Guardians of the Galaxy

From the very beginning, I have always talked about how the movies I saw as a kid shaped me and my interests today.  I am thankful that I grew up in an age where watching movies at home wasn’t easy to do.  I grew up reading interviews with Lucas and Spielberg where they cited inspirations being the old serials that they would watch at the local theater.  No matter how it was described, going to the movies for these directors and countless others like me was an event that was treasured, no matter how good or bad things were.

For me, the first science fiction movie I saw on the big screen was Star Wars.  Even with all of the normal things people point to, what captured me from the beginning was that this was a ride:  a rollicking ride through the universe with Luke, Han, and Chewy as our guides.  It was this fun I looked for in science-fiction movies then and now.  While my tastes may have matured over the years, sometimes I just want the Flash-Gordon, Han-Solo fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fun that can be one of these movies.  Sadly Hollywood is fixated that everything must be a space opera with great importance.

This does science fiction a disservice.

Why?  Think back to why many kids grew up reading Tom Swift and Jules Verne; watching Buck Rogers and Captain Kirk; and waiting forever to see Han Solo crack that cocky grin and blast his way out of trouble.  We thrilled to the excitement of their adventures and couldn’t wait for the next one.  Comics helped fuel this with superheroes that not only took care of Earth, but the whole universe.

While I am familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy, I have never really read anything except the Infinity Gauntlet trade paperback that Amber grabbed for me as a thank-you for taking her to the 6-movie Marvel marathon when The Avengers came out.  So unlike some of the other Marvel and DC movies, I had no preconceived notions of what to expect over the past 2 years as production began on this project.  I also made it a point to not really read a whole lot about this movie, choosing to remain spoiler-free as much as possible.

That said, I still kept up with basic news: casting, director assignment, etc.  I was intrigued by two casting choices:  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, and Bradley Cooper as Rocket.  I had not watched any of James Gunn’s work, but the general vibe was one similar to how people felt about Joss Whedon directing The Avengers:  it will; either be tremendously good or tremendously bad.  When the first trailer hit and I heard “Hooked on a Feeling” as part of it, I knew that this was not going to be a typical sci-fi/superhero movie.  This had the potential of being a great entry in the genre.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-IMAX-poster-700x1024In early July, I got lucky enough to score a pass to a special IMAX preview of the movie.  In the 17-minute screener, I got to see one of the major scenes that highlighted what the movie would be:  a rollicking good time.  The 3-D looked amazing, and the casting was dead on.  As a bonus for going, everyone got a special poster to take home.  All I could think about on the way home was how good this movie was going to be when I saw it completed.  For something that I had minor interest in before, I was now rabid for more.  Yet I still avoided spoilers – I knew that to indulge now would ruin what could be a truly fun experience in the theater.

I did get to see it on the Thursday night before opening, but I had to settle for the AMC Dine-In theater.  I say settle because it is not outfitted as an ETX screen.  I chose the dine-in option due to not knowing when I was leaving work and the ability to reserve my seat.  AMC was running a promotion for Stubs members that gave them a free random pin with ticket purchase; I got Gamorra.  I settled into my seat, ordered dinner, and waited for things to unfold.

For once, I had not built this movie up too much in my head before seeing it.  There is a lot of good to enjoy, enough to offset any bad.  So what did I like:

  • Chris Pratt – He brought the wholesomeness of Andy from Parks and Recreation and gave him an upgrade on intelligence.  This movie works because of Pratt’s acting.
  • James Gunn – What unfolds is a master class on how to make a fun space movie.  Even with the stakes being high, Gunn drops the angst and focuses on why we have loved Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers for decades.
  • standard_fantasticThe soundtrack – Gunn once again shows the importance of a choosing the right songs to tell a story.  It’s easy to do when someone is composing; Lucas used to brag that you could watch Star Wars with just the Score audio track and no dialog.  But choosing songs that people know to help tell a story is infinitely more difficult.  Over the past 10-25 years, very few movies have had a soundtrack of songs that essentially became another cast-member: 10 Things I Hate About You; Garden State; and Love Actually all spring to mind as solid examples.  Gunn’s use of the songs in Guardians can be summed up with the tile of the tape: Awesome.
  • Bradley Cooper – His voice work for Rocket sold the character.  Time and again people think voice work is easy.  It isn’t and done poorly, it can ruin a movie.  Cooper did it quite well.
  • Visuals – Even with limited locations, one never feels cramped in this galaxy.  It is expansive and beautiful and ugly, all at the same time.
  • Story – For the most part, a fairly simple story that does not require any knowledge of the comics or even the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe.  This can be a stand-alone movie and last for decades.
  • “Stingers” – There are two scenes during the credits and are worth staying for.  I will not spoil either of them.

So was there anything I did not like?  Some minor quibbles, but nothing that kills the enjoyment – here is what I noticed:

  • The Collector – For a character that seemed to have a lot of hype, not much other than him explaining the infinity stones.  Granted there was a lot to cover story-wise for the movie, but this character is going to need some type of development if it is going to continue being a through-thread.  This was the second time seeing him, with the first being during Thor: The Dark World.
  • Homages – Now that the first movie is done, let’s ease back on the homages to Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk.  Some of the best scenes for Pratt’s character were original ones that did not try to make the same tired jokes of the “rebel sleeping with every female alien” or the “mystical quest”.

My Advice:  Pay full price and see it in 3-D IMAX; well worth the money.  I anticipate seeing this movie 1-3 more times in the theater.  It is on my top 10 list for the year, top 5 for Marvel movies, and one of the top in the genres of Science-fiction for me.  I anticipate enjoying this one for years.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Wide-560x282

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

The art of movie reviewing has suffered yet another loss.

In this age of technology where anyone can throw up a website and start spouting their opinions as if people cared <trying not to look in the mirror right now>, the art of honest critique has been reduced to whatever inflammatory remark can generate web hits.  Yet we forget that not so long ago, we held certain public critics in esteem.

As I have mentioned before on this site, Siskel & Ebert were reviewers that I grew to know from the time I was still single-digit in years.  There were times where I thought they were too harsh on movies I liked and there were other times where I thought they were spot on.  What I didn’t realize until much later is that they helped with the development of thinking critically.  They didn’t simply tell you a movie was bad; they took the time to explain why.  While Siskel was admittedly the more artsy of the two, it was Ebert that I often agreed with more.

Roger, in his relaxed manner, never made the audience feel stupid.  He gave his critiques in common language and used analogies that sat well with most.  Watching the ease at which he seemed to fit with the “common man,” it is easy to forget that this man also won a Pulitzer and wrote a screenplay that became a major movie (one that he refused to review out of conflict of interest).  He was the one that introduced me to the concept of story being important.  He understood that not every movie was made to win the Academy Award; that at the heart of it all, movies were there to tell stories.  It didn’t matter the genre or premise, but if the story was true, and those making the movie believed in it, then the movie would blossom.  Rarely did he blame technique – the issue with most bad movies was the story or the director failing to get the cast to execute the story.

Sadly, his last few years of life were filled with constant battles.  Yet, over the past few years, Roger Ebert left the world a virtual treasure trove of written essays, reviews , and opinions about so many things beyond the world of entertainment.  Did I necessarily agree with all of it? No, but I think he wanted it that way.  He wanted to spark discussion and thinking.  He embraced Twitter and social media when he could no longer speak; he let his keyboard do that for him.  In 2010, he even started an electronic newsletter that gave you a link to more writings and all he asked for was a one-time fee of $5.  While he caught flack for that request, I gladly gave the $5 and now have 162 copies sitting in my email folder.   Sadly the last one was delivered just a couple of days ago on 4/3.

I will never know if he ever visited this site, even though I sent the link to him years ago in response to a question he asked on Twitter.  I would like to think that if he did, he enjoyed what he saw.  I do hope that wherever he is, he is reunited with Siskel in a private screening room, enjoying their favorite movies over and over again.

As the balcony lights dim for the last time, I leave you with a few quotes from Mr. Ebert that showed his character:

  • From a review of a Rob Schneider movie: “If he’s going to persist in making bad movies, he’s going to have to grow accustomed to reading bad reviews.”
  • “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”
  • “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
  • “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t”

Footloose (1984)

Those involved with making movies dream of having that unexpected small-budget movie reap big box office numbers.  The rarer feat is when the soundtrack equals the success of the movie, and, in some cases, exceeds it.  When one thinks of iconic soundtracks in the 80’s, one of the first to spring to mind is Footloose.

FootloosesoundtrackalbumcoverFootloose has all of the ingredients needed to be a successful soundtrack in the 80’s:

  • Kenny Loggins – He accounts for 2 of the original 9 tracks, including the title song that has become the one thing Kevin Bacon dreads hearing at parties.
  • Pop tunes mixed in with what passed for rock in the 80’s
  • Several radio singles – 5 songs were bona fide hits, most notably the title track and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”

Footloose also benefits from being one of the few soundtracks that was reissued at least 15 years after its initial release.  The reissue added 4 tracks that, while decent, really didn’t do much to add value to this soundtrack.

