Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dazzling Guardians Delivers!

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn

Reviewed: 25 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

How does it work? A feisty raccoon that fires automatic weapons? A Chewbacca-like walking tree capable of only one line of dialogue? A television actor thrust into the limelight to carry a movie with his charm? A completely new world of planets and creatures and swirling stars and shifting alliances? A heavy opening scene grappling with major grief? A jamming soundtrack of 70's and 80's pop songs juxtaposed against space?

I don't know how James Gunn did it, but it works, and Guardians of the Galaxy is not only one of the best films of the year; it is one of the best films of its kind of recent memory. To throw the mantle of Star Wars around is not something that I do lightly. I did it for Avatar in 2009, and I do it now.  I re-watched it after watching it, and I found that each scene has its own beautiful background. Instead of CGI overwhelming and turning my brain off, Gunn and his team have constructed a lush world of landscapes and sky, planets and moons, colors and dirt that feels memorable and unique. And loved.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself taken from earth after his mother's death in 1988 and transported to a ship of Ravagers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), and he opens the film with a quasi-Indiana Jones mission to recover an artifact from a defunct planet. A marvelous fight ensues, and soon, Quill finds himself in league with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a possible ally from the enemies Thanos and Ronan, bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), and muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista). Their mission? To save the galaxy. But imbued in all of this is a wicked sense of humor and fun, as well as the best soundtrack that I have heard in an action film in a long, long time. Gunn takes these characters seriously, but Rocket has an air of impish defiance to him, a sort of Han Solo trapped in a raccoon form that becomes even more fun when juxtaposed against the sage and mighty Groot. Pratt displays charm from the first frame, putting his headphones to his walkman on and dancing his way through a mission, and Saldana gives Gamora a fierceness and a warmth simultaneously. My favorite performance might be Dave Bautista who plays a warrior seeking revenge but can't understand metaphors, and Bautista is given some of the film's best lines. The enemies are sufficiently scary, the back story competently told and not overwhelming, and the pace is strong. Unlike certain films in the George Lucas canon, Gunn feels confident to let his camera tell the story at certain moments by lingering at the beauty of a scene instead of quickly cutting. The action is always clear and easy to follow, and it helps that for the first two thirds of the film, most of it is hand-to-hand until an epic space battle requires the frenzy of flying ships.

Why does this work?  It doesn't take itself too seriously, but it does at the same time. The framing device is a very intense one, and Guardians is not short on heart. I felt moved by it in the most rare of ways, and it looks gorgeous. The soundtrack sets the tone, and the bold move of these pop songs echoing through the universe pays off marvelously. There is an alchemy here to the performances and the production design, the direction and the writing. Guardians of the Galaxy is the first movie of my son's lifetime that I cannot wait to sit down with him and watch. It is worthy of comparisons to Indiana Jones and Star Wars.

What a gift.

The World According to Robin Williams: Garp, A Strange and Weird Tale

Movie Review: The World According to Garp

Director: George Roy Hill

Reviewed: 4 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--***

In an attempt to fill all of the cinematic gaps in my appreciation for the late Robin Williams, I found The World According to Garp, his 1982 debut simultaneously warm and weird, twinkly and abrupt, and I left thankful for a look at the very young Williams as well as a greater appreciation for the strange source material, the beloved novel by John Irving. He would come to Oscar success later for The Cider House Rules about two years after Williams would earn his Oscar for Good Will Hunting. But here, in the capable, confident hands of director George Roy Hill who won Best Director Oscars for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Sting, both actor and writer deliver strong but weird debuts as does Glenn Close in her first of six Oscar nominated performances as Garp's mother. I wonder what the reaction at the time was to such a tale.

The story is just strange: Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) has a child with a doomed WW2 aviator off screen, resulting in the buoyant and lovable Garp (various actors and then Robin Williams) whom she raises alone and according to her own fixed (and strange) principles. A nurse, Jenny engages with her child in a matter-of-fact intensity, and they go from a boarding school in New England to a rough and tumble New York City where both discover the writing bug. The story skips around, leaping forward in time without warning, and although it is refreshing, there at times seems to be a complete lack of narrative. The film is messy with its jumping around, giving short shrift to Roberta (wonderfully played by John Lithgow) and even Garp's love interest (Mary Beth Hurt).

