Review – Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Marvel Cinematic Universe lives up to its name in this star-spanning space opera that puts the fun back into a genre that had disappeared up its black hole.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well known space opera

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of that other well-known space opera

The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy is drawing so many comparisons to Star Wars is not only a testament to the high esteem it’s being held in by so many critics, but also to the fact that it’s so refreshing to watch a film of this ilk that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Too often, sci-fi filmmakers get bogged down in blindsiding their audience with Midi-chlorians, flibbertigibbets and unnecessary solemnity at the expense of an intriguing narrative and engaging characters. Although Guardians… isn’t averse to a spot of Basil Exposition (understandable considering it’s the first in what will undoubtedly become another Marvel franchise), it does so with a light and breezy air that avoids spoon-feeding the audience.

The A Team - Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The A Team – Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Abducted from Earth as a young boy following the death of his mother, intergalactic thief Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, (Chris Pratt) incurs the wrath of the super-evil Ronan (Lee Pace) when he steals a mysterious orb. With Ronan’s henchmen, and women, hot on the trail of the orb, including his lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter forms an uneasy accord with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), genetically engineered racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel) and warrior Drax the Destroyer (WWE star Dave Bautista).

When the extent of the orb’s power becomes clear, and Ronan’s diabolical plan reveals itself, Peter must turn his ragtag associates into a full-on fighting force to save the galaxy from destruction.

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The heroic Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Marvel’s policy of trusting its multi-million dollar products to leftfield directors (Edgar Wright’s departure from 2015’s Ant Man notwithstanding) once again pays off. The edgy comic touch of James Gunn’s previous flicks Slither (2006) and Super (2010) is a perfect fit for Guardians‘ tongue-in-cheek sensibility.

The film takes great pleasure in sending up the clichés of the genre, such as the team’s slow motion walk towards the camera in which Gamora can be seen yawning. Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s meta script goes off on tangents, some funny, others less so, and concentrates on the relationships between the lead characters. This is a bunch of misfits we can believe in and the bond they gradually form is convincingly handled by the cast.

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

The evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his loyal lieutenant Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians Of The Galaxy

One of the more successful elements of Guardians… is its soundtrack of 70s and 80s classics, ingeniously crowbarred into the film as they form part of Peter’s beloved mix tape from his mother. Setting aside the fact that his Walkman wouldn’t probably survive 26 years and that AA batteries would likely be a little hard to come by in outer space, the music serves as a reminder that Peter, like Buck Rogers and John Carter, is a human in an alien environment and our way into this universe.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) learns more about the mysterious orb in Guardians Of The Galaxy

Despite trying a bit too hard at times to be Han Solo’s slightly less cool brother, Pratt is a good fit for Peter and proves a likeable lead. Saldana may look like a character from Star Trek, but she kicks ass and is proving a formidable presence in the world of big budget sci-fi, what with the Trek and Avatar franchises already in place. Cooper’s energetic, fast-talking voice work for Rocket is nicely played, while Diesel manages to give a new meaning to each new utterance of his singular phrase “I am Groot” and even non-actor Bautista does some solid work as meathead Drax.

Elsewhere, Gillan is impressively alien as Nebula, while Gunn makes sure to give his other supporting cast members something to do, especially Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned alien Yondu and John C Reilly’s corpsman Rhomann Dey.

A genuine pleasure, Guardians Of The Galaxy should give JJ Abrams something to think about for the next installment of  that other well-known space opera.

Great Films You Need To See – Hard Eight (1996)

There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.

In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic debut Hard Eight

As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).

Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.

Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.

In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.

What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.

Hard Eight

John (John C Reilly) is given a leg-up by the enigmatic Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.

The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.

The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.

Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.

And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.

Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.

London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 5

The high school film has been bled pretty dry in recent times, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to say.

We’ve had high school musicals, horror and science fiction. Hell, we’ve even had high school-set versions of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You (1999)) and Othello (O, 2001).

One genre that’s been mined more than any other in the high school though is the coming of age tale. So Terri, on the face of it should just be one more entry on a long and largely tedious list.

Terri

The fact that it’s lifted to a loftier perch than many of its predecessors says a lot about about Azrael Jacobs’ film and the huge talent of leading man Jacob Wysocki as the titular Terri.

