Saturday, August 30, 2014

HERCULES ... Not So Mighty A Movie


- Can one badass scene make a movie worth watching? Maybe. Depends how good the scene is. I pose this question because the new, Dwayne Johnson-starring HERCULES movie has one really sweet sequence (partially spoiled in the trailers), in which a chained, battered, and beaten Hercules is willed to fight against his captors by the urgent rallying cries of Ian McShane's wily comrade-in-arms, Amphiaraus. Like a coach trying to hype up his team for one last surge, McShane thunderously recites Hercules' achievements, as the blood begins to pump through The Rock's protruding veins. And then, like Hulk Hogan making his big end-of-match comeback, Hercules breaks his chains and shouts to the heavens: "I AM HERCULES!" Edited for maximum punch, the scene wakes the movie up from its slumber, and the film suddenly - though briefly - roars to life. It's an all-too-quick moment of awesomeness in what is, mostly, a fairly unremarkable, oftentimes nonsensical would-be epic. Sadly, these few sporadic moments of energy and momentum can't do much to save this saggy mess of a movie. The sad reality is that this feels like a direct-to-video dud, only slightly polished up with a good cast and some occasionally-fun action.

The plot of this one is strange, right from the get-go. Rather than showing us a Hercules who must overcome mythical beasts and angry gods, The Rock's version of the character lives in a less magical sort of world, in which the legend of Hercules is perhaps a bit exaggerated from the reality. However, even if Hercules' feats may or may not have happened as per the tales say, there's no question that the guy is a badass. And so, he and his band of hired guns travel around, looking for people in need of muscle and willing to pay for it. This leads Hercules and his band of merry men (and one woman) to Thrace, where the king (John Hurt) and his beguiling daughter recruit Hercules and co. to stave off a conquering army. So the film, unexpectedly, becomes sort of a war movie, with Hercules and his compatriots training and leading the Thracian army, against an enemy that may not be quite as villainous as they're made out to be. This leads to the movie's major story-arc for its protagonist: is Hercules a hero, or a mercenary?

It's an interesting character arc, but it's never explored in a truly satisfactory way in the film. What's worse though is how wholly uninteresting both Thrace and their adversaries are in the movie. We care little about which side Hercules and his cohorts support, because both sides seem only sketchily realized. Basically, the entire plot of the movie is only minimally compelling, and we're just not given enough reason to care about what happens one way or the other. It's almost a shame that the film's climax evokes that of Conan the Barbarian's. That classic film was artfully shot and paced, and downright epic in its presentation. HERCULES, meanwhile, has to push every contrivance button possible in order to attempt to stage a properly-epic final battle - stretching its plot to the breaking point in order to tie Hercules' latest battle with his tragic past. And yet, a lot of the seemingly low-hanging-fruit plot points go nowhere. For instance, while there are some early sparks between Hercules and Thracian princess Ergenia, nothing really ever comes of it.

Stretched thin is a good description in general for this movie. A major battle scene halfway through the film seems to go on for a good half-hour or so ... just because. There seems barely enough material to fill the film's running time. This means that some really good actors - like the great Ian McShane, playing doomed prophet (and mentor to Hercules) Amphiaraus - are left to make something out of minimally-interesting material. McShane gives it his all - he hams it up and makes a running joke about Amphiaraus' ill-timed visions of his own death into a highlight. But let's put it this way - the quality of supporting actors in this film, from McShane to John Hurt - is quite good, but that quality level is about all that keeps this one from totally crashing and burning.

As for The Rock himself ... I don't know. I mean, we all love The Rock. The guy is naturally charismatic-as-hell. But I think Dwayne Johnson is most in his element when he gets to be funny, when he gets to be a character not too far removed from his "Rock" persona. For a mythic hero like Hercules ... I just don't know if he's got the chops to truly give us the gravitas needed for a character of this sort of mythic stature. One thought I kept having throughout the movie: this Hercules isn't all that much different from Kevin Sorbo's TV version, and I think Sorbo's was probably better.

Director Brett Ratner directs some sporadically-interesting scenes, but for the most part, the movie has a flat feel that only occasionally has a real sense of epicness. I'm no Ratner-hater. I still love the original Rush Hour, and I still think X3 was actually under-rated and over-criticized by fanboys. But this film rarely feels fully alive, and many of the more interesting visual elements feel cribbed (and done better by) other movies - from Conan The Barbarian to 300.

HERCULES is at least watchable due to the charismatic cast. But it's by no means memorable, occasionally a slog, and certainly not among this summer's better action flicks. Recommended only for Rock completists.

My Grade: C-

Thursday, August 28, 2014

COHERENCE Is a Creepy Trip to the Darkest Timeline


- Who doesn't love some good Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi? If that's your jam, then I'd strongly recommend giving COHERENCE a shot. This small-budget indie flick mostly skipped theaters, going straight to VOD and digital platforms like iTunes. But the film is a great example of how a story can be made to feel big and awe-inspiring - even with a low-budget - thanks to clever storytelling. Like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, the movie works by presenting us with a fascinating yet disquieting premise, and then building on that premise via some well-placed twists and turns. I found COHERENCE to be genuinely unnerving and disturbing at times, and it's the rare sci-fi flick these days that can achieve that.

The movie tells the story of a group of friends getting together for a dinner party. They're a diverse bunch, and there's clearly a lot of shared history (and some lingering drama) between them. The interpersonal stuff is where the movie tends to go a little off-the-rails, but I'll get to that in a bit. The real meat of the premise is this: a comet passes overhead in the night sky, and weird things begin to happen. More specifically, the barriers between dimensions, between realities, begin to break down. And suddenly, the house where the friends are gathered is surrounded by other versions of the same house - inside of which are other versions of the same friends. As paranoia grows - as the friends begin to doubt if the others inside the house with them are the originals - or malicious, darkest-timeline versions - things start to get really interesting and really freaky. The film does a great job of drawing out the sense of existential dread and chaos that might accompany the breakdown of the very fabric of reality as we know it.

So yeah, the movie gets into some serious Inspector Spacetime territory, but the nice surprise here is how smartly the concept is dealt with. The characters actually talk about science in a way that well-educated people might, and so the movie has an air of credibility that others don't. Sure, a lot of this is pure sci-fi (what exactly does the comet passing overhead have to do with other dimensions?), but there was some definite thought put into all of of this. The result is a movie that feels downright creepy at times. The look and feel of the film creates a you-are-there intimacy, and so there's an unreal air of reality to the proceedings. It's a classic set-up - the ghost story that isn't just a ghost story. Friends joking about power outages and strange sightings and assorted weirdness, only to discover that this isn't a joke - it's all really happening. Reality is unfolding. There's that real sense of existential dread - the very laws of the universe no longer apply, and man, that's scary $#%&. Credit writer/director James Ward Byrkit with really exerting a strong vision here, and really crafting this great, ominous atmosphere.

COHERENCE does a really nice job of building that sense of dread and paranoia and posing questions about who's who and who or what can be trusted. Mostly. Where it falters a bit is that it shoehorns in a lot of interpersonal melodrama in order to heighten the tension and provide characters with motivation to act irrationally and stir the pot. The biggest perpetrator of this is the character played by Nicholas Brendon of Buffy fame. He's the catalyst for a lot of the bad stuff that goes down in the film, but that's only the case because he starts acting - sort of out of the blue - like a complete lunatic. All of these characters are entitled to a freak out or two - after all, multiple realities are converging around them. But, the movie gets a bit silly at times when its characters go full soap-opera star in order to drive the plot forward.

That said, the thing that really pulls COHERENCE back from the brink is the excellent performance of Emily Baldoni, in the lead role of Em. What the film does a really great job of is making Em a more nuanced character than some of her friends - slyly planting the seeds for the surprising manner in which her arc unfolds. Baldoni does a fantastic job here, and does a great job of matching the movie's overall tone of slowly-building tension with her character's own growing worry and desperation. When the film focuses in on Em, it shines.

