Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

A “bunch of A-holes” band together in a post-plot ramble through the Galaxy

Image by Cakes and Comics
Image by Cakes and Comics

Surprising everyone in the Hollywood Galaxy, Guardians managed to blossom in an otherwise down time for the box office. Sitting behind Avengers and Iron Man 3 as the most successful Marvel enterprise to date, the film demonstrated that with the right marketing campaign and a new take on plot, even characters on the fringes of the Marvel master class can find mainstream appeal. James Gunn delivers a thrill ride – fun and exciting, but leaving many scratching their heads over the details.

The film opens on a Rocketman-outfitted mercenary working his way through an Indiana Jones-like ruin, avoiding booby-traps and ultimately discovering a treasure hidden deep in a temple. The quest to offload this artifact leads him into a cast of odd characters, who by a common enemy are united. This band of misfits (in every sense of the word) finds themselves in the middle of an intergalactic conflict, with a warlord on their trail out for revenge, and no clue how to save the galaxy.

Gunn and Co. found their niche in invoked nostalgia. Coming as one of the first collaborations of Disney-owned Marvel, its no surprise they played to their strengths, though the target demographic seems an odd choice for either pairing. Of course the novelty of a talking raccoon and tree Abbot and Castello pairing, as well as the sci-fi crossover with a comic property, draws the 18-35 crew in droves. Yet, with a carefully selected soundtrack of 70s/80s nostalgia, Guardians seems to be extending a Groot branch to the older demos, attempting to bring in the last group to adopt the cinematic superhero as their own. This move shows promise for the future of the diluted Marvel prospects for the future.

Many have already commented on the plot not requiring total coherence for one to enjoy the film. The background conflict is practically non-existent, bordering on a White Hat/Black Hat approach to expositing the good from the bad. A specialty of the film is subverting special plot moments – typified best in the great rally the troops scene towards the end. As each team member reluctantly joins the new squad, standing to show their solidarity, the touching moment is spoiled by a one-liner, dissolving the cathartic bond into a “let’s just do it” attitude. All this to the film’s betterment; by subverting the traditional plot beats, the film finds its identity in the nonconformity of its heroes.

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film that requires a little focus, ultimately an exercise in excitement, rather than serious reflection. Quite the adventure itself, this sci-fi/Superhero crossover demonstrates interesting new prospects for the future of the genre and for the merger of Marvel and Disney. Already on track to have its own animated TV series and an inevitable sequel, $739 million spells many more adventures for the galactic protection squad.


Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Finally a movie about racism whose ultimate message is not “Racism is Bad”

12 years

Steve McQueen crafts a gut-wrenching, personal tale which, from the moment of its cinematic conception, was guaranteed a high berth in the Oscar race.  Drawing from 160 year-old source material, McQueen taps into a deeply human story and rightly steers clear of the pitfall of a simplistic moralism message.  Naturally shot and chockfull of award-winning performances, it rightly earned its 2014 Academy Honors.

The title spells it out from the beginning: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American violinist, is seized one day by two enterprising gentlemen who sell him down South into a prolonged term of enslavement.  Following the Odysseus-like travails of his passing from one plantation to another, the audience is subjected to the demolition of a determined, educated, optimistic man.

The film shines in its incredible casting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor blends into his character, feeling right at home in this antebellum setting. If nothing else is said for McQueen, he knows how to direct actors – particularly those in supporting roles.  Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation to this genre, entirely sympathetic without appearing overly pitiful.  Cumberbatch and Paul Dano also bring wonderful performances, though the former shows signs of editing to avoid his only passable Southern accent and the later provides his usual crazed bit-part.

Further, the editing enriches the film, though not without some dry spots. Particularly, the scene of Northup’s transportation by steamboat builds fantastic tension with the editing rhythms and audio mixing of the paddlewheel as it chops through the water. On the other hand, certain moments linger too long: especially a shot of Ejiofor in the woods sobbing. Because of its length, it diminishes the scene’s emotional value. Overall, however, the cadence of the film beautifully captures what the film is about.

My deepest appreciation for the film comes from its approach to the subject matter.  Often stories dealing with American slavery tend toward blunt, overbearing morals about how slavery is bad – a correct ideology but one condescending to its audience.  Rather than assuming the viewer is racist, 12 Years steers towards the more impactful story of a human being, his needs, and the systematic way they are stripped from him.  What is mortifying about this film is not the scenes of physical or sexual violence, but rather the slow denigration of hope inside the strong-willed protagonist.  By forcing us to watch Northup renege his statement “I don’t want to survive. I want to live”, the narrative becomes universal and a part of man’s nature is laid bare.

Steve McQueen has found a rare way to take a well-trodden concept and make it disturbingly fresh. Performances fuel this biopic and it is a shame Ejiofor will have to look elsewhere for his first statue. The slow unraveling of a gentleman, 12 Years a Slave crafts an excellent “Show don’t Tell” story that reminds us all of what we would hate to lose.


