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Guardians of the Galaxy

I’ve put off writing this review for a long time, because, even though I enjoyed this movie, I was kind of mad at it.  It reminded me an awful lot of “Serenity,” and the whole “Firefly” series, since both are about a ragtag group of losers who take on a much more powerful enemy, and succeed because they’re scrappy and well, on the right side.  The fact that this movie was almost twenty times more successful than “Serenity” (“Guardians” made $773 million; “Serenity” made $40 million) simply because it was made by Marvel and exists in the same universe as the Avengers just kind of ticks me off, and makes me feel all bitter and cynical about Hollywood.

So I gave it a rest, and came back to it this week.  I watched it intentionally looking for ways it was different from “Serenity,” and found quite a few.  “Serenity” is essentially a Western set in space; “Guardians” isn’t.  “Serenity is infused with a spirit of melancholy, a sense of a dying way of life as the romance and poetry of the Browncoats gives way to the glossy, inhuman efficiency of the Alliance. “Guardians” is much snarkier than that. If “Serenity” is about outcasts mourning the loss of a society where they fit, “Guardians” is about outcasts who have never fit anywhere.

They are led (though none of them would admit it) by Peter Quill, played with just the right mix of sliminess and heroism by Chris Pratt.  This is Pratt’s breakout performance, but he’s the kind of actor you think you’ve never seen before until you look him up on IMDB – he was in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” and “Moneyball,” and even looking back on those films, I see nothing that indicated he had this kind of performance in him.  Joining him are Zoe Saldana as Gomorrah, pro wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax (his performance suggests Bautista could be the next Dwayne Johnson) Bradley Cooper voicing Rocket Raccoon (who isn’t a raccoon, just looks like one,) and tree-thing Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel.

(OK, just stop for a moment and imagine that recording session.  All Groot ever says is “I Am Groot.”  Which means the director had to ask Diesel to say that, a hundred different ways.  “Now can you say it, sounding sympathetic?  Now sound angry.  Awesome.  Can you say it again, inquisitive? Dreamy? Sad, but hopeful?  Perfect.  Great work, Vin.”)

This ragtag band finds themselves in possession of an Infinity Stone, which are going to be super important in some upcoming Marvel Universe movie.  (There’s another one at the heart of the Tesseract, in the first Avengers movie.) Super bad guy Thanos wants it for his infinity gauntlet, but for some reason sends less-super bad guy Ronan to get it for him.  Of course Ronan figures out what it is, and keeps it for himself, and tries to destroy a planet with it.  It’s up to our ragtag bunch of losers and outcasts to save him. (Spoiler: they do.)

I really, really hate the big action setpiece that is at the climax of this movie, because it is stupid in so many ways.  But if I set that 20 minute sequence aside, and if I quit comparing it to “Serenity,” I really do enjoy this movie.  It’s funny and clever, it’s energetic and fun to look at, it introduces fun side characters like the Collector and Yondu.  The Guardians have a chemistry that works. It’s a fun movie, and a fun team, and I will certainly watch “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” whenever that happens. It’s a solid, enjoyable entry into the Marvel canon, probably in the top third of Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  I guess that’s good enough.

 

Random Notes

-Zoe Saldana was in “Avatar,” “Star Trek” and now this.  What is it about her that makes directors want to cast her in sci-fi flicks?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.

-I enjoy comic books, and so love the way Marvel has really expanded into an entire universe (they’ve certainly done it better than DC.)  It’s fun to see plenty of elements here that have their own storylines – Nova Prime, and Nowhere, and the Kree all have very developed stories that will probably never make it into a Marvel movie.

–Ok, here’s a short list of things I hate about that action sequence.

