Guardians of the Galaxy – Quality, Fun Throwback Action

Grade: B+

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer came out, I watched it on a loop. It had jokes, fun characters, and intensely visual action – all set to cool 70s music. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement – I had never read a GOTG comic, and had barely heard of the team before the movie was announced. Brett White is right on Twitter – the promotional campaign did sum up the movie almost perfectly, the movie is what you would expect from the trailer.

Of course, those elements do not necessarily make for a perfect movie. In terms of pound for pound enjoyment, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is hard to beat; even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was already characterised by the tone of joy and humour, few movies approach GOTG.

The opening sequence, set in 1988, is more somber than the rest of the movie, setting up the tragedy in Peter Quill’s past which ends up sending him into space. At the same time, it also hints at a reveal much later in the film which helps rationalise why, exactly, did this boy who’d grow up to be played by Chris Pratt, would be singled out to go into space and hang out with thieves. After that, however, the film launches directly into the plot, as 26 years later young Quill (who occasionally goes by Star Lord, to everyone’s amusement) is looking to steal a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet. It is difficult not to think of Indiana Jones as he deftly and joyfully infiltrates the location of the ancient artefact, only to have everything nearly go wrong when competitors try to take it away from him. It’s a great teaser for the rest of the movie – there is tension at times, to be sure, but it’s also handled with such genuine glee on the part of the filmmakers that it cannot but be infectious. This is the case even when there are glimpses of the fact that Quill is clearly a thief, and not the nicest guy in the Galaxy either despite ultimately wishing well. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable as well, and it’s ultimately rather nice that the movie is not being dragged down by a whiny Luke Skywalker archetype. He was, to be sure, necessary in Star Wars, and I am generally strongly in favour of more sincerity and less irony in cinema – but GOTG is unashamedly about a group of outlaws, and the tone of irreverence it strikes only serves the movie.

Of course, Peter Quill’s actions angers all the right humanoids. He comes on the radars of Rocket (the CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, the walking tree), who are looking to cash in on his bounty, and Gamora (assassin played by Zoe Saldana) who needs the orb he stole. The orb is evidently a highly sought-after item, and aside from complete coincidence, it is unclear how everyone became aware of it at once. The movie rather rightly does not concern itself too much with that, however. The four of them are captured and brought to prison, where they are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to escape and, ideally, get rich in the process.

The character motivations for the group of misfits is arguably one of the faults of the movie. Conversely to most movies of its ilk, where everything seems to make sense until you think about it, I occasionally did not find the characters’ reasons for sticking together believable, and considered it a flaw until after the movie, where I actually can see why everyone behaved as they did, mostly. It’s clear that the filmmakers, in particular the writers James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman thought about the motivations, and dropped in just enough clues to explain them. It’s just that (almost certainly due to the jam-packed nature of the movie), it often seemed like there wasn’t enough time to really get into them. And it’s a shame, really! In a movie where the characters are almost certainly the best part of the whole thing, the interaction is ultimately left sort of light and surface-level, despite there being hints of greater motivation. They each have larger-than-life backstories, but the pain only ever comes out briefly, enough to suggest that there is something there without getting to really examine it or live in the emotion. Gamora hates Thanos, and with VERY good reason, but the range rarely actually comes through, for all her general attitude. Drax is burning for revenge, and yet when he fails to achieve it towards the end of the second act, there is barely a beat of him recognising his failure. This stuff matters – and the drama, the opera-level emotions are arguably what separates superhero movies from other action.

The other weak spot is the general plot. The saving of the Galaxy is important, sure, and there are other reasons for characters to move the plot along, but I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve more or less seen that a few times now, and without the real involvement in the motivations the plot just sort loses relevance. It isn’t bad in the slightest, mind you. It’s just that it’s… sort of standard. Ronin the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are both menacing and interesting, but ultimately sort of thinly drawn. Ronin’s motivation is, once again, “destroying stuff”, despite mention of some injustice committed in his past. The comic book fans will appreciate seeing more of Thanos, but at the end of the day, he just kind of sits there, on apparently the same asteroid he was seen on in Avengers. Surely, there must be something more to his life than sitting on his throne and making threats? He is evidently the most dangerous being in the Galaxy, and it would have been nice to see more of that.

Now, it may sound like I’m coming down on Guardians of the Galaxy hard, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVED the general experience of watching the film. The reason for that is undoubtedly the humour and the genuinely fun characters. Whatever other complaints I have are simply there because without those flaws, the film would actually be the masterpiece of comic-book storytelling that many people online claim it is, and that I believe Avengers to have been. Absolutely every one of the Guardians deserves every moment on the screen. Peter Quill is funny, and for all his posturing heroism – sometimes kind of a loser, which makes him relatable (I can’t imagine how insufferable he’d be without that). Gamora is intense and bad-ass, even if she does require saving from a man at least once too often (though to be fair, they each rely on saving from each other more than once). Rocket and Groot are a great odd couple, both scrappy bounty-hunting weirdos. Drax takes himself far too seriously, which causes Bautista to be funnier than he, frankly, has any right being (him struggling to understand metaphor yields some of the biggest laughs). Most importantly, though, they’re a joy to have on the screen together, which really is what you want in a team superhero movie. Their interaction is consistently not only funny, but generally kind of sweet. Rocket crying when Groot seems to be dead is probably the only moment, aside from the opening, that really pulls at your heart strings, but other stuff is not a loss. Quill explaining the concept of dancing to Gamora plays nicely, and is then instantly undercut by a joke to keep it from going too serious. Their prison escape uses action to establish character (which should always be the case with action, really, but here it’s particularly poignant as they’re really working together for the first time), all the while twisting tropes of heists in movies. I cannot think that at least a part of it is because not only James Gunn, but everyone involved, seems to be ecstatic to get to do the things they’re doing, to play with the toys they just received.