Here is the track list:

  • Footloose (Kenny Loggins) – An infectious party song that still gets people tapping their toes and feeling good about the event they are attending.  This is one of a handful of songs that Loggins provided the late 70s and 80s that made him a go-to artist for soundtracks.
  • Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Deniece Williams) – An easily forgettable pop song that did well over the summer of its initial release, but not a song that endures.
  • Almost Paradise (Mike Reno/Ann Wilson) – The love ballad of the movie powered by the strong vocals of the lead singers from Loverboy and Heart.  You could not avoid this song for most of the 80s at weddings and dances.
  • Holding Out For A Hero (Bonnie Tyler) – Strong music combined with a raspy, sultry voice, this song became a double-threat.  Introduced in Footloose, Hero took on a life of its own by becoming the title song for the TV show, Cover-Up.  Even David Copperfield got into it by using it as the music for his levitating over the Grand Canyon trick.
  • Dancing In The Streets (Shalimar) – Another pop song that proved a one-hit wonder for its singers graces the list.
  • I’m Free (Kenny Loggins) – Loggins’s second contribution to the soundtrack is actually the better song of the two.  This was used to help showcase Ren’s gymnastic montage.
  • Somebody’s Eyes (Karla Bonoff) – I had to go back and listen to the track to remember this forgettable song.  It was most likely used as filler in one of the malt shop scenes.
  • The Girl Gets Around (Sammy Hagar) – Used to introduce the wild side of the preacher’s daughter, I enjoy this song whenever it pops up on the old playlist, particularly driving down the road.  One cannot forget seeing Ariel riding two trucks down the road like a water skier at Crystal Springs.
  • Never (Moving Pictures) – This was also used in the gymnastic montage.  While not a bad choice to end the soundtrack on, it definitely is not a song you remember for long.

My advice:  Pop this on the next time you are driving or doing housework – the fast nature of most songs will help speed up time while letting you enjoy a trip to the 80’s…

Silver Linings Playbook

silver linings playbookAgain, I find myself talking about a movie that was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and received the Academy Award for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).  I saw this one a few days after the ceremony as well.

This movie is brought to life by the same director who gave us The Fighter, a surprising-to-me movie that I enjoyed.   Here, David O. Russell gives us the tale of a man trying to piece his life together after its disintegration due to his mental issues related to being bi-polar.  We are not forced into an “origin” story – rather, Russell trusts his audience to pick things up as we move forward.  What unfolds is a story that avoids becoming overwhelmingly dramatic and instead allows us to understand each character.  In the hands of a lesser director, this could have easily turned into a Lifetime TV movie.

Bradley Cooper gives an outstanding performance as the main character.  Within the first 10 minutes it is obvious as to why he received a Best Actor nomination.  He could have easily won it had Daniel Day Lewis not done Lincoln this year.  Robert DeNiro does well, but I am not certain it was worth a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  The most intriguing performance to me was Chris Tucker’s – he actually showed that he can dial things back and if given good material, turn in a good performance.

The standout is Jennifer Lawrence without a doubt.  She held her own acting alongside Cooper and DeNiro, and maybe even showed them a few tricks.  This is reminiscent of Amy Adams’s performance in The Fighter.  Lawrence has a long career ahead of her if she keeps getting the variety of roles she has so far that allow her to show her range.

My advice:  Big screen is not necessary, but you will not waste money if you do go see it on one; definitely check it out as soon as you can…

Argo

argoIt seems a bit presumptuous to review a movie that has just received the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Sadly, I did not see this one until a couple of days after the Academy Awards ceremony.  This review will instead focus on what I feel made it a good choice for the Academy Award.

First area of discussion is the direction.  While I am not sure if he should have won, Ben Affleck definitely should have been nominated.  Affleck’s directing choices made this movie what it is.  The choice to film it as if it was being filmed in 1979-1981 was brilliant.  This gave the movie a feel of realism that today’s cameras would have missed.  I liked the inclusion of the 70s/80s style Warner Bros logo; that one touch helped establish the look and feel of the movie.  Affleck went for as close to reality as he could get in casting and cinematography.  I did like the inclusion of the side-by-side comparisons of cast and scenes to real-life documents that played through the closing credits – it reinforces the attention to detail that Affleck put into making this story come to life.

Casting was also key to this movie working.  Several known character actors and names appear throughout the movie and deliver each time.  Affleck faced a daunting challenge in not letting any of these actors run away with the movie while getting the most out of their performances.  Directors wanting an example of how to work with a large ensemble and producing a good product should have this as one their top 5 examples.

My advice:  See it on the big screen if you can to get a good feel for the cinematography – if you choose to see it at home, that is fine – just make sure to see it…

My thoughts on the world of movies…