Film

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is Wholesome Fun Despite Flaws

Rapid fire jokes and an energetic cast make up for periods of meandering plot and flat dialogue

Film Score: 7.5/10

The first Guardians of the Galaxy ended with Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), asking his cohorts, “What should we do next? Something good? Something bad? A bit of both?” They settle on the latter, and that’s exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 delivers: a bit of both good and bad. James Gunn returns to write and direct the second installment of the franchise and though he doesn’t hit every mark, he and his team hit enough of them to make the film a success.

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When we rejoin Quill and Co., they’ve channeled their galaxy-saving experience into becoming guns for hire. Their skills on put to the test against a tentacled, sharp-toothed monster while the opening credits roll and “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. They receive the fugitive Nebula (Karen Gillan) as payment from their employer, a race of conceited, golden humanoids called the Sovereign. The Guardians leave with the crazy daughter of Thanos in tow, but not before Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals from the golden gits. They only escape the Sovereign’s wrath with help from a mysterious man who reveals himself to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s long-lost father. Of course, no one truly trusts this man, but as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) so aptly puts it, “If he turns out to be evil we’ll just kill him.” So Quill, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) go with Ego and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to learn more about Quill’s past. Rocket, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), stay behind, only to get captured by Quill’s old Ravager crew and wrapped up in a mutiny against Yondu that’s been brewing ever since he agreed to first transport cargo for Ego.

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The story all boils down to family and how our relationships shape who we are, so much more than genetics ever could. The plot wants Quill and Ego to be the central relationship, but it’s actually the weakest of GOTG Vol. 2. At one point the two men play catch, and though I realize there’s meant to be a level of cheesiness, the scene steps into the realm of plain awkward. Pratt tries to infuse the father-son moments with his usual charisma, but because the camera is forced to bounce between the split groups of characters, he never has time to really inhabit the scene. The same could be said of Russell, whose lackluster Ego seems to be more a fault of the writing than of the actor. He’s saddled with all the exposition, his lines accompanied by porcelain shapeshifting statues whose sole purpose is to give the audience something to look at while he talks.

Yes, the plot is driven by the bond between Quill and Ego, but it’s the secondary characters who shine in this sequel, and the energy they put into their roles helps elevate the other performances when they falter. GDP3200_CMP_v009.1246.JPGBautista and Klementieff, especially, embrace their characters’ social miscues in order to deliver standout performances and some of the best interactions of the entire film. Michael Rooker gets plenty of material to expand his turn as Yondu Undonta, the Ravager that raised Quill, and he doesn’t waste it, running the gamut of emotion from smug to remorseful with ease. He also finds a kindred soul in Rocket, revealing more about the both of them and the poor decisions they’ve made. Nebula, who was my least favorite character in the original GOTG, is finally given space to properly channel her emotional intensity and psychotic rage and it works to much better effect. But if any character deserves a commendation, it’s Baby Groot. I don’t care if it was a marketing ploy or not, but he stole the show. Every. Single. Time. I’m sure some adults will think his presence overdone, but he’s “too adorable to kill.” I found Groot to be just pure, innocent fun.groot

Which is ultimately what makes GOTG Vol 2. a success. Nothing is taken too seriously and it’s all done in good fun. The result is a creative space ideal for instances of brilliance. Nothing quite on the level of Quill’s dance-off from the first film, but close. Rocket’s contraptions are a joy to watch in action, as is a moment of hand-to-hand combat where he proves he’s more than his toys. Everything about Yondu and Rocket’s escape from the mutinous Ravagers is fantastic, as is the song choice of “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay & the Americans. But above all, what continues to stick with me is the moment Quill is handed a Zune.

I remember the first mp3 player I ever bought was a Zune. The product turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt by Microsoft to compete against the Apple iPod, but I loved it all the same. So seeing Quill’s eyes light up at the publically ridiculed product, I about lost my mind. It was perfect. Sure, it may have been a tongue-in-cheek decision by writer/director James Gunn; he’s always been a bit unorthodox with his decisions for the GOTG. But it represents everything I love about the franchise: wholesome, unadulterated fun, despite its flaws.

