“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

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“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

Most of the films featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been set on Earth – mainly in the United States – and featured human characters. There have been exceptions – namely the two “THOR” movies that were partly set in the realm of Asgard and 2012’s “THE AVENGERS”, which featured an alien invasion. For the first time, the MCU released a movie mainly set in worlds other than Earth. And it is called “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”

Directed by James Gunn, who wrote the film with Nicole Perlman, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” told the story about an uneasy alliance between a group of extraterrestrial misfits, who find themselves on the run after one of them steals a coveted orb. The movie, ironically, begins on Earth in 1988, when a kid named Peter Quill is abducted by a group of space pirates called the Ravagers led by a mercenary named Yondu Udonta, following his mother’s death. Twenty-six years later, Quill steals a valuable orb from the abandoned planet of Morag. Before he can get away, Quill is intercepted by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture. Meanwhile Ronan, who originally agreed to acquire the orb on behalf of the villainous titan Thanos, sends an assassin named Gamora after the orb. In return for getting the orb for Thanos, Ronan wants the latter to destroy the Nova Empire.

Quill attempts to sell the orb on the Nova Empire’s capital world, Xandar, when Gamora ambushes him and steals it. A fight ensues, which attracts a pair of bounty hunters – the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket and his tree-like companion, the humanoid Groot. All four are arrested by the Nova Corps and they are sentenced to a prison called Kyln. The four form an alliance to profit from a sale of the orb to a buyer that Gamora knows on an outpost called Nowhere, once Rocket informs them that he knows how to break out of prison. They acquire a new ally named Drax the Destroyer, who wants revenge against Ronan for killing his family. Drax tried to kill Gamora, due to her past association with the Kree, but Quill talks him out of it after Gamora reveals that she never intended to hand over the orb to Ronan. Gamora is willing to betray Ronan, because she is unwilling to allow him to use the orb’s power to destroy the Nova Empire and other worlds. The five misfits eventually discover from Gamora’s buyer, Taneleer Tivan aka the Collector that the orb contains a powerful stone known as one of the Infinity Stones, a collection of gems of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield them. Fearful that Ronan might destroy the Universe if he gains possession of the orb, the five friends become determined to stop him from gaining possession of it.

At first glance, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” seemed to come out of nowhere and with no connection to the other films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, there were quite a few connections to the other films. One, other Infinity Stones – mentioned by Tivan – were featured in other films. “IRON MAN 2”“THOR”“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” and “THE AVENGERS” all featured the Tesseract. And “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” featured the Aether, which found itself in Tivan’s possession by the end of that film. The character Thanos was revealed to be the one behind the Chitauri invasion in “THE AVENGERS” The character Tivan aka the Collector was featured in a mid-credit scene in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. Also, the Ronan character is not the only Kree character to appear in a MCU production. The corpse of a dead Kree was featured in an episode of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. So, the connections between “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and the other MCU films are pretty strong. Many had doubted the success of “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”, due to its unknown factor of the major characters. Although the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book was first published by Marvel in 1969, the following publications of the title have been far and few. In fact, Marvel had to revamp the title in 2008.

