Guardians of the Galaxy – Quality, Fun Throwback Action

Grade: B+

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer came out, I watched it on a loop. It had jokes, fun characters, and intensely visual action – all set to cool 70s music. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement – I had never read a GOTG comic, and had barely heard of the team before the movie was announced. Brett White is right on Twitter – the promotional campaign did sum up the movie almost perfectly, the movie is what you would expect from the trailer.

Of course, those elements do not necessarily make for a perfect movie. In terms of pound for pound enjoyment, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is hard to beat; even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was already characterised by the tone of joy and humour, few movies approach GOTG.

The opening sequence, set in 1988, is more somber than the rest of the movie, setting up the tragedy in Peter Quill’s past which ends up sending him into space. At the same time, it also hints at a reveal much later in the film which helps rationalise why, exactly, did this boy who’d grow up to be played by Chris Pratt, would be singled out to go into space and hang out with thieves. After that, however, the film launches directly into the plot, as 26 years later young Quill (who occasionally goes by Star Lord, to everyone’s amusement) is looking to steal a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet. It is difficult not to think of Indiana Jones as he deftly and joyfully infiltrates the location of the ancient artefact, only to have everything nearly go wrong when competitors try to take it away from him. It’s a great teaser for the rest of the movie – there is tension at times, to be sure, but it’s also handled with such genuine glee on the part of the filmmakers that it cannot but be infectious. This is the case even when there are glimpses of the fact that Quill is clearly a thief, and not the nicest guy in the Galaxy either despite ultimately wishing well. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable as well, and it’s ultimately rather nice that the movie is not being dragged down by a whiny Luke Skywalker archetype. He was, to be sure, necessary in Star Wars, and I am generally strongly in favour of more sincerity and less irony in cinema – but GOTG is unashamedly about a group of outlaws, and the tone of irreverence it strikes only serves the movie.

Of course, Peter Quill’s actions angers all the right humanoids. He comes on the radars of Rocket (the CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, the walking tree), who are looking to cash in on his bounty, and Gamora (assassin played by Zoe Saldana) who needs the orb he stole. The orb is evidently a highly sought-after item, and aside from complete coincidence, it is unclear how everyone became aware of it at once. The movie rather rightly does not concern itself too much with that, however. The four of them are captured and brought to prison, where they are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to escape and, ideally, get rich in the process.

The character motivations for the group of misfits is arguably one of the faults of the movie. Conversely to most movies of its ilk, where everything seems to make sense until you think about it, I occasionally did not find the characters’ reasons for sticking together believable, and considered it a flaw until after the movie, where I actually can see why everyone behaved as they did, mostly. It’s clear that the filmmakers, in particular the writers James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman thought about the motivations, and dropped in just enough clues to explain them. It’s just that (almost certainly due to the jam-packed nature of the movie), it often seemed like there wasn’t enough time to really get into them. And it’s a shame, really! In a movie where the characters are almost certainly the best part of the whole thing, the interaction is ultimately left sort of light and surface-level, despite there being hints of greater motivation. They each have larger-than-life backstories, but the pain only ever comes out briefly, enough to suggest that there is something there without getting to really examine it or live in the emotion. Gamora hates Thanos, and with VERY good reason, but the range rarely actually comes through, for all her general attitude. Drax is burning for revenge, and yet when he fails to achieve it towards the end of the second act, there is barely a beat of him recognising his failure. This stuff matters – and the drama, the opera-level emotions are arguably what separates superhero movies from other action.

The other weak spot is the general plot. The saving of the Galaxy is important, sure, and there are other reasons for characters to move the plot along, but I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve more or less seen that a few times now, and without the real involvement in the motivations the plot just sort loses relevance. It isn’t bad in the slightest, mind you. It’s just that it’s… sort of standard. Ronin the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are both menacing and interesting, but ultimately sort of thinly drawn. Ronin’s motivation is, once again, “destroying stuff”, despite mention of some injustice committed in his past. The comic book fans will appreciate seeing more of Thanos, but at the end of the day, he just kind of sits there, on apparently the same asteroid he was seen on in Avengers. Surely, there must be something more to his life than sitting on his throne and making threats? He is evidently the most dangerous being in the Galaxy, and it would have been nice to see more of that.

