Monday, 1 May 2017

James Gunn - Guardians of the Galaxy

Put on your dancing shoes folks and turn up the volume on that beautiful mix tape of retro songs as we guard the galaxy with Director James Gunn along with Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot! No major spoilers, just a sincere fan appreciation of two fantastic films.

Actor, Writer, Producer and Director James Gunn has over twenty years cinematic experience spanning nearly every genre be it screenplays for The Specials (2000), Scooby-Doo (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Slither (2006) and Super (2010) as well as the two Guardians of the Galaxy films appraised here on which he wrote the screenplay as well as sitting in the Directors Chair.

My beautiful teenage son is perhaps the demographic and target audience for these two films and it's through him that my interest and fan appreciation of the films was initially born. And his film by film rating?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1 - 10/10
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 - 12/10

So do read on as the target audience was rather impressed!

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming two films, but rather my purpose is to give an overall flavour as I do not want to spoil these films in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these uniquely different cinematic creations.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

"We're just like Kevin Bacon!"

"So what should we do next?" enquires Star Lord of his merry band of surgically and medically modified crew members comprising a fearsome warrior, a female assassin, a humanoid plant life and a genetically modified bounty hunter in the shape of a raccoon. "Something good? Something bad?" Whilst his rhetorical questions hang in the air he is quick to answer with his own brand of sardonic humour, "bit of both!" and the Guardians of the Galaxy are off on yet another adventure. But how did they get here? A humanoid plant life? A raccoon bounty hunter? So who are the vaunted and celebrated Guardians of the Galaxy?

Peter Quill AKA Star Lord (Chris Pratt) Sandwiching his performances as the sarcastic and hugely entertaining Star Lord and ostensible leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt has excelled in a number of differing acting roles in Moneyball and The Lego Movie before in more recent times producing stellar performances in Jurassic World and the hugely underrated Passengers. However as Star Lord the reins are cast aside completely, giving Pratt perhaps his most freeing and accomplished performances to date. Equipped with his beloved Sony Walkman (and don't you dare touch it!) with a mix tape entitled "Awesome Mix Vol 1" comprising the pop songs so beloved of his Mother's youth, he is a "Junker" or "Ravager" and although a self appointed "Legendary Outlaw" he is more of a chancer or a rogue, traversing the galaxy and enjoying life. It's now been 26 years since the death of his Mother and Star Lord carries this weight as well as the uncertainty of not knowing his Father but this hasn't dimmed his renegade spirit, nor the leadership and bringing together of the oddball mix of Guardians who are seemingly only ever five seconds away from killing each other! Star Lord is desperately in love with Gamora but will this love be reciprocated or remain unrequited? Only time will tell. Oh, and just a word to the wise: don't challenge Star Lord to a dance off as you're guaranteed to be thoroughly embarrassed and beaten!
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) Surgically modified to be a "living weapon" Gamora is rebelling from her upbringing and genetic modification as an assassin. A crucial member of the Guardians as well as the object of affection for Star Lord, Gamora has a heightened sense of objectivity and righteousness as well as so many of the film's greatest lines of dialogue and aptly demonstrated with my particular favourite of "I'm gonna die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy". A very accomplished performance from Zoe Saldana who before and after these two Marvel films starred in, and made the roles her own, in behemoth franchise films such as Avatar and Star Trek as well as her stunning portrayal of Graciela in Ben Affleck's underrated 2016 gangster film Live by Night.
Drax (Dave Bautista) Ex professional wrestler, Bautista excels as Drax the Destroyer or a "Walking Thesaurus" but more so in the unexpected manner of an almost comic relief at times and his deep, guttural laugh that betrays the huge losses experienced in his life before joining the Guardians.
Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) "I live for the simple things" so says states Rocket, an illegal genetic experiment that has created a fearsome warrior and bounty hunter. And brilliantly for us, the simple things he lives for are normally caustic sarcastic humour and huge explosive guns! Just don't refer to him as a rodent or vermin. He might get a tad angry!

Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) A humanoid plant with a hugely limited vocabulary but don't doubt for a second his fighting ability or his affinity for his friends and family.

