Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014); Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

Let's hear it for the boy

Oh, it's all over the papers, TV, internet: new Marvel superhero team movie; big boxoffice hit; Vin Diesel does funny tree impersonation (I mean, beside his own usually wooden visage); birth of successful new franchise in otherwise humdrum movie year. 

Screw all that; screw Marvel, screw superheroes, screw movie franchises, screw Vin Diesel, screw the boxoffice. This is the new James Gunn picture that I've been waiting for for some eight years--and that's why I went to watch Guardians of the Galaxy. The rest can take a flying leap off of a speeding Kree warship.

Gunn likes to do genre, that much is obvious; what I like about his genre films is that there's usually a compelling story thread running through his weave of genre conventions. Thus Slither isn't really about an alien invasion involving horrific blood-filled slugs; it's about a man's surprisingly poignant love for his wife, despite his horrific transmogrification into a tentacled alien life form, despite his inhuman digestive/reproductive appetites. 

So: Guardians is ostensibly a galaxy-ranging opera about a ragtag band of heroes opposing a nefarious Kree warlord named Ronan; actually it's really about a young man haunted by the death of his mother, ranging throughout the galaxy in search for the family he's never really had.

Peter Quill in the comic books (far as I can ascertain) loses his mother to killer aliens (who he subsequently manages to kill); all he takes with him is a 'space toy'--his father's gun. In Gunn's film he loses his mother to cancer and the only thing unusual about the otherwise traumatic experience is his mother's claim that the father was an alien (which the relatives treat as a family embarrassment--obviously cancer drugs have overcooked her brain). Peter is kidnapped, never to see Earth again, and the only other object he takes with him is a Walkman, loaded with an "Awesome Mix Vol. 1").

And that, I'd say, pretty much sums up the movie--a Star Wars rethread where bits of Footloose and other '80s cultural icons keep popping up like Galactic Whac-A-Mole. The Walkman and its cassette is key--Quill (or 'Star-Lord' as he insists on calling himself, a name few around him recognize, except as a punchline) plays the Luke Skywalker game, but with an anachronistic not to mention anatopistic soundtrack playing in the background: he moves or rather dances to tunes heard only inside his head, and no one as a result can draw a bead on him--those '80s tunes make him just that much unpredictable, allow him to fly just that low under the radar. 

A thin joke on which to hang a whole expensive Marvel superhero superproduction? I'm actually a big fan of expensive effects-heavy genre movies that turn on an oddball premise; if it doesn't work it's an expensive white elephant that bombs in the boxoffice (nevertheless, I still have more than a little affection for Mystery Men, or The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (a film when you think about it Quill may have possibly seen, and loved)). If it does work--well, you have this picture, which not a lot of people saw coming. The whole is an ungainly ungodly gamble, and the only one who probably truly believed in it was Gunn and (maybe) his collaborators. Big boxoffice can validate the strangest of films (2001, anyone?) to most folks, but that doesn't make the film any more commonplace, or familiar (which validates the film to me). 

It's not perfect, far from it; it doesn't have the creepy subtext of Slither--the sight of Michael Rooker, pathetic and repulsive both, calling for his wife so they could (presumably) have tentacle sex. When the action expands to a bigger scale Gunn's inventiveness is lost in a sea of digitally composited explosions and divebombing spacecraft, and some of the action is (horrors of horrors) actually confusing--a near-unforgivable sin in my book. Quill's comrades, from Gamora (tortured for years into becoming a living weapon) to Drax (wife and child killed) to Rocket (endured extensive surgery to become a sentient upright raccoon) to Groot (speaks only three words) have interesting backstories that are almost too interesting--you want less interstellar battling, more of their background. The movie's high point is when they all gather to argue--it's like a United Nations of oddballs where the translators have all suddenly gone out to lunch; only thing they can agree on is that they have very little in common.

But then all is forgiven in that (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie!) penultimate scene when Ronan the Accuser, an Infinity Stone embedded in the head of his warhammer, stands weapon raised to destroy the planet Xandar--and Quill steps into the majestically dramatic moment to go all Kevin Bacon on the guy. I suppose you can call it whimsical but I think there's a bizarre bravado to Quill's stubbornness, a kind of nobility to his insistence on facing the galaxy on his terms, dancing to the beat of his music. Good stuff, seriously.

Cheez Whiz

Coming out of the theater:

"That was cheesy, but I liked it."

"I thought it was Gouda."

"Are you really going to milk this?"

"No whey!"

If we're going to talk gooey dairy product with plenty of whole-milk fat, I like John Carney's version. Begin Again is unmitigated cheese, but salty enough and flavorful enough that you get enough of a buzz to drown out the screams of sclerotic pain from your arteries. Not respectable but irresistible, about a young woman (Kiera Knightley) come to New York with her boyfriend to break with him and record an album of songs she's written, performed and recorded in various outdoor locations in Manhattan; enter Mark Ruffalo as an on-the-ropes record producer turned partner to provide resources, connections, moral support, and romantic interest of sorts. 

Carney doesn't come up with an equivalent to that moment in Once, where two people sit down to do an impromptu musical number (of course it wasn't impromptu but somehow Carney manages to create the illusion). This is a glossier more expensive sequel, set in New York instead of Dublin (the charm factor reduced by several levels right there). As with his previous movie an early number is best, when Ruffalo looks at Knightley clutching guitar and microphone and stages the arrangement in his head on the big screen, instruments magically playing themselves (actually mostly musicians dressed in black--a nicely low-tech effect). His big goofy inebriated smile makes up for a lot of subsequent sins committed. 

I could go on and on about the picture's lapses--police officers chase the band of players from a subway station, for example, something I can't see the NYPD--they're usually lax about sidewalk performers--doing without provocation (on the other hand an irate New Yorker yelling profanity from an apartment window is entirely on the nose). The recordings when we do hear them are too slickly produced, the outdoor noise too muted; no one thinks to pick up a videocam, or even try record the performance with a cellphone (I suppose Carney didn't want to deal with the extra footage or with the redundancy of an additional camera, but still); and Knightley's character is too lucky by half (comes to New York with skyrocketing pop singer boyfriend, meets record producer on the rebound). I don't know; I guess half of making a successful entertainment is blunting a viewer's critical faculties enough that he sits in the dark, grinning happily, for at least the latter half of your picture, while the characters take their life lemons and turn them into lemonade the way Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly used to do.*

*Ah, but there's a legitimate complaint: the picture could use more dancing. Couldn't Knightley have at least shuffled a football across Central Park's Great Lawn? 

By film's end (skip this paragraph if you wish to see the picture) the tentatively blossoming romance dribbles away momentum in a series of ambiguous scenes; as in his previous picture Carney studiously avoids rom-com cliches, though he fails to replace them with freshly roasted chestnuts that his contemporaries can in turn steal and turn into future cliches (compare the film with that of the Coen Brothers', whose folk-rock hero continually functions as Destiny's punching bag, narrative trajectory spiraling into tragicomic pathos, and you see what a real comic (if much darker) sensibility can do with the material). What does shine through clearest--this being not necessarily a bad thing--is Carney's love for music and lyric (of the rather innocuous folk-rock variety), and for the artist's irrepressible need to produce them whatever the adversity. 

No comments: