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  • Jeff Marker


    believer, husband, dad, teacher, film geek, bookworm, musician, writer, researcher, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Review

guardians-galaxy-movie-trailer-humorGuardians of the Galaxy is the most purely entertaining movie of the summer. It isn’t even a contest.

X-Men: Days of Future Past strung together a sprawling yarn which smartly steered the franchise toward new possibilities. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used next-level motion capture techniques to offer stunning character complexity for a movie about apes. Both are highly sophisticated as tentpole releases go.

But Guardians of the Galaxy is sheer hedonism. It’s a laugh-per-minute spectacle that never takes itself seriously yet takes us on an escapist jaunt through a bizarre Science Fiction universe.

In those ways, it is a quintessential summer movie. Forget about your cares, munch on popcorn, and just enjoy.

guardians-galaxy-gamora-zoe-saldanaGuardians is also the anti-Avengers.

We’ve come to expect earnest heroism and myth-building from all of the Avengers movies. Guardians indulges in almost none of that.

The Guardians are not superheroes. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hyper-athletic, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are very strong, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is highly intelligent. But none possesses superpowers. These characters are a band of outlaws and misfits.

Gamora is an assassin on the run from her adoptive father, the supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax is a mountain of a man with no sense of irony bent on avenging his murdered family. Rocket is a raccoon who was given human intelligence when he was subjected to experiments and is now a career criminal. Groot is a tree with a limited vocabulary.

They are led by Earth-born Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an average dude (and therefore a perfect role for Pratt) who makes a living selling recovered artifacts and gets out of scrapes using his charm and wits. And he really, really would like you to call him Star-Lord.

rocket-raccoonThe Guardians screw up half of the time and bicker constantly, and hilariously, over petty things. And every time the story builds toward a rousing speech or the type of sanctimonious hero worship that has come to define the Avengers movies, one of the characters undercuts it with a sarcastic joke.

Most importantly, the Guardians are flawed. The movie might be a tough sell because many will be turned off by how strange the characters seem to be. ‘You want me to watch a movie about a green girl, a talking raccoon, and a tree?’
Trust me, these characters are more human and relatable than any of the Avengers.

And they fight a genuinely scary villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), who is backed by Thanos and the ruthless Nebula, played by an unrecognizable Karen Gillan.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-drax-the-destroyer-02Peter and the others become the Guardians reluctantly and only due to circumstance. They’ve stolen something and made Ronan very angry. Each character is looking out for himself or herself yet ultimately can’t look the other way when Ronan threatens the entire galaxy.

Guardians is a very important movie for Marvel/Disney. Marvel and its monopolistic parent company have dominated the box office the past few years, but the Avengers phase of the studio’s plans is reaching its expiration date.

We’re done with solo Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr., and we’ll see one more Thor and Captain America movie each. There will be two more Avengers movies, but Marvel needs to bring a new set of characters into the moviegoing consciousness, and Guardians is part of that plan. An especially important part, since Ant-Man has become a disaster before production has even started.

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_41744There really are only three things you need to know about Guardians of the Galaxy.

First, parents should be aware that the language is a bit rough at times. Second and with apologies to all of the Avengers, Guardians is the best Marvel movie so far. Third, prepare to see the movie twice, because the first time you’ll miss some of the jokes. You won’t be able to hear them over your own laughing.

LUCY Review

lucy-LCY_Tsr1Sheet_RGB_0523_1_rgbYou’re going to hear strange popping sounds Friday afternoon around the time of the first showings of Lucy. They will be the sounds of scientists’ heads exploding all around the world.

The movies are notorious for pushing junk science on naïve viewers. It’s possible junk movie science has never been junkier than it is in Luc Besson’s Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, who gains the ability to use more of her brain than the 10% most of us use. She utilizes more and more of her brain as the movie progresses and acquires new, scientifically nonsensical powers as she evolves.

I use the word “evolve” because it is a theme of the film. Much of the first act cuts between Lucy becoming entangled in a drug-smuggling ring under the control of Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) and Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on what would happen if humans evolved in the ways Lucy does even as he speaks.

Science Fiction movies by nature exaggerate and fictionalize scientific reality or theory. One of the measures of quality for the genre is whether the movie follows its own rules. The story has to be plausible within the theory on which the movie is based.

Lucy fails spectacularly on this level. There is no logical connection between brain power and the physical powers she acquires, which become increasingly supernatural.

