Aisle of the Damned: 05/12/17- Mashed Potato Sculpture Man

Anybody got a cigarette?

It’s time to Ooga Chaka again! That’s right, Bryan and Kent take an extended look at James Gunn’s wonderful Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Kent also looks at a couple of excellent indie films with Colossal and Free Fire. But first, we examine the first look at Kingsman 2, which features the great Frank Sinatra, and the final look at Wonder Woman, which features… music from a late-90s Army recruitment ad?

Plus Hellboy news, recommendations and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats– Stuck in a Movie
Charly Bliss– Ruby [Single Version]

Aisle of the Damned: 1/23/17- Best of 2016… and Passengers

*punch* No ticket.

Following our Christmas episode, we took a little time to enjoy the new year before we came back with one of the most anticipated episodes of the year: The Best and Worst of 2016!

After a discussion about the difficulties of seeing a lot of the stuff out there these days (there’s only so many entertainment dollars to go around) we lay out what rotted our eyeballs and delighted our brains over the last year. We also take on Underworld: Blood Wars, La La Land and Passengers before we’re done, and talk news about some blu ray announcements, Deadpool 2 news and how Warner Bros. still just doesn’t get it.

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie

Still Corners- Lost Boys

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the Galaxy is not Marvel’s best film. At least not in my eyes. It isn’t as consistent as The Avengers and it doesn’t offer quite the perfect blend of heady thrills that we received in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But it absolutely delivers, and when taken as a pair with Cap, it makes 2014 the banner year for Marvel cinema. Some have called it this generation’s Star Wars. I would call it this generation’s much better version of The Last Starfighter. Whatever you call it, it is a great way to close out the summer.

But let’s put the kibosh on the outright Star Wars comparisons while we have the chance. While it’s obvious that Gunn grew up with Star Wars and brings that kind of semi-grungy feel to the proceedings, the most recent film I can think of that is reminiscent in tone is actually JJ Abrams’ initial Star Trek entry. It cares more about movement and fun (while including some pathos) than being serious sci-fi. And the way Gunn grounds the film with the soundtrack is a much better utilized extension of how Abrams clunkily snuck the Beastie Boys into Trek on an “oldies” station. Both seem to care more about establishing the characters and their interaction than plot, at least on the surface level. In fact, I kind of want to watch it again so that I can do a bit better analysis of the two and how they compare and contrast. But then I’m also reminded because I feel a lot of the original Trek in Guardians, as well there should be considering the cosmic side of the Marvel universe was being developed back in the sixties and seventies. The character Gamora, with her green skin, is highly reminiscent of an Orion woman with a higher make-up budget. This only enhances the proceedings as far as I’m concerned. They are both playful updates that keep the spirit of the pop-art sci-fi they were born from.

After an Up-style, heady, depressing opening designed to inform the audience of where our protagonist Peter Quill comes from, it wisely buckles in to become a tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with some great characters and an assortment of wonderful moments that range from small and personal to universe-shattering. Unlike a lot of films of this ilk, there are even moments when the two collide.

Quill, desperate to make a name for himself as an outlaw with the nickname ‘Star Lord,’ was abducted from Earth as a child right after the most tragic and defining moment of his life, his mother’s death. It’s obvious why Chris Pratt of Andy Dwyer fame on Parks and Recreation was cast, as he imbues the same kind of childlike innocence in the character that makes you root for him even as he’s doing things that could be considered border-line despicable. The real brilliance of the casting is that he manages to give Quill a sense of palpable arrested development. While he’s gotten older and become a seasoned pirate, for lack of a better word, there is a part of him that has never progressed from that moment and the film pulls no punches with the obvious metaphors in this regard. While it is never mentioned by name, Quill obviously labors under a love of the Han Solo model of scoundrel. But rather than push that connection, writer/director James Gunn fills him with just as well-known but more left-field references to the pop culture he grasped onto as a child and hasn’t let go of.