Then, of course, there are the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. While the action can occasionally be a little too shaky for my taste, the general environment of the film is imbued with so much beautiful colour that as a general rule, it is a true pleasure to watch. This is lacking in superhero cinema, which tends to be over-serious in tone and dark and bland in visuals (presumably to distance themselves from Batman & Robin). The genre has proven itself, though, and while the general trend in cinema in the 2000s was blacks and greys, I could not be happier that we’re moving away from it. What digital film offers us is clarity, crispness, and intense colour. I am overjoyed to see filmmakers make use of it (I know I keep going on about it, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road trailer does a great job of it). James Gunn pulls out all the stops to wow us with his vision of space, and it is genuinely beautiful – even when it’s grimy.

Overall, I had a whole lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I do think there were things that could be improved, that would probably have had to come at a cost of other things, which Guardians does beautifully, such as enjoyable, humorous, character moments and their fun romp through space. For what it’s worth, I am almost certainly seeing it again next week – and having a better idea, now, of the character motivations may mean I’ll actually enjoy it at least as much this time around. I’m not advocating that every superhero movie take on its tone – a good contrast would be this year’s much more earnest Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For this corner of the Marvel Universe, though, it really worked wonderfully. And if a talking raccoon is not crazy enough for you, be sure to stick around for the end-credits scene, which has little to do with the overall plot and structure of the universe at large, but is a great little wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment for the Marvel fans.

DCAU 1: Thoughts After Finishing the DC Animated Universe

DC Animated UniverseJust like that, over a year and a half after first watching On Leather Wings, I am done watching the entire DC Animated Universe. Started on September 5th, 1992, the expansive series spanned 14 years, including 21 seasons of television, 4 animated features, a short, and 2 web-series (not including the various comics and video games, which I have not, for the most part, delved in yet). The collaboration between Bruce Timm and Paul Dini birthed a universe which was not only the best adaptation many of the DC characters will ever see, but brought about characters which were, since then, adapted into the main DC continuity – many of them women. Nora Fries, Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Livewire, and Mercy Graves all make the world of Batman and Superman richer to this day. Not to mention the heavyweight addition – Terry McGinnis, who has recently made his first New 52 appearance in Future’s End.

Bruce Timm and Paul Dini brought an unprecedented coherence to DC. While its continuity has always been scattered, through various crises and events, the universe beginning with Batman: The Animated Series and ending with Justice League Unlimited was not only generally consistent in its art style, but with its characters. While the tone of each show was definitely not the same, one could rely on the fact that Superman appearing in Justice League, Batman Beyond, or his own series, would generally fit within the confines of the same character. It allowed writers to take us through stories that are both reflections of classical tales, and completely modern takes on familiar characters (or even brand new characters) while streamlining origins and histories. Similarly to Marvel’s Ultimate line, this was a bottle universe – much more approachable, and much more streamlined in terms of vision.

Then, of course, there was the animation. A few notably terrible episodes aside (Superman’s Pal springs to mind, which was horrid, and by Bruce Timm’s own admission, the worst in the DCAU), the animation really was rather wonderful. This began, of course, with the style of Bruce Timm, and the wonderful pilot he created in 1991 to sell the series:

Overall, very little changed when it was picked up for series. You can instantly see the animation is fluid, and the designs are so wonderfully consistent that you don’t question any of the characters as being a part of the world for a second. Bruce Timm went for a art deco inspired look, where the cars, architecture, and clothing looks like something from the 40s. The modern technology combined with a retro style  (Timm was strongly inspired by the 1940s Fleischer cartoons) defined the DCAU throughout, despite the fact that unlike Gotham, other places in the world did not seem to share the fascination with the 40s look.

Another aspect was, of course, the decision that to portray the Dark Knight in a dark enough style, it would be painted on black paper. This did not remain to be the case throughout the production of the show (by The New Batman Adventures, the technique was abandoned entirely), but that was only when they figured out how to reproduce the look using regular paper. The paint they had to use to paint on black paper evidently was very toxic, and had to be sprayed.

What is wrong with them?

What is wrong with them?

I started watching the 90s X-Men: The Animated Series this week, after finishing the DCAU, and although that show and Batman: The Animated Series began at the same time, the difference in animation quality is incomparable – the movement is stiff. It seems, at times, to simply be poorly edited. Cyclops’ abs look like boobs affixed to his abdomen. I realised after a few episodes that the quality didn’t bother me when I watched the show as a kid – I’ve simply been spoiled, in no small part by the fantastic art in the DCAU.