  • Yondo’s plan is to fly straight at Ronan’s ship, then detonate a smoke bomb, and in the smoke, launch a surprise attack by flying under the ship.  This assumes that Ronan’s ship has exactly one window through which its entire crew can see the world around them.  No radar, no other windows.  Fog up that one window, and they’re completely blind.
  • Ronan launches a kamikaze attack at the city below the ship.  Fighters are flying at the ground as fast as they can with the intent to crash and destroy as much as they can.  Rocket Raccoon leads a regiment to get underneath them and shoot them down.  Which means that now, they are are on fire, or exploded into a million pieces – and still crashing down onto the city and destroying it.  Because that’s how gravity works, you stupid Raccoon.
  • Yondo crash lands and is surrounded by enemy soldiers.  Lots of them.  So he whistles, and his arrow comes out of its holder.  Then it flits  around, at roughly the speed of a real arrow, and kills every single one of the bad guys.  Who just stand there, watching their fellow soldiers get killed by this really pretty slow-moving thing, and wait for their turn to die.
  • On board the ship, Gomorrah, Peter and Drax take out Nebulah.  She is lying in a broken pile and looks defeated. Then Gomorrah sends the rest of them a different direction, while she tries to disable the power converter doohickey. But then Nebula reconstructs herself, because apparently she’s a self-repairing robot, or something. And now it’s Gomorrah against Nebulah, with the WHOLE MISSION at stake.  But wait – these two grew up together. They’re sisters. Didn’t Gomorrah know her sister could reconstruct like that?  Why send everyone else away when you know she isn’t actually defeated, only temporarily disabled?

 

 

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Revenant

“The Revenant” is set in what is now North Dakota/Montana in the 1820s.  (The film fudges a little on its location – it was shot in British Columbia, which is a great deal more mountainous that North Dakota) It’s a time period and location seldom explored in movies – it’s a Western in some senses, and definitely not in others. A band of fur trappers, led by Domnhall Gleeson, who find themselves in conflict with the indigenous people of that land (called by their nickname the “Ree” in the film, they are actually the Sahnish, or Arikara) because of a misunderstanding. As they struggle to make it to a safe place, their scout, Leonardo DiCaprio, is mauled by a bear and nearly killed. Left in the care of his son (Forrest Goodluck) and two other trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter), DiCaprio is betrayed by Hardy and left for dead.  The rest of the movie is the story of his unlikely survival and quest for revenge.

A lot of the reviews I’m reading think that, if “The Revenant” has a thematic element, it’s that nature is brutal and merciless and there are a million ways to die in the West.  It’s certainly a harsh and unrelenting film. But I think that reading of it misses a major point, and the film bears closer watching. DiCaprio is attacked by a mother bear because she sees him as a threat to her cubs (legitimately, as he has one in his rifle sights when she attacks.)  This bear is not being ruthless, it’s being maternal. Caring for one’s offspring is a theme running through the film, and connects the bear to the humans. After all, DiCaprio keeps himself alive in order to avenge his son who he could not protect, and the Ree war party is trying to find their leader’s kidnapped daughter.

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Hateful Eight

By Will Krischke

“The Hateful Eight” is a long movie with a creeping first act, intermission, and intense, violent second act that uses an old-fashioned filmmaking style in a way that doesn’t make much sense. It might also be a political statement, though I’m not sure I’m drinking that Kool-Aid. It’s a fascinating, problematic film, one worth watching, and watching again, and even then, I’m not sure I actually like it.

Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell play bounty hunters who just happen to find themselves in the same place at the same time.    Russell has tracked down a particularly valuable fugitive in Jennifer Jason Leigh, but a snowstorm is rapidly approaching, so the trio must take refuge in a trading post that looks to be the only hospitable roof for a hundred miles.

Russell is expecting to be bushwhacked, so when the regular owner of the “haberdashery” is nowhere to be found, his hackles are immediately up.  The owner’s replacement, a burly Mexican named Bob, insists that everything is as it should be, and the three other residents all insist that they’re up not up to any kind of mischief.  Which means, of course, that they are.

