Guardians of the Galaxy- The best way I can think of describing James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is dropping Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games into the Mass Effect universe. As is almost always the case with the endless bombardment from the Marvel film juggernaut, I also find myself trying to focus on the things that make this slightly different from its many siblings. Guardians is marketed as the black sheep in the family, but its knowing digs at superhero movies don’t compensate for the fact that it is basically a completely formulaic superhero movie with a fantastic soundtrack.
Chris Pratt turns his leading man charm up to 11 as Peter Quill, but Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s script sometimes focuses on it to an annoying degree (hence the Uncharted comparison). Marvel’s latest sensory assault is aided by the fact that it delays its conventionally filmed and edited Final Battle Sequence in favor of protagonists that aren’t completely generic. (The villains are very generic). Bradley Cooper is especially great as the voice of Rocket Raccoon, and the movie could have benefited from giving other inspired turns from Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close more screen time. Grade: C-
Lucy- There is a great scene in Luc Besson’s Lucy, one of my favorites of the year, actually. In it, the title character (Scarlett Johansson) calls her mother to talk about the strange wave of sensations flooding over her now that a drug has unhinged her brain’s capability. It’s a masterful sequence shot in an unnervingly close proximity to Johansson’s expressive, increasingly other-worldly performance. (It’s her second one of those this year, by the way.)
The rest of the movie, sadly, is an onslaught of occasionally memorable images and half-baked ideas that don’t stick. Lucy is a thrilling character to watch discover herself, but the directions the movie stretches her don’t carry much weight because it seems like a sprint to the finish. I got the impression that Besson got to make the movie he wanted to make but not enough of it, and that with a little more time the preposterous conceit at the story’s center would have been taken to more exciting metaphysical extremes than the ones that are here. Grade: C
Obvious Child- Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a kind of revolutionary fluff, a love story with many typical rom-com moments that’s also a rambunctious corrective to movies like Juno and Knocked Up. (spoilers ahead) Jenny Slate gives one of the year’s great breakout performances as Donna, the New York comedian who gets pregnant and expects everyone to attack her for wanting an abortion. Knowing most mainstream depictions of abortion in film and TV, she has a reason to fear for her life, though the movie is daring because it depicts it as a viable option that allows Donna to go on without trauma or death.
Slate’s performance is lively enough to counteract some of the script’s weaker scenes, like an unnecessary, surprisingly unfunny encounter with an older comedian played by David Cross. She excels at spitting Robespirerre’s venomously funny dialogue while subduing the story’s gooier center. The movie heralds the arrival of a sharp comic voice and excels even more because of her energetic, hilarious screen presence. Grade: B-
Life Itself- I’m sure I’m not the only one who went into this knowing that I would cry. As Werner Herzog puts it in the movie, Roger Ebert was such a “soldier of cinema” that his enthusiasm about the movies he really loved remains contagious. He was a prolific, honest writer about movies and, especially in his later years, about a great deal of other things as well.
Life Itself, directed by Steve James and based on Ebert’s memoir, is a loving but not overly adoring tribute to the critic. Judging by the frankness in his personal writing, I think he would have liked that the movie doesn’t shy away from his struggles and others’ criticisms of him. James constructs Ebert’s life story around his decline, interspersing standard talking head and archival footage with painful depictions of how the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer spent his final years battling thyroid cancer. The movie doesn’t lean too hardly on those health problems, though. The segments that focus on his two greatest relationships, with his wife Chaz and his on-screen sparring partner Gene Siskel, are both heart-warming and very funny. Grade: B+ (Thumbs Up)