Marvel and Disney’s fears proved to be groundless in the end. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became a major hit during the late summer of 2014. It even managed to surpass (slightly) the major success of the previous MCU movie, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. I understand why “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became such a success. It is a first-rate film that proved to be the gem of the summer. Thanks to Nicole Perlman and James Gunn’s screenplay, the movie expertly set up the movie’s narrative – first with Peter Quill’s kidnapping and later, his theft of the orb. Mind you, there is nothing particularly original about the narrative for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. I cannot recall the numerous films or television productions about a group of outsiders who struggle to form an alliance or friendship in order to overcome an enemy or problem. Hell, this even sounds like the narrative backbone for “THE AVENGERS”. But I have never come across a movie or television that allowed this narrative to play out with such caustic wit and humor. Perlman and Gunn also did an excellent job in allowing the five protagonists to form both an alliance and later, a strong friendship, in a timely manner. In fact, friendship seemed to be the main theme of “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. And the focus of that friendship centered around the Peter Quill character, who abandoned one set of friends – the Ravengers under Yondu Udonta – that proved to be rather questionable, and formed a more solid friendship with his four new companions.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” benefited from some very strong characterizations. Peter Quill – at first glance – seemed like some minor variation of the Tony Stark character. Although adept at defending himself in a fight, Quill never struck me as the aggressive type. I enjoyed how actor Chris Pratt portrayed him as someone who would prefer stealth and charm over action. Some of his facial reactions alone were a joy to watch. Gamora, the assassin who had been trained by Thanos . . . after he wiped out her family, proved to be a surprisingly moral character. In fact, I would say that she possessed the strongest moral center out of the five major characters. And that is an ironic thing to say about an assassin. Thankfully, Zoe Saldana did an excellent job of conveying Gamora’s moral center . . . and dangerous nature at the same time. I never thought I would become attached to a CGI animal described as a genetically-altered raccoon. But I must say that the character Rocket provided a great deal of sharp wit and verbosity that infused a lot of energy into the story. And a lot of that energy came from Bradley Cooper’s voice performance. Another dangerous, yet fascinating character proved to be the vengeful Drax the Destroyer. In fact, I can honestly say that Drax was probably the most chaotic character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But what else can you say about a character who is not only seeking revenge, but does not understand the meaning of metaphors. And I have to say that professional wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista did a marvelous job in portraying a ferocious, yet humorless character with such sharp comic timing. And finally we have – “I am Groot.”. Ah yes, the talking and walking tree. Rocket’s companion. What can I say? I adored that warm, compassionate and loyal walking piece of timber. And I have to give kudos to Vin Diesel, who only had one line to speak over again, throughout the movie, do so with different inflections.

But there were other interesting characters featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Audiences saw the return of Taneleer Tivan aka The Collector, who was last seen in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And once again, Benicio del Toro gave an eccentric, yet very interesting performance of the interstellar collector. Nebula, who was raised as Gamora’s sibling by Thanos, certainly proved to be a character I will never forget. Although not the main villain, Nebula proved to be a scary and intimidating character in her own right, whose own ambiguity is dictated by feelings of jealousy toward Gamora. And actress Karen Gillian did an excellent job in conveying these aspects of Nebula’s character. Despite the presence of Thanos, the movie’s main villain proved to be a Kree fanatic named Ronan the Accuser. The fanatical Ronan refuses to accept a peace treaty between the Kree and the Nova Empire and seeks Thanos’ help in destroying Xandar. In the end, he proved to be something of a one-dimensional character lacking any eccentricities or ambiguities whatsoever. And honestly, one has to thank Lee Pace’s intense performance that managed to maintain my interest in Ronan. Another character that proved to be a minor disappointment was Korath, one of Ronan’s subordinates. And like Ronan, he also struck me as a bit one-dimensional, yet rather intense. However . . . the character had one scene that proved to be rather funny – his first meeting with Quill on Morag, in which he failed to recognized the latter’s nickname. And one has to thank Djimon Hounsou’s performance for making that scene work. It seemed a pity that Hounsou did not have a larger role in the film.

The characters from Xandar struck me as solid, but not particularly memorable. There were two exceptions – Corpsman Rhomann Dey, a professional member of Xandar’s military/police force and whose dry sense of humor strongly reminded me of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson; and Nova Prime Irani Rael, the slightly intimidating and righteous leader of the Nova Corps. And both John C. Reilly and Glenn Close gave outstanding performances in their roles. The most fascinating supporting character for me proved to be Yondu Udonta, the temperamental, yet occasionally decent leader of the Ravagers, who had served as Quill’s guardian after snatching him. There were times when I could not tell whether he was a bad guy, a good guy or simply another self-absorbed rogue after his own interest. And I must say that Michael Rooker gave a very entertaining and flamboyant portrayal of the character. I look forward to seeing him in future films.

I have to be honest. Most of the visual effects for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” did not blow my mind. But there were a few scenes that I found noteworthy. I liked the idea of the Nowhere outpost being set inside the floating head of a Celestial corpse. Very original. And the wide exterior shot of the colony upon the protagonists’ arrival is very impressive, as shown the following image:

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The scene was enhanced by Ben Davis’ photography. I also enjoyed his work in the movie’s final action sequence that featured Ronan’s attempt to destroy Xandar. Gunn’s direction, along with the visual effects made the scene breathtaking. To a certain degree. Some of the aerial action involving Rocket and the Nova Corps struck me as somewhat confusing. I also enjoyed Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, but like the visual effects, they did not take my breath away. I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but . . . I found them at best, solid.

The summer of 2014 proved to be very dismal for me, aside from a few films. One of those films that provided some realentertainment was “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. If it were not for the work of director James Gunn, the exciting and witty screenplay he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, the 2014 summer could have ended on a bad note for me.

 

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

I had nothing against the news of New Line Cinema’s attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” for the screen. But I had no idea that the studio, along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers would end up stringing out the adaptation into three movies. Three. That seemed a lot for a 300-page novel. The first chapter in this three-page adaptation turned out to be the 2012 release, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”

Peter Jackson, who had directed the adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy over a decade ago, returned to direct an earlier chapter of the author’s tales about Middle Earth. He nearly did not make it to the director’s chair. Guillermo del Toro was the first choice as director. However, del Toro Del left the project in May 2010 working with Jackson and the latter’s production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did remain with the project long enough to co-write the movie’s screenplay with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. To my utter amazement, the efforts of the four screenwriters and Jackson’s direction has produced a good number of negative backlash against the film. Ironically, most of the film’s backlash has been directed at Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of high frame rate for the film’s look. Others have simply complained about the movie’s length and its inability to match the quality of the “LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy released between 2001 and 2003.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began on the elderly Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday (shown in the 2001 movie), when he decides to recount the full story of an adventure he had experienced 60 years ago, for his nephew Frodo. Bilbo first reveals how the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor was taken over by a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The Erebor Dwarves are scattered throughout Middle Earth. The Dwarf King Thrór was killed by an Orc, when he tried to settle his people in Moria. His son, Thráin II, was driven mad from one of the Rings handed over to his ancestor by Sauron before dying. Thráin II’s son, Thorin Oakenshield, became determined to not only recover Erebor from Smaug, but also recover their treasure. At Gandalf the Gray’s suggestion, Thorin and his followers traveled to the Shire to recruit Bilbo’s help in achieving their goals (they need the Hobbit to act as a burglar in order to get their Arkenstone back). At first, Bilbo was reluctant to join their quest. But he caved in at the idea of an adventure and eventually joined the Dwarves and Gandalf. Their adventures led them to an encounter with three Trolls; pursuing Orcs who want Thorin’s head for cutting off the arm of their war chief, Azog; a respite at Rivendell, due to the hospitality of Lord Elrond; and deadly encounters within the Misty Mountains with Goblins and for Bilbo, the current Ring bearer Gollum. The movie ended on the slopes of the Misty Mountains with a deadly encounter with Azog and his orcs.

How do I feel about “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Well for one thing, I still believe it was unnecessary for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. It is simply not big enough, despite the fact that this first film is shorter than the three “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I really do not see how Jackson would be able to stretch an adaptation of the novel into three movies, each with an average running time of 160-170 minutes. Judging from the movie’s first 30 minutes, I see that Jackson is going to stretch it as much as he can. Many people have commented on the new high frame rate that Jackson and Lesnie used for the film. Yes, the movie has a sharper and more colorful look. In fact, the film’s visual look reminded me of the use of Blu-Ray DVDs. Do I care? No. Hollywood critics and moviegoers have a tradition of ranting against any new film innovation – sound, color, digital cameras, CGI . . . you get the point. It has been ten years since George Lucas first used digital cameras for “STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and people are still bitching about it. Did I have a few problems with “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Sure. Although many people have problems with the movie’s first 20 to 30 minutes, claiming that the Shire sequence seemed to stretch forever. I only agree with that criticism to a certain extent. I had no problems with Bilbo’s humorous first encounter with the Dwarves. But I thought Jackson lingered unnecessarily too long on the sequence featuring the elderly Bilbo and Frodo. And although I enjoyed the mind game between the younger Bilbo and Gollum, I have yet to develop any fondness for the latter character. And if I have to be brutally honest, I found Howard Shore’s score for this movie less memorable than his work for the “LORD OF THE RING” films.

Despite the conflict over using three movies to adapt Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s use of a new high frame rate, I have to say that I enjoyed “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I did the second and third movies from the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Like 2001’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”, this new movie is basically a tale about a road trip. And there is nothing more dear to my heart than a road trip. Because Tolkien’s 1937 tale was basically a children’s story, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” featured a good deal of more humor than was found in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” films. A great deal of that humor came from twelve of the thirteen Dwarves, whom Bilbo and Gandalf accompanied. Four of the funniest sequences turned out to be the Dwarves’ arrival at an increasingly irritated Bilbo’s home in the Shire, the traveling party’s encounter with three Trolls obsessed with their stomachs, the Dwarves’ reactions to Elvish food in Rivendell and Bilbo’s mental duel with Gollum. Like the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies,“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” also featured some outstanding action sequences – especially the flashbacks about the downfall of the Erebor Dwarves; the traveling party’s efforts to evade the Orc hunting party with the assistance of a wizard named Radagast the Brown; and their battles with both the Goblins, and Azog and the Orcs.

The movie featured some solid performances from the cast. It was good to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Lady Galadriel and her son-in-law Lord Elrond again. Although I am not a fan of the Gollum character, I must admit that Andy Serkis gave another memorable performance of the malignant changeling. However, I am a little confused by his portrayal of Gollum with a split personality, since the character’s moral compass was not challenged by any acts of kindness in this film. Ian McKellen was commanding as ever as the wizard Gandalf the Gray. And it was also nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins again. I was a little taken aback by the presence of Christopher Lee reprising his role of the wizard Saruman, but merely as a supporting character and not as a villain. But I have to give kudos to Lee for revealing certain aspects of Saruman’s personality that made his eventual corruption in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. I really enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He did an exceptional job of projecting the character’s emotional development from a self-satisfied homebody to the adventurer who wins the respect of the Dwarves with his heroic actions by the end of the movie. I first noticed Richard Armitage in the 2004 television miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and have been impressed with this actor ever since. I realized that his character Thorin Oakenshield is being compared to the Aragon character from “LORD OF THE RINGS”. I would not bother. Thorin is a more complicated character. And Jackson chose the right actor – namely Armitage – to portray this heroic, yet prickly and hot tempered Dwarf. Thanks to Armitage’s superb performance, it was not hard to understand Gandalf’s frustrations over the character. If I must be honest, my memories of the twelve other Dwarves is a bit shaky. But there were two of them that stood out for me. Ken Stott was very effective as the elderly Balin, who provided a great deal of wisdom in the story. And I really enjoyed James Nesbitt as Bofur, who injected a great deal of charm and liveliness not only in his role, but also in the story.

I realize that “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” has been receiving mixed reviews from critics. And honestly, I do not care. Mind you, it is not perfect and I see no need for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But I really enjoyed watching the movie. It reminded me of the joy I had experienced in watching the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie,“Fellowship of the Rings”. And I believe that Peter Jackson and a first-rate cast led by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage did an excellent job in adapting part of Tolkien’s novel.