So these are the esteemed guardians of the galaxy but they are far from the only main characters in a film rich with numerous enjoyable and fully rounded characters each with their own distinctive arcs and back stories. The arch villain of the piece is "Ronan", a psychopath hunting down the Guardians and brilliantly realised by Lee Pace and "Nebula" sadistic sister of Gamora and under the acting control of Karen Gillan. Djimon Honsou portrays galaxy hunter "Korath" with the brilliant Michael Rooker rounding off the central roles and performances as "Yondu". Yondu is the leader of the Ravagers and paternal figure to Star Lord as a young child and Rooker is simply outstanding as the gibberish talking, whistling and laughing assassin. 

Important cameo roles abound, whether it's Glenn Close as the leader of Nova Corps as "Nova Prime" or her loyal lieutenant "Corpsman Dey" in the guise of the brilliant John C Reilly through to the comically absurd portrayal from Benicio Del Toro as "The Collector" resplendent with Christopher Walken hairstyle! Stan Lee has his contracted cameo in a Marvel film here as "Xandarian Ladies Man" or as Rocket calls him "Mr Smiles - A class A pervert!" and significant smaller cameos fall to Christopher Fairbank as "The Broker" and Peter Serafinowicz as "Saal".

The premise of Guardians of the Galaxy is a fairly simple one (and plot spoilers aside) similar in many ways to that of George Lucas' behemoth space opera Star Wars, with an uneasy truce existing between the Kree Empire and Xander with Nova Corps policing and over seeing the fragile position. The parallels with Star Wars pervade the film with Empires and Rebels, renegades and bounty hunters and a narrative that propels us from planet to planet and star ship to star ship as we traverse the galaxy with the ragtag bunch of guardians in search of "credits" and the all powerful "infinity stone". But where Guardians of the Galaxy differs greatly from it's Star Wars predecessor is in it's bright and vibrant colour palette, it's superbly sarcastic screenplay that is full the brim with sardonic humour and which is eminently quotable, and the piece de resistance, Star Lord's awesome mix tape! From the film's first song "I'm Not in Love" by 10CC through to "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5 at the film's conclusion, there are so many more classic 1970's era tunes sandwiched in between (see picture above) and notably from this fan's perspective, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" and "Hooked on a Feeling". As you would expect, the film's motion picture soundtrack as a whole is an absolute joy. As is the film: reverential of it's past influences, self deprecating, full of fun, humour, brilliantly drawn characters and action sequences that are a blizzard of dizzying CGI effects that are absolutely thrilling and a joy to behold. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of, if not the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe creations to hit the big screen and long may they roam the galaxy! Roll on Volume 2!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017)

"I can't believe I fell in love with a spaceman."

The dysfunctional family that is the Guardians of the Galaxy are back, armed with some new recruits as well as another Awesome Mix Tape full to the brim with an array of superb 1970's tunes! Add in numerous reverential references and nods to 1980's Television shows and umpteen sarcastic jokes and gags our ragtag bunch of mercenary heroes traverse the galaxy in a film that never really takes itself seriously yet has a continuing serious through line of father and son relationships as well as the importance of the family unit in all of our lives and you have the very finest film the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. This is Volume 2 of what will no doubt become a behemoth franchise for Marvel and it's also a follow up to a wonderful first film in the best possible sense as it follows the successful template of it's predecessor three years ago with the aforementioned brilliant mix of characters, music, retro influences and also continues in the vein of Star Wars as we travel from planet to planet enjoying sumptuous dog fights in space and all of these vital components are on display as early as the film's opening credits.

I had been childishly and excitedly awaiting the release of this follow up film for some time and by the end of the opening credits I was already sold as I smiled and laughed like a drain throughout these credits, and of course, the film had barely begun! Strictly speaking the film begins in a similar vein to the first film, in the past, and here it begins in Missouri in 1980 before propelling us 34 years later and into the opening credits as returning Guardians Peter Quill/Star Lord, Gamora, Drax and Rocket do battle with an inter dimensional monster "The Abilisk" but your attention is drawn to a sublime new addition to the Guardians "Baby Groot" (voiced by Vin Diesel) who is dancing to the first of the film's brilliant musical choices Mr Blue Sky by ELO! The scene is set in so many ways: foreground, background, dancing, songs, sardonic humour and huge action scenes are on the way so don't blink or you'll miss something! The plot is somewhat more simplistic than it's predecessor in as much as it centre's squarely on "Ego" (Kurt Russell), a "Celestial" and god like spaceman who desperately needs to find and connect with his son Peter/Star Lord. He desires to be "the Dad I've always wanted to be" as well as introducing his son to his home planet, a bright, vibrant and peaceful paradise where anything is possible and creation unlimited. Meanwhile, in the furthest reaches of the galaxy Yondu is losing control of his merry band of Ravagers amidst a mutiny ostensibly lead by "Taserface" (Chris Sullivan) and after betraying the ravager code Yondu is banished and exiled by "Stakar Ogord" (Sylvester Stallone). 

In a film rich in texture, wonderful songs, jammed full of sardonic humour and immersive battles in space it could be forgiven for omitting character development but this is far from the truth here as characters old and new are fully explored and supported by some stellar performances once again. Chris Pratt returns on wonderful form as Guardians Leader Peter Quill/Star Lord or as so brilliantly and acerbically described by Rocket in this film "Star Munch". The hole in his existence has been unexpectedly filled by the emergence of his Father and in Kurt Russell as his Father, Ego, Russell's performance is the film's true stand out. It would have been easy for such an esteemed actor as Kurt Russell to cruise in his role and simply drop into the on-going franchise but this is far from the case as he exudes a supremacy and confidence and even a swagger in his fatherly role in a superb portrayal that fully merits his casting. Of the returning Guardians, Zoe Saldana excels again in her performance as Gamora with her extended fight scene with sibling "Nebula" (Karen Gillan) one of the film's true set piece action highlights, as is her dance with Star Lord to the strains of "Bring it on Home to me" by Sam Cooke. Dave Bautista returns as Drax The Destroyer with even more of a philosophical bent to his exploits in the galaxy and with a much fuller role than in the first film and everyone's favourite raccoon Rocket, otherwise knows as "Trash Panda" or the "Triangle Faced Monkey" returns (still voiced by Bradley Cooper) and still retains his anarchic ways as well as a foul temper, a foul mouth and an inability to wink discreetly! Outstanding performances flood the film, whether it's the aforementioned Yondu with Michael Rooker returning to his role and owning it once again or newcomers Sean Gunn as his deputy "Kraglin"Chris Sullivan as the awkwardly funny Taserface or Elizabeth Debicki as "Ayesha" the golden high priestess of the Sovereign people at the beginning of the film. The largest and most rounded new character comes in the shape of Pom Klementieff as "Mantis" who accompanies Ego wherever he goes and is uniquely gifted with empathetic and interpersonal skills. Cameo roles abound too, whether it's Sylvester Stallone, David Hasselhoff, Rob Zombie or Jeff Goldblum and of course there's a cameo role reserved for Stan Lee as a stranded astronaut and if you stay for the entirety of the closing credits you'll see an extended cameo from Lee to close the film.

The Guardians of the Galaxy may be a dysfunctional family coming to terms with their respective flaws and frailties and still only 5 seconds from killing each other, but under the loving and superb direction of James Gunn they have never looked or sounded better. Travelling from Sovereign to Ego, Berhert to Contraxia, referencing Knight Rider, Howard The Duck, Cheers and Pacman and always accompanied by a truly wonderful 1970's tinged soundtrack, from ELO to Fleetwood Mac, Glenn Campbell to Cheap Trick, two additional tracks sum up the beauty of this film and excite me like no other for a third trip around the galaxy with our heroic guardians. First we have George Harrison's beautiful "My Sweet Lord" as we see Ego's home planet for the first time (and a game of catch that brought a tear to my eye) and then, as we approach the film's denouement, we have Cat Stevens moving "Father and Son". 

The finest films the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. If you haven't taken a trip to the far reaches of the galaxy with these unruly guardians, I'd recommend you do as soon as possible!

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