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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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The Lego Movie (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?

The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.

The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.

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When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.

While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.

Grade: A

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After becoming the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar for the 2009 teeth-rattler The Hurt Locker, the world anxiously awaited to see what director Kathryn Bigelow would produce next. It turned out that the next project she would tackle was Zero Dark Thirty, another War on Terror thriller that follows America’s efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Sparking controversy over the filmmaker’s access to classified information and its depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty could possibly be one of the most important American films of recent memory simply because it supposedly spills the facts that every single American is dying to know. While the debate still rages over whether the film is accurate, I can confirm that Zero Dark Thirty puts the viewer through the ringer, touching upon every single emotion that was collectively felt as a country from September 11th, 2001 through May 2nd, 2011. It begins with horror and confusion, opting to plunge the audience into the darkness of that terrifying day in September while frantic phone calls blare over the speakers and then instantly morphing into rage, then fatigue, then desperation, then hopelessness, and finally surreal relief. Despite how strong the picture is, Bigelow doesn’t drill into white-knuckle intensity as frequently as she did in 2009, leaving The Hurt Locker the true victor of the two films.

Zero Dark Thirty picks up in 2003 and introduces us to Maya (Played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who is sent to work hand-in-hand with fellow officer Dan (Played by Jason Clarke) in Pakistan. Together, Maya and Dan torture and interrogate terrorist financer Ammar (Played by Reda Kateb) about the Saudi Group and the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After a series of brutal interrogations, Maya and Dan finally trick Ammar into revealing more information about al-Qaeda and the name of bin Laden’s most trusted carrier: Abu Ahmed. With this new information and a blessing from station chief Joseph Bradley (Played by Kyle Chandler), Maya and Dan begin trying to locate Abu Ahmed but conflicting stories and information from other prisoners continuously prevent them from finding him. As the years pass and multiple dead ends are hit, the CIA’s determination to end the War on Terror begins to fade but Maya remains dedicated to smoking out Abu Ahmed and tracking down bin Laden any way she can.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline information overload. It is certainly hypnotic in its intimate moments of plan and debate and pinning in its suspense but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal always seem to find a way to remain politically neutral. They acknowledge the shift in approaches between George Bush and Barack Obama but they always leave you, the viewer, to form your own opinions on their approaches to this complex war. The film presents a horrifically brutal interrogation that will have your stomach tied in knots only to immediately cut to a bloody al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which leaves multiple Americans dead. It is this staggering balance that will have the blood boiling and stirring up some lengthy conversations long after Bigelow closes the curtains on this manhunt, which to me is the mark of a really great motion picture. You can’t help but ask yourself or those you see the movie with, was torturing these men really the right answer? Was water boarding really necessary? Did humiliating them really get us any farther? Does torture really make us any better than the ones we are fighting? Bigelow leaves it up to you decide and she knows that these questions get under our skin.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The one who watches over this moral firestorm is Chastain’s Maya, a quiet yet self-assured CIA officer who will stop at nothing to take down the ultimate target. She is the iron lady standing tall next to a 100% guarantee that bin Laden is hiding in this mysterious compound in a room full of men who cower behind a soft 60%. She is simply magnetic the way sticks to her guns, chasing down every lead, and terrifying as she sharpens her torture skills, coldly detached when she warns one prisoner, “if you lie to me, I will hurt you.” Is she Oscar worthy? You bet she is. While Zero Dark Thirty verges on a one-woman show, the guys hold up okay too. Chastain finds a groove with Clarke, her disheveled partner who takes cigarette and ice cream cone breaks from the business-as-usual torture/interrogation. The casual manner that he approaches these situations does send a chill down your spine. He is constantly trying to escape Chastain’s engulfing shadow but he proves he can be one tough cookie when he needs to be. Chandler continues to prove he is the dark horse with a testy performance as Joseph Bradley, the station chief who dares cross Chastain’s ball of fury. I still cannot believe that he has not fully broken out yet but hopefully Zero Dark Thirty will help him become a household name. James Gandolfini drops by to play CIA director Leon Panetta, who is consistently impressed by the firecracker that is Maya. Chris Pratt (Parks & Recreation) and Joel Edgerton are also on board as Navy Seal Justin and Red Squadron Team Leader Patrick. Both are given minor roles but Pratt brings the funnies and Edgerton brings the macho toughness you expect.

So you’re probably wondering, how exactly does Bigelow handle the climatic raid on that compound? She handles it like a pro, filming in gritty night vision as the SEALs move stealthily from one floor of the compound to the next. Even though we know how this is all going to turn out, Bigelow still keeps you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath in spots, especially when the SEALs begin to draw the attention of the people living around the compound. Bigelow continues to jolt the viewer with sudden movement, shadows dashing for cover, and even return fire. This is all complimented by children’s cries as bodies fall limp and the women dive onto the bodies of these fallen terrorists and weep, “YOU’VE KILLED HIM!” When it comes to the money shot, with bin Laden staring down the barrel of a gun, it was handled quite differently than I expected. It is all a bit sudden, blurred, and even slightly surreal, something you really need to see for yourself. The wall of emotions that come crashing down after the shots are fired are really something else but they get tangled in the mad dash to get out of the compound as quickly as possible. The sequence is a real nail biter.

Sadly, Zero Dark Thirty has been attacked by the left as a pro torture film and dismissed by the right as simply left-wing propaganda to make President Obama’s administration look heroic. While I can imagine that some of the events that play out on the screen are fabricated for the sake of drama and action, I really wish people would leave their politics at the door when viewing the film. I admire the film because it has the guts to include it all and then leave it up for debate. Bigelow and Boal are practically screaming at you to view it as it as is and form your own decisions about what you see. It should also be noted that Bigelow and Boal dare to slice the tension in spots and actually make us laugh, something that they were not overly enthusiastic to do in the relentlessly serious The Hurt Locker. Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressive and massively essential thriller that is ripe with hard-boiled performances and brooding tension. It is a film that every American should see.

Grade: A-