WILD JACKS, DRAMA QUEENS and KING OF KINGS: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Dog and Calvary

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guardians-of-the-galaxy-hed-2014Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them
               Malvolio in Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Well, I’m not sure I want to go over to actor Chris Pratt’s house for the holidays. After starring in both Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie, I strongly suspect there’s going to be no living with him.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest in the summer blockbusters the studios tend to set upon us now that it is, well…summer, I guess. The main difference is that GOT Galaxy (as I call it, or just started calling it cause it sounds kind of neat) has it’s tongue far more firmly planted in its cheek than in most summer blockbusters—and that’s saying a lot if you take Iron Man into consideration.
How good is it? Well, on a scale of one to ten, it’s not as good as The Lego Movie or X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it’s better than Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat as the Cruise control movie seems to be called now that it’s being released on home video).


So, all in all, I can’t imagine you won’t have a knee slapping good time if you go see it.


The basic premise of the movie revolves around a pre-teen who is abducted by aliens the night his mother dies from cancer (don’t you just hate when that happens?). Twenty six years later, he is the adult (and I use the term loosely) Peter Quill, who is a sort of petty thief, scavenger and general scalawag who works for Yondu Udonta, a Fagin type character who heads a motely group of miscreants.


The plot thickens when Quill takes possession of the Infinity Stone, an object of great power such that if it falls into the wrong hands it, well, you know, yadda, yadda, yaddas.


But as the story progresses, it seems to have a somewhat rather relevant flavor to it, if not a ripped from the headlines/current events one. Two races of people, the Kree and the Xanders, bitter enemies, have finally signed a peace treaty. But a break off terrorist group from Kree refuses to recognize the treaty and is willing to bring down Xander, even if it means destroying the galaxy. When Xander asks for help from Kree, Kree says, sorry, guys, you got your treaty, you’re on your own now.


Who represents what country now engaged in conflicts I’ll leave to you to quarrel over.


It’s not a perfect movie of course. But its main fault is one that is unusual for a film, and I don’t think I’ve ever had it in reviewing a movie before—it’s about a half hour to an hour too short.


Because of this, the story doesn’t have enough time to really explore the citizens of Xander and get us grabbed by the throat and emotionally involved in the horror that they are facing now that Ronan, the head of the Kree break off group, has the stone and is determined to destroy them.


The citizens of Xander are barely sketched in, treated more as second day stew. And I do think that the writers, James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman, who adapted the story from a Marvel comic book, miss out on something that could have made this movie quite special.


But because this part of the movie comes up a bit short, Glenn Close (who plays the leader of Xander, Nova Prime) and John C. Reilly (who plays a police officer) are really wasted (and I don’t mean drunk, I mean they just aren’t given anything to do—though Reilly comes off a bit better, as he is wont to do for no other reason that he is, well, John C. Reilly).


Which means that, though the ending is exciting (while at the same time having a curious goof—Prime tells Quill and the others than the capital city has been evacuated, but after the final crash on the planet, there are tons of civilians around), it is not as emotionally rich as it could have been.


In the same way, the lack of overtime here also skews Quill’s drama a bit as certain aspects of his back story get not just shoved on the back burner, they never get any gas in the first place. He, as well as the other characters, never deal with several elephants in the room—like why Quill has never tried to return to earth; why he was abducted; and where his father is.


I didn’t expect these questions to be answered. I knew they wouldn’t be. But I find the screenplay a bit disjointed in ignoring them completely.


But enough of the carping. What is left is an entertaining enough story that has three wonderful set pieces: an escape from a prison; a fight in a mining colony inside a celestial’s head; and the final battle for Xander.


All three are exciting, clever, full of fun little bits and are almost worth the price of admission alone (especially the prison break out with Groot, a sentient plant, who has a tendency to take things into his own fronds, oblivious of what might result).


The center of this galactic universe is the aforementioned Quill, played by the aforementioned Pratt. I have to be honest: Pratt is a really likable person with a nice, quirky personality (as he so ably demonstrates on the TV series Parks and Recreation). But I don’t think he quite has it in him yet to hold a movie like this together.


He definitely works hard, is pleasing on the eye (very pleasing on the eye; yes, Pratt, that yearlong workout really paid off on those abs) and hits his mark at times (he has one great line about Jackson Pollock and a black light), but he can’t seem to carry the whole thing off as well as other, stronger actors might.


So I do have to say that I think it was a good idea on everyone’s part to surround him by a large number of people who can sing perfectly on key.


Chief of these has to be Bradley Cooper, who voices the voice of Rocket, a raccoon and fellow thief who also manages to steal all the best lines. When I first saw Cooper on screen, I was, if truth be told, a little underwhelmed by what I felt was a somewhat bland metrosexualness to him. But with American Hustle and now this, there may be more to the scamp than I first realized.


His comrade in arms is voiced by Vin Diesel, who, as Groot, gets to play the acting game, telephone, where he has to say the same word over and over again and make it mean something different—and it may be the best thing Diesel has done.


And their bromance is actually rather touching at times.


Also in the mix are Zoe (Avatar) Saldana as Gamora (who I kept tittering over because I kept hearing her name pronounced Gomorrah); Michael (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) Rooker as Yondu; Djimon (Amistad) Hounsou as Korath; Benecio (Traffic) Del Toro as a collector of rare art and antiquities and provides the joke at the end of the movie; David (WWE) Bautista, surprisingly effective as Drax, a mountain of a man seeking revenge; and Karen Gillian, who dons the Persis Khambatta/Sigourney Weaver hairstyle for her role of Nebula, but doesn’t have to run near as much as she did in her recent incarnation as Dr. Who’s companion.


One could make an argument that the movie includes the usual Star Wars’ racism in that most of the bad guys, even the good bad guys, are either anthropomorphic somethings or other or have unusual shades to their skin tones (Gamora is Wicked Witch of the West green; Yondu is Smurf blue; Drax is earthy earth tones).


At the same time, they are also far more interesting and have more depth than the more bland, more earth-like characters of Xander. This was also true of Star Wars, but in GOT Galaxy they are giving a lot more screen time and are much more integral to the success of the story.


However, for the record, I do have a pet peeve. GOT Galaxy has a series of fake deaths and if there’s one thing I hate in movies (and believe me, there are many, many things I hate), it’s fake deaths. Either kill them, or don’t kill them, but don’t try to manipulate the scene to get some crocodile tears out of me. I found it especially a weak choice here, because there is one fake death that works, but coming after two others, it lost some of its effectiveness.


dogBut enough about me, let’s talk about you…what do you think of me?

C.C. Bloom, Beaches


The Dog, the new documentary by filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, is about the Dog. You know, the Dog. Like the Dude, ‘cept it’s not, it’s the Dog.


The Dog is one John Wojtowicz, who you may know better as the character played by Al Pacino in the movie Dog Day Afternoon, a story about a man who robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation (played by Chris Sarandon).


The movie is an incredible dramatization of one of those truth is stranger than fiction stories, a riveting character study and thriller that has come down as one of the finer films of the 1970’s, one that earned all and sundry numerous awards and nominations (including Oscar noms for Pacino and Sarandon and a win for the screenwriter Frank Pierson—now a consulting producer for Mad Men).


The Dog would be a drama except for that Wojtowicz character, who, with his body now bloated and only three teeth left that don’t fit, is a bit too full of life to allow for any seriousness to rear its ugly head, even though he, like many of the other characters interviewed here, don’t have much left of it. In fact, Wojtowicz, his mother, his lover and others connected to the story, though appearing in filmed interviews, have now passed on.


The documentary itself is never less than entertaining. Wojtowicz won’t let it be otherwise. He just seems to be having the time of his life enjoying a world that is finally doing what the world was always meant to do—revolve itself around his still turning point.


It’s a fascinating look at a fascinating character who somehow found himself on the inner edges of the gay rights movement, even if it was in a way that most civil rights pioneers may not have wanted to admit to. He may have been an embarrassment to the movement, but at least he wasn’t afraid to openly be who he was like others at the time were.


The filmmakers do a rather good job of rarely entering Jerry Springer territory. You may laugh at Wojtowicz, but most of the time, I suspect you’re more laughing with him. He knows what sort of character he is, and he plays it to the hilt. He’s the real thing, he seems to be saying. Accept no substitutions (even if it’s Al Pacino).


Some might find the Wojtowicz’s life to be pathetic. But for me, only the ending is. But even there, it’s not pathetic in a trash talk TV show way, but only in the way that life is pathetic because it must always end.


calvaryJesus wept.

The Book of John, 11:35


Not long ago, I was listening to a local NPR station when they interviewed the new Archbishop of Los Angeles. When the subject came up as to how he was handling all the recent scandals, he stated that certainly the incidents of pedophilia were a tragedy for the church.