Books

Underwhelming “Rebirth” is Poor Paulo Coehlo Imitation

Kamal Ravikant preaches lofty ideals, but his writing stunts message

Even though it’s typically not my literary genre of choice, I was excited to receive an ARC of Rebirth: A Fable of Love, Forgiveness, and Following Your Heart by Kamal Ravikant. Having been likened to Paulo Coehlo, of whom I am a fan, I thought I’d enjoy the novel. I kept it in a prominent place on my bookshelf for three months before I could finally sit down with it.

Rebirth

Just like my expectations, the prologue held plenty of promise. I thought I’d found a kindred spirit in the main character of Amit, a twenty-something med student unsure of his life’s path and taken with wanderlust. I could feel the distant uncertainty of how to react as Amit scattered his estranged father’s ashes into the Ganges. And I understood, in the absence of any other purpose, the inevitability of following an Italian tourist’s suggestion to hike the Camino de Santiago because “everyone finds themselves on the Camino.” A 550-mile pilgrimage across Spain would certainly offer plenty of time to examine one’s flaws and correct them. Unfortunately for Rebirth, the pilgrimage also lays bare all its flaws.

Unlike Coehlo, whose novels Rebith is likened to, Ravikant does not have the ability to produce a fable. During the fourth day on the trail, Amit narrates, “I feel like Don Quixote, sans Sancho, horse, or lance.” It’s exactly how Ravikant’s novel reads: like Don Quixote reaching for his lofty idealism minus the tools that even allow him the opportunity. The prose has no nuance—the prologue’s narration I’d interpreted as distant uncertainty turns out to actually just be status quo. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural. All conflict, even the core conflict of Amit’s father dying, is glossed over so that nothing resonates. It’s just not possible to write a “timeless” fable if all the pieces don’t fit.

Still, Ravikant tries. To his credit, he understands that the relationships Amit forms on the Camino are the most important part of the story. He gives us Loïc, a friendly Frenchman, who describes the “magic, mon ami” of jumping without knowing because “then your wings grow.” There is also Kat, whose stories and soft, albeit talkative, presence are the best elements of the novel. She teaches Amit how to answer the question of “what next?” after sprouting wings, because it’s not just about staying alive, but about living.

However, even though each pilgrim’s story relates to Amit, Ravikant never takes the time to give the reader proper insight into Amit’s processing of the information. He should be the story’s grounding, allowing readers to see themselves in him. Instead, each new pilgrim’s story reads less like a confluence of ideas and more like a series of parables. Couple that with how every pilgrim seems to speak only in inspirational quotes, and suddenly Rebirth feels more like a sermon than a novel. It lacks subtlety, tediously contemplating symbols that don’t matter (i.e. a lonely ham leg) and shamelessly promoting anything that was originally clever (i.e. the presence of wind during Amit’s revelations). There’s no room left for the reader’s interpretation.

I had wanted this book to be better. I was able to find, perhaps in desperation, a few gems such as Kat hidden in its pages and an overall message of loving life and one another that I can support, but they weren’t enough to salvage a story that was a poor attempt to imitate Paulo Coehlo’s fables and, at best, an underwhelming novel.

Film

“Tale as Old as Time” Can Still Surprise: Beauty and the Beast Review

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens lead a stellar cast in a film of innovative elements and refreshed characters

Film Score: 8/10

The threat of any remake is the comparisons viewers will inevitably draw between the old and the new. In many regards, Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is the same movie as its 1991 animated namesake. The plot is the same, which would suggest an unnecessary retread of already discovered paths, but thanks to a stellar cast, a freshly dusted script, and magnificent music—minus one disappointment—, the story remains as fresh and enchanting as ever.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful and intelligent young woman who lives with her somewhat absent-minded father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), in a “poor, provincial town.” Her days are spent “with her nose stuck in a book” and dodging the advances of the town’s preening beefcake, Gaston (Luke Evans). But things rapidly change for Belle when her father is taken prisoner for stealing a rose from the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster. She trades places with her father and soon finds out that the castle she must now call home is enchanted. The inhabitants have been transformed into household objects, and only if the Beast can learn to love and earn another’s love in return will the spell, and his curse, be broken.

