FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #103 – “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” (dir. James Gunn)

Poster for "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and discover their limit of inconsequential action is about the first 90 minutes (53:28).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, and “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, from the film’s soundtrack and trailer respectively.
  • After recording this episode, Glenn got into it offline with the hosts of The Spoilers: Wayne & Daryl (not for the first time – Glenn previously crashed their episode of The Seattle After Party podcast).
    Suffice to say, you should check out what these nerds have to say about this film, and expect some guest appearances in the future.
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Passengers here.
  • We called out the greatness of the makeup artists behind these characters, and how well Nebula, Gamora, Yondu, and Drax’s makeup held up in IMAX closeups – but there was one we didn’t even realize. Young Ego (Kurt Russell) was mostly makeup, (applied by artist Dennis Liddiard), with only a few CGI tweaks. Very cool.
  • The video that was ringing in our heads as we evaluated the atrocious character of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) was Anita Sarkeesian‘s most recent (and final) video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, “The Lady Sidekick“. And…wow, was it ever spot-on for this character.

Listen above, or download: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2009 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

#5: Mélanie Laurent – Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Mélanie Laurent’s character were scarcely even mentioned in the American marketing for this film, so I was quite surprised when her subplot became the most compelling one in the film. Following the deaths of her family at the hands of the SS, Shosanna bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge. As I mentioned in my original review, Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill, but Laurent ably makes this character her own, combining a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching vendetta.

Shosanna is also part of an entirely one-sided “romantic” subplot with a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl)… While his advances aren’t terribly entertaining, her constant rebuffing is occasionally comedic, but mostly downright chilling (“I suggest you try Vichy”). There is also a remarkable scene between Laurent and Christoph Waltz, in which they sit in a Parisian restaurant and eat strudel. As Shosanna faces the SS Colonel, she manages to rein in her terror until he steps out, at which point she immediately starts hyperventilating. Laurent’s performance is ruthless – like so many others in this film – but also quite vulnerable. She brings just the right balance to keep Shosanna sympathetic, even as she commits atrocities on par with the very people she wants to kill. It is a fantastic performance to round out an almost entirely strong cast (I’m lookin at you, Eli Roth), and is certainly one of the most memorable this year.

#4: Zoë Saldaña – Neytiri, Avatar


Zoë Saldaña performance capture in "Avatar"

Zoë Saldaña in "Avatar"This is a performance I really have to take James Cameron’s word on. The various forays into CG characters over the past decade have definitely started to blur the line between animation and live-action, but they were still mostly in the realm of bodily motion capture, with complex facial expressions significantly enhanced in post-production by teams of skilled animators. But while Andy Serkis’ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings were not eligible for an acting Oscar, they were a leap forward from the likes of Jar Jar Binks, and Avatar is certainly the next such leap. According to Cameron, the characters in this film were created using performance capture techniques that recorded every nuance of the actor’s performance. Every tic of a facial muscle…every movement of the eyes… They were all made by the real actors. If this is really the case, it is entirely possible that future performances in this vein will be eligible for acting awards. And I would certainly hand one out to Zoë Saldaña.

Neytiri, the Na’vi princess, is just about the only sympathetic (or fully realized) character in this film, and Saldaña plays her with an some surprisingly animalistic ferocity (even baring her teeth and hissing a few times). While the visual spectacle of this film was enough to ensure that I was rapt with attention, it was with Saldaña’s character that I made the greatest emotional connection. She is almost certainly responsible for how well the romance played on-screen, and in light of the complex production process, achieving any believable chemistry could not have been an easy feat.

#3: Anna Kendrick – Natalie Keener, Up in the Air

Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"

From my original review:

Natalie is a fascinating character – the consummate young career gal, ruthless and cynical, but with a very human side, full of all the self-imposed deadlines and anxiety about her future that all twenty-somethings tend to have. Anna Kendrick, who I’d only seen previously in a small and ineffectual role in the Twilight films, gives a masterful performance as Natalie, and is surely one of the actresses I’ll be watching for in the future.

