Sunday 27 July 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy review

Guardians of the Galaxy (12A/PG-13, 121 mins)
Director: James Gunn
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Marvel cinematic universe took a step away from typical comic book shenanigans towards more serious fare earlier this year with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

It’s all colour and flash again though for Guardians of the Galaxy, which arrives amid high anticipation levels as the summer’s last major blockbuster. It’s also the most standalone film set in this world, linked to previous Marvel entries only by post-credit Easter eggs in Avengers Assemble and Thor 2.

In fact in tone, humour and backdrop the film it most closely resembles is Serenity, and it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the director of that film and Avengers Assemble are one and the same. Endlessly glib but rarely smug, it’s a thrilling diversion filled with more funny lines and perfectly timed comedic beats than many out-and-out comedies.

It’s not all yucks though, and there’s a danger of it sinking under the weight of its own ambitions during an opening salvo that can border on gibberish. We’re bombarded by character names and place names to the extent that it seems like there might be an in-between film somewhere that we haven’t seen where we were supposed to have learned all this.

That sense of confusion begins straight away with a prologue set on earth in 1988, where teenager Peter is confronted with the death of his mother. Moments later he’s whisked away by a spaceship and we jump without ceremony to outer space, where the adult Peter (Chris Pratt) is an outlaw adventurer in the Indiana Jones mould.

In a way it’s refreshing that over-explanation isn’t a problem, but a little more time spent on details might have been nice. But that passes reasonably quickly and what it boils down to is pretty much a treasure hunt between a bunch of interested parties who are after an orb that Peter has pilfered.

His efforts land him prison alongside a ragtag group of criminals and mercenaries. It takes quite a while for this lot to actually be announced as Guardians, and what it might be that they're guarding the galaxy from, but it’s worth the wait. The threat turns out to involve Lee Pace and Karen Gillan as murderous aliens whose stories and motivations are hashed out during the gibberish phase.

Despite the initial setbacks, it evolves into an effortlessly entertaining fantasy adventure. It’s an astonishing piece of world-building, filled with evocative locations, wildly imaginative gizmos and gadgets and some amazing characters. No one is able to steal the show among the Guardians because everyone, both the character and the actor playing them, is fantastic.

It’s a star-making turn from Pratt, who uses his roguish charisma to move up from amiable supporting roles in Her or voicing the lead in the Lego movie. Zoe Saldana is his match as the bloodthirsty Gamora, and while less might have been expected from wrestler-turned actor Dave Bautista, his portrayal of the vengeful Drax is as heartfelt and funny as any of the Guardians.

The computer generated Guardians are great too: Rocket, a raccoon with a plan voiced with real fizz by Bradley Cooper, and a walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel who can only say “I am Groot”. There’s an exuberance to the violence too, facilitated by all of the main characters being completely psychotic.

Pause for a moment to put Guardians of the Galaxy under any serious scrutiny and perhaps there isn’t really very much there. The plot is minor and the finale suffers from the same big-fight syndrome as most movies of its ilk, but it’s so slick, so entertaining and so funny that its flaws are easily overlooked.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Tammy review

Tammy (15/R, 97 mins)
Director: Ben Falcone
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Since making a big impression (and landing an Oscar nomination) with Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has firmly established herself as a leading comic talent.

Here with Tammy she gets a screenplay credit for the first time, co-writing with her husband Ben Falcone, who also makes his feature directing debut. Unfortunately they’ve come unstuck and aren’t able to deliver anything like the necessary hit rate of laughs required for a mainstream summer comedy.

The title character of Tammy sees McCarthy play a chaotic and dishevelled woman whom we first meet as she hits a deer with her car. It’s just the first of many scenes that make vain grasps for laughs that come from her shtick of going off on a semi-improvised rant that quickly descends into ill-disciplined mugging, leaving vast expanses of empty air where laughter goes to die.

McCarthy is a very talented comic actor, but she’s in danger of selling herself short if she continues in these kinds of roles. Her loudmouth and slobby routine has been the go-to since the unfunny Identity Thief, although it served her well in The Heat last year, helped by the balance with Sandra Bullock.

Tammy ends up getting fired from her job at a burger joint as an indirect result of the deer incident, although by the looks of it that dismissal had been coming for a while. She also discovers her husband is having an affair with a neighbour and so decides to leave town.

But with no car to make good her escape, she tries to borrow one from her mother (Allison Janney), who is well aware of her slippery nature. As it turns out, Tammy’s ailing grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon, presumably supposed to be playing 80), also wants to get out of her mother’s house and Tammy needs a car, and so the pair of them set off together on what should be the start of an uproarious road trip, but which doesn’t seem to have any destination or purpose in mind.

It’s just an aimless journey, taking in scrapes and shenanigans along the way, all of it flat and meandering, thanks to deeply unappealing characters and pratfalls that really don’t work and. Along the way, Pearl tries to persuade Tammy to try to change her ways, to find some direction in her life, but this is abruptly abandoned in favour of Pearl getting into drunken mishaps.

It’s only when Tammy meets Bobby (Mark Duplass) and his father, who takes a shine to Pearl, that she sees what a decent person is like. But even with that, character shifts seem sudden and unearned.

And though McCarthy and Sarandon do their best with their poorly conceived roles, they're barely able to raise a smile between them. A ridiculously starry cast fills out the rest of the film, though many of them are in very small roles; quite why Toni Collette and Dan Aykroyd show up for one scene apiece is a mystery.

That would simply be a side note if the film were only funnier. But the sad truth is that Tammy is so low on viable jokes that you begin to wonder if it maybe isn’t supposed to be a comedy at all.