While the movie is uneven in spots, overall I appreciated how much it affected me and kept me engrossed despite its relatively small scale. You've got to like science fiction that's compelling not because of flashy f/x, but because of the power of its ideas. And COHERENCE has some pretty primal, powerful ideas at its core. This is a pretty admirable trip to The Twilight Zone that's well worth a look.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, August 23, 2014



- First, to preface: there are some things I loved as a kid, and then ... there's the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, as I may or may not have written in the context of previous posts, I grew up a total Turtlemaniac. On Saturday mornings I would dutifully watch each new episode of the TMNT cartoon. I collected the action figures, played the videogames, and drew hundreds of carefully-conceived comic book-style drawings of my favorite heroes in a half-shell and their various enemies and allies. And so, while a part of me wanted to simply dismiss this latest Turtles movie, throwing a grizzled middle finger at the Michael Bay-produced reboot, this was one where the pull of youthful nostalgia was simply too strong. There's something else, too. As a kid, I vividly remember all the public outcry about how the Turtles were corrupting a nation's youth. I remember parents worried that the show was inspiring their kids to be violent, rude, and weird. I remember an older generation that simply didn't get how their kids and grandkids could be so enamored with these Teenaged Ninja Mutant Turtles ... or whatever they were called. And now, twenty-five years later, you've got to admit ... there's something awesome about the Turtles still being alive and kicking and #1 at the box office. It feels like a hearty screw-you from my generation to the old farts who made us feel a sense of guilt for loving what we loved. Not only did we keep the Turtles around, but by-god, a whole new generation of kids has grown up yelling "Cowabunga!" and becoming obsessed with nunchuk-weieding mutant teens. So take that, Mom and Dad.

And by the way ... I see a lot of movie reviews out there from the ever-bitter Gen-X crowd that lament a generation that takes the Turtles seriously, and condescendingly wonders how it is that 20 and 30-somethings still carry nostalgic affection for this particular franchise. This coming from the same people who have collectively creamed themselves over Rocket Raccoon and Groot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just think there's a tendency for people to look down on anything that they missed out on because they were too old. The same way I instinctively get annoyed when I see people younger than me posting nostalgically about some crap from the 00's that I was old enough not to care about at the time. I'm not saying that we don't look back on old cartoons and other childhood ephemera with rose-colored glasses ... because we do. And I'm not saying that that is always a healthy thing that should be encouraged. However, let's also acknowledge that there was indeed a certain imagination, originality, scope, and flat-out awesome factor to the Turtles that caused them to make such an impact, and that's kept them in the pop-cultural conversation long after predicted expiration dates.

Okay, all that aside ... the new TMNT movie is not exactly all that. It feels like a Frankenstein-monster of a film. Rarely have I seen a blockbuster movie where its various layers of creation felt so exposed. Meaning, this is very clearly a movie that went through many drastic re-writes and creative overhauls prior to the final product hitting theaters. The result is a film that feels like a broken-down house with a fresh coat of paint or two hastily applied to try to cover the cracks. Problem is ... they missed a few spots.

Here's what they basically got right: the personalities and humor of the Turtles themselves. Whoever did a script-polish on this thing to flesh out the Turtles' antics and witty banter deserves credit. The Turtles are likable and funny, and their personalities feel pretty much spot-on as compared to the classic cartoons and films. In fact, I may even go so far as to say that the Turtles feel a little more distinct in this incarnation than in some others - each Turtle has a unique look (i.e. they are not just color-swapped clones of each other), and each has a very distinguishable persona. Perhaps they go a little far in this regard at times (did brilliant-scientist Donatello really need to be a full-on glasses-sporting geek? probably not). But I think that what carries the movie through its weaker points is that the Turtles pretty much are done right. Michelangelo is the show-stealer, no question. He has some genuinely funny quips, and kids will love him. Rafael is suitably badass. Leonardo is, as ever, the more serious and contemplative team leader. Many have rightfully called out the movie's short-but-excellent elevator scene as a prime example of how well the movie captures the fun and goofy chemistry between the brothers. Even if the relationship tropes are well-worn at this point (must Leonardo and Raphael have a falling out in every TMNT movie?), there's nothing that feels inherently off (at least with the Turtles - there are, however, some awkward and slightly creepy come-ons from Will Arnett's Vernon to the much-younger April O'Neil). These are the Turtles we know and love, and they are entertaining and likable.

