Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.

In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.

I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.

Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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fourstar

One of the first things that will always come to mind with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is the William Castle-esque pageantry of its release. Framed as an Old Hollywood-style Road Show, the film was released one week earlier than its digital-version wide release date as a 70mm film print (a strip twice as large as was standard when film prints were standard) complete with an overture, intermission, and a full-color playbill. The Hateful Eight Road Show was a three hour long experience. Purchasing tickets more than a week ahead of time I got the distinct feeling of when you’re anticipating a band you love coming to town instead of a film. To tell the truth, though, the Road Show wasn’t as flashy or as exciting as you would expect, not even as over-the-top as the Grindhouse gimmick attached to Tarantino’s Death Proof release. The overture & intermission were blank spaces accompanied by music. The “extra footage” was, presumably, a collection of extended exterior & detail shots that helped establish mood. Watching the movie unfold on projected film was a nice touch for an homage to old-fashioned Westerns, but it’s a detail that could be forgotten once you’re immersed in its story. The best part of the Road Show was not how it punched the film up & made it more exciting, but how it slowed the proceeding down & let it breathe.

At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, “Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.” That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale. Depicting a (jokingly) self-described Bounty Hunter’s Picnic, the film follows the transport of a dangerous criminal (played by an especially feral Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the company of eight potentially dangerous men who are all snowed-in in in a small Wyoming cabin during a blizzard. Among them are Kurt Russell’s weathered bounty hunter, desperate to see her hang; Sam Jackson’s similarly-minded bounty hunter with his own payday to protect; Bruce Dern’s cantankerous Southern Rebel general who refuses to let go of the Civil War; Tim Roth’s “jolly good” rapscallion of a Brit; and the list goes on. As the plot unfolds it becomes apparent that one or more of the strange men are determined to set the prisoner free by leaving behind a trail of dead, which makes for a Western version of a mystery film like Clue or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tarantino’s no stranger to genre mashups or liberal borrowing, but there’s a relaxed, unrushed pacing that started to emerge in his films sometime around Inglourious Basterds that’s getting its full due in The Hateful Eight.

Watching Tarantino’s films with the general public is always a little nerve-racking for me. The mashup of comedy & violence in his work builds a lot of nervous tension that leads to much-needed laughs, but I find a lot of audiences will laugh at disturbing moments designed to leave you more in abject horror instead of knee-slapping amusement. The Hateful Eight provides a wealth of opportunities for this discomfort. The audience around me laughed during shots of Jennifer Jason Leigh being beaten half to death by the men in charge of her transport. I found that more horrifying than amusing (despite her playing a cruel, heartless character herself), but Leigh’s immediate response to of spitting, shooting snot rockets, and licking up blood with a smirk were all very funny to me in a Jerri Blank kind of way and fell onto a silent room. Similarly, the copious amount of utterances of the word “nigger” in a post-Civil War America setting & an extended fireside tale of a rape & murder left me chilled to the rest of the room’s bizarre reactions. At least we could all agree on the excellent physical comedy gag of a door that wouldn’t stay latched? Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing with this tension, something he plays up with decisions like ending the rape tale with a silent intermission or having characters puke blood in a grotesque practical effects display that alternates from funny to horrifying to funny to you get the picture.

So many details complicate the background & history of The Hateful Eight that it’s difficult to separate them from the film proper. The film’s screenplay was leaked online prior to production, so an infuriated Tarantino cancelled the film outright, then doubled back & staged a table reading before deciding to actually begin filming due to an overwhelmingly positive response. I mention this backstory because it bleeds into the film not only in its dialogue-heavy vibe, but also in the way Tarantino himself acts as a narrator, reading stage directions aloud during the film. The Thing vibes are inescapable in its snowed-in, no-one-can-be-trusted plot structure, but are also backed up & complicated by unused segments of Ennico Morricone’s score for John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then there’s the experience of the Road Show & the 70mm print, two features I cannot separate from the movie as a finished product. I also found myself thinking of its “Spend the holidays with someone you hate” tagline in the trailers, especially in Michael Madsen’s cowboy’s interrupted plans to spend Christmas with his mother & in a particularly uncomfortable rendition of “Silent Night”. It’s difficult to know when you’re enjoying The Hateful Eight or when you’re enjoying the experience & the lore of watching The Hateful Eight. It’s a confusingly engaging film in that way.