Emma Watson proves once again that she has talent beyond her many turns as Hermione. Not only is her singing voice surprisingly strong and a thrill to listen to, but she uses every oportunity to enhance the intelligence and strength of Belle. The script helps by adding new scenes (she invents a laundry machine out of a barrel and donkey) and fresh lines (“You take me as your prisoner and now you want to have dinner with me? Are you insane?”), but Watson uses small moments that are found in the original animation, too. When she says to the Beast, “Come into the light,” instead of waiting for the Beast to comply as the animated Belle does, Watson moves the light to him. It marks her as more decisive than her predecessor and is only a small part of what makes Belle a fitting role model for a new generation.

Dan Stevens and Luke Evans are the other standouts in this film. While Stevens of Downton Abbey only gets to show off his good looks in bookend scenes of the film, he brings a very real humanity to his CGI beast form that keeps the viewer grounded in the character, even when the computer animation at times doesn’t render very believably. Evans, on the other hand, gets to show off his chiseled features throughout the entire film and he handles the strutting arrogance of the character so well that one might wonder if he doesn’t secretly preen in mirrors off set. But just like Belle, both these characters have grown up from their animated counterparts. Their stories parallel each other more closely as the outwardly hideous beast is given the backstory of a once innocent and sweet child before his mother’s death, while the inwardly foul-tempered and conniving Gaston puts on a façade for the townspeople that only LeFou and Maurice (whom Gaston openly tries to kill in this film) ever see beyond.

But no character has progressed farther from the original animated film than LeFou. He is Disney’s first openly gay character (and the unnamed man from the village is the second), but LeFou’s growth goes beyond sexual orientation. Josh Gad plays LeFou with comedic poise, but also with a hint of desperation that truly showcases the character’s desire to be accepted. His only friend is Gaston, who is accepted by everyone, so he imitates the man and sticks close by. But when Gaston’s actions begin to become questionable, LeFou finds that he’d rather be true to himself than follow blindly. So while Josh Gad doesn’t get an MVP award, he certainly gets an honorable mention; LeFou, the Most Improved Player.

Then, of course, there are the enchanted castle inhabitants who have been transformed into a collection of household objects so magnificently in CGI that, instead of simply sitting spellbound, I found myself watching for the moment when they didn’t look as real. This was especially true for Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth the clock (the wonderfully proper Ian McKellen). Emma Thompson offers a pleasant turn as Mrs. Potts, and Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Audra Macdonald lend their voices to the characters of Cadenza, Plumette, and Garderobe, respectively. All are more than capable at bringing their characters to life, except Macdonald, whose incessantly operatic performance should have been restricted to musical numbers alone.

And yes, all the songs are still there. Alan Menken helms the score once again and he’s brought along old Disney team member, and legendary lyricist, Tim Rice to fill in for the late Howard Ashman. They don’t replace any of the old favorites, but they do make some changes. “Gaston” has a few refrains changed (no hairy chests in this one) and a dance and mock sword fight added that, together with thumping drums and trumpeting brass from Menken, is a thrill to watch performed. “Be Our Guest” has become a dazzling tribute to musical performance, offering everything from an interpretive dance by Lumiere (a very amusing bit of animation) to aquatic ballet and showgirls with fanning feathers. It is also the only scene to truly stand out in the 3D version of the film. The song “Human Again,” which was present in the Broadway adaptation and re-release of the animated film, has been replaced by the more somber “Days in the Sun” to convey hope, instead of assurance, that the enchantment will someday be lifted.

