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Column Fri Aug 01 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy
One of the greatest joys as a film critic (at least this film critic; I would never dare speak for all) is surprise and discovery. It actually happens less and less as trailers, extended clips, and all manner of plot details and ruined secrets become easier to come by, especially as a film's release gets closer and studios begin to panic that audiences won't turn up unless they know as much as they possibly can before they actually sit down to watch the damn movie. But every so often, I'll get an invitation to a press screening or just pay to see something — usually a smaller, indie work — and know nothing about it as the theater goes dark and the projectors lights up. These are not always pleasant surprises, mind you. But every so often, you see something so wonderful that you consider, "Why haven't I heard more about this magnificent film?"
I come from a far-off time and place where you might have gotten one advance trailer and/or one television commercial, plus a single poster and some print ads, promoting a film's release, and that was it. So, I made a deliberate decision about Guardians of the Galaxy many months ago. While I was an avid comic book reader from way back, I'd never been introduced to this particular variation of this team of characters prior to seeing the film last week. To say I went into Guardians with no knowledge of there being a gun-toting, foul-mouthed raccoon or a sentient tree creature wouldn't be accurate, but I did declare a self-imposed moratorium on details on the actual plot of the film beyond the fact that these anti-heroes (who would have been rejected from groups like the Avengers) band together as outcasts to try and save the galaxy. Why do you need to know more?
Marvel movies are different, I realize. They pride themselves on being accessible for both general audiences and comic book fans looking for details tucked away in the corners just for them. And Guardians of the Galaxy has both in massive doses, almost demanding second and third viewings. But in a strange and fascinating way, director and co-writer (along with Nicole Perlman, at least on paper) James Gunn (Slither, Super) doesn't get caught up in these elements to distraction. He has crafted a work of pure entertainment, a celebration of those who don't fit in, those in pain, those whose roots (literally, in one case) have been stripped away, leaving them free-floating mercenaries who have chosen of life of dubious morals because it has brought them some level of companionship and sense of belonging.
Of course, each member is also uniquely skilled as a interstellar warrior whose abilities would make any of them worthy of their own film. But there's something about tossing this misfits in a stew and letting them simmer to boil that makes Guardians of the Galaxy a total hoot. The film opens with what I believe is an alien abduction. Young Peter Quill (played as a grown man by Chris Pratt) witnesses the death of this mother and is then immediately swept up into outer space the criminal alien Yondu (Gunn favorite Michael Rooker). Years later, Quill has given himself the more adventure-friendly moniker Star-Lord (in the same way a guy gives himself a nickname that never quite sticks) and is caught attempting to steal a much-coveted orb. Turns out, others are looking for it as well, and the bulk of the film sees the orb (which houses a powerful stone inside) trading hands and being used for mass destruction.
But the plot of the film is basically just an excuse to spend some time with some really hilarious characters, who also manage to convince us that they are worthy of hero status. Pratt is just a gifted comic actor who also happens to be handsome and muscle bound, but one gets the sense that Quill/Star-Lord is playing dumb more often than just being dumb; it's a device he uses to catch his opponents off guard so that they underestimate him. Also in the mix are the warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has a complicated history thanks to being aligned with many a villainous type, including the Kree baddie Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, quite menacing even buried until a lot of makeup) and Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). The final humanoid is Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a man intent on seeking revenge on Ronan for the death of his family.
Non-humans in the Guardians include the unlikely but absolutely essential duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), genetically engineered to appear like a raccoon who can fly spaceships and build/hoist massive weapons, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like creature who doesn't say much and whose powers become more impressive and seemingly infinite as the film goes on. When these characters all land in an intergalactic prison run by the galaxy police known as Nova Corps (which counts John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz among its members and Glenn Close as its leader), they combine forces, using their combined strengths to escape. This show of teamwork — albeit sloppy — is enough to convince them that sticking together to deliver the orb to a potential buyer is a good idea.
There's a free-wheeling quality to the action in Guardians of the Galaxy. It's playful without being silly; fun without feeling like things have been toned down so kids won't get freaked out by loud noises and scary alien bad guys. For those who have been long-time Gunn fans, all of his natural, subversive inclinations to go just a little too far are right there on the screen — from the bright, brilliant colors to the near-black settings that belong to the villains.
Speaking of those villains, it seems Marvel still hasn't quite figured out that making the bad guys so unmistakably evil is actually less interesting than the bad guy who happens to be the coolest, most charming guy in the room (why, hello, Loki). Ronan looks so remarkably like his comic book iteration that it almost takes your breath away, but digitally deepening his voice and dressing him in dark colors doesn't make me more scared of him or what he's capable of. It's a minor complaint, but it's a landing they can't quite stick.