Film Review: Boyhood

A nostalgia trip that seems to end stuck on the side of the road

Image from Hypable
Image from Hypable

Lauded as a “12-years-in-the-making masterpiece“, Richard Linklater’s experiment in long-term production schedules found some success at the box office despite a limited opening in the middle of the summer season.  Audiences drawn by its chronological gimmick found a very relatable picture. Boyhood is a nostalgia machine, a snapshot of societal values of the millennial age.  Yet, though it presents a beautifully natural image of the American family, the film loses its way along the journey and would have benefited from some trimming on the back-end.

Blurred between parallel narrative and real-life coming-of-age stories, Boyhood meanders through the childhood and adolescence of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his Texan family.  Growing up with his motivated mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha – played by director’s daughter Lorelei – he goes to school, makes friends, deals with common life situations. Stitched throughout are resurgences of his divorced namesake, played by Ethan Hawke, acting as brief narrative and philosophical eddies. A focus on day-to-day interactions, relationship squabbles, and developmental dialogues helps the film demonstrate rather than declare the state of the modern family.

While Boyhood is a masterfully un-invasive depiction of domestic life, the primary question about it is whether it will stand through time.  Many of the references invoked throughout land with the 18 to 25 crowd; the film seems to relish in capturing that generation’s upbringing.  However, one wonders if this film holds the same weight for older and future audiences. Looking at critics’ responses, it is appreciated for its portrayal of life and for the plights of the estranged parents.  But for not-yet-born audiences, will Boyhood be as accurately reflective or will it consist of citations long since forgotten?

In answer to that, let it be said that Linklater has created a remarkably relatable transcendent film. Rather than forcefully spelling out the director’s view of the proper family, Boyhood allows the characters to respond naturally to each ensuing situation.  It balances real-life naturalism with subtle underlying structure and cinematically designed drama.  Though a few moments feel starkly scripted, those scenes are few and late in the narrative, detracting only slightly from the former acts’ brilliance. Ellar grows from a stiff child actor into someone who clearly enjoys what he is doing, and observing that transformation alone is worth the watch.

Though it is possible Coltrane will garner an Oscar nomination, this film will quietly pass from society’s consciousness and onto the fast-track to Criterion preservation.  Social anthropologists of the 3020s will dig this up and look back over their ancestors’ lives in this cultural time-capsule.  Much like the film, the story of Linklater’s experiment will not end in a loud bang or a soft whimper, but rather in a meaty pop that disturbs the air briefly before dissipating into the silence.  Though, perhaps in the future some will look back and reflect on that sound and know something more about us than we do now.


Film Review: Grand Piano

Hitting all the right notes, this low-radar thriller is pitch-perfect.

Grand PianoF

A ridiculously fun premise lures the viewer into this exciting musical thriller.  Smartly shot and an auditory tour de force, it presents a surprisingly amusing ride through perfectionism and rediscovering purpose.  Aptly born of a man with history as a Composer, director Eugenio Mira orchestrates some stunning visuals, great performances, and a musical score to make any classical fan happy.

Grand Piano centers around a special example of the title item and the young man destined to play it. Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a piano prodigy on the edge; returning to the stage after a performance anxiety-induced mental breakdown, he prepares to make his comeback at a memorial concert for his mentor’s passing.   Selznick is reunited with the one-of-a-kind Bosendorfer piano he learned on and more importantly, with the “unplayable” piece that recently put him out of commission.  However, all his fears about retaking his place behind the ivories skyrocket to new heights when he finds a note in his music saying he must perform perfectly or die.

Built on a great script by recent Sundance victor Damien Chazelle, Grand balances good story and engaging technical execution.  Elijah Wood turns in a fantastic performance as the terrified pianist. With some help from the camera work, he produces a believable enactment of the concerto.  Further, fellow castmates Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, and Alex Winters provide excellent performances that give the world flavor.  In particular, John Cusack’s dedicated villain and Don McManus as the friendly, sage-like conductor are both superbly acted, creating respectively a perfect foil and prod for the protagonist’s journey.

Also on display is the beautiful cinematography and lighting.  Art Deco stylisms permeate the film, lending a regal quality to the already beautiful concert hall, while heightening the narrative tension with visual language.  In particular, the use of strong, contrasting lines of color draw the eye to the subject in classy fashion.  Also, DP Unax Mendía finds new ways of showcasing the title item in a flurry of inventive shot choices.

But without one element specifically, the film would have surely flopped.  The score is magical and integrates seamlessly into the narrative, sliding easily between the on-screen performance and the non-diegetic space.  Melodic and technically complicated, the orchestration compliments the film’s tone and vice versa.  Capping it off, “La Cinquette” proves to be just as complicated as promised, lending a perfect climax to the narrative arc.

Grand Piano is wonderfully shot, simply written, and tight for its narrative purpose.  It marks a great first step onto the world stage for a crew of young, talented filmmakers from around the globe – all of whom have promising futures.  As a thriller, it provides a roller coaster of pleasurable tension sure to please audiences of any age.  A fun watch, this musical gem exhibits a solid appreciation for music, translating that respect beautifully into the cinematic arts.


Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Stoking the Dragon-fires, this soaring sequel succeeds in surpassing its predecessor.


This followup to Dreamworks’ breakout hit builds upon the interesting characters and story-world of the original.  Charting into untapped territory, Hiccup and Toothless break out of the cramped drama of the first film and explore the more exciting world beyond their island of Berk.  Expansive character building and a more epic scale provide the perfect setting for the film to spread its wings and craft an engaging coming-of-age story.  It keeps focus on its hero, though to the detriment of the remarkable new characters established.

The second How to grows beyond the necessary exposition of the first film.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) now stands at the top of the ranks, expected to take responsibility for the city – a task for which he does not feel prepared.  However, this decision takes a backseat as he comes across a long-forgotten foe threatening both his clan and his dragon allies.  Caught up in the battle, Hiccup must decide the best approach to deal with the threat, while discovering the identity of the mysterious Dragon Rider who appears out of the clouds.

Having already established the narrative universe and reconciled the simplistic “Us versus Them” plot in its predecessor, the sequel explores the larger world, focusing on Hiccup’s development as a leader and his relationships with fellow dragon pilots.  At the beginning, Jay Baruchel’s voice does not fit his new armor-clad image: an element smartly utilized to demonstrate his transition as a leader as he grows out of the voice and into the role as the film progresses.  Far superior to that of his first adventure, Hiccup’s journey examines not only becoming a commanding leader, but also one with a discerning mind. This is put to the test by an excellently performed Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), whose scheme both introduces a new depth to the dragon hierarchy and adds an undesired twinge of ethnocentric embattlement.

Furthermore, the newly introduced Dragon Rider is an interesting character, bringing a great twist to Hiccup’s world.  However, she is disappointingly underutilized, failing to live up to her established fighting proficiency when it is needed most.  Ultimately sitting out the climatic battles, she becoming another damsel for Hiccup to save, only finding purpose after the main conflict is resolved.  Thus, sequel follows the original: building strong female characters before having them to do nothing, allowing the male protagonist to achieve his due glory.

Despite a few unfortunate decisions of gender and ethnic stagnations, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the story this narrative world deserves.  Director Dean Dublois again proves he knows how to make an adorable creature relatable, and paces the movie well.  The film provides an engaging thrill ride that feels epic as one would expect from a story about dragon-riding vikings.  Hiccup’s journey is well designed, inviting the viewer to connect their own struggles with his high-flying capers. An appealing adventure flick, Dreamworks has yet again aimed high and landed snuggly amongst the clouds.


Film Review: The Boxtrolls

Delightful, The Boxtrolls packs a joyful thrill-ride into a short package.

Image from
Image from

This latest entry from Laika, makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, feels right at home delivering childish merriment with serious undertones.  Techniques have improved in the art of stop-motion filmmaking and this crew is at the top of their game.  Arriving at the slump of blockbuster season, Boxtrolls performed respectably its first weekend against falling incumbent Maze Runner and the Denzil Washington vehicle The Equalizer, reminding box office buffs that holiday season with its family-oriented audiences is right around the corner.

As is their fashion, Laika tell the tale of a pair of children misunderstood by their elders.  The city of Cheesebridge is beset by a nocturnal gang of villains, the titular Boxtrolls.  A none-too-subtle picture of class segregation sets the backdrop for Archibald Snatcher’s (Ben Kingsley) bid to join the upper crust.  He begins his campaign after a young boy is abducted by the Boxtrolls and he vows to eradicate the pests for a coveted White Hat and a seat at the top table.  Years on we find, unsurprisingly, that the Boxtrolls are in fact lovable little scamps surviving and thriving under the city streets recycling the citizens’ refuse and making fantastic machines with it.  All comes to a head when the boy, know as the Trubshaw Baby or subterraneanly as Egg (Isaac Wright), meets the daughter of Cheesebridge’s mayor, Winnie (Elle Fanning), and the race to save the vanishing Boxtrolls is on.

Boxtrolls provides a wonderful return to the simplistic designs of children’s pictures, while not being didactic enough to alienate the parental audience.  The narrative is tightly packed, bordering on too short, but delivers plenty of fun in its brief runtime.  Moreover, it is a story about Fatherhood – presenting a clear definition midway through for what that role entails and then supporting that ideology with a pair of counterexamples, though sadly missing the opportunity to laud the lovable surrogate dad.  A touch on the nose, it represents a message rarely spoken so outrightly in a Hollywood flick.

The film excels with the characters it builds and the casting behind it.  Isaac Wright makes a stunning debut voicing Egg;  Kingsley turns in an unrecognizable performance buried in the character of Snatcher.  Supporting characters are lovingly played up by the hilarious trio of Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan.  Mainly though, Elle Fanning shines as a relatable Winnie, who despite appearing like a cross between Veruca Mark and Darla Dimple, wins our hearts with ease.

Coming from Graham Annabelle, personally a favorite artist, and Anthony Stacchi, The Boxtrolls is sweet as a bright piece of cheese.  The taste strikes the palette, lingers just long enough, then settles back into a refreshing flavor at the back of your tongue.  Delightfully witty and heartwarming, this latest work solidifies the notion that Laika is at the top of the stop-motion game.  A delicious watch for parents and children alike, Boxtrolls is one not to see on a small screen.