Sunday, November 30, 2014

Heartbreaking Honesty - "Brokeback Mountain" Review

Throughout my life, the film "Brokeback Mountain" was always treated like a joke. It was always seen as that silly, funny movie about two gay cowboys. There was an underlying sense of disgust and mockery in just about everything I heard about the film. When I was less educated and open about the LGBT community as a kid, I bought into the homophobic hype a bit, and always just assumed that the movie wasn't good. I gave the movie a watch for the first time, and as an adult, fierce advocate of the LGBT community today, I can happily say that "Brokeback Mountain" is a downright incredible film, rife with honest and realistic heartbreak and beauty.

The film stars Heath Ledger as Ennis, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, two men who stumble upon sexual advances after meeting during a mutual gig herding sheep. Eventually, the two men part ways after this summer of confusing love and lust, and go back to seemingly heteronormative lives. However, the rest of the movie shows that these lives lived away from each other only work so well; the two manage to get away from their wives for time with each other.

There is some debate as to exactly what sexual orientations Ennis and Jack fall into, but that debate is hardly relevant in regards to the quality of the film. Neither character identifies as anything and have sexual relationships with both genders to varying degrees of intimacy, making it hard to confidently apply a specific label. The horrifically homophobic times the two live in make it difficult to effectively explore their sexualities and come to a proper identity, thusly creating ambiguity for them and the viewer. What isn't ambiguous is that the two men are in love with each other, and that they can't embrace that love because of the hyper-masculine and massively intolerant society they are a part of. 

Ennis and Jack's love is done without Romanticism, and works perfectly in its own way. This is not a romance film filled with astounding, glorious choruses to particularly strong scenes, or anything like that. Every powerful bit of affection is a struggle that lasts for only so long. The relationship of these two men is not always pretty; in fact, it is often quite ugly. The atmosphere of hatred towards homosexuality is shown most directly when Ennis tells a harrowing story from his childhood about his bigoted father, and bleeds into the whole film. 

The two characters themselves are fleshed out and fascinating, aided by the great acting of Ledger and Gyllenhaal. The supporting cast is also great, with folks like Michelle Williams playing Ledger's chief female love interest, and Anne Hathaway playing that of Gyllenhaal. The movie is well-written, but simple pieces of performance go such a long way. Often times, body language and facial expression manage to get across more than words in "Brokeback Mountain," making the most intense and important scenes all the better. 

The titular Brokeback Mountain serves as simple symbolism, representing the unbridled comfort in being who they really want to be: in love with each other. I appreciate a film that is willing to reject the American norm and do a bleak ending, and that is exactly what "Brokeback Mountain" does. There is no happy ending to this same-sex romance, showing the realistic nature of such a relationship in this time period. The movie embodies the exact, hazy mixture of euphoria and confusion that LGBT people have historically lived with and continue to live with today. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

My History with GEAR Debate at RHS

~~ originally written for the 2013-2014 year of Ringgold High School's school paper, The Ram Pride ~~

In my sophomore year, I stepped up to a podium in Ringgold High School's library, unruffled my lined paper full of my sloppy notes as much as I could, and gave a speech filled with statistics about drugs and football stadiums. This was my first time participating in a GEAR-sponsored debate at RHS, and it was a rather in invigorating experience. It remained the same rewarding thrill every time I did it afterwards.

Anyway, I got up there and gave my rebuttal speech, and our team full of tenth graders beat a team full with upperclassmen. I did a good job, which is a belief supported by my peers as well as the GEAR instructor at the time. We even went on to the championship, because our team scored higher than any other affirmative team. My quality stayed the same in the championship round, save for apparently coming off as petty and rude, according to some peers as well as one of the judges. The topic was drug testing for student athletes, a topic I really didn't have much of an opinion on prior. As we researched the topic, I started to support the side I was defending, starting my streak of always debating on the side of an issue I agree with. 

I find debate much more satisfying if I am defending ideas I actually think are good. So, as the lefty liberal I am, I debated in favor of Barack Obama for president, in favor of marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania, against NSA spying, and finally just last April, in favor of a federal minimum wage increase to $10.10. It felt good to debate against the ruthlessly robotic Mitt Romney. It felt good to defend adults thrown in jail for putting a relatively harmless substance into their own bodies. It felt good debating against an over-reaching spying program that throws privacy out the window in exchange for a minuscule level of defense against terrorism. And finally, it felt good to throw my hat in the ring for a minimum wage increase from it's pathetically low amount of $7.25 to a much more reasonable number of $10.10. Debating in favor of my own opinion was even more gratifying when I knew that my opponents were also defending their own opinions; I know I was able to have that experience for all of my debates except for the marijuana one, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was my toughest debate.   

There are four people on each team, two doing what is called a constructive speech and the other two doing what is called a rebuttal speech. For my first two debates, I did a rebuttal speech, and for my last three I did a constructive. As the name implies, the rebuttals are speeches directly refuting the opposing team's arguments, and are done during the latter half of the debate. They are two minutes long, and are generally expected to be mostly put together during the actual debate because of the nature of the speech, although many don't follow this notion. I always did; I would write an opening sentence and a closing sentence prior, and then make bullet points during the debate. It certainly worked in my favor because both my peers and the judges took note. A rebuttal speech is much better when it is clear that the speaker is actually directly addressing what the opposing team said, rather than guessing in a speech written before hand.    

Because of how the program is structured, the constructive speakers are typically seen as more important than the rebuttal speakers. I have a hard time avoiding running my mouth and love attention, so I much preferred this route. Constructive speakers give a three-minute speech expected to be pre-written (although some very rarely speak off the cuff), are cross-examined by an opposing constructive speaker for two minutes, and then cross-examine the other opposing constructive speaker for two minutes. I have been passionate about writing ever since I was in sixth grade, so I always wrote a very good speech. My first time, I had a hard time on the cross-examination (we faced a very good team and were perhaps overly confident given the topic of weed legalization), but the two debates afterwards, I think it is safe to say that I did a positively great job on the crosses. The audiences' reactions were a bit animated in their support of me during these crosses, and the judges we're immensely positive. My opponents sure didn't like me after a cross, though, which I think is lovely. 

I suppose I have some advice. When cross-examining, address your opponent in the form of a question as much as possible. This forces them to address exactly what you want them to address, leaving them little room to respond with some other point. When your opponent is very weak on a certain point, it works wonders to ask a solid question, and then simply let them talk for all to hear. You must come off as dominant over your opponent to the audience and the judges during crosses; this means politely but firmly finishing your sentences when they try to interrupt. Crosses are all about looking good and making your opponents squirm. When it comes to the constructive speeches, I'd say the first speaker's speech should be more focused on a more emotional, moral argument, and the second speaker's should be focused on a heavier, statistic-laden argument. This eases the audience and judges into your side, first pulling them in and then affirming the position. And again on rebuttals, please don't pre-write; it misses the point entirely, although judges tend not to be nearly as harsh on this as they should be. 

The astoundingly low participation for the last debate is alarming to me; there were only two teams entered (usually there is around at least six), and a comparatively small audience. Two of the three judges were also chosen the day of the debate. If things keep going down this path, I fear the program won't even exist anymore, which would be a huge shame on the school. But since I am graduating this year, making sure the program is strong is a job that falls on the 2014-15 school year of faculty and students. 

All I can do is remember my history with the GEAR debate program; it's a pleasant thing for me to do. I loved my experiences participating in this program. Throwing on a nice suit and sneakers, feeling good about defending my ideals, and flexing the writing and speaking skills I am so keen on keeping sharp were always a joy. Whenever I'm arguing with friends about politics or about the fairness of my play-style in a video game or about the new item at McDonalds in the future, I'll think back on my times shutting down my opponents in my high school debates. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Loud Optimism - "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Review

One of the most exciting things about 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man" was the fun garnered from its fantastic portrayal of protagonist Peter Parker's alter-ego as a strongly confident, wise-cracking goofball. The sequel, aptly titled "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," has an important theme at its heart that it takes seriously, as well as its fair share of drama, but the movie as a whole takes that fun from the first and catapults it into a loudly joyous and optimistic experience. This is the chief reason why this movie, despite big problems with the two major villains, succeeds as a very good ride.  

After a mildly dull and shakey-cam filled (albeit compelling in the long-run) opening scene about Peter's parents, the audience is treated to an incredible action sequence filled with awe, humor, and seamless set-up. Spider-Man's web-swinging looks better than it ever has in the film medium, with lots of elegant acrobatics, first-person points of view, and cool slow-motion. The titular web-head also spits out a ton of hilarious one-liners and taunts the bad guys in his signature cocky, goofy fashion. A super powers-less bad guy played by Paul Giamatti gives an incredibly fun performance filled with exaggerated screaming and meat-headed mannerisms, aided by neat zoom-in shots of his screaming, pudgy face. It is so much unabated, pure fun; this same kind of fun finds its way to a healthy portion of this film, even just through funny dialogue when there isn't any action going on. The viewers are also treated to a quick but totally effective conversation on the street between Spidey and new character Max Dillon, who later turns into Electro. 

Dillon is a compelling character, incredibly well-acted by Foxx. Dillon is deeply troubled psychologically, with an intense inferiority complex. It's played for laughs, through his mad, bumbling social failings, but it's also effective on a higher level. Dillon develops an obsession with Spider-Man that makes him dangerous when he stumbles upon the power of control over electricity through a freak accident at Oscorp. This makes Dillon a wholly sympathetic character, which again, Foxx portrays wonderfully. The actor's skill seen in his silly comedic work as well as his more dramatic work in stuff like "Django Unchained" allows him to pull off a nuanced, lovable little train wreck.

It's a darn shame that they give up on the character towards the end of the movie. It's also a shame that time is taken away from him to develop a pretty crappy Green Goblin character. 

Dane Dehaan plays Harry Osborn, a friend to Peter and a higher-up in Oscorp after his father passes away; this character is poorly acted and feels out of place, only redeeming itself slightly whenever he is decked out in the aesthetically-pleasing Goblin get-up. Harry is characterized as intimidating throughout much of the movie and the writing is fine in that regard, but Dehaan simply doesn't pull it off. His performance is weak and doesn't grab for attention. The character is also jarringly thrusted into a close friendship with Peter, and has an overly simple development that makes the stealing of screen-time from Foxx's character criminal. Both characters are lazily brushed aside at the end to save for further use in sequels, leaving a complete absence of closure for both of them. There was thematic potential for Foxx's character as well as Dehaan's character to tie into the overall theme in a much closer way, but that is abandoned. These stumbles form a big gash at this movie's quality. 

It really is a shame, because there are so many fantastically good things to this movie. There is a large amount of character drama in this movie for Peter Parker in his romantic life, with his aunt, and in dealing with his dead parents. Andrew Garfield reprises his role as Parker and does the same quirky, slick, great performance as before. His romantic chemistry with Emma Stone's   Gwen Stacey is remarkable, no doubt helped by the actors' real-life relationship together. Their struggle is dramatic in a way that comes full-circle with the theme of the role of Spider-Man. Sally Fields has already proven herself as an incredible actress and her performance in this movie doesn't stray from that. There is one scene in particular in which she gives a powerful, teary-eyed speech about her love for Parker. The drama with Parker maddeningly worrying and obsessing over the kinds of people his parents were effectively adds to the Spider-Man mythos in an original way, and also increases the level of adversity the character has to face in a good way. 

That is what is really special about "The Amazing Spider-Man 2:" Parker has a tortured sole and has to deal with a lot of heavy drama, but the movie simply uses that to make the joyous optimism even more palpable. Sure, he has clue what he is doing with his girlfriend, but he is still able to stop criminals and have the city of New York cheer him on. Sure, there is an awfully dark and sad thing that, after lots of harrowing foreshadowing, finally happens at the film's climax, but the last scene builds it all back up. After a tear-inducing scene with a kid showing bravery inspired by Spider-Man, our hero gets right back to fighting the good fight, giving hope to regular people trying to do their best and live happily. 

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" stumbles in big ways, but it does something very well that most superhero movies don't; its loud positivity and optimism convinces that maybe everything is going to be okay. Thanks to that, I'd say it's a very good movie. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

S456 ARCHIVES: "Guardians of the Galaxy" Trailer Releases Online

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

On Feb. 19, 2014, Marvel Studios put out the first trailer for the upcoming superhero film "Guardians of the Galaxy," which is set to release on Aug. 1, 2014. The movie stars Chris Pratt of "Parks and Recreation" fame as Peter Quill, along with others such as Vin Deisel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon.

The trailer has a stark focus on comedy, with a myriad of jokes, as well as on science-fiction, with its setting in space.  A simple plot is established in the trailer: Peter Quill, taking on the name Star-Lord, along with his team of misfit superheroes, steals an important object that villain Ronan wants to get his hands on.

This film, directed by James Gunn, is another movie in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" Marvel has been crafting since 2008, starting with "Iron Man." Each movie in this line takes place in the same fictional universe; all of the movies interconnect with each other.

The Guardians of the Galaxy has existed as a team in Marvel's line of comic books since 1969, first appearing in "Marvel Super-Heroes" #18. The team got its own comic book series in 1990 called "Guardians of the Galaxy," which lasted 62 issues. This series was relaunched in 2008, and then ended again after 25 issues. A second relaunch occurred in 2013, and as of right now, the series is still going with over 10 issues already released.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is not a well-known property, but Marvel Studios' track record is financially successful. "Avengers" made $200.3 million in just its first weekend and is the third-highest grossing film of all-time, and "Iron Man 3" was the highest-grossest movie of 2013 as well as the fifth-highest grossing movie of all-time.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nick Greco's Top Five Favorite Comedians - Interview

Photo pulled from Greco's Facebook
It is well-known among his peers that twelfth grade Ringgold High School student Nick Greco loves stand-up comedy. Not only does he pour tons of time into watching stand-up online and on television, but he also aspires to be a comedian himself. He loves a wide variety of different styles of stand-up, so in turn, he loves many different comedians. After a talk, his top five favorite comedians were revealed. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Dave Chappelle
After a lot of thinking he was ready to say his first performer, the loud-mouthed Dave Chappelle. “As a child I remember always watching him,” Greco said. He said that four to five years ago he started watching his stand-up. He also enjoys the comedian’s show, “The Dave Chappelle Show,” having said it is “about the same [quality].” He said he likes Chappelle because “he appeals to a wide variety of people.”

2. Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks
He likes the politically-motivated and often dark Bill Hicks a lot, as well. Hicks does “philosophical comedy” that is “truthful,” Greco said. “He had really good material” that was “never the same,” he went on to say. One bit he remembers in particular is from the “early 90s,” according to him, about Jay Leno. Greco explained that the bit would poke fun at Leno’s strange behavior and lack of talent, despite success. Hicks was explained as “somewhat like” the next performer he discussed…

3. George Carlin
George Carlin, a comedian best known for his talent as an intricate wordsmith, was described by Greco as very personally inspirational. “[Carlin] makes you want to do standup comedy,” Greco said. Greco described Carlin’s quality as “very consistent” throughout the many years he performed. He especially enjoys Carlin’s bits on “euphemisms” and something called “free-floating hostility.” “He went too early,” Greco said, even though he does realize that the man lived a long life.

4. Eddie Murphy
The next comedian he expressed his love for was Eddie Murphy, a talent who got his start on “Saturday Night Live.” Greco said he “like[s] his really early movies,” such as “Beverly Hills Cops” and “Coming to America.” The special “Delirious” is one of his favorites, he also said. One bit that he thought back on was about Murphy’s “uncle’s wife looking like a gorilla,” he explained. “Also an influence,” Greco said.
Dane Cook

5. Dane Cook
The most controversial pick from Greco is Dane Cook, a very popular comedian surrounded by multiple claims of plagiarism. He said he “never really noticed” the joke stealing even after looking into it, but noted it would be a “big ethical issue” if he did do so. He described Cook as “very relatable” and “very consistent,” and said “I like that he’s very loud.” “I’d like to see more of him,” he concluded.

Greco’s love for standup comedy is certainly apparent. It was clear that he could have discussed more comedians he loves, but these are his top five favorites. These men have a special place in his heart, because of the laughs, memories and inspiration they provided for him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze (Video Game) - Review

Remember E3 of 2010, when Microsoft and Sony scrambled to get us to care about their motion control peripherals, while Nintendo mostly ignored its own to show off fun video games? One of the couple brand new games that were announced for Wii was Donkey Kong Country Returns. I was absolutely enamored by this game, developed by Retro Studios of Metroid Prime fame. Returns was an absolutely enthralling experience for me, with its stiff challenge and frantic platforming sequences. Naturally, I was excited when the sequel, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, was announced for Wii U. I've played the new game extensively, and I can safely say that it's more of the same, but nothing more.

Tropical Freeze begins and ends with stunningly detailed and meticulously animated CG cut-scenes that bookend a mind-numbingly simple and goofy story that does its job of adding a touch of purpose to the adventure. An army of no-good Penguins freeze the jungle the Kongs live in as well as the surrounding area. They must be stopped, and bananas must be collected along the way to feed into Donkey Kong's dangerously strong addiction. It's vague, but it's fun. 

The visuals are great in Tropical Freeze. Stylistically, it's pretty conventional, but incredibly cute, colorful, and lively. Additionally, from a technical standpoint, Tropical Freeze does much to impress. Enemy designs are adorably antagonistic, and a high level of detail doesn't get in the way of a convivial, cartoon aesthetic. The game just looks fun, but with a bit of a rougher look than something like Kirby, and even Super Mario. The score does its job but didn't manage to capture me in a big way, save for a few tracks. Sound effects are silly and often provoke a smile or even a laugh, and the dynamic animations for especially the playable characters are quite enjoyable to look at.

