I can only speak for myself, but does it seem like the promotional campaign for Guardians of the Galaxy has lasted forever? I’ve been dying to see it, but the sheer number of trailers and TV spots has been overwhelming. It feels like the movie should have come out weeks ago. The good news is the movie is finally here. The even better news is that it’s preposterously entertaining. Not only does it push the bar higher for Marvel movies to come (Age of Ultron is officially on notice.), but it also throws down a challenge for upcoming space adventures. (Episode VII is also officially on notice.) Between this and The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has had a very, very good year.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
I’m not sure if people know this, but movie screenplays are generally written in a three-act structure. The first act introduces the characters, setting, and the first major plot point, the second act follows the rising story action and introduces the second major plot point, and their third act provides the story’s climax and resolution. One of the things you’ll hear screenwriters talk about frequently is their frustration at being able to nail the third act. They know their characters and they have placed them into a compelling story, but the writer just doesn’t know how to bring about a satisfying ending. As a filmgoer, how many times have you witnessed a movie that was humming along like a well-oiled machine only to see the climactic wheels fall off? A weak third act keeps a good movie from being a great one. Casablanca has a great third act. Back to the Future has a great third act. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a terrible third act, and not just because it involves aliens.
It’s only fitting, then, that Life Itself, director Steve James’ new documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert, would deal with the importance of nailing third acts; however, in this case, it’s the third act of our lives the film is interested in.
Marvel had a national event last night in which they showed off 17 minutes of footage from the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. The presentation consisted of a greeting from writer/director James Gunn, a full, presumably finished sequence from the film, and a new trailer that has subsequently gone online after the events were over. It would appear that music is going to be a big part of the movie (“Hooked on a Feeling” is prominent in the footage screened.), and the new trailer is scored to “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, and it’s really good. (I’m a big Joan Jett fan, so that made me really happy.) I may be reading too much into this, but I love a Runaways reference in a Marvel movie.
I got to attend the event at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, which has just in the last year or so been converted to an IMAX screen with stadium seating. The conversion was done really tastefully, though the enormity of that auditorium kind of makes the biggest IMAX screen in Southern California look pretty much like any other screen – the huge room sort of swallows its own IMAXness.
But, enough about all that. How was the footage? Based on what Marvel unspooled last night, I think we’re going to get a Guardians that’s a ludicrous amount of fun.
I wrote a piece for the site a while back in which I blamed improvisational techniques for the sometimes pitiful state of American film comedy. Don’t get me wrong, I am not seeking to disparage improv in general. I think improv is, potentially, a tremendous channel for performance art and can definitely be used to enhance both comedy and dramatic works. One of my favorite TV dramas of all time, the great Friday Night Lights, was highly improvised on set by the actors with the cameras often hidden from the cast’s view. When it comes to improv, I am not a hater at all. But, when a film comedy doesn’t really have a script and the actors are asked to just “be funny” on set, it’s usually a disaster waiting to happen. As the late, great comic genius Harold Ramis said, "Comedy is just another side of drama." Just because a movie is designed to make you laugh doesn’t mean that the guidelines of good storytelling need not apply. You still need a compelling story that sustains a feature-length running time. You still need fleshed-out characters whose fates the audience can be invested in. Without basic filmmaking staples in place, you wind up with a lot of flailing actors, riffing so desperately you can practically smell the flop sweat.
There was a great article in LA Weekly a couple of weeks ago about how Tom Cruise’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s coach a few years back effectively killed his career as a movie star. One of the first videos to go viral (Youtube had launched literally just a few weeks prior.) and edited within an inch of its life (Cruise never actually jumps up and down on the coach as people often misremember.), the clip made Cruise seem genuinely unhinged to the public, and, suddenly, it became trendy to say you hated Tom Cruise. That’s sad to me for a lot of reasons, the least of which is, for 25 years or so, Cruise had gone out of his way to work with truly great filmmakers on interesting projects and pushing himself as an artist. Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Coppola, Brad Bird, Barry Levinson, Brian DePalma, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg (twice), Sydney Pollack, Neil Jordan, Cameron Crowe (twice), John Woo, and Michael Mann make for an impressive list of collaborators; however, it was Cruise’s willingness to give over 18 months at the height of his earnings potential for the never-ending shoot of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut that gives him a lifetime pass from me. He also gets bonus points for standing guard over Kubrick’s possibly unfinished cut of the film after the legendary director unexpectedly passed away.
