Friday, November 21, 2014

Whiplash



WHIPLASH: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, directed by Damien Chazelle (106 min.)

My fourth grade music teacher told my mother I had a tin ear. And like that, m career as a musician went out the window. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of music in all its forms, I am a novice. I don't grasp the inner workings of tempo and bars, beats, etc. But I love listening to so many different types of music, and I understand the emotion behind the artwork. Jazz and blues are arguably the most emotional genres, created more through the feeling in the soul than the notes on the sheet.

Tell that to Terrence Fletcher, the maniacal perfectionist band leader in Whiplash, one of the most ferociously emotional and compelling films of 2014.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a jazz drummer at Shaffer, the finest music college in the United States. Andrew lives and breathes his craft, practices endlessly, obsesses unhealthily. The fact that he even got into the school speaks to his dedication and his raw talent. His father, played modestly by Paul Reiser, is a successful high school teacher, but what does that matter? Andrew has dreams of being Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. But Parker died alone of a heroin overdose in his early thirties. Andrew says he'd rather alone in his thirties and have everyone talk about him than live sober into his nineties and nobody know the talent he had.

The college has certain caste systems, and the most coveted position is to be in the competitive jazz band under the control of Terrence Fletcher, played with almost unbearable ferocity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees something in Andrew and plucks him from the understudy position of a house band to join his core group. This is when the sadistic psychological warfare begins.

Fletcher is feared by everyone in his band. Nobody makes eye contact with him. He is a borderline psychotic perfectionists, dressed always in black, every stitch of clothing in perfect order. Fletcher preys upon his students, especially Andrew, whom he drives into masochistic practice sessions where his hands blister and bleed. There is a fine line between firm coaching and abuse; maybe that line isn't so fine, because Fletcher manages to cross the line with ease, hurling insults at his players like the jazz riffs they are trying to perfect. In one scene, Fletcher forces his three jazz drummers to try and perfect a tempo that I dare anyone to try and pick up on.

But Andrew is not to be denied his chance. He knows he is good, he knows he is the best, and he works to be the absolute best, even fleeing the scene of a shocking accident to try and make it to a competition on time. He tries to date a pretty young girl, but promptly ends that because he knows he will be insufferable to deal with.

The way Andrew is able to stand up to Fletcher's mental abuse becomes the focal point of the story. Miles Teller, who is steadily becoming one of the most powerful young actors in Hollywood, dominates his scenes, even when Simmons works at his very best to take said scenes over. The push and pull between these two actors working ferociously to destroy one another is some of the best acting of the year.

Director Damien Chazelle does impressive work here, focusing on the tiny details of the musical instruments that form a jazz band. The spit and the polish and the tuning and the beats are all impeccably on display here. I didn't know a thing about jazz drummers going into Whiplash, but it didn't matter. It's hard to believe a film with such a docile subject at the surface could be one of the more intense films I have ever seen, but that is certainly the case. Here is one of the best films of the year, one that will certainly be overlooked at awards time. Maybe that makes the most sense, because jazz drummers' fame is mostly all in their head.

A

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I Love The Movies...



I've tried for years to pinpoint the time in my life where I fell in love with the movies, but I can't quite find that singular moment. Because I was too young when I fell headlong into film, too young to remember now, at 33. There are flashes in my memory about certain pictures from my youth, but no patient zero. I'm almost certain there was an earlier time in my life, but the earliest moment I can remember falling head over heels in love, and I do mean in love, with the movies, was watching Superman II in my grandmother's sunroom in Texas. I was five.

My grandmother had taught me to read at a very early age, in that very same sunroom. I don't think for a moment she realized sitting me down in front of a VHS tape of Superman II would resonate more than sounding out sentences in her lap. But it did, and it has, because it is where I always begin when I map out my love affair with cinema. I found myself amazed as I watched Christopher Reeve fly through the air, terrified as General Zod took over "the Planet Houston." I felt genuine emotion when Clark Kent was beaten to a pulp in that diner, and there was definitely exhilaration in my heart when he finally bested his enemies in his fortress of solitude. Of course I had no idea what I was watching, or the quality (or lack thereof) of Superman II. But I did, and I do, remember those feelings.

The rest of my single digit years is a bit of a blur, as it is for everyone, but I do know most of it was spent talking my way into seeing certain movies, and watching movies like Star Wars, Harry and The Hendersons, and The Neverending Story as many times as I could. Once I gained control of my own memory, and those images have since remained, I have collected the memories of film in the encyclopedia of my imagination. And I always waned to know who was responsible for what I was seeing. I knew these magical images didn't just appear, because I paid attention to the credits and wanted to figure out who made this film, and another film, and so on...

I have always earmarked points in time based on movies I have seen. I remember seeing Snow White in its theatrical re-release in the 80s, in a theater in Garland, Texas. And I remember going with my other grandmother. My mother, who arrived late, tried to get in but the screening was sold out. I remember seeing EdTV on my sixteenth birthday in Mesquite, Texas, with a group of friends who surprised me. I remember being 16 and trying to sneak in to see Scream 2. We were caught and asked to leave (and we had bought tickets to Home Alone 3, a dead giveaway). I remember going every Saturday in high school to see the latest movie with my mom, who was up for just about anything. She did make us leave in the middle of Natural Born Killers, and for that I don't blame her. I remember seeing The Departed twice in two different theaters while I lived in Oklahoma City, I remember staggering out of the theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas after seeing 12 Years A Slave.

And I remember, most of all, when I saw Carlito's Way.

My family knew from an early age that I was able to separate the reality of the world from the imagination of the movies. I watched movies that most kids my age would never be able to see. One of those films is Carlito's Way, which I saw with my grandmother (who also loved movies) at a mall theater in Dallas. But, as I have been able to pinpoint times in my life with movies I have seen, Carlito's Way will always stick with me for what happened that night, when I got home and my mother told me she had a brain tumor.

My grandmother, my mother's mother, the one who taught me to read and showed me Superman II, had died from a brain tumor two years earlier, and the news that my mother had this same affliction completely destroyed my world. I still remember my dad crying in the background, and the universe disappearing as I sobbed in my mother's arms. She would beat the cancer, and she is still living today and is staying busy with her three grandchildren. And Carlito's Way would forever be linked to my life. That is what people often overlook, the way films can add a signature to moments in their own personal history. There are important things that happen in our life, and if we all think hard, we can remember what movies were out at the time.

I went with the satus quo in high school, seeing movies like 10 things I Hate About You so I could keep up with the girls. But I would regularly go home with my Blockbuster rental of Dog Day Afternoon or Amadeus and absorb myself into the art. I became the movie nerd in high school, the movie buff in college, and the "movie guy" in life that all of my friends and acquaintances come to when they need a trivia question answered. "Who played that guy in that thing?" I got ya.

That is what is so crucial about film, the way it can take you back to an important part in your life like a song or a smell. But the power of film in my memory goes beyond most people. The movies pull emotions out of you, and some of the most important films can push you from one feeling to another. Some movies like Reservoir Dogs can throw you headlong into an anxiety-laden story. Rocky can swell your heart with pride. The fact that Cast Away was able to make me sob over the loss of a volleyball speaks volumes to the power of film. Sometimes, movies can take you from laughter, to fear, to anxiety, to sadness, and the range of emotion is what is so powerful. You can feel all of these things, and then walk out of the theater and leave those emotions behind, regardless of what they are.

I love the history of films, and I love what it takes to get a single film released. I love that there is something universal in moviemaking in every aspect, and I love the way movies have dogeared the story of my life. Without movies, I might be lost in this world.

I love when a movie makes me laugh and cry and hang on to my seat, all in the span of two hours. I love when a new movie star emerges. I love finding out about new directors. I love the biggest films (if they are made well) and the smallest films (for the fact that they were made at all). I love the perfect line in the best scene in the smallest movie, and the best scene in the right spot of the biggest movie. I love the explosion at the right time, the twist, the horror, and the comedy. I love when a film challenges me to the ends of my imagination, to the ends of my mind. And I love when a film realizes its there simply to make me laugh or make me shake my head at the absurdity of it all.

And I love that I will be able to show my son all of the movies I can think of, that he is an empty slate right now and I will be able to see his eyes when they widen at the sight of Darth Vader for the first time.

I love the movies.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar



INTERSTELLAR: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, directed by Christopher Nolan (159 min.)

There may be warts in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. I spotted a few. But in the end, I didn't care much about the warts, because what I just endured was an overwhelming and ambitious work of art. Interstellar will pull your mind apart with its ideas, and visualize said ideas in awe-inspiring ways. What depths this film goes to, what dense philosophical and physical thoughts it tackles, and what a beautiful and glorious experience.

Like any worthy space epic, Interstellar travels to the stars to say something about those of us back here on earth. Christopher Nolan has reached for those stars, surpassing them to find new galaxies of thought, and his screenplay bends the mind and his camera thrills the eyes.

It is the near future, and the earth is trying to rid itself of the human race. Dust storms regularly ravage the landscape, militaries have been abandoned, and the world's food supply is dwindling. The world needs farmers, not idealists, as the human race has devolved into a primal survival mode. Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, a former NASA pilot who turned to farming when the world needed less space travel and more agriculture. He has a dutiful son and precocious daughter, Murph, who admires him. Strange things begin to occur, a code is discovered amidst the dust and debris of a massive sandstorm. The clues, which I don't want to detail, lead Coop to a secret base hidden in the hills.

This base is all that's left of NASA, suspended several years back, but reinstated in secret because they are planning on one more mission to try and save humanity. The mission involves a wormhole on the outskirts of Saturn's orbit. A dozen missions have traveled through this wormhole to another galaxy, and three have touched down on planets. But there has been no contact with the three explorers, because time creates a tricky paradox in alternate galaxies. Now, the heads of NASA need Coop to pilot the next mission and try and find out if any of the three planets are inhabitable. How long will he be gone? Nobody is sure. Against his daughter's wishes, Coop accepts the mission, and travels to the wormhole and beyond with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi).

The early scenes on earth try and wrangle in the emotion of the situation, but the film doesn't truly take off until the characters take off themselves. The space expedition occupies two thirds of the picture, and Nolan and his team have crafted a beautiful vision. I don't want to get into many details, other than to say the crew clearly makes their way to the planets, where Nolan is able to stretch his imagination. The first planet has a gravitational pull from a nearby black hole that is so extreme, it causes some real danger with the crew involving time. The direction the film takes after this first planetary encounter is beyond comprehension.

I want to abandon any plot descriptions here. Mutterings have been out there about the emotional side of Interstellar, and at times I can see what people might be talking about. There are some moments in the narrative that are highly emotionally charged and effective, and some that fall a bit flat. But to dismiss this film based on small moments like those would be foolish. Those are nits to pick, and Interstellar is not a film about small moments, but a big, sweeping epic about big ideas. Discussions of love, sacrifice, and who or what can possibly be done to save the planet occupy large spaces of the dialogue, and push the trajectory of these characters towards the mind-bending conclusion.

Comparisons are certainly going to be made to other science fiction films like 2001, but this has almost nothing in common with Kubrick's film. Interstellar is a picture unto its own existence, and no matter how clumsy a few moments might be along the way, those moments are quickly shed by the raw power of Nolan's ideas.

A-

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: The Vanishing (1988)

It boggles my mind why director George Sluizer would remake his own 1988 masterpiece, The Vanishing, and completely sabotage it with a cheap ending to appease American audiences. His original version is a chilling, minimalist exercise in mood and atmosphere, and the bleak ending is the only ending that makes any sense. The American version, which Sluizer helmed in 1993, is Network TV thriller quality in comparison.

I saw the American version as a teen, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. I imagine most did stateside. I was intrigued and enjoyed the picture, because I had no knowledge of the original's existence. The ending didn't bother me because I knew no better. But, after seeing the original film, the ineptitude of the remake is astounding, and what is even more astounding is the fact that Suilzer directed both and even decided to alter the original.

But, enough about the shoddy remake, what of the original?

The plot and the direction feel nearly identical through the majority of The Vanishing. Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege play Rex and Saskia, a young married couple on holiday in France. As the film opens, they have a minor setback in their travels which leads to a domestic dispute, but they make up once they arrive at a gas station to grab beer and soda. This is when Saskia, who goes into the station while Rex waits by the car, vanishes into thin air. Rex grows increasingly concerned as it becomes evident Saskia has disappeared. He begs desperately with the owner of the station to let him get the coins from a coffee machine because their might be fingerprints of the abductor. He has a polaroid of Saskia leaving the gas station, but the distance is too far to discern any details.

This is when The Vanishing begins its parallel story lines. We go back and forth between Rex, three years later and still debilitated by Saskia's disappearance, and we meet the abductor several months before the incident. The abductor is Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an unassuming family man hiding a serious sociopathic streak. The story tells us Raymond abducted Saskia very early, the rest of his story revolves around his method and his madness.

Eventually, Raymond approaches Rex, who has gone on television to plea for information about Saskia. Rex had a girlfriend who left him because she couldn't take his obsession anymore (although that same girlfriend hangs around for plot purposes in the American remake, another gross miscalculation).

I don't want to detail anymore of the story because the surprises, while individually minute, add up to a fascinating examination into the mind of a madman disguised as the patriarch next door. The Vanishing is moody and deliberately paced, dissecting the importance of closure versus impending doom. There is no direction for the film to go other than the direction it does go. And yet, Sluizer decided to completely change things for dumber American audiences.

But is that fair to audiences stateside? Are audiences here so fragile that they cannot deal with bleakness and despair? There have been nihilistic pictures in this country for years and years, so I will never understand why Sluizer decided to compromise his own brilliant vision to sell a few more tickets.

But then that explains it, doesn't it? More butts in the seats is more money in the pockets.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Nightcrawler



NIGHTCRAWLER: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, directed by Dan Gilroy (117 min.)

Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in Nightcrawler is so hypnotizing, so oddly brilliant, so completely unforgettable, that everything else gets absorbed into his mesmerizing vortex. What an odd and unforgettable movie, something utterly unique but with all the right echoes of past characters and images in legendary films. It is one of the very best films of the year, and Gyllenhaal - who has been building to something like this - has reached a new summit in his career.

Lou Bloom is one of those loners we all know from the movies, less of a loner and more alone. Lou lives in a tiny apartment, drives a tiny car, and lives an inconsequential life as a bargain-basement thief. He will steal and sell things like copper wire and manhole covers to make a living wage. But something is not right with Lou and this is evident from the get go. He speaks robotically, as if everything he says was written as stereo instructions, or if everything he has ever learned he learned from sterile website copy. Lou has no friends, no family, and no ability to interact with anyone on a social level. Needless to say, Lou Bloom is a fascinating film character.  If you squint, you can see Travis Bickle with an internet connection.

One night, Lou stops at a freeway accident where a woman is being rescued from a burning car. A camera crew arrives on the scene and films the accident. The cameraman, Joe (Bill Paxton), is a freelancer who sells his footage to the news channel with the deepest pockets. This sparks an idea in Lou, and he uses his stolen-goods savings to buy a cheap camera, a police scanner, and he hits the streets waiting to catch that right crime at the right time.

It isn't long before Lou captures the right footage a little better than the next freelancer - mostly because Lou has seemingly no understanding of social boundaries or morals - and sells the footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer for a local LA station who wants ratings more than morals. Lou and Nina develop a curious relationship as Lou continues to succeed in getting the exclusive footage of murders, accidents, fires, shootings and stabbings. As great as Gyllenhaal is here, it mustn't be overlooked that Rene Russo, as a former news anchor fighting her age with eyeshadow and heavy blush, delivers one of the best performances in her career. Nina has been around the block and she thinks she knows how to handle someone like Lou.  But, the thing is, she has never seen anyone like Lou. None of us have for that matter.

Pay attention to the rhythm of the scene between Lou and Nina, where Nina begrudgingly accepts an invitation to dinner. Pay attention to the way tones shift but Lou remains flat and direct. It is a stroke of brilliance in screenwriting and execution by two actors hitting all their notes.

Lou's business takes off and he brings on a homeless kid named Nick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, who seems just as happy to have a friend as he is to get 30 bucks a night. Lou gets a better camera, a rather auspicious cherry red Dodge Charger, and all manner of technical devices that make the inside of his new ride look like a police car itself. As Lou and Nick prowl the night streets of LA, events unfold and the picture builds and builds to a stunning conclusion. First time director Dan Gilroy, who also wrote Nightcrawler, has a firm grasp on what a powerful character the Los Angeles night can be, teaming with cinematographer Robert Elswit to capitalize on the iridescence of the flickering LA skyline, generating a visual buzz.

As I said, Gyllenhaal has been building to a performance like this in his career. His introverted, compelling turn in last year's phenomenal Prisoners seems to live on the opposite pole of his acting talents. As Lou, Gyllenhaal captivates, he pulls everything into his orbit. The way he explains everything so robotically, with an oblivious and gleeful social ineptitude, is nothing short of incredible. Lou's obsession with the scoop leads him into precarious situations where someone with even an ounce of social awareness would be frightened, yet he remains calm and focused on the task. He will stop at nothing to succeed, even if that means cutting moral corners to eliminate any competition or interference, no matter where said interference may come from.

Nightcrawler is completely engaging, a slow-burning picture with great payoff and sharp wit and satire regarding media immorality. It may very well be a masterpiece. And everything starts and stops with Gyllenhaal's performance, which will forever exist somewhere near the top of his career highlights.

A

Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick



JOHN WICK: Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, directed by Chad Stahelski (96 min.)

John Wick succeeds because it knows what it is.  Here is an absurd film in the real world, but a fascinating one in this alternate reality it creates on the screen.  It has the look and feel of a graphic novel adaptation, only it is absent of any source material.  I admire it for that.  John Wick has the confidence to be absurd, and goes full throat with said absurdity in order to eliminate any doubt.  The cliche machine is pumping in the veins of this film, but as I have always said, genre cliche is just fine if it is executed with some class and inventiveness.  If John Wick is anything, it is classy and inventive in the face of one of the oldest stories in the book.

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, slipping back into the action star role as if it were an old pair of blood-soaked shoes.  Wick is a former hit man who left the life in order to live happily ever after with his wife in their shiny postmodern home.  But his wife passes away from a sudden illness, leaving John adrift.  Before she died, however, she bought an adorable Beagle puppy for John, which is delivered to his doorstep on the night after her funeral.

Things seem fine until, of course, John unwillingly stumbles across some Russian mobsters at the gas station who take a liking to his cherry 1969 Mustang.  The thugs break in, steal his car, and kill the dog.  This sets the plot in motion, and lights the fuse on John Wick's mission of vengeance.  From here, we plunge headlong into genre standards like the Russian mobsters, the hidden caches of artillery, and the showdown inside a nightclub.

Michael Nyqvist plays Viggo, the head of the Russian mob and the father of the idiot son who stole the car and killed the dog.  John Wick is so legendary, so feared in the underworld, that the mere mention or sight of him brings chills to any and everyone in the film.  Even the local police, when they arrive at his front door after he kills a dozen thugs, stays out of his way.  Viggo knows from the get go he is in for trouble, and tells his son that he can try and go after Wick if he wants.  It won't do him any good.  Nyqvist is an admirable villain, playing his gangster with a bit of aloofness and charm rather than being simply cold and violent.  He is clearly having fun with his character.

Wick's path of revenge takes him to a New York hotel that is perhaps the most unusual portion of the film, and sets it apart from reality.  This hotel seems to cater to professional assassins.  It is run by Winston (Ian McShane), who we meet in an underground bar where the only admittance is a gold coin.  These gold coins are the only currency with which John Wick operates, and this hotel has a doctor on call and seems unfazed by murders and hotel brawls.  Wick's arrival at the hotel seems to set the film in its place, and I realized at that point I must abandon all notions of the real world.  From there, blood is shed in gallons as Wick mows down the Russian mob one after another.

John Wick is a clinic on how to stage action scenes, and it is shot with slick and impeccable cinematography.  Every suit is tailored, every light in its right place.  The picture not only knows its place in this world, it knows when to quit, just about the time the proceedings grow tiresome.  John Wick is firmly entrenched in genre cliche, but it is a blast to watch Keanu Reeves having fun back in the comfy confines of action stardom.

B+

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fury


FURY: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, directed by David Ayer (135 min.)

War pictures are typically only as strong as their ensemble.  The best war films throughout the years have a diverse and compelling cast of soldiers, grunts, men from different backgrounds who come together in the face of hell.  Saving Private Ryan was brilliant mostly because of the characterizations of Tom Hanks' troop.  Think about Platoon, and the two different factions at the center of the story.

Fury, the new World War II film from writer/director David Ayer, who directed the excellent police thriller End Of Watch back in 2012, has a much smaller, much tighter-knit group of soldiers who occupy a tank on the muddy German countryside.  This team is well constructed by Ayer's screenplay, and keeps the stakes high enough to care about what is happening on the screen.  The film takes place in 1945, as the Americans and their allies made their way through Germany in the final months of WW2.  Despite their progress, the Americans were outmatched by the German tank technologies, and are outnumbered in general.

Brad Pitt plays Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of Fury, one of the few remaining tanks in the American front.  Collier is a firm leader who has conformed to the violence of war over the years, and Pitt keeps his emotions appropriately under wraps.  His team consists of a fanatically religious solider, Boyd (Shia LeBeouf), an even-keel Hispanic soldier named "Gordo" (Michael Pena), and a brash Southern dimwit named "Coon-Ass" who speaks his mind.  As the film opens, Collier and his team are saddled with a green military kid, a new tank driver named Norman (Logan Lerman).  Norman is the typical newbie to a group of war-hardened soldiers, an open-faced kid who fears killing and is still clouded by the morality of the real world.  Collier and his team have no time for passiveness.

The film follows Collier as he takes his troops from one German city to the next in an attempt to overthrow the Nazis.  He is intent on killing each and every last SS soldier, and the events that unfold are unflinching and relentlessly violent.  Bodies are blown apart, heads explode, and the proceedings become more and more grim and unsettling.  The violence in Fury is disturbing, even for a war film, but there are some virtuoso action sequences.  The most thrilling moment comes when Collier's tank squares off against a superior German tank, firing off round after round within thirty feet of each other.  The ferocity of the tanks is often on display in the picture, as these tanks and their artillery are capable of cutting a building in half in mere seconds.

Fury takes a surprising left turn in the second act, when Collier and Norman stumble upon two German women hiding out in an apartment in one of the cities they conquer.  The peaceful aside is an interesting diversion in a film primarily focused on death and destruction.  I found the scene strange, but telling and a bold stroke.

The look of Ayer's film is striking, gray and steep in mud and muck.  As we reach the conclusion, there are certain aspects of the story that are telegraphed thanks to a long cinematic history of war films.  We know, almost from the beginning, the fate of each character and probably the order of their demise.  And the final showdown comes complete with the fearless leader standing his ground in the face of insurmountable odds, and his brethren dismissing the opportunity to leave in order to make one final stand with their commander.  There are few surprises in the plot, but the performances keep things elevated.  Pitt is stern and, as always, a compelling lead.  LeBeouf's scripture spouting solider has been done before, but not in this way, and Logan Lerman's evolution is at least interesting along the way.

Fury lands somewhere in the middle of the War genre.  It is not one of the best, but most definitely not the worst.  And credit must be given to the interesting aside Ayer writes into his second act, it is easily the strongest portion of the picture.

B
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl



GONE GIRL: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, directed by David Fincher (149 min.)

I must tread lightly here.

Gone Girl is a film which relies and flourishes on twists and turns, so virtually any attempt to lay out plot beyond a certain point in the story would be to ruin the entire thing.  I read Gillian Flynn's novel this summer, so I knew everything that was coming.  And yet, with all of the information stored away in my brain, I still found myself staring aghast at the screen as the wildly outlandish story unfolded.  That is a testament to the direction of the great David Fincher and to everyone in the cast.  Perhaps Gone Girl isn't the best of Fincher, perhaps it is, I don't really know.  What I do know is that everyone, yes everyone, should see this film simply to gaze upon the insanity.  And if you don't see it, you will be missing out on what will undoubtedly be the most talked about film of 2014.

The adaptation remains urgently faithful to Flynn's novel.  Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an aloof Midwestern hunk who moves to New York to be a writer for a men's magazine.  This is where he meets Amy, played by the open-faced Rosamund Pike.  Amy is a trust-fund baby who's parents made a boatload of cash selling out her childhood in the form of children's books, a series known as the "Amazing Amy" series.  Amy is sophisticated, beautiful, and Nick is smitten from the start.  Their romance is told through flashbacks of Amy's diary entries which detail the rise and fall of their marriage.

In the present, Nick and Amy have moved back to Nick's hometown in Missouri.  Both laid off from their writing jobs in the midst of the recession, the couple live in a rented mini-mansion in a town that is crippled by job loss.  Nick teaches at a local community college and runs a bar where his twin sister, Margot (Carrie Coon), tends.  It is the morning of Nick and Amy's fifth anniversary when she mysteriously disappears.  There are signs of a struggle inside the house, albeit suspicious signs.  Nick calls the police and they begin their investigation.  Detective Rhonda Boney, played wonderfully by Kim Dickens, wants to believe Nick had nothing to do with Amy's disappearance.  Officer Jim Gilpin, played by an all-grown-up Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous, wants to throw the book at Nick, especially once the evidence begins mounting to increasingly incriminating degrees.

Nick seems detached from the events, and Affleck's wooden acting is purposeful and effective.  Certain elements arise and place the blame at his feet over and over; but still, no body and no murder weapon are recovered.  The plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens some more, and the media sinks their claws into this in disturbingly realistic ways in our modern news culture.  Nick is vilified on a Nancy Grace type news program, and he makes mistakes along the way.  The mystery remains impenetrable and curious, and the toxicity of the media becomes a focal point in what Fincher is trying to exploit with his story.

This is where I must abandon any storytelling, because what ends up happening is a fascinating twist that Flynn should be most proud of as a writer.  While the plot is simple, the twists are outlandish, and Fincher recognizes this.  The tone of his picture shifts from ominous and threatening to take on an offbeat and sardonic pitch.  Believe it or not, there are some amusing moments along the way, even though the events are sometimes horrific when considered.  And, once again, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have supplied the score for a Fincher film, having already done the score for The Social Network and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.  This time around, they have topped their own work.

Fans of the novel version of Gone Girl should not shy away from this screen adaptation.  Despite knowing all the moves that are coming, Fincher's direction is masterful in keeping tension, humor, and fascination at the forefront.  Affleck is perfect in the lead role, and Carrie Coon, who plays his spitfire twin sister Margot (Go) is worthy of a supporting actress nomination.  Rosamund Pike has never impressed me until now, as her wide-eyed gaze fits the role of Amazing Amy.  Tyler Perry is a great twist to the casting as Nick's hotshot New York attorney, Tanner Bolt, and Neil Patrick Harris is chillingly effective as a rich former boyfriend of Amy.

Gone Girl is a testament to the media world we live in now, full of tension and humor and great performances.  Everyone should at least take a look, so they won't be left out of the conversations by the water cooler.

A-

Thursday, October 2, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Narc (2002)

Joe Carnahan's career has ebbed and flowed from serious, heavy action dramas to outlandish, ultra-violent action satires, but when he is on his game there is hardly an action director that can match his intensity and skill.  His theatrical debut, Narc, is unmatched on a number of levels.  A police procedural on the surface, Narc dives into darker avenues of the streets and ends with a twist that compromises the morality that has been set throughout the film.  It is often a gruesome street film, empowered by its lead performances and a direction from Carnahan that refuses to look the other way.

The protagonist is Nick Tellis, an undercover narcotics officer played by the undervalued Jason Patric.  The opening scene, shot out of a cannon, features Tellis making a split decision and shooting a drug-addicted maniac who has taken a pregnant woman hostage.  One of his bullets strikes the woman, killing her and her unborn child along with the criminal.  As Tellis has fallen to drug addiction during his undercover work, he is suspended and sent home.  Fast forward roughly a year and another undercover officer is found murdered.  Tellis is brought on to investigate, given his street connections.  He is also teamed up with a known hothead detective, Henry Oak, played by a heavy and intimidating Ray Liotta.  But, when is Liotta not intimidating?

Tellis and Oak comb the streets to try and find the cop killer, which sends them into some of the dirtiest and most unseemly areas of an impoverished Detroit.  The characters are authentic, but the city itself is perhaps the most vital player.  Painted in desperate blues and grays, in the middle of a deathly winter, Detroit is unforgiving as these officers try and figure out what happened and who is responsible.  Oak and Tellis develop a pragmatic working relationship, and Tellis struggles to keep the short fuse of Oak under wraps as they interrogate drug dealers and work murder scenes.  Oak's short fuse is due in part to his significant relationship with the murdered officer.

Tellis begins to investigate the death on his own, and uncovers more and more curious details.  All the while, he must contend with his wife, who wants him to have a desk.  The investigation takes Tellis and Oak into a confrontation with two low-level gun and drug dealers and Oak's fury takes over.  The final reveal is delivered at the last minute, after an initial twist occurs.  From one twist to another, the morality play grows more convoluted all the way to the final shot.

Narc is the very definition of a gritty crime drama.  Carnahan pulls no punches with his portrayal of an intense police investigation and gruesome detail.  Ray Liotta's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, and Jason Patric shows that he is such an underused, under appreciated actor.  He has the depth and emotion in a simple stare that some of the finest actors are able to convey.  Both actors have a past to contend with in the picture, and I cannot think of better actors to display damage and sadness while soldiering on in the name of plot.

Joe Carnahan's direction is proof of his strong talent behind the camera.  After Narc, he would direct the gonzo action comedy Smokin' Aces and the poor adaptation of The A-Team.  But then he would return with a vengeance with The Grey, Liam Neeson's best film in a decade.  Regardless of his career trajectory, Narc is a searing and unforgettable start.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: City of God (2002)

Somewhere between Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (the good version), there is Fernando Meirelles and his searing and immediate film, City of God.  That is not to say Meirelles' film is not unique, but visual and narrative threads connect with these directors and their better pictures.  City of God is a film that is told with urgency and violence, but one with flair, panache, and a tone that is fresh and vibrant in the face of despair.  It tells the story of poverty breeding crime in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, but with a love for its characters which creates sincere emotional connections.

