Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Marvel-ous Summer Finale: Guardians of the Galaxy Combines Sci-Fi Action with Heart

The gang's all here: image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.
An outlaw.

A racoon.

A tree.

An exiled warrioress. 

A warrior out for revenge.

A more motley crew one could not imagine, and yet they are bound by a common problem - each are ultimately alone, until they discover one another. 

Teamwork, the power of nostalgia, and the importance of friendship are all themes that elevate Marvel's latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy, from popcorn status to something entirely more profound. It is a character-driven film, and while the plot is interesting, what is more compelling is how the characters come to trust and respect one another, and heal each other from their self-made prisons of emotional isolation, created to protect them from the traumas of their shadowy pasts. If you're a fan of Cowboy Bebop and The Fifth Element, chances are you'll love this.

The film begins introducing our hero, Peter Quill (played by the welcome fresh face Chris Pratt) as a child, and how he ends up being carried off into space, with only his backpack, walkman, headphones, and his "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" to remind him of home. The walkman becomes not only a device that links Quill to his past life on earth, but a touchstone of continuity throughout that allows for poignant moments that take the edge off of Quill's swagger and bravado as the self-proclaimed "famous outlaw, Star-Lord." For children of the 80s such as myself, who are now about the age of Quill, hearing these tunes of our childhood creates an immediate sense of familiarity in an unknown universe. Were I hurtling through outer space at a breakneck pace, it would be nice to hear "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to help me get through one more day.
Comic art for Guardians of the Galaxy. Image courtesy of Marvel, Inc.

Quill meets along the way Gamora (Zoe Saldana, well on her way to becoming the queen of sci fi), Drax
(Dave Bautista), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Rocket (voiced with plenty of snarl and sarcasm by Bradley Cooper). They make an uneasy alliance with one another to bring down the baddie (Ronan, played by  Lee Pace in ridiculously heavy makeup), who is working with Thanos to gain world domination and destroy the world of Xandar. Thanos gets cut out of the picture once Ronan gets his hands on the ultimate weapon, ultimately found in an orb that Quill steals for his employer/adopted dad. Glen Close makes a welcome appearance as the buttoned-up Nova Prime, the leader of the Xandar world, and I was happy to see a cameo of Benicio Del Toro dolled up in a blonde David Bowie-esque wig as "The Collector."

Director James Gunn, known for his work on 2004's Dawn of the Dead, takes a page out of Joss Whedon's handbook, including quirky, offbeat humor to lighten up intense sequences. Amid the glut of CGI and action scenes, there is a basic truth encapsulated in the character of Groot - nature's capacity for survival and regeneration trumps any high-tech gadgetry the universe can create, a recurring theme in much of Hayao Miyazaki's films (and if you haven't seen one, get out from under that rock that you have been living under immediately). Groot is easily the most powerful of all of the characters, and yet he is the most humble, only repeating one phrase "I am Groot", which depending on how it is said can encapsulate a whole spectrum of feelings.

The characters grow into one another, much like Groot's vines wind around them during a particularly moving sequence when they are huddled together as one. They are, as Quill proclaims, "All losers. Each one of you has lost something." Each are individuals whose lives have been torn apart. Rocket is perhaps the most tragic of all -he was literally taken apart and pieced back together again - and is light years away from being your standard cute, talking animal. Despite dire circumstances, they create family from the frayed edges of their lives.

I only wish there had been more detail regarding Gamora's character and her relationship with Thanos and her adopted sister, Nebula. Spending more time on her would've made her a more fascinating character to me, but as-is she is the least compelling of the band of misfits. 

It is an age-old story, but one that when told right, never fails to be successful in its retelling - you don't have to be blood-related - or even be from the same planet!- to be family.

Toby sez: 

Well-developed characters and the nostalgia factor makes it a strong conclusion to the summer movie season.  



Friday, August 1, 2014

Independent Film Spotlight - Red 42 Strikes A Home Run

How does a group of independent filmmakers produce, edit, and submit a 9-minute period film in just one week with almost no budget - and scoop up four awards for their efforts?

