Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a 2014 science-fiction action comedy film directed and co-written by James Gunn. It is the tenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is based upon the comic book team of the same name as reintroduced in 2008 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.  The film stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Disel, Dave Bautista, and Lee Pace, and features Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Jon C. Riley, and Benicio del Toro.

Guardians of the Galaxy follows Peter Quill. In 1988, immediately following his mother’s death from cancer, Peter is abducted by a group of criminal space aliens known as the Ravagers, led by Yondu, and grows up to be a charismatic and talented thief going by the nickname Star-Lord. After stealing an orb containing one of the Infinity Stones, Thanos, the soon-to-be primary antagonist of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War who was first teased at the end of the first Avengers film, played here and in the future by Josh Brolin, commissions the fanatical Ronan the Accuser to retrieve the orb. Meanwhile, Yondu discovers Quill’s theft. Displeased, he issues a large bounty for Quill’s capture. Two bounty hunters, an anthropomorphic raccoon named Rocket and his partner, a giant walking, talking tree named Groot who can only say variations of “I am Groot,” attempt to capture him and, in doing so, run afoul of Gamora, one of Thanos’ “adopted daughters,” genetically modified to be the perfect killing machine, sent after the orb by Ronan. It is revealed she refuses to let Thanos use the orb and its power to destroy entire planets, and instead plans to sell the orb to the powerful and mysterious Collector.

The four end up in prison and meet Drax, who wishes to kill Gamora due to her association with the Ronan, who previously killed Drax’s entire family. After convincing the ultra-serious Drax to not do such a thing, the band of misfits begrudgingly agree that they are going to have to band together to escape the prison.

After escaping the prison, the group must evade minions of Ronan, Thanos, and Yondu and protect the orb and the stone, such as to prevent the annihilation of the entire galaxy.

First announced in Summer 2011, everyone knew Guardians of the Galaxy was going to be a massive gamble. This was a group of characters nobody outside of the hardcore comic book nerds had ever even heard of, and that includes me. Add on top of that a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree, which admittedly sound ridiculous out loud, and you have a recipe for uncertainty.

James Gunn first came onto the Hollywood scene as a screenwriter for both of the live-action Scooby-Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Since then he has written and directed the cult horror comedy Slither and the comedy web series James Gunn’s PG Porna spoof of pornographic films with the tagline “For people who love everything about porn… except the sex.” These very well-done comedic projects earned Gunn a cult following. Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be the perfect project for him, further solidifying his status as a fan-favorite director. The film is well-organized and never takes itself too seriously, with a consistently lighthearted tone, excellent special effects, and the one of the catchiest and most effective soundtracks in film, in my opinion.

Full disclosure, I have an unabashed and shameless man crush on Chris Pratt. The former Parks and Rec star (who might I mention is pretty freaking jacked now) oozes charm and charisma, especially here. Of course, his use of the Star-Lord costume to visit hospitals as the character without the express approval of Marvel Studios (meaning it isn’t just a publicity stunt; he also has a kid with CP) may have me a little biased, but still, the combination of the man’s comedic acting and improv abilities, along with James Gunn’s technical prowess, turn Guardians of the Galaxy from an uncertain gamble to a surefire hit. This wonderful melding of minds can be seen throughout the entire film, even in its opening few moments.

Of course, Pratt is not the only one given hilarious comedic moments. Almost the entire cast, with the exception of Thanos, cracks a joke every once in a while. From Gamora not understanding Footloose or music, to Drax taking everything super literally, to almost everything featuring Rocket and Groot, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the funniest, and also the funnest movie Marvel Studios has created so far. (I have yet to see the sequel.)

Guardians of the Galaxy, with the help of a talented director and writer, marvelous stylistic choices, and excellent acting from all involved, turned a weird, little-known franchise from the far reaches of comicbookdom, and turned it into one of their most profitable, well-known, and critically-acclaimed properties. Guardians remains my favorite MCU film behind Captain America: Civil War, and I can’t wait to see where the property goes next.

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Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is a 2016 American superhero film directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson. The film was also co-written by C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts. It is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking place around the same time as the preceding entry, Captain America: Civil War, and serves as the introduction of the character of the same name into the MCU. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.

Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange is a brilliant, supremely talented, intelligent, but arrogant neurosurgeon who looses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former lover and colleague Dr. Christine Palmer attempts to help him move on with his life. Strange instead seeks out experimental surgeries and procedures, which leads him to a paraplegic who mysteriously regained the use of his legs. Strange is further directed to Kamar-Tag, where he is taken in by The Masters of the Mystic Arts, led by a woman known as The Ancient One. Strange is trained in the mystical arts, learning to harness the power of the universe and transport himself along the astral plane, which connects this universe to the infinite number of universes in existence. Strange, after learning remarkably quickly and becoming The Ancient One’s most gifted student, comes into conflict with Kaecilius, a powerful former student of The Ancient One who wishes for eternal life by any means necessary.

Doctor Strange is Marvel Studios’ introduction to the mystical and magical, and it is aided talented direction from Scott Derrickson, known for films such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Given the mystical and reality-bending nature of the material, Derrickson was a good choice to lead a project like Doctor Strange, and it works well, thanks in major part to his abilities as a director.

The special effects featured in the film are, in my opinion, extremely well done. Bending the laws of time, physics, and nature, as well as transporting dimensions seem like difficult things to accurately portray on screen, even in 2016, but the visual effects of Doctor Strange netted the film an Academy Award nomination for best visual effects, a nomination that I find well-deserved.

In addition to good directing and very good visual effects, Doctor Strange also includes excellent acting from all involved. Benedict Cumberbatch is, as always, excellent. The character of Stephen Strange is, in fact, very similar, in my eyes, to Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, the man who arguably paved the way for Doctor Strange all the way back in the infancy of the MCU back in 2008. Strange is arrogant, brash, egotistical, but supremely intelligent, and Cumberbatch has made a career off of playing a very famous character of a similar nature; the character of Stephen Strange plays right into his strengths. My homie Mads Mikkelsen, although his part as Kaecilius is admittedly rather small, is great here. I have loved him as an actor since I first saw him as Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale and then again in the excellent television adaptation of Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal on NBC. Tilda Swinton is marvelous as The Ancient One, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is very good as Baron Mordo.

Doctor Strange also, as with most movies in the MCU, contains some funny and lighthearted moments. These comedic beats work very well, to the film’s advantage. The center of this comedy focuses on the character of Wong, ironically played by Benedict Wong.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange is an excellent introduction of a little-known character into the MCU in a big way. With excellent acting, directing, and visual effects, the film takes a character who’s parody was probably more well-known than he was, and turned him into what I’m sure will continue to be an essential part of the MCU going forward.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller mystery film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz. It is a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. The film stars Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams, and Martin Donovan. Insomnia is the only work in Nolan’s filmography so far in which he does have at least a co-writing credit, although he did write the final draft of the script.

Pacino stars as Detective Will Dormer, a reputable Los Angeles homicide detective who, while under an intense investigation by Internal Affairs, is requested to travel to the small Alaskan town of Nightmute to solve the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Nightmute’s chief of police is an old friend of Dormer’s, and it is implied that he requested Dormer and his partner Hap Eckhart to get the heat off of them for a while. While conducting the initial investigation, Eckhart informs his partner that he feels he must testify on behalf of Internal Affairs, who offered him a more lenient sentence for cooperation. This angers Dormer immensely.

While setting an ambush for the killer, Dormer, lost in fog and disoriented, shoots Eckhart and kills him. While dying, his partner accuses him of killing him to thwart his impending I.A. testimony. Dormer, knowing it will look highly suspicious, covers up the friendly fire incident. Plagued with guilt over his partner’s death, Dormer begins experiencing insomnia, further exacerbated by the perpetual daylight. He is also taunted with phone calls from the suspect, who witnessed the shooting of Eckhart.

The focus of Insomnia is not the mystery of who killed Kay Connell. That aspect of the film is actually very straightforward. Insomnia is rather the effects of guilt on a person’s psyche. Anchored with talented performances by Pacino and a surprisingly menacing Robin Williams, Insomnia also features a very tight and focused script by Seitz that is very effective in getting at the deeper themes of the story. Featuring brilliant cinematography from longtime Nolan mainstay Wally Pfister and a fittingly dark score by David Julyan, everything about Insomnia is effectively focused on portraying a man plagued by guilt over his actions and paranoid that the web of lies he spun to hide them will be broken at any given moment.