This is a performance that grew on me each time I saw the film. The interplay between Natalie and her colleague Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is simply fantastic. Kendrick plays the character with both a fierce determination and a striking vulnerability, utterly immune to Ryan’s charms (and soundly mocking him for his rhetoric). As their road trip of job terminations goes on, it all becomes more and more personal for Natalie, and Kendrick’s performance completely brings this transformation to life.

#2: Charlotte Gainsbourg – She, Antichrist

Still for Lars von Trier's "Antichrist".

This is a haunting performance in a strange and thoroughly disturbing film. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the unnamed wife of a couple grieving alone in the woods. Through this unsettling and bewildering performance, Gainsbourg effectively conveys how broken and terrified this character has become. The interplay with her husband (Willem Dafoe) effectively illustrates the disjointed and counterproductive state of their present relationship. Gainsbourg’s performance is utterly fearless, and she maintains it even as her character becomes a paragon of the film’s unrelenting misogyny (“A woman crying is a woman scheming…”). Frankly, I would have a hard time recommending this film to anyone, but if I did, it would be solely because of this performance, which is one of the most effective and frightening I’ve ever seen.

#1: Zooey Deschanel – Summer Finn, (500) Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel in "500 Days of Summer"

From my original review:

Zooey Deschanel…steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective..

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender in Whip It
  • Rachel Weisz as Penelope in The Brothers Bloom
  • Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther in Orphan
  • Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” – A savage and gorgeous Eden

Spoiler Warning: This review will include plot details revealed in the theatrical trailer.

Five years and $300 million in the making, James Cameron’s Avatar has finally arrived. The film takes place in 2154, when a completely industrialized Earth has sent a massive and militarized mining party to a lush forest moon called Pandora. The moon is rich with native flora and fauna, but it is also rich with unobtainium – a term originally developed as a humorous stand-in for a valuable and impossible compound, but which is used quite literally here. Unfortunately, there is also a massive indigenous population of intelligent, tree-dwelling, ten-foot-tall humanoids called the Na’vi, a tribe of which lives directly on top of the richest deposit of the precious material.

So naturally, we need them to move. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is tapped to join the Avatar program, the brainchild of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The avatars are Na’vi bodies grown and designed to be piloted by humans via a neural link. Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the abominable head of security, and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the shrewd mining administrator, order Sully to infiltrate the Na’vi village and gain their trust, and find a way to convince or force them off their land. In the course of doing so, he meets Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a Na’vi princess who agrees to show him the ways of her people.

And that’s where I’ll stop with the plot description… If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for this film, you already knew all that and more. In fact, there was very little mystery going into this film. Even the technology developed for it was subject to significant hype. A new and proprietary 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vince Pace, motion capture like Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf (minus the creepiness and dead eyes), and an impressive array of creature design.

So did it live up to the hype? By many of my usual standards, no. The plot was indeed quite familiar – “Fern Gully meets Dances With Wolves” is the popular phrase, although I’d include a few shades of Independence Day (we’re the hostile aliens; the White House is a huge freaking tree). Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and the storytelling bumbles along with some atrociously scripted exposition scenes, in which Sully alternates between voiceover and speaking directly into the camera (under the auspices of recording “video logs”). The nobility of the Na’vi, the superiority of their way of life, the ineffectuality of trying to convince them to move from their home – every plot point of this film is vomited forth in flowery, excruciating detail. Mercifully, these scenes don’t last very long, and they are balanced with some adept performances.

Zoë Saldaña is the standout, giving an absolutely sublime performance as the Na’vi princess Neytiri. Sam Worthington is enjoyable when he’s not delivering plodding exposition, and Sigourney Weaver is fantastic as the inexplicably chain-smoking scientist. Stephen Lang delivers a fun, scenery-chewing performance of the absurdly one-dimensional Colonel, who supervises an invasion between sips of his hot, steaming mug of eeeeeeevil, and Giovanni Ribisi portrays the administrator with such a comical level of callousness that he absolutely steals every scene he’s in.

So only one question remains… Was the visual spectacle of this film enough to make up for its shortcomings? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. In addition to the technical achievements above (on which I could spend several more paragraphs), I could not take my eyes off a single frame of this film, and I spent most of my first viewing completely awestruck with my mouth hanging halfway open. James Horner blankets this film with a fantastic score – easily the most rich and majestic I’ve heard since John Williams did Jurassic Park. And the world is simply stunning. It’s as if Cameron saw the BBC’s Planet Earth and thought to himself… I can do better than that. He clearly adores bioluminescence, as it is featured beautifully (and pervasively) in this film. With Pandora, Cameron has created an absolute Eden – a rich and savage world with a complex ecosystem.

What’s more, he has crafted a fascinating (and literal) representation of Gaia – the notion of an entire planet as a single, complex organism. The Na’vi are a fantastical, idealized version of humanity, acting as symbiotic shepherds rather than masters of their environment. They sport a long braid of hair which conceals a hidden strand of nerves that can spring forth and attach to other life forms. This has allowed them to make use of a variety of creatures, including land-based and flying mounts, which they can control telepathically through the link. Even the trees of Pandora form a vast network of neurons and synapses – even more than exist in the human brain. The Na’vi refer to this network as Eywa, their goddess, and can use their neural links to speak to the planet directly.

And this may be the most fascinating thing about the Na’vi. They worship a god whose existence is absolutely certain – to both human science and Na’vi faith. Even an afterlife is assured, as they can use their neural links to upload their memories to Eywa when they die. And what’s more, the Na’vi are extremely resilient. They can move fast, jump high, and survive every peril this world can offer. And their every need – food, water, a safe place to sleep – is largely tended to by their ecosystem. Disease is conspicuously absent, even in a world of rampant, unprotected, telepathic hanky-panky. The Na’vi exist in an absolute Eden. They want for nothing and have no fear of death.

So what can humanity offer them? We try all the usual trappings of human progress – roads, schools, hospitals… But according to Sully, the Na’vi have no use for these things.

Humanity’s definition of progress has always been a bit muddy, but it seems to entail both exploration and mastery of its domain. To extend its reach – even to the stars – and to increase its population and lifespan. The Na’vi are often casually referred to as savages in this film, and I would argue that this is an apt term for them. They are wild and untamed, and we would probably call them a stagnant society. But in such a pristine environment – with no significant threats to the species or struggles within its society – our definition of progress completely falls apart. This is Avatar’s most fascinating theme, and yet simultaneously its least explored. We must take the film’s word on the superiority of Na’vi culture, since we are not privy to its stability in the long-term. And what’s more, we only gain the slightest idea of what state humanity is in.

But we can infer a great deal. It is implied that Earth is completely industrialized, and humanity is clearly still in the business of invasion, forced relocation, and wanton slaughter. In fact, this may be the most pessimistic sci-fi treatment of mankind ever put to screen. We aren’t wiped out by aliens, robots, nuclear war, or climate change. We live on, and apparently learn nothing.

Spoiler Warning: The following paragraph contains details about the film’s ending.

Colonel Quaritch does have one thing right – Sully does betray humanity in favor of the Na’vi – and yes, “betray” is the correct word. He even abandons his crippled human body in favor of a more powerful (and undamaged) Na’vi body. In the end, he purges every trace of humanity from himself, referring to his former race as “aliens” and supervising their eviction from Pandora to return to their “dying planet”. I’ll grant that with this branch of mankind acting as usurpers and destroyers, it’s hard to argue with Sully’s decision. But in the end, this film relies upon some disturbing implications of the intrinsic cultural supremacy of the Na’vi. And given their blatant allegorical resemblance to Native Americans, this comes dangerously close to relegating the film to the ineffectual, self-hating bin of white guilt.

While Avatar‘s societal allegory has a few problems, it nonetheless boasts some provocative and effective environmental themes. And on a technical and creative level, James Cameron has brought a marvelous vision to life with this film, and it will surely impact cinema for years to come. If it is successful enough that Cameron can finish his planned trilogy, I would certainly hope to see some of the above concerns addressed with additional storytelling. Avatar is an impressive spectacle, but it has merely teased us with the potential of its rich, engrossing world. It could eventually be the stuff of great science fiction.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Additional reading: