Tag Archives: The Avengers

Come and Get Your ‘Guardians’ Love

Guardians of the Galaxy
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some language)
121 minutes

Everybody loves The Avengers, but let’s face it. When it comes to personality, the members of Marvel’s prize superhero team are kind of square. Patriots, Asgardian princes and scientists with anger issues are only so interesting. Even the wise-cracking Tony Stark is a bazillionaire and a genius. Not very easy to relate to.

Maybe that’s why the ensemble of sorry wretches at the heart of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is so appealing. It’s made up of outlaws and losers, like Drax the Destroyer (played by wrestler Dave Bautista), an elaborately tattooed muscleman who is out for vengeance and takes everything extremely literally. Naturally, this is the source of much hilarity.

Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana in butt-kicking mode), a green-skinned mercenary with daddy issues. After all, she’s the adopted daughter of Thanos, the wrinkly, purple baddie first glimpsed in the end credits of “The Avengers.”

Even weirder are Rocket, a resourceful, genetically-modified talking raccoon with a temper (his feisty voice is supplied by Bradley Cooper), and his best pal, Groot (Vin Diesel), a self-regenerating tree — just go with it –- who is surprisingly clever but boasts a limited vocabulary.

The merry ringmaster of this improbably lovable menagerie is Peter Quill, who also goes by the cocky alias “Star-Lord.” In an immensely winning performance, Chris Pratt plays Quill as a roguishly charming space pilot in the mold of Harrison Ford’s swaggering, self-obsessed Han Solo. Truly, a star is born.

To say that “Guardians” director James Gunn was influenced by the early work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is an understatement. Adapted from one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, the movie is a rollicking sci-fi-fantasy space opera with a rascally, retro vibe that recalls the original Indiana Jones and Star Wars flicks.

The film’s opening scene, in which Quill parts a valuable relic from its temple pedestal on the planet Morag, is pure “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” goosed to the groove of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”  A sequence set in a mining colony faintly echoes that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Mos Eisley Cantina. There are thrilling space battles galore, and Rocket and Groot are basically C-3PO and R2-D2 with more attitude.

With its population of extraterrestrials in a rainbow of skin tones and its intergalactic fashions — that’s some wig, Glenn Close! — “Guardians” also calls to mind “Star Trek” … on crack … as Gunn pokes into the freakiest corners of the Marvel Universe. But the film never feels derivative and it’s a ton of fun.

Based on the comic book series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the movie begins on a somber note with the death of young Star-Lord’s mother. That formative chapter in Peter Quill’s life is followed by another major event, the arrival of a spacecraft sent by his long absent father to retrieve his son from Earth.

Cut to the grown Quill, who is now quite comfortable living in outerspace. To his chagrin, his Star-Lord alias is met with disdain by most residents of the galaxy, thanks to his reputation as a rather smug smuggler who frequently runs afoul of the law.

Quill is after his latest score — a coveted silver orb — when he literally collides with Gamora, who has been sent to retrieve the object for Thanos’ ally, Ronan (Lee Pace).

Ronan is the genocidal leader of warrior race the Kree and he’s also the movie’s weakest link. Pace, who was so adorable on “Pushing Daisies” but now specializes in playing menacing fantasy monarchs (see his elf king, Thranduil, in “The Hobbit” trilogy), doesn’t do a whole lot besides make cartoonishly dire pronouncements in a very deep voice. He also glowers at equally blue hench-lady Nebula. (Yes, Doctor Who fans, that is Karen Gillan, aka Amy Pond, under all that makeup.)

Ronan is after the same thing every Marvel villain seems to be after. I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to reveal that it’s an infinity stone. I know these glowing MacGuffins are one of the things that unify all the films in the franchise, but am I the only one who’s getting sick of them?

Back to the plot: While Gamora is after Quill in order to collect the orb, Rocket and Groot are after him as well, hoping to collect the bounty on his head. In the process, the whole posse winds up in prison, where they are joined by Drax and work together to mastermind one of the most entertaining jailbreaks in recent cinematic memory. Normally, these guys are out for themselves, but when they realize what will happen to their galaxy if Ronan gets his hands on the orb, they make an uneasy pact to save the place they call home.

After cutting his teeth on dark comic book satire “Super” and low-budget horror flick “Slither,” Gunn penned the “Guardians” script with Nicole Perlman, who is rumored to be toiling on a Black Widow spin-off for Marvel. (That could bode very, very well.)

Gunn and Perlman’s “Guardians” screenplay is hilarious and kinda sweet and just when it starts to get too cheesy, the director pulls it back from the brink with the perfect dose of snark and playful visual effects that put the considerable skills of the film’s VFX crew on eye-popping display.

The movie’s best device is a nostalgic one. Because Quill is from Earth, he’s constantly making references that baffle his alien buddies but connect with the audience, especially anyone who fondly remembers Troll dolls, the Walkman and Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.”

The film’s tone is dictated largely by its inspired soundtrack, built around Quill’s beloved Awesome Mix Tape of ’70s and ’80s pop.

Just be prepared. You will never, ever get “Hooked on a Feeling” out of your head again. It’s the new “Let It Go.

My Tortured Love Affair With Comic-Con

Dear San Diego Comic-Con,

We’ve had our good times, you and I, but over the last few years, we’ve had our differences too.

I’m not the bright-eyed, energetic pop culture junkie I once was. I’m older. I have a kid. I have responsibilities. I can’t be bothered with noise and crowds and inconvenience. I still consider myself a die-hard nerd, but you probably won’t catch me standing outside movie theaters at midnight with my lightsaber or Harry Potter wand anymore. I no longer have the stamina to part a sea of hygienically challenged fanboys, poster tubes strapped to their shoulders like samurai swords, backpacks full of munchies and Monster Energy Drinks.

I’m not the only one who has changed. You used to be this cool thing that only certain people knew about. Then suddenly, you were popular. You started off as a small gathering of comic book collectors in a hotel ballroom. Now you’re a juggernaut, sprawling all over the San Diego Convention Center and beyond.

Every media outlet, from Entertainment Weekly to the 5 o’clock news, is compelled to cover you. Your latest installment, kicking off tonight, is expected to attract a horde of at least 130,000. Attending used to be a relatively simple affair, as long as one was on the ball and made one’s plans early. It now requires an exhausting scramble for tickets and exorbitantly priced hotel rooms.

So several years ago, after much agonizing, I quit you, Comic-Con. But I have a confession to make.

I still miss you.

I miss ducking out of work early and rolling into San Diego on Preview Night just in time for badge pick-up. We’d check into our over-priced hotel and stuff our faces with Extraordinary Desserts while marking up the official Comic-Con schedule, formulating our strategy for the long weekend ahead.

After a night of terrible sleep, we’d rise early, tug on our nerdiest T-shirts, and hike the mile to the Convention Center. If we were in a hurry, we’d splurge on a cab so we could join the queue to gain admittance to that wondrous place known as Hall H, the cavernous room where early-bird movie buffs catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s most anticipated future flicks. We were lucky if we got to sit in the very back of the room, where giant video monitors saved us from squinting blearily at the celebrities on stage, whose heads appeared no bigger than pins.

Sure, there was the year we had to sit through the “Twilight” panel and listen to thousands of “Twilight” moms shriek over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. There was the time the hall went on lock-down after a guy in a Harry Potter T-shirt stabbed another guy in the eye with a pencil. And there was always that one slobbering idiot just waiting to ask Scarlett Johansson an incredibly inappropriate question during the Q-and-A session.

Still, I must admit I miss Hall H. I miss sitting in that massive room from sun-up to sundown, listening to actors and writers and directors talk about their upcoming movies and watching sneak previews, new trailers and footage fresh from the set. Somehow, it didn’t matter that it was going to be up on the Internet by the next day. We didn’t mind subsisting on hot dogs and cardboard cheese pizza or the delirium that kicked in about the fourth hour spent in that windowless prison. There was something electric about being there, about being one of the first people to witness it all.

That time the entire cast of “The Avengers” took the stage was pretty awesome. So was the time Harrison Ford showed up to promote “Cowboys & Aliens” and was absolutely flummoxed by the standing ovation he received. Anything moderated by Patton Oswalt or featuring Guillermo del Toro and his favorite word — it begins with an “F” — is always a good time. Impeccably dressed in a natty suit, Robert Downey Jr. is … well … he’s just the man.

Heck, I even miss standing in that endless, serpentine line for Hall H, which resembles something out of “The Hunger Games.” In that mass of humanity, you are guaranteed to meet a stranger who shares whatever interest floats your geeky boat, whether it be Harry Potter, “Doctor Who,” “Transformers,” “The Goonies,” “Star Trek,” “Firefly,” or some obscure anime series. Communing with like-minded nerds is a huge part of your sloppy charm, Comic-Con.

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Let’s not forget the cosplayers, a brave and astonishing species unto themselves, living out their private fantasies in public in a shameless parade of elaborate finery. Here’s to you, glow-in-the-dark “Tron” pajama guy, chubby Batman, baby Thor, and Slave Leia, bold enough to don the sacred gold bikini. Here’s to you, amateur Tony Stark, builder of the most awesome, fully functional Iron Man suit ever. Here’s to you, Stormtroopers, always kind enough to pose for a picture, and tiny Jawas with light-up eyes, and that dude dressed like Luke in the Dagobah training sequence, a baby strapped to his back, clad in a Yoda costume. You rock.

