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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 1 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 31
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Marvel's Guardians reach for the stars
Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Marvel's latest comic book to film endeavor as part of its ongoing, so-called 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' or MCU is Guardians of the Galaxy. For those that felt Thor, an action fantasy featuring a Norse God, was a little outside the norm, this interstellar science fiction spectacular featuring a talking tree and a gun-toting raccoon will undoubtedly redefine those feelings. For everyone else who is even slightly well-versed in all things Star Wars, Star Trek or even Flash Gordon, nothing that transpires over the course of the story's 121 minutes, in all honesty, is going to come as too great a surprise, the narrative following a relatively well-worn trajectory that's hardly original.

Thankfully, just because that's so doesn't make it any less entertaining, cult director James Gunn (Slither, Super) enlivening the proceedings with distinctively ingratiating bits of visual ingenuity and a sideways sense of humor I responded to. He's also cast the film reasonably well (three pieces of the central quintet particularly noteworthy) making rooting for the titular heroes a heck of a lot easier than it otherwise would have been.

The plot, for as sprawling and as all over the map as it ends up being, is actually pretty simplistic when you get down to it. Almost three decades after being abducted from Earth, adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself in possession of a mysterious orb that the most dangerous villain in the entire Universe, the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin), is looking to get his hands on. Thrown into intergalactic prison with talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), driven warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) and green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), this crazy, mixed-up group finds themselves on the same side of the coin, teaming together to keep Thanos' minion Ronan (Lee Pace) from grabbing the orb and thus starting on the road to Armageddon.

There's a heck of a lot more going on than just that, not the least of which is the fact Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters out to make a quick buck, Drax is a revenge-fueled madman wanting to kill Ronan for the murder of his family and Gamora is Thanos' adopted daughter secretly working against him. Throw in the fact Peter is on the run from a group of space scavengers - here nicknamed 'Ravagers' - led by whistling demon Yondu (Michael Rooker), and it's not like going from points A to B to C is a particularly trouble-free affair.

Thing is, as nicely constructed as Gunn and Nicole Perlman's script (adapted from the source material created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanningm) might be, that doesn't mean it has an original bone anywhere inside its celluloid body. Everything builds to a conclusion that's hardly shocking or original, the core unit discovering family is sometimes what you make it and intelligent teamwork is better than individual brute strength any day of the week. It's straightforward and obvious, and anyone expecting more has an entirely different thing coming to them.

But what the story lacks in originality more often than not makes up for that fact with unrestrained idiosyncratic chutzpah and nicely modulated character building. Gunn has a knack for off-kilter visuals and uniquely staged action sequences that keep focus on the central dynamics of what is going on and why. Gunn tends to eschew razzle-dazzle just for the sake of it (although there's plenty of eye candy to relish), and as chaotic and as crazy as things might get, it's still simple to know who is who and what is going on and why.

Better than that, he allows Pratt, Cooper and Diesel (the latter only allowed to utter variations of 'I am Groot' throughout) to craft interesting, three-dimensional characters easy to care about. All of them are having a blast and it shows, yet that doesn't stop them from imbuing Quill, Rocket, and Groot with notable traits and subtle variations that keep each continually captivating, elevating their story arcs, as well as the film itself, at almost every turn.

Saldana is fine, but after Avatar, Star Trek and Colombiana she's getting a little typecast in roles like the one she's playing here, Gamora nothing more than a Neytiri/Uhura variation that's hard to get all that excited about. In the case of Bautista, the former WWE wrestler certainly fits the bill physically, bringing a brutish, thug-like menace to Drax that's intimidating. But charismatically? Sad to say, he's a bit out of his league in comparison to his costars, and whenever the story shifts to focus on him and his plight I admit to more often than not losing a little interest.

On the villain side of things, Thanos is only here to set up coming evil-doing against the Avengers at an unforetold later date, so he does little more than grin menacingly and bark out a few orders. As for Ronan, Pace has some great individual moments, but on the whole his baddie isn't as irresistibly threatening as he should be. More than that, he's outclassed by his own minion, Nebula (Karen Gillan), another adopted daughter of Thanos and Gamora's foster sister, the half-alien, half-cybernetic hellion a blue whirlwind of cunning and skill who I found riveting.

Gunn is a fine director, but as interesting and as personal as many of his choices might be, I can't help but feel like he's not been allowed full and total control over everything taking place, Marvel keeping him somewhat in check as they continue to build their MCU, trying to keep all their Avengers initiative characters connected. The wild slights of hand and bizarre bouts of captivating quirkiness found in spades in both Slither and Super are more or less absent, and other than a loopy sequence featuring Benicio Del Toro as an eccentric collector of space oddities, things remain relatively clear-cut and undemanding throughout.

Still, Gunn shows a personal touch absent from the majority of the Marvel-controlled features, his distinctive style still imprinted upon almost every frame. While there's no guarantee he'll be back at the helm for future sequels, the chances other studios will allow him to tackle more original ideas and properties after this are certainly strong. Guardians of the Galaxy takes the Marvel brand into new territories and does so with grandly entertaining brio, and even if all facets aren't quite perfect, they're still strong enough to make this sci-fi adventure worthwhile.


Plodding Hercules a forgettable mythological adventure
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HERCULES
Now playing


I'm not going to try and say Brett Ratner's (Rush Hour, Tower Heist) take on Hercules is completely worthless. The production values are high, it's gorgeously shot by Dante Spinotti (The Insider), features top-notch visual effects and is agreeably - if rambunctiously - scored by composer Fernando Velázquez (Mama). More than that, it is phenomenally well cast, not just in its star Dwayne Johnson as the title character, but also in regards to the internationally flavored supporting cast featuring a bevy of familiar faces and relative newcomers alike.

Problem is, as a movie, as a self-contained story, as a narrative worth getting excited about and a spectacle that manages to make the blood race with electrifying magnetism, Hercules fails at virtually every turn. It's plodding. It's dramatically tedious. It's unforgivably cliché. But, more than anything else, it's borderline pointless, not a single thing of merit or of note taking place, everything happening with a ho-hum banality that gets more than a little irksome as things laboriously progress.

The film takes its cues from the Radical Comic of the same name by Steve Moore, screenwriters Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Battle for Terra) adapting it for the screen. Admittedly unfamiliar with the source material, all the same I can't help but feel like the two have unintentionally ripped the guts out of Moore's take on the classic myth, everything proceeding with a leaden sterility that's more often than not downright annoying. There's not a single new element on display, and as handsomely as the majority of the material is presented, feeling anything close to an emotional attachment to the hero's story or the events taking place is next to impossible.

I do like how the film tries to bend the legend into something human, something tangible - in some ways attempting to be a mythological variation on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, showing how myth becomes truth and how fiction can transform a man of a flesh and blood into an almost god-like legend. There is a wee bit of fun to be found in how Hercules' fabled labors are reinterpreted. More than that, it's interesting to see how their larger-than-life status affects the common soldier, the power and confidence they grant intriguing, if not suitably palpable.

But all the same, I simply did not care about Hercules or his struggles, had little interest whether he and his ragtag team of fellow mercenaries would meet with success and thus save a kingdom from tyrannical rule. More, I couldn't help but scratch my head at just how stupid he and his compatriots were acting, the truth behind the real evil pulling the behind-the-scenes string clear from the get-go. Throw in a third act appearance by a final duplicitous charlatan that comes out of nowhere and is as dumb as it is foregone and the whole thing is a head-scratching failure of the first degree. There's nothing to get excited about and even less to be interested in, the only question for me being whether or not I'd manage to stay awake all the way until the end even though the film features a pleasantly brief 98-minute running time.

The plot? Hercules and his team (which includes Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane and Headhunters star Aksel Hennie) agree to train the army of the Thracian Lord Cotys (John Hurt) in his fight against the powerful Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), his forces apparently laying waste to the surrounding lands with his eyes set on conquering the capital. During the campaign the warrior learns much about himself and what true heroism ultimately entails, everything building to feats of strengths and courage with the potential power to free a troubled land from the rule of a despotic blood-thirsty leader.

All of which could have been fine had it all not felt so rudimentary and way too familiar. There are training montages, rousing speeches and many instances of astonishing derring-do yet none of it gets the pulse racing in a way that's even slightly noticeable. More than that, it all builds to a clunky, ham-fisted conclusion that feels ripped from a half-a-dozen other fantasy-adventures, not a single second standing out in a way that could be construed as even faintly memorable.

