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 prescribed lives, they were crammed into them, 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 its (?) 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: pursuing a life off the beaten path can be as punishing as it can be fulfilling.

With that in mind it’s no coincidence that antagonism in Guardians Vol. 2 takes the shape of The Sovereign. 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 and 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.

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American Sniper, or, The Obligatory Think Piece

Quite the tagline.

Quite the tagline.

I worry that war movies present war as something to aspire to. That they challenge young people to seek a dramatization of glory, portrayed on a big screen in slow motion with an orchestral score, that doesn’t quite exist in real life. So when a film like American Sniper comes along and uses a man’s kill count as its selling point I can’t help but feel conflicted. After all there are a hell of a lot of inappropriate ways to adapt not only a man’s life but his body count as well.

Do you use it promotionally and task young viewers to join the armed forces and kill hundreds of terrorists? Do you use it to display the atrocities of war and rally against the War on Terror as a whole?

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of American Sniper, by and large, takes the safest and probably wisest route and does neither, choosing instead to focus specifically on Chris Kyle, the man whose memoir the film is based on, rather than panning out to reveal one political platform or another. It focuses squarely on one man’s experiences and doesn’t bother to posit much beyond them. It’s more of a biopic than it is a war movie.

American Sniper isn’t a dialogue between ideologies or a philosophical foray into the War on Terror. It’s a film about a guy going far away from his home and family to kill people in a war zone. And it’s a film that doesn’t really do much to condemn or condone that narrative. It doesn’t vilify Chris Kyle and – promotional material aside – the film itself arguably doesn’t go out of its way to turn him into an action hero poster child either.

Ultimately Eastwood’s adaptation of Kyle’s life leaves a lot up to the viewer. Whatever feelings on the military and the War on Terror you bring in to American Sniper will only wind up reinforced by the movie’s noncommittal politics. Whether you see the conflict as a misguided occupation in the name of self-interest or a valiant crusade for freedom you’ll find evidence of your claims here.

I went into American Sniper with a deep suspicion of war movies and uncertainty regarding the glorification of lethality and I walked out of American Sniper with a deep suspicion of war movies and uncertainty regarding the glorification of lethality.

Guerrilla Blogging, or, Guardians of the Galaxy

A note to the reader: the Asus laptop I got just over a year ago crashed so hard it is inoperable. Understandable I know. After all it has been a full single year. Anyway, for the time being I’m limited to my cracked iPhone, so things are going to look a little different around here because I have no intention of texting and entire blog post. So, you know, this:

 

 

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Come for the Cleavage Stay for the Lies, or, American Hustle

Spoilers ahead for American Hustle.

We’re all conmen in our own way. We hide what we think and say things we don’t mean to keep in line with social decorum. We tell ourselves we need things that will never be a necessity and convince ourselves that the hardest course of action is the wrong course of action. We lie to ourselves and each other and the world every day. We’re all conmen and that’s something of the backbone to director David O. Russell’s latest film American Hustle, which sees a cast that is an embarrassment of riches lying their asses off in every direction. Record scratch. In the 1970s.

Make no mistake, there is disco in this movie.

Make no mistake, there is disco in this movie.

Irving and Sydney are a pair of madly in love crooks who divide their time between banging in hotels and swindling the desperate out of their last bits of money. But FBI Agent Richie DiMaso throws a wrench into their operation when he threatens prosecution unless Irving and Sydney help weed out and take down high level white collar criminals.

It’s your standard bad guy does bad things for the good guys plot. But the narrative of the film, while certainly not lacking in any jarring way, isn’t what will keep you engaged for two plus hours. Neither are the obscenely low cut dresses.

It’s the lying.

They all do it. Some well, some poorly. Some sparingly, some constantly. But the lies the characters in American Hustle tell one another are the coal that drive the movie onward. They define the plot as much as they define the characters.

Irving, played by a Christian Bale who you will have a very difficult time recalling was ever Batman, is a lifelong conman. His entire existence is built upon lies, from his business to his family. It’s a sport to him, and in that sense and that sense alone he is a professional athlete. But over the course of his dealing with the FBI he slowly becomes disillusioned with lying for a living.

Swear to me.

Swear to me.

Sydney, played by Amy Adams, lies to survive, as she insists time and time again, begging the viewer to question if that in and of itself is a lie. She spends half of her time on screen under the guise of the Englishwoman Edith Greensly, throwing on and off a British accent so often it can get confusing. For Sydney every lie is another inch between herself and her past, and another inch closer to any other life than the one she’s living.

Bradley Cooper plays Richie DiMaso, the FBI agent serving as Irving and Sydney’s ringleader. He’s the authority. He’s the good guy. And he’s a liar. Sure, he desperately wants to shutdown white collar crime, but does his passion stem from an honest thirst for justice? No. Richie just wants to be cool. It’s written all over his Jerry-curled face. DiMaso will go so far as to create white collar criminals if only to have white collar criminals to incarcerate.

Which is how Jeremy Renner’s character, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito, finds himself in the midst of the trio. Polito is a working man’s politician. Renner plays him like a Kennedy, a young, handsome do-gooder ready to lend a hand to any man or woman in need. His goal is the welfare of New Jersey, and as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly clear that that isn’t a lie.

But Polito wants the new jobs that rebuilding Atlantic City would bring so badly that he’s willing to compromise and lie to himself to get it. One lie leads to the next, ever goaded on by DiMaso and his reluctant assistants, and soon Polito is over his magnificent haircut in corruption and bribery.

And at the extreme end of this spectrum of deceit is Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence in a role that makes her almost unrecognizable as any bow-wielding revolutionary. Rosalyn, rather than a shrewd conman or a morally compromised politician, is just a straight up liar. Her lies are translucent, less an attempt at misdirection than a blatant rewriting of the immediate past. They’re inept narratives construed on the fly to cover her mistakes, duct tape holding together a shoddy, broken down car. She’s the civilian, the pedestrian liar whose fumbling feints make Irving and company’s lies all the more dazzling in comparison.

Buncha liars.

So no one told you life was gonna be this way? CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP

The titular American Hustle is the lie we tell ourselves every day: the idea that we aren’t surrounded by perpetual liars, whether they’re conning us out of millions or expressing feigned interest in what we did this weekend. And yet Russell’s film doesn’t feel like an indictment as much as it does an honest embrace of a distinctly human activity.

In the world of American Hustle there are no good guys and there are no bad guys, there’s just good liars and better liars.

And cleavage. So, so much cleavage.