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As if that wasn’t enough, there is the exhibit hall floor, a veritable wonderland of geek culture, where fans jostle each other shoulder to shoulder in search of that elusive collectible or a must-have surprise — a T-shirt, an action figure, a bumper sticker, a handmade Harry Potter scarf, an indie comic book, a signed poster.

At Comic-Con, there are wonders waiting around every corner. You might happen upon Stan Lee in the hallway or the entire cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — sans Patrick Stewart, of course.

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I think what I remember most fondly about you, Comic-Con, is dragging myself through the Gaslamp Quarter at dusk in search of a watering hole where my friends and I could rehash the amazing events of our day, swapping stories and laughing over newly forged inside jokes. We’d head back to the hotel, dump the contents of our complimentary Comic-Con bags out on the bed and sort through our swag. Most of it would inevitably end up in the trash, but at the time it seemed like the most precious of treasures.

Then we’d settle down for another night of terrible sleep so we could wake up and do it all again the next day. It was the best.

I think that says it all, dear Comic-Con. Maybe one day I’ll return to you. I hope you miss me, too, just a little bit.

Affectionately yours,

Lavender

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Lavender Vroman and Kristy Rivas at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Joss: An Appreciation of the Man Who Made ‘Buffy’

Happy birthday, Joss Whedon.

On Monday, the “Avengers” director turned 50, which got me thinking about the fact that it only took a little under a half-century for Hollywood to give the man the respect he deserves.

Whedon is currently filming “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Due in theaters next year, this hotly anticipated sequel could very well surpass the success of its predecessor, the third highest grossing movie of all time.

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What Whedon accomplished with “The Avengers” was nearly impossible. A movie starring no less than nine major stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, and featuring at least four of the most popular superheroes in comic book history could have easily been a disaster. Instead, Whedon effortlessly juggled an unwieldy cast, some weird shifts in tone, a massive visual effects budget and a monster-sized plot, resulting in one of the most entertaining adaptations yet. If you doubt the difficulty of this, you only have to look at the potential fiasco that is the upcoming Justice League film, aka “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

But to understand the essence of Joss, the reason he is revered by thousands upon thousands of adoring fans, you’ll need to sample one of his lesser known works, like his contemporary, black and white, low budget interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or the too quickly cancelled series “Firefly” or “Dollhouse.” If you’re strapped for time, there’s always “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” the brilliant musical short Whedon and friends threw together when a writers strike sidelined them from their usual employment.

To truly appreciate Whedon, however, you must revisit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the show that spawned my undying affection for the writer, director, producer extraordinaire and taught me, for the very first time, what it is to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a television series.

My initial experience of Joss Whedon came courtesy of the 1992 feature film “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I was 16, it was summer and my friends and I went to see the horror comedy at the local discount theater. We quickly became obsessed, despite the fact that the movie is corny and ridiculous.

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Long before Sarah Michelle Gellar donned Buffy’s iconic mini skirts, Kristy Swanson starred as a stereotypical, blonde high school Valley girl whose social life is ruined when she discovers she is the chosen one, fated to save the world from a vampire menace.

Buffy’s vamp-slaying trainer, Merrick, is improbably played by Donald Sutherland. He helps her unleash her innate powers, including menstrual cramps that serve as vamp-detecting radar. Seriously.

One of the vamp villains is played by Pee Wee himself, Paul Reubens. The other is played by Rutger Hauer, who chews the scenery as if he was appearing on London’s West End. An adorable Luke Perry pops up in a trench coat and combat boots as Buffy’s slacker ally, Pike. (An early version of Spike, perhaps?) The soundtrack is actually … kinda … cool.

Even now, if you look on the Internet Movie Database, Whedon is credited as the screenwriter of this silly early incarnation of “Buffy.” But Whedon apparently had little involvement with the final version of the film. The studio didn’t “get” his original script -– this was to become a running theme throughout his career — and tinkered with it until it was beyond recognition.

Despite the studio tampering, there’s something that remains of Whedon in the 1992 “Buffy,” an appealing irreverence and weirdness, a surprising sweetness even, and I think it was this that my 16-year-old self subconsciously responded to.

Five years later, Whedon was given the do-over he’d been hoping for, bringing his intact version of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the now defunct WB network. At the time, I thought this was a strange concept for a series, as did many people. I remember watching the first few episodes, which featured Gellar battling actors in cheesy prosthetics, a cheerleading mom who turns out to be a witch and Nicholas Brendon’s lovable nerd, Xander, falling for a sexy teacher who is actually a man-eating praying mantis. It was like “The Twilight Zone” meets “The X-Files Junior.” I wasn’t that impressed.

But then the show started getting interesting and it became clear that it was about more than superficial teen angst tinged with the supernatural. Midway through Season 2, Buffy succumbed to her crush on brooding vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) with deadly consequences and it was apparent that Whedon was slowly transforming the series into something epic. “Buffy” had suddenly become a profound exploration of the dark desires and inescapable agonies of youth.

Mind you, this was before “Lost” and the myriad shows currently on air that start out with a deceptively simple premise and gradually reveal an over-arching mythology that is complex and compelling.

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Whedon was never content to merely deliver a bit of decent entertainment. He was constantly pushing the envelope and experimenting, testing the boundaries of traditional television. If there’s a flaw to one of the producer’s recent projects, ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” it’s that the series doesn’t take enough risks. There’s not enough Joss in it.

To appreciate just how experimental Whedon is, you must check out, not “Buffy,” but its spin-off, “Angel,” which went to bizarre and awesome extremes in its manipulation of traditional story conventions. The show doesn’t always work but it’s quite a marvel.

Along with Kevin Williamson and J.J. Abrams, Whedon can be credited with the entertainment industry’s obsession with the “meta.” “Buffy,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity” were among the first shows to exhibit a self-referential wit that is common today in everything from cartoons to comic book movies. They toyed with language in delightful ways. Their characters indulged in contemporary wordplay clever enough to rival Shakespeare. Their dialogue was intricately layered with pop culture references and snarky social commentary, and Whedon was undoubtedly the master.

More than this, Whedon has always displayed an uncanny grasp of character, which is why the high school clichés of “Buffy” evolved into improbably rich and unpredictable personalities. Boreanaz’ mumbling hunk of a bloodsucker became a sadistic demon. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow, a shrinking violet of a brain, became volatile and powerful. Even a character as two-dimensional as Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia Chase blossomed into someone worth rooting for. Diving deep into the murky and empathetic depths of character is a mark of every Whedon show.

The director also knows how to elicit the best performances out of every actor, down to the smallest supporting player. He tends to work with the same people again and again and he alone seems to hold the power to unearth the glittering gems of hidden talent in certain performers, like Gellar and woefully underrated actors Fran Kranz, Eliza Dushku, Alexis Denisof, Summer Glau, Amy Acker and James Marsters.

There’s a reason Whedon’s creations have consistently inspired the adoration of fans. While he respects his audience, he never condescends to them and never compromises his unique vision simply to curry favor with them. He’s celebrated for making decisions that irk fans, like killing off major characters with no warning –- poor Jenny Calendar — or abruptly turning them evil or suddenly introducing a sister –- remember Dawn? –- or a child who didn’t exist before.

With “Buffy,” Whedon constantly challenged television censors by pushing the limits of sex and violence, and he did it so boldly and assuredly that The WB hardly seemed to notice. But it wasn’t just about sensationalism, there was some serious intent and artistry going on as well. “Buffy” was one of the first shows to depict a lesbian relationship, albeit it wrapped up in Wiccan metaphors. The nearly silent episode “Hush” is a creepy and masterful work of horror. The musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” is still one of the greatest musical episodes ever. When Buffy’s mom kicks the bucket in Season 5, the shock of it quickly gives way to a heart-rending rumination on loss.

Even when, in a pretty cliché move and not for the first time either, Whedon killed off his heroine and resurrected her, the resulting story was more intriguing than you’d imagine as Buffy grapples with the harsh realities of living after tasting the peace and pleasures of the afterlife.

Whedon may have dramatically changed the TV landscape, but on a more personal level, he gave this viewer six years of obsessive fun, fulfilling discussion, engaging analysis and bonding over “Buffy.” As a college student, I gathered weekly with roommates and friends to watch each new episode. After I graduated, the tradition continued with friends back home.

In recent years, I’ve watched younger friends embrace the series with the same curiosity and passion. I’m glad they’re discovering the classic that is “Buffy” and the genius of Whedon. There’s so much more to him than “The Avengers.”

Below, I’ve put together a little photographic reminiscence of my “Buffy” years. Hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane. 

Friend and fellow “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan Karyn Singer puts a stake in the 1992 movie.

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From left, Lavender Vroman, Sonia Martinez (now Whitehead), Nick Vroman, Karyn Singer and Nathan Whitehead wait outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara to meet some of the cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Lavender Vroman with Juliet Landau and James Marsters, aka Drusilla and Spike.  

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From left, “Buffy” enthusiasts Michelle Cowan Pollock, Catherine Newell, Suzanne Stroosma and Fawn Kemble wait for a signing outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara. 

Lavender Vroman with James Marsters at Metro Comics.

 Lavender Vroman with Anthony Stewart Head and Alyson Hannigan.

555676_10201175138445539_836365514_nKristy Rivas, left, and Lavender Vroman awaiting an appearance by Joss Whedon at WonderCon Anaheim in 2013. 

Photos in story courtesy http://www.comicsonline.com, buffy.wikia.com.