Much like Scorsese's Goodfellas, City of God is told through the eyes of a narrator in the midst of violent street crime.  His name is Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, and he and his brother occupy the dusty streets of a shanty town outside Rio De Janeiro where the privileged isolate the impoverished.  It is called the City of God, a place where God has overlooked the desperate.  Rocket tells the story of his youth in the sixties in the city where he avoids the criminal life while his brother, Shaggy, falls headlong into robberies and heists.  He tells us of the Tender Trio, a group of pre-teen hoodlums who rob propane trucks and brothels, and grow up to battle for power in the slums.  The trio merely lays out a culture of crime and violence, where everyone carries a pistol.  The film moves seamlessly from the sixties into the seventies, where one of the slum's children has grown into a psychopathic, power-hungry drug lord.

Once Li'l Dice as a child, Dice has grown into a hong man and re-named himself Li'l Z (Leandro Firmino).  Z is a cold-blooded killer, using force and murder to gain control of the City of God.  His partner, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is a much nicer, more diplomatic drug dealer.  He doesn't kill, he bargains and becomes friends with everyone in the slums.  But Li'l Z has a thirst for control that is unmatched in cinema, and he vows to take over the final neighborhood in the slum, run by Benny's friend, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele).  The way these stories and events weave in and out of each other grows hypnotizing, told through the eyes of Rocket's objective narration.  The film is based on a novel from Paulo Lins, who based the story on his time growing up in the City of God, lending even more to the steadi-cam, documentary feel.

Rocket, all the while, struggles with the everyday issues of being a teenager.  He likes a girl, but fails at losing his virginity.  He tries crime, but everyone he and his friend decide to rob is too nice to hurt.  Rocket loves photography, and lucks into a job as a photographer of the local newspaper thanks to his exclusive access to these criminals.  Certain events unfold, there is a rape and a murder, and war breaks out in the City of God between the two gangs.

The plot is complex, yet easy to follow thanks to the names and bright characterizations of every person on the screen.  Characters named Knockout Ned, Clipper, Stringy, and Melonhead all occupy their own place on the screen and are all painted with vivid energy.  The vibrancy of the direction helps to counter balance the despair, the violence, and the moments which are hard to watch.  There are children in danger any number of times, but the story earns such tough scenes.  And despite the violence, Meirelles picks and chooses what to show and what not to dwell on in order to create the most optimal impact on the screen.

City of God is a visceral picture, hard to watch but impossible to turn away from, told with wonderful fervor.  Aside from the visual mastery at play, there is true tragedy at the core, a story about poverty breeding crime.  The story may take place in the slums of Rio, but there is something universal to the tragic nature of these children, and how they will, more than likely, dissolve into death within the impoverished walls of the City of God.  Rocket's story is a rarity, to say the least.      

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop



THE DROP: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, directed by Michael R. Roskam (106 min.)

Tom Hardy can play just about any type of character, and play it well.  I enjoy him as an actor.  But he might be most effective when he is understated, and in The Drop, Hardy is the most understated, unassuming protagonist to ever occupy a crime drama.  He is Bob, our narrator, who tells us in a voiceover about the "drop bars" in a New York neighborhood where low-rent mobs store and move money around town at night.  He tells us about the criminal element that exists in his neighborhood, an serving as a sort of tapestry for the common citizens.  And Bob?  Well, he "just tends the bar," or so he tells us.  He carries himself with a limp, acts slow on the draw.  But there is something up with this guy, and the majority of the film involves trying to break through the simple-minded exterior of this slump-shouldered bartender.

Bob runs the bar of his cousin, Cousin Marv, a washed up gangster wannabe played by the late James Gandolfini in his final role.  Well, it used to be Marv's bar; despite the sign outside, more prominent criminal figures own the establishment.  Marv tried to run the neighborhood a few years ago, but was muscled into submission by a foreign faction of gangsters who are much slicker and more menacing.  Bob is his right-hand man.  He speaks simply, softly, and stays in the shadows of his own life.  Cousin Marv's bar is one of the many drop bars in town, and one night when it is robbed by two masked men, the police begin snooping around and the real, foreign owners come calling.

But this screenplay, written by Dennis Lehane (who wrote Shutter Island and Gone Baby, Gone), does not take the typical approach to a crime drama.  Rather than amp up the violence, The Drop takes a side road with Bob.  One night on his way home, Bob hears a puppy whimpering in a nearby trash can.  He retrieves the Pit Bull puppy, bloody and abandoned, and is confronted by the homeowner, a skittish woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who takes some time to warm to Bob.  She had nothing to do with the dog being abandoned.  Bob doesn't know a thing about dogs, but Nadia implores him to take ownership, and the couple bond over the puppy.  It is an interesting branch to a familiar story.  Before long, the owner of the dog appears, and is a menacing former boyfriend of Nadia.  He presses Bob to return the dog to him, but why?  Some motivations remain unclear in the film, which is a drawback in the end.  But I admire the effort to expand upon a traditional story.

The former boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), becomes a larger player as the story unfolds, and his menace creates great tension.  The plot is occasionally too obtuse for its own good, but The Drop is less about plot and more about these broken lives of neighborhood folks who were once much happier people.  As we begin to learn more about Nadia and, eventually, Marv, Bob remains a mystery until the final moments.  The screenplay lets us into these lives, and allows us to feel sympathy for Bob, all the while keeping him at arm's length for very deliberate purposes.  

In the end, perception has changed for just about everyone involved.  The Drop was a film I was not expecting.  While the directing is unremarkable in the end, and the narrative too convoluted at times, the performances are sublime and unique to the performer.  Noomi Rapace, with an open face and dark eyes, hides sadness well.  And it is still a little odd seeing Gandolfini in film roles this long after his passing.  Nevertheless, he brings comfort to a crime drama like this, playing yet another photo negative to his powerful and egomaniacal Tony Soprano character.  But this is a film where Tom Hardy captivates from the opening scene.  He can do so many things with his voice and, like the best actors around, can say so much without so much as raising an eyebrow.

The Drop may ultimately be unremarkable as a whole, but I found certain elements fascinating, and I respect the writing for attempting to approach a crime drama from a fresh perspective.

B

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Thief (1981)

He carries it all in his shoulders, the weight and pressure of the criminal life, the years behind bars.  He expresses his confidence in his strut.  Frank is a loner, but he is not alone.  He has a woman in his life whom he loves and wants to spend the rest of his life with.  But what is the rest of his life, the life of a career criminal?  Frank is trying to rectify the impending doom of his occupation when we meet him; but, of course, the allure of the life and dangers of outside influence won't allow swift exodus.  Frank is the perfect protagonist in Michael Mann's debut feature, the electric crime thriller Thief.  We all know the films of Michael Mann, and what he has become in a long and brilliant career, and some of his finer work is an echo of Thief in one way or another.  Mann is fascinated with crime, practically sexualizing the act of thievery in some of his works (Thief included), and from the very beginning it was clear his ability to harmonize the thrill of criminal behavior with a world that is fully realized, enveloping, and beautiful.

Frank is played by James Caan, a master of angst, confidence, and ferocity at the right moments.  He is an expert safe cracker who works independently with his own crew he can trust.  The story is a familiar one these days, the introvert criminal looking for one final score before he can ride off into the sunset.  But, as I have always said about cliches and genres, it is only a cliche if the execution is poor.  A film can have the most predictable plot outline, but the developments and the style can define it as something unique despite convention.

Thief is a living, breathing city noir, where Chicago as a backdrop absorbs the players as if they were on in the same.  Consider the opening shot, a sheet of rain backlit by green streetlights which we follow down an alley framed with fire escapes, to Frank a few moments before a heist.  Frank was borne of the city.  He keeps his circle small with his friend and partner, Barry (James Belushi in his debut performance), and his love, Jessie, played by Tuesday Weld.  Frank visits his mentor, Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison, maybe to spend time with Okla, probably to remind himself he never wants to be back in prison.  Frank wants to get up enough money so he can skip town, leave the life behind, and live the rest of his life in peace with Jessie.  But then a wise guy comes calling for his services.

Robert Prosky plays Leo, an underworld boss who convinces Frank to work for him on one big score.  That, of course, doesn't turn out to be the case.  The one score turns into another, and when Frank tries to get out, things don't go as he had planned.  The thefts are a backdrop to the struggles of Frank as he gets his life in order.  This is a character study about a thief, not an action film charged and driven by pure plot devices.  One of the finest moments in the whole picture is a monologue from Caan in a diner booth, telling Jessie a story about his time behind bars.  In the end there is a double cross, a revelation for Frank, and a thrilling climax, all of which belong in a crime drama and devices noir fans recognize.  But, remember, it's the execution that sets genre films apart, and Michael Mann is better than just about anyone at technical execution and its marriage to style and panache.

Mann is known for his research and his attention to technical details, as well as his unique collaborations.  In Thief, Mann employed an actual safe cracker for technical support, and that safe cracker, John Santucci, would go on to play a detective in the film.  Conversely, the late Dennis Farina, who was a retired policeman, played a hood for Prosky's mob.  The materials used in the safe-cracking scenes were actual tools of the trade.  Thief was also the beginning of Mann's eccentric musical choices to pair up with his films.  Sometimes his music has worked wonders, other times it has not.  Thief is completely scored by the techno pop band Tangerine Dream, and the acidic musical notes almost bring more energy to the picture, or pull the seething tension to the forefront in some brilliant ways.


On occasion, Mann's technical obsessiveness has gotten in the way of his final product, and the humanity of some films suffer.  Ali starts like a rocket and fizzles out as Mann gets caught up in the politics of the story.  Public Enemies looks fantastic, feels authentic, but is lifeless.  However, Mann's better films - a list which outweighs his misfires tenfold - manage to capture both the authenticity as well as the human angle.  Think about Heat, or The Insider, his greatest achievements, and their ability to .  Those films, in their own separate ways, belong as the offspring of Mann's first film, which just so happens to be his first truly great film, Thief.          

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: 1951-2014


One of life's cruelest contradictions has always been the sadness which lies within so many of the people who make us all laugh.  John Belushi and Chris Farley always spring to mind as lovable comedians whose depression and substance abuse took them from this world too soon.  And now, it is Robin Williams, who is dead at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide.  While this news came as a shock to me, I strangely wasn't surprised.  Williams had always dealt with substance abuse, had been a lonely child, and I always sensed darkness lying beneath his constant energy, wit, and desire to deflect attention from his personal life by creating a character we all know and love.  Like everyone has already said ad nauseum, Williams effected all of our lives.  With a decades-long career spanning all genres and mediums, Robin Williams is beloved, and will be missed.

From stand-up, to the small screen, to the silver screen, and eventually finding his way on Broadway, Robin Williams was more than the maniacal improv genius he is so well know for.  I enjoyed Williams when he was "on," when he was hijacking Letterman, doing wild stand up routines, lighting up the screen in his funniest roles.  But his dramatic roles mustn't be overlooked.  His best work was his ability to combine the two in some memorable performances.  In the early 2000s, Williams delved deep into his dark side, personifying what now appear to be real demons in some villainous roles in Insomnia and One Hour Photo.  It was quite a transformation for Williams, who pushed his range further than ever before.  Williams was an institution, the uncle to us all.  We all know about his performances and his awards so let's not retread.

I am deeply saddened by Williams' suicide, but not because he was a close personal friend.  I am upset because suicide is an epidemic in this country and the death of Williams should point us in the direction of this disturbing trend.  I am sure it will for a while, but I doubt it will sustain.  More people die in America from suicide than car accidents today.  Think about that.  There is deep, dark sadness all around every one of us, and no matter how outwardly entertaining, funny, or happy someone may seem they could be suffering in ways most of us cannot comprehend.  I have had suicide in my extended family, I have had my own bouts of sadness, but nothing even close to the depression one must feel in order to take their own life away from so many people who love them.  Williams is survived by his wife and three children.  Three children.  That would be enough for me to survive, but then again I wasn't in pain like Robin Williams. 

Suicide is pain, exposed in the most permanent and disturbing way imaginable.  I am sad today, not because Robin Williams is gone so much as his family has to stay without him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Boyhood

 
BOYHOOD - Ellar Coltraine, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, directed by Richard Linklater (165 min.)

