‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ plays a familiar tune

It starts with a mixtape labeled: “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” — filled with tracks from the ’70s and ’80s. The mixtape, like the music, takes you into another era — the one when new “Star Wars” movies were being released into theaters and “Star Trek” was still running on TV. The force was with us as we “explored strange new worlds, seeking out life and civilizations, going boldly where no man has gone before.”

That’s the tune director James Gunn sets up with his Marvel film, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a time capsule to the “old” frontier.

The “Guardians of the Galaxy” aren’t your conventional superheroes. But neither are the crew of Josh Whedon’s “Serenity.” These intergalactic guardians are rogues, thieves and smugglers, assassins and killers — all with their own agendas. And their origin story starts in prison.

The captain of this Space Western (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett’s comic books) is Peter James Quill (Chris Pratt), or, as he likes to call himself, Star Lord. When we first meet him, he’s stealing this orb while rocking out to Redbone’s 1974 hit, “Come and Get Your Love.”

But Quill’s not the only one that wants the orb. “This orb has a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe,” says Quill.

Quill’s mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) would love nothing more than to sell the orb to the highest bidder. The Collector (Benecio Del Toro, “The Usual Suspects”) wants to add the orb, and the infinity stone it contains, to his collection of outer worldly treasures (which includes the Terrasect from “Thor: The Dark World“). Green-skinned Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana of the modern “Star Trek” films) is sent to secure the orb for Ronan (Lee Pace), but she wants to betray him for killing her parents. Ronan, like all evil-doers, wants the orb for world destruction. Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) wants to inflict revenge on Ronan. And Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pal Groot (an Ent-like structure voiced by Vin Diesel) are hired mercenaries, looking to capture Quill for their own financial gain.

As you can imagine, the rest of “Guardians of the Galaxy” plays out like a 121-minute game of capture the orb, accompanied by flying ships and explosions. We’ve seen this story dozens of times before with varying degrees of special effects. (The visual effects artists of “Guardians of the Galaxy” successfully disintegrate the faces of men while animating CGI and rotomation animals.) But “Guardians of the Galaxy” strikes a chord.

With the help of Blue Swede, David Bowie, the Runaways, Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and the Raspberries, Gunn drums up our nostalgia — reminding us how awesome the ’80s were while paying homage to the science fiction stories we grew up on. Now that’s a tune we can listen to.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was directed by James Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett’s comics. 

‘Big Hero 6’: Disney’s AwesomeLand

Remember how “Modern Family’s” Phil Dunphy invented AwesomeLand in this season’s Halloween episode? No? Well, basically, he put everything he thinks is Awesome on the front lawn of the Dunphy’s home.

That’s what Disney’s latest animated picture, “Big Hero 6,” feels like. Taking place in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (Yes, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. Why? Because it’s awesome.), “Big Hero 6” is about 14-year-old boy-genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his band of “Avengers” — Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller).

Loosely based on a 2008 Marvel comic, “Big Hero 6” is another superhero origin story.

Raised by his enthusiastic Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother, Tadashi (because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the parents weren’t either absent or dead), Hiro wastes his potential winning loads of dough in illegal robot fights. That is, until Tadashi (Daniel Henney), introduces him to his acclaimed robotics university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and his life’s project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) — a portable and personable inflatable medical robot.

To apply for admission to SFIT, Hiro pitches his microbots: tiny electromagnetic legos that can do anything the mind tells it to.

“If you can think it, microbots can do it,” says Hiro, echoing the words of Walt Disney. “The only limit is your imagination.”

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That seems to be the limit of Disney’s latest 3D animation as well. Like the fusion city, “Big Hero 6” is held together by imagination (and hundreds of animators and visual effect artists).

The film — by nerds for nerds — pays homage to others in its genre. Baymax wears an Iron Man-esque armor. His Hulk-like strength protects Hiro from danger. Hiro keeps a dalek on his bookshelf. Stan Lee’s portrait hangs on the walls.

“Big Hero 6” feels like a Pixar film (like how “Brave” felt like a Disney film). The animators have inserted dozens of hidden Easter eggs, including a basement filled with comics and action figures. Hans’ (from “Frozen”) mug shot hangs on a “wanted” poster at the police station; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” featured on a billboard over the city.

Directed by Don Hall (whose credits include “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tarzan” and “Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Mulan”), “Big Hero 6” is a safe feel-good movie — filled with Disney’s perfected formula of both funny and poignant moments. Watching Baymax and gang in “Big Hero 6” is the perfect medicine for a bad day.

“Big Hero 6” was written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Duncan Rouleau, Steven Seagle, Paul Briggs and Joseph Mateo. The film was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. 

‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ echos Big Brother themes

Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-man” showed the power of an individual in the age of the Internet. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” discusses the social inequality between the rich and poor. J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness” reminds us of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” in a post-9/11 world — that the shock of terrorism can easily became a catalyst for war.

If the recent slew of superhero blockbusters are anything to go by, superhero movies are a time capsule into the troubles of an era. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also co-wrote “Thor: The Dark World”), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a frightening commentary on current events.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better known as the super-soldier Captain America,  is adjusting to life in modern-day D.C. after he’s been preserved in a block of ice since 1945 and revived to fight aliens with the Avengers team (consisting of himself, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye). Now, a S.H.I.E.L.D. contractor, he serves his country by running along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and going on covert rescue operations — sometimes with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s spy-assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).

As S.H.I.E.L.D. develops Project Oversight — which uses satellite monitoring technology to observe and kill civilians before they become a threat to national security, Captain America has misgivings on working with the government. Captain America’s reservations echo the feelings of ordinary Americans who read or listened to Edward Snowden’s Big Brother-esque revelations about the NSA for the past 10 months. According to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, the majority of Americans oppose the NSA’s collection of metadata.

“This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” Captain America says.

Markus and McFeely’s screenplay (based on Ed Brubaker’s story) illustrates the implications of the elimination of privacy, highlighting the dangers of the immense information stored online. One Orwellian nightmare: Big Brother is always watching you and can kill you anytime from anywhere.

German HYDRA scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) does just that. He created a computer program that could predict a human’s future affiliations and behaviors based on his or her past; this is based on emails, texts, videos, social media and other records of communication. In turn, the program selects S.H.I.E.L.D.’s targets — threats to national security who are preemptively killed by drones.

And who threatens the status quo? Our esteemed forth estate, our whistle-blowers, our activists and superheroes…

Directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo (known for sitcoms “Community” and “Arrested Development”) deliver a scary superhero film — filled with extra-long action sequences and paranoia.

“Trust no one,” warns S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after he’s ambushed by D.C. police in a long car chase and police shootout.

The scariest part of this film: it resembles our own world.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo based on Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay and Ed Brubaker’s story. The comics were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The story will continue in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Food for thought: commercializing ‘The Hunger Games’

I saw the 74th Hunger Games tributes on victory tour more than a year and a half ago.

The context: I was one of the 400 Capitol fans camped outside Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, awaiting tickets into the black carpet event and premiere screening of gamemaker Gary Ross’ much-anticipated “Hunger Games.”

This was my view of “The Hunger Games” black carpet premiere on March 12, 2012. Photos taken by Qina Liu.

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Like the people watching the 74th annual hunger games — a gladiator-style/survivor tournament where two dozen children fight to the death — on television in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, I was incredibly moved by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from district 12, a poor mining town near the outskirts of Panem.

But most of all, I appreciated Collins’ critique of reality and how that played out with the release of each movie.

For those not familiar with the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” echoes the lessons of George Orwell and “ad man” Edward Bernays. Like history has shown us again and again, the wealthy elite few control the uneducated masses. Whereas Orwell (and Machiavelli) showed us how this was done through fear, Bernays showed us how it’s possible to “engineer consent” through love and want. (i.e. The star-crossed lover storyline between district 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta is the sugar that makes Collins’ didactic messages easier to swallow.)

The tragic televised deaths of children serve as a fearful reminder of the government’s control. But they’re also a distraction from society’s problems: the games serve as entertainment, the tributes as celebrities.