In addition, Quill continues to carry around a mixtape his mother made for him. Played on his original Walkman (still in fantastic condition, surprisingly), it becomes a part of the character and the ’70s and ’80s tunes are built into the film in an extremely organic way. No doubt, the soundtrack will sell a bajillion copies. If one were cynical (and I’m sure there are a few critics who have already said so) I could talk about the film being so blatantly calculated with its feel good, curated soundtrack. I’m sure there are lots of other ways that people can complain about being manipulated (as if that doesn’t happen with every movie), but every example I can think of actually comes across as good, solid, commercial filmmaking. Everything that could come across as trite is embedded into the story or the characters and given a real excuse to be there, beyond being, to quote Mike Nelson from the Twilight Rifftrax commentary, “Coldly calculated to pander to your shrieking demographic.” As an example of commercial limitations being built into character, there are things like Quill’s use of the term “a-hole,” used to get the director his first PG-13 rating, which come across as part of his stunted growth.

And the characters are extremely well put together. The villains and side characters may lack a certain amount of depth, but Gunn does such a good job balancing and creating interpersonal relationships between the eponymous Guardians that one would struggle to come up with a standout. Given that means fully developing five separate characters from scratch (none of the main characters have been seeded in other films) and giving each of them a real arc, that’s not bad at all. Besides Quill, we also have Gamora, played by Star Trek alum Zoe Saldana, who is the adopted daughter of Marvel’s Darkseid analog, Thanos. She finally feels she’s found a chance to escape his clutches. If anyone gets a shorter shrift it’s her, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Part of her character simply requires her to have less of the humorous moments that pull the audience in. If her “sister” Nebula (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan, sporting one of the more impressive make-up jobs I’ve ever seen) had been further developed, it may have helped as she does have that interpersonal relationship to fall back on, but we may have to wait for the inevitable sequel for that. Marvel occupies this incredibly unique sphere where their films work individually, yet their almost assured success thus far has allowed them a tremendous amount of breathing room. If a plot thread isn’t overly developed in one film, it can be picked up in another. Gunn does a fantastic job wrapping things up in satisfying fashion at the end, but there is more than enough to bring along for another film. It’s a balancing act that most of the Marvel directors have proven deft at and speaks well to the planning that has gone into their overall series. (Ant-Man could always be the first blow against them, but I hold out hope that Peyton Reed will finally get a chance to pull off his superhero film that he’s wanted to do since he was prepping what sounds like a far superior version of Fantastic Four than what ended up coming out.)

In addition, we have a surprisingly good performance from Dave Bautista, who made his name as a professional wrestler. Based on what little I’d seen of his performances talking up matches and his serviceable but unremarkable role in Riddick, I was expecting him to bring a strong physicality to the role of Drax the Destroyer, for sure. But I was pleasantly surprised by the comic timing that he brings to the screen. He gets a good hook that allows humor to be built off him so he can be taken in by the audience much more than a typical scarred up, tattooed, hulking ball of rage. The characters that will undoubtedly find their way into the highest echelons of pop culture, as kids will undoubtedly latch onto them like crazy, are Rocket (aka Rocket Raccoon) and his ent-like sidekick Groot. While they will surely be turned into cute plush toys, neither comes across as particularly adorable for most of the screentime with Rocket managing in particular to come across more as irritable. There’s little chance of him being confused with the kind of CGI animals that inhabit family films where screenwriters work out their issues with how they think their dads worked too much. No, our little Rocket is a hissing, mangy bag of annoyance. And while I still personally would not have picked Bradley Cooper to voice him (I had spent a good deal of time rooting for the David Tennant rumor to be true, giving him a gruff British Isles accent as he does in some media he’s appeared in), he does a more than serviceable job. Also doing his job well is Vin Diesel, who manages to give Groot’s limited vocabulary a surprising range. What in many ways could come across as a one-note character is, through Diesel and some excellent work by the film’s animators, given a surprising depth and unique personality. Sometimes he feels like a Miyazaki character that accidentally fell into the wrong universe.

Gunn manages to herd these characters through several action sequences and alien worlds, giving us a rudimentary travelogue through Marvel’s cosmic branch. For decades the company has had a history of characters jumping around in deep space but this section of the publisher’s continuity had largely been overlooked in favor of Earth-based heroes in the films. Some of this may be because arguably the most well-known of these characters, The Silver Surfer, is tied to the Fantastic Four franchise over at Fox. Some of it is certainly due to a lack of name recognition compared to a character like Captain America (though really, Iron Man was only a sixties cartoon away from similar obscurity to the general public before that movie was a big hit.) And some of it was, no doubt, due to worries about the nature of the ensuing film. After all, apart from Star Wars/Trek, there have been relatively few space franchises that have made a splash at the box office. Put it all together and it’s no wonder people thought this was a big gamble for the studio and their Disney overlords. We’ve been given peaks and glimpses to this larger universe in the Thor films and The Avengers, but on the whole it is a very different project for them.

However, the Marvel name has deservedly become a huge selling point and they made all the right calls here. It may be sci-fi spectacle, but they have injected it with plenty of the Marvel DNA that typically means a fun and exciting story that won’t depress the hell out of you. They put together that rarest of things: A special effects blockbuster with not just a pulse, but a soul.

(Four and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Lego Movie and The Monuments Men

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Author’s Note: This review gets into the contrasting themes of these two films. Despite all attempts to the contrary, discussion of some of these themes may be looked at as spoilers, somewhat. For those that may be squeamish about such things, I would recommend seeing the films in question before reading the meat of this review. In service of this, I’ll go ahead and place my ratings at the beginning.

The Monuments Men- Three damns given out of five

The Lego Movie- Four and a half damns given out of five

Preservation vs. Creation

It’s an interesting dichotomy that arose from seeing The Monuments Men and The Lego Movie back to back.

With Monuments Men, you’ve got a (based on a true) story about a group tasked with saving art from the Third Reich in the waning days of the second world war. It is a film that asks, “What is art worth?” and answers with, “One whole heck of a lot.” Indeed, they are risking their very lives in an attempt to save landmarks and secure thousands upon thousands of pieces lifted by the Germans in their march across Europe.

Then along comes The Lego Movie which sticks its finger (or should I say clawed yellow hand?) in the very eye of the idea of preservation, even going so far as to call it a selfish and destructive concept because it can stifle the creative spirit. Granted, there is more to it than that, but the very idea that this comparison can be drawn is the Lego Movie’s own fault for actually exceeding expectations and being ABOUT something.

I suppose part of the split comes down to the medium. Paint, clay, bronze… these are traditional ways of creating works of art. Plastic bricks that are responsible for a lot of late night parental foot injuries are not. Between this and their origins, they are seen as toys. (I can hear a multitude of readers saying, “No crap.”) Of course, like clay vs. Play-Doh, crayons vs. pastels or a coloring book with a tray of hard watercolor paints, often what distinguishes an art supply from a toy boils down to what’s done with it.

In the case of the Lego movie, a lot is done with it and the movie itself is what I would consider to be art.

The Lego Movie involves a group of “master builders.” Figures in the literal sense (many of them small, yellow versions of characters from history or popular culture) that use their surroundings to create whatever comes to mind. Aside from well known characters like Batman (Will Arnett), it includes such originals as Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Unikitty (Community’s Allison Brie) and Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick effing Offerman). Most importantly, it includes Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is helping lead the resistance against Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plan for perfection.

In many ways the builders look down on the “regular” members of their society that stick to the instructions. People like Emmet Brickowoski (voiced by Parks and Rec’s Chris Pratt), the everyman hero of the film. Like everyone around him, he likes to watch awful TV shows and listen to the same pop song over and over. And admittedly, I could see some of myself in the master builders. Those who know me are aware of my disdain for many of the things that are as close as we seem to get to mainstream culture these days of niche entertainment, usually skewing towards what I see as more creative, funnier and better made.

Perhaps ironically, this is exactly what drew me to The Lego Movie. When it was announced, I figured it to be a hollow merchandising tie-in; slapping the name of a children’s toy with no built-in narrative and counting on name recognition to sell it to children and the parents seeking to keep them quiet after their offspring are bombarded by ads during Spongebob. Battleship alone proves my point about how utterly insane the Hollywood machine has gotten in terms of what it will greenlight. But Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the same team that dragged me kicking and screaming into admitting that 21 Jump Street was hilarious, instead used that expectation as a springboard to create one of the most bizarre, smart, subversive and original film experiences I’ve ever seen. Not to mention funny. These guys are now the top name in turning horrible concepts on paper into well-thought out entertainment. I’d almost describe The Lego Movie as one of the most experimental mainstream films I’ve ever seen. However, a lot of it is built on not just nostalgia for Lego’s marketing or a working knowledge of the brand and its use of licensing. It is also built on a heavy base of pop-cultural riffing (the Batman jokes alone are worth seeing the film for) and functions as both a parody of these types of merchandising events and of the Joseph Campbell hero model that gets grafted onto so many stories, even ones that it is out of place for (like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.)

In short, the film is built on what came before. The movie more or less acknowledges this in that it becomes a huge part of its themes. As such, it comes back around to the types of speeches given in Monuments Men when that film espouses how without protecting our history and culture, there is nothing to build on and people are lost. If not for the preserved works of the old masters, what will the new masters learn from?

If only that film let the action do the talking instead of the multiple soliloquies that George Clooney unlooses upon the fellows in his task force (and the audience in general.) The Monuments Men has too good a subject and too great a cast to be a total wash and I actually found myself interested throughout. After all, having Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin (from that movie that won best picture at the Oscars and never seemingly was spoken of again) is enough to prop up a goodly amount of its running time. In fact, it starts out pleasantly enough, seeming like it may end up being a low-key type of Kelly’s Heroes or a twist on a military heist film. Instead, it finds itself being sucked down into a dour foxhole of World War II film clichÈs with moments of fun punctuating it.

Because of their personalities and their mission, it’s easy to root for the Men anyway. But after watching both of the films back-to-back, it did bring up the unasked question of who they were to decide what was worth saving. Many of them were well-known artists in their own right, but when it comes down to the critically acclaimed against the popular, what is worth saving more? The Lego Movie seems to feel nothing is worth saving per se, but (and this probably relates to the fact that the medium itself, like an Etch-a-Sketch, is viewed as a temporary one) that things exist only to be broken down and used to make new things. Perhaps it is a natural extension of the Remix Generation which often seeks to recycle others’ work into their own. (Of course as a cartoonist, I know this can be a crucial learning tool, but let’s not digress too far.) More importantly, Lego would argue that the great and the functionally mundane are of equal importance and you can’t necessarily even have one without the other. Of course in most cases the creative-types of the real world do not have to worry about preservation when they create new things. Art supplies are prevalent and the digital world offers an unlimited canvas. Not only do we not have to destroy the work of another to create, but we are lucky to be in a society where both are able to exist side-by-side at the moment. In Lego there is a bit of an artificial battle for resources, one that ultimately may not make total sense, but the metaphor is so clever and heartwarmingly delivered that I can’t possibly argue too much about it. The fact is, no matter how imaginative or dull a child may be, they need play.

In the end, The Monuments Men, despite the things that are right about it, almost feels like a dirge, carefully praising art while mourning what is lost. The Lego Movie is a joyous celebration of creation and destruction, seeing them as necessary yin and yang to each other. While my head veers towards the message of the former, my heart can’t help but applaud the latter.