This sets up a weird sort of chamber drama, not unlike the mostly forgotten genre of “old dark house” whodunit flicks of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s just like Tarantino to revive a forgotten genre, and combine it with other, more familiar elements.  This time it really feels like he’s trying to wed uber-violent Westerns, a la Sam Peckinpah, with gross-out horror flicks, a la Evil Dead. It’s an uneasy marriage, as the grittiness gets washed away by the gallons and gallons of blood vomit. I am used to a lot of violence in Tarantino films, and even an element of gore and comedy involved, but this is on beyond that.

Everyone in this small cast delivers solid performances, but Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins stand out.  Russell and Jackson are doing good, but pretty standard work; what we get from them is what we’re used to get from them. Leigh was one of my favorite actresses in the ’90s, then seemed to disappear for the last 15 years.  IMDB says she had steady work, but almost none of the performances were memorable, and some were no more than set dressing.  It’s a big year for her, between this and “Anomalisa,” both of which are garnering her awards attention.  I’m glad she’s back.

I wouldn’t consider “The Hateful Eight” in the top tier of Tarantino’s films.  The second tier, maybe.  There’s too much self-conscious stylizing going on, for one thing. Quentin Tarantino is a good storyteller, but I wish he didn’t feel the need to constantly remind us that it is he, Quentin Tarantino, that is telling the story. It’s almost as bad as certain filmmakers’ need to put their names right in the title of the movie. Also, I see the political points being made, but they feel more belabored here than in Tarantino’s best work. The best storytellers (like the best practitioners of most anything,) make it look effortless.  Tarantino seems to want us to see him sweating.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

What could I possibly say about this movie that hasn’t been said a hundred times already?  Not only is it well on its way to be the best-selling movie of all time, it’s also the most-anticipated, most analyzed, most talked about movie, well, at least in a long time.

So you probably already know that it didn’t disappoint. After the fiasco of the prequels, all we really wanted was a decent movie, a not-embarassing movie, and it is that, without a doubt.  I hardly hear anyone but contrarians and punks complaining about it. Will it hold up over time? It’s almost impossible to say.  Is it as good as the original trilogy? There’s a good chance, but we won’t really be able to say until this new trilogy is complete, will we?

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

By Courtland Hopkins

                  “Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer; the decision rests with you.”

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” tells the story of an alien who comes to Earth to deliver a message to the people of Earth in the time of the Cold War and the paranoia of the 1950’s. This is science fiction at its best, using the fantastic to tackle difficult issues and to foster thought on difficult topics. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” tackles the threat of war and violence to humankind. Klaatu (Michael Rennie), the visitor, must find a way to proclaim to the people of Earth his message while the government tries to stop him. On his journey he meets Helen Benson (Patricia Neil) and her son Billy (Billy Gray) from whom he learns the secrets of humanity. We are taken along on his journey as he looks on our world as an outsider looking in. As the film progresses his time is running out and if he fails the consequences could mean the end of everything.

The film was shot in black and white to emphasize realism, since color was thought of as the frivolous medium at the time (much like 3D now.) The filmmakers wanted the audience to take this movie and its ideas seriously. The film’s realism is what contributes to it staying power. It tries to portray the real world as it interacts and reacts to this amazing event. The film takes its time with its characters, building them as real humans with their frailty, beauty, and cowardice intact. There is a sense of rising crisis and utter credibility at the films climax. It is wonderful to see a movie about the fantastic that isn’t a franchise.

The storytelling in The Day the Earth Stood Still is well crafted and thoughtful; it is not a polemic telling you what to think but rather invites you into that process. There are poignant scenes like when Klaatu and Bobby visits Arlington Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorials, the ultimate monuments to peace. The movie is still relevant today in our unstable times at home and abroad. The film uses an alien visitor to show people who they really are and what they are capable of doing when they truly believe in something like Justice or Equality.  A decision must be made as a citizen. A good story stimulates good thought and helps us view life’s trials from another angle so that we can understand. A good movie will tell us the truth, that is what a good story does, and this is a good story.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, The Classic Movie Series.

