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All your galaxies are belong to us… Guardians of the Galaxy Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy

 

I have to admit, the movie I was most excited about this summer was Guardians of the Galaxy.  Why?  Well, I had never heard of the comics, I don’t even read comic books.  I didn’t know much about the characters or setting, just what I saw in the trailers… and what did I see there?  Humor, action, space opera, heroes, villains, and people stuck in between.

Guardians of the Galaxy delivered all of that, in spades.  It managed to turn a sarcastic, vicious character into an object of pity with a couple seconds out of a scene, without the use of words.  Characterization of the group was excellent, with each figure being a mix of both comedy, tragedy, scum, and reluctant hero, all rolled up into individual pieces that stood strong and alone.  Rocket is phenomenal, with some of the best lines in the movie, yet far from being just a comedic element.  Drax the Destroyer is at once both a juggernaut but also Shakespearean.  Vin Diesel may only ever say three words as Groot, but he manages to put subtle emphasis into it… and Groot comes across as both very alien and a character we can empathize with at the same time.  Peter Quill is brilliant: a humorous rogue with dreams of success at odds with his own larcenous heart and his past he can’t quite escape.  What’s not to like?

It’s serious space opera, with epic landscapes, space ships, travel between worlds, alien races galore, and conflict with nothing less than the fate of billions at stake.  The movie makes excellent use of dramatic tension and comedic elements, blending both to the point that you almost feel whip-lashed… yet they work so seamlessly together that you can laugh even at the tightest moments of drama and still be on the edge of your seat.  I’d love to go into more detail, but in consideration of those who haven’t seen it yet, I’ll leave off.

All that said, the movie does have a few faults, minor though they are.  Gamorra is probably the weakest characterized of the heroes, not due to any fault of Zoe Saldana, but more because her character gets sidelined a bit.  The villains, while dark, don’t get enough screen time to really establish themselves, in particular, Ronin the Accuser is a nasty, scary sort, but we just get told he’s a fanatic and have to just roll with that.  Nebula is awesome, with some of the best lines in the movie, particularly between her and Gamorra.  I would argue that Nebula has more of a developed character than Gamorra.

Still, these are minor things.  This is the first movie I’ve seen in years that I want to go back in theaters not just for a second screening, but also a third.  Guardians managed to take first place for my movies this year… and I would be very surprised if anything can knock it off that pedestal.

Edge of Tomorrow Review (Or Killing Tom Cruise A Lot)

Edge of Tomorrow

There once was a movie called Groundhog’s Day. Edge of Tomorrow is sort of like if you took that movie, combined it with Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie) and put Tom Cruise in there to get murdered. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, it’s revealed in the trailers and posters). It makes for an interesting movie, to say the least. The basic premise is established, the characters are real enough to be entertaining, and, by the end, we’re left with enough tension that victory does not seem assured.

The movie had some good special effects and some fantastic conceptual items. I would probably complain that the powered suits don’t have better armor (or even armor that stops anything) and that most of them seem to be armed with light caliber weapons that don’t really do much (if anything) to the enemy. Then again, being armed with a pathetic weapon against an almost unstoppable enemy makes for an underdog you can root for.

As for characterization, much as in Groundhog Day, there is a transition for the main character over each iteration of the terrible day. I particularly liked this transition, but I’ll avoid giving spoilers as far as the movie at this point. I will say that the most entertaining part of this movie, at the start, was watching Tom Cruise die. In fact, some of the best parts of the movie were him dying, not the action scenes, but the humorous (and often painful) demises he received.

The story wasn’t terribly original, but it was at least coherent, with a specific goal and actual stakes for the hero to struggle for. I will say there were a couple times in the movie where they did good in reversing what the audience expected. On the bad, there were a couple sequences where things were a bit repetitive.

As far as actors, Bill Paxton had a great role and was highly entertaining. Tom Cruise made for a fun transition and character arc. The other actors did well, but most of their characters had rather shallow character development. Some of the characters refusing to adapt/change as the movie went on was somewhat irritating. Then again, it’s an action movie, the hero is supposed to do the heavy lifting.

The comedic elements were some of the most memorable sequences, for me. I highly recommend watching it. Also, keep an eye out for the duct tape, they made excellent use of it.

emily_blunt_in_edge_of_tomorrow-wide

Captain America Winter Soldier Movie Review

Disclaimer ahead: I’m reviewing a comic book movie and I’m not a fan of comic books.  That aside, let’s get to the movie!

Short answer: I loved it.  Lots of action, interesting plot, and the good guy heroics that you would expect from Captain America.

Let’s dive a little deeper though.  The movie had excellent pacing and plot, at no point was there a point where the audience was left to get bored.  Action was often built with tension, we are meant to care what happens to the people in this movie.  Chris Evans brought the patriotism, freedom-loving, and honest Captain America to life, in a fashion that was both inspiring and heart-rending at times.  Yes, I say heart-rending because of the burdens he shoulders.  There was at least one tear-jerker of a scene in the movie.  You are able to guess the direction of the plot, but the full extent has enough twists and turns to satisfy, but not overly complex like a bad Bond movie.

The movie brought with it the trappings of a political thriller, but don’t be mistaken, it’s not a movie about murky politics and finding the lesser of two evils.  It’s a movie about Captain America doing the right thing… no matter the cost to himself along the way.  It was a movie about a good man setting the example and causing all of us mere mortals to step up and stand with him.  I think it’s a movie that reminds us of the importance of freedom… and that there are always those who are willing to use fear to take power.

I particularly liked the development of Scarlet Johanson’s character, Black Widow.  The interplay between her, a character who is fundamentally a creature of shadow and lies, and Captain America who is a beacon of truth… it was fascinating.  The tension between the two was well played and believable and at the same time, we saw that his inherent goodness acted as a draw to her own character, who fights for good, but doesn’t believe she has any within herself.  In addition, Falcon was an excellent character, something of an every-day-man who fights in the realm of gods and superheroes… and who fights because it is the right thing to do, rather than from some calling or granted power.  There are others, some of whom get only a few words to say, but they’re all called forward, forced to choose between what is easy and what is right.

I’m interested to see the effects of the movie upon the Agents of Shield TV show, as well as to find out more about Avengers: Age of Ultron.  The movie has some very serious repercussions in the Marvel Movie Universe and I want to see that transformation play out.  There were two post movie scenes, one mid-credit that hinted at a lot of activity for Avengers Age of Ultron, and the other which makes me interested to see where the character of the Winter Soldier is headed.

All in all, it was an awesome movie.  Frankly, the only disappointment I’m feeling about it is that I’ve got a long wait until we see these characters again.

 

 

Robocop Movie Review

I am not, as a general rule, a huge fan of movie remakes.  Now and again, however, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When I went to see it, I expected it to be a simple action flick.  Lots of shooting, some explosions, and robots and bad guys getting mowed down left and right.  What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly deep (for Hollywood) action movie with political and ethical questions.

Without giving too much away, let me say this: the movie has a rather murky and mixed message.  In some aspects, actors come across as almost caricatures and in others, you might feel almost like you’re being preached to… but you aren’t really sure what the message is supposed to be.  At the same time, there are moments in the movie where I was nodding my head at a reveal… or chuckling at a bit of satire.  The politics of security versus freedom was touched upon.  There was a good bit of character growth for a doctor, which I found interesting, while he fought between his ambition and his medical ethics.  There was also some decent discussion of the ethics of using automated weapons on American citizens…  Messages were there, but they were sometimes open ended, almost as if the director or actors didn’t want to agree with the conclusion.

As far as the action itself… by and large it was impressive.  There were some excellent firefights… if you could get past the ‘shaky cam.’  I don’t know about most viewers, but I don’t like leaving the theater feeling dizzy.  There were a couple of scenes where it was literally too much, where my brain just kind of went into shut-down because there was strobing lights, dark backgrounds, and a shaking, spinning camera.  To top it off, even the the moments where the main character was literally getting pounded, it was hard to have any dramatic tension… I mean, the moment of drama was solved before we really had any anticipation of danger.  There wasn’t enough build-up, I suppose.

The movie looked good, though.  And despite the nausea inducing shaky-cam, it was mostly fun.  In my opinion, it was a better movie than the original, which is a good thing.

Characterization Case Study: Gravity

originalThe best way to study characterization and plot is to look at examples, both good and bad, and to note what worked and what didn’t.  I’m going to do a quick case study of the recent movie Gravity.  It’s an interesting movie that (due to a very small cast and a rather linear plot) can be analyzed with relative ease.  As a quick disclaimer: this is not a movie review and it will hold some spoilers.  As a secondary disclaimer: I enjoyed the movie, the music, special effects, science and plot were all relatively well grounded and a lot of fun… but I’m going to dissect the characters in the movie as examples of good and bad characterization. 

First things first, a look at characterization.  There are really only two characters in the movie: Stone and Kowalski.  The movie does an excellent job right away to establish Kowalski as a cowboy, right down to his music selection as he bounces around the hubble telescope on his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit).  He’s excited to be where he is, cocky, and clearly knows what he’s doing.  Throughout the rest of his (brief) stint in opening part of the movie, this is all we really see of Kowalski.  Stone on the other hand, is more difficult to characterize.  At first, she is totally focused on her work.  Later when things begin to go wrong, she panics.  We learn that she doesn’t want to die, that she is afraid, and that she really doesn’t seem to like space.

This last was the part that broke characterization for me.  The way things are now, if someone isn’t totally dedicated and driven to become an astronaut, they won’t even stand a chance.  It doesn’t matter what your background is or how important your mission, you can always train someone else.  There are millions of applicants and countless intelligent people willing to learn whatever skills it takes to go to space, they won’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there.

