Guardians of the Galaxy

You’re welcome

guardiansWomen were the original storytellers.  Those visual narratives smeared on the walls of ancient caves?  Created by women.  Women have also penned some of the greatest novels, short stories, and poems in our history, from Sappho to Flannery O’Connor to Grace Paley to Virginia Woolf, right down to Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Jennifer Egan, Helen Oyeyemi, and Eowyn Ivey.  So as much of a landmark it is that a female screenwriter (Nicole Perlman) finally has her name attached to one of the Marvel Universe’s cornucopia of formula CG-action movies, it’s no revelation, and it’s infuriating to read headlines such as “Who Knew Women Could Write Superhero Movies?” We all did.  Women write much better stuff on a daily basis.  The real landmark here is that the Marvel people have finally allowed for this to happen, and the result is a superhero movie that is more sarcastic, self-possessed, and absorbing than anything of its type since the original Iron Man.

The story begins yet another “boy with a dead mother” narrative.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fails to comfort his mother (Laura Haddock) as she dies of cancer.  Equipped with only a mixtape of her favorite ’70s songs (“Awesome Mix #1”) and her final unopened birthday present to him, he runs out into a field, where he is soon abducted by aliens.  A normal day at the hospital, really.  Twenty-something years later, in a utopian used-future, Quill is a bandit and has fashioned himself “Star-Lord.”  The whole thing has a real Outlaw Star vibe.  His frenemy/mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) becomes annoyed when Quill takes a valuable sphere for himself, as does a religious fanatic called Ronan (Lee Pace), whose henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) was sent to pick it up before having an unfortunate encounter with Quill.  In the absence of his mother, Quill has become a selfish, thieving womanizer, and now some serious galactic powers are after him.  Ronan, played by Lee Pace as a laconic, one-dimensional amalgam of Shredder and any Dragonball Z villain, sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the stolen orb.  Through one thing and another, Gamora, a ruthless assassin whose sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) also works with Ronan, reveals that she was planning on betraying Ronan anyway, as the MacGuffin everyone is after contains an Infinity Stone, an object able to raze entire civilizations in seconds.  Guess what Ronan plans on doing with it?

Quill and Gamora, after meeting bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a science experiment gone wrong, who appears as a foul-mouthed raccoon, but has never heard of raccoons – and Groot (apparently Vin Diesel), a walking CG tree who only knows three words (“I am Groot”), end up in a classic scenario: imprisoned with a bunch of tough inmates who hate them, and in need of a friendly inmate to help them out.  This help comes in the form of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan during one of the latter’s routine killing sprees.  Convenient motivation!  Once they escape, they discover that Ronan’s next target is the planet Xandar, a facsimile of Earth, and home to the Nova Corps (generic good-guy space-marines), plenty of unsuspecting folks with children, and a certain philanderer who looks an awful lot like Stan Lee.  Needless to say, this aggression will not stand, man.  Quill’s group formulates a plan to get rid of Ronan and keep the stone safe, and the whole thing goes pretty much how you’d expect.

Chris Pratt, known for playing the frumpy and loveable Andy Dwyer on Parks & Rec, does a lot of work with the character of Quill that an already-established film comedian – say, Ben Stiller – would not have had to do.  Perlman’s script is not afraid to make Quill initially unlikeable and selfish for the sake of being selfish, and even though we know he’s destined to become the film’s Boring Hero, he feels like an actual character by the time he gets to that point (or at least, as much of a character as one can be in a movie made up of nearly nonstop action).  Dave Bautista’s stilted acting suits the character of Drax perfectly: he’s a muscleheaded Spartan-style warrior who only speaks literally and doesn’t understand metaphors or sarcasm (“Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are much too fast.  I would just catch it.”).  Cooper’s voice is nearly unrecognizable as Rocket, who ends up as one of the most fully realized characters in the film, albeit with almost no real background revealed – I imagine this will be sequel fodder, along with the details of Quill’s parentage and the leftover villains.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora with great confidence, and she is the film’s truest badass, but as the story begins to center more and more around Quill, the woman who overpowered every member of the cast at the beginning (including Drax, whom she could have killed back in prison) suddenly relies on the stubbly hero, is reluctantly attracted to his silly dancing, and agrees to follow his lead.  She’s not exactly downtrodden, but she’s always second fiddle, is needlessly called a “whore” at one point, and ultimately satisfies the male wish fulfillment that comes with having a protagonist like Quill, right down to occupying a void left by Quill’s mother at the beginning (as if taking Gamora’s hand during a vital time makes up for the fact that his mother died a lonely, agonizing death).  The group makes heavy use of the No Girls Allowed Clause, even allowing two Big Tough Guys, but only one woman.  The opposition does the same: Nebula is the most adept, hardy, and consistent of the villainous characters, while Korath grovels and gets his butt whupped, and Ronan alternatively broods and bickers with his partner, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Nebula’s real conflict is with Gamora, her adoptive sister, and her escape enables future layers for her character, rather than just having her function as one of the big three bad guys, so that every member of the hero team has someone to fight at the end (although in terms of this movie itself, she satisfies that condition too).

Most of the characters’ behavior makes sense, and the adventure itself is something they’re simply dragged into, making them Marvel’s true “ragtag” group.  In fact, Ronan pejoratively labels them the “Guardians of the Galaxy” after what seems to be a crippling screw-up on their part.  Everyone has a background that could have conceivably brought them to where they are, although most of that background isn’t explored because so much time is devoted to chases and explosions, and because the structure of the film is that of a fast-paced and linear video game.  Even the histrionic theatrics of Ronan, which he goes through again and again instead of just killing the heroes, seems justified when you think of him as a fanatical alien whose sense of ceremony is just as important to him as what he actually accomplishes.

What sets Guardians apart from other superhero stock is its sarcasm and self-conscious quality.  Or at least, its attempt to be aware of what it is.  During an obligatory Hero Shot, Gamora yawns and Quill wipes his nose.  Quill constantly makes references to pre-’90s pop culture, including Ranger Rick, Alf, Alyssa Milano, and others that the film’s target demographic won’t get.  When Quill makes his plea for aid from the Nova Corps, who have vilified him for years, his big justification is that he’s “an a-hole, but not one-hundred-percent a dick.”  The funny parts are genuinely funny due to Pratt’s delivery.  But the issue is that the film still carries the structure of every other Marvel movie, in spite of how much they make make fun of it, so when the inevitable epiphanies happen and Quill decides to be a good guy, it’s a sham.  Even Quill can’t explain why he risks his life to save Gamora when she’s spaced by Nebula; he knows it would have made more sense to just save himself.  His big rallying speech to the Guardians argues that this is their chance to “give a shit,” and even after Rocket correctly lampshades the obligatory Heroes Standing Up One at a Time scene as “a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle,” that scene has still happened, and for the same reason it happens in every one of these movies: Freytag’s Superhero Pyramid.

The film comes very close to being Marvel’s redheaded stepchild, and is genuinely better than most Marvel movies despite being bogged down by conventions and still being too “safe” for fear of not making its money back.  But hey, we’re talking about a company that responds to accusations of gender discrimination by turning one of its already-famous male characters female instead of just creating a new female character.  What are you afraid of, Marvel?

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); written by Nicole Perlman; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, and Bradley Cooper. 

Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

Zero Dark Thirty

Assault & vinegar

JessicaChastainMayaI don’t need the Academy to tell me.  I’ve been saying it for two years: Jessica Chastain is the Best Actress.  I’ve gushed enough about her prolificness, her unrivaled collection of characters, and her steadfast dedication to the craft (which has, as far as what I can gather from her own words, taken precedent over anything worldly, including personal relationships and romance).  Here is an actress who believes in the importance of empowered women in the movies, and in powerful characters to be played by them (not to mention a cultivated understanding of what “strong” means in that context).  Here is an actress who can be interviewed on television and say insightful things you haven’t heard before.  Here is someone who radiates originality, maturity, and independence every step of the way.  A year ago, she wasn’t recognized in public.  Look at her now.  If we need role models from our visual entertainment industry, I’ve got one for you.

“This is a very rare lead role in cinema,” she said to Time about the role of Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. “Women, I find, we’re defined a lot by men and thus defined by our gender, who we are through our relationship with men, be it as a victim or a love relationship. The idea that this is a woman who defines herself by her work and by her brain and doesn’t try to sleep with her superiors, that to me is really inspiring. I’m in a very different business. As an actor, there are a lot of women around. Not as many women as men, but there are more women around than in a field like the CIA. I don’t experience that [numbers difference], but I do experience that in our society we are still labeled by our gender.”

Isn’t it the truth?  Just look at the filmmaker.  How many viewers and interviewers define Bigelow by the fact that she was married to James Cameron, a far inferior filmmaker?  Add the fact that the couple were only married for two years (’89-’91), long before Bigelow was a juggernaut on the directing scene, and long before she trounced him for Best Picture (2008), an accomplishment in itself, since only four female directors including Bigelow have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and only three for Best Director.

Zero Dark Thirty, a sort of spiritual successor to The Hurt Locker, is introduced with the promise that the story we’re about to see is based upon true events.  Which events?  We are left to judge and believe as we will.  The protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, goes only by the name Maya; whether or not this is her real name (most characters in the film go by first name only) is also left to us.  Maya is based upon a real person, labeled in the news as the “Girl Who Got bin Laden,” a CIA officer with incredible confidence.  This introduces a conundrum in the process of storytelling: Maya, just like her real-life CIA counterpart, has little or no personal life.  Every bit of her time is dedicated to her work.  In the movie, we watch her chase down leads on Osama bin Laden over the course of several years, and her unbridled drive is something we are never allowed to understand.  We get tidbits of her old life in the background of shots (a screensaver and so on), but if you take your eyes away from Maya while watching this film for the first time, your scrutiny is misplaced.

Jason Clarke appears as Dan, a CIA muscleman who tortures prisoners for info.  There’s plenty of onscreen waterboarding.  Maya observes and even assists with Dan’s torture operations in the beginning, appearing slightly disgusted at the idea but not quite feeling sorry for the people who aided in the murder of thousands of American people.  As in The Big Lebowski, a film to which I never expected to compare this one, there is a pattern of dialogue repetition.  As the Dude more or less plagiarizes other people’s pearls of wisdom for the sake of sounding smarter, characters in ZDT take what they can from each other and pass on ideas.  Maya takes the torch from Dan when the job becomes too much for him (“I’ve seen too many guys naked,” he says), and introduces herself to prisoners in the same intimidating way he once did.  Once she gives some great advice to CIA Director George (Mark Strong), he repeats some of her terminology to his superiors.

I’ve had some trouble deciding whether the characterization of Maya works.  In a traditional sense, it doesn’t, because we know nothing of her personal life, whether she has friends and family, what she thinks of being unable to tell anyone what she does, what she feels at any given time.  She is propelled only by the action of the narrative.  However, the evolution of the parts of her personality we see, which essentially amount to two versions of her work personality, are handled in a very interesting way.  When she interrogates someone (post-Dan), she wears a dark wig.  At first, this seems like an understandable precaution: you don’t want too many enemies of America to be able to identify someone with starkly unique characteristics (bright red hair, for one) by memory, or to be able to figure out who she is on sight.  But consider the garb she wears when speaking to prisoners in daylight and when convincing them to give in with words instead of torture: a white headscarf.  The dark wig enables Maya, who doesn’t truly believe torture is the best way, to play a character, a woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and ordering brutish goons to beat the hell out of a defenseless person.  Every time she peels the wig off at the end of the workday, she absolves herself of the fact that she’s skirting war crimes – granted, her most effective methods are verbal, and she doesn’t go halfway to where Dan went.  He even seemed to enjoy it before losing the stomach.

Over the years, Maya finds leads, and several quiet (and some unintentionally explosive) operations are undertaken in order to find bin Laden.  She gains a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient and always spot-on in her hunches and assessments.  She works in Pakistan with Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA’s Station Chief in Islamabad, until his identity is compromised and he is replaced by a relaxed boss who lets Maya do what she wants.  Jessica Chastain’s scenes with Chandler are her best opportunities to let loose her intensity, and will certainly be the ones shown in every reel meant to convince viewers that she deserves this year’s biggest performance awards.

Eventually, Maya’s exploits lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and she is able to convince everyone, even President Obama (not played by anyone in the film), to 100% certainty that bin Laden is there.  A squadron of Navy SEALs led by Justin (Chris Pratt) and Patrick (Joel Edgerton), unremarkable bearded goofballs who could be anyone (maybe a wise move since the identities of the actual SEALs who performed the operation cannot be released), raid the compound and take down bin Laden in a scene that takes, perhaps, as long as the real-life operation did (a far too long stretch of time without Maya onscreen, one of the film’s only structural missteps).

The film features an interesting slew of bit parts, but the characters are utilized much better than those of The Hurt Locker, which often jarred me not with its tense bomb-diffusing scenes, but with its striking misuse of Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly.  James Gandolfini appears as Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, who has a bit of a Jabba-the-Hutt vibe when trying to verbally intimidate Maya.  Jennifer Ehle is Jessica, a fellow CIA officer and friend of Maya’s who has un-spoilable involvement in the 2009 Camp Chapman Attack.  Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, and Mark Duplass also appear here and there, and their time is well-used.  Mark Strong plays a convincing American (not to mention an effective possessor of hair).

The film has been accused by Those Who Want Attention as being pro-torture.  I can’t agree.  In fact, a film with so many opportunities to be as red-white-and-blue as Argo almost completely forgoes them. The film does not ignore the fact that war crimes, including vicious torture, were implemented in order to get information (although the people at the top swear up and down that good results were never obtained through waterboarding, which is somewhat reflected in the film).  Also note that Maya does not think torture is the key to finding bin Laden, and must play a role that disgusts her in order to do what she thinks is right.  We also see the SEAL team kill unarmed people, including women, in the raid: Bigelow chooses not to give into the “we can never be anything but good guys” myths involving bin Laden firing upon the SEALs before they killed him.  She even chooses to show a news clip of President Obama (the only time he is seen in the entire film) denying that the United States uses/condones torture, immediately after a scene of Dan brutalizing a prisoner.  None of this is presented with bias or deliberate irony; it’s all very matter-of-fact, and for that, I have to concede some artistic respect.

The film also has two image patterns: one is Maya’s Converse shoe (watch how it’s used each time it’s onscreen), and the other, also touched upon twice, is a tear rolling from someone’s left eye.  This is first seen when Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being tortured despite supposedly not knowing anything, and once again at the very end when Maya is all alone on a plane home.  Could this be read, maybe, as a comment on the commonalities between people (and their reactions to figurative solitude), regardless of alignment?  Maya, after all of her work, after she was right, is relieved to finally leave this behind her, and we are relieved for her.  A step towards a normal life, maybe?  But there’s something that stings – she’s still referred to as “the girl” in a radio transmission asking for confirmation that bin Laden (“Geronimo”) is dead.  Will Bigelow receive the same label within the mix of filmmakers up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year (all of whom are male)?  If she snags Best Picture a second time (and even if not, considering this film and its lead actress’s accomplishments, and overall, how little award ceremonies mean in regards to art), I think she’ll have given a good start to shedding a long-standing stigma concerning women in movies.  We’ll have gotten to a good area, maybe, and as Jessica Chastain’s Maya says as she speaks out in a room full of all-important men, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.”

Zero Dark Thirty (2012); written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain.