I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.
What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.
The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.
There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.
So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.
But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.
There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).
The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.
Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.
And I look very much forward to seeing them.
“I wish we could have met in a different way,” is a comment paraphrased from the film “Carnage”, a social commentary film based upon the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. I haven’t seen it on stage, but Polanski does his best to bring the theatrical energy from the characters to the screen. And he achieves this through his cast of actors, who turn out some of their best performances in their careers to make this into an appealing film to watch. Also, Polanski uses a few props as symbols to promote some of the themes in the play itself.
The plot of the film is very simple: it begins with a bunch of kids at a playground who get into a fight. We do not hear what they are arguing about, we only see the scene devolve into a shoving match. At its climax, one of the kids takes a stick, and swings it right into the face of one of the other kids.
The next shot is at that kid’s parents’ house, and his parents are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly respectively). They are in the middle of writing out a synopsis of what had happened to their child, while the perpetrator’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz respectively), look on and make minor suggestions as they see fit.
At first, the two couples are in complete agreement on how to handle the situation. The Longstreets feel that they are being polite and civil by inviting the Cowans over to their house, even though the Cowan’s son struck their son with a stick, requiring some dental work and some other wounds to heal.
The Cowans look to be apologetic, and gracious that the Longstreets are being such kind hosts, such as offering them cobbler and coffee. But as the couples continue to talk, what they truly feel underneath begins to surface, and things go the way of the playground from the first scene.
No one comes to physical blows; but the emotional blows they take at each other, all because of their defensiveness and insecurities about themselves, are completely exposed. And, of course, once Scotch is introduced, you know nothing good is going to come of it. But it’s not always just the one couple pitted against the other. Polanski’s blocking shows that sometimes it’s men versus women, sometimes it’s one against three, and sometimes it’s parent versus parent.
Two props are also skillfully used by the director, one that probably first belonged to the play, and that’s Alan’s cell phone that incessantly goes off and he incessantly answers it. In an act of defiance, one of the characters finally disposes of it in a vase full of tulips, provided by the Longstreets to give their living room an inviting presence for the Cowans’ visit. Another prop is the mirror, in which a few times, someone stands near it. Never once do they look at it.
The film only runs at about 80 minutes, and once you realize they are never going to leave the living room, and settle into the characters, you get used to it. Plus, the conflict starts popping quickly, and once the sparks start flying, it becomes a very entertaining film to watch.
As far as the message of the film, and I assume the play as well, this isn’t exactly uncharted territory with regards to the social commentary. We all know how it goes: the biggest monsters out there are ourselves. Using a title like “Carnage” may suggest this is a horror film, and in a way, it is. The characters eviscerate each other with words and try to needle each other, and hurt their feelings. But the way the actors are totally invested in their characters makes this work extremely well. We know these characters are going to hate each other, because sooner or later, they’re going to talk to each other, and tell each other how they really feel.
And honesty is more brutal than any physical object could be.
There seems to be something missing from Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedies since the 2006 smash hit “Borat”. While for the most part I still enjoyed “Bruno”, I felt that he was imposing his agenda to “expose stupid Americans” more and more and hitting you over the head with stupid comedy rather than allowing the comedy to just happen. He takes this to a new level with “The Dictator”, a film so full of comic exposition that it gets rather tiring even at only 83 minutes of Cohen constantly efforting us to “get it”.
The film’s plot, which is as thin as you could possibly use as an excuse to make a feature length film, is simple: tyrannical despot who is unaware of how brutish he is, goes to America after being discovered to be having a possible nuclear plot against us, gets duped by his own assistant (Ben Kingsley) and he’s attacked, beard shaved, and stuck in NYC with no identity. He meets a vegan hipster played typically over the top by Anna Faris (who seems to can’t ever help winking at the camera even if she doesn’t bat an eyelash), and she reforms him and tries to get him to a summit to stop his body double from making a mistake in making Wadiya the next oil country for the world. There’s a bit more to it but you can immediately see where the movie’s going at every turn. To say it’s predictable is a bit of an insult to predictability. If that makes sense.
Cohen tries to blur a line to see if we can understand what he’s parodying. For instance, his character resembles someone Middle Eastern–yet he’s actually North African. The fictional country Wadiya is located in the area that contains some Arab heritage, yet his character Admiral General Aladeen is not Arab. In the film’s funniest scene, he and his former nuclear scientist Nadal speak in their native language in a helicopter confusing the poor dumb American tourists about a possible follow up 9/11 plot that winds up getting them both arrested. We’re not really sure what language it is, but it sounds “Arabic”, and we could easily mistake them for that.