What does the movie not get so right? The story and plotting. The plot of the movie a.) makes little to no sense, and b.) seems to crib from the worst aspects of many major modern blockbusters. One issue is, again, the appearance that large portions of the script were axed last-minute and hastily re-written. Going into this movie, I was under the impression that William Fichtner played arch-villain Shredder. Turns out, he does not. This is not a spoiler or big reveal. Fichtner plays evil businessman/scientist Eric Sacks, a former colleague of April O'Neil's father, who also happens to be in league with Shredder. Shredder is played by Tohoru Masamune, but mostly appears as a CGI videogame boss who moves and attacks like a character from Tekken. But, pretty clearly, at some point ... William Fichtner was supposed to have been Shredder. His back-story sets him up to be the movie's Big Bad. And he even has the Shredder armor ominously on-display in his palatial manor. He glares at it knowingly, clearly foreshadowing that, yup, this dude is going to be Shredder. But such is not the case. And that's theoretically okay, since most Turtles fans wanted Shredder to be a Japanese ninja master, and not William Fichtner (yes, William Fichtner is awesome-as-crap, but not really cut-out for Shredder). But what's not okay in practice is that Shredder - the biggest and baddest nemesis of the Turtles - is essentially a non-character in this film. There's no real personal connection to the Turtles or Splinter (one of the most memorable aspects, certainly, of the original movie), and, worse, the guy has no real motivations or reason-for-being except because, you know, evil and stuff. Ol' Chrome Dome deserves better. 

Meanwhile, multiple key story elements seem cut-and-pasted in chaotic and often frustrating fashion. The evil plan of Sacks and Shredder to bring NYC to its knees makes little sense. The Turtles' mutated blood ends up being a lazy sort of MacGuffin that seems to just be a concession to the fact that, "hey, every big movie is doing 'magic blood' plot devices these days, so we might as well hop aboard the bandwagon." That said, much of the story revolves not around the Turtles themselves, but around April (Megan Fox), and *her* back-story. Turns out, the Turtles were actually a young April's pets and her scientist father's test subjects. When Sacks turned on April's father and destroyed his lab, April saved the Turtles (but for some reason dumped them in the sewer ...?), who, unknown to her, were exposed to mutagen and on their way to becoming giant mutant turtle superheroes. All of this is problematic on many levels. For one, having April be the one with an eventual vendetta against Sacks is okay in and of itself ... but again, it means that the Turtles and Splinter have no real rivalry of their own - they are really fighting April's battle. For another thing, the details of all this back-story barely add up. There's lots of seemingly-contradictory stuff in the script, and there's a lot that simply makes no sense. Yes, this is TMNT and a certain degree of suspension-of-disbelief is required., but asking for a coherent plot that gets you emotionally invested should not be that much of a tall order. 

One more pet peeve about the Turtles' origin story, as told to us in the movie by Splinter (slight SPOILERS ahead): apparently, he found a book about ninjas that washed up into the sewer, taught himself to be a ninja, and then taught the Turtles to be ninjas. So ... WTF? Isn't the whole point of ninjitsu that it's a secret and deadly art that can't just be learned from a book? It's a seemingly minor point, but it sort of undermines something that was always cool about the original cartoons and comics and films: they took the "ninja" part of the title seriously. Seriously. A huge part of my fascination with TMNT stemmed from my parallel fascination with martial arts, ninjas, etc. Between the fact that this film's Splinter just taught himself to be a ninja from a book, and the non-character that is Shredder, and the non-entity that is The Foot Clan ... this movie does not feel very ninja-y. Someone did not get the memo that the "ninja" part of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is, indeed, the best part. 

