Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn. Written by James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Groot (Vin Diesel), Bradley Cooper (Rocket)

Bottom line: If you want pretty graphics and comic book, sci-fi action, and tickets are cheap than maybe give it a try, otherwise, I would suggest you pass.


You might wonder why I have the range of 2-3/4 for the star rating for this film. I hesitate to assign a star value to Guardians of the Galaxy. My feelings when leaving the movie theatre were pretty positive; good 3D effects, good action, funny at times, good graphics. These are the things that might lead a movie to have a 3/4 but I distinctly remember feeling this way when leaving the theatre the first (and second) time I saw The Avengers. The thing is, The Avengers does not hold up -at all.

I think the reason I rated it so highly on the initial pass was because I was starved of movies. I hadn’t seen anything in a while, let alone a blockbuster CGI-fest in 3D. Even though my bar was set low, I wanted to be amazed and so I was. I’d like to wait a couple weeks or months before assigning an official star value to Guardians of the Galaxy because I’m curious to see how it holds up. Now, that said, I’d still like to talk about my initial thoughts.

Guardians of the Galaxy’s big selling points are the graphics and action. The graphics are really good and the 3D effects (I saw this in 3D) are well done. Even though I saw this in 3D, I don’t think the experience would be all that different in 2D. The action sequences in 3D movies can sometimes be hard to parse. They can be too choppy. That was a major qualm of mine with The Hobbit. What is the point in shoveling money into the steam engine of CGI if you can’t see anything? Fortunately, the action in Guardians of the Galaxy is, for the most part, easy to watch. A great example of this comes with the opening credits.

Peter Quill (Pratt) is listening to a cassette tape while dancing around ruins on an alien planet. The credits share the screen with him and the tempo matches the music. I’m usually not one to enjoy dancing sequences but it set the stage for the rest of the movie; I just had to relax and have fun.

Now, this credit sequence isn’t quite the introduction to the film. We first see a young Peter Quill in a hospital listening to his cassette tape entitled “Awesome Mix Vol1.” His grandfather tells him to come and see his mother. His mother, dying of cancer, gives him a letter and a plot device birthday gift. She tells him to open it when she is gone. She holds out her hand to him but he can’t look at her let alone hold her hand and she dies. He runs out of the hospital to a misty field where an alien spacecraft appears and abducts him. We jump forward in time to see the dancing-credit-sequence.

The characters, much like the alien worlds, are pretty good overall. First, we have Peter Quill, who reminds me of Chris Pines’ Capt. Kirk. He’s cool, smooth, funny, male, and white. We have Gamora (Saldana), a highly trained/bioengineered assassin/love interest. She’s fine. Rocket (Cooper) is fine too. He’s the spunky, tiny, bombastic, intelligent, Han Solo to the Chewy that is Groot (Diesel). His feistiness is the general source of humor. Was he funny? Sure, at times. The humor overall is sophomoric but, it’s a comic book movie – whadaya expect?

I think the casting of Bautista as the large warrior Brax and Diesel as Groot were marvelous (no pun intended).  Groot is a large, strong, tree character whose only vocabulary is “I am Groot.” Brax is more oratorically capable though only to the extent of being another comic relief. Brax’s people, Rocket explains, have no such things as metaphors; they go right over his head. Brax retorts, “Nothing gets over my head…my reflexes are too fast…I’d reach up and catch it.” It’s a simply joke but the timing is right on and they take it one step longer than I expected. Knowing this was a comic goldmine they dig this well until it’s dry.

If you are in the mood for sci-fi graphics and comic book action, The Guardians of the Galaxy, might be worth watching but only for a matinee. I would not recommend paying full price for this.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Written and Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Written by Keey Masterson. Starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong), John Hurt (Gilliam), Ed Harris (Wilford), Tilda Swinton (Mason).
Bottomline: Snowpiercer walks a fine line between humor and horror (the horror of war-type, not the monster-movie-type)

In the future, an effort to quell global warming accidentally resulted in freezing the Earth. The last survivors of mankind have survived for 17 years aboard a train that continuously travels around the planet.

From that introduction, you might suspect that there is an environmental subplot… There is also an equally subtle class struggle theme. As Tild-og’s (Tilda Swinton’s) character Mason explains, ‘there is a hierarchy and everyone should know their place.’

That statement goes over well with the impoverished passengers at the back of the train…so they hatch a plan to release, from the prison car, the security engineer/drug addict Namgoon (Song) who can open doors all the way to the head of the train. Led by the brooding but attractive Curtis (Evans), they fight to overthrow the totalitarian Wilford (Harris).

The cinematography is really great. Speaking about this with my wife, she convinced me that the action-sequence shaky camera is appropriate and well done.  The camera and characters are on a moving (therefore bumpy) train. The camera is moving with the characters that are running along fighting, which is also a bumpy activity. It’s not like in Batman Begins, where the action is hard to parse; the shaky camera is an artificial way to heighten the excitement.

The music is good enough, I think. To be honest, I saw this movie last weekend and I can’t really quite remember the music, so take that for what you will. What I do remember distinctly are the sound effects. Snowpiercer is a perfect example of how to make a chilling effect without having to actually show anything. As a friend described, the sound effects are “disturbingly visceral.” The sound of bone crunching under the weight of a hammer or the strike of an axe leaves a lasting impression. This is a really violent movie so you’ll get a lot of these of sound effects.

This is a mildly, stylized film. It’s not Sin City (Miller, 2005) stylized but more Hannah (Wright, 2011) stylized. That is, the movie has characters who could be in a comic book but the movie overall retains a general sense of realism. Its touch of theatrics is strange at times (and kinda creepy) particularly with Mason (Swinton). In her first monologue, she explains that the people in the back are like a shoe, during which, she places a shoe on the head of a man whose arm is sticking out of the train (so it freezes solid – it’s a punishment). It’s bizarre and funny but, at the same time, really dark.

I am a huge proponent of films showing instead of telling. It is a movie, after all. Snowpiercer tends to be on the telling side of the spectrum, unfortunately. It talks about interesting things, sure, but I would’ve still liked to see more instead of sitting through monologue after monologue.

At first I thought I really enjoyed this movie but after thinking about it and talking about it, I began to see some issues. First: plot holes. Massive plot holes and unanswered questions. I usually don’t knit-pick when it comes to movies, especially when the movie is science fiction. But you get to a certainly point… I hesitate to get into many of the issues because of spoilers. But I will mention one. How does the train run? We learn that the train drives through ice and purifies it to make the water but what fuels the engine? If there exists some super engine, why didn’t the world use it to combat global freezing?

A second major issue that I have is the take away feeling. When I rate a movie, I really great movie reminds why I love film and it gives me a new perspective or a new lens through which I can view the world. When all is said and done, Snowpiercer doesn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know. It sets all this stuff up but it doesn’t give me something to chew on. We get a lame ending that doesn’t provide any sense of closure.

Would I recommend Snowpiercer? Maybe. If you are in the mood for something dark and gritty and violent and have already seen Oldboy, then sure but don’t go out of your way to see it though. Now, if you haven’t seen Snowpiercer, then mind yourself of spoilers in this next section. I’d like to discuss some details about the movie, particularly the ending.

After a long painful journey, Curtis finally meets Wilford. Harris explains the whole plot. The rebellions (there were several in the history of the train) were a conspiracy to lower the population on the train to preserve the ecosystem in the train. Willy Wonka Wilford now wants Curtis to run the train. It seems like Curtis is almost on board until he sees the use of child labor. Meanwhile, Namgoon and his daughter have placed an explosive on the door of the train. The bomb goes off, the train crashes and Namgoon’s daughter and a child laborer are the only survivors. They leave the wreckage and look up on a snowy mountaintop to see a polar bear. They make eye contact with the bear and the movie ends.

First off, bears. Why bears? Why bears? Clearly it’s possible for a child laborer and a seventeen-year-old drug addict to survive if a polar can. Alone. In a still frozen planet, with no food or supplies. Great! How am I supposed to react to this? Am I supposed to feel relieved that humanity has survived…for maybe a day or two longer? I would’ve much preferred if everyone died in the train explosion. The camera could’ve floated away to do a close-up on a plant that blooms.

Even before this ending, the big reveal of the child laborers rubs me the wrong way. Thematically, I get it. Yeah, child labor is the pinnacle of evil. Wilford explains that the parts of the train break after a while and they use children as cheap replacements. How do they expect this train to last any amount of time if they are duct-taping it together with children? Maybe I’m being knit-picky. Perhaps the children and bears exist as nothing more than symbols so the logistics should be ignored.

In a similar way, one might ask what is the purpose of the people at the back of the train? From what I saw, they provided absolutely nothing. They weren’t forced to work they just sat in the back and waited for their food. One of the big plot twists (a predictable one at that) was that the rebellions were planned events of population control. Why were the poor people allowed on the train in the first place if they were going to be used for no purpose? Unless their purpose was to be future allegorical figures…

To a certain extent, I can just go with the flow and accept these quirks in a symbolic way but just like with my suspension of disbelief, it has its limits. I think I would be more sympathetic if the end result drew me to some deeper question but it didn’t. After the arduous journey, I am left with an image surrounded by a disappointing haze of ambiguity.

What do you think about Snowpiercer? Did you find it satisfying? Did you want it to end differently? I mentioned that I wanted the train to just crash but part of me wanted Curtis to take control of the train. Leave a comment with your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading!