Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘James Gunn’

What can one say about David Yarovesky’s Brightburn? I can only pass on my response to seeing the first trailer for the film, which was to paraphrase what Rudyard Kipling said after first encountering a particularly startling story by Arthur Machen – all I could think of was the sheer audacity of the thing. This is one of those films built around a single breathtakingly good idea, the kind of thing that makes one wonder why no-one came up with it earlier. That said, it is strange to consider how a film which is by its very nature almost totally derivative can feel so fresh and original.

The film is set in Brightburn, a small town in rural Kansas. Almost at once we meet Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a farming couple whose dearest wish is to have a child. But all is fruitless, until one night when a strange meteorite lands in the woods near their home. Investigation reveals that it is not really a meteorite, but some kind of wreckage, and within it they find a baby boy, miraculously unharmed. Their prayers have been answered!

Well, ten years or so skip by and the baby has grown up to be Brandon (Jackson A Dunn), an extremely bright young lad, who ends up taking flak from his peers as a result, as is so often the case. But all is good until something flickers into activity in the wreckage buried under the Breyers’ barn. Brandon begins to become surly and uncommunicative, which his adoptive parents naturally assume is due to the onset of puberty. Kyle takes him off to the woods on a hunting trip and explains how it is perfectly natural to feel certain urges and impulses, and that Brandon shouldn’t be afraid to act on those now and then. This is advice he probably comes to regret.

Tori in particular is as devoted to Brandon as ever, even though his erratic behaviour continues: a girl who has rejected his awkward romantic overtures ends up with a pulverised hand. The sheriff is called, but no charges are proferred – and the sheriff soon has other things on his plate to worry about, anyway, such as a string of mysterious disappearances and deaths (coincidentally amongst people who have ticked Brandon off, funnily enough). But how are the forces of truth, justice and the American way supposed to contend with a killer capable of throwing trucks, melting holes in steel doors and moving too fast to be seen…?

The film makes no real attempt to disguise what it’s doing, which seems sensible because what would be the point? The whole raison d’etre of the film is to subvert one particular story, which even though it’s only about 80 years old has already achieved the stature almost of folklore. For very good legal reasons, Brightburn is very careful about just how closely and particularly it references its source material. It seems slightly perverse that the first organisation listed in the ‘Thanks To’ section of the credits is Marvel Studios, while Warner Brothers (legal owners of that source material) are not even mentioned.

Then again, the producer of Brightburn is James Gunn, and a perverse sense of very dark humour is exactly what we would all have expected from him up until about five years ago. These days Gunn is famous for his work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but before that he wrote and directed twisted genre films like Slither and Super (an extremely obscure reference to which duly appears in Brightburn). Brightburn is cut very much from the same cloth, because for all of its SF trappings and the references to the superhero genre, this is at heart a gleefully gory and brutal horror movie.

Well, that’s what happens when you couple the almost limitless power of an alien demigod with the psyche of a messed-up boy on the cusp of adolescence, I suppose. This is, obviously, a nightmarish prospect, and the film is energetically inventive in finding ways of illustrating this. It’s only a brisk ninety minutes or so in length, and doesn’t hang about worrying too much about things like establishing atmosphere or deep characterisations; the fact that most of these characters are thinly tweaked versions of well-known archetypes helps in this respect.

Even so, I still feel the film really misses a trick – a particularly brutal twist of the knife, as it were – by suggesting that Brandon is effectively the victim of brainwashing or possession by something from his place of origin. There’s no sense of his inner conflict, of him fighting a losing battle with the temptations presented by his burgeoning powers and finally succumbing to corruption and evil. The film just seems to want to get on with the set-piece horror sequences. As a result he emerges as something of a stock figure from paedophobic horror cinema, obviously a spiritual descendant of Damien from The Omen as well as (possibly) the biological offspring of someone from a planet named after a noble gas.

However, this isn’t an entirely superficial piece of storytelling, either: front and centre for most of the film is Elizabeth Banks, one of those people you underestimate at your peril – I know she is probably best-known as the one with the crazy hair from the Hunger Games films, but she has a CV filled with smart choices (she was in Slither, which may explain her connection with Gunn). Banks gives the film some real heart and a sense of angst, as Tori initially flatly refuses to believe that there is anything amiss with her son, only to slowly realise it may be a mistake to take undocumented space refugees into your family, no matter how cute they may initially appear. David Denman has a slightly less flashy role as the father, but still gets some good moments and really makes you feel them.

It’s also quite impressive that the film manages to stay focused on its concept as carefully as it does, and never seems in danger of turning into an obvious spoof or exercise in tongue-in-cheek humour. This is all done in deadly earnest, which, ironically, is one of the things which makes it feel so fresh and fun. This is not a perfect movie, but (provided you can take the grisly moments) it is a very impressive and entertaining one. It may sound like dark burlesque or subversion of its source material, but in an admittedly strange fashion it honours that source material at least as well as any of the most recent adaptations of it.

Read Full Post »

It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

Read Full Post »

Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.

This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).

guardians-of-the-galaxy-movie-poster1

Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter’s possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan’s renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes…?

It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It’s their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn’t much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).

Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel’s point of view, given that it’s their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year’s Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright’s vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.

Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.

The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter’s final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.

This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.

The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team’s trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.

What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that’s incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.

Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it’s incredibly difficult not to like.

Read Full Post »

As I have mentioned before, this seems to be a landmark year for the superhero movie – not necessarily because they are coming out in record numbers (although this year has already seen the release of The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, with Captain America still to appear) but because they’re now such a part of the cultural landscape that their makers seem more willing to experiment, in terms of both tone and setting.

All of the foregoing, however, are quite big studio pictures aimed fairly and squarely at a mainstream audience. Boldly going where virtually no superhero film has gone before (note the qualifier; we shall return to this) is James Gunn’s Super, which is surely the stuff that cults are made of.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a rather nondescript short-order cook who has not had the happiest of lives. What happy memories he has revolve around his being a law-abiding citizen and relationshipo with his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). However, Sarah’s own personal problems result in her leaving him for the clutches of slimy local gangster Jacques (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).  Utterly distraught and bereft, Frank is at a complete loss, and…

Well, here the movie gives you a choice of options. Either, a) God appears to Frank in a vision, embodied by Christian network figurehead the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion, as his fans have never seen him before), and tells him he’s been chosen to be an evil-battling superhero, or, b) Frank has a mental breakdown and imagines that God appears to him in a vision, etc etc.

Needless to say, Frank is a singularly inept and rubbish superhero. He has a rubbish costume (spandex not favouring his fuller figure). He has a rubbish gimmick (his signature move is to whack people about the head with a pipe wrench). He has a rubbish battlecry (‘Shut up, crime!’). Even his kid sidekick, when he eventually acquires one, is rubbish: she is the girl from the local comic-book shop (played by Ellen Page), who is strong on enthusiasm but even shorter on sanity than Frank himself. Nevertheless, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie begin to make a name for themselves as crime-fighters, and their ultimate showdown with Jacques and his thugs draws closer…

I only really know James Gunn from his comedy-horror movie Slither (which I enjoyed very much when not actually fighting the urge to gag), and in many ways Super is clearly the work of the same creator. There are the same deft shifts in tone between absurd comedy, splatter, and genuine emotion, and the same strong content. This is a very graphic movie in nearly every department. Calling it extreme isn’t quite enough – then again, calling it extremely extreme just sounds stupid. Suffice to say there is a scene where someone sees a vision in a pool of vomit, and this is not the most twisted moment in the movie by a long way.

Most of the publicity material I’ve seen for Super describes it as an out-and-out comedy, which I think does the film a disservice. If you turn up expecting wall-to-wall laughs, as I did, you’ll probably be very disappointed. The film isn’t afraid to explore the emotions of the main characters in some detail and with great sympathy, and Wilson gives a terrifically well-rounded performance as a man who suspects he’s gone off the deep end but doesn’t know how to stop himself. It’s probably a coincidence that of the other main players, Page and Bacon have both been in X-Men movies and Liv Tyler was in one of the Hulks: the film itself never winks to the audience.

The obvious comparison to make here would be with Kick-Ass, but, readers, I have a confession to make: haven’t seen it (yet – review coming next month) . On its own terms Super is very accomplished, and manages something significant within the genre. Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel made the point very strongly that any real-life superhero would not be cool. Anyone driven to dress up in that sort of outfit and beat up small-time crooks must obviously have profound mental problems. Even those movies which have addressed this point (including the Watchmen movie itself and The Dark Knight) have still implicitly gone to imply ‘…but they’re still cool, though, right?’ In Super, the Crimson Bolt is sometimes a clown and sometimes a disturbing psycho, but he never approaches coolness.

I laughed a lot during Super, but I also found myself genuinely caring about the main characters even during their most psychotic moments. I suppose it could be argued that at the very end the film slides into out-and-out sentimentality, but by this point I was prepared to cut it some slack. Gunn’s movie contains some very strong stuff, but on the whole it’s good stuff too.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

The spirit of the classic 50s sci-fi B-movie lives on in James Gunn’s Slither, although the flesh in which it is clad is, to put it mildly, somewhat contorted. Apparently Gunn has history with the notorious American indie company Troma, who were responsible for such unforgettable gems as the Toxic Avenger series and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and, indeed, one of their movies gets referenced here – but Slither is anything but cheap and cheerful trash. No, it’s very well-put-together and darkly witty trash.

Set in the small town of Wheelsy, this is the story of everyday American folk who lead ordinary lives right up until the occasion of their usually premature and invariably disgustingly horrific deaths. The cause of all this is a meteorite which lands in the woods outside town and which carries within it an alien organism with a life-cycle so grotesque it makes HR Giger’s famous creation look like prime family pet material by comparison. A voracious plague-parasite with a hive-mind spread throughout its victims, it wastes no time in infecting the first person it comes across – fairly objectionable local resident Grant Grant (Michael Rooker). Inevitably Grant’s lovely and wholesome wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) soon starts wondering why her hubby is acting so oddly and what those funny marks on his body are. Meanwhile, the local store is wondering why Grant’s buying such vast quantities of raw meat and everyone in the neighbourhood is wondering why their pet dogs and cats are vanishing. It looks like being a particularly stressful week for the Wheelsy PD and their chief Bill Party (cult superstar Nathan Fillion) – who, conveniently enough, has had a bit of a thing for Starla since way back when.

Gunn looks very much like a big fan of early David Cronenberg movies and pretty much the entire body of work of George Romero and he’s managed to come up with a story which allows him to filch the best bits of their work along with 50s sci-fi cliches. The first part of the film is modelled very much along I Married A Monster From Outer Space lines but, as it progresses and the spread of the organism accelerates (rapidly but plausibly), the plot changes from ‘what’s wrong with hubby’ to ‘there’s a monster on the loose!’ to ‘there are hundreds of small but disgustingly phallic monsters on the loose!’ to ‘zombie apocalypse!’ to, er… well, ‘complete body-horror splatterfest meltdown’, a subgenre I’ve probably just made up. (There’s also a brief gag where the soundtrack blatantly turns into the theme from Predator.)

To be fair, this film doesn’t have the psychological rigour of Cronenberg, or the political sophistication of Romero’s best movies, but it makes up for it with a refusal to simply copy the films it’s referencing – it brings something new to every scenario, and isn’t afraid to follow its ideas through to their logical conclusion.

There’s a sense in which Slither looks like one of those movies the script for which was commissioned by a special effects/makeup company simply as a showcase for them to show exactly what they’re capable of (the most famous example of this kind of thing being probably From Dusk Till Dawn). They certainly get the job done as the effects in this movie are universally accomplished and universally repulsive. You want ropily muscular ovipositors emerging from unexpected bodily orifices? Check! You want the grossly distended bodies of the human hosts of alien broodlings? Check! You want heads blown away by point-blank shotgun blasts? Check! People graphically sliced in two? Check! Cannibalism? Check! A crowd of people merging into a single fleshy super-organism? Check! Acid-spewing zombies? Check! I could go on but I’m planning to eat at some point in the future. God only knows how the most graphic horror movie I’ve seen in years got away with only a 15 certificate in the UK – twenty years ago this would have been on the banned list, I’m certain.

As you’ve probably gathered, this kind of film is not the sort of thing you would usually associate with either reasonable performances or subtle comedy, but it’s very much to Slither‘s credit that it has both. You’re either familiar with Nathan Fillion’s rumpled charms or you’re not and while he may have been hired here simply in the hope this would encourage Firefly‘s dedicated (to put it mildly) fanbase to bump up the box office (certainly his performance as Bill Party is very Mal Reynolds-ish in places), he gives the film a strong and likeable centre. Banks and Rooker are also effective, as is Tania Saulnier as a teenager caught up in the icky nightmare and Gregg Henry as Wheelsy’s Mayor. Elsewhere the film has some rather droll things to say about small-town life and never completely loses its sense of humour, even though that humour is tending towards darkness by the end.

In a way it’s a shame that Slither was released right on the doorstep of blockbuster season, as it’s bound to get squashed by the much bigger releases coming out over the next few weeks. That said, the mainstream appeal of a film like this was always going to be a bit limited, and the kind of people who watch this sort of thing are the kind of people dedicated enough to seek it out, if required to. I wouldn’t like to go and see this kind of film too often, and Slither is an unusually accomplished example of the genre anyway – but as something a bit different from the norm, I was hugely impressed, my enjoyment thoroughly eclipsing my nausea. Probably not for everyone, but those with open minds and strong stomachs will definitely be entertained.

Read Full Post »