Now, it may sound like I’m coming down on Guardians of the Galaxy hard, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVED the general experience of watching the film. The reason for that is undoubtedly the humour and the genuinely fun characters. Whatever other complaints I have are simply there because without those flaws, the film would actually be the masterpiece of comic-book storytelling that many people online claim it is, and that I believe Avengers to have been. Absolutely every one of the Guardians deserves every moment on the screen. Peter Quill is funny, and for all his posturing heroism – sometimes kind of a loser, which makes him relatable (I can’t imagine how insufferable he’d be without that). Gamora is intense and bad-ass, even if she does require saving from a man at least once too often (though to be fair, they each rely on saving from each other more than once). Rocket and Groot are a great odd couple, both scrappy bounty-hunting weirdos. Drax takes himself far too seriously, which causes Bautista to be funnier than he, frankly, has any right being (him struggling to understand metaphor yields some of the biggest laughs). Most importantly, though, they’re a joy to have on the screen together, which really is what you want in a team superhero movie. Their interaction is consistently not only funny, but generally kind of sweet. Rocket crying when Groot seems to be dead is probably the only moment, aside from the opening, that really pulls at your heart strings, but other stuff is not a loss. Quill explaining the concept of dancing to Gamora plays nicely, and is then instantly undercut by a joke to keep it from going too serious. Their prison escape uses action to establish character (which should always be the case with action, really, but here it’s particularly poignant as they’re really working together for the first time), all the while twisting tropes of heists in movies. I cannot think that at least a part of it is because not only James Gunn, but everyone involved, seems to be ecstatic to get to do the things they’re doing, to play with the toys they just received.

Then, of course, there are the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. While the action can occasionally be a little too shaky for my taste, the general environment of the film is imbued with so much beautiful colour that as a general rule, it is a true pleasure to watch. This is lacking in superhero cinema, which tends to be over-serious in tone and dark and bland in visuals (presumably to distance themselves from Batman & Robin). The genre has proven itself, though, and while the general trend in cinema in the 2000s was blacks and greys, I could not be happier that we’re moving away from it. What digital film offers us is clarity, crispness, and intense colour. I am overjoyed to see filmmakers make use of it (I know I keep going on about it, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road trailer does a great job of it). James Gunn pulls out all the stops to wow us with his vision of space, and it is genuinely beautiful – even when it’s grimy.

Overall, I had a whole lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I do think there were things that could be improved, that would probably have had to come at a cost of other things, which Guardians does beautifully, such as enjoyable, humorous, character moments and their fun romp through space. For what it’s worth, I am almost certainly seeing it again next week – and having a better idea, now, of the character motivations may mean I’ll actually enjoy it at least as much this time around. I’m not advocating that every superhero movie take on its tone – a good contrast would be this year’s much more earnest Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For this corner of the Marvel Universe, though, it really worked wonderfully. And if a talking raccoon is not crazy enough for you, be sure to stick around for the end-credits scene, which has little to do with the overall plot and structure of the universe at large, but is a great little wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment for the Marvel fans.

DCAU 4: The New Batman Adventures

New Batman Adventures

Now, everything we love about the DCAU began with Batman: The Animated Series, that much is sure. The serious storylines, the dark animation style, the voice talent… It all began there. And, with the end of BTAS style, something of DCAU died, as well. The Art Deco Gotham city, something in the designs, will never be the same. Despite BTAS being the clearly superior cartoon to Superman: The Animated Series, the sleeker art designs of Superman actually won out. This was, no doubt, in no small part linked to the production costs, which must have been monumental for BTAS – after all, colorists had to wear gas masks to use aerosol paint to do the art for most of the original series. So there is a part of me that wishes Batman could forever be the same as in those first 85 episodes. That being said, storywise, The New Batman Adventures contained some of the most exciting Batman stories, at least for me personally – enough to make the claim that some of the legend of the greatness of BTAS owes a debt to the fantastic stories of The New Batman Adventures.

To realize how wonderfully deep the show was willing to go, one needs look no further than Growing Pains (written by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman), where Robin tries to take care of a little girl Annie, who has amnesia and is being stalked by a terrifying presence. Robin is now Tim Drake, replacing Dick Grayson who has become Nightwing in the gap between shows. While the wonderful Sins of the Father (Rich Fogel) set up Tim Drake’s motivation very confidently in its own right, I did not truly connect with the character until this episode, where his friendship with Annie takes him on a path to confronting Clayface, and a tragic realization about his friend. The twist towards the end, which I won’t spoil here, was a complete gut-punch to me, in that incredible way the DCAU seemingly specialized in.

You Scratch My Back (Hilary J. Bader) was not the first episode to introduce the older Dick Grayson, but it did feature Nightwing for the first time. Motivated by striking out on his own, being his own man, Dick Grayson establishes himself as a solo hero – and teams up with Catwoman. The pair bonds over Batman’s strictness, and Nightwing is established as a fun, capable hero. The sexual tension with Catwoman is fantastic, as is the dynamic between Dick and the rest of the bat-family. In the end, it’s revealed the schism between him and his mentor isn’t as deep as they’d put on, and while the twist isn’t as radically unexpected as Growing Pains, it’s just good-clean-superhero fun.

Legends of the Dark Knight (Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm) is told from the perspective of three children discussing Batman, and their different encounters with him or stories they’ve heard. The episode becomes an excuse to go through many of the most famous portrayals of Batman in the media, as well as the different ways he is perceived by the public. It ranges from him being a metahuman, a light version that is a nod to 40s and 50s version of the character, and Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” take. There is even a nod to the Schumacher Batman! In the end, after all the children have told of their version of Batman, they actually witness the true Batman in action – and once again, go away believing the same “truths” about the Caped Crusader they started with.

I would be remiss to not mention Mad Love (Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), the famous story that reveals the origin of Harley Quinn. I definitely like the episode, and it is a great characterization of both her and the Joker, but the Batman-light episode was not actually my favorite. That being said, its contribution of an important story, later adapted to the main Batman mythos is beyond question. I also really enjoyed Beware the Creeper (Steve Garber), a genuinely odd story with a very strange superhero. His origin mirrors that of the Joker, except this time the Clown Prince of Crime himself is responsible for the transformation – it should be no surprise, then, that the Creeper is both driven mad, and placed on a path of vengeance against the Joker. He makes another appearance in the Justice League cartoon, however, indicating that as teased at the end of the episode, his career as a superhero went beyond mere revenge.

Finally, my absolute favorite episode of the series (and one of my favorite Batman stories ever) is Over the Edge (Paul Dini). Throwing us into the action with Gordon and the police attacking the Bat-Cave and later flashing back to explain how we got there, it places the Commissioner on a war path against the Dark Knight. The story of the two friends turned against one another by a tragic death is awesomely believable and heart-wrenching. Typically, I would not be for a story that turns out to not be in-continuity, especially the way that is explained here… Except that here, it works completely. The trick allows the show’s creators to do something that so often provides the best superhero stories, but is generally not allowed due to their serialized nature – the end story. Or at least one possible end. One walks away from the episode realizing that this is entirely one that Batman’s story could end, that a single tragic move could put the entire Bat-family on an irreversible path. And that is not even the end of the episode, which ends with a fantastic character moment for both Jim and Barbara Gordon. It’s truly great superhero storytelling – and absolutely remarkably told in only 22 minutes. Anyone remotely interested in storytelling should study this episode simply for a lesson in economy.


Finally, of course, there are the character designs. The Batsuits on the right show the general progression of the costumes throughout the DCAU, and the TNBA version is the one labelled 1997-1998. While I love the the original version, I ultimately have to concede that the pure-black symbol and the darker grey suit works well, and I like the pouches better than the older style belt. The eyes on the costume were so very expressive in the original version, though… I would definitely say that aspect, at least, was and remains my favorite in the original version. I recognize why the white eyes cannot truly work in live-action, mostly because of the way they move, on the mask, in a way that is only available in cartoons, to match emotion in a completely unrealistic way… But I can’t help but be bummed they couldn’t figure out a way to do it in the new suit. Speaking of which… see the first color picture of the new cowl below!


DCAU 3: Superman: The Animated Series


There’s no way around it – Superman: The Animated Series is just not as good. It’s not even worse – it’s just that the subject matter, as cool as it is, is, ultimately lends itself far less easily to serious or emotional storytelling. I’m not saying Superman can’t be dramatic – he absolutely can be, and he actually sometimes is in the series. The scope in the series, however, is so wildly inconsistent – ranging from street crime to the cosmic, that I simply never really felt I got a grasp of the intended tone of the series, which left me floundering from one episode to the next.

Superman is somewhat de-powered here, which is actually a positive – his power level has always been variable, and this allowed some more tension when squaring off again an opponent. But the traditional problem of Superman being effectively unkillable and unstoppable remained, despite the fact that the writers came up with plenty of creative ways to provide credible threats to him, as well as inventive ways for Superman to get out of them. Not even because Superman is impossibly fast, but because we actually don’t know how fast he really is. In the first few episodes, when Clark discovers his powers, he’s seen as just a streak when he runs at top speed. There’s even an episode, Speed Demons (which coincidentally introduced the Flash to the DCAU) where he races Wally West around the earth 100 times. I was very surprised, therefore, to rarely see the effect used later in the series. He’s occasionally seen chasing cars, for example, and while he doesn’t necessarily have trouble with them, he does not just zoom down in the blink of an eye and stop them immediately, either. I can see, of course, why this is done, but it does hinder drama. Despite the fact that we know it’s  cartoon where the hero will ultimately prevail, it is more exciting to see Batman trying to make a jump, run fast enough, or hit hard enough. Not because the Man of Steel is super-powered, but because we can’t rely on hard limits for his powers. This inconsistency ended up being one of the major problems I had with the series, as a whole.

