Monday, August 4, 2014

Some Thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy

I've rarely written movie reviews over the years. I've mostly shied away from them because offering opinions about movies is entirely too controversial. Controversy scares me. I mean, what if I recommend a movie to you, and then, heaven forbid, you didn't like it? Or worse, you did like it, but for the wrong reasons? Or maybe you liked the move, but still disagreed with my review?

That's a responsibility I'm not prepared to take on.

With that in mind, this is (sort of) not a movie review of Guardians of the Galaxy. It is also (sort of) not a commentary on Hollywood.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a pleasant surprise. I laughed. I cried. I got back in line.

Going to movies is usually a painful experience. It's a lot like playing the lottery. In both, you throw away a bunch of money in the hope that your ticket will come up a winner. This summer's selection of movies has been especially bad. The folks in Hollywood have little imagination anymore, so in order to make up for the lack of new ideas, they offer sequels of stories that should have been buried years ago (Transformers: Age of Extinction, or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

Movie makers also produce their requisite movies which I cannot be paid to go see (Behaving Badly or Sex Tape). Or they produce dreck that is so steeped in Hollywood immorality and overladen with PC values that they barely register on my radar (Noah, or The Purge, or Boyhood).

That's why Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise. It's even more surprising considering that it sits atop a long and overblown Marvel franchise.

Guardians worked because the writers remembered two important ideas about story telling: audiences care about people, and plot is important.

In many Marvel movies (did you see that alliteration there?) the writers forget that audiences actually need to identify with, and feel something for the characters. For example, the first Iron Man movie worked for me because I actually came to like Stark and to care what happened to him. The sequels? Not so much. I saw the first Thor movie and none of the rest, simply because I couldn't care less about Thor or Loki as characters.

Guardians surprised me because the writers made the audience care about the characters. The main character has a back story. The assassin woman is more than a face and hot body. We could even come to care for an annoying raccoon and a tree with a vocabulary of three words.

The story, while drawing from the basic plot line of comic books everywhere, was more than a means to show off the latest movie-making technology (like The Hobbit). It was basically a save-the-universe tale. But it was also a vehicle for us to get to know the Guardians.

The movie was also funny. I laughed.

That is a rarity these days and one that I appreciate more and more in a humorless world.

Hollywood writers tend to think that humor hinges mostly on doing or saying something inappropriate. That's why we have far, far too many movies where humor revolves around sex, or bathroom humor, or being rude.

The humor in Guardians mostly resorted to banter and surprising action. Here's an example, where the main character, Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, tries to get the Guardians to save the universe:
Peter Quill: I have a plan.
Rocket Raccoon: You've got a plan?
Peter Quill: I have PART of a plan!
Drax the Destroyer: What percentage of a plan?
Drax the Destroyer: What percentage of a plan do you have?
Gamora: You don't get to ask questions after the nonsense you pulled on Knowhere!
Drax the Destroyer: I just saved Quill!
Peter Quill: We've already established that you destroying the ship I'm on is not saving me!
Drax the Destroyer: When did we establish that?
Peter Quill: Like three seconds ago?
Drax the Destroyer: I wasn't listening. I was thinking of something else....
Rocket Raccoon: She's right, you don't get an opinion. What percentage?
Peter Quill: I dunno...Twelve percent?
Rocket Raccoon: Twelve percent? [breaks into laughter]
Peter Quill: That's a fake laugh.
Rocket Raccoon: It's real!
Peter Quill: Totally fake!
Rocket Raccoon: That is the most real, authentic, hysterical laugh of my entire life, because THAT IS NOT A PLAN!
Gamora: It's barely a concept.
Peter Quill: [to Gamora] You're taking THEIR side?
Groot: I am Groot.
Rocket Raccoon: So what, "It's better than eleven percent?" What the hell does that have to do with anything?
Peter Quill: [to Groot] Thank you! See? Groot's the only one of you who has a clue. [Groot eats a leaf off his shoulder]
Guardians almost got through an entire movie without resorting to bathroom humor or being completely crude. I say almost, because the writers did indeed include some of that in the movie, including the inappropriate use of language. It's a sad commentary on society when poor language is only included into movies in order to garner a PG-13 or R rating, depending on the target audience.

Of course, a Marvel Comics movie wouldn't be complete without explosions, muscles, a cameo of Stan Lee, guns, girls, technology, and minions. After all, we like a bit of gratuitous violence in our movies.

Chris Pratt does a decent job of playing the rogue character. Zoe Saldana is absolutely gorgeous and makes a good anti-hero. Dave Bautista is massive, but despite his WWF beginnings, creates a decent character. Vin Diesel gets billing for saying three words as a tree (who happens to be one of the most endearing characters). And Bradley Cooper makes a cartoon raccoon come alive.

Did I mention there were explosions? Yep. Lots of 'em.

Did I mention that Zoe Saldana is gorgeous? Yep.

Did I mention the gratuitous violence? Yep. Lots of bashing and crashing.

Did I mention a tree was a decent and endearing character? Yep.

Why did the movie work for me? In a nutshell, I cared what happened to the characters, and that made all the difference.