FilmStoned Podcast Episode 9: Ant-Man, Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men

In an absurdly long podcast, we dive deep into the Ant-Man contraversy, and review Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, and X-Men, while also discussing the movie franchise’s complex continuity.

FilmStoned Podcast Episode 8: Batsuit, Upcoming TV Shows, Amazing Spider-Man 2

We discuss the new Batsuit design for what we now know is called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; season finales for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow and upcoming tv shows; and review Amazing Spider-Man 2, on which we end up agreeing more than I expect

FilmStoned Podcast Episode 7: Oscars Recap, True Detective, Captain America 2

We recap the results of our Oscar predictions, talk about True Detective and try to predict who’ll be in season 2, and discuss Captain America 2 – as well as talk about the movies we saw at Kino Pavasaris, the local festival.

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.

 

Blue Ruin Offers Nearly Unbearable Tension, Great Pacing

Grade: A

Grade: A

Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller in the style of the original, pre-franchise Death Wish. I mean that not in terms of performances or direction, which is quite different and not to be compared.  The similarity here is simply in the fact that the focus of the movie, unlike most revenge plots, is a poorly defined, somewhat aimless act of rage, rather than the brilliantly executed operatic revenge of most action movies or thrillers.

The film begins with a homeless man living in his car (which I can only assume is where the name of the movie comes from) finding out that the killer of his parents is being released from prison. There is no dramatic flashback to the tragedy that spurs him to act as he does. All that we see is his current life, which hints much more subtly at the pain Dwight, played with great sensitivity by Macon Blair, has experienced due to the trauma. He goes into action, seeking out his revenge in the first act of the film. Rather than making that the main drama, however, the film asks what the consequences of this act of violence will be. Or did he even get the right guy? Is simply executing the man who already went to jail for the crime the justice he seeks?

Blue Ruin could easily suffer from having a somewhat passive protagonist, if Macon Blair’s performance wasn’t so imbued with humanity. It’s rare to see a thriller’s lead be so meek while heading head-first into danger. The movie is largely silent, as Dwight seeks to end the terrible situation he finds himself in. I will say that, perhaps in part due to the silence of the movie, the character’s motivation for the specific actions he is undertaking is occasionally unclear. The aim of the character is not to identify with the character, but rather to follow him through his experience from the outside. We are offered glimpses into the character only through his actions, and in that respect us feeling like we do understand the character, his backstory, or his mental state at all is to the filmmaker’s credit.

The filmmaker behind this film is Jeremy Saulnier, who does a great job of creating a genuine feeling world. While I know next to nothing about the young director, whether or not this is informed by any real experience is irrelevant in that context. The story of a family feud’s tragic climax feels very real, and the fact that the direction regularly works in glimpses and closeups, allowing us to see in detail the meticulous way Dwight goes through his life (and, later, vengeance) only intensifies this feeling.