As for what in the movie is a mixed bag ... I'd point to the visuals and action. First, I'll speak to the character design of the Turtles. I still don't love 'em, but they are also not *as* bad as I originally thought. In motion, the Turtles don't look as ugly and scary as they do in still photos. And yet, let's just acknowledge that the decision to give the Turtles human-like noses, with nostrils, was a horrible one. It looks bad, and it makes the Turtles look too freakish and monstrous. The basic design of the Turtles was classic, and this was an ill-advised change. That said, it's no coincidence that the Turtles here look straight out of an XBOX game. They move like videogame characters, and the action scenes whip and zoom like they're hopped-up on Mountain Dew: Code Red. Mostly, they are fun and riveting - as with a roller-coaster like vehicular chase scene down a snowy mountain range. However, when the battles become more personal, there is undoubtedly a weightlessness to the fights that causes an emotional remove. Oddly, the movie's climactic fight with Shredder is quite similar to the final fight in the original Turtles film. But while that battle is a classic confrontation that kids quoted and re-enacted for years to come, this one is cool, in the moment, but ultimately pretty forgettable. In short, the movie's action excels at being pure amusement-park ride fun, but doesn't quite pack the punch to truly feel epic and memorable from a narrative perspective.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES isn't *that* bad. In many ways, in tone and personality, it feels surprisingly reminiscent of the classic cartoons. It's got moments that are a lot of fun, and it's never as offensive or insultingly stupid as the Transformer movies. Director Jonathan Liebsman could learn a thing or two about giving his action weight and emotional heft, but undoubtedly, he crafts slicker and more coherent action scenes than producer Michael Bay. But some exciting action scenes and some funny moments still can't fully cover for the fact that the core of this movie was probably never very strong to begin with. It's not a huge leap to assume that a lot of last-minute band-aids were applied to the film to try to fix a host of major plot issues - but the band-aids can only do so much. This is frustrating, because, man, how hard can it be to write a kick-ass TMNT story? If one understands the elements that fans love most about the franchise, it shouldn't be rocket-science. The upside is that the elements are there, at least in part, to take the base of this film and do better with a sequel. Nothing here is broken beyond repair (well, except for those nostrils).

It's not like there's some gold standard of TMNT story that I want to see replicated. I'm not *that* blinded by nostalgia, and I also don't know the comics well enough to point to the source material as an ideal. Here's what I do know: those old TMNT cartoons - despite all the merchandising and cash-ins - were so gleefully weird, and such a crazy gateway into so many cool things (underground comics, martial arts, sci-fi) - that my hope is for the franchise - if it continues - to continue to be that gateway for kids. It's funny, because Guardians of the Galaxy was, in some ways, like a modern-day TMNT - a rock n' roll trip through The Weird that was both funny and imagination-expanding. This Turtles has moments of fun-unleashed, but it feels a little too cynically-created, and a lot too assembled-by-committee, to truly get one tripping on Turtle Power. But hey, at least that Wiz Khalifa song ("Shell-shocked!") that plays over the ending credits is pretty awesome.

My Grade: C+

Sunday, August 3, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Is One Rocking Cosmic Comic Book Jam


- Here it is. What we've been waiting for. Now ... we get to the good stuff. I said it back when I reviewed Thor: The Dark World, but I'll repeat: Marvel is boldly going to some very weird places with its big-budget movies, and I'm lovin' it. Think about where we've come from. When this whole big-screen superhero renaissance started with movies like X-Men, the colorful comic book heroes of Marvel made it to cinemas in a whitewashed, scrubbed-up fashion. "Yellow spandex" was a punchline. Black leather was the order of the day. The characters were mostly intact, but the sci-fi grandeur and acid-trip visuals of Kirby and his ilk were all but gone. Now, slowly but surely, Marvel Studios has brought the weird and cosmic aspects of its comic book universe to its movies - and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the apex of that evolution, a loud-and-proud color-burst of a movie that feels like a statement from Marvel: the Marvel universe has officially been cracked open, and there really are no more limits to what can happen in these movies.

The man who makes it all happen is director James Gunn. Just saying that is sort of weird and sort of awesome. Until recently I knew Gunn as an outside-the-system director of genre movies that were, by and large, insane. I saw an opening-weekend screening of his movie Super a few years ago, featuring a Q&A with Gunn. Super remains one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. And Gunn seemed like the kind of guy who'd perhaps be happiest doing these oddball, limits-pushing, low-budget movies filled with his usual cast of go-to actors. But here's the remarkable thing: GUARDIANS is very much a Marvel movie, but, no question, it's also a James Gunn movie through and through. The movie revels in its own weirdness, much like Super and also Slither. It features the oddball, oddly-perverse sense of humor that Gunn is known for. It's got his brother, Sean Gunn, appearing in a supporting role, as he always does in James Gunn films. It's got other Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker. Gunn's movies push boundaries and go to unexpected places, and this is no exception. This is rock n' roll filmmaking like we haven't see yet in the Marvel cinematic universe.

