Guardians of the Galaxy is what happens when you hire a graduate of the merry Troma schlock factory, hand him $170-million, and set him loose on a lower level of the Marvel Comics empire—a place where X-Men and Avengers would never think to tread. The result is a fresh kind of blockbuster, a picture with wit and charm and a wonderful wisecracking sense of humor. All the familiar comic-book elements are in place: the fantastical planets (Morag and Xandar and Dark Aster—home of the fearsome Kree!) and exotic MacGuffins (there's a mysterious Orb, and an Infinity Stone of a sort that will be familiar to Marvel adepts). But while director James Gunn—the Troma guy—clearly loves this stuff, he doesn't take it too seriously. He knows that only fan folk will likely be able to keep track of it all, so he just ladles it on and plows right through it. What a relief.
The movie begins a little mawkishly, with a boy named Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) receiving a farewell gift from his dying mother (Laura Haddock). Later on, he'll unwrap it and find a Walkman and a mixtape filled with vintage hits (oldies by Blue Swede, David Bowie and the Runaways ornament the film's soundtrack). Just now, though, a huge spaceship descends out of the night sky and beams Peter up into a strange new future.
Twenty-six years later, the now-grown Peter (Chris Pratt, ofParks and Recreation) is a cocky space scavenger adventuring around the galaxy. He's on the trail of the aforementioned Orb. He doesn't know what it is, but figures he can unload it for a lot of money. Predictably, he's not the only one interested in this artifact. A malevolent Kree leader named Ronan (Lee Pace) has dispatched a troop of minions to retrieve the Orb for the dark overlord Thanos (a digitized Josh Brolin), who has promised to use it to destroy Ronan's nemesis, the Xandar Nova Corps. There's also an assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana, green of skin this time, after going blue for Avatar), an angry bandit chieftain named Yondu (Michael Rooker), and an unlikely pair of bounty hunters: a cyber-raccoon called Rocket (perfectly voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a walking, talking tree called Groot (his one recurring utterance—"I am Groot"—voiced by Vin Diesel). Also weighing in eventually are Gamora's metal-headed sister (Dr. Who alumna Karen Gillan), a purring eminence called The Collector (Benicio Del Toro with a shock of Jim Jarmusch-y white hair), and a hulking warrior named Drax (pro-wrestling champ Dave Bautista), who has a longstanding grudge of his own against Ronan.
Peter, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax have nothing in common, of course, so they're soon united as Guardians of the Galaxy, dedicated to foiling Thanos' evil plan to…I don't know, conquer the universe or something.
The movie is naturally thick with CGI. But Gunn, toying with the first mega-budget of his career, often uses the digital effects to create scenes of striking beauty (like the shot of two lovers floating among the stars in a final doomed embrace). The script, by Gunn and first-time screenwriter Nicole Perlman, is filled with crackling weisenheimer lines, and the actors use them to create richly individuated comic characters. Bautista's Drax, a man born without a sense of humor, is one of the funniest; and Pratt—whose Peter would like everyone to address him as "Star-Lord," although no one can see why they should—passes his audition as a new-breed Harrison Ford.
Genre connoisseur Gunn has no hesitation in deploying breezy references to well-known fantasy classics, but they're not just crass steals—they're part of the fun. The scene in which Peter filches the Orb is straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark; the black-hooded Ronan might have escaped from a Star Wars movie; and the Guardians' visit to a sort of casino-bazaar strongly recalls an episode in Joss Whedon's Firefly series. The movie is a heady brew of thunderous spectacle and smaller-scale personalized filmmaking—the opening installment of what will almost surely become a major franchise. May it live long and prosper, and never succumb to the numbing curse of blockbuster elephantiasis.
Get on Up
James Brown, the man who put the whole world on The One, may be too volcanic a subject to be captured completely in one movie. Brown was both a musical visionary and a frequent asshole—qualities hard to blend into a sympathetic bio-pic portrayal. But in Get on Up, director Tate Taylor gives it an honorable shot. The picture is frequently stirring, especially in the red-hot concert scenes, in which Taylor lets Brown's epochal hits—"Out of Sight," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Soul Power," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine"—play out at length. It's too bad that, in order to cram in so many details of Brown's long life (he died in 2006, at age 73), he has assembled a movie that's disjointed to the point of irritation.
The picture is anchored by two indelible performances. Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in last year's 42, is—no other word—amazing as James Brown. He nails the man's capacity for both friendship and betrayal, and, even more remarkably, his iconic stage moves—the slides, the splits, the Mashed Potatoes. It's a dazzling feat of pure incarnation. And Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood, gives a sweet, heartbreaking performance as singer Bobby Byrd, Brown's longtime backup singer.
The movie covers most of the JB bases. We see his dirt-poor South Carolina childhood, when he was abandoned by his mother (Viola Davis, from Taylor's last film, the treacly but Oscar-winning The Help) and cruelly abused by his father (Lennie James). We see him jailed for stealing a suit as a teenager, and then perceiving a way out of his dead-end surroundings when, as an inmate, he meets Byrd, the leader of a gospel group called the Starlighters. (I'd question whether this meeting happened exactly this way, but with an inveterate embellisher like Brown it's hard to say.)
Brown nudges the Starlighters away from the church into earthier R&B. He renames them the Famous Flames. Discovered by King Records producer Ralph Bass (Josh Hopkins), they soon record their first single, the spellbindingly primitive "Please, Please, Please." King owner Syd Nathan (Fred Melamed) hates the track, but agrees to release it. In the first of many weaselly moves, Brown goes along with a decision by manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) to bill himself above the Flames on the record's label. The group is disgusted, and walks out—all but Byrd. Whatever: the record is a hit.
Stardom soon follows. The group scores a series of R&B smashes, first "Try Me," then (although not included here) tracks like "Think" and "I'll Go Crazy." The group is recruited to appear in a 1965 teen-junk movie called Ski Party, in which they're compelled to wear ridiculous cable-knit sweaters (you can witness this spectacle on YouTube). Brown implores President Lyndon Johnson (Charles R. Rooney) to let him perform for U.S. troops in Vietnam, and we see him and his band flying into the country through a barrage of rockets. In the aftermath of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, we see Brown in a tense but triumphant performance at a Boston arena, where they unleash "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud." Many, many more things happen, until finally, in 1971 we see Brown and his newly constituted band (with Bootsy Collins on bass) in a famously astonishing concert at the Olympia Theatre in Paris.
Fascinating material, all of this. But Taylor shuffles it around so relentlessly, it's difficult to keep up with where and when we are. One minute we're in rural South Carolina, the next we're suddenly transported to an anonymous backstage corridor, or New York's Apollo Theater (where Brown recorded one of the greatest of all live albums in 1962), or a gun-wielding episode from Brown's angel-dust days toward the end of his life. The effect of all this jumping about is simply disorienting. And Taylor's use of one of the weariest of narrative clichés—having Brown intermittently speak directly to the camera—is so dopey that even the director must have realized it: he drops it about midway through the movie..
Still, there are scenes here that stay with you—especially the one in which Brown gets some quiet career advice from Little Richard (Brandon Smith), one of his early idols. Boseman's formidable performance pulls you along—he's worth the price of admission on his own. And of course the music he expertly mimes—original Brown tracks beautifully remastered—still resounds (Brown has been one of the most-sampled artists in the world of rap that he helped engender). Get on Up doesn't quite kill in the way that Brown did. But it does him more justice than most longtime fans might expect.