As Nolan’s first big-budget feature following Following (ha!) and MomentoInsomnia is another demonstration of the British auter’s talent and prowess concerning stories of a deeply personal and emotional nature, which is most likely the reason he was given the duty of reinventing (and rehabilitating, thanks to the laughingstock that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in 1997) Batman with 2005’s Batman Begins, the launch of the trilogy that not only re-introduced Batman to a new generation and gave us the best imagining of The Joker to date, but also cemented Nolan’s status as one of the most popular filmmakers of the last ten years.

Momento

Momento is a 2000 neo-noir psychological thriller film co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based upon a short story titled Momento Mori by his younger brother Johnathon. Johnathon’s story would later be published in a 2001 issue of Esquire Magazine. The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. Pearce plays an insurance investigator named Leonard Shelby. Leonard has developed anterograde amnesia after being clubbed in the head by one of two men who broke into his house and raped and murdered his wife. Leonard was able to kill one of the men, but the second escaped. Anterograde amnesia affects the brain’s ability to make new memories, meaning Leonard wakes up every day with his last memory being that of his wife’s murder. Leonard, despite his condition, takes it upon himself to exact revenge. Using a series of tattoos, notes, and polaroids, Leonard develops a system so he can continue hunting the man despite not being able to store recent memories and sometimes forgetting conversations after having them.

Momento, like Nolan’s previous directorial debut Following, is presented in a complex non-linear narrative that includes two distinct time frames, one in black and white, and one in color. The black and white sequences come first, followed by the full-color sequences, which are shown in reverse. For reference, I have included a diagram of the film’s structure which, although containing spoilers, should visually spell out the film’s narrative complexity.

Memento_Timeline (1).png

This complex and at times confusing plot structure adds to the mystery of the film and left me invested, trying to figure things out. Though I feel specific plot details of the film are difficult to explain due to this complex structure, I will simply say that it very much works to the film’s advantage and should draw the viewer in, as I certainly was.

Momento’s engrossing plot is punctuated by brilliant performances from Pearce and Moss. Guy Pearce, who rose to stardom with the brilliant neo-noir mystery film L.A. Confidential in 1997, is, in my opinion, a vastly underrated actor who seemed to disappear from the spotlight as soon as he found it, with his most recent work of note being Aldrich Killian in the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 3, to the best of my recollection. He is great in this film, and he makes Leonard extremely empathetic and engrossing. Carrie Anne-Moss is also excellent here, and the two leads show great chemistry (and lack thereof, when need be).

There isn’t much else to say about Momento without getting into spoilers. It is another well-directed, well-scripted, and well-acted film by a man who would eventually become one of the most popular directors of my generation. Momento continues to receive critical acclaim and is often touted as one of the best films of the 2000’s, in addition being known as one of the most realistic and factually accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in fiction. Some consider Momento to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, though I personally feel that honor belongs to The Prestige. Featuring very poignant acting and dialogue and a complex and mysterious plot that is sure to generate interest, Momento is a brilliant film that is well worth a viewing.

Following

Following is a 1998 British neo-noir crime thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan in his directorial debut. The film stars Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, and John Nolan, Christopher’s uncle. Following tells the story of a struggling, unemployed, and unnamed (like all of the characters in this film) writer who takes to following strangers around the streets of London. This strange new hobby draws him into the city’s criminal underworld after he takes his odd, yet ultimately innocuous hobby too far.

Being Nolan’s directorial debut and being straight out of film school, Following was shot on an official budget of $0.00. The most expensive part of filming was the actual 16mm film stock, which Nolan paid for with his own salary. The film was intended to be as inexpensive as possible to produce. In order to economize the expensive film stock, scenes were painstakingly rehearsed ahead of time in order to get a perfect scene in as few takes as possible. The cast and crew, if you can call them that, all worked full-time during the week, limiting film production to Saturdays. Fifteen minutes of footage every Saturday was shot over the course of four or five months. The decision to shoot the film in black and white came from the fact that Nolan did not have access to lighting equipment, forcing him to only use natural, real-world lighting. Even on a no-budget shoot, Nolan described the production as “extreme.”