As is always the case after finishing watching/reading/playing something huge and really great, the feeling at the end is disbelief. I always had more to watch, for the past year and a half, it’s really strange being done. And while the final episode was really cool, I was hoping for… I don’t know what. Something else. Bigger, more meaningful. In all honesty, and I’ll talk about this when I get to the Justice League Unlimited article, I wish it would have ended with something more like the end of season 2, Epilogue – quiet. Contained. Meaningful, character-driven, and emotional. The series were full of such moments, and they made the shows unique. As it stands, for something that ran for 14 years and produced the greatest superhero animation – or even greatest superhero fiction – of all time, a giant battle, satisfying as it was, did not cut it.

I watched the show primarily in production order, in full seasons, switching between shows when they were running concurrently. This was somewhat arbitrary, to be sure, but it allowed me to get the general idea of the franchise’s evolution while keeping it relatively simple, while not breaking the streaks of watching full seasons. I would throw in the feature films in between seasons where I saw fit. I generally tried to break it up so I wouldn’t have to watch two seasons of the same show in a row to break monotony. My viewing order will be at the bottom of the article.

I’ll do a series of articles on each of the shows in the DCAU, highlighting some of my favourite/odd moments. Some of the shows were definitely tougher to get through than others, but they all added something of value to the overall franchise. I’ll go through the shows and highlight moments that stood out as great, poor, or just interesting.

Batman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1992-1993)

Batman: Mask of Phantasm (1993)

Batman: The Animated Series Season 2 (The Adventures of Batman & Robin) (1994-1995)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1996-1997)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 2 (1997-1998)

The New Batman Adventures Season 1 (1997-1999)

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 3 (1998-1999)

Batman Beyond Season 1 (1999)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 4 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond Season 2 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

Gotham Girls Season 1 (2000)

Lobo Season 1 (2000)

Static Shock Season 1 (2000-2001)

Batman Beyond Season 3 (2000-2001)

The Zeta Project Season 1 (2001)

Gotham Girls Season 2 (2001)

Justice League Season 1 (2001-2002)

Static Shock Season 2 (2002)

The Zeta Project Season 2 (2002)

Gotham Girls Season 3 (2002)

Batman: Mystery of Batwoman (2003)

Chase Me (2003)

Static Shock Season 3 (2003)

Justice League Season 2 (2003-2004)

Static Shock Season 4 (2004)

Justice League Unlimited Season 1 (2004-2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 2 (2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 3 (2005-2006)

Dune the HBO Series Pitch (What Game of Thrones Taught Us About Serialising Novels)

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

I recently re-read Dune, and am now making my way through the sequels, and all throughout I’m picturing how great it would be on television. I can’t help but think of similarities to Game of Thrones, of course, having just finished season 4 – but also how much cooler Dune would be if HBO had chosen it as its foray into fantasy.

In a way, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece suffered from being the first. The world at large did not know what to do with it. Frank Herbert couldn’t get it published, until he eventually persuaded Chilton Books, publishers of auto-repair manuals, to put it out in 1965. Adaptations of the book received a similar fate – a film version was in the works from the early 70s (a documentary is, I believe, now in theatres in some regions, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts to put one together – which, by all accounts, would either have been an unprecedented gem, or a complete disaster).

patrick stewart pugEventually, an adaptation was released in 1984. I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and while I recalled it being a poor adaptation, Directed by David Lynch, it is an absurd mess. Intense moments are played for laughs (Patrick Stewart carrying a pug into battle springs to mind). The villain is so horribly, cartoonishly evil and disgusting that I literally just found other things on the screen to stare at to avoid looking at him – but that did not make him menacing, or a serious threat. On the whole, the story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the novels – and even then, it’s jarring at best. Roughly the first hour is exactly like the novel – almost unnecessarily so, the overall film might have benefited from less careful (though faithful and by far the most interesting part of the film) an introduction, to devote more time to a the second half, which is without a doubt supposed to be the meat of the story. “The weirding way” – a way to subtly manipulate people and events using zen awareness of surrounding and understanding of psychology and logic is reduced to a sonic weapon. What is left, then, is Paul Atreides coming to the desert, training the Fremen to use a new kind of weapon, and taking power. Very little is made of the messianic elements of the character – the fact that Paul’s greatest strength was his ability to insinuate himself into a people’s myth as their promised, legendary leader Muad’Dib, to survive, then using them to take his revenge. This is not to mention the terrible special effects – which I normally would not hold against a film, especially one which is 30 years old, except that the budget was huge, and the movie came years after both Star Wars and Alien, both of which look miles better.