I also simply did not enjoy watching Superman fight very much in this series. I understand that Clark Kent is not any kind of martial artist, so the fact that his fighting style is very simply is justified in-world, but there are only so many haymakers I can watch him through before it gets simply boring. When he comes up against physical opponents, therefore, it rather quickly becomes a rather uninteresting episode – not to mention the fact that very few of them could even stand up against him before first softening him up with kryptonite (as is the case with Metallo).

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series as a whole. I did love some of the multi-part episodes. I thought the first few, that established Superman’s origins, managed to bring a few new aspects to the story than I’d seen elsewhere, as well as being simply really genuinely exciting. In fact, even the existence of an origin story is a pretty major contrast to many of the other heroes in the DCAU – we do see origin stories for a few of them, but many of them (most notably Batman) are simply first shown as established crime-fighters. Even the first season also contains over-arching stories and buildup to the confrontation with Braniac, and the coming Darkseid in a way that was not at all present in many of the other shows on DCAU (Justice League Unlimited returned to a similar format a decade later).


Many of my favorite episodes were ones that had Superman team up with other superheroes, allowing him to work as part of a team. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but I really like him as part of a team, as is later seen in the Justice League shows. Something about him racing Flash, helping a young Green Lantern deal with his new powers (In Brightest Day…, DCAU’s only real appearance by Kyle Rayner), or leaving his comfort zone to confront magic with an unwilling Doctor Fate (The Hand of Fate) is simply consistently more enjoyable than having him be on his own. This is tripled by the multi-part World’s Finest episode, which featured great characterizations for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent – the scene where the two recognize each other, through different means, is nothing short of fantastic.

The cosmic episodes typically worked well.  That side of the DCAU was only explored by STAS, and JL and JLU, and it really worked with Superman. While those episodes were also not consistently fantastic, the Apokalips-themed eps, such as Apokalips… Now!  and Legacy were generally very strong.

I also enjoyed the episodes that were more conceptual or had a twist on the usual storytelling. The Late Mr. Kent, for example not only featured a very touching funeral for the mild-mannered reporter, but one of the very first real dangers for Superman’s secret identity.

Generally my favorite aspects of the show, however, dealt with established parts of the character’s history and tropes, some of them rather surprisingly gleefully embracing inherent silliness of the concepts. A perfect example is Mxyzpixilated, which could have been unbearably boring and silly, and actually ended up really fun, in a classic fairy-tale sort of way. Bizarro episodes were similarly enjoyable, with sufficient pathos for the deformed villain.

Much of the voice-acting is really good, but the true stand-out for me is Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, who brings real gravity to the character’s villainy. His range – from complete sophistication to growling hatred – is truly remarkable.

DCAU 2: Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated SeriesI was inspired to finally begin watching the show by Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast. While I was aware of the show’s reputation for greatness, I did not begin until I heard the show, the early episodes of which were filled with creative and voice talent behind the show. I always knew Kevin Smith to be a big fan, and largely trusted his opinion when it came to Batman, and when I heard his hyperboly-filled talk of the show’s virtues that I jumped in, initially becoming obsessed with the Batman: The Animated Series intro before even watching the show. While I initially only intended to watch that original series, it became quickly apparent that my completist nature would not allow that.

I was not instantly impressed. On Leather Wings, the first episode I watched had Man-Bat as the cool, yet not overly interesting or dramatic villain. The first few appearances by the Joker, initially in Christmas with the Joker, were definitely fun, and Mark Hamill is consistently fantastic, but it was not yet the psychopath you love to fear. I’d be curious to review those early episodes again at some point, with the love I have for that version of Bruce Wayne now. It’s tough to say now when I became completely convinced of the show’s worth. Episodes like Nothing to Fear (first appearance of the line “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!”) and The Forgotten (Bruce Wayne surviving without his suit, gadgets, or even memories) had glimpses of what was to come. So did fantastic villain origins – the Two-Face two-parter and Heart of Ice

The episode that made the show simply undeniable to me, however, came even later than that – though I was already thoroughly enjoying the it by that point. It was I Am the Night, written by Michael Reaves, which portrayed Batman in a dark depression, wondering whether he is doing any good. The amount of story that was told in those 22 minutes staggered me. Batman faces a villain, saves a kid from a life of crime, mourns his parents’ death, confronts the possibility that he is putting others around him in danger, and, of course, broods… All in the span of a standard cartoon episode. Here was animation that really went there. That was every bit as dark and complex as anything in the Nolan movies, if not more so for the added benefit of the remarkable sensitivity the show always had a knack for. The writers always knew just where to hit an audience member to produce a sudden burst of emotion, and nowhere in the show was that more apparent until that point than this episode. After it, I was hooked. I began watching the show with much more care, picking apart how the plots were constructed, and what these wizards were doing to transform me, a grown man, into someone who cries while watching a cartoon.

