be home to a liberal polyglot culture, which apparently includes many humans. Presumably they or their ancestors were abducted like Peter. Ronan has promised to retrieve the orb for Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, in return for Xandar’s destruction.
To this end Ronan has dispatched Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, Thanos’ adopted daughter and a genetically enhanced and highly trained assassin. Thanos has lent Ronan his two daughters; the other one is Nebula, played by Karen Gillan. What Ronan doesn’t realize is that Gamora secretly hates Thanos and has been looking for a chance to betray him. The orb may be her opportunity. Ronan also puts a large bounty on Quill’s head which attracts the attentions of Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, who are bounty hunter partners. Rocket is a genetically mutated raccoon who walks upright, talks and makes bombs and stuff. Groot is a giant tree that walks and can only say “I am Groot.”
All three catch up to Quill on Xandar and when they try to apprehend him, they are captured by the Nova Corps, Xandar’s police force. They are sent to jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista, whose family was killed by Ronan. He thinks of nothing but revenge. And thus the team is complete.
That may seem like a lot to set up but the exposition in the screenplay by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman effortlessly incorporates this strange world into the plot, while cracking jokes and presenting some pretty good set pieces. The whole film is an entertaining romp, a comedy that actually works at two hours. There are also some touching moments too, like Drax’s realization that he doesn’t have the ability to kill Ronan with his bare hands, Quill remembering his mother and his desperate clinging to the mix tapes of 70’s pop music she made him before she died. Even Rocket has a drunken soliloquy about his odd origins and the downside of being unique in the universe. He doesn’t even know what a raccoon is.
This cast is terrific. Pratt plays the fast talking Quill perfectly. He is a man who still has some growing up to do and still misses his mother. Saldana is menacing as an assassin but shows her growing conscience as well. Bradley Cooper is a delight as Rocket’s voice. He captures the bravado and yet manages to show vulnerability too. I can’t imagine a talking raccoon being done any other way.
I have often voiced my appreciation for Marvel’s willingness to experiment with the tones of their live action movies. This year is the perfect example. They have gone from gloomy seriousness in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to The Guardians of the Galaxy which is basically a comedy. It is the most offbeat movie in the Marvel Universe, owing more to Star Wars than to The Avengers.
And it works brilliantly.

A Most Wanted Man

Well most of the summer is gone and what have we geeks got to show for it? A great X-Men movie; a Spider-Man sequel that only I seemed to like and a decent Tom Cruise SF offering that underperformed at the box office. Calling this blockbuster season slow is a misnomer. It has been glacial. So much so that I have been driven to my local art house theater in July. I normally don’t see the inside of it until October or November.
Looking at John LeCarre’s page on IMDB, I don’t believe that there has ever been a bad film or TV version of his work. Obviously some of them are better than others but I don’t think there are any real stinkers in there. Maybe he’s just been lucky in this regard. Or perhaps he is in a position where he can sell the rights to his books only to people who he’s convinced will do them justice. The most interesting possibility to me is that his books are written in such a way that only sophisticated and complex films can be made from them, or that the stories only attract filmmakers that are interested in making those kinds of movies.
He’s probably just been lucky but it is interesting to speculate about it.
In A Most Wanted Man LeCarre turns to the War on Terrorism for his plot. A half-Chechen man, Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, turns up in the Hamburg Muslim community. Hamburg is Germany’s largest port city and is where Mohammed Atta planned 9/11. There is a great deal of paranoia in government circles there and Karpov’s arrival sets off alarms in various German and American intelligence agencies. He fits the profile of a suicide bomber.
Gunter Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles, runs a super-secret crew of spies for the German government. Their mission is to infiltrate the Muslim community and find and diffuse threats before they materialize. Bachmann believes that it is better to wait and observe these threats than to arrest them and take the chance of someone unknown filling the void left behind. He wants to leave Karpov at liberty, to find out what he is doing in Hamburg. The risks are obvious if Karpov actually does turn out to be a bomber. Karpov turns to a liberal lawyer, Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams, to contact a bank run by Tommy Brue, played by Willem Defoe. This bank is holding a vast fortune which was accumulated by Karpov’s Russian father who was a gangster. When Bachmann learns this he believes that he can use Karpov to get to Feisal Abdullah, played by Homayoun Ershadi, a Muslim philanthropist who skims money off his big donations and sends it to terrorist groups.
It is a fairly complicated plot and the director, Anton Corbijn and screenwriter, Andrew Bovell, chose a linear structure to tell it. At the beginning when they are setting things up, scenes are truncated right after they advance the plot, often just before you figure out how this piece fits into the puzzle. There are none of the flashbacks or other time shifting tricks directors usually use when adapting LeCarre. It leaves you intrigued and possibly a little frustrated. The scenes get longer and more intense as the movie progresses. This is the kind of film that hinges on the bad guy signing a paper and Corbijn actually manages to make that exciting and cinematic.
The film’s two plus hours pass quickly.
The characters are typical LeCarre, flawed, cynical, but intelligent and motivated. Hoffman’s Bachmann drinks and smokes too much. His clothes are rumpled, and his tongue is a little too sharp when it comes to dealing with the agencies he needs to collaborate with. He is also a walking contradiction. His crew is authorized to operate outside the law and in total secrecy. And yet he believes in order. He doesn’t want to tear down the structures on the other side and then see them replaced in ways he doesn’t fully understand. That to him is the most dangerous situation. He uses informants, putting them in physical danger, but he cares about them. The scene where he talks a young Arab student out of quitting, and then hugs him his quite powerful. It is a father/son relationship. Hoffman embodies these contradictions with his usual ease, and his German accent isn’t bad.
The rest of the cast is good too. McAdams is great as a smart lawyer who is probably a little too naïve. Dafoe shines as a slick banker, trying to redeem his institution for its past as a vehicle that gangsters used to launder money.
Dobrygin’s performance as Karpov is masterful. He has to play his character as somewhat of a cypher, since his intentions are part of the suspense. On the outside he is a simple devout man, but there are hints of hidden depths. And when you consider that he’s probably not acting in his native language, it is doubly impressive.
A Most Wanted Man is not the best adaptation of LeCarre there is but it is a good movie and well worth seeing.