There are a few things that are remarkably clear about The Hateful Eight to me right now, though. It is an incredibly violent, misanthropic, lushly-photographed tale of a collection of vile ruffians murdering each other in such a flippant, nonchalant way that it leaves you with both nervous laughter and total disgust. In that way it’s classic Tarantino, so mileage may vary depending on how you already feel about his work. In this case, though, the pacing is slowed way down to allow the violence & the nervousness to soak in even deeper than before, leaving you with a particularly nasty, hateful feeling at the end credits.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing (1982)

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I’ve greatly enjoyed every John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen, save maybe a couple nu metal-era misteps like Ghosts of Mars. As much as I love the director’s landmark films & his soundtrack work, though, there are still a few major titles from Carpenter that I haven’t yet made the effort to catch up with. That’s why it was a godsend that the Prytania Theatre is dedicating the October schedule for its Late Night movie series to Carpenter’s work, culminating at the end of the month, of course, with a screening of Halloween. As I mentioned in my recap of the theater’s recent screening of Cinema Paradiso, The Prytania is a century-old New Orleans institution, the oldest operating cinema in the city, a fine venue for seeing great films for the first time. It was where I first saw Jaws, their frequent selection for America’s favorite holiday: Shark Week. When Robin Williams passed away last year it was where I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. And, most recently, it was where I finally watched John Carpenter’s masterful monster movie The Thing, screened on the first truly cold night of the year (how’d they plan that?), so that you could feel a fraction of the chill of the film’s Antarctica setting in your bones. Technically, it’s still fall outside, but when Kurt Russell gripes in the film, “First goddamn week of winter,” it was easy to empathize. All that was missing was a shape-shifting alien & a bottle of Jim Beam.

The Thing is essentially a 1950s Roger Corman monster movie taken to its most logical & most pessimistic extremes. In fact, the short story the film is based on had been previously adapted into an actual 1950s creature feature (and would later be resurrected for an episode of The X-Files & a cheap CGI trifle of a remake). A practical effects masterwork, The Thing‘s titular creature is just as ambiguous in form as it is in name. It’s a grotesque, rapidly evolving mess of undercooked biology, calling into mind the hot mess of vaguely defined monsters in the back half of 1981’s psychological horror Possession. The thing arrives on Earth via a disc-shaped, Millennium Falcon-esque UFO in the opening credits with very little detail provided for its origins. A complicated “organism that imitates other life forms,” the thing is alien in every sense of the word. It transforms in ways that are shocking & disgusting because they don’t make sense in the context of anything we’ve ever seen or understood in biology. Even in cinema, we’ve seen dogs used to create tension or terror, but never by splitting their faces open to reveal a mass of spider-like tentacles. We’re used to monsters killing for sport or nourishment, but not so much a creature that infiltrates a species through physical imitation, like a disease. Cellular activity found in corpses, blood that actively avoids extreme heat, half-cooked human imitations that look just about almost right except for long claw-like hands that resemble gigantic, deep-fried softshell crabs: the thing is far beyond human comprehension of basic biology, constantly opening compartments of itself like horrific Russian dolls to reveal more & more layers of ambiguous terror. Too often sci-fi horror models the designs of its creatures around what we already know. The Thing‘s creature might be the most alien alien to ever grace the screen.

Finding themselves face to face with this unknowable threat is an all-male crew of scientific researchers isolated in Antarctica for the winter. Even as scientists our protagonists have a difficult time making sense of the thing. Kurt Russell’s character exclaims early on, “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird & pissed off, whatever it is.” Once the thing infiltrates their ranks & starts imitating human lifeforms (a computer model helpfully explains, “Possibility that one or more crew members are infected: 75%”), everyone becomes suspect. The group of goofs, once prone to drunkenly playing computer chess, rollerskating to Stevie Wonder, and smoking six-paper joints in the lab, soon has to ask of each & every team member, “How do we know he’s human?” The notorious scene of extensive, pointless, paranoid violence in Carpenter’s They Live (“Put the glasses on! Put ’em on! “) is drawn out here to a full length narrative. Nearly every member of the crew is an affable goof, so it’s a very tense atmosphere in which at least one of them is not what they seem, but instead is a shape-shifting mess of mismatched body parts & gore.

I’m not sure of the exact reason The Prytania is spotlighting John Carpenter this month (not that I would complain if they did so every October), but it does feel like kind of the perfect time to do so. After scoring his own films for decades, the director just released his first studio album, Lost Themes— complete with his first music video & live concerts. Screening They Live earlier this month was a fitting tribute to the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, as it was easily his best work outside the wrestling ring (and I’m bummed to say I missed it). Even in a more general sense, the current cinematic climate is adoringly looking back at the Carpenter aesthetic & it’s all too easy to see echoes of his work in films as recent as The Guest, It Follows, and Cold in July. In other words, everything’s coming up Carpenter.

If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design  is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience. The only thing that’s missing here from Carpenter’s typical masterworks is one of his self-provided, glorious synth soundtracks, but with a pinch hitter like Ennio Morricone stepping in to fill the void, it’s near impossible to complain. The Thing is a perfectly crafted creature feature, one that even satisfies art cinema tastes with a resistance to tidying up its ambiguity in a bleak, mostly open conclusion. It’s by no means a stretch to rank it among the best of Carpenter’s works & I’m grateful to The Prytania for providing the opportunity to see it large, loud, and (in the spirit of the film’s isolated crew of scientific researchers) more than a little drunk with a live audience at a late hour. It was special.

-Brandon Ledet