The Imitation Game

I love movies like “The Imitation Game,” movies about the war behind the war, about brainy characters who have a major impact on military victories.  Maybe it’s because I’m brainy and wouldn’t make a very good soldier.  My grandfather’s major contribution to World War II was fixing radios so that Allied planes wouldn’t shoot down friendlies.  That’s no small thing.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, known these days as the father of computers and the Turing Test (which is the basis for another very good recent movie, “Ex Machina.”)  But Turing had one job in 1942, and that was to decipher the Nazi code-generating machine, nicknamed Enigma.  With Enigma, the Nazis could quickly and easily change their codes every day, and with 120 million million possibilities generated by a single machine, Allied codebreakers could not catch up in time to produce anything useful.

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Spotlight

I think my favorite moment in “Spotlight” comes at the end. This movie is about the Boston Globe reporters who filed several lengthy stories about sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and the ways the Catholic church covered up the abuse while allowing it to continue. In the final scenes of the film, the reporters have filed their story, and they’re expected a lot of angry phone calls to the Globe because of it. But they’ve also established a direct line to the Spotlight office, for people to tell their own stories of abuse.  As they walk into the empty office on a Saturday, the operators are bored.  No one is calling to complain.  But downstairs, in their office, the phones are ringing off the hook.  Story after story after story of abuse at the hands of these priests are pouring in.

“Spotlight” is a very buttoned down, no-nonsense telling of the scandal that rocked the Catholic church to its very foundations. Cinematically, it’s clearly patterned on “All the President’s Men,” the Redford/Hoffman film about the reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal. Just like that film, this is about the process of journalism — about knocking on doors, spending hours poring over tedious files, following up leads and making connections.  There are very few displays of emotion, even as this team of reporters — Mark Ruffalo Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James, led by Michael Keaton — discover that what they thought was a handful of priests turns out to be widespread and ongoing.  Actually, I think “Spotlight” is better than the film it’s patterned after, because it does a better job of making sure the viewer has the relevant info to follow the paper trail themselves.  I watched “All the Presidents Men” recently, and at times it devolves into a bunch of names, acronyms, and references to things like The Canuck Letter.  It’s hard to follow.  “Spotlight” avoids that mistake; I found it very easy to follow.

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Chloe & Theo

Inuit elders have a dream about the sun getting mad and kissing the earth. So they send Theo (Theo Ikummaq) south, to inform world leaders about it, because Theo attended boarding school and speaks English – though he appears to have learned nothing else about American culture during that experience.

The filmmakers seem to have even less understanding of what it’s like to be homeless in New York than they do what it means to be indigenous in the Arctic.  Dakota Johnson, in a performance complete nuance-free, leads a merry band of indigents who feel like they’re straight out of a play written by sixth-graders.  They eat out of the garbage of a different restaraunt every night (Tuesday – pizza night!) and spend most of their time hustling tourists at chess in Central Park. Drugs, alcohol, prostitution, predators, cops, mental illness — none of these things have anything to do with their joyful, jolly lives.

Johnson befriends Theo, and helps him on his mission.  Along the way, weak points are made about skyscrapers and the way we treat our elders. Then Johnson decides the United Nations are the elders Theo really needs to talk to, and they promptly get arrested in the UN lobby, for no good reason (seriously, these have to be the most unintentionally idiotic security guards in the history of cinema) except that’s what the movie needs to happen to keep moving.

Theo finally connects with an activist (Mira Sorvino) who has some connections, decides he needs to climb 67 flights of stairs while those connections are waiting, and seems about to accomplish his mission (on some level – appearing Larry King isn’t exactly the same as speaking to the President, or making a difference) when apparently the filmmakers ran out of money and slapped a corny tragic ending on the whole affair.

There is almost nothing to like about this movie. It props up an indigenous person as a mascot for a cause.  In my mind, that’s not very different from using a Native as a mascot for a football team. It perpetuates stereotypes of Native people as “earth children,” morally pure and naive about the world of the 21st century. It feels like a two hour version of that commercial from the ’70s, where Iron Eyes Cody sheds a tear over pollution.

