Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater.

Questions of the “What does it all even mean?” variety have certainly filled that discussion surrounding the latest offering from Aronofsky, as he continues to experiment the decade after receiving renown and even awards recognition for “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

But pervading those “what” questions, suitably, have also been a spattering of “how” inquiries. As in, “How far is this movie, and Aronofsky, going to go?”

“mother!” may be vague, ambiguous even, but it certainly isn’t subtle. It’s unusual turn after unusual turn, and even if you don’t realize you’re beating beaten mercilessly in allegory, you known damn well you’re being clubbed in the senses with freakish, non-stop non-sequitor.

It’s hard to call the 2-hour film anything short of a curiosity. You can join in the ride if you want by simply absorbing what’s on screen. But that’s not where the fun lies, unless all you’ve ever wanted from your movies is an Eli Roth offering that has something to say.

First of all, if there’s any movie you should know the least about before going into, it’s this one. (You can rest easy if you’re reading this before your first viewing that no major or moderate spoilers will be found in these paragraphs.) Though Aronofsky certainly has a major story to re-tell through Jennifer Lawrence’s trials and tribulations, it’s much more fun to Reddit up on those theories afterwards.

That’s because “mother!”, for as much a sensory experience as it is (Sound Editing/Mixing Oscars could be in the…mix) is awash in symbolism and aforementioned allegory. So much so that it’s a hell of a time trying to unpack it all. It’s a cerebral drama in seemingly the most grotesque and barbaric of visions, but one that certainly has statements to be made.

There may be a method to this madness, and there absolutely is a message.

It’s a message that will become clearer and clearer to some in the audience as Lawrence and company descend into a very particular kind of hell in the movie’s final act. But that doesn’t mean other themes aren’t at play; I counted three or four potential subjects that Aronofsky could have been critiquing/conveying/toying with in the first 45ish minutes.

I won’t divulge them. That would detract from your experience. But let’s grab a beer and discuss them afterwards, because this is a movie that drips with so many semantics and manifestations of the world at its carnal worst that you’ll be trying to connect the two for days afterward, even if you convince yourself you were completely turned off by Aronofsky’s unrestrained imagination.

Not everything in “mother!” is vague. There are certain details that stand out as red flags, clues to remember for later. The cues of isolation. Lawrence’s white clothes contrasted against the darker attire of nearly everyone else. The house being its own character, in a more literal sense than you’d expect.

I’m almost sure that some of those details were placed intentionally by Aronofsky to throw us off his scent.

With all this talk of a film that is a hell-bent on going to hell and back to tell the story of (SUBJECT REMOVED TO REFRAIN FROM SPOILING) through extended metaphor, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that “mother!” is lethargic.

Far from it.

It makes you uncomfortable as hell, sure, and has been proudly marketed by Paramount as “The most controversial movie since ‘A Clockwork Orange’” (Mel Gibson would like a word). But in an age where it’s so easy to get lost in a dreamlike trance with the majority of studio films (See: Marvel Studios), why not counteract that with a bit of nightmare to jolt us awake in our seats?

At the very least, the production value of “mother!”, given its solitary setting and symbolically layered premise, is something to be admired. This is the most no-holds-barred example of studio filmmaking in as long as I can remember, and in an age where Disney is firing up-and-coming visionaries for not conforming to what they want in a “Star Wars” film, that kind of creative freedom should be embraced. Here, it’s an absolute rush.

Even when there’s certain parts where the audience is torn between being utterly horrified or guffawing out loud. “It affects everyone in a different way.” It sure, does.

And now, a matter of filmmaking etiquette that Aronofsky presents front-and-center with “mother!”: Does the fact that a movie necessitates repeat viewing diminish its authenticity?

Personally, I am already booking the seat for my next showing. I wanted to return to this world immediately after the credits rolled. Not because I could equate some of what I was seeing on-screen with cinematic glee, per se, but because there were almost certainly some details that I missed, and larger ones that I still just need to figure out.

It stays with you in that way. At least, it did for me. And if I decide to give up and Google Aronofsky’s meaning, then I’ll probably watch it a third time with a whole new mindset. And I’d expect I’ll be satisfied in a different way.

Some asides: Music is absent in “mother!”, with Aronofsky instead electing for pinpoint attention to sound. From teacups breaking to more supernatural auditory occurrences, those are the director’s reassurances that once the movie gets from 0 to 100 mph, it rarely dips below 85.

The film also entirely follows Lawrence. We’re not just seeing the experience through her eyes, we’re living it; the camera is attached to her, and for the amount of closeups Aronofsky shoots of her, it’s surprisingly never a frustration decision. Bardem is the more tantalizing of the two, but that’s a result of the writing more than anything else.

Michelle Pfeiffer is her usual darkly sultry self, and Ed Helms is fine as the couple’s first visitor. Revealing other cast members, though, would be giving away too much.

What? I meant what I said about going in knowing the bare minimum. And the most bare minimum information anyone needs to know is this is a batshit crazy director at his batshit craziest.

Roger Ebert once said, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” If that’s the true barometer for a film’s success, then “mother!” might be the best film of the year.

At the very least, it’s an absorbing, boldly made and deftly innovative movie that challenges viewers in ways we should want to be challenged. If we got two or three “mother!s” every year, Hollywood would be better off.

And so would we.

 

 

“mother!” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Helms, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

2017

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Review: ‘It’ a thrilling, if flawed, big-budget horror offering

There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.

Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.

The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character.

Enter: IT, Stephen King’s iconic (aren’t they all?) story of a killer clown preying on the children of Small Town, USA, and the group of Losers who take it upon themselves to destroy him.

King’s novel is a dense opus spanning decades, but director Andy Muschietti, along with the film’s four writers, deserve credit for telling a concise, first chapter of a tale that is also the most entertaining horror offering of the year.

The chemistry between the aforementioned Losers – a ragtag group of outcast teens with their own distinct personalities – is a marvel. The story revolves around their conflict with Pennywise, but the minutiae of their relationships with each other is as close as Hollywood has come to reviving the spirit Stand By Me. Jaeden Liberher is particularly excellent as the stuttering de-facto leader Bill, while Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame is a riot as living, breathing comic relief.

Sophia Lillis also puts in a breakthrough turn as Bev Marsh, though her story gets underwhelming when she becomes just another damsel in distress.

When Pennywise isn’t dominating the screen, it’s these kids we’re with, and it’s company that we’re more than happy to be a part of. They’re written adequately, bouncing back and forth between the typical teen angst and dealing with a killer clown. It’s a faithful compromise, so long as you can get past the occasional overindulgence on dick jokes and vulgar quips (the film’s R-rating isn’t solely for the scares).

They also all have their respective baggage that elevates their respective roles from would-be heroes to we-just-want-to-find-a-way-to-prove-ourselves-ers.

And then there’s Bill Skarsgård, who updates Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise with his own dastardly interpretation that is as creepy as it is addicting to witness. You can choose to cover your eyes if you want, but you’d be missing out on the movie’s best scenes.

The very best of those scenes might just be his introduction, a first greeting with the paper sailboat-toating Georgie – Bill’s younger brother who catapults the story into motion – that is equal parts tantalizing and brilliant. In about 90 seconds Skarsgård goes through the gamut of his sinister clown’s personality, from the cutesie-creepy laugh to glaring eyes that scream, “Hey, Georgie, get the hell out of there.”

Everything about those 90 seconds is perfect; from the “innocent” hello to its jaw-dropping ending, it’s a standout sequence of any film this year.

And unfortunately it’s Skarsgård’s only real opportunity at acting the part. From there on (until the final showdown), the CGI takes over, and Skarsgård – now having established Pennywise’s one bloodthirsty goal – is relegated to leering out from behind corners and whispering his victim’s names as if we are supposed to mistake the sound for wind.

It’s a bit of a frustrating turn, but doesn’t detract completely from the impact of when he is on screen. The most fun parts of the film are when he’s stalking the kids behind blood-red balloons, stalking his prey before pouncing on them in a standout haunted house thrill ride that proves the time is ripe for a live-action Monster House.

IT isn’t keep-you-awake-all-night frightening, but what it makes up for in sheer, Conjuring-esque terror it makes up for in visual flair and creativity, like a Jack-in-a-box that reveals a puppet much larger than anything the contraption is expected to hold.

Where IT really thrives, though, is in bringing to life the world of the homely-but-threatening town of Derry, Maine. Never before has a Stephen King world been brought to life so faithfully on an aesthetic level, right down to the sense that someone is always watching our lovable Losers.

When a theater marque advertising “The Nightmare on Elm Street 5” makes an appearance, you have to wonder if any other movie ever screens there.

That atmosphere only serves to heighten the sense of dread and stakes for the kids, who connect the dots in the town’s history en route to confronting whatever “it” is that is making children go missing. There’s an enticing bit of mythos that is teased, if not gently established, that hopefully is explored further in the sequel so that we can get a clearer picture of how much a force of evil Pennywise has been for years.

While the world of Derry is threaded with morbid undertones, it’s the occasional lapse in writing that keeps it from being one of the top three or four Stephen King adaptations (just being in the conversation is probably enough with how much the author has contributed to the genre). While the film for the most part balances its scares and humor well, at a handful of points the tonal shift is so jarring it’s as if the audience has entered the world of parody.

Aside from that, the ending leaves a little to be desired. It’s an entertaining confrontation between the kids and Pennywise, one enhanced by the aforementioned cinematic flair that helps make it a legitimate horror blockbuster. But when the stakes have been raised so high at various points in the previous hour-and-a-half, you can’t help but feel like the writers missed an opportunity to go for a dynamic, go-for-broke finish.

As a result, once the credits roll, it feels like perhaps the ride has been over for longer than we thought; we’ve just been sitting in the car waiting, craving another drop.

Still, those are minor complaints for what is entertaining big-budget horror. IT doesn’t worry about treading any lines between cheap thrills and story because it understands there doesn’t have to be a territorial divide, and its world-building is so brilliantly enticing – a wonder to see played out onscreen –  that it makes the wait for the sequel worth it.

Hundreds fill Civic Plaza in support of undocumented students, DACA policy following announcement it would be “rescinded”

By David Lynch

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Now faced with the very real possibility that some of their friends, family or even themselves will lose some of the benefits they were granted under the DACA policy, hundreds flocked to Civic Plaza in downtown Albuquerque Tuesday afternoon in a show of solidarity.

Supporters of all ages and demographics – from UNM professors to high school students to retired citizens – were on hand for the rally, organized by the New Mexico Dream Team. It followed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ official announcement that the Donald Trump administration was going to rescind DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, affecting nearly 800,000 children and young adults across the country who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age.

That announcement was made hours before the rally, but members of the NM Dream Team said planning started long before that.

“Two or three weeks ago,” said rally organizer Manuel Delarosa. “Whether or not DACA was rescinded, we were all going to continue to fight, regardless of the situation, and stand up for our immigrants.”

Delarosa added he was surprised at the turnout at the day’s events, which included walkouts at nearly two dozen Albuquerque metro high schools, and a rally at UNM where he said “it looked like it was the school there (participating).”

There are almost 7,000 New Mexicans in the DACA program, according to the ACLU.

David Lynch

Many of the speakers at Civic Plaza addressed the crowd in Spanish, amid chants of “Immigrants are here to stay” and “Trump, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” (Translation: “Trump, listen up, we’re here to fight.”) that reverberated through dozens of energetic local high school students.

Others in the crowd held signs with messages such as “Dreaming is American” and “DACA Kids Are Our Kids.”

One of the rally’s speakers said she had been “preparing for this day since Nov. 9.”

The reasoning behind the decision

Soon after Sessions’ announcement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke to media in Washington, D.C. about Trump’s decision, one she said he “wrestled” over.

Sanders said Trump “took the responsible and constitutional step” when he announced “the administration would be phasing out the DACA program over the next two years.”

The alternative, Sanders said, would have been “an immediate shutdown” of the program by federal courts. Instead, the president is now handing the baton to Congress, to accomplish what Sanders said should have been done when Barack Obama was still in office.

“There were two, and only two, real options to choose from,” she said from the White House Press Briefing Room.

She added that Obama bypassed federal law by announcing the DACA program, which has allowed thousands of young, undocumented individuals to get jobs and apply for college.

The program does not, however, provide a route to citizenship in its current form.

Sanders also battled against rhetoric that the announcement puts a target on the wrong people, saying the decision is the responsible course of action.

Current DACA recipients will not lose their status immediately, but the announcement means no new applicants for the program will be accepted. Sanders said the decision answers a call by U.S. citizens for the government to do more to protect their jobs and secure their borders.

‘These are just kids’

Still, some are confused about the logic behind the announcement that DACA would be phased out.

While the first reports that Trump was planning to roll back DACA emerged over the weekend, some supporters at the rally said they were perplexed that those who had no say in having come to the U.S. were being targeted.

“These are just kids,” said Deborah Marez-Baca. “They were babies, they were just children…have some compassion.”

Marez-Baca said while the news is dire for some, it’s an opportunity for their community to show they are not alone. She said even if someone isn’t affected by the decision, they can’t afford to stay apathetic.

“Everybody has to do what they’re comfortable with and what’s in their heart, but you can’t sit silent anymore,” she said. “We’re past that.”

David Lynch

Clement Jose, one of a group of UNM medical students that were at the rally, said some of his closest friends are undocumented immigrants, and that they were on his mind as he listened to the speakers.

“One of the things we really focus on (in medical school) is having empathy, and removing DACA literally goes against everything we believe in,” Jose said.

Mayoral candidate Gus Pedrotty was also downtown, and he said while the news is unfortunate, it isn’t completely unexpected.

“When news like this comes, it’s always heartbreaking, but the heartbreak feels different now because its unsurprising. We’re so lucky here to get to have communities that can show us how to support them, and to show us who they are and how needed they are,” Pedrotty said.

Support from educators

Support for undocumented students from the University of New Mexico goes all the way up to its administrators. This week, UNM President Chaouki Abdallah – serving in the interim as the process of finding a new president churns on – sent a letter to students and staff affirming the university’s support.

The letter states that administration has established an “Undocu-Task Force to determine long-term support and resources.”

“Our undocumented students and their families have demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of tremendous adversity,” Abdallah states in the letter. “You belong here. At UNM, we value each and every one of our students because each of us defines all of us.”

The Associated Students of UNM – the undergraduate student governing body – also passed a resolution last week supporting undocumented students and calling for the university to extend in-state tuition and the lottery scholarship to those students, so long as they fulfill the necessary requirements.

Jesus Costantino, an English professor at UNM, said he was at the rally in support of his students who have come out as undocumented.

“Just to confront that reality, I’m sure, would take far more than most people are capable of to stay positive,” he said.

Kelli Lycke, a teacher’s assistant at UNM, has only been in Albuquerque for six weeks, but says she has already noticed the community’s propensity to come together for its various denizens.

That diversity was on display on a small scale Tuesday evening.

“As a new transplant to this city, I am continually amazed at its pride and diversity,” she said. “There’s a unity in the culture of Albuquerque which makes it so enchanting.”

David Lynch

Next steps

Going forward, Delarosa said priority for the NM Dream Team is putting pressure on a Congress that has a loaded agenda in the short-term, including approving aid for those affected by Harvey and health care reform.

“We want to push for something bigger, maybe in the future for residency, and then, of course, from there, for citizenship,” Delarosa said.

Otherwise, if a majority of DACA students and adults find themselves forced to go back to a country many have never been to since they were babies, he said the country as a whole loses out.

“Not just them, but (it affects) everybody,” Delarosa said. “This doesn’t just benefit us to work (and) to study. It benefits the country.”

Review: ‘War’ stunningly caps a monumental ‘Apes’ trilogy

It’s hard to imagine a scenario decades down the road where the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy is neglected to be brought up when discussing the best films of the 2010s.

In an era dominated by the superhero genre, where the merging of smart cinema with popcorn fare yields more misses than bullseyes, these Apes movies – Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn and now War – have managed to strike the most high-wire acts of tonal balances, providing a go-to how-to on how to reboot a classic franchise in the process.

At the same time, it’s elevated Andy Serkis and the potential of motion capture/CGI performances to a higher level of stardom that continues to be underappreciated over the franchise’s run.

With War for the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves has finished what can be confidently called the best sci-fi trilogy since the original Star Wars (go ahead and find a better one, I dare you) and one of the best outright trilogies of the 21st century.

Just look at how far these movies have come since Rise was announced nearly a decade ago. That film would star James Franco in the reboot of a decades-old science fiction cornerstone that has struggled to stay relevant with its admittedly goofy and outdated premise.

It wasn’t supposed to work.

But Rise, it turned out, was better than it had any right to be. A fun summer movie warning of the consequences of playing God amid big-scale set pieces and a new vehicle through which we were rooting against our own kind in Serkis’ monumental Caesar.

For the follow-up, Rupert Wyatt handed off directing duties to Matt Reeves. As a result, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the franchise’s Dark Knight; a much darker sequel that wasn’t afraid to raise the limits of a concept we thought we were familiar with.

In this case, talking freakin’ apes.

Dawn’s atmosphere was one infused with a sense of paranoia, with the apes and humans questioning what might happen after they discover each others’ existence in a world where it seemed not much more could be lost.

In War, that world now lies on a proverbial foundation of moral ambiguity, one that says (at times pretty explicitly) that now matter how strong we think we are as a species, we’re always at nature’s mercy.

It’s a concept that was explored in the previous two movies, but here it’s front and center. It’s the very nature (heh) of the “war” in question. It’s here to wreck shop.

The start of War parallels that of Rise. The apes are again minding their own business out of sight, supposedly out of mind of what is left of the human race. Only this time, their home isn’t in an enormous tree; they dwell in caves and man-built (ape-built) trenches of sorts.

The apes now know full well the antagonistic capabilities of their former captors, and the sense of dread their mere existence gives them. The fearsome Colonel (Woody Harrelson) has is out to hunt the apes, specifically targeting Caesar who has been in hiding.

That leads to an explosive start for the film, a battle between soldiers and apes that is so well-choreographed and envisioned that it rivals the first 10 minutes of any movie so far this year.

In the aftermath of this and an ensuing, thrilling confrontation with the Colonel himself, Caesar decides it’s time for the apes to leave to a new home much more isolated from the increasingly antagonistic humans.

But Caesar has to get his revenge first.

Among this trilogy’s many accomplishment is the writing and development of its signature character and the many roles he plays, from Messiah to father to Moses and beyond. There have been many points for the scripts to stumble along the way, to turn Caesar into an apathetic anti-hero hell-bent on revenge, or one that makes decisions increasingly at odds with his primary mission: to keep his family safe.

