Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Guardians Of The Galaxy

Directed by: James Gunn

Produced by: Kevin Feige

Screenplay by: James Gunn
Nicole Perlman

Based on: Guardians Of The Galaxy by Dan Abnett
Andy Lanning

Starring: Chris Pratt
Zoe Saldana
Dave Bautista
Vin Diesel
Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn
Lee Pace
Michael Rooker
Karen Gillan
Djimon Hounsou
John C. Reilly
Glenn Close
Benicio del Toro

Music by: Tyler Bates

Cinematography by: Ben Davis

Editing by: Craig Wood
Fred Raskin
Hughes Winborne

Studio: Marvel Studios

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): July 31, 2014 (United Kingdom)
August 1, 2014 (United States)

Running time: 122 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $170 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $586, 365, 199

What a shock, things didn't go according to plan, eh? Basically, I had a work schedule all sorted out, but then, through a bit of fault of my own in light of hitherto un-forseen circumstances, I ended up adding more work onto my already substantial load, and all in all, I did a total of one hundred and eleven hours over ten days. The only day I had off during that period was travelling to Stradbally to work Electric Picnic, so believe me when I tell you I had no time to watch any movies. However, no that I'm back and I've already got started again, I've decided to compile both August and September together and address the monthly review at the end of September with the both of them. I've a lot more time on my hands to devote myself to my film reviewing and various artistic endeavours (and hey, maybe I'll actually go and get myself a social life again at some point!), so, for all the latest and greatest on the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is the much-anticipated latest release from Marvel Studios, Guardians Of The Galaxy. It's intelligent marketing campaign, which offered itself up as something wholly different to what we have seen come out of the Marvel brand, which has since 2008's Iron Man been primarily focused on the characters that comprise The Avengers. As such, with the Guardians being a lesser-known property outside of the comic world and James Gunn at the helm, a director who, while bringing a unique quality and offbeat humour with him, had no box-office successes to his name in that capacity (he wrote Tromeo & Juliet, the live-action Scooby Doo features and Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead, but his two directorial productions, 2006's wholly underrated and outrageous Slither, and 2010's Super, were for all intents and purposes flops), this was a bit of a gamble for Marvel to see if there was any interest in their universe outside of the Iron Man's, Thor's and the Captain America's. Okay, so, plot synopsis goes that in 1988, after his mother's death, Peter Quill is abducted from Earth by the Ravagers, a group of space pirates led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker). Twenty-six years later, Quill (Chris Pratt) steals an orb and after being intercepted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), he escapes with it. On the hunt for the orb though is Ronan (Lee Pace), who is attempting to capture the orb for Thanos, and sends the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after the orb. However, two bounty hunters, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are drawn into the fight, and the four are arrested by the Nova Corps and imprisoned in the Kyln. While in the Kyln, a powerful inmate by the name of Drax (Dave Bautista) attempts to kill Gamora due to her association with Ronan, who murdered his family. Drax is dissuaded by Quill, who offers the incentive that Gamora can take him to Ronan, and after escaping the Kyln, the five form an uneasy alliance to help each other succeed in their various goals. Capiche? Good!

To start off with the good, the central ensemble that comprise the Guardians are terrific. Chris Pratt, who underwent an intense dieting and workout regimen to lose weight for the film, anchors the movie in the part of Peter Quill. His comedic talents and awareness of the character's fallibilities mean that Quill has an interesting arc: at the beginning, the Star-Lord figures himself a bit of a Han Solo character, but really is a brilliant yet arrogant buffoon, and Pratt subtly manages to make the smooth transition into what Quill is later to become. The combination of the physicality he brings to the film and the his well-worked comedic persona, which lends him a strong sense of timing when it comes to the dialogue, make this a fine lead performance. Also good are Zoe Saldana, who brings real strength to the part of Gamora, and Vin Diesel as Groot, providing the film a sympathetic and humorous motion-capture performance with his innumerable variations of the line "I am Groot." I'm not trying to skimp on those two, but I want to focus on other performances specifically. In his debut lead role as Drax the Destroyer, Dave Bautista, who has always been a strong physical presence since his WWE days, finds himself an acquired knack for deadpan comedy. Bautista's ultra-serious physical specimen, who is so single-minded on his quest for vengeance, is juxtaposed with some great dialogue regarding his lack of awareness on his being the butt of many jokes. Lines like "nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it" ensure that, thanks to Bautista delivery, Drax, though not being the 'funny guy,' gets some of the best gags in the film. Bradley Cooper too delivers a fine performance in the part of Rocket. Although Sean Gunn (who stood in for Cooper on-set during filming) deserves credit, I think the vocal performance from Cooper is of a consistently high standard. Vocally, there's something of the fast-talking New York/Jersey gangsters from Martin Scorsese's movies and The Sopranos about Rocket. Also, what's interesting about this is how smoothly Cooper is able to transition from playing it funny to being really very serious and surprisingly poignant depending on the tonal direction the film is moving towards. Finally, outside of the central Guardians, there are two strong performances from the supporting cast. Admittedly I'm biased here, because I've made my admiration for him known in the past, but I thought Michael Rooker was great Yondu. Always a dedicated actor, the case is the same here, for he fully throws himself into this part, bringing to the part a manic energy and a palpable tension, not just in his lines but in the wild-eyed, predatory smiles, that Yondu could snap into violence at the drop of a hat. Also, in his short scene, Benicio del Toro (who looks an awful lot like Jim Jarmusch here) is highly entertaining as The Collector. So, cast done, lets get to the other parts that were good about Guardians Of The Galaxy. Excusing the horrible pun, but from a technical standpoint the film is indeed a marvel. Ben Davis' cinematography has a distinctively clean look, which is a pleasure to behold amidst the glut of summer blockbusters whose work on digital has a ruddy, murky textural palette. Here, the film is lit and shot in a manner not unlike that of a prismatic effect, the gorgeous visuals the product of the light refracted through the viewfinder. Speaking of visuals, the visual effects are also of a consistently high standard. Not only does it enhance the performances of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn, but outside of the performance capture it helps to realise in splendour the various worlds which the characters inhabit. The combination of digital/visual effects and practical/physical effects in Guardians Of The Galaxy are not dissimilar to the standard of mise-en-scene set by the original Star Wars films. As much as the film's cast, the list of names contributing to the overall design of the picture reads like a who's who, with Alexandra Byrne and David White, both of whom got their starts working under Kenneth Branagh, on costumes and special effects makeup design respectively, master sculptor Brian Muir, whose work includes Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers from Star Wars, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the Space Jockey from Alien, so this a film whose production is stacked with talented individuals plying their craft. Incidentally, the film has three editors (Craig Wood, Fred Raskin and Hughes Winborne), but despite this, the film is surprisingly consistent and doesn't pull in all different directions. Another aspect of the film which I found to be aesthetically interesting was the choice of music in the film's soundtrack. Intelligently, a plot point is made out of this (the tracks are all on a cassette in Quill's Walkman, which he aptly labels "Awesome Mix Vol. 1"), and as such we get songs from David Bowie, The Runaways, The Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye woven into scenes throughout the film. Of course, the highlight is the use Blue Swede's Hooked On A Feeling, heavily used in the marketing, which becomes the film's equivalent of an anthem in terms what they're trying to get at tonally: it's a funky, slightly mad but most importantly fun track indicative of the film's ribaldry. A lot of that is down to (in my final point of positivity) writer-director James Gunn. As I mentioned in the preamble to my synopsis, to have a director like James Gunn, who although having a solid track record as an artist and unique filmmaker hasn't always went hand-in-hand with the box-office, was a gamble, but one I think Marvel wisely realised would pay off. Arguably, the thing that sets Guardians out from the rest of the Marvel cinematic canon is what Gunn brings to the table, in his genre film sensibilities, offbeat humour and an empathy for the outsider. The former welds a b-movie feel to the general atmosphere, the latter two ensure that while his characters are always funny, with Gunn's ear for sharp dialogue and witty banter coming to the fore here, they are also sympathetic, each with their own faults and defects making them who they are. As someone who has followed Gunn for many years, seeing his various ups and downs, it gives me no greater pleasure than to see how well Guardians has done at the box-office. After opening weekend, Gunn wrote a letter of thanks on Facebook, from which I'll take this extract: 