A much better movie that could’ve been made. It’s been in the news lately that Inuit elders are reporting to astronomers that the earth has shifted on its axis, changing where the sun rises in the morning, and the astronomers are listening.  Surely this was the germ from which this movie sprang. Following that idea would’ve provided opportunities to explore the ways that the Inuit people forecast the weather, as well as its importance to their way of life.  It would’ve given opportunities to explore more complicated relationships between traditional and scientific knowledge, between scientists, elders and activists.  So why did the filmmakers feel the need to invent a dream about the sun getting mad and kissing the earth?  Because, dear reader, they think we are too stupid to handle the real story. Movies can commit a lot of crimes, but to me, the unforgivable sin is insulting my intelligence.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Big Game

As part of a coming-of-age ceremony, a 13 year old boy must go hunting on his own, armed with only a bow and arrow. Whatever he brings back – rabbit, deer, bear — marks him for life: this is the kind of man he is.  Now that’s pressure.

One of the fun things about “Big Game” is that it starts with this ceremony, somewhere in the ice and snow of Scandinavia. And while it clearly takes place in present day, I would guess that you could take the first twenty pages of the script, remove only the stage directions, and shoot this same sequence set in 1500 AD.  The men would be carrying their supplies on sledges pulled by reindeer instead of four wheelers and pickup trucks, and you’d have to change the costuming a bit.  That’s all. The words would stay the same.  It’s a fun, fascinating look at the ways how, in some places in the world, culture and time-honored ceremony stay the same, even as technology changes around us.

Unfortunately, the rest of “Big Game” doesn’t live up to the beauty and profundity of that opening set of scenes.  Once President of the United States is on the scene, the film hews pretty closely to dumb action movie tropes, as established by films like “White House Down” and “Air Force One.” The terrorist who shoot down the President’s plane are two-dimensional, and the conspiracy they’re a part of is ridiculous. The camerawork relies far too heavily on slow-motion shots to juice up pedestrian action sequence, and the director seems to have a special fascination with helicopters, – both in front of and behind the camera.

But if I’m going to watch a dumb action flick, I’d rather it be this one, if just for this scene alone: the President tries to commandeer the boy’s four-wheeler.  “This is now property of the United States of America,” he says, with a serious look on his face.  “The hell it is,” the boy says to the most powerful man in the world.  “This is a big forest. You will get lost.”  Of course the two help each other escape their dilemmas and accomplish their goals, by the end. But it’s fun to watch the Commander-in-Chief learn about the woods from a thirteen year old indigenous boy.

Director Jalmari Hellander has made two movies that have made it to America from Finland; the first was “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” a take on the Santa Claus Christmas movie that I recommend all horror fans check out.  Both films have featured young actor Onni Tommila, and both feature communities of what I assume are Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. I haven’t been able to figure out if Tommila or Hellander are Sami themselves (most of the articles I find via Google search are in Finnish) but I appreciate that we are getting movies set amongst that people group.  In fact, Hollander seems most at home when filming amongst the Sami; both film run into most of their problems when outsiders get involved.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Inherent Vice

I’m not sure I get it.  I’m not sure it matters.  I like it anyway.

“Inherent Vice” is a riff on hard-boiled detective stories like “The Big Sleep,” but in the same vein as “The Big Lebowski.”  By that I mean our detective is pretty soft-boiled.  Sam Spade he ain’t.  Unlike the little Lebowski, Joaquin Phoenix plays an actual detective, and while he may smoke just as much pot as The Dude, underneath his hazy exterior, he’s a pretty astute detective.  Not unlike Jake Gittes in “Chinatown,” he shrewdly plays dumb while putting the pieces together for himself.

“Inherent Vice” is more like “The Big Sleep” than those other two movies, however, because I’m not at all sure the pieces ever actually fit together.  Certainly many of the questions asked are never answered.  But also like that Humphrey Bogart classic, it doesn’t really matter. We get caught up in the characters, the atmosphere, and the intrigue to the point that the questions don’t really matter.

Continued…

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.