There are so many elements to Guardians of the Galaxy worthy of praise. The mix tape soundtrack will have you humming a half-dozen songs on your way out of the theater; the visit to the Collector's (Benicio Del Toro) collection is a scene I will revisit frame by frame, but it might also qualify as the single most important sequence in any Marvel movie to date as far as pure information dropping goes (you'll know what I mean when you see it). The fact that a scene of this significance has been placed in this film made me unabashedly giddy.
It seems so clear to me that James Gunn loves this world and these characters, and that's not a knock at the Marvel films that have come before. But at the same time, Guardians has raised the stakes as much, if not more, than the first Iron Man movie did. It has taken a lesser-known (some might argue, unknown) group of characters and placed them at the center of so much that has come before and will continue to bombard us at regular intervals for years to come. Borrowing a vibe set forth from westerns, war films and space adventures, Guardians of the Galaxy not only gives us the unlikeliest group of heroes we've seen in a Marvel movie, but these are also characters we'd love to hang out with if they were real. (I know they aren't real... I think they're not real... I want them to be real!)
Guardians is a film I want to see again and again just to see what's going on in the furthest corners of the screen, because it's all interesting and visually captivating. But the real reason I'll revisit the film is because I love it — with almost no qualifiers, I love it. There is more pure entertainment value per minute than just about any film I've seen this year, and while you can certainly quibble about small details here and there, it doesn't take away from the fact that the film just jumps off the screen and does triple back flips in the name of making you happier than you were when you came into the theater. There's something lived in about this movie — both in terms of the production design and the damaged hearts of these characters. They are all broken creatures who find some comfort and fortitude in banding together. I love that part of Guardians of the Galaxy more than anything.
Get On Up
The only major problem I had with Get On Up — and it's a problem that more or less caused me constant frustration for the duration of the film — is that it's not long enough, only skimming the surface of James Brown's career and life. I don't think there's any real issue with trying to sanitize the life he led, although his well-established issues with drugs, womanizing and domestic abuse are only briefly acknowledged. But at its core — its soul, if you will — is a death-defying, physically-exhausting-just-to-watch performance by Chadwick Boseman (42, Draft Day) as the Godfather of Soul, who dances every step like a man possessed. With just the right series of wigs and an added underbite, Boseman is transformed to the point where I forgot what the real Brown looked like.
Get On Up bounces back and forth in time, from Brown's tragic upbringing, during which he was abandoned by both parents (Viola Davis and Lennie James), raised by his whorehouse madame aunt (Octavia Spencer), sent to prison for stealing a suit, joining a vocal group (which quickly led to him turning their harmless gospel stylings into straight-up R&B music), to signing a record contract and recording their first songs. The film also breezes through Brown's romantic entanglements (marriages and otherwise), troubles within his band caused by Brown's grueling perfectionism and endless rehearsals, and the political role Brown played in calming the African-American communities of the country after Martin Luther King's assassination. But again, director Tate Taylor (The Help) opts to blow through these incidents as if they were of equal importance in Brown's life or the nation.
What Taylor wisely does do is focus on the music, presenting many songs in their entirely or close to it, whether they are in scenes in which Brown and the band are recording or, most impressively, when the film re-creates Brown in concert, with Boseman tearing up the stage and bringing Brown at his peak back to life (although he is lip syncing, probably for the best). One of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects of Get On Up is giving us a clearer understanding at the friendship and on-stage partnership between Brown and sideman Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, of "True Blood" fame). I could have watched an entire film about the complicated but necessary support these two men gave each other.
Another interesting relationship that I wish had been developed more is that between Brown and the legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker, played in a nice dramatic turn from Craig Robinson. Parker was always seeking more respect and compensation for the band, and for the hours they put in and the sheer talent they possessed, he wasn't overstepping even a little. Sadly, the portions of the Get On Up that suffer the greatest are the stories about Brown's relationships with women. I was especially disappointed in the portrayal of DeeDee Brown by singer Jill Scott, who is actually a gifted actor as well, but you wouldn't know it from the unwritten character she plays here. And the rather startling moment when Brown hits her followed a few scenes later when he turns jealous aggression into sexual energy borders on the tasteless.
But as I said, when the music is thumping and Boseman is in full performance mode, Get On Up becomes damn impressive, not so much that you forget its deeply drawn flaws, but just enough that I can say there's something there worth checking out. If this music means something to you and you're a fan of discovering an unstoppable performance at the heart of a decidedly average work, then you've come to the right place.
There is more than one strong performance in Get On Up, but Boseman sets a high bar as both a physical force and digging deep to find out what makes a man forego friendship and loyalty for musical perfection. It's a closer call than maybe I'm making it sound like, but since I tend to let my love of singular acting work trump most other things, I'm saying this one is worth checking out if you've exhausted about a half-dozen other options in theaters now.