Friday, August 15, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Forgettable fun. 

I’ve said before that I don’t really care for action movies. I should probably rephrase. I don’t care for movies that feature big action scenes unless backed by a good story, compelling characters, and believable dialogue. I’ve seen some great action movies this summer (X-Men: Days of Future Past; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and I’ve seen some bad ones (Godzilla; Transformers: Age of Extinction). Guardians of the Galaxy falls somewhere in between.

It’s 1988 and young Peter Quill’s mother has just died. Filled with grief, he races out of the hospital and, for reasons unknown, is suddenly abducted and taken to space. Now, twenty-six years later, Quill is a space-roving bounty hunter of sorts, finding artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder. On one such quest, Quill comes across a mysterious orb that is highly sought after by the villainous Ronan, who is determined to use the orb’s power to destroy the universe. After a haphazard series of events, Quill ends up in prison and forms a bond with four other prisoners. There’s the assassin Gamora, seeking to avenge her parent’s death, the anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket and his talking, tree-creature sidekick Groot, and the violent and volatile Drax, determined to make the killer of his wife and daughter pay. These characters each have their own motivations but they all share the same goals: find Ronan, get the orb, save the galaxy.

When setting up a science fiction movie, it is necessary to set up rules: the way the universe runs, the creatures that inhabit it, the sci-fi “laws” of what is possible and what isn’t. But Guardians doesn’t bother with the details, instead thrusting the audience into a new world with no explanation, no rules, and the feeling that anything is possible. That might sound fun, but it presents a huge problem cinematically. In a world without boundaries, it’s near-impossible to portray any real danger or conflict. Sure, the villainous Ronan is powerful, but that’s okay! Our not-so-super-heroes can actually do anything! This problem is most apparent in the action scenes. Because anything can happen in this universe, it’s hard to feel that the characters are ever truly in peril. As a result, giant action scenes feel boring and arbitrary, necessary only to propel a fairly weak plot.

The visuals, however, are pretty fantastic. Alien character design is unique, space technology is impressive, and the special effects are awesome. An arrow-like weapon that dispatched an entire horde of enemies in seconds induced “wow's.” The fleet of Nova Corps airships that bond together to create an impenetrable wall is extremely impressive.

In addition to its stunning visuals, the film makes you fall in love with its characters. Chris Pratt, known for his comedic character-acting easily slips into his first leading-man role, giving a truly star-making performance as the kind-hearted, wisecracking Quill. Bradley Cooper’s personality is on full display in the voice of the hilariously irreverent Rocket Raccoon. WWE wrestler Dave Batista plays the straight man incredibly well, his character incapable of understanding metaphors. “Nothing goes over my head,” he growls. “My reflexes are too fast.”

But while you care about the characters, their development lacks severely. One moment the bunch is at odds, the next, they are partners. Another moment they all hate each other, the next, they are an unstoppable team of super friends. Getting from here to there is clearly of no concern to the filmmakers, who figure you’ll be so caught up in the pure comedic joy and fun, you won’t stop to notice that everything is very rushed. They’re mostly right.

Perhaps the film’s main highlight is its soundtrack. It features several classic hits from the 70’s and 80’s, superbly setting the film’s overall tone. It’s light, it’s fun, and it never takes itself too seriously. From “Hooked on a Feeling” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I was tapping my toes throughout the film.

I was surprised by the amount of ribald content in this “family-friendly” Disney movie. Characters parade around in skimpy outfits, make obscene gestures towards one another, and use a fair amount of profanity, including lots of sexual slang and euphemisms. It’s definitely the edgiest of the Marvel superhero films to date.

At one point, Drax asks Quill what happens next. Quill's response is an unintentional summary of the film: "Something bad. Something good. A little bit of both." Guardians doesn’t raise any important life questions or beg any contemplation or thought. But you won’t care: it’s ridiculously entertaining to watch. Although you’ll probably forget about it moments after leaving the theater.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

"That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt."

*Spoilers Ahead*

This, one of the opening lines of The Fault in Our Stars, foreshadows what's in store. It pains—immensely. But amidst the pain there is also purpose.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a cancer patient. She's not in any immediate risk of death, but the stage IV cancer that ravaged her lungs left her severely weakened, her ability to breathe made difficult without the help of a nasal cannula. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a cancer survivor. Aside from the fact that he hobbles about on a prosthetic metal leg, his bout with the disease left him mostly unscathed. Hazel and Gus meet at a cancer support group and quickly begin a friendship, bonding over their mutual love for Hazel's favorite book, "An Imperial Affliction." Their friendship quickly deepens and their mutual attraction is apparent. But Hazel, understanding that the experimental drug that is keeping her lungs working will likely fail one day, is hesitant to form any deep relationships in her life. Gus, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to love and be loved.

Unlike most young adult adaptations that have been recently rushed into theaters, The Fault in Our Stars features no zombies, vampires, werewolves, or dystopian government regimes. Instead, it focuses on the struggles of the hero and heroine who battle with perhaps an even greater foe—the ever-present shadow of death. While experiencing the illness may be unfamiliar to the audience, the struggles wrestled with are widely relatable. Gus grapples with his fear of oblivion, worrying that he will become meaningless in the grand scheme of existence. Hazel fears opening up to others, afraid of committing to love, worried that when the grenade of her life finally explodes all she will leave behind is devastation.

As the characters grow in affection for each other, they help each other to process their fears. Gus illustrates to Hazel that her emotional isolation deprives her of genuine affection without protecting anybody. In turn, she helps him to come to grips with the fact that his life may never reach Mozart-level proportions of fame.

Although The Fault in Our Stars stays quite faithful to John Green's novel of the same name, some subplots were omitted—the swing-set sold on Craigslist was the most disappointing—and some of the less tidy elements of the book were trimmed. Gone is the back-story of Gus's previous romance, the tension between Gus and his parents over the trip to Amsterdam, and some of Hazel's darker emotional moments. These omissions make the movie neater, less complicated, but also less realistic, weakening its impact.

Similar to the novel, the characters are wise beyond their years, precocious in their dialogue. As a result, they sometimes sound too clever for their own good. These portrayals seemed rather unrealistic to me, the dialogue coming off at times as too smart or downright cheesy. Gus places an unlit cigarette between his lips and declares, "It's a metaphor, see: you put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don't give it the power to do its killing." His lines demonstrate an idealized view of the intellect of youth, the way young people see themselves and truly want to be. But it works for their characters, and as the movie progresses, their clever expressiveness becomes less and less distracting and more endearing.

Morality is a murky subject in The Fault in Our Stars. Drawing a diagram in the sand, Gus bemoans his virginity. The big circle, he says, represents 18-year-old virgins; inside it is an even tinier one—representing 18-year-old virgins missing a leg. Gus and Hazel's attraction grows and so does their physical intimacy. Hand-holding and hugging soon turn into kissing. And before you know it, both are awkwardly consummating their relationship, a tangle of oxygen tubes and prosthetics. Their encounter begs applause: a cheer for these two imperfect beings finding true love. But beneath the manipulation lies the subtext that sex is fine as long as you're in love.

The film will make your eyes water, both during its tragic moments and its sweet ones. Hazel eulogizes Gus at his “pre-funeral” with heartbreaking imagery. As she describes their relationship as just a "tiny infinity," she attacks Gus's fears of oblivion head-on. She teaches him that life is not defined by great notoriety or broad public impact. Hazel tells Gus that even the most famous will be forgotten and reminds him that life is defined by those you love and who love you. That is all that will ever last. The message here isn't groundbreaking, but it's told with incredible poignancy. And though there is tragedy, it’s bittersweet.

The Fault in Our Stars draws you in, forcing you to care about these characters, willing them to find a "happily ever after"—while foreshadowing that this is not meant to be. The pain portrayed on screen is brutally felt by its audience and the film captures this emotion with devastating beauty. You may not feel happy when the credits roll, but you will not feel hopeless.