Thursday, August 21, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Guardians of the Galaxy

Yep, it’s Cautious Enthusiasm.

Let me preface this by stating that during Summer Blockbuster Season 2014, I went with all the weirdo options. I already talked about X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is way weirder than most superhero franchises when you think about it. After that came the excellent Snowpiercer with its offbeat postapocalyptic chic, and Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson unlocks Godmode in the video game of life and turns omnipotent with the assistance of Morgan Freeman and stock footage. Hell, even the new TMNT (which I avoided like a bag of angry spiders) is pretty bizarre, albeit in all the wrong ways. If it was the Summer of Weird, then Guardians of the Galaxy was the cumulative jewel in the diadem, and I loved the movie, really I did. What turned out to be most weird was how something this off-the-beaten-path can still slot so neatly into the predictable safety of the Marvel machinery. Which ain’t an awful thing, just...a thing.

The Marvelverse is a happening place nowadays, to the point where I won’t be able to watch Captain America 3 without wishing we were on some other planet or realm or plane where all the real action is. Pretty much every shot in Guardians contains something cool to look at, and the sci-fi setting, coupled with the carefully tailored kookiness (Terry Gilliam visuals are now a bankable default mode), make it different from anything seen before. It’s all the snarky one-liners and strange little side details in all the previous Marvel flicks, brought to front and center. Odd, then, that it opens with tragedy worthy of Up, as a young boy named Peter Quill loses his mom to cancer. As if that weren’t enough, he gets kidnapped by aliens for...some reason. (Hint: if you’re the only Human in the galaxy to get yoinked off Planet Earth, it probably ain’t a coincidence.) Some years later, Quill (Chris Pratt) is a swaggery space pirate so blasé that he backstabs his own pirate buddies with hardly a shrug. “Starlord” is the name given to him by himself and absolutely no one else. Pay attention, though, because his flippant manner hides deep hurt, and the way in which he clings to 80s-era Earth pop culture is at first funny, then poignant.

“Starlord” finds himself in possession of the thing that every Marvel movie has, the Glowy Object That Can Destroy Us All (GOTCDUA), and a lot of people want the latest GOTCDUA (this one’s purple!), including evil alien zealot Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, not that you’d know under the Goth Vader makeup), who wants to...oh, who cares what Ronan’s motivation is? He’s evil and he wants to kill everybody and he’s boring, thus making him the distilled essence of Marvel movie villainy. The collision of parties interested in the GOTCDUA results in Quill meeting his new future teammates, which include the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an alleged villainess who’s itching to switch sides; Drax (Dave Bautista), a vengeful bruiser whose lack of personality is his personality; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) a pissed-off raccoon with a gun fetish; and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking tree who functions like a sylvan Swiss army knife. The movie keeps emphasizing how UNCONVENTIONAL and UNHEROIC and RAGTAG these heroes are, how they AREN’T LIKE THE AVENGERS. Only they totally are, because the fuck-the-rest-of-you misfit nature of the Avengers was played up just as much, remember, guys?

What I’m saying is that the anarchy of Guardians is manufactured. I still really loved it. It was very funny, though it got a bit too self-referential at times. (There is more to humor than just pointing out cliches as they occur.) It’s got a juicy mean streak: more people die in this film than in all the previous Marvelverse films put together, and probably all the future ones as well, at least until Guardians 2. The action is a lot of fun, too -- the first “meeting” between all our heroes is a street brawl in which they find ever-new ways to injure each other, and during one space battle, the Guardians use their own ships as pinballs of death. And, again, the film never loses track of the fact that these weirdos have wounded souls. Peter Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Drax -- all use a devil-may-care nature to mask the hurt that was done to them in the past, and their gradual cooperation comes through unspoken acknowledgment of that shared trauma (well, except for Groot, but who knows, maybe he had a horrible childhood encounter with Chestnut Blight or something). I wish the film had been more about what drives its heroes and less about the usual Marvel plot in which an uninspired evildoer uses the GOTCDUA (that’s three Infinity Stones out of six! Are you keeping track?) to be evil because he is not yet quite evil enough. Oh, yeah, and we see more of former post-credits teases Thanos (Josh Brolin...I think) and The Collector (Benicio del Toro), just enough to make us wonder if either one of them serves a point.

It’s all part of the Grand Marvel Movie Plan that may never entirely end. Will our Avengers and/or Guardians ever make it all the way to Thanos, and by the time they do, will anyone still care? Watch yourself, Marvel: you’re riding high, but cinematic trends change over time. The optimistic side of me would like the more bizarro Guardians of the Galaxy vibe to kick off a new movement, just as the original Iron Man kicked off the trend of superhero flicks as interlocking, irreverent, mythological spectacles. This franchise is evolving into all kinds of strange new forms, but for now, the firm hand of of the studio is on the tiller, making sure the core formula remains intact. Guardians didn’t really break the mold; it merely offered a hint that there’s more beyond the known horizon. And that an angry talking raccoon can make you cry. And that the funniest character is the one with no sense of humor. And that Djimon Hounsou is being utterly wasted by Hollywood. And that blue-skinned space redneck Michael Rooker has a whistle-powered harpoon. And that I was able to write the previous sentence at all, which is really all I can ask for as a blogger.

And the post-credits tease...really, guys? Really? I guess it was inevitable. But Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is already shaping up to be even weirder. Exxxxxcellent.

VERDICT: A Marvel squee, which is a squee with an asterisk next to it and a footnote underneath that reads, “You already know everything that happens in this movie.” But squee anyway.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Top 10 Obscure Films

So, so many movies are released every year -- and unless they make millions of dollars, win a bushel of awards, or are notoriously awful, a big chunk of them are destined for relative obscurity. The unwashed masses may flock to the blockbusters and I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but I toil to keep my favorite movies from falling through the cracks. Here’s a collection of films that are somewhat obscure -- because they’re indie-minded, or underrated, or hail from a different era or country, or all of the above. Personally, I think they’re really good and more people should watch ’em. If you’re weary of Summer Blockbuster Season 2014 and are dinosaurian enough to still have Netflix DVD by mail, why not try...


The Court Jester (1955)
Most of this list is contemporary, but The Court Jester proves how timeless humor can be. Guys, this is one of the funniest films ever made. Watch it if you don’t believe me. But put your cynicism on hold first, because this is old-school humor, relying on screwball timing, wordplay, song, and a plot that ignores logic with gusto. The sublime Danny Kaye is a bumbling medieval outlaw guarding an infant prince, and he finds himself impersonating a world-renowned court jester for...complicated reasons. A bitchy princess desires him, a witch hypnotizes him, there’s several heinous plots going on, and I can’t spoil any of the goofy hijinks that ensue. Each meticulous, choreographed gag knocks it out of the park. The script is comic poetry. If you’ve ever heard someone recite, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true...” they’re quoting this film, and please join us in never letting it fade from memory. PS: Young Angela Lansbury is smoking.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro has achieved mainstream fame, and deservedly so. Why not explore his early efforts? Pan’s Labyrinth is the famous award hog, but its “brother film,” The Devil’s Backbone, is just as good if not better, for my money. Both films are set at the end of the Spanish civil war, both star children, both feature a mix of human evil and the paranormal. However, Backbone is moodier, eerier, and more steeped in regret than Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a ghost story set in a doomed orphanage, and the ghost, a murdered boy, is one of the more unique phantoms you’ll see onscreen, frightening not because he pops out of dark places to scare people, but because he desperately wants to communicate with the living. It’s a gloomy film but the shadows and darkness are alive. It’s del Toro at his most understated, yet his offbeat stamp is everywhere. Don’t just watch Hellboy and then call yourself a del Toro fan; appreciate this as well.

Europa Report (2013)
The Found Footage genre is problematic. Thanks to Paranormal Activity, it’s utilized mostly for horror, and other genres’ handheld inroads have had mediocre results (Chronicle being the notable exception). Europa Report barely appeared in theaters last year, which is a shame, because it’s a very compelling and thoughtful movie, in its own little way. It’s about a manned mission to Europa, Jupiter’s watery moon, that (of course) goes awry and finds more than it bargains for. But don’t expect a horror film or a disaster flick, though there are trace elements of both. Are there aliens? I won’t say. But the events of the film proceed with a somewhat riveting inevitability, helped by the organic outer-spacey special effects, which are convincing precisely because they don’t draw your attention. Apart from Sharlto Copley and Embeth Davidtz, the cast are unknowns, which is good: found footage aspires to ape reality, and with Europa Report, you believe what you’re seeing. You do. I beg of you, don’t get bored and stop watching, because the ending is a one-two punch of tragedy and awe.

Grizzly Man (2005)
This feel-bad Werner Herzog doc made a big splash when it came out, but since documentaries tend to have brief shelf lives, I should promote Grizzly Man as a timeless cautionary tale. Herzog is a director fascinated by human folly, which makes him perfect to scrutinize the late Timothy Treadwell, eco-warrior and self-appointed champion of Alaska’s grizzly bears, who, along with his girlfriend, was devoured alive by one of his furry pals in 2003. The film has a hypnotic dread to it: we know Treadwell’s ghastly fate, and so does Herzog’s camera, and as a result, Treadwell comes across not as a noble crusader for ursine rights but as a pompous, self-deluded wannabe messiah who lived in denial of the harsh realities of nature, and of the oblivion he was speeding towards. Werner Herzog is a brilliant asshole, and it took a brilliant asshole to make a nature film that you can’t look away from, no matter how hard you try.

Identity (2003)
What? I never said all these films would be masterpieces. Identity ain’t gonna win any awards (unless there’s something for “Best Use of Rebecca de Mornay’s Severed Head In a Tumble Dryer”), but I believe it was unfairly dismissed as just another horror/thriller. This is a film that’s all about the twist ending, and although I spoiled it not long ago, I won’t do so here, because you enjoy the film more when you let yourself be fooled, misled, and jerked around. First it’s about hapless motel guests being murdered, but then the “murders” start looking more like cosmic bloopers. Every character has a secret, no one can be trusted, and the bloodsoaked mystery envelops the viewer until you can’t look away lest you miss something crucial. And as for that twist ending, it could have been nuke-the-fridge ridiculous, but it somehow works because of how well the film has sold its own internal logic. Hitchcock’s ghost is smirking.

Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Hello again, Werner Herzog. Compare Incident at Loch Ness with Grizzly Man and you see how unclassifiable the man is. This prankish, head-scratching film is a bizarre mash-up of genres, an “X meets Y,” though the best I can do here is “This is Spinal Tap meets Lake Placid.” Herzog is making a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster, and someone else is making a documentary about the making of the documentary, and there’s a lot of winky-winky humor and Steve Zissou-like hijinks, and then the actual Loch Ness Monster turns up and starts eating cast members, and we have no way of knowing if this was a failed documentary that Herzog repurposed as fiction, or if the whole thing was planned as fiction from the start, or WHAT. You see how I needed a huge run-on sentence to sum up the film, and still failed. It’s that kind of movie, and I freaking love it for breaking every rule there is to break. If you’re confused, ask Herzog. Or just sit back and chuckle at what is, in the end, an excellent black comedy. I think.

Monsters (2010)
It’s nice when talent is recognized. Monsters has shed some obscurity lately due to its director, Gareth Edwards, being handed the recent new Godzilla film. Godzilla 2014 was pretty awesome, and Edwards’ earlier big beastie movie shares DNA. Monsters is a great example of doing a lot with a little. It’s set in a near-future where a big chunk of Mexico has been infested by giant octopoid creatures from Europa (hello again!), and follows two people’s perilous journey northward into the US. There are barely any monsters onscreen. There are barely any actors onscreen. Instead, there is hypnotic intrigue, a slow-paced trek through a world not quite right. But it’s not a horror movie. It ends with a beautiful revelation about the towering alien creatures, their motives, and...their thoughts. There’s a bit of that old trope, We Are the Real Monsters, but this isn’t a preachy movie, just an introspective one. It takes a deep breath, then slowly exhales for ninety minutes. It’s sublime. I knew Gareth Edwards was going places, and I hope Godzilla is just the next stepping stone.

The Secret of Kells (2009)
The Secret of Kells got an Oscar nomination, but in a world where Oscar winners quickly fade into the aether, I fear for its longevity. It should last. Hell, it should be taught in schools. There is no animated movie like this one. It tosses out the tropes of 3D and backtracks to show what is possible in a flat dimension. Appropriate that the story involves Ireland’s mythic Book of Kells, because the images resemble ancient illustrations from a proto-medieval text, brought to life via modern animation techniques. The result is deeply stylized and intensely, eye-poppingly beautiful. The plot is all well and good (vikings! Forest spirits! Brendan Gleeson!) but Kells is really about color, motion, and intense attention to detail. It’s deceptive. It looks cute on the surface but its elegant maturity bubbles up as you view it. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. This is one cartoon where you don’t even need the excuse of having children.

Tampopo (1985)
Japan is weird. I’ve said it before, and now I can just let Tampopo speak for itself. This offbeat foodie flick is a parody of American westerns, but unlike our idea of parody, Tampopo is less about reference jokes and more about having fun with archetypes. The main plot follows a struggling single mom as she attempts to create the perfect Tokyo noodle shop with the help of a cowboy-like trucker. What makes Tampopo special are its side plots, which are almost more like Monty Python sketches, all involving food. A gangster and his girlfriend treat eating as a sexual fetish. Women take an ill-fated class on how to sup as “quietly” as Americans. A hapless intern humiliates his bosses with his knowledge of gourmet dining. A lot of these scenes contain surrealist elements. Tampopo is not conventionally hilarious, but what it does is whip up an appetite. It’s a film by food lovers, for food lovers, presented as a series of succulent cinematic morsels. Don’t watch it on an empty stomach -- you’ll be diving for your takeout menus.

Waking Ned Devine (1998)
Some of the entries on this list may be a tad hipsterish, but our closer, Waking Ned Devine, is a film without guile, sweet and delightful. In the Irish village of Tullymore, where the population is in the double digits, local geezer Ned Devine drops dead upon learning he has won millions in the lottery. The rest of the village honors Ned in the best way possible: by constructing an elaborate ruse to fool the Powers That Be, nab the prize, and share it equally. This flagrant act of lawlessness leads to some hilarious cat-and-mouse games with the derpy lotto officials, but it also allows us to fall in love with the colorful residents of Tullymore and root for them way more than we’d ever root for Danny Ocean and his numerical posse. This heist is full of heart, and the titular character’s name is a good metaphor for how the pieces of the Tullymorians’ plan fall into place (the fate of the sole villainous character definitely suggests the playful hand of God). It’s a movie that makes you feel like good people really do get their just reward sometimes. Divine.

Now copypaste this list and watch all these movies. I don’t care how, torrent them if you must, just DO IT. You’ll thank me.