I came to be aware of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars, from the same source that alerted me to Buffy Summers: Time magazine’s year-end best of lists. Like most of the civilized world, I thought the idea of basing a television show on that goofy movie was nuts. How desperate could this new WB network be for programming? And then, one year (probably 1997), I saw that Time had Buffy the Vampire Slayer listed as the best show on television. I had to tune in, right? The first episode I watched was “Go Fish,” a steroid-themed installment and one of the weaker outings of the entire series. But, I stuck with it, and Buffy is one of my favorite shows of all time. (It used to be my clear favorite, but Breaking Bad has muddied the waters for me on that.)
Okay, let me get the controversial stuff out of the way first. I’ve got some really bad news for fans of traditional, hand-drawn 2D animation. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s over. I started thinking this way last fall when I saw Frozen. What artists are able to do both technically and in storytelling with computer animation has gotten so good that it’s really rendered 2D animation obsolete. Frozen was a gorgeous, stunning film to look at. There’s just no way animators could have drawn all those individualized snowflakes or created the physical attributes the CG snow possessed. The computer is also able to create realistic physical effects like wind and light. I know “Let It Go” was the big, breakout hit song from the film, but re-watch the “For the First Time in Forever” sequence, particularly the parts where Anna is interacting with the oil paintings in the castle. There is a richness and vibrancy to those images that couldn’t be created any other way. It doesn’t end there. CG characters are created with skeletons and musculature, so they are able to move in very specific and subtle ways; ditto with facial expressions. Computer animation provides unparalleled capacity for expressive character animation (often using the motion capture of an actor), and it’s only going to be better and better.
*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.
Memorial Day weekend 1999 contained one of the very worst film going experiences of my lifetime. I was a high school English teacher at the time, and, due to some underhanded office politics, I had been passed over to teach the film class at the school where I worked. The retiring teacher who was giving up the film class had taken a dislike to me and saw to it that I not take over her class. The school’s normal procedure of filling positions from within before going to outside candidates was subverted and a less qualified middle school teacher was given the job. This was in the previous spring of 1998. In May of 1999, near the end of the school year, the new film teacher came to me and invited me to attend a special screening with her classes.
One of the bits of fallout that’s occurred since the massive success of The Avengers two years ago is that now all of the studios want a piece of that team-up action. They all seem to be wanting to build a universe of film like Marvel has. The bad news is it seems none of them wants to put in the work that Marvel did. Marvel made five movies that set the groundwork for The Avengers, but Warner Bros. seems to want to do it in two. They just announced this week that their Batman/Superman mash-up will be called Dawn of Justice, which leaves little doubt that they’re going to try to cram the entire birth of the Justice League into one movie. This puzzles me, because Warner Bros. is the studio that innovated the current trend of splitting the final book of a popular series into two films. (To be totally fair, Deathly Hallows probably did need to be two movies, but Breaking Dawn? Come on.) Likewise, Sony has announced big plans to expand their Spider-Man films to include a Sinister Six movie and maybe even a Venom or Carnage picture. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t exactly floundering at the international box office, but does anybody actually like it?
As a great big film nerd, I can’t ever underestimate the importance of Japanese giant monster movies as a very early influence of my love of movies. This will date me a bit, but when I was growing up near the Kansas City area, one of the local TV stations (I want to say it was Channel 5, Kansas City’s CBS affiliate.) always had an afternoon movie that ran between 4:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon. Eight-year-old me would get really excited when Channel 5 would have Monster Week for that afternoon movie slot. It never really mattered to me how cheesy the special effects were (and, in retrospect, now as an adult, I find the idea of a grown man in a rubber monster costume stomping away at a miniature set of Tokyo to be endlessly charming). There was something about Godzilla and his Batman-rivaling rogues gallery of enemies that really captivated me. Also, eight-year-old me was keenly aware of just how incredibly lame Gamera was. A giant turtle who protects annoying children? Come on! I am not one to wax nostalgic over childhood relics, but there’s no doubt that Godzilla and other giant monsters inspired me to seek out other forms of cinema.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW