Wednesday, April 9, 2014

            So I’ve come to the end of this little school project. I’ve talked about the benefits of listening to both local radio and satellite radio, commented on Time magazine’s March 28 issue, and reviewed three movies: Muppets Most Wanted, Divergent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
            And the question is: What have I learned from all this, if anything at all? I would say that I’ve learned that you have to be careful about whatever expectations you have when consuming any kind of media. You might just be surprised at how media can thwart them.
            I think I first noticed this when I was reviewing the film, Divergent. I didn’t think much of the film at first; I thought it would be pretty bad, actually. “But what the heck?” I thought. And I found myself actually enjoying certain parts of it and admitting it was ok. But then my opinion went to mediocre as I thought a little more about the movie’s multiple elements and how they all came together into a whole, and I realized despite being surprised, the film really wasn’t all that spectacular anyway.
            My other surprise came when I first saw the headlines for Time magazine. “God at the Movies.” Me being a Christian, my opinion of most media outlets was that they preferred to keep religion out of their articles. But what I read was a fair and in-depth look at Hollywood’s recent focus on Biblical films, once again surprising me and disappointing me as I realized the writer didn’t cover smaller Christian-oriented movies made by churches (I had different expectations in mind for the article).

            Truth is, we all have something in mind when we first read a newspaper or listen to some artist we’ve only heard about or something similar. The real trouble only comes we aren’t willing to look at and listen to the stuff that’s actually in front of us and not put aside our views for just a moment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Film review: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" Marvel's best film yet

             Wow. Just wow.
            That’s the best introduction I can think of, having recently seen the latest entry to the Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This film is not only a riveting thriller, but it’s also a major game-changer for the franchise that will leave long-time Marvel fans stunned long after they’ve left the theater.
            But first, the story. The Winter Soldier takes place two years after 2012’s The Avengers, and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, now works for the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. in Washington, D.C. and is trying to readjust to life in the 2000s. After a brief introduction to Sam Wilson (a.k.a. the Falcon, Cap’s sidekick), Cap is picked up by the lovely Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, for a mission involving saving a captive S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from pirates led by Georges Batroc (for you diehard fans out there…). In the process, Romanoff manages to salvage some data from the ship’s computers. Rogers later confronts the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, for misleading him, which causes Fury to reveal to him Project Insight: three brand-spanking-new Helicarriers (think flying aircraft carriers) that linked to spy satellites and designed to neutralize threats before they’re even carried out.
The Captain and the Widow play off each other well.
           Of course, this flies in the face of Cap’s ideals and sets up his own conflict for the rest of the film: In a world where black and white have faded to grey, how far is too far? Is the greater good really worth sacrificing individuals’ rights and liberties? Is peace really hanging a sword over people’s heads? These are themes that define Rogers’ internal conflict, as well as that of the film itself—themes that should ring especially true in light of the NSA leaks and the use of drone warfare. Because it deals with these issues (albeit not deeply—more on that soon), The Winter Soldier has a little bit more depth than the average superhero movie. Props also go out to it being a political thriller of sorts, so there are enough twists in the plot that viewers will stick around to find out what happens next. Especially important for one plot thread that will blow the minds of long-time comic fans and Marvel newbies. I warn you: it’s a big one.
            But like I said, this is a superhero movie, and what that means is a slight sweeping aside of deeper things for the action and explosions to take center stage. While there’s plenty property damage to go around, none of it is wasted. The chase and fight scenes are already impressive, but cameras tracking the actors and quick, choppy editing give the scenes more kinetic energy, making them feel stronger and more fluid. Additionally, these scenes are often given a slow buildup before they occur, often with a bang meant to—successfully, I might add—surprise viewers and keep them invested in the story.

            All the players of this game are at their top form: Chris Evans continues to imbue Cap with his essential goodness even as he shows more vulnerability and doubt in some other instances. Scarlett Johansson is a good fit for the sassy, irreverent Romanoff and a good foil for Evans. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Fury, and Robert Redford makes his Marvel debut as Alexander Pierce, a rather flat character that Redford still makes more mysterious and cunning. Anthony Mackie as Wilson has the everyday charm and humor needed to balance out the somewhat mythical Captain.
Fans will get this reference...
            And of course, who could forget the titular Soldier himself? Sebastian Stan doesn’t have much of a speaking role here, but he’s still such an imposing force on the screen that he doesn’t have to speak a lot (the slo-mo camera and high-contrast help in creating the terrifying persona). Strong, confident, and relentless, Stan as the Soldier is a lot like the Terminator, except with fewer lines and no titanium endoskeleton.
             Add in an excellent musical score by composer Henry Newman, and you have a film that’s going to be high at the box office for quite some time. With the impressive stunts, good acting, and deep story (for a Marvel film), Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just Marvel’s best film yet; it might very well be one of the best films of the year.

Final score: 9 shields out of 10. Director: Anthony and Joe Russo. Writer: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, and Hayley Atwell, with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Film review: "Divergent" better than expected but still mediocre

            I don’t mind being surprised. Sometimes it’s nice to have your expectations thwarted. So you can imagine my surprise as I watched Divergent and found it wasn’t half-bad at all. Now, granted, it straddles the line somewhat between good and mediocre, but for what it has to offer, Divergent is a passable, if not formulaic, young-adult feature film.
            Based on the best-selling novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago divided into five factions, based on certain traits: Abnegation, the selfless government leaders (boy, is that paradoxical); Dauntless, the brave train-hopping soldiers; Erudite, the intelligent scientists and teachers; Amity, the peaceful farmers, nurses, and artists; and finally, Candor, the honest lawyers (again, paradoxical). For every young person’s 16th birthday, after taking an aptitude test for factions, they must go through a ceremony called the Choosing, where they can choose to stay in the faction they were born in or transfer to another faction. Those who fail to belong in any faction are “factionless,” which basically means they’re homeless.
            The film follows a one Beatrice Prior, born into Abnegation. Though content in Abnegation, she has always had an interest in Dauntless. When she goes through her aptitude test (a bizarre simulation involving mirrors, reflections of herself, and a seriously hacked-off canine), her tester reveals that she is the titular Divergent: having the attributes of more than one faction, Divergents are freethinkers who can’t conform to the social order and thus are considered threats.
            But you wouldn’t really know that based on the plot. Though Divergent has an interesting setting, the plot is quite haphazard. The “Beatrice as Divergent” plot thread is pushed almost immediately to the side and scarcely makes any sort of resurgence afterwards, which will make some viewers (especially those unfamiliar with the book) wonder what exactly is the problem with being Divergent. Then there are the growing rumors in Chicago about Abnegation being selfish and the Erudite complaining about it, and Beatrice—who later calls herself Tris—leaving Abnegation for Dauntless, and it makes you wonder what the writers want to focus on. What should generate suspense fails to do so in the end.
Four (Theo James) giving Tris (Shailene Woodley) some fighting advice.
            Still, when the writers do decide what to focus on, Divergent can be pretty entertaining. The second act of the film is comprised largely of Tris undergoing Dauntless training such as weapons training and hand-to-hand combat. These segments can be fun enough, particularly one scene where different Dauntless teams play a game of “capture the flag.”
            There’s quite a cast in Divergent, and all do a good job with their roles; for example, Jai Courtney gets the intimidation factor down with one the Dauntless teachers, and Zoe Kravitz as Tris’ best friend, Christina of Candor, carries her character’s snarky humor quite well. The focus, however, is on the two leads: Shailene Woodley as Tris and Theo James as Four (yes, like the number), Tris’ instructor and, yes, her later love interest as well. Woodley has undeniable charm and innocence as Tris and James, despite being a hard-as-nails instructor, is very likable and charismatic. The only real casting misstep is Kate Winslet, who is squandered talent in a largely absent and transparent villainous role.
            Camerawork is pretty standard; lots of establishing shots of Chicago, wide shots of bigger environments to provide setting, and tilted angles for growing action. However, there was one too many times where the viewer has to stare into Woodley’s face through multiple close-ups. It’s like the director couldn’t decide what to do what to a scene, so he thought it was a good idea to Woodley’s face whenever he got stuck. Ok, man, we get it; she’s beautiful. Now can you please give her and us some breathing room next time?
            Divergent as a novel has been compared more than once to the latest young-adult novel, The Hunger Games, with its emphasis on teenagers fighting—literally and metaphorically—against the established social order. There are definitely similar themes, but The Hunger Games film series is ultimately in a class of own. Despite some good acting and fun action scenes, Divergent doesn’t quite live up to those standards and remains instead a cut-and-dried young-adult film.

Final score: 5 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: Neil Burger. Writer: Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Local and satellite radio: Why I like both

     I drive a 2012 Kia Soul, and I currently have a subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio. And it's pretty cool. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of stations to flip through to listen music, comedy, news, or whatever I feel like at the time. Or if I want to stick to one station, there's little to no commercials, a perfect signal (except on a cloudy day), and I get to listen to the occasional live performance from some of my favorite bands. Overall, satellite radio is a blast.
     But every now and then, I like to flip to some of the local radio stations and listen them. "Why?" you're probably thinking. "You get non-stop music through Sirius all the time. Why would you go back to local channels?"
     It's true that Sirius keeps playing music on the channels that supply it. But local radio provides me something that satellite can't: a sense of community.
Yeah, this station is pretty sweet...
     The local radio station that I listen to the most is 90.9 KLRC, a Christian radio program. I often listen to it as I'm heading to school early in the morning. The program I listen to is called "The Good Morning Show with Mark & Keri," who are the two hosts. They still play a lot of music, but they also provide the latest news. For instance, when I listened to them today, they talked about a gun threat that was scrawled on the bathroom walls of Bentonville High School. The school went into lockdown, and fortunately, the kid confessed to the threat before anyone was hurt. The funny thing about this, though? When his parents were interviewed about it, they said they didn't own any guns. That could make it hard for that kid to carry out the threat!
     Of course, Mark and Keri also provide the weather forecast. But they also go a mile that I don't think any other stations do: They have a program called "Teamwork Traffic Update." Sounds corny, yeah, but it's actually quite helpful. Anybody who encounters some accident or slowdown on the roads can call the station, report it and they'll announce it on the radio. Not only is it helpful, but it also fosters that sense of community that KLRC is so passionate about.
...but these guys are cool, too.
     Speaking of that sense, often Mark and Keri will just talk about things that are going in their lives. For instance, Mark has been giving regular updates on his and his wife's adoption of a girl from the Ukraine--a process that should have been relatively simple, but has actually taken them over three to work out...and they still are working through it! But Mark has tried to remain positive about it and admitted it's taught him how to really be passionate about something and to fight for it--a trait all humans could learn. They'll bring stuff like that in the hopes of trying to give people a good start to their day.
     And you know what? It works. Not perfectly, but it does work. I often feel better with my day after listening to them.
     So I do appreciate Sirius radio, I really do (lifesaver on a road trip!). But local radio stations have people who are there in your community, have their own struggles, and have the chance to be honest and hopeful about them. Maybe we ought to listen to those guys more.