The next adaptation was a step in the right direction. The majority of my gripes with it are just that – gripes, but the 2000 Sci Fi miniseries would still have benefitted from one major thing which makes HBO’s Game of Thrones a success – running time. Game of Thrones is a massive hit because modern television’s capabilities to compete with cinema in terms of production value was met with television’s ability to let stories breathe, give them proper time to develop complex narratives and character relationships. The politics were always Dune’s strength, and had the Dune series come now, I think it would be even better than Game of Thrones is. The miniseries that we got in 2000 got a lot right, but there were drawbacks. Paul’s reluctance as a hero made sense in the first half of the show, but ultimately Alec Newman could not pull off the hard man and vicious leader that Muad’Dib was to become. But more importantly, there was too little time for the intrigue to build. The opening was, once again, quite well executed. But while that strong beginning would make for a great first two or so episodes, the important thing would be to maintain the suspense, balancing the adventure with slow-burning drama and only rarely tipping into full-on action.

So, this would be my pitch. First priority – what would the show be about? At its heart, it should be about the dangers of following heroes. Frank Herbert has said it himself – “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” The prominence of superheroes in our current pop-culture makes this particularly timely. Is there anything more contemporary than “Game of Thrones with corrupt super beings”? Paul Atreides is betrayed, his father is killed, and he becomes Muad’Dib to both survive and get his revenge. To do so, however, he plays into ancient prophecies (which may or may not truly be about him) to overthrow the regime that wronged his family. And while he is a reluctant hero, and his prescience allows him knowledge of the atrocities which may ultimately be committed in his name, he walks head-first into the one path which he knows will allow him to come out on top – survive, get his revenge, and put his family back into the prominence it once held. If Paul were merely interested in survival, he could have fled, but he chose to fight. It’s like Star Wars, if Luke became the new Emperor at the end – a pattern which is repeated, in various ways, by his heirs. There are no purely good characters – today’s charismatic hero of the people is tomorrow’s tyrant.

I would start each episode with a quote from the universe’s writings about the events, the way Herbert did with each chapter of the book. The quotes do a great job of both giving flavour of the world, and foreshadowing the chapter’s content. Imagine an episode beginning with an ominous refrain of “Yueh! Yueh! Yueh! A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!” It would also go a long way towards explaining the zen-like Bene Gesserit philosophy, which I find to be among the most interesting aspects of the books. The famous Litany Against Fear, which was shown only partially in the previous adaptations, should be used in its entirety – and once again, could be made full use of when time is not a constraint. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Finally, given adequate time, the ecology of Arrakis could be adequately explored – while that may sound boring, it is important that the spice Melange be the one truly magical aspect of the universe. All of the departures from our reality should be based on it – Muad’Dib’s prescience and Bene Gesserit use of Voice. The navigators which make faster than light space travel possible, and their mutation due to its extended use. The sandworms, which are inextricably tied to both the presence of spice and the difficulty in harvesting it. Slowly, but surely, the audience must be made familiar with the precepts of its use, so that when the time comes, the audience’s reaction will not be “oh, well I didn’t know the spice could do that,” but rather “I never would have thought to use the spice like that, but it makes perfect sense!” Setting clear limits to what the spice can do, and then exploiting those limits in unexpected ways would be the essence of “magic”. Take, for example, the transformation Paul’s son undergoes towards the end of the third novel – which would here be the finale of the second season. The mechanics for it are carefully laid out in the book that precedes it, while the reveal still comes as a complete surprise. The limiting of the believable aspects would also necessitate, in my opinion, the removal of the vile Baron Harkonnen’s ability to fly. I’d read the first novel before seeing any of the adaptations, and must have simply missed the part where it was made clear he hovers, because I was completely thrown by it. I realise it’s in the source material, but it just looks goofy – the floating fat man must go!

Finally, the casting – the important thing would be to find genuinely hard-looking people to play the Fremen. Actors that could believably be flourishing in the harshest conceivable climate, whose tough, leathery skin Frank Herbert described. The effect of the dry skin could certainly be accomplished through make-up, but I would caution against casting traditionally good-looking people. The Fremen would describe them as “water-fat” (the men, at least – there are plenty of malnourished-looking actresses around as it is). And surely, there must be a practical way to do the blue-on-blue Fremen eyes? They looked terrible in both adaptations, inconsistent in the intensity of the colour and seemingly glowing (Fremen’s eyes certainly do not glow in the dark).

So, this would be my idea for a modern adaptation of Dune. I have thought about it a fair amount, and really don’t see how a faithful film adaptation would be possible, simply due to the density of the novel. A Game of Thrones-type series would definitely be the way to go. Could it ever happen? I honestly don’t know – Game of Thrones has been on the air for four years now, and still no other show came close to doing high fantasy on television. The troubled history of Dune’s adaptations may also prevent it from ever getting off the ground – but in today’s reboot and franchise-heavy marketplace, Dune just might be the next big thing.

I’ll leave you with Paul Pope’s excellent one-page comic fable about Muad’Dib, which I believe does a great job of illustrating just what the entire series of books is really about.

