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MOVIE REVIEW: James Gunn “makes it work” as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY go galactic

movie still from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; "Groot" and "Rocket"
movie still from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; "Groot" and "Rocket" Marvel; Walt Disney Studios

I admit it. I had some doubts when it was announced James Gunn (whom I admire and am a fan of his work) would be directing GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Although I had no doubts about Gunn nailing the humor and action ideology of the film, I had to wonder, could he execute it on such a grand scale? Given the anticipated scope and magnitude of the film, the large cast, the ideologic and thematic concepts as a whole, just the pure majesty of the Marvel universe and perhaps most importantly, the heart of the story and the individual characters, GUARDIANS was unlike anything Gunn had tackled previously in his career. But now, having seen GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, I can say wholeheartedly that James Gunn and the Guardians go for the gusto, rocking the galaxy and blasting off with all cylinders firing. Talk about not only an impressive tentpole film, but an explosively fun and dynamic complement to the Marvel universe! You laugh, you cry, you laugh some more....and then you find you're tapping your toes to Blue Swede and Redbone! Say what?? GUARDIANS has got it all!

movie still from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
movie still from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXYMarvel; Walt Disney Studios

A motley crew of intergalactic heroes if ever there was, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became part of the Marvel universe in 1969 thanks to Arnold Drake and Gene Colan. Going through various incarnations over the decades, the 2008 version offered up by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning introduced some new Guardians and adventures, the base from which GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY stems. With the original script written by Nicole Perlman and then passed off to James Gunn when he came on board as director, unlike other Marvel works, GUARDIANS has a license to play and does a mix and match with the source material, adding some new characters, dropping some others, shifting the Marvel time line to include the character of Yondu (now a Ravager and surrogate father to Peter Quill/Star Lord as opposed to his 1969 self as a pre-Star Lord alien hunting empath), and putting an emotional spin on Quill that infuses the film as a whole. Notable is Perlman’s work which gives the story not only it’s foundation, but the elements of science (which are largely accurate), all of which Gunn then expounds upon with humor and visuals. It’s a wonderful collaborative result.

After an emotionally powerful scene on Earth between a young Peter Quill and his dying mother, we jump decades into the future and meet the now 20-something Quill aka Star Lord, a snarky, fun-loving scavenger/con artist scouring the galaxy working for his adoptive father, Yondu. A dark planet reduced to what appears nothing more than eroded or eradicated stalagmites and stalactites, Quill is seemingly oblivious to it all, plugged into his vintage Sony Walkman and rocking out to a 1970's “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. (And trust me, with this one moment, you are forever “hooked on a feeling” with GUARDIANS.) Seems that Quill is looking for some sort of orb that Yondu has been hired to find. Seems that other species are also looking for the same orb. And it’s the orb and its power, and everyone’s search for it that not only brings together Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, a genetically modified and technologically outfitted raccoon named Rocket and an empathetic and powerful tree named Groot, but results in an all out galactic battle against the evil Ronan and the all-powerful Thanos, the latter of whom who just happens to be Gamora’s father.

With limited time to not only capture fun, excitement, adventure and action, the backstory of these worlds and characters need to be introduced and explained which is where the performances come into play. With each actor more wonderful than the last, speaking volumes without words, relying on energy and human touch to tell much about each character, the emotional levels are organic, free-flowing.

As Peter Quill/Star Lord, Chris Pratt is more than a few shades of a young Han Solo right down to the side arm on the leg and the snarky fun quips while completely capturing hints of Kevin Bacon and Michael Jackson with some hysterical over-the-top dance routines (all integrated within the story)! For Pratt, credit for his “Star Lord attitude” goes to James Gunn. “It’s really just [about] being open and willing to go for it and try different things, and having a director that you can trust. The attitude is not something that I intended or created. It was something that James intended and created, by getting me to try different things. . .and taking big swings and sometimes falling flat on my face.” Likeable and loveable to a fault, Pratt is one of the most welcome heroes we’ve seen in awhile.

We loved her being blue in “Avatar”, but Zoe Saldana has us all green with envy as the kick-ass, in your face, Gamora. Hard core, intelligent, quick-thinking, Saldana has an extremely visual emotional arc that softens without losing her smarts or physicality. Refreshing to see. Talk about girl power! A wonderful role model.

What would a James Gunn film be without Michael Rooker. Written into the script by Gunn especially for Rooker is Yondu. Skewing the GUARDIANS time line to make Peter Quill and Yondu concurrent, Rooker goes for broke with bad-ass humor - and all under blue skin. (Pay attention to the blue as it will prove something important with the character.) Rooker finds a balance of paternal pride/best friend/worst enemy and then goes for broke pulling a new trick out of his bag of tricks. Fun, fun, fun performance.