The Edge of Tomorrow

You have to use your powers of separation when considering Tom Cruise. As a person, he is a flake. He’s a scientologist and is very obnoxious about it. He keeps getting married, in spite of the fact that he can’t seem to make it work. There’s a bit of an ego there too.
But he is a charismatic and talented actor. He has a range, sure, but he’s smart enough to not get very far out of it. Usually, he is fun to watch. In other words, he’s a movie star.
He also seems intent on making an intelligent science fiction movie, which makes him a fascinating figure to me. Most people in Hollywood equate SF with mindless action. Last year Cruise tried the same thing with Oblivion. It wasn’t very good. Now he’s back with The Edge of Tomorrow.
This one’s better, even though the SF conceit isn’t very original. William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, is a PR flack who joins the army when Europe is overrun by an alien race that shows no sign of stopping there. At first he uses his skills to raise recruitment levels. But after rubbing some people the wrong way, he finds himself in the front lines of a D-Day like invasion, which goes disastrously wrong and he’s killed in the first five minutes, after killing one of the aliens and getting some of its gore on him.
Then he wakes up the day before the invasion. This keeps happening to him and he gradually starts living longer. During one iteration, he temporarily saves the life of Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Rita is an ultra-competent soldier, who is the hero of an earlier battle at Verdun, humanity’s only victory in this war thus far. Her picture is on billboards and buses all over the non-conquered world. Before she dies she tells him to find her in his next iteration.
Cage does and she tells him that the aliens are seemingly invincible because they have the ability to create time loops, to go back in time a short distance and try it again, learning a little more about the situation each time. This was why they had never lost a battle until Rita beat them at Verdun. Due to a similarity in genetic makeup, humans are able to use this power as well, if they are exposed to the alien blood like Cage was during the invasion and Rita was during the battle at Verdun. Unfortunately, she lost the power when she was injured and got a blood transfusion. Now Cage must find her during every iteration, get her to train him up and then find a way to defeat the aliens.
Needless to say, Groundhog Day comes to mind, as well as Source Code and a well-loved episode of Stargate SG-1. There are probably many novels and stories that use it and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some pulp writer in the 20’s thought of it first, if it wasn’t Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. The main danger with this kind of narrative structure of course is repetition. You can’t depict the same events time after time, even with slight variations, without boring your audience to tears. This is where montage comes in and The Edge of Tomorrow uses it brilliantly. Cage’s training and his familiarization with unfolding events is depicted in a few short moments of film. It slows down occasionally during moments where they make major advances in their knowledge of the enemy and of the situation. The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and John-Henry and Jez Butterworth is adroit in navigating these waters as is Doug Limon’s direction.
Tom Cruise is his usual movie star self. His arc from shallow flack to steely soldier is a little unbelievable namely because at the beginning they give us no indication that there is a soldier inside that flack, waiting to get out. But he plays both parts effortlessly. Emily Blunt is fine as a closed off super soldier, still mourning the loss of her ability to create time loops. She had hoped to end the war but couldn’t.
The effects are good and the design of the ships and the cool-looking exoskeletons they use in battle are great.
The Edge of Tomorrow is not going to make anyone forget 2001 or Bladerunner, but it is a pretty good, thought provoking movie that approaches intelligence. The fact that its premise is a little overused shouldn’t bother anybody because they made it work.
Just as the fact that Tom Cruise is a bit of a jerk should not keep us from enjoying his performances.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I was reminded the other day that the first X-Men movie pre-dated the first Spider-Man movie by two years, making the X-Men the real progenitors of the current superhero craze. The X-Men was surprisingly popular but I still maintain that Raimi’s Spider-Man was what really cemented the current dominance of the superhero genre. In the years since it is interesting to note that both of those franchises have had spotty records. The X-Men in particular has had almost as many lows as highs. There are two universally recognized stinkers in the series, two very well regarded installments, an aging origin film and nobody seems to know what to make of The Wolverine. I liked it. I don’t follow the industry enough to know if this inconsistency is reflective of regime changes at 20th Century Fox, but I have heard griping from fanboys about the studio’s cavalier attitude toward the series and superhero films in general.
Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair for Days of Future Past, and despite his recent legal troubles, he is a talented director, and his vision for the franchise is a good fit. Here, however, he is taking his cues from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class, which is the main set up for this film, and was of course a prequel that introduced us to the two teams of mutants, those following Professor X, played by James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart and those following Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen. The reason there are two actors playing each of those roles is because Days of Future Past is one of the most famous and beloved story arcs in the X-Men comics and it is also a time travel story. This is perfect, because it allows Singer to unite the two casts into one movie.
In the present (or a present) Professor X and the rest of the mutants are in hiding and on the run. Giant robots, called sentinels are hunting them down and exterminating mutants. The collateral damage from this conflict has largely collapsed civilization on the planet. Professor X and Magneto have gotten together and determined the historical point when things went wrong. It was back in 1973 when Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, kills Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage, the weapons designer who makes the sentinels, largely from knowledge he gained by experimenting on mutants. She is captured and they use her shape changing DNA to make the sentinels invincible. Using the ability of Kitty Pryde, played by Ellen Page, to send a person’s consciousness back through time to inhabit their earlier body, they send Wolverine back to 1973 to try and prevent the assassination. To do this, he must convince the earlier Charles Xavier, who is taking a drug to suppress his powers and allow him to walk. The drug was developed by Hank McCoy, played by Nicholas Hoult, who also turns big and blue and is known as the Beast. Charles has given up and given in to bitterness over Mystique siding with Magneto. Oh, and Wolverine also has to break Magneto out of his cell, which is located one hundred stories below the Pentagon.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is definitely a high point of the series. The script by Simon Kinberg is tightly plotted and takes these sprawling and complicated ideas and boils them down to a two hour and eleven minute film that never drags. Also Singer’s direction keeps things moving and legible. He gets great performances out of his cast, although considering this cast that’s not a difficult task.
The cinematography is dark and slick, similar to the first two films but not as artificial looking. They were definitely going for a more realistic feel in this one. The same goes for the art direction and the costumes. They add 70’s fashions and cars to the usual black leather costumes and their high tech jet. And it all works.
With this size of a cast, there are bound to be some actors who are not given much to do. In this case that includes Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. And at this point they really do owe Halle Berry a Storm movie. I bet she hasn’t had more than twenty lines in four movies. And all those mutants in the tremendous first fight sequence against the invincible sentinels are left uncharacterized. I’m sure people who follow the comics know who they are.
Overall the performances are excellent but a few stand out. Michael Fassbender is menacing and uncomfortably reasonable as the young Magneto. He has his viewpoint and it makes sense. Likewise James McAvoy, shows us a young, humbled and very vulnerable Charles Xavier. He has an arc going from an extended dark night of the soul to taking the first steps toward becoming Professor X. And I have to mention Evan Peters who almost steals the movie as Quicksilver. He plays him as an arrogant punk, sure of his abilities and equally sure he can get away with anything. I wish he was in the movie more.
With the Amazing Spider-Man movies and Man of Steel, I’ve been talking a lot about rebooting these franchises. In a way Days of Future Past reboots the X-Men. It repairs most of the damage done by the third installment. But mostly it restores the series’ momentum by being a darn good movie.