“Your job is to be a distraction,” someone tells Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine of the franchise, in the second movie.

And you can’t escape “The Hunger Games” universe or its commercialization.

Every TV network and late night talk show host covering “The Hunger Games” premiere had their own Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) or Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — decked out in designer outfits, echoing Effie’s favorite motto (“Let the games be ever in your favor”) or Caesar’s conversational interview style.

“Team Peeta or Team Gale?” said every reporter, asking which of Katniss’ lovers the fans adored more.

Meanwhile, People Magazine runs glossy pictures and stories of each tribute (and the actor playing him or her). Hot Topic hangs displays of Hunger Game T-shirts and posters; Covergirl has a new Hunger Games-inspired makeup line.

Perhaps most telling is a scene in Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (released in theaters Nov. 22).

Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is sitting with his granddaughter, who has her hair pulled back into a Katniss-style braid (much like most of the female audience members watching the movie premiere in theaters).

“When did you start wearing it like that?” Snow asks.

“Everyone wears it like that, Grandpa,” she answers.

This emulation isn’t necessarily bad. After all, imagine where the world would be if there were more reluctant revolutionary heroes like Katniss Everdeen.

But “The Hunger Games” are a distraction from some of the world’s bigger problems. Whereas almost one in four people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to buy food, the first book-turned-movie opened with a record-breaking $155 million in U.S. box offices; the second film, “Catching Fire,” made $161 million during opening weekend, promising to be one of the highest grossing films this November.

And how much food can you buy for $161 million?

That’s 273.7 million pounds of bananas, 25.76 million pounds of coffee, 37.03 million Big Macs, 225.4 million pounds of rice, 249.55 million pounds of potatoes, 48.3 million pounds of ground beef, 1.0948 billion eggs or 128.8 million cans of beers in the U.S..

Think of that the next time you see a Mockingjay pin.

Once upon a time on ‘Thor: The Dark World’…

According to Celtic myths, Samhain, the first of November, marks the end of summer — when ghosts, spirits and fairies can haunt our world. People honored the dead by dressing up in costume, going door-to-door for food — a tradition memorialized in the modern Halloween festivities.

So perhaps it’s fitting that “Thor: The Dark World” was released in Samhain (the Irish word for November) — days after U.S. daylights savings time. The dead return to our world as the day grows shorter and darker.

The second of Marvel’s post-Avenger’s films (the first was this summer’s “Iron Man 3”), “Thor: The Dark World” chronicles the Convergence — a once in a blue moon phenomenon when nine planets overlap and objects can be seamlessly transported from one place to another.

Normally, that would be a magical wonder — one that astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) explains with science. But the legend of Thor’s made out of the stuff from myths and fairy tales.

No, not Disney’s “Tarzan” (although Jane and Thor did have a few Tarzan moments when he fell out of the sky in the first Thor movie).

This fairy tale is made of grimmer stuff — the kind where fairies stole you away like the Pied Piper.

The dark fairies in this story are from the Unseelie Court, led by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith created a liquid weapon called Aether, which is supposed to bring darkness to the world.

While Asgardians stopped Malekith’s evil plot years ago, the Convergence would be the perfect opportunity for the dark elves to try again: unleashing darkness on all nine worlds, including Earth.

That’s the backdrop to this movie, and Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay’s layered like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

On one level, they’re dealing with the aftermath of “The Avenger’s” and the alien invasion of New York City; prisoner-of-war Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is brought back to his home planet in chains. His hammer-wielding older brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fights to fix Loki’s mess.

On another level, the writers are threading the plot of the mediocre 2011 “Thor” film — which plays out like a typical Shakespearean rom-com. Jane, her snarky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) return, studying anomalies in Earth’s gravity. Jane feels slighted by her crush Thor, who never contacted her after he abruptly left.

Luckily, the dark elves play matchmaker, and their nefarious plot reunite Jane and Thor.

“Thor: The Dark World” offers a much more dynamic plot-line than its predecessor. Unlike the first Thor movie, which divided its time evenly between the wild magical woods of Asgard and the rigid mundane cities of Earth, time spent in Earth’s brief.