Also of special note were Robin’s Reckoning where Batman, enraged by the injustice done to his kid sidekick, goes darker and more brutal than I’d have ever thought possible in children’s animation. It also really showcased the special relationship that Bruce has with Dick – his desire to avenge Dick’s parents almost certainly reflects in no small part his need to avenge his own. In Trial, Batman is forced to face a court of criminals in Arkham Asylum, for being responsible for their turn to villainy. It puts to test the long-standing theory that he is indirectly responsible for the crimes he fights. I also enjoyed House & Garden, a truly creepy episode where Poison Ivy appears to have truly gone straight, despite crimes being committed that all lead to her. I don’t want to spoil it, but the moment of revelation of how Poison Ivy is doing it is chilling, to say the least.  Joker’s Favor is probably the scariest Joker story of the show – where a man incurs a debt to the Clown Prince of Crime, and is then forced to carry out crimes for him.

The Man Who Killed Batman has very little Batman in it, and while you know that he couldn’t possibly actually be dead, watching the poor loser who thinks he’s, quite accidentally, killed the Caped Crusader struggle with the other big names in Gotham crime is interesting for several reasons. First, it explores the relationship the villains have with Batman, and the jealousy they have over the coveted position of being known as the person who finally took out the Bat. More importantly, it gets across the idea that any stray bullet, a single false move could end it all for Batman – being the best isn’t enough, when you’re consistently fighting against the odds.

I’m certain there are other favourite moments and episodes that people have that I didn’t mention it (such as The Demon’s Quest), and I’m not getting into The New Batman Adventures in this article yet. What stood out to me, however, where always the episodes where a new, unseen or under-examined angle of a familiar character is exposed. This does not mean that the other episodes aren’t fantastic – the entire show is consistently great genre television. There are more serious noir episodes, some with sillier or more fun, legacy villains. Even a fantastic episode where Adam West’s voice makes an appearance to hint at the character’s past. Throughout, the wonderful writing staff, led by Paul Dini, along with Michael Reaves, Len Wein, Alan Burnett, Gerry Conway, and the others shined throughout.

What made the show fantastic was more than just the story, however. I already talked about the creation of the visual style in the previous article on DCAU, and nowhere is it more apparent, than in this fantastic series. The voice acting also brings so much more to the show than I would have otherwise thought. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman, not only for me but for entire generations of Bat-fans, as he’s still providing the voice to the Dark Knight in the current Arkham video games. When I read comics, I hear his voice. Mark Hamill is similarly iconic as the Joker, bringing an unprecedented range and character to his laughs, ranging from silly and genuinely joyful, to incredibly dark and unsettling. Other members of the cast are, sadly, now passed away. Michael Ansara, who brought life to the famous Mr. Freeze line “It would move me to tears, if I still had tears to shed,” died just last year. This year, we lost Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. whose Alfred managed to be even more formal and drily funny than any other seen on the screen. And finally, just this week, the voice of Commissioner Gordon himself, Bob Hastings, left us at the age of 89.

While the entire DCAU is a wonderful accomplishment, and many of my favourite Batman episodes were actually from the re-branded The New Batman Adventures, none of it would have happened without the fantastic work on display in this show.

Dune the HBO Series Pitch (What Game of Thrones Taught Us About Serialising Novels)

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

Concept art for an unproduced Dune game

I recently re-read Dune, and am now making my way through the sequels, and all throughout I’m picturing how great it would be on television. I can’t help but think of similarities to Game of Thrones, of course, having just finished season 4 – but also how much cooler Dune would be if HBO had chosen it as its foray into fantasy.

In a way, Frank Herbert’s masterpiece suffered from being the first. The world at large did not know what to do with it. Frank Herbert couldn’t get it published, until he eventually persuaded Chilton Books, publishers of auto-repair manuals, to put it out in 1965. Adaptations of the book received a similar fate – a film version was in the works from the early 70s (a documentary is, I believe, now in theatres in some regions, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts to put one together – which, by all accounts, would either have been an unprecedented gem, or a complete disaster).

patrick stewart pugEventually, an adaptation was released in 1984. I hadn’t seen it for a long time, and while I recalled it being a poor adaptation, Directed by David Lynch, it is an absurd mess. Intense moments are played for laughs (Patrick Stewart carrying a pug into battle springs to mind). The villain is so horribly, cartoonishly evil and disgusting that I literally just found other things on the screen to stare at to avoid looking at him – but that did not make him menacing, or a serious threat. On the whole, the story is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the novels – and even then, it’s jarring at best. Roughly the first hour is exactly like the novel – almost unnecessarily so, the overall film might have benefited from less careful (though faithful and by far the most interesting part of the film) an introduction, to devote more time to a the second half, which is without a doubt supposed to be the meat of the story. “The weirding way” – a way to subtly manipulate people and events using zen awareness of surrounding and understanding of psychology and logic is reduced to a sonic weapon. What is left, then, is Paul Atreides coming to the desert, training the Fremen to use a new kind of weapon, and taking power. Very little is made of the messianic elements of the character – the fact that Paul’s greatest strength was his ability to insinuate himself into a people’s myth as their promised, legendary leader Muad’Dib, to survive, then using them to take his revenge. This is not to mention the terrible special effects – which I normally would not hold against a film, especially one which is 30 years old, except that the budget was huge, and the movie came years after both Star Wars and Alien, both of which look miles better.

The next adaptation was a step in the right direction. The majority of my gripes with it are just that – gripes, but the 2000 Sci Fi miniseries would still have benefitted from one major thing which makes HBO’s Game of Thrones a success – running time. Game of Thrones is a massive hit because modern television’s capabilities to compete with cinema in terms of production value was met with television’s ability to let stories breathe, give them proper time to develop complex narratives and character relationships. The politics were always Dune’s strength, and had the Dune series come now, I think it would be even better than Game of Thrones is. The miniseries that we got in 2000 got a lot right, but there were drawbacks. Paul’s reluctance as a hero made sense in the first half of the show, but ultimately Alec Newman could not pull off the hard man and vicious leader that Muad’Dib was to become. But more importantly, there was too little time for the intrigue to build. The opening was, once again, quite well executed. But while that strong beginning would make for a great first two or so episodes, the important thing would be to maintain the suspense, balancing the adventure with slow-burning drama and only rarely tipping into full-on action.

So, this would be my pitch. First priority – what would the show be about? At its heart, it should be about the dangers of following heroes. Frank Herbert has said it himself – “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” The prominence of superheroes in our current pop-culture makes this particularly timely. Is there anything more contemporary than “Game of Thrones with corrupt super beings”? Paul Atreides is betrayed, his father is killed, and he becomes Muad’Dib to both survive and get his revenge. To do so, however, he plays into ancient prophecies (which may or may not truly be about him) to overthrow the regime that wronged his family. And while he is a reluctant hero, and his prescience allows him knowledge of the atrocities which may ultimately be committed in his name, he walks head-first into the one path which he knows will allow him to come out on top – survive, get his revenge, and put his family back into the prominence it once held. If Paul were merely interested in survival, he could have fled, but he chose to fight. It’s like Star Wars, if Luke became the new Emperor at the end – a pattern which is repeated, in various ways, by his heirs. There are no purely good characters – today’s charismatic hero of the people is tomorrow’s tyrant.

I would start each episode with a quote from the universe’s writings about the events, the way Herbert did with each chapter of the book. The quotes do a great job of both giving flavour of the world, and foreshadowing the chapter’s content. Imagine an episode beginning with an ominous refrain of “Yueh! Yueh! Yueh! A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!” It would also go a long way towards explaining the zen-like Bene Gesserit philosophy, which I find to be among the most interesting aspects of the books. The famous Litany Against Fear, which was shown only partially in the previous adaptations, should be used in its entirety – and once again, could be made full use of when time is not a constraint. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Finally, given adequate time, the ecology of Arrakis could be adequately explored – while that may sound boring, it is important that the spice Melange be the one truly magical aspect of the universe. All of the departures from our reality should be based on it – Muad’Dib’s prescience and Bene Gesserit use of Voice. The navigators which make faster than light space travel possible, and their mutation due to its extended use. The sandworms, which are inextricably tied to both the presence of spice and the difficulty in harvesting it. Slowly, but surely, the audience must be made familiar with the precepts of its use, so that when the time comes, the audience’s reaction will not be “oh, well I didn’t know the spice could do that,” but rather “I never would have thought to use the spice like that, but it makes perfect sense!” Setting clear limits to what the spice can do, and then exploiting those limits in unexpected ways would be the essence of “magic”. Take, for example, the transformation Paul’s son undergoes towards the end of the third novel – which would here be the finale of the second season. The mechanics for it are carefully laid out in the book that precedes it, while the reveal still comes as a complete surprise. The limiting of the believable aspects would also necessitate, in my opinion, the removal of the vile Baron Harkonnen’s ability to fly. I’d read the first novel before seeing any of the adaptations, and must have simply missed the part where it was made clear he hovers, because I was completely thrown by it. I realise it’s in the source material, but it just looks goofy – the floating fat man must go!

Finally, the casting – the important thing would be to find genuinely hard-looking people to play the Fremen. Actors that could believably be flourishing in the harshest conceivable climate, whose tough, leathery skin Frank Herbert described. The effect of the dry skin could certainly be accomplished through make-up, but I would caution against casting traditionally good-looking people. The Fremen would describe them as “water-fat” (the men, at least – there are plenty of malnourished-looking actresses around as it is). And surely, there must be a practical way to do the blue-on-blue Fremen eyes? They looked terrible in both adaptations, inconsistent in the intensity of the colour and seemingly glowing (Fremen’s eyes certainly do not glow in the dark).

So, this would be my idea for a modern adaptation of Dune. I have thought about it a fair amount, and really don’t see how a faithful film adaptation would be possible, simply due to the density of the novel. A Game of Thrones-type series would definitely be the way to go. Could it ever happen? I honestly don’t know – Game of Thrones has been on the air for four years now, and still no other show came close to doing high fantasy on television. The troubled history of Dune’s adaptations may also prevent it from ever getting off the ground – but in today’s reboot and franchise-heavy marketplace, Dune just might be the next big thing.

I’ll leave you with Paul Pope’s excellent one-page comic fable about Muad’Dib, which I believe does a great job of illustrating just what the entire series of books is really about.

Paul Pope’s interpretation of a passage from Children of Dune (1976)


An Answer to Someone Who Hated Aronofsky’s Noah

NoahI get it. Noah wasn’t your cup of tea. I didn’t intend to like either, I went purely out of curiosity for what Aronofsky could have possibly wanted with so ludicrous a picture. Surely, it wasn’t mere folly? No. No! Look, I insist. The man actually knows what he’s doing. I realise you think the premise is simply too ridiculous to bear, and I would agree, were it not for the fact that Aronofsky clearly figured out something of substance to do with it. I’m a firm non-theist agnostic, yet I was still brought to tears by the beauty and raw emotion in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (a film which made the Noah controversy seem completely trivial). Much in the same way, though to a much lesser extent, I appreciated the truth of the story on the screen completely separately from any expectation for it to either portray the literal reality I inhabit, or to serve as an accurate adaptation of a story I heard once. Is that why you don’t like the movie? If so, I suppose I get it, the movie certainly attempts to do neither. You’re missing out, though, by not being more open to what the movie does do!

I’ll admit that the beginning of the film had me worried. The actual opening, that sets up the background of the film’s pre-existing conflict, seems like an after-thought, complete with a Papyrus-like font that, frankly, they could simply have done better than. This then transitions to show a young Noah losing his father to the sneering, scenery-chewing Tubal Cain, played by Ray Winstone. I had to remind myself, in those moments, that this is essentially a fantasy movie, and the next hour or so supported that theory nicely. This allowed me not to take too much of what happened on-screen too seriously. So I get why you hated those sillier aspects, such as rock-giants, over-acting villainy, over-earnest heroes, and the general tone of the movie’s first half, but you’re wrong.

First of all, it all looks fantastic! I could have been shown this vision of a “land before time”, so to speak, at times desolate as the moon, at others as fantastically lush, for a good while longer before becoming bored. It quite frankly simply does not look like anything – I understand it was filmed in Iceland, and I can tell that a good amount of it may well have been shot on-location outside. That being said, I can’t help but think that a lot of the backgrounds were either painted or composited from two very drastically different landscapes. Aronofsky fully succeeds in creating something that looks fake in the most wonderful way conceivable, in the sense that it is truly outside of our previous experience entirely. Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, which, while depicting fantastic technology, largely relied on real-world locations. Noah, on the other hand, recalled in my mind the painted backgrounds of Georges Méliès’ films. Similarly, the rock giants, while clearly CGI, move in a way reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons – imbued with enough fluidity to not be an eyesore, and yet not perfect enough to be forgotten about, or to seem properly of this world. The shot where one of them chases a kid darting through his massive legs is at once adorable and visually pleasing in a way I cannot fully describe. God does not speak directly to Noah (a booming voice from the sky or Morgan Freeman would have been a tad much), but instead presents gloriously shot dream-like and appropriately apocalyptic visions. The director of Requiem for a Dream is a natural fit for these sequences. Then, of course, there is the creation scene which is, in a word, one of the best pieces of cinema you’ll see all year:

Secondly, I really understand that the first few acts are almost absurdly banal. Crowe’s Noah is a great guy (though perhaps overly devoted to his cause), and when he’s visited by visions he spends a little while questioning them, but ultimately really believes in both the existence and the beneficence of the creator, following his instructions as he understands them. He’s aware of the coming flood, builds an arc, all the while having to defend it from some evil humans (led by his father’s killer), with the help of some giants.