But then Kowalski shows up to save Stone.  The two learn that they are the only survivors from the shuttle and both deal with it in their own ways.  Kowalski becomes professional and reverts to an almost military mode.  From the perspective of characterization, this is excellent.  We see the other side of a character, and we see that his cowboy persona is just one facet of a more complex person.  Stone just sort of shuts down.  She says that she’s low on oxygen, she doesn’t volunteer any information, and at several points, tells Kowalski that he should leave her, that she’s slowing him down.  This, frankly, makes her character seem rather dull.  In the initial panic and worry of the disaster, we are immediately sympathetic to her character.  She is adrift and struggles to survive, we want to root for her.  Her giving up after being found and rescued by Kowalski gives away a lot of that initial viewer sympathy.  No one likes a quitter, and the apathy that she begins to show about her own death makes her character seem very bland and hard to identify with.

Then, in typical survival mode, Kowalski asks Stone about where she is from, if she has anyone who waits for her back home, if she likes her job and what she does after work.  This is the perfect moment in a book for the viewer to identify with a character.  You learn about the details of their life, the things that guided them and shaped them.  The scene could not have been framed better, with only the two characters, tethered by a single cable and with the entire Earth as a backdrop.  Literally, they’re the only two people who exist, with no other distractions… and Stone takes a right turn to depression.  Stone doesn’t have a family, she had a daughter who died in an accident.  She apparently doesn’t have parents, siblings, or any romantic interest at all either.  In fact she seems to have no reason to go on living.  She concludes her brief explanation with a statement that she ‘just drives.’  She seems to be a woman with no reason left to live… so why exactly is she in space?  Please, tell me that her device would prevent future falling accidents such as the one that killed her daughter or cure cancer or at least give her some goal or drive to base her life upon.  Give me something, I want to root for these characters.  They’re in a disaster with miniscule odds of survival, I want to think that their lives mean something.

The two characters reach their destination, but in true movie fashion, the EMU (rather like a jetpack) runs out of fuel in the last seconds.  The two tumble and scramble for a hold, and in the end, Stone is tangled in some line attached to the station and Kowalski is attached to Stone by the tether.  Of course, the cables are slipping and there is too much mass for the friction of the cables to overcome.  Kowalski says that he’s going to cut himself loose, and explains to Stone what she’ll have to do to survive.  This is a pivotal moment in both character’s story arcs.  The cowboy/professional mission commander sacrifices himself (showing yet another side of himself) while the frightened and confused Doctor Stone has to come out and shine, to find her internal strength and succeed despite the odds.  Frankly, I think it was a bit heavy-handed.  The scene could have played out more true to Kowalski’s character if done in a split-second decision, rather than as it played out… a long and agonizing moment for Stone.  They did it more for plot reasons than characterization, I think.  They set up Stone without the tools to survive so they wanted Kowalski to give her those.  Given the amount of time they had, and the way they established Kowalski’s character, I think it more likely he would have attempted something dramatic to save them both.  However, clearly the story they wanted to explore was Stone’s growth, even if Kowalski was the more interesting character.

Stone then follows Kowalski’s guidance.  As an added threat, besides the debris that moves faster than any Earth-bound bullet, the station catches fire.  Because, really, Stone needed something to get her to get moving again.  Stone begins step two of three towards her return to earth and then discovers that her ride to the next stop is out of fuel.  This would be a perfect time for her to show her internal strength and that drive to survive.  Instead, she tries to reach someone, anyone, for help.  In the end, after a tearful conversation with some chinese guy with a dog and a baby, she decides that she doesn’t want to wait another ninety minutes for the debris to hit her yet again, she’ll just turn down the air and go to sleep.

Okay, I’m sorry, but while the plot of the movie had me hooked, at this point I just stopped caring about the character of Doctor Stone.  She has no family, no goals, no dreams, no ambition… she’s survived to this point because she doesn’t want to die and because someone we did care about sacrificed himself so that she would have a chance.  Honestly, I come back to the whole question: why is Doctor Ryan Stone here in space and who chose the hardest person in the world to identify with to be the survivor?

Cue the return of Mission Commander Kowalski.  His snarky comments and upbeat words breathe some life into Stone just before the obvious reveal that he was a figment of her subconscious as her brain shut down from lack of oxygen.  Luckily, she realizes she does have a way to survive after all, and goes about it.  She seems to have decided to live because Kowalski wanted her to, which in itself is something, at least.  Do it for the dead guy, it works in sports movies for a reason, and it at least gives us a reason why the lone survivor doesn’t just die.

As far as characterization, that concludes the entire movie.  We get a brief moment at the end where Stone stands up on the beach, somewhere on Earth and walks away.  This seems more a statement of survival than anything more profound.  In fact, the character of Doctor Stone doesn’t really seem to draw any closure.  She survives, which closes out the plot, but we don’t have any way to see what she has become, or even if she has changed at all.  What will drive her, after her survival, what will she do and who will she become afterwards?  These question remain unanswered, which, as a viewer I would find supremely irritating… except I really didn’t care at that point.  Stone was just the point of view for the ride, and I could walk away without any of those questions being answered.

Hopefully my fellow writers can take away some lessons from this.  I know I did, the biggest being that if you create a character that doesn’t care about themselves… your audience wont either.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a disaster, but the rest of your product, book, movie or game, will have to make up for that in other areas.