Some terrible stuff lies in store for Garp, and the shock of it (and some subsequent violence) disrupts the course of this sentimental film. It is hard to reconcile the viciousness of the acts committed in moments with the comedic, schmaltzy tone. The film is remarkable for its lack of score or soundtrack, something that I think could have derailed it. At its best, Garp is about people and connection and imperfections, and watching Garp's mom watch him warn his son about the undertow (his son hears "undertoad") in the ocean is a quiet, poignant moment worth savoring. On some level I'm realizing this, even as a new dad: the ones we love have to eventually wander into the ocean with all of its beauty, terror, and uncertainty. The watching is an inevitability and necessity, though we at times want to (and have to) rescue the ones we love from despair (and slippery rooftops).

To watch an old but new film is to miss Robin Williams. There are shades of Williams' brilliance here in his debut performance, with his crinkly face and twinkly eyes, running everywhere onscreen and pretending with his children in the front yard. This was Williams before he became a motormouth of impressions and manic energy (sometimes in the very best of ways, sometimes grating). The quieter moments of teacher Mr. Keating lie ahead in his path, as does the grief stricken wisdom of Sean MaGuire and the dance and dazzle of Aladdin's Genie. Before it all, Williams was Garp, a strange man in a strange world, a naked baby thrown up and down in the air on the ocean wanting to fly. I'm glad to have caught up with this film, but I don't know if I will ever seek it out again. Such is life.

Boy in the Houston Hood: Linklater's Brief History of Time

Movie Review: Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 25 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--****

"I just want to watch a fucking movie!" shouts the exasperated mom early on in the epic Boyhood when her babysitter cancels and a date night becomes ruined, and as I watched the film, I couldn't help but see the raw and real depiction of parenting in a way that I never could before becoming a parent.  To become a parent has been such a life-changing event, and the unfolding series of moments where a parent does not know how to act and tries his or her best or admits confusion has the air, not of narrative, but of life and of truth. Richard Linklater's gift in Boyhood, his most majestic and sweeping film, is to capture the most prosaic and straightforward moments of a life and infuse them with the poetry of time. His work here is unlike any film that I have ever seen and deserves consideration as a masterpiece and completely in step with his Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy. And appropriately as a new parent, it was a film that I wanted to see when it came out but couldn't find the time and space to do so until it became available through renting it on my television. And even then, it was seen in two sittings.

Filmed over the course of twelve years, Linklater follows his core group of actors around Texas as a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) move from childhood to adulthood with their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) pushing them, moving them, loving them, and living their own lives. Shot in small increments over the time and space from 2002-20014, Boyhood becomes a film obsessed with time and what it does to people, as the actors naturally age and Coltrane transforms before our eyes in two hours of film. It is the ultimate special effect, the sort of gut-punch that I get when I see a picture of myself from a while back or when I see a photo of my parents when they were young. Life goes on, and the film transfixes in its care to show us changes in culture, technology, communication, the long-term effect of the Iraq War, and even love.

There is a cliche saying that "You never know when you're making a memory," but in Boyhood, that becomes pushed to the forefront. The most mundane of days can become indelibly printed on our brains, just as the shock of wearing a new haircut to school can be as jolting as a first love. I expected the major life events like divorce, moving, and new schools to be traumatic for the children, but Linklater's deft camera and editing sometimes glides past and through major life events, showing the family survive through anything. Divorce does not define Mason's life or ruin him. He just encounters life experience, adjusts, and moves forward. Moving to new places results in new friends and memories. People come and go in life while the family stays. A tense family dinner with an alcoholic family member plays itself out. A potentially violent encounter in a new school's bathroom lingers, and I couldn't help but flashback to my first day at public high school, getting offered cigarettes in the back of Mr. Sibley's English class or an older Track runner bending my arm back and slamming me down on the hood of his car. The immediacy and smell of danger haunts, even though I haven't thought about it for years.