Terri is an outsider in the truest sense of the word. A large, ungainly figure, he lives with his sick uncle in a woodland cottage seemingly miles from the rest of civilisation. He goes to school in his pyjamas, turns up late to class and drifts along barely speaking a word to anyone. In fact the only time he seems to look happy is when he gives a hand to a wild bird in the woods by trapping mice and leaving them for it to eat.

His unusual dress sense, size and gentle ways single him out for unwanted attention at the hands of the school’s bullies, who poke fun at his naive and innocent demeanour. It’s not long before he pops on to the radar of school vice-principal Mr Fitzgerald (a rarely better John C Reilly), who pulls Terri into his office and opens up a conversation in the hope of getting through and helping him.

As Mr Fitzgerald sees it, Terri is one of the good-hearted kids, although the 15-year-old thinks of himself more of a monster and at first takes umbrage at the vice-principal’s slightly embarrassing efforts to make a connection. But Mr Fitzgerald persists and over the course of the next few weeks gradually develops a rapport with Terri.

Meanwhile, Terri comes to the aid of classmate Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) when he steps in to save her from being thrown out of school following an unfortunate incident during home economics. Shunned as a result of what’s happened, Heather and Terri form a tentative friendship.

Terri also finds himself connecting with fellow misfit Chad (Bridger Zadina) and the three teenagers end up spending an hilarious night dining out in Terri’s shed on booze and his uncle’s meds. In the hands of a hack director these scenes, especially the moment when Heather invites Terri to kiss her, could have come off as false, but Jacobs refuses to force anything and their eventual conclusion is heart-breaking, but totally believable.

The same can be said of the friendship between Terri and Mr Fitzgerald. Both desperately lonely people, the moments with the two of them spending the morning in school on a Saturday are a delight to watch and never once stray into kookiness or schmaltz. Instead we’re left with Terri, Mr Fitzgerald and the others getting on with their lives, having moved on very little from where we found them. But for us, the journey has been a rewarding one.

While Terri is a worthy example of American low-budget indie film-making, Miss Bala is a fantastic advert for Mexican cinema, if not for the country itself.

Miss Bala

Mexico has produced some significant figures in world cinema in the past few years – actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Salma Hayek and directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro are but a few examples. Gerardo Naranjo could soon be joining this elite roll call of talent if Miss Bala is anything to go by.

Laura (model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman) lives with her father and young brother and dreams of one day becoming a beauty queen. She enters the Miss Baja California contest and, after making it through the audition is told to report back the following day.

She’s persuaded by her friend to join her at a local nightclub, but while there Laura bears witness to a brutal massacre by a highly organised and well-equipped drug gang. Managing to make it out alive she goes in search of her friend but cannot find her. To make matters worse she’s told by the contest organisers that she’s out as she failed to report back on time.

When she approaches a local transit cop to ask for his assistance in tracking her down, she inadvertently winds up encountering the very people who perpetrated the slaughter and so undergoes a relentless, terrifying nightmare at the hands of violent gang boss Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández).

Laura’s first task is to drive a car a short distance, park it up and walk away – straightforward enough until she discovers she’s parked it outside the US Embassy and inside the boot are three corpses, including an American DEA agent.

She runs away but is soon tracked down, firstly by drug enforcement agents who are after a phone given to her by Lino and then Lino himself, who agrees to let her father and brother go so long as she starts doing as she’s told. Like a puppet on a string, Laura finds that as she spirals deeper into the pit of oblivion she’s stumbled into she’s increasingly powerless to do anything about it, especially when she discovers that no sides in this grisly drug war are clean.

Even the beauty contest itself isn’t immune from the corrosive effects of corruption, exemplified by Lino when he exerts his considerable influence on its outcome in a twisted display of generosity towards the exhausted, defeated Laura.

Naranjo does a fine job of showing us a glimpse of the enormity of the US-Mexico drug trafficking business through the eyes of one small, insignificant figure and isn’t one to shie-away from fingering the blame as much on the corrupt Mexican police and drug agencies as the gangs themselves.

He’s also extremely confident with his use of the camera (ably supported by cinematographer Mátyás Erdély), using a number of long, impressively choreographed takes, most notably in the explosive set pieces in the nightclub and during a pitch street fight between police and the gang.

A uniformly excellent cast is led by the superb Sigman, who commits to the role of an innocent young woman left numb by forces she barely understands.

An urgent, thrilling work, Miss Bala is a visceral punch to the gut and one of the finest films of the festival.