Boyhood restores my faith in the power of film as an art form.  Amid the dog days of summer movie garbage, here is the best film of the year, a transcendent piece of storytelling that is compelling, moving, true, and unforgettable.  Everyone knows the back story about director Richard Linklater shooting segments of the story over a 12 year period with the same cast, but this is not a gimmick picture.  Linklater's daring move (the list of what could have gone wrong with production is endless, and filled mostly with death preponderances) pays off not in trickery, but in seamless storytelling that comes together in concert through emotional honesty.  It is Linklater's masterpiece.

The story focuses on the life and times of Mason, played by Ellar Coltraine from a seven year old to a college freshman.  Mason has a sister, Samantha, played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei.  Their mother is a determined woman (Patricia Arquette) who struggles to make a better life for her children and ends up making mistakes in love over the years.  The dad is Ethan Hawke, who at first is an earnest young man with a GTO and dreams of being a musician, but eventually turns into a responsible adult.  Dad is there for the fun weekends, and it is mom who fights to keep her head above water.  All of these characters float like satellites around Mason as he works his way through some of the toughest years we all have,  There are ups and downs, simple moments and moments of confusion, loves and losses, the struggle to understand.  Linklater taps into his characters with an honest eye.

The power of Boyhood lies in its details.  Sure, there are big moments in the story as there are big moments in all our lives.  Mason's mother marries her professor who turns out to be a frightening man.  She hooks up with a student of her own once she becomes a college professor down the road, and things go south once again.  But what sticks with me about the beginnings of these relationships is the way Linklater frames Mason's perspective of these gentlemen callers.  It is a small, cockeyed glance, a look of curiosity and confusion as he witnesses another man moving into his life.  A small detail, but an important one, something that still lingers.

There are moments that will reach any viewer, be it divorce, step parents, adjustments and understanding, or the simple times of happiness.  As a son and now a father, I found the scenes with Mason and his father to be the most personal, and the next person in the audience may connect with something else.  Regardless of the connection, this is a life unfolding in front of our eyes.  As Ellar Coltraine becomes a man, so does Mason.  He grows from a quiet young boy to a quiet, introverted teenager searching for himself.  From trying to understand the world, Mason becomes a young man trying to understand his own existence.  And there are no sweeping moments of epiphany, the music doesn't swell and characters don't change their world through unreasonable circumstances.  Even when the mother's second husband turns out to be a dangerous threat, the situation is not resolved with theatrics, but in a very matter of fact way that reality dictates more often than not.  He is simply... dealt with.

And the screenplay from Linklater is simple and conversational, a sublime work of ease and intelligence.  It never outreaches its characters or goes for a big payoff, it simply exists, just like all of us in the end. 

The transitions between years are done expertly, with music and current events shaping the year.  At almost three hours long, I didn't want it to end.  I could have watched this story all day long.  Richard Linklater has pulled off quite a feat and created a magical movie going experience.  I plan on seeing it again very soon because I know the experience will only enrich the early moments.  It is rare that a film makes me want to go back almost immediately, but Boyhood begs for such a thing.  I will not soon forget this.

A     

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of The Galaxy


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY - Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (v), Vin Diesel (v), directed by James Gunn (121 min.)

I knew from the outset I was going to have fun with Guardians of The Galaxy.  Something seemed just right from the opening credits, and the film that followed only solidified my initial reaction.  Guardians of The Galaxy is the most fun anyone could have at the movies this summer.  That may be faint praise with such a lackluster summer blockbuster season, but this movie would be a blast no matter what the situation.  It is an exercise in tonal perfection, often times hilarious, sometimes exciting, always engaging. 

The story is familiar, if only to make the wildly diverse characters and space opera adventure easy enough to follow.  A brief prologue shows our hero, Peter Quill, at the bedside of his dying mother.  This opening scene blindsides with an emotional punch as Quill's mother dies, he flees the hospital and is promptly scooped up by a spacecraft.  Fast forward twenty years and Peter Quill has become a "junker," an adventurous pawnbroker of sorts, or a low-end Indiana Jones.  He also likes to call himself Star-Lord, although nobody really jumps on board with his nickname.  Quill gets his hands on an orb, the Macguffin of the film which both the good guys and the bad guys want to get their hands on.  Turns out it is a planet-destroying weapon, but it doesn't matter much. 

Before long everyone is trying to get their hands on this orb for money or power, and the pursuit brings Quill together with a ragtag group of misfits with their own agendas.  Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned daughter of the galactic villain Thanos, and she wants the orb to get vengeance on Thanos for killing her real family.  Bradley Cooper voices Rocket, a hot-headed racoon who has been genetically altered and embittered over the years.  Rocket's sidekick is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree that says only one phrase.  Then there is Drax, a slate-green brute with red designs on his skin.  Drax and his people do not grasp the concept of speaking in metaphors, which makes for some great comedy throughout.

This band of misfits team up to defeat Thanos' disciple, Ronan, played with booming bass by Lee Pace.  The plot is mechanical, merely a set up to deliver what turns out to be the funniest movie of the year in my estimation.  This is a star-making turn for Pratt as the cocksure Quill, a mix of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.  Cooper's Rocket brings the snark, Groot the lovability, and Drax the dim-witted target.  The quintet works in concert perfectly from one situation to the next, and the tone is always perfect.  There is humor all throughout, but the picture never feels campy or like a spoof.  And there are some rich cameos from John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom keep the film effervescent with their own comedic timing. 

The universe on display feels a bit like a cobbled together version of a dozen other space adventure films, which I feel is partly the idea.  The action isn't nearly as engaging as the story.  We get a prison break, a number of chase scenes, and a peaceful planet on the verge of destruction, none of which are particularly original.  The logistics of the plot aren't nearly as realized as the characters, which is a good thing if one has to suffer over the other.  Where the CGI and the story might suffer, the inventiveness of the creatures occupying this world is enough to get this film a makeup Oscar.  And on top of it all, the five central characters are all misfits in their own way, all have lost something in their past, adding weight to their budding friendships.

Guardians of The Galaxy is a wacky, wild entertainment.  The freshness of the characters without any predestined baggage makes the story a treat as it unfolds without expectation.  In yet another summer of mediocrity, here is one that would stand out in any hot season.

B+