Following is a very impressive film. Often, low-budget productions are just plain bad, but this film is proof that you don’t need money to make a movie, though I will admit a budget of some level will usually help a lot. Low-budget films are often bad because the filmmakers try to be flashy and reach for levels way outside their budget. Christopher Nolan, even as a young man fresh out of film school, is smart enough not to do that. Following is extremely barebones, and it is, in fact a better film because of it. The core elements of a good noir film are there and, due to the fact nobody had the time nor the money to focus on anything else, those core elements are perfectly constructed and brilliantly executed. There’s nothing extraneous here, only the stuff that needs to be in the film is in the film. Following, from a plot perspective, is very tight and focused, an aspect of filmmaking I think Nolan, admittedly still one of my favorite directors, has forgotten in his more recent work.

Following is also surprisingly very well-acted. The cast, made up entirely of unknowns, even 19 years later, is very talented. The unnamed main character comes off as an everyman, even with his odd, some might even say creepy, pastime. He seems like a slightly odd but relatable guy. Cobb (which Nolan reused as the surname for the main character in 2010’s Inception) is as charming and witty as he is scummy.

Following uses a non-linear narrative to keep things interesting, something that has become a staple in Nolan’s films. The dialogue, like the overarching plot itself, is sharp, witty, focused, and on-point.

Following is not the greatest neo-noir film ever, not is it Nolan’s best work. It is, however, an interesting early work of one of today’s most well-known filmmakers, and is a great showcase of his talents as a director. Clocking in at only an hour and ten minutes, Following is a scrappy, smart, and interesting noir film and the testament of what a filmmaker can do given will, determination, ingenuity, and intelligence.

Hysteria

Hysteria is a 2011 period romantic comedy film directed by Tanya Wexler. The screenplay was written by Jonah Marsh and her husband, Stephen Dyer. The film stars Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathon Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett. Dancy stars as a fictionalized version of Dr. Mortimer Granville, a physician who invented the vibrator as a treatment for female hysteria. I have done background information on this and have confirmed everything I am about to say to you. In 1880, female hysteria was a very popular diagnosis for crabby, apparently crazed women. In extreme cases, patients with “hysteria” would be confined to asylums and undergo hysterectomies. It took the world until 1952 to figure out that women were just sexually frustrated and needed release, but medical practitioners somehow figured out that it had something to do with the “sensitive area,” so treatment would usually involve a hand massage of the genitals, known to induce what was termed a “hysterical paroxysm,” later discovered to be what some would call a mythical or illusive event known as the female orgasm. If you don’t believe me, Google it! The strain and inconvenience of doing this by hand causes the young Mortimer, working under Dr. Robert Dalrymple, with the help of his friend Edmund, to create vibrator for use on hysterical patients. Meanwhile, Mortimer draws the attention of both Dalrymple’s daughters, Emily and Charlotte.

Due to the… interesting subject matter, the film has tons of comedic ammunition at its disposal, which it uses very well. I found myself chuckling a lot during this film. I normally hate rom-coms with a passion, and although Hysteria is ultimately a flawed film which hits a lot of the generic rom-com beats, it does enough with its premise to be worthwhile and enjoyable. Hysteria uses its unique premise to its advantage; instead of focusing only on the romantic aspect of the film, which is honestly extremely underdeveloped and leaves much to be desired, the film also cleverly and entertainingly explores exactly how women were treated back in the day (not very well) and the start of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Hysteria does have a lot of problems, the main of which is the fact that, aside from Mortimer and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte, nobody undergoes a real character arc. Everyone besides those two are exactly the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning, and characters without arcs are difficult to get invested in. Emily Mortimer, in particular, played by Rouge One‘s Felicity Jones, is just there for Mortimer to fall in love with and then realize Charlotte’s the one. The romantic part of this romantic comedy, is, frankly, somewhat confusing, underdeveloped, and not very good.

That being said, it still has its positives. Hugh Dancy, who I only know from his role as Will Graham on Hannibal, could charm his way out of anything. Seeing as Graham, the mentally unstable FBI agent, is not very charming, I was very surprised to learn that Dancy was known to everyone else as the exceedingly charming English pretty boy. He is great here, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good, as well. For what it’s worth, I saw this film at Ebertfest yesterday, and both Dancy and Tanya Wexler gave an excellent Q&A. I did not stay for the whole thing, but Dancy seems like a natural comedian, and Wexler revealed that some of the comedic bits in the film were of Dancy’s own design. (Sneaky Hannibal reference)

He jokingly mentioned he made some changes to the script. He presented himself well, and seemed much more intelligent than anyone would think to give him credit for, and Hysteria works much better, I think, because of him.

