Monday, August 11, 2014

Movie Monday: Guardians of the Galaxy

I'm hooked on a feeling!

At this point, does the world need another Guardians of the Galaxy review? of course not. The crowd has spoken, as it were, and GOTG is yet another massive, unbelievable success for the Marvel brand, which seems as invulnerable as Captain America's shield right now.

But I did want to say a few words about the movie, but in a slightly different manner then I normally do when talking about a movie for Movie Monday.
As I type this, I saw GOTG last Saturday. While impressed at the scope of these Marvel Universe movies, I have been consistently underwhelmed at the individual films--I liked Iron Man a lot, both Cap movies, the second Hulk, and the second half of The Avengers, but in many ways I've been bored with the rigid sameness that seems to be imposed on all these films from the get-go. In a lot of ways, that's why I always more of a DC kid than a Marvel one growing up--DC didn't have a house style, and as a consequence I felt had a lot more variety in their line, while Marvel strove for--and achieved--a mostly cohesive feel to all their books, no matter who it was about. So, in many movies, the Marvel movies are the most faithful comic book movie adaptations ever done.

I admit, I went into Guardians skeptical--could Marvel make this work, a film about characters who were "C list" at best? Characters that had none of the emotional, cultural resonance of Captain America or the Hulk?
The answer was revealed to me about ten minutes into the film when, after a quiet, sad but effective opening, director James Gunn cranks up "Hooked on a Feeling" over scenes of Star Lord dancing like an idiot on alien planet. Here, finally, was a Marvel movie daring to be unlike all the others!

That feeling of surprise and joy pretty much continued throughout the film. Chris Pratt filled the space admirably as our hero, the action was well-staged and easy to follow, and there were lots and lots of laughs. Sure, the villain--Ronan the Accuser--was another in a long line of kinda boring, generic bad guys who yell a lot, but I felt that was partly made up for by the appearance of Karen Gillan as Nebula, whose icy stare hinted that there was a lot more than what we were seeing. I think this is what they were trying to go for with Darth Maul in Phantom Menace, but here it worked.

About halfway through the movie, I realized that not only was I really, really enjoying it, but that it was already my favorite Marvel movie, by a lot. By the time it ended (with a post-credits cameo that was wonderful in its absurdity and ballsiness), I was of the mind that Guardians of the Galaxy might be my favorite superhero comic book movie ever, save for the original Superman: The Movie. But would that opinion hold up?

Well, I'm about to find out, because I decided to see the film again, something I have only done with one or two other movies in the last decade. So I will resume this review after I have seen GOTG a second time. Be right back...

Okay, so, it's the next day, and now I've seen GOTG twice. And I can honestly say, I pretty much enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. The shock of the new as gone, of course, but this time I concentrate more on the individual scenes, and how it all hangs together as a whole.

As the movie unfolded the first time, something I found I really enjoyed was how it managed to answer every question I had, and seemed to anticipate those questions: there's a scene involving a sort of intergalactic cock fight which I found upsetting, because it's sort of played for laughs: that is, until we see one of the characters react in horror to what they're seeing, which told me that the movie itself felt like that, too.

During the final battle scenes, when movies like tend to get numbing with all the noise and CGI spectacle, GOTG has enough faith in its story to slow down, and have a couple of very beautiful moments where we just are spending time with the heroes. Not only are these scenes simply pretty to look at, amid all the destruction and bombast, they feel like a cool drink of water on a hot day.

One of the criticisms lobbed at this movie, and it's a fair one, is that the plot and villain are so cookie cutter, and how GOTG is so similar to the other Marvel movies. Isn't this film supposed to the beginning of Marvel's "Phase 2", which means it might be time to break from formula and try something truly different?

Having now seen it twice, I feel as though director James Gunn has taken the Marvel movie structure and twisted it for his own ends--adding all the humor, the soundtrack, the overall lightness of tone. So instead of GOTG being the start of Phase 2, it's more that this is the final film of Phase 1: after this, Marvel has to start really playing with the formula, or audiences will get bored and stop showing up to Iron Man 7 or whatever. James Gunn is pointing the way, showing future Marvel directors that you can break the mold and be successful.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few films where I am actively, intensely interested in what they do with the sequel: the crawl at the end "The Guardians of the Galaxy will be back" harkens to an older era of movies, one promising fun and adventure and derring-do. Now that the origin story has been told, I really can't wait to see what trouble they get into next. And hear whatever is on Mix Tape Vol. 2!

I'm going to take a break from Movie Mondays for a little while. For those of you who have been reading every week, I very much appreciate it, and rest assured Movie Mondays, like the Guardians, will be back!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Monday: Baron Blood

Beware the curse of Baron Blood!

I was in the mood for trashy, bloody, gory fun, so a Mario Bava movie that I had never seen before seemed like the perfect fit.
The story concerns an American student named Peter (Antonio Cantafora), who is returning to his ancestral castle home so he can learn about an ancestor, the infamous Baron Otto van Kleist. He is infamous for murdering and torturing his subjects, and even though that was a long time ago, his name still inspires fear in the local townsfolk.

Peter meets the comely Eva (Elke Sommer), the assistant to a real estate developer who is working on turning the historic castle into a hotel. He mentions an ancient document he found back in the States, which is an incantation that would bring the Baron back to life if spoken aloud at the right time. Neither one of them take it very seriously, so they decide to try it, just for kicks:

It becomes clear that the document does, in fact, work! They hear slow footsteps outside the castle door, and it pounds heavily. They recite it again, and the seemingly nefarious presence is gone. The next night, for some reason, they do it again, except this time a stiff breeze carries the fragile paper onto a nearby roaring fire--meaning the Baron lives again!

The Baron stalks the town, first stopping at a doctor's office. The doctor treats this stranger with kindness, despite his frightening visage:
For his troubles, the doctor is murdered, and so is a gravedigger. Peter and Eva explain to the developer what they've done, and are met with disbelief. Nevertheless, the murders continue, which, you know, kinda drive real estate prices down a bit. The renovation is cancelled, and the castle is put up for auction. It's bought by wheelchair-bound millionaire Alfred Bekker (Joseph Cotten, back for a second straight Movie Monday):
It doesn't take long for our dim-witted heroes to realize Bekker and the Baron are one and the same. Via a magic amulet, a plan is realized how to send Baron back to the grave.

Like I said above, I was looking for a big, fun, pulpy horror film, and usually Mario Bava delivers exactly that in his films (Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires), but unfortunately I found Baron Blood to be mostly very, very dull. Peter and Eva are your classic Stupid Protagonists, and a lot of horror movies wouldn't exist at all if the main characters didn't do very stupid things, but these two are so painfully careless that it makes the whole "incantation" scene laughable, as opposed to frightening. Once you've learned that the magic paper works, you wouldn't, oh, I don't know, tear the thing up into a thousand pieces?

The best part of the movie is, by far, the character design of the titular Baron. With his Solomon Kane-esque cloak and Hammer Films-like face, he cuts quite a dashing, scary figure, especially when draped in shadow, which is most of the time. There's a fun scene of a victim getting trapped in an Iron Maiden, which seemed like something Bava just really enjoyed.

But that stuff is few and far between, mostly it's Peter and Eva running about, which I found to be tedious in the extreme. It's always nice to see Cotten, although I always found him so charming that having him play a bad guy seems like a waste sometimes. Maybe I should have just watched Planet of the Vampires again.

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