I was quite taken aback. I wasn’t sure I had heard right, but I really couldn’t believe it. No, I wanted to say, it’s not a tragedy for the church. It’s a tragedy for the victims. It’s a crime for the church.


This came to mind as I was watching writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s (who previously gave us the film The General and is the brother to Martin McDonagh who gave us Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges—sibling rivalry much?) new neo-noir Calvary, about a priest who may not have long to live.


I suspect the Archbishop quite possibly would not get it.


The film has, as the central character, Father James, states in the first scene, a startling opening.


The mild mannered priest (Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in The General) is going about his usual confessional duties when he is told by a member of his parish that the member was molested almost daily for years as a child by a priest. When Father James asks if he wants to file a complaint, the confessor says there’s no point since the priest has died.


But even so, as the not-so-penitent penitent points out, there’s no point in killing a guilty priest. What he feels needs to be done is to kill an innocent priest—as, in many ways, his innocent soul was killed when he was young. And with that, he informs James that he will cold bloodedly kill the Father in seven days.


For Father James there’s no mystery. He knows who his potential murderer is. What is a mystery for him is what to do about it.   The priest is given him six days before the final one of rest to get his affairs in order whereupon the confessor expects Father James to be at the beach the next Sunday afternoon to face his fate and meet his maker.


And so Father James is on the road to Calvary.


Of course, we don’t know who the confessor is ourselves. Not to sound prejudice, but all male Irish brogues sound pretty much alike. So everyone we meet during the progress of the story (outside the females) is the potential assassin.


And this is where the movie gets a wee bit bizarre.


As in The General, the sets are made up of buildings and walls with the most impeccable paint jobs you will see anywhere, in real life or fiction. It all feels freshly coated, often with overly bright colors, with nary a speck of dirt or a smudge or color overlap to wainscoting.


I mean, cleanliness is next to Godliness, but this does seem a bit extreme.


But the characters are portrayed the same way. While Gleeson plays his role with a calm realism (and he is quite impressive here, making us feel every bit of confusion and inner conflict the priest goes through), the others (except for the female characters for some reason, maybe because we know they can’t be the ones considering homicide here) feel both a bit exaggerated and a bit unreal, while still being as fully controlled as the paint on the walls and buildings.


And it’s always the same group of people. The town doesn’t seem that small, but except for a night on the town where a band (and a great band at that) invades the local tavern, no matter where Gleeson goes, the city seems almost deserted, except for the same half dozen or so characters.


The result is that you get scene after scene in which you feel as if you are in the climactic moment of an Agatha Christie novel where all the suspects are gathered in the same room (this is somewhat telegraphed in an opening scene where Father James administers communion to everyone you will soon meet).


Now whether this is a stylistic choice, or the result of a limited budget, I can’t say. But it all adds up to a somewhat odd series of scenes.   And whether you go along with it or not may depend on your penchant for quirkiness.


I was caught somewhere in between. Some of the scenes feel awkward, depending on the actor. This is especially true for Aidan Gillen (he of Game of thrones and Queer as Folk) as a local doctor who has a penchant for some sort of jiu jitsu rigamarole, and Owen Sharpe as a rent boy who does terrible imitations of James Cagney (both of their accents and body language almost seem to belong in another film, a movie even more out there than this one).


Others handle it all much better, especially Dylan Moran as a dipsomaniac millionaire who is feeling guilty about his life, especially now that he may be indicted for white collar crimes, and who takes a wicked piss on a painting, and Killian Scott, as a young man considering joining the army and who wears a bow tie as wicked as Moran’s piss.


But when it comes down to it, no matter what you may think of the film as a whole, the ending is so shocking and emotional moving, that it leaves you almost paralyzed for a moment. This road to Calvary may have been a bit bumpy, but boy, when it gets there, the result is something you will not soon forget.


Calvary may not be perfect, but it is riveting. And it does challenge you.


And Gleeson gives one of the performances of the year.


With Kelly Reilly of Chinese Puzzle and Flight as Father James’s daughter (yeah, he has a daughter; so what, you wanna make something of it?); Chris O’Dowd (of the IT Crowd and Bridesmaids) as a local butcher who doesn’t care if his wife cheats on him; Isaach De Bankole (of Jim Jarmush’s The Limits of Control) as a garage mechanic; and E. Emmet Walsh (the hired killer in Blood Simple) as an aging ex-pat writer trying to finish his latest book.




So tell me what you think.

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