Glenn Close is perfection as Nova Prime; calm, cool, calculating, ice queen, charged with running the peace loving planet of Xandar. As Nova Prime’s head of Nova Corps security, Corpsman Dey, John C. Reilly adds a fun goofiness that catches your attention; not really someone you would expect in a seat of security power, but it’s that skew that makes Dey fun and adds to the fun of the film. Looking like a galactic Liberace is Benicio Del Toro who serves the eccentricity of “The Collector” (aka a zookeeper) well. As Del Toro relates his experience, “I felt like an animal that was holed up in a cage, and then you suddenly open the door, and he comes out and is tentative.” An interesting oddity that fits well within the GUARDIANS galaxy.

But, let’s cut to the chase. Rocket Rocks! Groot is Grrrrreat! (Get the merchandising ready for these two characters!) Scene stealers both, beyond the adorable visual design of each character, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are phenomenal with their voicing - particularly Diesel who, with just one sentence (and thanks to some beautiful CGI facial animation) infuses entire soliloquies of emotion into Groot through inflection and vocal tone with just three words “I am Groot”. A lot of the softer emotion we saw from Diesel in “The Pacifier” is imbued within Groot while complimented with the "tough guy grrrrr" attitude for which he is best known.

Delivering the single most emotional performance of the film, it is perhaps the story behind Diesel’s involvement in GUARDIANS that is more telling. “When Kevin Feige called me and said that he and James were talking about me playing a role, I had no idea what role it would be. And then, they sent over a book of conceptual art, and I went into my living room with my kids and opened up the book, and I asked the kids what character they wanted Daddy to play. They all pointed at the tree, so I knew that was a good sign. For me, it was at a very important time, when I did this movie, because it was in December, and it was the first time I was coming around humans again and working again [following the death of “Fast & Furious” co-star Paul Walker]. There was something very therapeutic, in my personal life and my professional life, after dealing with death, playing a character that celebrates life, in the way that Groot celebrates life.”

When it comes to Bradley Cooper, damn! Smart ass, smart aleck, picking up on some slight Philly accent while taking the vocal tone and inflection to an almost 1930's coppers and robbers bit. Genius fun!

Somewhat slighted are bad guys, Ronan the Accuser, his brown-nosing follower (and Gamora’s sister) Nebula, and of course, the all evil Thanos. As Ronan, Lee Pace is virtually unrecognizable shrouded in black from his skin to his clothing. Dazzling texture and hues of color, allow Pace to emote through his voice and mannerisms only. The result is dynamic, so much so, that you want to see more. Karen Gillan’s Nebula also falls by the wayside until a climactic battle late in the third act when Gillan gets to flex her acting chops. Cloaked in mystery a la the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, we get just a taste of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, but that taste has me salivating for more. Brolin’s vocal timbre drips villainy with every syllable uttered. (And as we know from Comic-Con, Brolin and Thanos should be returning for a more prominent role in GUARDIANS 2.)

Originally given Perlman’s script as working model, as Gunn puts it, “[I]t didn’t 100% speak to me. I wanted to make some pretty major changes, so I rewrote the whole script.” Although retaining the core story and the worlds brought to life on the page by Perlman, what we clearly see as James Gunn is the type of humor. It’s patented Gunn. Laugh out loud funny and undoubtedly guaranteed to resonate with an even wider demographic because it all stems from the pop culture zeitgeist of movies and music, there aren't really any veiled obscure references, everything is widely known to multiple generations and thus the appeal of the jokes and humor. Key is that Gunn and company don't take themselves too seriously. These are completely different heroes than the Avengers or Iron Man. They have no polish or class like Tony Stark and no Nazi fighting history. There is the youthful exuberance that Chris Pratt brings which is then infused throughout the film. Watching Zoe Saldana emotionally transform as Gamora is a beautiful character portrait. Gunn creates a world filled with contrasting juxtapositioning that comes to life with vibrancy, energy, time and texture, as if seamlessly segueing almost through time. Interesting is that it appears the science aspects of the film are delivered not only through visuals, but by way of Rocket with science oriented expository dialogue appearing gone and replaced with lighter humorous reference.

Equally important to the humor of GUARDIANS, if not moreso, is its heart and the heart of the characters. According to Gunn, “The movie is about a couple of things. . . Number one, it’s about a son’s relationship to his mother and how that manifests itself throughout the rest of his life. That, to me, is an emotional thing. The second thing, is that we live in a world where everybody’s supposed to be cool and act tough and put up fronts, and everybody is so cynical. . .[T]his movie is about actually allowing yourself to care and allowing yourself to give a shit. That’s a naturally emotional thing for me. And then, thirdly, I fell in love with these characters, as I was making the movie, and I fell in love with these actors, as I was making it. Just my natural sensitivity to that, and to characters, people and emotions, is something that automatically was expressed in the film. It’s a film about family.”

Fresh and refreshing, there are visual influences of “Independence Day”, “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, and dare I say, the humor of “Galaxy Quest”, just to name a few. All is welcome and works, not only adding to this galaxy but giving some slight touchstone nods to the sci-fi fantasy world as a whole, guaranteeing moments that will resonate for all.

Obviously a huge help to Gunn with GUARDIANS is having so many below the line guys on board familiar with the Marvel universe - cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Charles Woods, art director Ray Chan, just to name a few. Not only intimately with Marvel, but all also having worked on “Wrath of the Titans”, another completely fantastical universe, these artisans know sci-fi and fantasy and the creation and lensing thereof inside out. From the spaceships and pods to The Collector's museum (beyond cool) to the cool, bright, Beverly Hills aura of the "pawn shop" where Quill tries to sell the orb to the dinge and darkness of the Kyln prison - there is no detail missed, no minutiae too small; right down to Yondu's stained glass crystal blue frog. And trolls!

Can we just give a collective gasp for the beauty of the interlocking sky blockade created by the Xandarian fighters around Ronan's ship. An absolute stunner, this one scene is a testament to the VFX team. Exceptional is also the VFX lighting design. Making full use of the color spectrum, Gunn and company go beyond the oft over-used reds and greens and yellow/oranges and fill the energy of this world with purple! The metaphoric undertones of the regal color speaks its own language, adding another layer, another texture to the tapestried world. Beautiful.

Moreso than in any other Marvel film, costume and make-up/prosthetics are front and center with special effects make-up designer David White leading the charge. Rich, textured, innovative, unique and gorgeous. Make way for Oscar. Not only is Dave Bautista a knockout with his3D tattoos and body prosthetics, but Lee Pace’s facial make-up as Ronan is a definite hypnotic wow. Ronan may be bad, but you can't help but be mesmerized by this bad boy - and it comes from the costume, the hood, the black chain maille effect. And that facial make-up.

Where I see cinematic problems or shortcomings, however, are with some visual disconnects within the film; notably, the planet of Xandar. The overhead visuals of the city with people walking, look straight out of a 1950's futuristic architectural drawing we might find in Disneyland's World of Tomorrow exhibit back in the 50's. It's pretty, bright, metaphoric for the happy, peaceful planet that it is, but no matter how many times Gunn cuts to the wide overhead, it looks like a dated drawing. While pleasing to the eye on its own, it not only feels out of place amongst the rest of the galaxy, but as if a Photoshop inset.

Distracting are many of the 2-shots or cockpit shots. I get it that Gunn is trying to frame and focus our attention on the characters, but because of the cockpit production design and an extremely wide gap between the two pilot seats (obviously designed to allow for all 5 main characters to be in a 2 or 3 deep row cockpit shot) the frame is too narrow and as a result, we lose side shoulders and arms and part of the details within the ships. Widen the frame just a couple of feet to get in full body with some production design detail and it will not only create a better visual balance, but add to the scene aesthetics.

But then we have the music and Peter Quill’s “Mix Tape 1". 100% James Gunn, “[T]he very first thing that I thought of was this idea of the Walkman and the cassette tape, which is really this character’s connection to his home planet of Earth. If the MacGuffin of the film is this orb that everyone’s chasing after, the emotional center is this Walkman.” From the Raspberries “Go All the way” to Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” to Blue Swede “Hooked on a Feeling” and even the Jackson 5 with “I Want You Back” and Zoe Saldana’s favorite “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, inserting the specific songs “was just a natural part of the screenwriting process. All the songs that you hear in the movie were all written into the film. They’re all part of the screenplay.” Don’t be surprised to see this soundtrack land in Billboard’s Top 100.

He may not be Tim Gunn, but James Gunn “makes it work” as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY go galactic with a new kind of fun, freshness and family, ready to rock the Marvel universe and yours.

Directed by James Gunn
Written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Glenn Close, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Josh Brolin

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is in theatres across the galaxy August 1, 2014,