Paul Pope’s interpretation of a passage from Children of Dune (1976)

 

An Answer to Someone Who Hated Aronofsky’s Noah

NoahI get it. Noah wasn’t your cup of tea. I didn’t intend to like either, I went purely out of curiosity for what Aronofsky could have possibly wanted with so ludicrous a picture. Surely, it wasn’t mere folly? No. No! Look, I insist. The man actually knows what he’s doing. I realise you think the premise is simply too ridiculous to bear, and I would agree, were it not for the fact that Aronofsky clearly figured out something of substance to do with it. I’m a firm non-theist agnostic, yet I was still brought to tears by the beauty and raw emotion in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (a film which made the Noah controversy seem completely trivial). Much in the same way, though to a much lesser extent, I appreciated the truth of the story on the screen completely separately from any expectation for it to either portray the literal reality I inhabit, or to serve as an accurate adaptation of a story I heard once. Is that why you don’t like the movie? If so, I suppose I get it, the movie certainly attempts to do neither. You’re missing out, though, by not being more open to what the movie does do!

I’ll admit that the beginning of the film had me worried. The actual opening, that sets up the background of the film’s pre-existing conflict, seems like an after-thought, complete with a Papyrus-like font that, frankly, they could simply have done better than. This then transitions to show a young Noah losing his father to the sneering, scenery-chewing Tubal Cain, played by Ray Winstone. I had to remind myself, in those moments, that this is essentially a fantasy movie, and the next hour or so supported that theory nicely. This allowed me not to take too much of what happened on-screen too seriously. So I get why you hated those sillier aspects, such as rock-giants, over-acting villainy, over-earnest heroes, and the general tone of the movie’s first half, but you’re wrong.

First of all, it all looks fantastic! I could have been shown this vision of a “land before time”, so to speak, at times desolate as the moon, at others as fantastically lush, for a good while longer before becoming bored. It quite frankly simply does not look like anything – I understand it was filmed in Iceland, and I can tell that a good amount of it may well have been shot on-location outside. That being said, I can’t help but think that a lot of the backgrounds were either painted or composited from two very drastically different landscapes. Aronofsky fully succeeds in creating something that looks fake in the most wonderful way conceivable, in the sense that it is truly outside of our previous experience entirely. Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which, while depicting fantastic technology, largely relied on real-world locations. Noah, on the other hand, recalled in my mind the painted backgrounds of Georges Méliès’ films. Similarly, the rock giants, while clearly CGI, move in a way reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons – imbued with enough fluidity to not be an eyesore, and yet not perfect enough to be forgotten about, or to seem properly of this world. The shot where one of them chases a kid darting through his massive legs is at once adorable and visually pleasing in a way I cannot fully describe. God does not speak directly to Noah (a booming voice from the sky or Morgan Freeman would have been a tad much), but instead presents gloriously shot dream-like and appropriately apocalyptic visions. The director of Requiem for a Dream is a natural fit for these sequences. Then, of course, there is the creation scene which is, in a word, one of the best pieces of cinema you’ll see all year:

Secondly, I really understand that the first few acts are almost absurdly banal. Crowe’s Noah is a great guy (though perhaps overly devoted to his cause), and when he’s visited by visions he spends a little while questioning them, but ultimately really believes in both the existence and the beneficence of the creator, following his instructions as he understands them. He’s aware of the coming flood, builds an arc, all the while having to defend it from some evil humans (led by his father’s killer), with the help of some giants.

While that is an accurate representation, I would argue that the apparent simplicity of that plot is there to lure one into a sense of normalcy, of “I’ve seen this before!” before delivering the one-two gut punch at the midpoint (much like the fictional play “The King in Yellow” is said to do in Robert W. Chambers’ stories). Noah goes into town to procure wives for his sons (I love the preservation of the Bible-logic here), but receives another vision. He witnesses horrible decadence in the world of men, and ultimately witnesses a doppleganger of his partaking in it, deciding from this that he is not meant to be saving humanity at all. Instead, that he is meant to preside over its end. This is a chilling concept, and despite it occurring before the deceptively climactic battle, is the turning point for Noah’s character. Noah was a vegetarian before, and certainly demonstrated the belief that animal life was as precious as a person’s. It is here, however, that he makes the utilitarian calculation that humanity is fundamentally bad for the whole of the creation, and should be allowed to perish in the flood. This is not only a dramatic and interesting twist – it is actually the logical extrapolation of his mission statement. If humanity was bad for the world, its loss would result in a net positive. Noah does not do so out of misanthropy – he does not hate people on an individual basis, and is clearly capable of compassion. He only does as his conviction demands. This is merely setup, however. The true drama occurs after the arc is in the water.

Eventually, the storm comes, the battle for the arc happens towards its beginning, and the arc takes off, carrying Noah, his wife, two sons, adopted daughter/daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), and unbeknownst to him, Tubal Cain. The film that was an epic fantasy before this becomes the last six people on earth stuck on a boat together, deciding the future of humanity. This is why the deceptively melodramatic and stereotypical first half of the film was necessary – the characters had to be archetypes, because they represent physical personifications of radically different viewpoints. Noah, of course, is the radical ecologist – humanity has clearly been bad for the world. It would be better off without us. His wife Naameh, Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, is more compassionate – despite clearly seeing the damage, she cannot help but see the potential for good in people. Before the storm, she pleaded with Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to do something, and he healed Ila of her infertility. Therefore, Ila is now pregnant, and poised to be the mother to all of mankind. Her boyfriend, naturally, is prepared to do anything to protect his unborn children. Noah declares that if the babies are born female, he will kill them instantly, preventing the future of humanity. Tubal Cain, having previously declared that he will do anything necessary to survive, resents Noah’s unique relationship with God. He is, ultimately, a humanist, despite also being a bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant. He refuses to submit to a higher good – and ultimately, is not the survival of us and ours not what we work for most of the time? Winstone’s snarling villain is the will to survive, to make the best of his situation. He is the human-centric viewpoint, the incessant presupposition by most people that we are above nature. I think it would be inaccurate to say that he is completely wrong, but he is the complete opposite of Noah’s viewpoint – the two are poised perfectly to clash.