When I think of Godzilla, I think of burning hot Saturday afternoons in the summer, sitting in front of the family’s new color TV and watching the only thing worth watching on the three channels available to us. I was a kid and that was our first color TV. Even then I could tell that most of those movies were not the pinnacle of filmmaking art but I didn’t care. Giant monsters were destroying Tokyo and that was cool. I loved the scenes where people were fleeing in panic down city streets, dodging debris and trying not to get crushed by the giant claws of the monster. There is something compelling about that drama, even if the characterization is about an inch deep. I imagine every baby boomer has a similar memory.
In these latter days it is hard to believe that Hollywood can recreate that long ago vibe, even though it certainly can make a better film. Previous attempts to make new Godzilla movies are met with skepticism. There is the 1998 version with Matthew Broderick that is reviled in fanboy circles and a few other stabs. You could even add last summer’s Pacific Rim to that list. Cloverfield is an exception because it emphasizes the characters.
Can director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham succeed where many have failed?
In this version, Godzilla is a closely guarded international secret. In the fifties several attempts were made to kill the beast with nuclear weapons. They failed because Godzilla is a holdout from an earlier era when lifeforms fed off of radiation. The explosions were covered up by calling them nuclear tests. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, played by the great Ken Watanabe, is a scientist for an international organization that studies Godzilla. In 1999 another beast from the high radiation era emerges from the remains of a Godzilla-like creature buried in the Philippines. It heads straight to the nearest source of radiation, a Japanese nuclear power plant run by American engineer Joe Brody, played by Brian Cranston. The plant melts down and Brody loses his wife, played by Juliette Binoche. The government story is that this was a simple accident, causing a meltdown, but Brody suspects that it was something else and spends the next fifteen years trying to prove it. His son, Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, only has fuzzy memories of that incident. Now he’s a bomb disposal expert for the army with a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and a young child of his own. He’s trying to move on with his life. When his father gets arrested in Japan for trying to get to their old house near the plant in a quarantined neighborhood, Ford has to travel there to bail the old man out. They both get more than they bargained for and it becomes a long hard trip home for Ford.
The characterization in this one is about two inches deep. It’s not Shakespeare but it’ll do for a monster movie. Also the plot doesn’t really stand up to close inspection but there are cool visuals of monsters destroying cities so who really cares? These things always have ecological themes or they make statements about nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of talk about how nature restores balance and stuff, which doesn’t really resonate in the face of climate change and should have been tweaked. But you don’t go to these things for profundity.
In other words Godzilla is a good enough summer movie to get a pass.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

In the pre-production phase of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 they made all these casting announcements: Paul Giamatti as the Rhino, Jamie Foxx as Electro and Dane DeHaan as the Green Goblin, and I started to worry. Those are three great actors to be sure, but having three villains from Spidey’s rogues’ gallery in one movie is suspiciously reminiscent of the villain creep that helped kill the first run of Batman movies. I suspect the reason for this is because Spider-Man is such a popular character that every movie has to be huge in scope with the fate of the city or even the world at stake. The problem with this is that Spider-Man was designed to fight street-level crime, not to save the world on a regular basis. He leaves that to the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the Avengers. However, his position as one of the most popular and profitable superheroes of all time, demands that his movies be big in every way.
So we get three villains.
At the beginning of the movie Peter Parker, played by Andrew Garfield, is dealing with life as Spider-Man the best he can. He’s stopping crime and saving people and that’s fun. But keeping his secret and balancing his regular life with his nightly activities is getting to be stressful. Plus he’s not doing a very good job of keeping his promise to Captain Stacy and staying away from Gwen, played by Emma Stone, and this bothers him. And Gwen is getting tired of his indecision.
The stakes rise as three powerful supervillains, Electro, the Rhino, and the Green Goblin appear. Peter investigates and discovers that they are all linked to Oscorp and that this is connected to the mysterious deaths of his parents. It seems he was not the only accidental subject of his father’s research.
Somehow Marc Webb, the director, has made a pretty good film despite the overabundance of villainy. It starts with a smart script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Jeff Pinker. The story works because the supervillains are bundled up into one conspiracy, which is also connected to Spider-Man’s origins and power. It also works because this conspiracy is really a subplot. The main story is Peter and Gwen’s relationship which is played out over the backdrop of his battles with mega powered crime. And that relationship works because the chemistry between the two leads is so good.
Webb excels at this kind of story and he brings out these two terrific performances. The action part of it is OK, although he does this thing where he pauses the action in mid-flight, giving us a tableau to admire, usually of Spidey in mid leap, which is very annoying. But otherwise the fights are pretty good.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Garfield brings a sort or soulful smart aleck vibe to the role that is very appealing. He doesn’t just save people; he interacts with them. When he chases some bullies away from a little kid, he takes the time to talk to him, repairs the wind turbine he built for a science fair project, and makes sure he gets home. Spider-Man is one of the sunnier superheroes and Garfield captures that.
Emma Stone is funny and charming as Gwen. I thought that Jamie Foxx’s performance as Max Dillon was a little broad and the director should have reined him. Dane Dehaan’s haughty and desperate Harry Osborn was pretty good.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 falls short of greatness but it is better than the first one and is actually a very entertaining movie.