It would have deviated jarringly from his persona in Rise as someone who recognizes his species’ potential as one that, quite simply, deserves more than captivity.

Instead, his character has been handled with the perfect amount of confidence and grace, retaining his humanity while War’s actual humans descend more and more into primitive territory, in ways both subtle and horrifically distinct.

Harrelson, for instance, plays the menacing personality of the ostensibly stock character of the Colonel well enough early on, but it’s when we learn his backstory and motives that we come to understand how desperate the human race has become, and how inevitable its end is.

By the end of trilogy, everything comes full circle; the more sympathetic and level-headed apes are well on their way to becoming the advanced civilization we know from the classic films.

On the way to that conclusion is a thrilling and poignant adventure, one that transcends its sci-fi roots into full-fledged drama that truly tests the limits of its PG-13 rating. Fun isn’t the primary goal here. War for the Planet of the Apes is harrowing and emotional, downright disturbing at times, endearingly uplifting at others.

While the titular concept of war doesn’t play out as many may expect, Reeves explores its complexities and morally gray nature as well as the genre can. A tantalizing soundtrack, one that should be in contention come February, helps cement the morbid, desperate tone.

The film’s new additions to the franchise are scene-stealers. Steve Zahn’s zany, sympathetic “bad ape” provides his own level of intrigue as well as the film’s comedic relief. And, in a year where we already got a terrific mute performance from a young actress in Logan’s Dafne Keen, Amiah Miller provides one that may be even better as the young human that is the best reminder Caesar has of his sympathetic caretaker from Rise.

 And Serkis, of course, along with the technical wizards behind the scenes, continues to blur the line between CGI and reality in a performance so captivating that he cements Caesar as one of the all-time iconic characters of the genre.

There’s so much to admire about War and the trilogy as a whole that it’s hard not praise each component individually. But perhaps the best compliment I can bestow upon it is how mich confidence it has in rewriting the rules of various genres, from action in Rise to sci-fi in Dawn to downright drama with this final film.

For modern Hollywood to so consistently nail the broader philosophical reaches of its premise without venturing into full-on cheese territory – and without succumbing to the shadow of the 1968 original – with no big-name directors and the talents of only a couple A-list stars is an astounding achievement. Dawn and War, in particular, are so much more of a slow-burn than any Marvel movie dares to be, but the payoff is more significant.

The evolution of this trilogy, one that no one asked for or thought they wanted to see 10 years ago, from popcorn movie to biblical-level blockbuster is a marvel and an outlier in this age of cinema. Its messages are not to be ignored, having used the best that Hollywood’s technology has to offer to accomplish what the best entries in the sci-fi genre does – comment on our state as a human race, and what it can become if we’re not too careful.

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval

Directed by Matt Reeves

2017

2017: Surprises and storylines so far in movies

Welcome to (almost) August.

Well, ok, in the real world. But in the parallel cinematic universe that mirrors our own, it’s probably more accurate to say we’re coming up on the end of April as far as the movie year goes, what with most of the year’s best films to come as the weather gets cooler.

Nonetheless, 2017 has been supremely interesting for movies so far.

We got a 2018 Best Picture dark horse contender almost a full year early in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Following a series of misfires, DC finally gave us a film that is both a critical darling and box office smash in Wonder Woman. After La La Land invigorated the musical last year, Edgar Wright reinvented it with Baby Driver. And, of course, Marvel Studios keeps doing Marvel Studios things.

Seven months into the (real world) year, there’s been a lot to talk about, including surprises and things that turned out exactly the way we thought they would. Here’s just a brief recap.


Expectation: Logan a new kind of superhero film

If there’s one thing that hit the mark and, for the most part, met the immense amounts of hype that was built up for it, it’s Logan.

Ever since the first footage and trailer last year – which showed us that Hugh Jackman’s last turn as the iconic X-Man was going to be more of a grounded character study than perhaps any other comic book movie before it – fans were expecting a franchise gem from Jackman and director James Mangold.

For the most part, it delivered. (Read my complete thoughts on it here.) Jackman’s performance was compelling, the merciless embrace of the R-rating bloody satisfying and the ending ultimately fitting.

Not surprisingly, many fanboys have taken upon themselves to place Logan in the conversation for best comic book movie ever. At the very least, it represents the genre’s best chance at a Best Picture nomination since The Dark Knight.


Surprise: The rebirth of the spring movie season

Normally, February to April is considered a landfill of sorts for some of the worst movies. The only franchise that consistently profits from releasing entries during that span is the Fast and Furious movies.

Otherwise, it’s mostly spent waiting for May.