Sandra Cisneros, another great artist from Texas, has a wonderful line in her short story "Eleven": "What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are — underneath the year that makes you eleven. "  She's on to something in the sense that we never grow up. We always are who are, and the act of looking in the mirror can be shocking whenever we allow it to be. I always think of my parents as looking a certain way, maybe it’s the way they looked when I was in high school and last lived at home with them, or maybe it’s the way that I see them in certain photos. I think about myself in certain terms, and then see the shock of grey hair in my beard, the wrinkles in the face, the visual signs of aging. I think about my boy Gus, in the watching and marveling at my fifteen-month-old son learn to smile, laugh, stand, walk, run, and now climb. Every day, we bear witness to the unfolding of life in its own grand and quiet way, many times unaware.

Mason is always every single version of himself in this film as are we all.  I'm still the frightened, insecure sixth grader that I was in 1989, homesick at Camp Freeland Leslie Boy Scout Camp and nervously unpopular. I'm still the freshman at Kenyon College, reading a James Bond book outside McBride Hall, wondering how I would make friends in such a strange place. I'm still the first-year teacher in his first real job at McReynolds Middle School, ambitious and hopeful and totally unprepared for what the 8:30 a.m. bell would bring. We are the accumulation of our life experiences in the most total of ways, and Linklater's Boyhood pushed me to think deeply of growing up, family, being a parent, and seeing the world.

Like my other favorite film of the year Life Itself, Boyhood examines who a person becomes and how that happens but never in a reductive way. Some films are labeled important with a capital I and thus become tedious or something to dread. Not so with Boyhood.  Linklater has made an important, deeply personal film that gives way to the universal, and his grand cinematic experiment and risk of telling a story in this way, pays off in it being the most graceful, poetic, and lovely film of recent memory, well-deserving of every accolade it has received.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Into The Woods: Nearly Finds Its Way

Movie Review: Into The Woods

Director: Rob Marshall

Reviewed: 2 January 2015

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

You cannot beat the music and songs from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's beloved musical Into The Woods, but in the less than capable hands of director Rob Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith, the film fails to satisfy in any totally rewarding way. We live now in a world more comfortable with the fractured fairy tales and post-modern examination of them through shows like Wicked and films like Shrek. The cleverness of the tale and its pathos is really undercut at times by Marshall's unsure handling of his multiple story lines. Certain characters are lost in the editing, adult themes seem sanitized for a younger audience, and I left wanting to see a bit more of the woods themselves, the textures, and even the kingdoms and worlds that all the characters leave behind. One could do a lot worse though than a film like Into The Woods, but I sensed a hesitation in Marshall going bold with anything in this film, so it remains lukewarm instead.

The plot concerns a curse on the Baker (James Corden) and The Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt) who must acquire a number of talismans to appease their neighbor, a whirling dervish of a Witch (Meryl Streep), in order to finally conceive a child. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her slipper are involved, as is Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his magic beans, imprisoned Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and sidetracked Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). Each story collides into the other as they leave civilization, comfort, safety, innocence, and the expected. Actions have unintended consequences amidst some phenomenal songs.

The film's sprawling nature may be part of its undoing: characters disappear for far too long (and at times, completely). Its comic moments are fewer than needed. A key character's fate seems clumsily handled with slow-motion. Streep's Witch seems to be the centerpiece, but The Baker narrates the tale. And, I am not sure I can point to a particular scene or moment as a show stopper or particularly brilliant. It seems, at times, bloodless and lacking a dynamism that I found in Marshall's beloved Chicago. The cast is mostly effective and pleasing to hear sing such songs.

The music remains infinitely charming, and my vague memories of listening to the cassettes in the car growing up was wonderfully jogged whenever I would hear a bit of dialogue or music that resonated. I think the film's themes are rich and complex: the danger of discovering more about life than you wanted to know, added to the reality that there really is no happily ever after. However, I just wonder if the film became lost in the editing room and Disney-fied, even down to its clunky special-effects work with a giant that should terrify but instead underwhelms. Seems a sin to mess that part up.