Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Boyhood, Begin Again, Draft Day, A Poet in New York

Guardians of the Galaxy: A bunch of champion misfits are thrown together to stop a bad guy from using a powerful energy source to conquer the galaxy. A story we've seen before in every other Marvel movie.

This is the acme of by-the-book empty Marvel film entertainment: funny dialog, in-fighting heroes, superb effects, courageous, snarky, and indestructible heroes, daring and humor filled escapes and confrontations, a sensible plot, and entirely one-dimensional characters that will not require you to think, grown, empathize, or remember anything about them. The main protagonist is a plucky, abducted Earthling who misses his mom; that's it. That's his entire personality from the start of the movie until the end. There is a snarly woman fighter who grows close to the protagonist; that's it for her. A smart-alec raccoon. A plant-like alien who protects others. Etc.

For a movie filled with snappy dialog and funny quotes, there is not a single interesting conversation. Iron Man, even The Avengers, had more than this one does. The movie introduces creative settings and ideas - enough to remind one very briefly of the changing locations in Star Wars - that could have made some interesting scenes but they are played so antiseptically and soullessly that you may as well be reading the 2D comic strip. If you don't care about characters and conversations, go and see it and enjoy the knowledge that Marvel and Disney and Hollywood and Michael Bay and dozens of others are planning another hundred empty copycat movies that will be just as action filled, just as humorous, and just as manipulative, meaningless, and mindless.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The first movie was a pretty entertaining Dreamworks film. The boy viking Hiccup had a dry sarcastic wit (like so many animated sidekicks) and a few good conversations. It was funny, and cliche but meaningful. Most of the other characters were one-dimensional, but enough was unexpected (like the variety and personality of the dragons) that it worked.

The story structure is odd; it doesn't start with a story that rides out to a conclusion. Instead, it starts out with no particular story, wanders in and out of one story and then starts a different story about half-way through. That makes it a little hard to follow, but also a little richer than the typical animated Hollywood film. There are less good lines, but the entertainment is still on target. I was a little disappointed that Hiccup's girlfriend, who would have made a great protagonist, is regulated to minor character status yet again; but a different woman has a surprisingly strong role.

Hiccup's town now lives in harmony with dragons, but Hiccup discovers some mysteries while out exploring. This leads to another inevitable confrontation that will determine whether the liberal's belief that everyone really wants peace is or is not sustainable. You may agree or not with the outcome, but the story gives the audience a fair chance to evaluate the question.

Boyhood: Director/screenwriter Richard Linklataer (Before Midnight) just goes from incredible to even more incredible. This is a near perfect movie about a boy's (Ellar Coltrane) childhood in the southern US (Texas, to be specific). His mother goes from bad marriage to bad marriage, his father is cool but flawed and often absent, and his sister is ... well, his sister. From age 7 to 19, he moves, he learns, he goes camping, he hangs with the guys, he tries to discover his passions, he tries to survive his family, he dates.

There is no single plot for the movie, just a boy's experiences over the course of 12 years. But the conversations are so interesting and so insightful, and the movie so richly captures key moments of his life, that three hours doesn't seem long at all. It's good that the movie ends, but I would happily return for the next nine years.

What makes this movie so special? It was shot with the same actors over 12 summers over the course of 12 years. The same boy plays the seven year old in grade 1, eight year old in grade 2, grade 3, etc all the way up to the nineteen year old in his first year of college. The same goes for the sister (Linklater's daughter) and the other actors, including the adults (who age 12 years by movie's end, of course). Linklater had to get extremely lucky to find a boy who could act so well and be captivating and interesting by the end of the movie; and, as a boost, by the time he is 19, Ellar is drop dead gorgeous (in the vein of Leonardo DiCaprio).

Just like Before Midnight, this movie is worth more than every other movie made this year, combined.

Begin Again: This movie has been compared to Once, which is fair. Once was one of the best movies of all time, nearly perfect: poignant, lyrical, rich, engaging, haunting, melancholy, heart-rending, romantic. This movie is not quite as good as Once, but it's pretty darn close. It has all of the same elements, except the setup is a bit more heavy handed, the characters aren't as poor or desperate so they're a little harder to relate to, some of the resolution is a bit too pat, and the music isn't quite as heart-rending. But it's still a fabulous movie.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo, looking as devilishly ruffian as ever) is a music executive who is having a bad day/week/five years. Gretta (Keira Knightly, looking as incredibly gorgeous as ever) is a songwriter/singer who is having a bad week. Gretta gets roped into performing one of her songs at a bar, and Dan hears her and wants to produce an album with her, though he hasn't got the studio to do it. The recording sessions, which occur in various New York locations and take up much of the movie, are cathartic and transformative for both of them in their various relationship troubles.

Adam Levine (Marroon 5) plays Gretta's cheating singer/songwriter boyfriend, and his and Keira's singing performances are the stars of the film. It's got some romance in it, and some daughter / father issues, late night drinks and trouble relationships, and some really good music. Lovely.

Draft Day: Kevin Kostner in yet another sports movie, this time football on draft day. He and others like him wheel and deal to get better order in the selection queue to pick up star athletes for this year's (and future year's) season. Knowing nothing about sports, I understood very little of the movie at the beginning and only about two thirds by the end; I expect that this is similar to what non-techies feel watching a movie about hacking (except that hacking movies usually contain no actual current technology).

I was bored for a while at the beginning but the story began to compel me as I began to understand the stakes. Kevin's character appears to make a boneheaded move near the beginning that everyone likes, and then he has to find his way out of it by the end, against everyone else's judgement (and, of course, triumph in an unbelievable reversal of fortune, since it's a movie). Jennifer Garner is eye candy as Kevin's girlfriend and some kind of (dispensable) executive on the team committee. The acting is all good and the movie works as a sports movie without the sports, much the same way that Moneyball did.

A Poet in New York: A BBC drama on the final years of Dylan Thomas as he boozed, antagonized, and bedded women in his final tour in America before succumbing to his sickness and dying in 1959. The portrait is unflattering, except for his incredibly good poetry and his warm words for the students he encounters (except for those women whom he tries to sleep with); from what I have read, the portrait is probably pretty accurate.

The acting, directing, and scenery are all fine. There are some flashbacks to his being targeted by verbal bullying as a small boy, and to the destructive relationship he had with his foul-mouthed wife. Otherwise the film is straightforward and fairly flat. Any book on the subject would probably be more colorful and more enjoyable. Still, the poetry is lovely.