The title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” gets a dressing that unfortunately looked better on the rack. Angela Lansbury sang the original with quiet grace that was matched by Menken’s score. This time around the creative minds decided on a more declarative performance for the iconic scene, using liberal amounts of sweeping strings, swells of brass, and asking Emma Thompson to belt out more than just a few words of the song. For all its fanfare, it stands as testimony to the adage that less truly is more. Thankfully, there’s still a healthy dose of Disney magic to lift you up after being let down, because not even five minutes later Dan Stevens gets the chance to showcase his singing talents in the surprise “Evermore,” a brand-new, resonant song of love and loss. Hearing it in theaters for the first time had me as giddy as the night I saw “Defying Gravity” of Wicked performed live. It was that good.

At the end of the day, all of these pieces do still amount to a remake of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. There’s no doubt it’s very similar to the original. What worked in the old still works in the new, but Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast finds new ground with innovative sights and sounds and characters reshaped for the modern age. It probably won’t be winning any big awards, but it will definitely win a lot of hearts.

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How You Can Spot a Professional

People will sometimes say you can spot a writer. The man with the long hair, somewhat disheveled, but relatively respectable, is a writer (think Bradley Cooper in Limitless). That female with the end of a pen between vibrant red lips is a writer.

Like all stereotypes, these descriptions have some merit. But they are not blanket identifiers. Just like all heroes don’t have muscular builds and blue eyes, or all evildoers don’t have brooding expressions and thin faces. I’m a writer and I tend towards more of a business casual than anything else.

But there is one stereotype that will makes a load of difference in your life. That stereotype is The Professional.

I’m sure you’ve seen the men and women I’m talking about. The man in suit and tie, carrying a briefcase and looking at his watch like he’s late. The woman in fashionable heels and a power suit – feminine and strong. These are people that make you stop and wonder what they do for a living. They are people that you might pay attention to when they speak. When operating in a business setting it is of utmost importance to represent yourself in a way that other people will respect you. Not every job is going to require suit and tie, but every job will require your commitment.

Today I went to speak with someone about my cover letter. This is a service almost every professor of mine has recommended, so I thought getting some extra help with securing a job would be a good idea. From the moment I walked in I stopped listening. The receptionist had her headphones in and didn’t notice when I walked up. The woman reviewing my occupational materials was wearing sweatpants, sweatshirt, and Uggs. These are not people whose advice I’d consider worthwhile.

I did force myself to listen, and the lady whose advice I was receiving was, in fact, helpful. But when I left her office I felt cheated in some way. This was supposed to be a professional meeting, yet it felt like I’d walked into a college campus lounge. I craved that professionalism.

And that is a key I’d suggest to anyone wishing to impress. Dress for the occasion. Even overdressing is often better than underdressing because we, as humans, crave that look of professionalism. We want to feel like our time has not been wasted. We want to speak with someone more knowledgeable than us because we are looking to learn something. Looking the part is half the battle of making someone think you are qualified. And when somebody pauses to think about what skills you possess that he or she may or may not…

Well that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

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Writing (and Living) for That “Ah-ha!” Moment

This semester I am enrolled in two writing workshops. When I mentioned this to one of my professors, he asked me, “Are you nuts?” It was far too much reading and writing. I would never be able to keep up with my schoolwork.

I still wanted to do it.

For me, writing is much more than a job or a grade – it’s my passion. I write because I want to and not because somebody tells me I have to. Of course, having a deadline is fairly persuasive in getting me to want to write, but that’s beside the point.

Writing is important to me because, in a lot of ways, writing is like life. It’s life, only it’s told through a specific lens. One book’s lens may be focused on Harry Potter while another book’s lens may be focused on Mr. Bucklesby who goes for a walk through Central Park every Tuesday with his wife. Books, and the writing within those books, show us truths about our lives that we sometimes forget or don’t even know.

It is my job and the job of fellow writers to tell those truths. The only trouble is that sometimes we writers don’t always get it right.