What makes Tropical Freeze enthralling is more or less what made Returns enthralling; there is an intense level of finesse and refinement to a big collection of levels rife with inventive concepts. The first level of the third world is my favorite; it features a bunch of moving, cardboard animals with poles and vines attached to them, which makes for some exciting jumping about, all far from the ground. Other levels take advantage of sacs of water to be thrown at fires and bombs to be used to blow up wood; both of these things add a level of strategy that doesn't bog down gameplay like similar concepts in puzzle/platformers. It took a world or two before the gameplay felt notably fresh, but once it happens, it really does happen. This is a challenging yet never frustrating video game with a multitude of moments in which the player must quickly rush through a level, fueled by the fear of impending death from behind. Even during segments in which you're not forced along, there is a certain whimsy to how elegantly one can zip through these tough environments. 

The whole game gives off the stark impression that Retro Studios put a lot of passionate effort into this project. Small but important fixes to this game over the last are evident, most notable amongst them the control options that drop motion controls. Levels are packed with little visual quirks and each include (addictive) online leaderboard-enabled time trials, and the game boasts a myriad of cleverly-hidden collectibles and secret levels. Unfortunately, none of the few noticeable changes to the formula here elevate this game over the last one on Wii, despite clear potential. There are a few new companion characters to play with and they're all an equal joy to use, but it doesn't do much for the overall quality. Every now and then, the camera slides into a perspective different from the typical side-view, which could have been what this game needed to push it over that line if it wasn't used so rarely. 

Super Mario Galaxy was an incredible, revolutionary game when it came out in 2007, and magically enough, 2010's Super Mario Galaxy 2 managed to be better than just "more of the same" because the challenge and density of new concepts were both markedly superior. Tropical Freeze doesn't do the same thing over Returns, which sucks, but only to a point. It's essentially a big, graphically-updated expansion pack. Because of that, the achievement of Tropical Freeze isn't remarkable, but it sure is a blast. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

S456 ARCHIVES: A Breath of Fresh Air: Gravity - Film Review

~~ the following is a piece I did for the 2013-14 school year of "The Ram Pride," Ringgold High School's school newspaper ~~

A few astronauts, namely a space-rookie named Ryan Stone and a space-veteran named Matt Kowalski, are calmly working on a damaged satellite. Regular small-talk is exchanged. The situation escalates until soon enough an alarming amount of debris crashes into the satellite, sending the rookie spinning out of control, tethered to a detached hunk of metal. She begins to panic more and more as she becomes less and less in control of her fate. She drifts into space, fully detached. 

The premise of Gravity, a new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso CaurĂ³n, is compelling, and thankfully the film's execution is equally so. This movie is a terrifyingly plausible display of the human psyche when put together with the scares of space. This isn't a movie about mind-boggling future technology, or anything mysterious that may or may not be waiting out there for us to discover. This is a movie about the horror of the known, present and realistic. And it's fantastic.

What's presented here is a very effective mixture of thriller and science-fiction. The dialogue and acting is natural and believable, making these characters come to life. It's when these actors play their characters as horrified in one scene, and then nervously comical and chipper in another, that Gravity most shows just how unsettling it is. The movie looks stunning from a technical standpoint, with both methodical floating and exciting carnage which engross in whichever way each portion of the film calls for. Sound is also smartly played around with to tug on heart-strings and shoot up heart-rates. Seeing the film in 3D is so mesmerizing that I can honestly say it's the best experience I've had of the gimmick. The movie is aesthetically masterful. 

Gravity has a clear, focused story that it wants to tell, and sticks to it. Every second is relevant, delivering a plot free of fluff. Typical Hollywood conventions are not stuffed in here for length and easy-viewing; this is a unique film. It's structured like a single, long sequence, it takes its time on even small things when it needs to, and doesn't feel the need to align itself with expectations. The movie is constantly unpredictable and surprising. It's a breath of fresh air

By the time the credits roll, Gravity triumphs as a faithfully succinct tale of isolation, determination, and horror. Occasionally it gets a bit hokey, revealing perhaps a tiny overabundance of pride and confidence from the director. But ultimately, this stems from the fundamental truth that what he put together is special. Gravity is sublime.