However, what keeps all of the cosmic craziness of the film grounded is the real humanity at its core. As out-there as things get, even the movie's strangest characters have surprising depth. At the center of it all is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. Quill is a classic, swashbuckling rogue in the grand tradition of Han Solo and the like - but Gunn (along with screenwriter Nicole Parlman) also give him a tragic backstory and a real warmth. Also credit the gifted Pratt for making Star-Lord into a character both empathetic and hilarious. Pratt - so good for years on Parks and Recreation - is a natural at this sort of action/comedy leading man role. The guy has the bravado for epic adventure, but also the dude-next-door affability that makes him easy to root for and care about. He nails it in this film.

I can't say enough about the rest of the film's eclectic cast. It's no major surprise that Zoe Saldana is fantastic as the traumatized adopted-against-her-will daughter of Thanos, Gamora. Saldana is now a multi-franchise sci-fi superstar, but Gamora is an interesting new twist on her usual badass persona - a woman hated and feared because of her father, out to prove that she is, in fact, nothing like him. Gamora is also the moral center of the movie's ragtag team - the only one who, from the outset, has an altruistic agenda. What is more of a surprise though is that wrestler Dave Bautista is actually really, really good here in a scene-stealing role as Drax the Destroyer, a muscled-up alien hellbent on revenge for his wife and child, killed at the hands of the power-mad Ronan. What is also a surprise is how a character that I assumed would be pretty awesome - Rocket Raccoon - is not just awesome, but also the emotional center of the movie. I would never have expected that the talking raccoon would have some of the movie's most emotionally-charged moments, but James Gunn and co. go all-in with the Bradley Cooper-voiced creature. Rocket rules, but he's much more than just comic relief. Same goes for talking tree-man Groot, elegantly voiced by Vin Diesel. Groot is funny and weird, but also the source of several moments of awe, wonder, and emotional resonance. Give both Cooper and Diesel some major, major props here for their voice work. Cooper is the lovable, fast-talking, Brooklyn-accented, chip-on-his-shoulder badass we all hoped and wanted Rocket to be. And Diesel pulls an Iron Giant with Groot, making the lumbering tree-creature somehow full of pathos.

I could go on an on about the cast. Michael Rooker is just great, in a distinctly Michael Rooker sort of way, as the blue-skinned alien outlaw Yondu. Yondu is a perfect example of how Gunn just flat-out embraces the craziest aspects of these characters and goes all-in. Yondu isn't *just* a badass blue alien who talks like a southern-fried redneck, you see. He's also got a deadly blowing-dart that he controls by whistling, which he can use to take out armies of enemies simply by whistling a tune. Holy $^&#, people ... James Gunn isn't messing around. That same wholesale embrace of comic book insanity is evident in the film's chief villain, Ronan The Accuser. Played by Lee Pace - of late the master of over-the-top genre movie grandstanding - Ronan is a straight-from-the-comics cosmic bad guy of epic proportions. There's a similarly otherworldly sheen to Karen Gillan's Nebula, another daughter of Thanos, whose metallic blue skin and cybernetic enhancements make her a truly alien creature. We caught a glimpse of Benicio Del Toro's enigmatic Collector at the end of Thor: The Dark World, and the character is yet another that is just plain nuts, in the best way possible. And of course, the mighty, mad titan Thanos lurks in the background of the film - menacingly voiced by Josh Brolin and looking straight out of a Jim Starlin-drawn comic book page - waiting to stake his claim as the Marvel Universe's most-wanted.

In fact, the comic book literalism in GUARDIANS is pretty crazy. There's a clear reverence for the architects of Marvel's weird and cosmic corners - Jack Kirby, Jim Starlin, etc. - and I don't know if I've ever seen a comic book adaptation that so faithfully reproduces the costumes and colors of its source material. As others have pointed out, the movie is not just visually jaw-dropping, but also bursting with color in a way that the dulled-out modern superhero movies have mostly avoided to date. Star-filled cosmos flooded with neon-colored splashes. Gleaming alien cities filled with colorful locales. Space-bars to rival the Mos Eisley cantina. A legion of Nova Corps agents wearing their trademark gladiator-helmets and Kirby-ringed uniforms, riding around in a battalion of starburst-shaped attack ships.