While that is an accurate representation, I would argue that the apparent simplicity of that plot is there to lure one into a sense of normalcy, of “I’ve seen this before!” before delivering the one-two gut punch at the midpoint (much like the fictional play “The King in Yellow” is said to do in Robert W. Chambers’ stories). Noah goes into town to procure wives for his sons (I love the preservation of the Bible-logic here), but receives another vision. He witnesses horrible decadence in the world of men, and ultimately witnesses a doppleganger of his partaking in it, deciding from this that he is not meant to be saving humanity at all. Instead, that he is meant to preside over its end. This is a chilling concept, and despite it occurring before the deceptively climactic battle, is the turning point for Noah’s character. Noah was a vegetarian before, and certainly demonstrated the belief that animal life was as precious as a person’s. It is here, however, that he makes the utilitarian calculation that humanity is fundamentally bad for the whole of the creation, and should be allowed to perish in the flood. This is not only a dramatic and interesting twist – it is actually the logical extrapolation of his mission statement. If humanity was bad for the world, its loss would result in a net positive. Noah does not do so out of misanthropy – he does not hate people on an individual basis, and is clearly capable of compassion. He only does as his conviction demands. This is merely setup, however. The true drama occurs after the arc is in the water.

Eventually, the storm comes, the battle for the arc happens towards its beginning, and the arc takes off, carrying Noah, his wife, two sons, adopted daughter/daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), and unbeknownst to him, Tubal Cain. The film that was an epic fantasy before this becomes the last six people on earth stuck on a boat together, deciding the future of humanity. This is why the deceptively melodramatic and stereotypical first half of the film was necessary – the characters had to be archetypes, because they represent physical personifications of radically different viewpoints. Noah, of course, is the radical ecologist – humanity has clearly been bad for the world. It would be better off without us. His wife Naameh, Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, is more compassionate – despite clearly seeing the damage, she cannot help but see the potential for good in people. Before the storm, she pleaded with Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to do something, and he healed Ila of her infertility. Therefore, Ila is now pregnant, and poised to be the mother to all of mankind. Her boyfriend, naturally, is prepared to do anything to protect his unborn children. Noah declares that if the babies are born female, he will kill them instantly, preventing the future of humanity. Tubal Cain, having previously declared that he will do anything necessary to survive, resents Noah’s unique relationship with God. He is, ultimately, a humanist, despite also being a bloodthirsty, cruel tyrant. He refuses to submit to a higher good – and ultimately, is not the survival of us and ours not what we work for most of the time? Winstone’s snarling villain is the will to survive, to make the best of his situation. He is the human-centric viewpoint, the incessant presupposition by most people that we are above nature. I think it would be inaccurate to say that he is completely wrong, but he is the complete opposite of Noah’s viewpoint – the two are poised perfectly to clash.

The true conflict is within the family, however. Upon learning of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah becomes a villain in the eyes of the audience. At the beginning of the storm, he rebuffs his family’s requests to save the horribly screaming, drowning people just outside the arc. He is determined that the earth would be a better place without us. Crowe’s character definitely does not relish this task in the slightest, and despite his complete unwavering, it’s clear he would rather give in to his wife’s compassion. It is brought closer home, of course, when he’s confronted with the very real possibility that he may have to slay his grandchildren to keep his word. He is ostracised by his family, becomes the bald, weird creature in the depths of his arc, the religious zealot. He knows he’s right, and while his actions are without remorse, this does not mean it is lacking in the man himself. He does his best to carry out the act when Ila gives birth to twin girls… and ultimately cannot. Noah is reduced to weakness through compassion, and fails to deliver on his promise to end humanity.

This is not a fully happy ending. To start with, his inability to finish humanity off renders his previous acts of necessary cruelty unnecessary in retrospect. They could have saved the poor drowning souls, the screams of which tortured them. And ultimately, whereas it was an act of compassion that stayed Noah’s hand, the decision to go through with the plan may have been more so. The general note is that in the end, humanity will only screw up again, and have to be wiped out all over again. By killing two, he would have prevented the birth, and therefore suffering, of billions in the future. Methuselah warned Neelah against this – in the end, it will only come around to Noah’s way. Mankind will make the same mistakes again, and will be destroyed again through their hubris. Knowing the result of his actions, Noah is shown getting drunk in the first scene off the boat, trying to drown his awareness of Earth’s fate.

These are the reasons I appreciated Noah – a drama about the nature of humanity, and whether it deserves to continue, thinly disguised as a fantasy action movie. And yet when I look online, I largely see comments of either “OMG that’s not how it really happened” or “LOL that could never really happen.” I submit that both responses are equally ridiculous – this is a movie, that is intended as entertainment of one end of the spectrum, and allegory on the other. It is not meant to either be a faithful adaptation, or a statement of fact, but a beautifully conceived treatise on our responsibilities on this Earth – I suggest you try and take it to heart.

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.