Videophiled: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ versus ‘Time Bandits’

GuardiansGalaxy
Disney

Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.

It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.

But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.

Chris Pratt is shaggily charming as the rogue-for-hire with a souped-up space ship and a soft spot for underdog causes, Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the butt-kicking, green-skinned assassin who wants revenge against her adoptive father, wrestling star Dave Bautista is the muscular and very literal-minded Drax the Destroyer (again, on a mission of vengeance), Bradley Cooper voices the gun-toting, wise-cracking Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel is the heart of the team as Groot, a walking tree of few words.

Here’s a deleted scene from the Blu-ray:

The DVD includes a short promo for the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The wealth of extras is saved for the two-disc Blu-ray (which features both standard and 3D versions of the film). Director James Gunn really engages with the film for the commentary track. He’s not new to the format—he did commentary for Slither, Super, even his screenwriting debut film Tromeo & Juliet—but you gotta figure he’s been waiting his career for something like this and he’s clearly engaged to share it all. He’s also in the playful 21-minute “Guide to the Galaxy with James Gunn,” which crams a lot of territory into a very short piece. There’s also a short overview on the visual effects, a brief collection of deleted and extended scenes (with optional commentary by Gunn), and an obligatory gag reel.

Also on cable VOD, iTunes, Amazon Instant, and other digital rental services.

TimeBanditsBD
Criterion

Time Bandits (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is a fractured fairy tale from the cracked imagination of Terry Gilliam, who wrote the warped adventure with fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin. It’s a strange and weird and wonderful mix of boy’s own adventure, Python-esque humor, and grim irony, all wrapped in tall tales, ancient myths, and historical figures. British schoolboy Kevin (Craig Warnock) is pulled through a series of holes in time and space by a raucous band of renegade dwarfs (among them David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, and Jack Purvis) attempting to plunder their way through history. They’re no criminal masterminds, mind you, and the incredulous Kevin becomes a voice of reason and even something of an anchor when the gang gets tangled up in silly spats and Three Stooges-like shenanigans. And he gets the ride of his life as he meets Napoleon (Ian Holm, who is delighted by “little things hitting each other”), Robin Hood (John Cleese), and Agamemnon (Sean Connery) along the way.

This was Gilliam’s sophomore picture and he makes a significant leap from his debut solo effort Jabberwocky as both a storyteller and a cinematic artist. He lets us see it all through Kevin’s eyes, from a roaring horse that breaks out of his bedroom closet like a dragon from a storybook to the comforting entrance of Sean Connery as the heroic Agamemnon adopting Kevin like he’s an orphaned prince. But the whimsy and idealized heroics are leavened with satirical jabs—Robin Hood’s men are not so merry and their benevolence comes at an unexpected price—and the whole adventure turns out to be monitored by the scheming personification of Evil (David Warner). The colorful set pieces, imaginative design, and physical humor seems aimed at kids, while the dark satire presages Brazil, making it as much an adult film as a children’s fantasy. It’s hard to tell if the grim coda is Gilliam’s idea of a tragedy or a happy ending, but it does tap into a primal urge of adolescent rebellion: a child’s revenge fantasy made real. It’s also hilarious and imaginative and completely unruly, emphasis on that last note. Chaos reigns, evil exists, and the best we can do is keep our eyes open and hold our own.

Criterion released an edition on DVD back in the early days of the format and Image released a disappointing Blu-ray a few years ago. This edition comes from a new 2K digital transfer from the original camera negative supervised by Gilliam and it is a great improvement over all previous American disc releases. It includes the new featurette “Creating the Worlds of Time Bandits” with production designer Milly Burns and costume designer James Acheson discussing the design and creation of the world and illustrated with production sketches and artwork and stills from the finished film.

Carried over from previous Criterion releases is commentary by director Terry Gilliam, co-screenwriter and actor Michael Palin, and actors John Cleese, David Warner, and Craig Warnock, recorded in 1997 and featured on the original laserdisc release. There are also some archival interviews: Terry Gilliam in discussion with film scholar Peter von Bagh as the 1998 Midnight Sun Film Festival and actress Shelley Duvall with Ton Snyder on Tomorrow from 1981. And in place of the booklet is a fold-out insert with an essay by film critic David Sterritt on one side and reproduction of the time-hole map from the film on the other.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Fear and Loathing with Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Criterion)

Ralph Steadman cover art

Terry Gilliam’s hallucinatory 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic of gonzo journalism stars Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke and Benicio De Toro (thrillingly and terrifying unencumbered by any behavioral boundaries) as Dr. Gonzo in the drug-fueled carnival atmosphere of Las Vegas, circa 1971. It was a flop at the time, too dark and weird and unhinged for mainstream cinema, and like many Gilliam films it’s entrancing on a moment-to-moment level, losing itself in the swirls and eddies of the narrative. Sort of like Thompson in Vegas. “The closest sensory approximation of an acid trip ever achieved by a mainstream movie,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times.

Criterion released the film on a deluxe two-disc edition eight years ago. The Blu-ray debut features all the supplements of that release: three commentary tracks (one by director Terry Gilliam, one by stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and one by producer Laila Nabulsi and author Hunter S. Thompson), deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam, the 1978 BBC “Omnibus” documentary “Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood” (with Hunter S. Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman), the ten-minute featurette “Hunter Goes to Hollywood,” an audio documentary on the controversy over the screenplay credit, a survey of the marketing campaign, selections from the correspondence between Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson (read on camera by Depp), an excerpt from the 1996 audio CD “Fear and Loathing” starring Maury Chaykin, Jim Jarmusch, Harry Dean Stanton, and Glenne Headly, background notes on Oscar Zeta Acosta (the real life activist and attorney who inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo), and galleries of storyboards, stills, and Ralph Steadman art. The accompanying booklet features a short appreciation by J. Hoberman and reprints of two Thompson pieces (from “The Great Shark Hunt” and “Fear and Loathing in America”).

More Blu-ray reviews (including El Topo, The Holy Mountain and The Scent of Green Papaya) at MSN Videodrone.

New review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Terry Gilliam’s latest fantasy exploration is as good as anything he’s done, and as sloppy and patchwork as well. It’s not all his fault – as most folks know, Heath Ledger died halfway through production and Gilliam had to rewrite the film and bring in other actors to complete Ledger’s role (the three actors play fantasy visions of the character and it’s a fine solution) – but it’s also just the way he makes films, especially those he writes himself.

Step right up to the Imaginarium

I review the film for Parallax View.

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

There has always been a dark, at times fatal streak, in Terry Gilliam’s fantasies and this enigmatic through the looking glass odyssey suggests that surrendering oneself to imagination and creativity and storytelling—and the responsibilities that comes with it—is dangerous business. Gilliam should know.

Read the complete review here.