Easy Ways and Hard Ways, or, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Decisions, decisions.

It’s startling how easy it can be to slide into lives that have been built for us without considering the lives we can build for ourselves. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is heavily concerned with the temptation to walk into a prescribed life and the struggle between that temptation and the admittedly daunting, perhaps impossible pursuit of building a life that is entirely your own.

Vol. 2 finds the Guardians more or less gelling as a unit, working odd jobs across the titular galaxy when, in the span of an hour or so, some provoked customers put them in their sights and a space weirdo with a beard (Snake Plissken) shows up claiming to be Star Lord/Peter Quill’s father. What follows is a hilarious and exciting look at the multitude of easier lives the Guardians could be living and the lives they are living, be it by choice or circumstance.

Amongst the plethora of revelations regarding Star-Lord’s past is a tailor-made life ready for Quill to slip into like a cozy leather glove. He’s given the option to leave the trials and tribulations of a space outlaw behind for a life that would, if nothing else, require substantially less effort. But the promise of an easier life is also the promise of a life far less his own.

Rocket, having essentially chosen to build a life for himself by standing around like a jackass with the rest of the Guardians in the first film, finds himself struggling with the intricacies that entails, primarily the consideration of others’ thoughts, feelings and opinions. Rocket finds his life to be anything but the stock option for a mutilated, sentient raccoon, but rising above his circumstances has proven to be a balancing act between fulfillment and responsibility, and Rocket is very much still mulling over which carries more weight to him, because at the end of the day being part of a family can be harder than being a loner.

Gamora and her sister Nebula were not only presented with a prescribed life, they were crammed into it, and they both carry the scars to prove it. Drax had built a life that, by all indications, was his own before it was destroyed. All three characters find themselves tasked with starting anew and determining not only how much energy and heart to put into a second go, but which direction to go in.

And then there’s Baby Groot (Dominic “XXX” Toretto). Not just hilarious, not just adorable, Baby Groot is essentially a blank canvas, taking queues on how to live it’s (?) life from these various entities all struggling to determine how they will live their own lives. Baby Groot stands on the precipice of the journey the rest of the characters are already travailing to varying degrees of success.

Most interesting, however, is the conflicted story of Yondu. In Vol. 2 we learn that Yondu’s gang, The Ravagers, are something of a redheaded stepchild to the larger, proper Ravager horde, but due to decisions in Yondu’s past he and his gang were excommunicated in disgrace. Yondu then becomes the epitome of living life your way, and he’s suffered for it, perhaps deservedly so. But the same choices that make Yondu’s life utterly his own are the ones that have made his life difficult. His is not a lot the audience is likely to find themselves yearning for. He’s denied himself the life he could have lived had he conformed with The Ravagers, and in turn he’s endured hardship, but he may have also reaped rewards far greater than he ever could have otherwise. Yondu, and Michael Rooker’s excellent performance, is at once this film’s emotional and intellectual center, a sort of living thesis statement: living life off the beaten path can be as punishing as it can be fulfilling.

With that in mind it’s no coincidence that antagonism takes the shape of The Sovereign in Vol. 2. They’re a species of fancy gold people who take pride in being genetically designed to fulfill specific sociological needs. Their lives are determined before they are even conceived. Theirs is an antagonism that exists in an echo chamber. It’s the evil of uniformity, and of justifying the righteousness of said uniformity with numbers or might.

If the evil here is conformity and complacency, then it is also no coincidence that the film is absolutely hilarious. What is humor but the upending of expectations? What is a quip but an off-color attack on the golden status quo? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a tale in which the villainy of homogeny can only be thwarted by the heroism of being an utter smartass.

Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a cast of lovable misfits and outcasts. Vol. 2 explores why they are misfits and outcasts not just in their own societies but in their very souls. Ultimately, it suggests that maybe that decision to seek out a different life, to become a misfit in spite of the challenges living against the grain presents, is what makes these characters heroic.

Just a Movie Standing in Front of an Audience Asking Them to Think It’s Dope and Hilarious, or, Fate of the Furious 

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For your consideration.

Fate of the Furious is an exercise in the absence of subtext. Or at least intentional subtext.

You can watch F8 and try to look beyond Vin Diesel driving an immolated car in reverse so the flames make it go faster. You can search for meaning in The Rock curling a concrete bench while mean-mugging The Stath. You can stare at an empty page and try to will a thought-provoking blog post on the eighth Fast and Furious film into existence, but that way madness lies.

I could try my damnedest to gnaw meat off of a bare skeleton and wax poetic about F8’s exploration of the conflict between the technology of freedom (cars, Coronas) versus the technology of oppression (surveillance, automation, white dreads), about how Dominic Toretto and fam’s real battle is one for the autonomy of motion in a world that is increasingly capable of pinpointing the individual, but it wouldn’t ring true.

There are no political, philosophical or spiritual strings controlling the action and events of Fate of the Furious. There is only one agenda in this film: convince you that these people are so, so cool and that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.

Perhaps what NPR fails to grasp about Fate of the Furious is that it isn’t that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny (he is) and that these people are so, so cool (I mean…) that drove (right? Because cars?) Fate of the Furious to the highest global opening weekend of all time, it’s that the pursuit of that cool and that humor is so genuine, so unencumbered by agenda.

Sometimes, The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf is just The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf.

Fate of the Furious was never going to be for everyone. It was always going to require us to watch with what can only be referred to as “Vin goggles.” This is a movie, and a franchise, that isn’t trying to trick, or wink at, or subvert. It’s a movie that pulls out all the stops, or at least $250 million worth of stops, to get you to say “boy those people are so, so cool and Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.” And there’s something utterly delightful about someone spending $250 million dollars just to get you to think they are so, so cool and so, so funny.

Rogue One Take Two, or, Modern Star Warfare

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If you’re a 90s kid you’ll remember this level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2!

Among other firsts for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is notable for dragging the warfare of the franchise into the modern age. Where battles in Revenge of the Sith hearken back to D-Day and Vietnam and The Force Awakens boasts the massive WWII-inspired dog fights that where a staple of the original trilogy, Rogue One looks to more recent combat for its conflicts.

The most immediately recognizable example is Jedha, the desert planet of pilgrims being ransacked for its natural resource, kyber crystals, that stands in for an occupied Middle East. The imagery of an Imperial Hovertank creeping through the city while its armed chaperones survey a crowd that is just as likely to be disinterested as it is to be volatile evokes the likes of Hurt Locker, or Call Duty: Modern Warfare. It’s arguably the most directly analogous battlefield we’ve seen in the Star Wars franchise and it’s one that demands thoughtful, nuanced consideration of the parties involved and what they represent.

The planet Eadu sees a similarly contemporary depiction of warfare. As a fleet of X-Wings sweeps down onto the planet I initially found myself disappointed that there were no interior shots of cockpits housing goofy aliens and mustaches. We never see the faces of the pilots flying on Eadu. Instead, we see the equivalent of a drone strike in a galaxy far, far away. The X-Wings here are more sinister, more distinctly weapons, than ever before, as they are faceless and voiceless. There’s no Red Five of Gold Leader on Eadu, just machines descending from the sky, lasers blazing down on anything in the kill box.

Finally, Rogue One is centered on a data leak. Plans and blueprints have always been a part of Star Wars’ third acts, from the original film to Return of the Jedi to The Force Awakens, but here more than ever before there is a focus on the pursuit and distribution of classified information. If anything, the prospect of a data leak has only become more timely since the film was released less than six months ago. Espionage and the accusation of enemy information if hardly a child of the new millennium, but what is ultimately achieved in Rogue One is a data leak that, coupled with the other more modernized combat operations in the film, feels utterly of the moment.

Waging a war that looks more like the headlines of the day, Rogue One presents a certain analogical fluidity. The Empire is violently occupying a resource-rich desert. The Rebellion is conducting scorched earth air strikes, complete with collateral damage and questionable casualties. Its easy to look back on the original 1977 Star Wars and correlate the Empire to Nazis, or a colonial regime, but seeing the questionable military tactics of the day represented on both sides of the conflict in Rogue One begs the question, in 2017 who are the Rebels and who is the Empire?

SNIKTing the Torch, or, Logan

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Are We There Yet 2: Electric Boogaloo

Logan is all about endings. For moviegoers it marks the end of Hugh Jackman’s nearly 20-year stint as Wolverine and one of the only superhero endings we’ve seen committed to film. Within the film itself, Logan details the end of a generation on the ropes.

In the grand scheme of genre storytelling the world of Logan is a subtler dystopia. It doesn’t beat you over the head with its driverless trucks and militarized borders, but they’re there. The year is 2029 and America is a country of disenfranchised women used as incubators for children MSRPs, xenophobia as rampant as automation and an unchanged upper class who are at most disaffected by the lot of it.

It’s the sum total of a generation of the reprehensible pursuing control for the sake of control, disinterested in the long term corrosion to society such actions reap. It’s the sum total of a generation of the commendable doing the best they can to haphazardly slap bandages on mortal wounds, hoping for the best but unable to predict the secondary and tertiary effects of their actions. It’s an imagined America duct-taped together by a waning patriarchy to be handed off to a girl who will outlive them all.

An aside: that girl is played by newcomer Dafne Keen, who goes toe to toe with Jackman and Patrick Stewart and still manages to astound with a feral physicality.

At the heart of Logan is the idea that there are a billions of parents and billions of kids and yet only one real inheritance between all of them, passed on with a billion intentions – to control, to exploit, to save, to support – and met with a billion receptions – disinterest, appreciation, spite, rebellion.

Essentially, it is a film about a guy who remembers his kid has a birthday the day of their birthday and has to scramble to make her a gift with the cooperation of his entire demographic.

It’s like Interstellar meets Jingle All the Way.

Logan is a great Western, a great American road film and a great “sins of the father” narrative with enough intellectual meat on the bone to gnaw on for a good while. I don’t know that it’s The Dark Knight come again, but Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine might just be the first X-Men film to actually be worthy of the caliber of performances the franchise receives.

Silence 2, or, Kong: Skull Island

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Furious George, a.k.a. 2 George 2 Furious

Kong: Skull Island would be just as effective a film if it were completely silent.

Set right at the end of the Vietnam War, Skull Island sees a U.S. military helicopter squadron co-opted by a shadowy organization called Monarch to provide transportation to an uncharted island in the Pacific. Wouldn’t you know it? They wind up doing more than flying some nerds from A to B.

Skull Island is a war film with giant monsters in it, and it is a visually-driven conflict. One look at the trailers for Skull Island will show just how photogenic the film itself is, but the cinematography and imagery (courtesy of DP Larry Fong) in the film do a lot more than look badass as hell.

Kong: Skull Island puts forth a notion that warfare is in some way dependent on imagery and visualization. That to go to war requires a sort of adversarial imagery, a villainous silhouette of “the enemy” that can be recalled in the imagination and identified in the real world without the burden of having to contextualize it before shooting.

Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as Lieutenant Colonel Packard, a man less than ecstatic to be leaving Vietnam under such undefined circumstances. When Packard lays eyes on Kong for the first time there’s no consideration of context or ecosystem or nuance, there’s only his line-of-sight and a hundred-foot-tall gorilla monster. The image of Kong is not only all he needs to go to war with the entire island, it must remain the only information he has, as any context for the enemy muddies the waters. There’s a telling moment early in the film where Packard blames photojournalism for the unceremonious end to the Vietnam War. He is a man of focus and determination who will not be distracted from the image of the enemy by any extraneous light or sound.

In line with the film’s focus on the imagery of conflict are Brie Larson’s character Mason Weaver, a photojournalist pursuing context and nuance through imagery, and a pack of monstrous tripod lizards with false eyes akin to an Orca. The film is continually driven forward but what characters see and how they see it.

Sight is everything in Skull Island. That the discourse of the film can go hand in hand with its fist-pumping cinematography gives a movie that is essentially a ride a little bit more heft. It’s stylized imagery isn’t just exciting, it provides insight into the characters by sharing with audience the overwhelming stimuli they are reacting to, whether that reaction be napalm or thoughtful discourse.

All this is to say, if we’ve gotten a black and white version of Mad Max: Fury Road and there’s talk of us getting a B&W version of Logan, the Blu-ray hawking powers that be could do a lot worse than churning out a silent version of Kong: Skull Island.

Literally Even the Title is Brilliant, or, Get Out

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That’s right. It’s that one dude from West Wing. With glasses!

If you’re an able-bodied, straight, white dude than Get Out is the closest you (and I) may get to experiencing woeful misrepresentation and underrepresentation in popular culture. And not because of how the movie depicts able-bodied, straight, white dudes.

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut film sets the board with a sort of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario: Chris, a young black man played by Daniel Kaluuya, goes to a quaint, upper-class suburb with his girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). What follows is a thrilling, thorough and substantive examination of representation. It’s extremely affecting in its ability to not only analogize what it is to be marginalized on film, but to simulate it in such a way as to give even those who are consistently represented (oh, hello) some semblance of an idea of what it is like to see some irrational, funhouse mirror version of yourself projected on a giant screen.

Consider horror.

It’s a genre of which an oft-referenced trope is the idea that the black guy dies first. While that adage has proven less than law (Complex ran a pretty interesting piece in which they sampled 50 films and found it to be true of 5, for whatever that’s worth), it’s hard to deny black people have an astronomically diminished chance of making it out of a movie alive, due in no small part to their characters making preposterous decisions no one in their right mind would ever make.

But those black characters in horror films are rarely in their right mind are they? Sure they’re black actors, but their lines, their actions, their decisions, are choreographed by writers and directors who are disproportionately white dudes.

Get Out left me with the notion that perhaps being a black guy, sitting in a dark theater and watching the only black character in a horror movie stubble to an early death you yourself have the sense to see coming a mile away, is in some ways akin to being trapped in a body you can no longer control. Even when you’re represented in the flesh, on the screen, behind the screen the strings are so often being pulled by someone with little to no insight into your own experiences.

Get Out isn’t one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the smartest. You could watch it on mute and still be left with enough substance to tear apart and dissect for years to come. That this is Jordan Peele’s first film becomes more and more astounding with each passing minute.

Often, when writing about a movie, I’ll have to sit with it for some time before coming up with something I’d like to discuss about it. Sometimes I really have to stretch to have something say other than “I liked it” or “I hated it.” With Get Out I found myself having to pick from seemingly endless threads that kept sprouting (and continue to sprout) before I could make it to the end of any particular one.

Make no mistake, in a hundred different ways, Get Out is one for the books.

 

 

John Wick: Chapter 2, or, Headshot-Man

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Assassin pledge week.

John Wick: Chapter 2 takes the veiled surrealism of its predecessor and drags it down the street in a muscle car at full speed. Where Keanu Reeves’ first outing as the titular Wick flirted with the idea of a lavish society of killers and their ilk hiding in plain sight in the greater New York area, Chapter 2 fully commits and goes global.

In an age where action films are so often synonymous with superheroics, it can be easy to forget that the kind of in-depth world building that has come to define John Wick is not a staple of the action genre as a whole. The depth of mythology in previous shoot-em-up franchises is often limited to giving a dead antagonist a vengeful relative, or giving the protagonist a grizzled dad. Chapter 2, again written by Derek Kolstad, kicks off with a set piece that immediately discards the aforementioned notion of the vengeful sequel sibling, just as the initial action sequence in the original film discards the Bourne shaky cam.

John Wick is not science fiction or fantasy, but it is a franchise that lets its imagination loose. There are clandestine societies with intricate bureaucracies and hierarchies. There are fascinating artifacts, remnants of secret histories we are only given passing allusions to. It’s a lavish world, spritzed with the surrealism required for all of it to go on just under the noses of an unsuspecting public. John Wick: Chapter 2 is like the opening crawl to a Star Wars prequel, written in headshots and murder.

The action genre is broad enough to encompass and outlive cowboys and detectives, body-builders and superheroes, evolving along the way as sub-genres come and go. John Wick: Chapter 2 might just prove to be the perfect example of what the genre has picked up from the interconnected superheroism of the day.