Gunn shoots the film in a classical manner that calls to mind 70's and 80's sci-fi films. The movie's action is fast and furious, but also well-staged, easy-to-follow, and impactful - littered with character moments both funny and poignant. The film's exotic alien locales are all unique and memorable and teeming with detail and motion and easter-eggs. And the movie's various depictions of the vast reaches of the cosmos are both awe-inspiring and fit for framing.

The film is also very funny. Sure, other Marvel movies have had quippy humor and self-referential gags, but GUARDIANS is the first true Marvel action/comedy. The movie's got a plethora of extended comedic scenes that go for big laughs. Comedy vet Chris Pratt anchors the humor with his great timing and delivery. And, despite its massive kid-appeal, Gunn sneaks in plenty of scandalous little moments that may go over the heads of the younger set, but that are guaranteed to get a chuckle from adults. But what's really remarkable is that the movie can switch gears and deliver epic action, romance, and space-opera - all while being very funny and light-on-its feet. In that way, it really is a throwback of sorts to the classic sci-fi cinema of the 70's and 80's. Action, humor, and moments that kids will later look back on and wonder "how did they get away with keeping *that* in there?".

The movie packs in so much that it does, inevitably, leave you wanting just a bit more. While an opening prologue nicely establishes some backstory for Quill, other characters' origins are often only briefly alluded to, left to be further fleshed-out in future sequels, tie-ins, etc. Certainly, I would have loved to have gotten some additional history around Gamora - to really get a sense for what her childhood must have been like under the thumb of Thanos, and what it was like to be raised alongside his other "children" like Nebula. There was also plenty of untold story with Rocket and Groot. Some mystery is good, but having just a bit more to chew on for the non-Star-Lord characters would have made things feel a bit more substantive. Same goes for chief villain Ronan. I know some of his background from the comics, but here he gets only minimal screentime to properly explain his sinister motivations.

Overall though, what James Gunn and his team have accomplished here is pretty remarkable. They've brought the Marvel cosmic universe to the big-screen, and they've taken characters and concepts that were long thought too weird for the mainstream and made them work - not by watering them down, but by going all-in and just fully embracing the awesome. For many months I've heard speculation that GUARDIANS would bomb, that Marvel movies worked because of a particular formula, and  that any deviation from that formula would spell box office disaster. But this is a new dawn, a world where weird is accepted and where comic book adaptations can let their freak flag fly high. It's funny, because in this film alone there are several concepts that have clear DC Comics analogues, that Marvel has now beat them to the punch in doing right on the big screen. As Marvel has done Thanos, DC could do Darkseid. As Marvel has done a pretty epic take on the Nova Corps, man, that's how DC could do Green Lantern. Seeing the visuals on Groot made me realize how cool a Swamp Thing film could be in 2014. And seeing Marvel embrace its comics' weirdest corners on the big-screen made me realize that there are no more limits. Because as a young comic book fan, sure, I loved the big heroes and the iconic stories, but most of all I loved the way that these comic book universes seemed to expand across all of space and time, filled with an endless collection of characters and concepts that ran the gamut of genres and artistic influences. With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, the Marvel cinematic universe now feels ever closer to the kind of place that made comics so cool to generations of readers. The kind of place where Steve Rogers can rub shoulders with The Hulk, who can pick a fight with Thanos, who can run afoul of the Kree empire, who might tangle with Spider-Man, who might just share an adventure with Howard the Duck. The beauty of these organic fictional worlds is that anything is possible. And GUARDIANS - complete with an off-the-wall end-tag that serves as a sort of exclamation point for this idea - confirms that this is now true of the movie-verse as well.

It's fitting then that the iconic object of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY turns out to be Peter Quill's mix-tape cassette - a memento from his mother - that provides the soundtrack for his adventures, and for much of the film. The tape jumps from "Hooked on a Feeling" to "Cherry Bomb," a diverse playlist of pop  favorites that somehow adds up to Peter Quill, in miniature. So too is the film an anything-goes mix-tape of pop-art - a color-soaked genre mash-up that evokes the same anything-goes spirit of the comics it adapts. Those books were rock n' roll. This movie is rock n' roll. And it delivers one awesomely groovy space-jam.

My Grade: A-