With a lot of grit, tenacity, determination and ingenuity. The creative force is strong, and when it hits - nothing stands in its way.
Kathryn Robinson and her father accepting awards at the No Film Film Festival
A group of friends I have had the privilege to associate with over the years, The Geeks of New England, recently produced Red 42 that chronicles the Jackie Robinson story from the point of view of Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Walter (Red) Barber. Submitted to the No Film Film Festival held annually in Vermont, Red 42 scooped up numerous awards, including Second Place, Best Music, Best Press (local press choice) and Best Visual Style.

Watching the film, it's clear to see why - it is a real slice of American history brought to life. The camera angles are varied and subtle, the period clothing is spot on, and the original music suits the compelling story of one man overcoming his personal prejudices to pave the way for a new era in American baseball. The sound mixing is excellent as well, with crisp dialogue and seamless transitions from the past into the present.

Watch the film, and then scroll down to read the interview I conducted with the executive producer/director Kathryn Robinson about the extraordinary journey of bringing this film to life in a matter of days, from start to finish. 

What made you choose to do the Jackie Robinson story? 

The criteria of the No Film Film Festival is the reason we choose to do this extension of the film 42. Also, it's a great last name! 

The festival wanted to feature third string actors who usually play small character parts such as John C McGinly (who played Red Barber in 42), Luis Guzm├ín and Steve Buscemi. One of these three actors where chosen at random and assigned to a team. Once your were assigned an actor there was a small list of movies you could choose from. Then you needed to come up with a story that either told the story before the character appeared in the movie or after the character appeared in the movie. 

The list for John C. McGinly include a lot office spaces, cop uniforms or army uniforms. Since my team didn't even have a toy gun to use it narrowed the field a bit. What did we have? A closet of fedoras, access to an old armory and some old timey radios. 42 it is! Only after we choose it did we realize Red Barber was a real person and had a pretty good back story. Sometimes the best drama comes from real life. It was the perfect setup, this man almost quit his job because of his upbringing with prejudice against African Americans. You can't write a better conflict. We watched interviews on of Red Barber and read small biographies. Most of what we portrayed in the film really did happen. The scene where he is having martinis with his wife was real. More importantly the speech Branch Ricky gave was a real story. It practically wrote itself. Fun fact: We wrangled my father (Michael Robinson Jr.) to play Branch Ricky and this was is first time acting. I'm a very proud daughter.

How did you manage to make this movie in one week?

It was, actually, one week on the dot. We almost didn't make it to due to a failing Internet connection. Lots of drama on my end. The kick-off was on a Friday evening. We used Saturday to write, cast and build sets. Sunday was going to be our marathon shoot day. Most of our crew/actors had other professional commitments and some with late work shifts so Sunday was the only option. We did have complications on Sunday and ended up doing some re-shoots during the week. They were very late at night or early in the morning. One we had to shoot the pouring rain but we made it work. Rain can make the actor seem more pensive, right?!

What were some difficulties you ran into?

Well firstly was casting problems - we had trouble finding another elderly gentleman to play old Red Barber. Also there were a bunch of personal medical problems that occurred on Sunday that put us really behind. We opted to give old Red Barber some very visible stage makeup  - we had to go with it. Showing up with nothing is far worse than showing up with heavy makeup.

Also trying to make a period piece in on week in 2014 was a challenge. But we figured if the audience gets where we are going with it they'll be forgiving. We did have a lovely time creating our character's (period appropriate) living room - a handy skill. We had some serious technical difficulties that brought our editing time to near crawl. Director/producer Chris Hanley and I lived in my room for days working on this in order to make the deadline; it was super stressful and we almost didn't think we were going to make it.

What makes all the hard work worth it to you?
I love telling a story. I want to convey the emotion to the audience. It's a reaction I'm aiming for. I can see the film start to coalesce in my head. If you are lucky and it starts to come out in real life, there is nothing better.   

Toby Sez: A mini masterpiece and a true testament to the power of independent filmmaking and teamwork! Ol' Red would be proud.