The true conflict is within the family, however. Upon learning of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah becomes a villain in the eyes of the audience. At the beginning of the storm, he rebuffs his family’s requests to save the horribly screaming, drowning people just outside the arc. He is determined that the earth would be a better place without us. Crowe’s character definitely does not relish this task in the slightest, and despite his complete unwavering, it’s clear he would rather give in to his wife’s compassion. It is brought closer home, of course, when he’s confronted with the very real possibility that he may have to slay his grandchildren to keep his word. He is ostracised by his family, becomes the bald, weird creature in the depths of his arc, the religious zealot. He knows he’s right, and while his actions are without remorse, this does not mean it is lacking in the man himself. He does his best to carry out the act when Ila gives birth to twin girls… and ultimately cannot. Noah is reduced to weakness through compassion, and fails to deliver on his promise to end humanity.

This is not a fully happy ending. To start with, his inability to finish humanity off renders his previous acts of necessary cruelty unnecessary in retrospect. They could have saved the poor drowning souls, the screams of which tortured them. And ultimately, whereas it was an act of compassion that stayed Noah’s hand, the decision to go through with the plan may have been more so. The general note is that in the end, humanity will only screw up again, and have to be wiped out all over again. By killing two, he would have prevented the birth, and therefore suffering, of billions in the future. Methuselah warned Neelah against this – in the end, it will only come around to Noah’s way. Mankind will make the same mistakes again, and will be destroyed again through their hubris. Knowing the result of his actions, Noah is shown getting drunk in the first scene off the boat, trying to drown his awareness of Earth’s fate.

These are the reasons I appreciated Noah – a drama about the nature of humanity, and whether it deserves to continue, thinly disguised as a fantasy action movie. And yet when I look online, I largely see comments of either “OMG that’s not how it really happened” or “LOL that could never really happen.” I submit that both responses are equally ridiculous – this is a movie, that is intended as entertainment of one end of the spectrum, and allegory on the other. It is not meant to either be a faithful adaptation, or a statement of fact, but a beautifully conceived treatise on our responsibilities on this Earth – I suggest you try and take it to heart.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A Change in the Status Quo

Grade: A

Grade: A

When Captain America throws his mighty shield… it looks really cool.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a necessary story to tell for Cap, it’s his origin story. It’s a good movie, that really captures the look of the 40s, and retells his creation rather faithfully – and, more importantly, with feeling. Winter Soldier, on the other hand, turns the superheroics up to 11. Captain America is now truly the character the fans of his comics know him as. He is not perpetually a man out of time, he can’t be. This movie has Cap acclimatize, at  least somewhat, to the current reality (even using the internet). Neither can he be a naive ultra-patriot in the modern day – this may have been not only commendable, but necessary during WWII, but that is certainly no longer the case as the world is no longer so black-and-white. Not even in the Marvel Universe.

The movie starts off with Rogers working for S.H.I.E.L.D. on covert missions. He is not fond of the nature of some of the work, but when there are hostages to be saved, he is fully on board, and throws himself into combat with energy we have not seen with the captain so far. There were jeers when The Avengers was coming out that he’ll be slightly useless in such a powerhouse team-up, but those complaints can now be put to rest, I think. Joss Whedon did a great job of giving everyone something to do in The Avengers, but he basically had Cap in the role of a regular action movie hero – fighting, jumping, running from explosions efficiently, to be sure, and against opponents most regular people could never withstand, but not really get into super-powered territory that often. Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the character’s fighting style slightly and subtly, and pitted him against the right opponents to really show his skills off for the first time. here, he is blisteringly fast, devastatingly strong, and extraordinarily resiliant. In the very first action sequence he takes out multiple thugs with a single throw of his shield, stealthily infiltrate a ship, and take out Batroc the Leaper while barely breaking a sweat. This is, simply put, good action cinema – exciting, fast, and convincingly lethal.

Captain Rogers is, however, questioning the true motives of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to be using him as they would any other asset – aiming him at the enemy and releasing, telling him little aside from that. He pushes for Nick Fury to divulge exactly what is happening, and gets snippets about a project that is set to eliminate potential hostiles before they even manage to cause any harm – finally, Fury says, they will be ahead of the curve in their war for peace. Cap sticks to his ideals, but does seem to be leaving the scene questioning whether he should stay with the organization, leave, or potentially accept that he is in a dirty world, where dirty deeds may be necessary to save lives. Before he can do this, however, Fury is attacked, and assassinated in Steven Rogers’ own apartment, pitting him against S.H.I.E.L.D. and their head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who assume he must be hiding something. Cap goes on the run with Natasha Romanov, Black Widow, and start uncovering the truth behind the intelligence agency, HYDRA, and the mysterious Winter Soldier that keeps popping up.