That scene works so well because for that moment, Cohen isn’t trying to tell us what he’s doing. He’s just doing it. There are many scenes in which characters talk and talk, and they ramble about what is right and wrong about this and that and it just seems like you’re watching a first draft of a script whose jokes haven’t been fully worked out yet. There are some scenes that are funny, and there are some big laughs. And of course, since this is Cohen who seems to insist now on being subversive, there are a lot of “offensive” jokes including the film’s opening dedication. I’ve seen far too many “offensive” films to take anything in “The Dictator” as offensive; but even the offensive jokes aren’t very clever and seemed to be aimed only at adolescent boys.
I get that for the most part, that’s probably Cohen’s target audience anyway. I’d say that the guys who make “Jackass” probably would share that audience. But the difference is that Cohen has the ability to reach a far greater audience and has potential to be one of the great political satirists of our era. I think he kind of wasted his time with this one. It could have been on par with “Team America: World Police” as far as making fun of America and also globalism and bad foreign policy–instead, it just merely pokes fun. And a little poking from Sacha Baron Cohen goes a very long way. Literally.
This film is probably one of the only vehicles I’ve seen involving Will Ferrell in which he shares a bill with someone that threatens to steal the spot light. Not that that’s a bad thing, because John C. Reilly is a very good comic actor. But typically it’s Ferrell by himself that usually saves movies and movie scenes (“Semi-Pro”, “The Wedding Crashers” respectively). In that regard, “Step Brothers” reminds me a bit of “Dumb & Dumber”, a film made when Jim Carrey was at the top of his game and making millions and millions of dollars as a comic actor. But “Dumb & Dumber” featured a very funny role for Jeff Daniels, who sometimes was funnier than Carrey in the film. I like Ferrell’s approach to comedy better, and I’ve found myself enjoying more of Carrey’s serious work (“The Truman Show”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) rather than his “stupid comedies” like “The Mask” or “Ace Ventura”. Ferrell’s still a box office draw, but I believe he’s in the twilight of his career, and may be relegated to cameos and supporting roles rather than being the star–but for now, he’s got to be enjoying his success.
“Step Brothers” is a deserving addition to Ferrell’s successes. It’s very formulaic, but it respects the formula and allows Reilly and Ferrell to breathe in their scenes, but veteran director Adam McKay understands when it’s time to shut the camera off and move the plot along, even if it is rehashed and thin. It involves a very simple premise: Two 40 year old men who still act like they’re 8 years old are paired together because Ferrell’s mother and Reilly’s father get married. McKay takes care of the marriage rather quickly, lending credence toward the end when things get rocky, seeing as how they kind of “rushed” into marriage. Mary Steenburgen, still extremely attractive at 55, plays the mother role very well, although the relationship between her and Ferrell isn’t as natural as it probably should be.
The relationship, however, between Reilly and Ferrell absolutely works. The key to this plot working is that these two actors have to genuinely act like kids, since they’re 40 years old, I don’t know that a lot of actors could pull something like this off and have it be credible. While the plot begs for stupidity and contrivance, Reilly and Ferrell make it believable, funny, and even cute.
There are some big laughs in this film, and overall it works. The film is right at about 90 minutes, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it really leave you wanting to see more. It’s the perfect “get-away” movie, when you just need to ditch real life for an hour and a half. That to me is what the movies are there for anyway, especially summer movies, and this one doesn’t beat you over the head or try and send any kind of message. I won’t give too much away because I think the laughs are bigger when they’re unexpected. I will say that when Farrell and Reilly decide to sabotage Reilly’s brother’s plans to sell his father’s house so they can make enough money to retire and move out, the biggest laughs came, at least for me.
I would almost recommend this movie more as a rental than going out to see it in the theatres because of how much it costs these days, but as I said, it is a good way to kill an afternoon and spend time in a cool theatre. I’ll leave the choice up to you. But I do recommend a viewing of this little film that will probably be forgotten about soon, and that’s a bit unfortunate.
Then again, it’s not a movie that’s necessarily going to stick with you for a long time either.
Family value: A lot of strong language will weed out the kiddies, so it’s not a family movie obviously. Go solo or bring the wife if she’s into that sort of thing.