I know what you’re thinking. “A Viewing Diary at the end of the week? How strange!” Indeed, it is. However, it was either get this out there now or go an entire week without a new blog post, and I decided to choose the former. There will be no Viewing Diary next week, but the next Summer of Cruise will certainly go up at some point. That’s also been moving a little slowly, I’ll admit, but it shall be resumed shortly. As for the movies we shall talk about this week: how about the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy, with a side of Hercules and I Origins? Plus, for the classic film of the week (the new thing I’m calling the Miscellaneous section) I finally get around to Richard Linklater’s breakthrough film Slacker.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dir: James Gunn
It’s no coincidence that much of the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy is filled with rock songs from the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s not just because that is a huge part of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) character. It also speaks to the wonderfully retro soul at the center of the film, and at its best Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a throwback sci-fi adventure that hits all the correct crowd-pleasing beats. It succeeds by doing all the simple things well: it creates an engaging ensemble across the board, it doesn’t shortchange any of its characters, and it has them do cool, funny things. It’s a blockbuster that’s awfully hard to praise in an intelligent way, since almost any review I write will devolve into “it was fun.” It’s actually much easier to talk about the things I didn’t like about the movie, but to dwell too long on those would only overshadow what was, by and large, an overwhelmingly positive reaction. I like fun movies, and this is one of them.
Still, let’s dwell just a bit. My problems with Guardians of the Galaxy are more or less the problems I’ve had with almost every Marvel movie. Even a movie like this, which is supposed to be a departure from their normal formula, falls back into the same old traps. The villain is a just a new variation of an already-boring type, and the film stops short of doing anything truly interesting because, like all Marvel movies, it is equally focused on the future as it is on the present. That ties in to the villain problem, actually: every Marvel villain has the unenviable job of being less their own entity and more a warning of what is coming down the road. No one is going to remember Lee Pace’s character of Ronan here. Heck, I barely remember him now, and it’s only been a couple days. Guardians instead wants us to worry about Thanos, a big bad who has been hanging around since the end of The Avengers. The only problem is he hasn’t done anything, and he won’t be doing anything of substance until Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Avengers 3: You’ll Still Like Superhero Movies in 2018, Right? As entertaining as these films can be, they will never reach greatness until they actually shut up and tell a whole story.
So how do these movies succeed without creating interesting villains? Simple: since the beginning of this whole thing with Iron Man, they have absolutely nailed it when it comes to the heroes. Each protagonist in the Marvel universe is unique, perfectly cast, and it’s typically a lot of fun to hang around with them for two hours. Incomplete as they may be, there has yet to be a truly terrible installment in their so-called “Cinematic Universe.” That’s actually part of what makes it so frustrating, and Guardians of the Galaxy is a fine example of what happens when you hold a movie back. I like this film a whole lot, but it bothers me only because I thought it could have been great if it didn’t have to fit in to Marvel’s grand scheme. It’s a solid “B+,” but I’m fairly certain Gunn had an “A” in him.
Dir: Brett Ratner
Q: What happens when Matt wakes up early on a Sunday morning and is bored?
A: He goes to see Brett Ratner’s Hercules, apparently.
This is a weird one, and far weirder than any Brett Ratner film has a right to be. I say that not because it is truly strange, but rather because Hercules is somehow both exactly what you expect and yet nothing at all like you expect. You expect a dumb action movie starring Dwayne Johnson, featuring over-the-top fight scenes, clunky dialogue, and slick Ratner-esque visuals? You got it. However, this film takes a completely different approach to the character than you might anticipate. Instead of watching Hercules become Hercules, preferably to the tune of a song called “Zero to Hero,” this film’s version enters the story with his legend already firmly established. In fact, there’s quite a bit of controversy as to whether he is legitimately the son of Zeus. This is a movie that wants to tackle questions about how such figures come to be, and it might even want to be a film about the nature of celebrity, but all Hercules can really do is bring up these questions and then quickly dismiss them in favor of scenes of Johnson punching people and throwing a horse. It may not be the Hercules movie you were expecting, but it’s also not that different from your standard swords-and-sandals blockbuster. It’s not poorly made in the slightest, and there were several moments when I was actively entertained. Like many a Ratner film before, it goes down easy, but does little to distinguish itself.
I Origins (2014)
Dir: Mike Cahill
I was a big fan of Mike Cahill’s Another Earth when I saw it back in 2011, but I’m also rather certain my feelings wouldn’t be the same were I to revisit it. It was the kind of indie sci-fi story meant to be felt rather than dissected, and the same can be said for his new film I Origins. However, in this case I was not able to make myself connect with the emotions at the story’s center. This is a film about the conflict between faith and reason, but it’s hard to get swept up in the journey when it feels like the only larger power at play is the screenwriter. I Origins doesn’t really say anything about that conflict either, but instead strings together a plot that throws in twist after unmotivated twist just to keep things interesting. You can practically hear Cahill sitting at his computer, thinking “ooh, what if this happened next?” There’s a big difference between simply bringing up lofty ideas and actually engaging with them, and that is why I Origins–ambitious as it may be–never quite gets off the ground.
CLASSIC OF THE WEEK
Dir: Richard Linklater
The recent one-two punch of Before Midnight and Boyhood has gotten me into quite the Linklater tizzy, so I decided I should go back and finally check out the movie that started it all: Slacker. And indeed, you can feel the DNA of what was to come throughout this thing. Linklater drifts from anecdote to anecdote every few minutes, and in the process creates a unique, complete portrait of a specific place and time. It’s almost irrelevant whether or not the place and time (late ’80s/early ’90s Austin) ever really existed as depicted here; it feels so fully-realized that the mere idea becomes enough. And indeed, you see a lot of trademarks that would show up in Linklater’s most personal work, from the Before… movies to Dazed and Confused and even things like Waking Life and, yes, Boyhood. Right from the start, Linklater was brilliant at keeping his work utterly specific, and yet somehow universal.