The handling of the Black Widow in this movie is spot-on. She was definitely a player in The Avengers, but the character really comes into her own here. In a movie that is essentially about trust (both personal, and in government/authority), the themes would not have resonated as well at all without her presence. Black Widow is not only currently the best superheroine in cinema (never relegated to the role of a damsel in distress), she confident, and intelligent in a way that Captain America is NOT. He is certainly no dummy, but she is the super-spy, and when the pair go on the run, Captain America simply does not have the guile to do it on his own. It is refreshing to see such a strong female character in superhero movies (also flanked by Agent Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, and Agent 13, Emily VanCamp). I hope this sets a good example, and Marvel realizes what they have on their hands well enough to give Widow a solo feature. The Phase 3 movies are being announced soon, and it can’t be all white straight male superheroes again, come on!

The Winter Soldier is appropriately menacing to give Cap and his allies a challenge. Given that he is not the primary threat, but more of a henchman, I must question whether his appearance in the title is truly justified. I like what the Russo brothers did with the Brubaker source material a lot, but I can’t help but notice that the central plot is really not about Captain’s relationship with the Winter Soldier at all, but rather with S.H.I.E.L.D., the modern world, even the concept of who he is. This is one of my only criticisms of the movie, and it’s more of a criticism of the title, truly – the way he and Falcon decide to go after him in the final scene suggests that The Winter Soldier would be a better title for the third movie. This is, of course, a minor gripe. Sebastian Stan does a fine job  – better, in fact, than I expected, given how disarming and utterly non-threatening his Bucky was in the first movie. This is, of course, the nature of the twist, and it is entirely to his credit that Stan pulls it off.

Anthony Macky’s Falcon is a lot of fun – and while the word sidekick may be anathema for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, their relationship certainly approaches it (Falcon says, about Cap “I do what he does, only slower”). He does not have a ton to do outside of the giant action scene in the final act in terms of action, but just as Captain’s counterpart – the modern soldier, who had left the military behind, he is a valuable addition to the Marvel Universe.

Speaking of additions, there are numerous ones on display here. Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre)  may easily return as a hired gun. Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is heavily burned and injured, but presumably both survives and has a major bone to pick with Captain America. Digitized brain Arnim Zola is seemingly destroyed, but could easily have been backed up in another fascility to return. His scene in the movie was probably my favorite, incredibly imaginative and injecting original details, while simultaneously extremely faithful to the comic version of the character. It only occured to me now that the Russo brothers brilliantly introduced a very recognizable and interesting character from the comics for a single scene to deliver the exposition. It’s brilliant, and I for one am filing the trick away for future use (though I can’t imagine where this could be used outside of the Marvel movies). Baron Strucker also makes an appearance, as do Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, in the mid-credits scene.

The biggest change by far, however, is that the movie does not return to the status quo! The storyline does not take the simple and boring route of “everything is well, something goes down , superhero fixes it, eveerything goes back to normal”. Captain America actually changes things! Marvel Universe will literally never be the same! I’m extremely curious to see how the universe proceeds, particularly with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show (name change?).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not my favorite Marvel movie of all time, that remains The Avengers, which is so close to the feeling of reading a superhero comic, it’s crazy. Cap 2 is very, very solid, however – an awesome political/espionage thriller with superheroes. Nearly every Marvel movie has been of a slightly different genre, or embraced different tropes, and this one is a very solid entry in the canon.

Short Term 12 – On The Never-Ending Battle Of Child Care

Grade: A

Grade: A+

It’s very difficult for me to decide what to say about Short Term 12. It’s rare that a review not simply pour out of me, but that is only a compliment to the film. Leaving the film, I felt… dazed. Unsure what to feel, still reeling from the experience. I’ll do my best to describe what I enjoyed about the film, but more than anything, I want to simply tell you to SEE IT! Now, on to my review.

Short Term 12 is about a young manager of a short care facility for troubled teenagers, Grace, played with complete immersion and sensitivity by the always wonderful Brie Larson. As she emphatically states to a newcomer employee, they are not friends, parents, or therapists – they are meant simply to provide a safe environment for the children under their protection. it becomes clear quickly, however, that the lines are very much blurred for her in that regards. It is revealed that she has abuse in her past herself, which both shows why she works so tirelessly for the children in the foster home, and why she she has such a hard time acclimating to the idea of becoming a parent herself. It occurs to me now that the title of the film may also be a reference to the early stage of her pregnancy.

She is helped through this by Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a boyfriend who is very nice and supporting, but ultimately has a hard time penetrating her inner world – largely because Grace has such a difficult time letting him in. The foster home itself is populated by a whole group of very real-seeming children, some more troubled than others. None of them are stereotyped at all – while you may think you get what archetype they fit in early on, the characters do possess the ability to surprise the viewer. A character you may think is well-adjusted may offer a deeper well of trouble than you thought possible. In fact, one gets the sense that the characters whose problems is not shown explicitly are having no less of a hard time.

All of the wonderful actors are helped enormously by the wonderful script by Destin Cretton, whose previous feature, I Am Not A Hipster, I have never heard of. Short Term 12 is shot in the hand-held style that is so common in independent cinema that it may occasionally be trite. Cretton imbues it, however, with style and careful selection of shots, keeping it from going down the path of haphazard, unclear, random cinematography that often troubles other films shot in a similar style. This helps establish the movie as a cinematic experience, while simultaneously feeling so close to life.

There is no great victory or adventure shown in this film, and what victories are shown can only be viewed in the context of the characters lives as temporary moments of respite. While there is a central storyline, in Markus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) leaving after turning 18, and the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), both of whom are experiences difficulty in their relationship with their parents and the foster home itself in different ways. Ultimately, however, as the ending illustrates beautifully (by mirroring almost completely the opening scene) the never-ending nature of the battle the workers must fight on a daily basis. Grace cannot be passive in her job, she truly gives the care of the teenagers her all, trying to save herself in proxy. The film is simply wonderfully human and warm, and (though I do not always place huge premium on this), feels completely genuine. There is sentimentality here, to be sure, but it does not even approach the territory of fake melodrama. Short Term 12 is cinema, and life, in one.

Concussion Does Not Offer Easy Answers, But Seriously Questions Our Views On Sexuality

Grade: A

Grade: B+

A question that is repeated several times in Concussion is “Why did they split up/get a divorce?” Robin Weigert’s character Abby asks it herself several times, but she is not the only one. It isn’t Abby, it seems, that is haunted by the question, and the death of relationships it refers to, but the world of the film itself is.

This is not the obvious question for the film to concern itself with. The titular concussion occurs right at the opening, with Abby’s son (whom she is raising along with her life partner, Katie, played by Julie Fain Lawrence) throwing a baseball at her head. It is implied that, as is so often the case with children, the act is simultaneously purposeful, and an accident. She experiences anger and emotional difficulties in the days that follow, and is determined to get back to work in real estate. Having not known her prior to the beginning of the film, however, it is impossible for us to know whether or not this is uncharacteristic for her. She appears to be sexually frustrated, and clues throughout the film suggest deeper issues in her life, including her relationship with Katie. Abby’s sexual desire appears to be awakened, either through the head trauma, or as a result of subsequent events, and as a result, she ends up engaging in prostitution. This is definitely not out of financial desperation, but rather out of an emotional one. Stacie Passon, the writer/director, avoids ever pinning down how much of this is due to the concussion itself. No direct link is made with it, but it being the title and the opening of the movie makes us wonder.

To be frank, I don’t know how much of the omission is deliberate, and what part of it may simply be the remnants of a vestigial storyline the screenplay or the final edit of the film evolved past. Overall, while the filmmaker does not always maintain the tricky balance in that regard, she does not fall, which she certainly deserves a lot of credit for – that is a tricky act to pull off. To suggest that she is only doing this because of an injury would be to reduce the character to someone who is simply mentally ill. As a consequence, her actions would lose validity, the story would become simply sad, rather than exciting, which Concussion rather is, at times. The concussion does serve a purpose, however. In its absence (and without the addition of some major psychological or physical abuse, which would easily tip the movie into melodrama), Abby’s journey of sexual awakening would make her a cheating wife. Yes, an understandably frustrated one, but dishonest nonetheless. Audiences would turn on her, when ultimately, we are meant to sympathize with her.

There are several other things addressed in Stacie Passon’s film to mention. The first of these is the opening, which contains just the audio of an extraordinarily, offensively, misogynist conversation, delivered entirely by women. The shallowness of the conversation’s content, about having to “choose between face and ass” when it comes to deciding on one’s ideal weight rings very true, and illustrates very clearly how deeply ingrained the sexual objectification of women has become in our society. This is followed by opening credits of women working out. In fact, working out, and looks, take up a large portion of the character’s lives – outside of other housewife duties, the characters typically take various fitness classes or work out and gossip. This seems simultaneously genuine and depressing, which helps identify with what Abby must be going through.

Another interesting topic is that while both Abby and Katie seem like familiar characters, or even archetypes in certain situations – the housewife, and the overworked/disinterested spouse – they are a same-sex couple, raising children, with no big deal made of the subject. The film does not use that as some big surprise or twist or plot point – instead, the movie may work just as well (though adjustments would, naturally, have to be made) if the characters were heterosexual. The fact that Abby’s clients, once she starts in the escort business, are exclusively women, does provide an interesting facet to the story, however. When she has her first experience with a prostitute, she is unimpressed, perhaps in part because she cannot see herself in the woman, whom Abby finds rough and physically unclean. It isn’t until she sleeps with Gretchen (Kate Rogal) that she considers taking on clients herself. Afterwards, she is able to develop certain relationships with the customers, seeing her own struggles in theirs, and helping them as a way to help herself.

Ultimately, there is plenty to work through in Concussion. Whether you want to examine the process of a relationship’s breakdown or what causes it, the complex relationship our society has with sexuality, or the strain we put on unrealistic standards of beauty for women, there is something for you here.