That’s why my writing workshops are so important to me. I can write what I see to be the truth and then have twenty fellow writers point out flaws in my interpretation of the truth  and suggest better ways to tell that truth. I will make mistakes, but I have people to help me along and reach my goal.

The other day in my writing workshop a fellow writer was having trouble depicting the struggle between the father of a son that drowned and the boy who was responsible for the son’s death. All of us around the table were bouncing suggestions off one another until a suggestion of how the two would interact and what they would say suddenly made all twenty of us pause and say, “Ohhh!”

Such agreement amongst writers is legendary. But that’s what we are working for: that “Ah-ha!” moment.

Life is the same. Nobody knows the meaning of life (unless you consider the answer to be 42). We have to make choices that we think are best and, more often than we’d like, we make mistakes. Of course, there are almost always people looking to help us out and point us in the right direction again. We can only hope that we’ll finally zero in on the answer to a perfect life. Then, when we have the answer, we can all pause, sit back, and say, “Ohhh!”

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Deadlines, Borrowed Time, and Excuses

As summer drew to a close, I found my attention being drawn away from my newly begun blog. Between the edits for my manuscript, moving into my off-campus housing, and preparing for the beginning of another college semester, blogging fell by the wayside.

And yet I had promised to become a true blog presence. For heaven’s sake, my first post is titled “Committing to the (Blog) Job!”

I failed to follow up on my promise, and I tried explain away why I had not posted for some time. So my reasoning behind not blogging must be considered an excuse. The lecturer for one of my classes this semester introduced the quote, “Excuses are the bricks that build the house of failure.” As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right. If I had continued to come up with excuses for why I couldn’t post, this blog would have been pointless. I probably would have never added another article.

And yet, here I am. I am once again typing away on my laptop. I will admit, as I write, it is quite late, but that is what it takes. You have to find time to complete your tasks, even if you have to borrow time. As a college student, I have classes, work, a social life, and – until this year – 5:30AM practice with the OSU rowing team six days per week. Where in the world can I find time to fit in a consistent blogging lifestyle?

I borrow time.

Some days I have to stay up a little later, borrowing some time from sleeping. Other days, going out with my friends can wait an extra half hour in order to complete my next post. There are minutes wasted in the day when I’m sitting idly on Facebook or Twitter. If I take those minutes to do something more productive, suddenly I’ve accomplished something I didn’t think I could.

Borrowing time is easier said than done, unfortunately. Yes, there is a large amount of time wasted on the Internet, but how many of us really want to give up our social media? And then of course, there is the ever-faithful couch or bed. Sure, I could write a post, but a nap sounds so much better. Why would I borrow time from these other activities that seem so important?

So my final piece of advice when it comes to avoiding excuses and getting things done is to make deadlines for yourself. Don’t pick a random date, because that’s all it is: random. Can’t you make another excuse to push the date back a little?

Chose a date that has some significance. When I graduated high school, I realized that I had been working on my novel manuscript for five years, and had barely made a dent in it. So I set a deadline at the end of the summer. I knew that if I did not finish my book before I began college, I’d never find the time to properly finish writing. I started with 30 type-written pages in July of the year. I finished with 185 pages before I left for college in August.

We all know how intimidating a good deadline is, and we all know how quickly everything moves out of the way to meet that deadline. So make a good, hard deadline for yourself. You’ll start borrowing time from places you didn’t know existed. And above all else, you’ll be avoiding those excuses.

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Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

Oh, what a beautiful day. I see skies of blue and clouds of white… and I think to myself, What a wonderful world.

Think about just how many songs, poems, and stories there are describing the beauty of the world around us. When I woke this morning, although I was somewhat upset to be up in the gray pre-dawn, I was up in time for the sunrise. The birds are chirping, the flowering bush outside my window is waving hello in a light breeze. The grass glistens with dew like a jeweled gift, jut for me.

There’s a reason why so many are inspired by the world around us. It’s beautiful. The trees, the grass, the sun, the water, and of course the people.

Never underestimate how beautiful people can be.