Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

I don't think I ever anticipated nodding my head along to "I Want You Back" while watching a Marvel Comics film set in space. But there I was, doing such a thing. In what is one of the most joyous scenes in the film, the audience seemed to be filled with happiness as...well, it's best left unexplained for now. Just watch it, and I hope you will smile.

The movie opens with the unearthly "I'm Not in Love." Then, we see a man in an "Iron Giant"-like mask, walking around a barren, rainy planet. When he reaches his destination, he removes the helmet--it's Pratt, in our first scene with him. He puts on some headphones and starts dancing to "Come and Get Your Love." Pratt, who explained that "acting is already embarrassing," not only has pretty good moves but really seems to be enjoying himself.

This is a Marvel movie, right?

It is. I have disliked many of the other Marvel films (especially "Iron Man" and "The Avengers") so much that I had low expectations for "Guardians of the Galaxy." But it's a great summer film, and a great soundtrack certainly helps it. Director James Gunn has described his approach to the music of the film as "holistic," and he played them on set during film. But a great soundtrack only takes you so far--comedy can help tremendously, as well. At another point in the movie, our stars Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana are (about to) dance to Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." In that scene, Gamora (Saldana) mentions that she is an assassin and therefore doesn't dance. "Really?" is his response. "Well, on my planet, we have a legend for people like you. It's called 'Footloose.' And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is." (Bacon was amused.) Dave Batista plays Drax the Destroyer, a chiseled prisoner who seeks revenge for the death of his family. Drax is of an alien species that, we are told, is a literal one--one that has no understanding of metaphors. But Drax disagrees. "Nothing goes over my head...My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it."

But the film's best comedy team is Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. Cooper has shown that he can do comedy just as easily as he can do drama (and sometimes, as is the case with "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle," he does both simultaneously). Here, he provides the majority of the film's laughs. He plays Rocket, the Han Solo character, but he's also a genetically altered, walking/talking/hissing raccoon. When we first meet him, he and his partner Groot are after a bounty for Peter Quill (Pratt), who incidentally prefers to be called Star-Lord (which is a corny name, but of course, so is Luke Skywalker). They try to catch Quill, who is being pursued by Gamora, and the four of them engage in a fairly exciting chase. Groot is voiced by Vin Diesel. What I was frequently reminding myself of while watching "Guardians of the Galaxy" was the famous story of how Bela Lugosi didn't want the title role of Frankenstein in 1931 because of the character's lack of dialogue. So the role went to Boris Karloff, who was then an unknown. So why would Diesel, who is a major star and has appeared in films as varied as "Saving Private Ryan" and the "Fast" series, want a role in which his only line is saying "I am Groot"? Well, think about it: Diesel has had quite the challenge before him. He has had to create arguably the most complex character in the film while only getting out three words consecutively. Diesel has also offered a much more interesting reason: his life since the death of his friend and co-star Paul Walker. Diesel appreciated how "Guardians of the Galaxy" allowed him to play a character who celebrates life in such a manner. Indeed, he is the spark of many of the most heartfelt moments in the movie. He's the only pure, innocent character. In one scene, he sacrifices, and in another, he gives a young girl a flower while smiling gently (and doesn't react in a similar fashion as Karloff did in a similar situation in "Frankenstein"), all while uttering in a simple fashion "I am Groot." So there's emotional weight here in the film. This is a story about friendship, camaraderie and reconciliation.

There's plenty to not like about "Guardians of the Galaxy." I'm not sure why some of the modern high-budget movies like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and the new "Planet of the Apes" movies look so fantastic but it's always the Marvel Studios movies that look like a mess. As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in Vox, this movie is at its best when it's not a Marvel movie, calling it fun but frustratingly typical. But otherwise, it's quite a worthwhile movie-watching experience, especially to see such performances. Pratt really is a joy here. Rob Lowe was likely on to something when he called Pratt the "future of movie stars." Pratt will also appear in the new "Jurassic Park" film next year. Saldana now is the queen of franchises after also appearing in the "Star Trek" films and "Avatar." (She also appeared in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" film but apparently had a miserable experience.) It's not simply our main cast who are exceptional in their roles. While Glenn Close and John C. Reilly, as a politician and police officer respectively, are disappointingly underused, Lee Pace (whom you might recognize--though he looks completely different--from "The Hobbit" films) and Karen Gill are quite good as the villains. For another entertaining scene, there's Benecio Del Toro in one of his best performances in years. Nearly stealing the show is Michael Rooker as Yondu, a blue-skinned bandit good-guy/bad-guy who can easily take out a host of adversaries while whistling.

I really don't think I've had so much fun at the movies in a long time. The audience applauded at the end. It's moments like those when I am reminded of what an experience the cinema is. And I got to watch space scoundrels dancing to the Jackson 5. Can't beat that.

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