Draft Day

Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. This means two things. One, I know nothing but despair, and two, I probably know more about the subject that Draft Day deals with than your average reviewer although I’ve read a few reviews of this and it is bringing us Browns fans out of the woodwork, so maybe not.
There are some eerie parallels between this film and real life. In the movie and in reality the Browns are going into an important draft with an untested General Manager, a new coach, and a relatively new owner. In each case there is an intriguing quarterback on the roster who played well last season but got hurt and then the team’s fortunes sank. And the Browns have an early draft pick but not the number one.
Early in the morning on the day of the draft, Browns GM, Sonny Weaver Jr., played by Kevin Costner, gets an offer from Seattle to trade for the number one pick and the rights to draft Bo Callahan, played by Josh Pence, a quarterback out of Wisconsin, who all the draft analysts agree is a sure thing. His owner Anthony Molina, played by Frank Langella, is pressuring Sonny to make a big splash on the offensive side of the ball. So reluctantly Sonny trades away three years of first round draft picks to get the number one, even though he believes in the team’s current QB, Brian Drew, played by Tom Welling. His new coach, played by Denis Leary, just arrived from Dallas, where he won a Super Bowl (not everything parallels reality here) wants running back Ray Jennings, played by Arian Foster, who does a pretty good job and may have a future in film when he retires from the NFL. Sonny, himself, really likes Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack, played by Chadwick Boseman.
To top things off, Sonny has some personal problems that are coming home to roost. His father, legendary Browns coach Sonny Weaver Sr. died the week before and his mother, played by Ellen Burstyn wants to spread his ashes on the practice field named after him on that day. There is obvious tension with his mother. Plus Sonny’s casual affair with his capologist, Ali, played by Jennifer Garner, has resulted in her pregnancy.
The script for Draft Day is very well researched. The writers, Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph are knowledgeable about how the draft and indeed, the NFL works. They took some liberties for dramatic reasons but for the most part they got it right. Likewise they seem to be well informed about the tragic history of the Browns. The move was mentioned and also the years of losing after the return in 1999. I was very impressed with their research.
Ivan Reitman directs and gets good performances out of everybody. Costner isn’t stretching here but he’s fun to watch. Jennifer Garner comes across as a smart sexy former tomboy who loves what she does and loves football. Even the cameos with sportscasters, league commissioners and athletes don’t provide embarrassing moments.
They use split screens during the many phone calls in the film and Reitman does this thing where occasionally someone will spill over onto the other side of the screen, sometimes they even cut across the other half and then back into their own setting. I had read about this beforehand and thought that it was going to be a distracting gimmick. But it actually works. Draft Day’s plot is almost solely advanced in these phone calls and for the most part phone calls aren’t very cinematic. This technique provides an injection of energy into what could have been a static visual.
In the end Draft Day is as much a financial thriller as it is a sports movie. It takes place, after all, in the off season when no games are being played. There is no built in drama of an athletic contest. There are only the phone calls and the wheeling and dealing. The only clock is the compressed timeline of one workday, the biggest day in the offseason.
The maneuver Sonny pulls at the end is probably fantasy but maybe not that far out of the realm of possibility. It is a cheer inducing moment, however, at least for me. I’m not sure how a Steeler fan would feel about it and I don’t really care either. I just hope that Ray Farmer, the real GM of the Browns can do just as well as Kevin Costner next month.

September 2014
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