It’s the kind of movie that’s only entertaining if you turn off your brain. And surely you see the irony there.

Not that writer/director Luc Besson has ever cared about plausibility. He is much more interested in ideas, especially the ideas of transformation and transcendence.

He is also fascinated with taking wispy, Bohemian girls and turning them into impeccable killers. We’ve seen him create woman warriors in La Femme Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Angel-A.

Empowerment comes with machine-like precision and a large gun in Besson’s world.

None of Besson’s heroines have been as empowered as Lucy, though. As the trailers have already revealed, she develops the ability to control other people’s bodies and minds and to manipulate time and matter.

The concept is good for creating stunning visuals, and this movie uses more computer-generated imagery than any of Besson’s previous work.

But the concept is terrible for action scenes. Lucy clashes with dozens of henchmen but just as each fight begins, Lucy’s powers expand and she dispatches her opponents with ease. There isn’t one engaging action scene in the whole movie. The movie is too busy trying to be too many things at once to focus on what most viewers will want, which is seeing Johansson in action.

For a few minutes during the opening sequence, Lucy recalls the documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its critique of modern life. The premise is embarrassingly similar to Limitless (2011). It’s also a quasi-philosophical movie that has as much in common with Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) as anything else.

Besson has great fun with the evolution theme by intercutting wildlife documentary footage into his fictional footage, creating witty metaphors and puns. Unfortunately, this technique is also borrowed, from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000).

I was rooting hard for this film prior to seeing it because it bucks so many current trends. It’s based on an original screenplay rather than a popular novel or comic book. It’s a taut 90 minutes rather than the standard 130-150 minute summer slog. And it’s in 2D.

But the movie becomes so unintentionally hilarious it’s only enjoyable because it has become “so bad it’s good.”

Lucy eventually gains the power to travel through her biological memory to the very first cell that split into two and initiated all evolution to follow.

If you plan to see Lucy, my advice is to similarly reduce your brain activity to that of a single cell before the movie begins.

Crazy Train, or The Time Republicans Sued the President

The House vote to approve a resolution authorizing Speaker John Boehner to sue President Obama should be a moment of truth for the Republican party. Want to know just how far off the rails your party has gone? This. This is how far.

Because this has nothing to do with the law. Trust me, Boehner wants nothing more than for a judge to stop the lawsuit from ever reaching a courtroom. Should it land in a courtroom, the decision won’t matter a bit. First off, legal wrangling would likely delay that decision until after President Obama leaves office. So no, it will not restore checks and balances. And since few Democrats hang their electoral hopes on Obama, the decision itself would have little effect on elections from that point on. Second, the defending attorneys would have a field day highlighting the contradictions and general ridiculousness of accusing the President of constitutional over-reach for doing something that was originally a GOP idea.

No, this lawsuit is intended to provide a temporary rallying cry for Republicans as they head home to campaign. That’s right: the leader of the Republican House is willing to expend numerous manhours and likely millions of dollars on a transparently frivolous lawsuit that has almost no chance of making it to court, merely as a campaign strategy. And he is doing this in the midst of a border crisis at home, Israel and Palestine engaged in an escalating war, Ukraine posing a very real risk of plunging the Western hemisphere into war, and numerous other serious issues. The lawsuit also comes after the Republicans have voted against the Affordable Care Act more then FIFTY TIMES. On that level, this is just the latest impotent attack. Meanwhile, can you point to one economic initiative House Republicans passed during the same timespan? There was a Recession on, and Republicans’ only contribution was pushing for the government to get out of debt – something that many economists say slowed down rather than pushed economic recovery.

The Republican House clearly, egregiously took an obstructionist strategy from the day President Obama was elected and thus already have a “do-nothing” reputation. This lawsuit appears to confirm the widely held theory that the GOP is in a downward spiral.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the cold hard look in the mirror moment for all sane Republicans should come when they consider who might be persuaded by this lawsuit. For Boehner to expect people to believe this is about checks and balances or the law is insulting to the intelligence. Anyone with half a brain and even a little political awareness knows it is not. Several Republican friends who never agree with me on anything, ever, agree with me on this lawsuit. “It is a waste of time when we have no time to waste,” as one of my friends very eloquently put it. Hell, even Neil Cavuto says so in this instantly classic interview with Michelle Bachmann.

Boehner is willing to take this totally unprecedented, distracting, absurd step to court the Bachmanns and Palins and the, I’m sorry, misinformed lemmings who follow them. A second of critical, common sense thought reveals that the Republicans are suing the President for doing something that they wanted done. But Boehner knows voter demographics and the political mindset of the country are changing in ways unfavorable to the GOP. Despite all the shameless gerrymandering, many Republicans cannot win their district without firing up voters on the farthest Right fringe.

I implore Republicans to consider whether this is really who you want to be. I am neither Republican or Democrat. Frankly, I’d be happiest if both parties withered and died. The two-party system has become an embarrassing failure, especially during the past several years. But this is the system we have, and the only way it works at all is if we have two parties that reflect large portions of the electorate. Which is why we – even non-Republicans – desperately need the GOP to come to its senses.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY Review

the-purge-anarchy-PG2_Final1Sheet_RGB_0609_1_rgbThe Purge: Anarchy is a political polemic disguised as a horror film. I view that as a good thing, but horror fans may not.

The Purge was released one year ago while the country was still feeling the effects of the recession more acutely and its premise tapped into class tensions that have pervaded the country for years.

The title refers to one twelve-hour period each year during which all law and order are suspended, an annual ritual established by the New Founding Fathers of America. Americans are free to kill each other with no consequences. The weaker members of society are purged, thus reducing unemployment, the prison population, and the crime rate for the rest of the year.

The Purge did a fine job of establishing this provocative scenario, but then it backed away from the very sentiments on which it was based and devolved into a formulaic home-invasion horror movie. Once it set up all of its hot-button ideas, it shied away from them.

The Purge: Anarchy, however, pulls no punches. In many ways, this is the film The Purge should have been.

The story is stronger and less formulaic, and the social commentary is more forceful, memorable, and coherent. Despite some confounding stylistic choices (I could rant for paragraphs about the nonsensical use of a mirror shot during one scene alone), Anarchy improves over the original in numerous ways.

purge anarchy 1This sequel follows a new set of characters. There is a vengeful, well-armed father (Frank Grillo), a working-class mother (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zöe Soul), and a yuppie couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the verge of a break-up, all of whom find themselves on the streets on the one night when they shouldn’t be.

This setup allows the filmmakers to lead us through the city and to explore the types of people who participate in the purge, and that’s when the film goes after its social and political targets.

Some characters in The Purge: Anarchy have twisted Christianity to a point where worship of the government is synonymous with worship of God, and the lethal use of firearms is theologically acceptable.

Others use the purge to target the opposite gender. The first act of violence shows a man attacking his female neighbor merely because she ignores him and rejects his advances. The scene brings to mind the ongoing discourse about male sexual entitlement and rape culture.

More generally, characters who would otherwise be regarded as normal take part in the purge. The horror genre has progressed to a point where humans have taken the place of monsters who embody our darker sides. The Purge: Anarchy pushes that idea to the point where this is barely a horror movie at all.

Sure, there are some gotcha moments, but there are really only two scary things about the movie. As with The Purge, the most frightening aspect is the degree of plausibility in the concept. The scenario is absurd, but not completely. It taps into some real phenomena and beliefs apparent in contemporary American society.

purge anarchy 2The other chilling element is the possibility that some people will watch this in the same way they would watch any horror movie. Echoing the premise of this very franchise, horror movies can be cathartic, and it is totally acceptable to respond to onscreen violence in a horror movie with excitement.

To react to the The Purge: Anarchy with any kind of delight, however, is to miss the whole point. That some viewers will not make that distinction is perhaps the most terrifying thing about the film.

EARTH TO ECHO: Terrible in Every Way

ECHOWhat if I told you a movie was about four bikers who destroy a pawnshop, cause significant damage to a bar and are chased out of it by angry drinkers, break into a private residence and a barn, steal two cars, crash a high school party where everyone is drinking and having sex, and commit other serious crimes?

You might think I was describing a Peter Fonda road movie or a Roger Corman teen flick. Or maybe you would assume those four bikers were the villains of the movie.

In all of those cases you would be wrong. That is a description of Walt Disney Studios’ and Relativity Media’s new PG-rated family movie, Earth to Echo. The four bikers are in their early teens and ride bicycles rather than motorcycles, but they do all these things.

Discussing the morality of movies is a slippery slope, and I happen to believe the movies have limited influence on viewers’ behavior. It’s usually better for a reviewer to avoid such matters.

But there is no denying the movies’ influence is greater on pre-teen and teen viewers. We all try on identities and behaviors at that age, and for good and bad, the movies are one source of ideas during those formative years.

Earth to Echo is also a typical young adult movie in that it purports to teach viewers something. For these reasons, I can’t ignore what an irresponsible movie this is.

I cannot imagine allowing my own son to see a movie in which boys and girls behave as they do in Earth to Echo and are ultimately judged heroic for it.

This is also the first time in my life a movie has nearly made me vomit.

Earth to Echo is a found footage movie of sorts. One of the boys is an aspiring filmmaker who carries his camcorder around everywhere to capture all of his friends’ minute actions and trivial conversations.

All of the footage in the movie supposedly comes from that camcorder, a camera mounted to a bicycle, or a camera hidden in spyglasses.

Nearly every second of the movie is so shaky I had to avert my eyes much of the time to avoid getting sick. I only stayed for the entire movie because I was reviewing it. And bear in mind I had no problem sitting through Cloverfield, the Bourne movies, and the many other found footage movies I’ve seen.

The story suffers from fatal flaws, too. Not only is it a shameless rip off of Super 8 and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but it’s also nonsensical.

EARTH TO ECHOThe four main characters are led to various locations – the scenes of their crimes – as they try to help a little alien rebuild its spaceship and get back home. We eventually discover the alien, whom they call Echo, needs parts to rebuild itself.

We are asked to believe the only places Echo can find the parts it needs are a pawnshop, a bar, the bedroom of a girl the boys like, and an arcade.

Like so many condescending, pandering movies made for kids, one passing moment of critical reflection makes the whole story fall apart.

Family movies don’t have to teach kids lessons, but this one explicitly strives to do so, and it is an appalling message.

The movie’s primary theme is that kids feel powerless and invisible. It’s true, kids do feel that way. It could have made sense for the kids to discover things about themselves as they are put in adult, perilous situations.

Earth To EchoHowever, they don’t find any real empowerment. They follow maps from one place to the next, and Echo does the work while the kids indulge in an extended video selfie.

Worse, the kids place themselves in serious danger and commit multiple crimes, and it is all played for laughs. And the kid who narrates the movie sums up the moral by proclaiming the kids learned “they can make a difference.”

That’s right kids, make a difference by destroying personal property and endangering everyone around you. Good family fun.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-DOTPOTA_Poster_rgbDawn of the Planet of the Apes swings into theatres this week, continuing one of the most surprisingly enduring franchises in movie history. What began in 1968 as quirky Science Fiction has now become, dare I say it, important.

Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) and his crew honor the legacy of their ancestors while building their own mythology and expanding the world of the series.

Since the last film, a virus has wiped out most of the human race. A small colony of survivors, led by a hawkish man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his dovish colleague Malcolm (Jason Clarke), must repair a dam to provide themselves with electricity.

Meanwhile, an ape society situated across the Golden Gate Bridge is forced to deal with more complicated issues.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-ss036_0180_v157_le-1077_rgbCaesar (Andy Serkis) is now the leader of a self-sufficient village among the redwoods. He has a loving mate, an adolescent son, and a newborn son. Kabo, Maurice, and Rocket, Caesar’s fellow escapees from the previous film, are among his closest friends and advisers. Their highly organized, peaceful society belies their primitive appearance.

Everything is thrown into disarray, though, when a small group of the humans wanders into the forest near the village. Differing opinions on how to respond to the humans’ presence and their plan to restart the dam exposes deep rifts among Caesar’s leaders.

As with many of the Planet of the Apes movies, the scenario creates a deep irony. The humans have been reduced to survival, while the apes play out a drama straight from one of Shakespeare’s history plays.

One of Caesar’s advisers manipulates his son, the heir to the throne, and other members of the village to undermine Caesar’s leadership. That traitor then secretly instigates a battle between the apes and humans. The movie offers a lot of thrilling action, but the most fascinating conflict is this battle over Caesar’s throne.

The filmmakers hold onto many of the defining elements of the original movie series.

We are meant to sympathize more with the apes than humans. While most of the human characters personify some of our more destructive instincts, Malcolm, his love interest Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) offer a model of understanding.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APESYou will only notice these intricacies of characterization, though, if you can manage to force yourself to look beyond the dazzling motion capture and computer-generated animation work. And that will not be easy, because this is a breathtaking piece of digital filmmaking.

It’s one of those times when technology, performance, and artistry combine perfectly. Reeves relies heavily on close-ups to express the apes’ emotions and character development. This stylistic approach wouldn’t be possible without the cutting edge motion capture and cgi or the performances by Serkis and others. The effect is as moving as any live action performance.

I had to remind myself numerous times that Caesar, his son, and all the other apes are just computer code and not real, living beings. The animation of facial expressions and textures alone marks an evolutionary leap forward in computer imaging.

This is also a massive production with hundreds of real extras and animated apes battling across the cityscape of San Francisco. Reeves and his crew get to work on a scale that producers of the earlier Planet of the Apes movies only dreamt about.

Along with X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is among the best blockbusters of 2014 so far. Both films offer the eye candy we want during summer yet maintain a level of storytelling quality that doesn’t make us feel guilty as we leave the theater.

The original Planet of the Apes, with its passionate critique of fundamentalism, remains as relevant in 2014 as it was when first released. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t offer any similar, individual moments of philosophical epiphany.

However, the film as a whole urges us to reconsider our perceptions of characters unlike ourselves and to show them compassion, to be motivated by love rather than fear. In other words, to find our own humanity.

IVORY TOWER Review

IVORYTOWER1The documentary Ivory Tower examines the state of higher education in the United States. And while its entry into limited release this weekend has thus far been quiet, it could end up making a lot of noise.

American colleges and universities face several crises, most prominently the decline of public funding combined with rising enrollments, a total national student debt of over $1 trillion, and attacks on the residential university as no longer feasible nor most effective for many students.

Ivory Tower does an outstanding job of discussing these and other challenges, without becoming partisan or losing sight of what is most important – the students.

A persistent theme among the film’s interview subjects, all of whom are either career academics or credible critics of higher education, is the American university system has been unquestionably successful at providing a liberal arts education. The problems stem primarily from the unsustainable costs of a college education.

IVORYTOWER2Public funding for universities and colleges has fallen dramatically, forcing institutions to raise tuition. And when a college degree carries an extremely high price tag, several things happen. Students are saddled with debt when they graduate, and it is increasingly unlikely their entry-level salaries will allow them to pay off their loans while also building a life. This phenomenon has prompted many to question the necessity of a college education at all.

Students also develop a consumer mentality. They are paying quite a lot for this experience, and they somewhat justifiably expect to “receive” their money’s worth. In response, colleges have tried to outdo each other with the amenities they provide, which in turn raises costs further.

Another source of problems is the inefficiency with which many universities operate. Since 2005, the number of faculty at American colleges has grown 51% while the number of administrators has grown 240%.

Compounding these issues are technologies that excite administrators because they are cheap but have now been proven educationally less effective if not disastrous.

Personally, this was a difficult film for me to review because I am so close to the content. My position at the University of North Georgia comprises both instructional and administrative responsibilities.

I became a little defensive when certain interview subjects over-stated or mischaracterized situations. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift,” a book which has caused significant ripples throughout academia, criticizes student evaluations as “consumer satisfaction” surveys. His description of how colleges evaluate professors is completely unfair.

The film also stacks the deck at times. This is especially true of the segment on the Thiel Fellowship and the Education Hackerhouse, a communal living space in Silicon Valley where, as the film describes it, “college drop-outs work on education-related startups.” They interview Mark Zuckerberg as an example of a Thiel graduate. Sorry, but very few 18-22 year olds would thrive in such an environment.

At one point, Peter Schiff, author of “Crash Proof 2.0,” mentions “the ease with which you can become self-educated” thanks to the Internet. There is nothing easy about becoming self-educated, even with the resources the Internet now provides, and again, only a small percentage of students succeed with this approach.

IVORYTOWER5Thankfully, the film acknowledges those realities and returns to the question of how to effectively educate as many people as possible.

The movie provides a cursory but useful history of higher education in the United States and reminds us of the foundational ideals on which the system is built. It used to be a central goal to make a college education accessible to everyone. An educated populace is essential to a democracy, and making college equally feasible for everyone is itself a democratic ideal.

This is one of several core values Ivory Tower champions without condescending to offer easy answers or disrespecting educators.

Anyone familiar with higher education will nod along with the film at least some of the time but will also recognize what it is: a synthesis of recent, notable analyses of the American college and university system.

It does not lob polemical arguments but instead provokes constructive discussion and tries to bring more voices into a dialogue in which academics have engaged for years. That, like higher education itself, is a noble cause deserving of our support.

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