But that doesn’t mean this fairy tale’s “once upon a time” gets a “happily ever after.” After all, the Marvel sagas continue with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in spring 2014 and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately for us, movie-goers, suffering through each superhero blockbuster until the release of Joss Whedon’s next highly anticipated (and highly lucrative) Avengers movie, most of the characters in this film, including our titular hammer-wielding muscleman, are as flat as the comic book paper they came from.

“If we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended.” — Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The only exception is Loki (and Tom Hiddleston — who won best male newcomer and best villain for his reprising role). The honest trickster god captured our hearts in “Thor” and “The Avengers” and promises to be as mischievous as the prankster Puck.

Just remember (because Shakespeare taught us well): it’s all fun and games until somebody dies.

“Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor of “Game of Thrones” fame; the screenplay was written by Christopher Markus, Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely, based on Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s story and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber’s Marvel comic books.

‘Spider-Man’: the ‘amazing’ classic

It is amazing how much changes in a decade. This is a age where Google searches allow you to readily research anyone at a click of a button, holographic diagrams become the norm for viewing pleasure (think of the the arsenal of technology Tony Stark has at his fingertips), and boys can build electronic locks for their bedroom door — or at least those are some of the technological advances portrayed in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

Gone are the days when the most advanced bits of machinery included the glider Green Goblin rode on in Sam Raimi’s earlier adaption of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s “Spider-Man” story. Director Marc Webb’s film has a fog machine that can distribute cures (or toxins). But that and a new spandex suit aren’t the only differences between this Spider-Man and the one actor Tobey Maguire portrayed 10 years earlier.

Whereas the Maguire version was essentially a love story, “The Amazing Spider-Man” frames the story of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) around the disappearance of his dad, Oscorp scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott). Peter is still raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), but he is haunted by his father’s image, brilliance, and legacy. “You look just like him,” Uncle Ben tells Peter after he puts on his dad’s old glasses. Even the words of Uncle Ben’s famous “With great power comes great responsibility” speech aren’t his own: “Your father believed if someone could do moral good for somebody, it was your moral obligation to do it.”

“The Amazing Spider-Man” also brings in a new school (Midtown Science High School), villain (Richard Parker’s old colleague, Dr. Kurt Connors), and love interest (Gwen Stacy, the police captain’s daughter). Although Emma Stone as Gwen is smart and intelligent and stubborn and not always the damsel in distress (she comes to Peter’s aid a small handful of times), fans of the strong and spunky Stone in her claim-to-fame title roles such as those in “Easy-A” or “The Help” will be somewhat disappointed. Perhaps it’s because we’re missing Stone’s narration as the lead — or the fact she’s blond and not a fiery redhead — but she seems much more milquetoast, even as she rebels against her father’s wishes when pursuing a relationship with Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield does bring a good range of reluctant awkwardness (like when he’s stuttering through conversations with Gwen) and cheekiness (like when he’s standing up to the latest bully) to the Peter Parker character. Peter certainly isn’t perfect and Garfield offers the pallet of high and low emotions a teenager would certainly experience — from skipping happily when he gets a date to flippant moodiness when he’s caught missing his curfew because he went looking for another fight. Yet Peter is a good person raised by good people. There are scenes when Peter tucks in his Aunt after she falls asleep on the couch or when Peter saves a boy from a car falling off a bridge. Garfield has the bravado of a fireman and looks like a hero as he tells the boy to “put on the [Spider-Man] mask because it’s going to make you strong.” But in this day and age, a mask has its own brand of connotations.

Yes, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” seems dated compared to “The Amazing Spider-Man.” But “The Amazing Spider-Man” is dated too. In an age when 12-year-old girls have been warned that wearing balaclavas may get her into trouble, Spider-Man is just another Internet hero whose arrests and battles with law enforcement officers inspire many. And that message — like the story of “Spider-Man” — never gets old.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” was written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves; based on the Marvel comic books created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The film was directed by Marc Webb.