Hysteria is a flawed, yet ultimately entertaining romp, and I feel that its lead actor, who deserves much better than what he gets, is the reason for that. It’s a funny film which would be better served jettisoning it’s paper thin romantic plotline for something else entirely. The characters are thin, but the actors do a good job, especially its lead. Hysteria is not great, but it is good, and I ultimately enjoyed it, because it was able to subvert enough of the vomit-inducing rom-com tropes to actually be funny, though it falls into enough of those holes to, sadly, miss out on a lot of the film’s potential. If anyone is in need of a lighthearted, lowkey viewing with some good laughs, than I would recommend this film.

 

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead is a 2004 comedy horror film co-written and directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is the first in Wright’s “Three Flavours of Cornetto” trilogy, followed by 2007’s Hot Fuzz and 2013’s The World’s End, all of which were written and directed by Wright and star Pegg and Frost. Shaun of the Dead lead to Wright’s mainstream success, cult status, and popularity as a director.

Shaun of the Dead follows Shaun, an underachieving electronics salesman with no direction or sense of purpose in life. He lives with his old friend from college, Pete, and his childhood friend Ed. Ed is a slacker and moocher who does nothing with his life and constantly holds Shaun back from his potential. After Shaun’s girlfriend Liz breaks up with him, the two go out for a night of wild, raucous drinking, which annoys the increasingly ill Pete. They awake in the morning, initially oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that had been slowly taking form over the past few days.

(Note that Ed asks Shaun for a Cornetto. In the proceeding films, similar references are made to the popular ice cream brand, hence the informal title for the trilogy.)

After comically realizing the gravity of the situation, Shaun and Ed make plans to A. Kill Shaun’s (conveniently infected) mean step-dad, B. Save his Mom, C. Save Liz, and D. Hide out at the pub the two young underachievers frequent.

As one can expect, none of this goes entirely according to plan, leading to both mishaps of the comical variety, and some of the less-comical variety as well.

Shaun of the Dead is both hilarious while also managing to be very heartfelt and meaningful when given the chance. It is also very stylized and very fast. Director and writer Edgar Wright does a wonderful job here, assisted in the writing of the script by star and future frequent collaborator Simon Pegg. Pegg’s acting, as it always is, is excellent. Pegg is a masterful comedian, especially in movies like Star Trek Beyond or any of the recent Mission: Impossible films, because he is never a buffoon. In fact, in every movie I’ve seen Simon Pegg in, his character is a competent person who also just happens to be funny, which is something a lot of comedy actors don’t seem to think is a thing. Yet, it is this that makes Pegg so good at comedy, both in his writing and in performance. Shaun is neither a bumbling moron nor is he a supremely effective hero protagonist, he is simply a guy, an aspect that works to the film’s tremendous advantage. Nick Frost plays a great obnoxious but lovable douchebag, for what that’s worth.

Of course, good acting and performances is not what makes a comedy movie good, it’s the comedy that does that. Thankfully, as I mentioned before, Shaun of the Dead is a very, very funny film. Unlike most parody films of this generation (although the film does not lampoon a specific zombie film, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it that), Shaun of the Dead never really goes for the lowbrow, sophomoric humor, except for an actually funny (Yeah, I’m dead serious!) fart joke that comes back in the end, opting instead for some really intelligent humor and gags.

Readers should be made aware of the upcoming minor tangent. Before I decided to review The Cornetto Trilogy this weekend, I decided to watch the historical romance film Allied that came out last year. I have a friend who saw it in theaters and it made her cry. I, on the other hand, also cried… tears of boredom. I was more emotionally invested in the entirety of Shaun of the Dead than I was within the first hour of Allied. I know that sounds like I’m not saying much (which I’m not), but there are some truthfully emotional moments in this film, which is more than I can say for Allied.

Shaun of the Dead, like most of Wright’s films, as well as the man himself, has gained a very large cult following in the years following its release, and for good reason. Shaun of the Dead is a hilariously impressive comedy film by itself, and a more than admirable start to a comedic trilogy that I have been told for years is rather excellent, but never bothered to check out until now. Boasting great acting, a great script, and some great filmmaking on the part of a great director, Shaun of the Dead is a brilliant comedy film that I feel I was late to the party on; it’s one that everyone should check out if they haven’t already.