"Thanks to all of you who saw (and are seeing) 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' this weekend, from the bottom of my heart. The Guardians are a group of oddballs, outcasts, and geeks. The movie is for anyone who ever felt cast aside, left out, or different. It's for all of us who don't belong. This movie belongs to you. And, today, I think we're doing okay."

Those are not only the worlds of a grateful and humble man, but those of a filmmaker who completely gets what the material is about. In many ways, Guardians Of The Galaxy is a real triumph of creativity and a collective working together to do something special.

However (the big, damnable 'however...'), much as I liked Guardians Of The Galaxy and think that it is a highly watchable, highly admirable work, it doesn't quite etch itself out as a great film, and that is for a number of reasons. First and foremost, while I thought the dialogue and characters were terrific, the same cannot be said for the film's plot. I think these problems emerge not necessarily from Gunn or original screenwriter Nicole Perlman's work but rather from the recurrent problem that most films never escape as the first instalment of a potential franchise. Almost by default, they have to obey the same basic formulaic structures, so as to lay the groundwork and get down to the real business in future instalments. Guardians, sadly, is no different. Although the leads do the job well, the Guardians all go on the same journey of self-discovery we have seen many many times before in origin stories. The same can also be said for the plot, which is a simple case of point-A to point-B to point-C, connect the dots. It can kind of get away with it because it's done well, but not entirely! There are only three movies over the past ten years which have truly successfully done it: 2005's Batman Begins, 2006's Casino Royale and 2012's Dredd (the last being a sort of 'anti'-origin story. Not a franchise either, I know... yet!) Also, none of the primary villainous characters (Ronan, Nebula and Korath) convincingly written in as credible threats to the protagonists (especially with the shadow of Thanos looming over everything!). Also, when you have almost an assembly line of fine actors such as Glenn Close and John C. Reilly coming on board, surely even with their scant screen-time more could have been done to flesh them out. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Tyler Bates' original score. While his work here has it's moments, it too follows the same basic principles of film scoring and doesn't really do all to much with them. Much as I liked Guardians, I consider it a necessary part of critiquing it to be down to fair judging and being able to look at it for how I see it, defects and all.

Well, despite my reservations regarding certain aspects of the script, which result in a formulaic and base murder-by-numbers point-A to point-B plot structure, the fact that while the Guardians are well-crafted, the antagonists and numerous supporting characters are not fleshed out enough to justify the quality of actors playing them, and to a lesser extent Tyler Bates' score, Guardians Of The Galaxy is still a very good, highly enjoyable film. The performance of the central cast playing the protagonists, most specifically Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista and Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn, and a manic supporting part from Michael Rooker, are uniformly great, and this quality is also consistent with the film's technical aspects. Ben Davis' clean cinematography distinguishes itself from the drab visuals of many contemporary blockbusters, and the visual effects do much to bring the world(s) these characters inhabit to life. Also, from a design standpoint this movie has as much love and care going into it's craft as that of the original Star Wars pictures. The soundtrack too, interwoven into the picture, is used intelligently to indicate a certain tonal mood and feel to the the picture. Finally, James Gunn's major studio debut as a director is largely a triumph. He truly seems to understand the essence of what this project is all about so that, faults and all, we can still derive much enjoyment from Guardians Of The Galaxy.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.8/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Chilling (by way of enjoying some much needed time off work!)

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