Johnson tries, as does the rest of the cast, and I can't say there isn't potential to be found in the seeds of the story that can be traced back to Moore's apparently much-lauded comic book. But as good as Ratner is at staging sequences of massive action, and he's quite good indeed, that doesn't mean he's ended up making a film I could give one whole heck of a lot about one way or another. Hercules isn't the worst movie I've seen this year; it's not even the worst one featuring this particular character; but that doesn't make it any more worthwhile, and as such it's doubtful I'm going to be thinking about it again anytime soon.


Colorful Electric Sky singing to the converted
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY
Now playing


Under the Electric Sky is a concert documentary composed and manufactured for the converted and, sad to say, for the converted alone. A look at the annual three-day Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) held in the Las Vegas desert, the movie attempts to tell a collection of stories looking at the lives of a handful of the concert goers and what it is that compels them to attend, some making treks from the other side of the globe in order to be a part of the festivities. Filled with the musical stylings of electronic dance music DJs like Fatboy Slim, Avicii, Calvin Harris, Above & Beyond, Afrojack and Armin Van Buuren, the movie is nonetheless a rather slight affair, its overall insights more of the Reality TV variety than they are sadly anything else.

The reason? The focus is all wrong. More than that, it fails to showcase the diversity, hope, love and universal ideas of acceptance and understanding EDC founder Pasquale Rotella feels is the key element to the success of his events around the globe. Other than a couple of notable exceptions, this is an incredibly Caucasian, and altogether straight affair, and while concepts of gender and sexual diversity are hinted at, they're never done so in a way that feels like anything more than a neon-colored smokescreen.

The best two stories revolve around Sadie, a small-town Texas college student suffering from issues with anxiety and self-esteem, and Jose, a wheelchair-bound dance music enthusiast who longs to be a part of the action but knows more often than not he'll have to sit on the outside and soak things up from a distance. What happens to both of them is, without question, beyond beautiful, their respective tales climaxing in moments of sublime emotional purity that speaks to exactly the ideas Rotella feels his event grows and thrives upon.

The others? They're okay, for the most part, if almost instantly forgettable - one involving longtime couple Alli and Matt finally getting married after initially meeting 15 years prior at a previous EDC, the only one that's even slightly interesting. In fact, one revolving around a group of longtime New Jersey friends nicknamed 'The Wolfpack' is oddly loathsome, playing like some half-baked variation of a subpar episode of 'The Jersey Shore,' the fact the group is there to ostensibly toast and remember a dearly departed friend not helping matters in the slightest.

Not that I don't give co-directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz at least some modicum of credit for what they've accomplished. They show the same delicate, sweetly nonintrusive touch they showcased on their previous music documentary, Katy Perry: Part of Me. They attempt to let moments speak for themselves without additional accompaniment, keeping melodramatic excess to a happy minimum.

But, as stated, the focus is misdirected. For as much as some interviewed want to talk about Woodstock, the seminal documentary all concert films hope and pray they can bare even a passing resemblance to, this one is more concerned with the whitebread antics of festival goers than it is with the music itself. The artists and their compositions take a backseat to everything else, which can't help but feel a little odd, especially when everyone being interviewed, including Rotella, keep stating it was the music that initially got them excited in the first place.

Not that die-hard fans of EDC and this sort of music will care. As already stated, the converted are going to be falling all over themselves aching to give Under the Electric Sky a look, and I doubt they're going to have any of the same problems with the motion picture that I have. Maybe that's how it should be. I do not know. But in my mind a movie such as this should be broadening the fan base, not just preaching to the already fervent following, and on that front this concert documentary sings a series of songs I have no wish to ever hear again.






Beyoncé and Jay Z deliver a world-class show
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Lady GaGa concert will be a big 'ball' of excitement
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Felice Picano's latest memoir is TOO good to pass up
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Colorful Electric Sky singing to the converted
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Boseman electrifies in James Brown biopic Get On Up
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Marvel's Guardians reach for the stars
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Plodding Hercules a forgettable mythological adventure
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Colorful Electric Sky singing to the converted
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