Not this year, though. In 2017, many studios decided to take a risk and release new movies during the spring when they otherwise might fill more seats in the summer. The first few months of this year saw the releases of Get Out, Logan, The Lego Batman Movie, John Wick: Chapter 2, Beauty and the Beast, Split and Life.

MORE: My review of The Lego Batman Movie

ALSO: My review of Life

And those were just the hits. Audiences also got A Cure for Wellness, Ghost in the Shell, Power Rangers and The Great Wall – movies that weren’t as successful but would have almost certainly been even more dead-on-arrival had they released during a busier summer movie season.

It was a welcome migration for studios to realize the potential of a spring movie season where box office royalty is up for grabs.

And not just profit, but award season potential as well. Zootopia, Ex Machina and The Grand Budapest Hotel represent recent spring releases that were able to sustain buzz all through the year en route to Oscar nominations and even wins.

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Whether 2017 is an outlier with the blossoming of the spring movie season remains to be seen, but at least in the short term it was a foreshadowing for the decidedly above-average year for film that 2017 would continue to be through the summer (and hopefully through its second half).

Speaking of summer…


Expectation: Wonder Woman is a success

You would have been on the money predicting that Wonder Woman would have been a hit with audiences and critics based on the fact alone that Zack Snyder isn’t involved.

The Amazonian superhero’s big screen debut as a cameo in last year’s dreary Batman v. Superman was easily the highlight of its bloated plot. And it’s impossible to ignore that 2017 is just about the perfect time for a genre standard-busting female hero to make waves in Hollywood.

And that’s just what it did upon its release. Buoyed by strong to quite strong direction at the hands of Patty Jenkins, a much more engaging premise than any other DCEU offering thus far and a Snyder-less action aesthetic, Wonder Woman not only got the stamp of approval from critics (92% on Rotten Tomatoes) but also wooed audiences (droves of them), to the tune of a $103 million opening weekend.

A wonder, indeed.


Surprise: Wonder Woman is the most successful movie of the summer

And, as it turns out, the biggest wonder of the summer.

While many would have predicted the film to be the DCEU’s biggest success story so far, most (including yours truly) would not have thought it had a chance at besting the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest Transformers movie or even perhaps Despicable Me 3 as THE  bonafide hit of the summer.

But that’s exactly what’s happening as the summer movie season winds down, with Wonder Woman having officially grossed more domestically than all of those listed, a crown it will most likely retain through the next month.

The main reason for its success: Remarkable word-of-mouth. While most blockbusters will drop off by 50 to 60 percent or more after opening weekend, Wonder Woman has dropped off by no more than 43 percent in every ensuing weekend since its release.

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By the beginning of July – a month after the film opened – it was still earning nearly $16 million over the weekend. By comparison, BvS earned a meager $5.5 million a month after its release. An immense 70 percent dropoff in that film’s second weekend didn’t help its financial longevity, and signified that the hype that was built up for it wasn’t being met, and moviegoers should spend their money elsewhere.

With Wonder Woman, it’s the opposite. Now the top-grossing female-directed action movie ever, it’s already raked in nearly $70 million more than the entire run of BvS (while costing half as much to make) and even has DC brass rethinking who the real leader of Justice League is.

Oh, and the most profitable female superhero of all-time is now garnering Oscar buzz as well.


Expectation: Marvel’s gonna Marvel

Every year it seems like we get a Marvel film (or two, or three) that is worthy of being called one of the best offerings from the studio to date.

And then you sit to actually think about it, and eventually remember, “Wait. Well, there is the first Iron Man which is still quality nearly 10 years later…the original Avengers is solid as well, as is the first Guardians…every Cap movie also deserves consideration…”

Aside from Thor: The Dark World, Marvel Studios has been reaching Pixar-like levels of consistency for the last decade…and they’re putting out twice as much content.

This summer, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 set the summer in motion in May, a supremely enjoyable piece of film that, while not as memorable as the first and a tad overlong, pushed all the right buttons and, at the very least, met the expectations of most who bought a ticket.

Later, we got the latest reincarnation of Spider-Man in Tom Holland, finally in the hands of Marvel, which understands the character much better than Sony ever did. While its action may not have been as inventive as some set pieces from the franchise’s Toby Maguire days, the movies’ John Hughes vibe and focus on Peter Parker as a vulnerable yet confident superhero youngster hit the bullseye.

Even those weary of Spidey flicks would have to admit the film provides a new standard for villains in the MCU with Michael Keaton’s sympathetic Vulture, who yearns not for world domination, but rather to provide for his family.

The beat goes on for both movies critically and financially – Guardians sits at 82 percent, Spidey at 92 percent on RT; both have expectedly brought in big bucks so far – as the MCU inches closer to what it’s been working towards all these years: the final showdown with Thanos in Infinity War, featuring a cast so big it will make Joss Whedon pulling off Avengers look like a walk through destroyed New York City.

Before that, though: the third Thor entry, which already looks like the best of his respective films, this November, and The Black Panther next spring.


Surprise: Franchise fatigue becomes an epidemic

Compared to other studio tentpoles that have been relied on for years for their box office pull, Marvel is establishing an increasingly remarkable consistency for staying the course with audiences.

Other franchises, though, not so much.

For one, there’s the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a brand that hasn’t been relevant in cinemas for nearly 10 years yet ceases to die. In May, not even the talents of Oscar winner Javier Bardem could entice audiences.

So far, it’s grossing a franchise-worst $171 million domestically, the surest sign yet that it’s time for Captain Jack Sparrow to hang it up for good and ride off into the sunset with his rum bottle in hand.

Then, a month later, turnout for Transformers: The Last Knight reflected its critical reception, as audiences seem to finally be getting tired of the overlong, overblown mindlessness from Michael Bay that has less substance than an episode of Family Feud.

The Last Knight grossed just $44.7 million in its opening weekend while garnering an ugly 14 percent on RT, and it doesn’t seem like it will sniff the $244.5 million domestic run of the previous entry in the franchise…also currently its lowest-grossing.

Other sequels that studios were probably relying to bring in much more than they did: Cars 3, Alien: Covenant, Underworld: Blood Wars and the final chapter of the Resident Evil franchise.

The Mummy and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword also proved that audiences aren’t flocking to familiar stories, and showed industry higher-ups that if they feel their movie really needs two titles, that may already be an indicator of how much moviegoers will care.

The bright side to less money for Hollywood? Instead of seeing familiar stories, audiences are instead going to new ones.

Get Out¸ perhaps the most original movie of the year so far, is the ninth-highest grossing film of 2017, making over $175 million on a meager $5 million budget. (Check out what I thought of the movie here.) In the process it’s catapulted Jordan Peele onto the list of most sought-after directors.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s action heist musical, continues to be the surprise hit of the summer, growing $20.5 million in its opening weekend, a figure that itself nearly eclipses the entire theatrical runs of each of the auteur’s previous films. It’s in the top 20 for highest grossing films of 2017 so far.

And Dunkirk – the film many are calling director Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece but ostensibly lacking a premise as enticing as Interstellar, Inception and his Dark Knight movies – beat most box office estimates on its opening weekend, grossing over $50 million. It’s a remarkable figure for a WWII film, a genre that hasn’t seen a movie gross that much in its release since 2001’s Pearl Harbor, unless you include the first Captain America.

MORE: My thoughts on Dunkirk

Original films are only going to continue to be made based on how much audiences show they have a desire for them, so in that regard 2017 may be showing the brightest signs yet for aspiring filmmakers.

Below is the list of the top 20 grossing films, as of July 29.

  1. Beauty and the Beast/$504 million (total domestic gross)/ $174.8 million (opening weekend gross)
  2. Wonder Woman / $392.9 million $103.3 million
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 / $387.6 million $146.5 million
  4. Spider-Man: Homecoming / $268.8 million $117 million
  5. Logan / $226.3 million $88.4 million
  6. The Fate of the Furious / $225.8 million $98.8 million
  7. Despicable Me 3 / $225 million $72.4 million
  8. The Lego Batman Movie / $175.8 million $53 million
  9. Get Out / $175.5 million $33.4 million
  10. The Boss Baby / $174.6 million $50.2 million
  11. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales / $170.1 million $63 million
  12. Kong: Skull Island / $168 million $61 million
  13. Cars 3 / $145.7 million $53.7 million
  14. Split / $138.1 million $40 million
  15. Transformers: The Last Knight / $128.4 million $44.7 million
  16. Fifty Shades Darker / $114.4 million $46.6 million
  17. War for the Planet of the Apes / $111.3 million $56.3 million
  18. John Wick: Chapter Two / $92 million $30.4 million
  19. Baby Driver / $89.2 million $20.5 million
  20. Power Rangers / $85.4 million $40.3 million

 

Expectation: Emojis make horrid movie fare

Sitting at a whopping 6 percent on RT, The Emoji Movie is easily the worst wide-release film of the year, and will certainly be up for the wrong kind of award buzz at the Razzies.

Audiences go to movies to escape, and that includes a break from the social media obsession pervading our culture. To try and create a commentary on that using the type of digital lingo we go to the theater to avoid was never going to be a success.

Review: With Dunkirk, Nolan matures as a director and visionary

When it was announced that Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the polarizing space epic Interstellar would be a much more grounded film rooted in the history, it was a bit of a surprise.

Here was a director who has made a career (and, generally, huge box office returns) on the fantastical – imaginative works grand in vision and scope – looking to bring to life a much more straightforward premise by comparison.

But Nolan is also known for taking risks, and as it turns out, Dunkirk is no different. It’s a reinvigoration of the war genre, and its most innovative offering in decades.

There’s certain elements you can expect every time you go to see a Nolan film: a certain visual aesthetic that borders on broody without ever fully entering Kubrick territory, a pounding score, iconic imagery and emotional heft.

Dunkirk embraces all of these without succumbing to supersized blasts of Nolanism. If there’s one movie in his catalogue that a modern film buff might mistake for another director, it’s this.

At times the writer-director hopes for too much out of his films, whether it’s explicit thematical exploration or dense subplots that can get in the way of otherwise intense experiences.

But he shows growth with his 10th feature, which is also one of his leanest to date at 106 minutes. (His previous three movies – Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception – average over 2-and-a-half hours.) This film is a historical snapshot, one that depicts in harrowing detail the aftermath of a battle few know very much about – a reminder that even war’s less notable chapters are intense tales.

And Dunkirk is nothing if not intense from beginning to end, dropping the viewers in the middle of the action, at a point of peak hopelessness for hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers who can do nothing but wait to leave the French city at the onset of WWII as the enemy closes in.

The movie revels in the isolation of war, depicting it with surety and expertly-conjured shots, some of which are sure to become iconic –long lines of soldiers on the beaches, a lone survivor sitting on the only part of a sunken boat still above water, three British planes flying through immense expanses of sky like the last mechanical birds on Earth.

In a film where so few words are spoken, Nolan’s skill for crafting sweeping cinematography says so much about the situation the soldiers find themselves in, soldiers and pilots whose names we never learn. Although newcomer Fionn Whitehead is billed somewhat as the lead, there’s a cast of other characters who receive the same amount of attention and screentime.

We don’t know the backstories of any of these characters, and we barely get a glimpse into their personalities. While war classics like Saving Private Ryan fleshes out the stories of its troops, Dunkirk instead shows us that, by its very nature, war doesn’t care about who comes its way – it’ll put a bullet in you just the same.

It isn’t that Dunkirk is emotionless; pick any 5-minute stretch, and I was more engaged with it than other recent war movies like Hacksaw Ridge and American Sniper. With respect to those films and the real-life heroes they depict, Dunkirk is perhaps a more realistic vision of the how the boys sent off to fight in WWII – many of them teenagers – were never truly equipped for what they’d experience. The concept of home itself means as much to them as air; survival itself is a victory. By telling the story in a way that is so matter-of-fact, Nolan has found a way to perhaps pays as much homage to the soldiers as a studio film made 80 years later possibly can.

Nolan’s decision of how to present the story is, in itself, nothing short of genius. Without giving too much away, it unfolds over three distinct narratives with their own characters and timelines, and the moment I realized what Nolan was doing with the film’s aspect of time was the most satisfying lightbulb moment I’ve had in a theater this year.

It’s also the moment I realized he is the perfect director to tell this story, even though it’s almost totally different from anything he’s done.

It goes without saying that, technically, Dunkirk, is a marvel. Nolan once again partners up with Hans Zimmer, who lends his immense score-creating talents. The sound editing is top-notch, and the choice to make a good portion of the dialogue nearly unintelligible effectively adds to the intrigue, making you feel even more like you’re right there.

The film’s cast – for the miniscule amounts of time we spend with its individual components – ranges from good to really good. Mark Rylance in particular continues an impressive (and underrated) streak, and Harry Styles (yep, that Harry Styles) transcends whatever impression you might have of the musician beforehand in a role that’s decidedly more than a cameo.

Whitehead speaks probably the least of the major players, instead effectively embodying using a stoic, nearly zombie-like demeanor to express the attitude of every solider on the beaches of Dunkirk who have to be thinking, “How did I get here? Will I ever get out?”

That’s essentially the premise of the film, one which imagines the comforts of home as a luxury soldiers in war can’t afford. Even when they’re served tea and toast on an evacuation ship, they’re smart enough to know they’re not out of it yet. When they’re hesitant about going into the hull of a boat, seemingly descending into safety but fully aware that that safety can turn into a trap in a split second, you know they’ve been through hell.

Dunkirk may very well be the film that comes to define Nolan’s career. Not in terms of cultural impact, evolution of the craft or even when considering his best work (hell, I have trouble putting it into his top 3. His career’s been that good). But Dunkirk, more than any other of his movies, shows his discipline and ability to restrain himself from doing something overly dramatic and grand that would detract from the final product.

As a result, Dunkirk is one of his most intimate films to date, and the best movie of the year so far.

 

 

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experiences and some language

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damian Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong

Directed by Christopher Nolan

2017

A Snapshot in Time: Local Photo Group Celebrates 10 Years

This story first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.


Local photo group reflects on 10 years of creating art.

It’s a cluttered room. A red light outside – the kind that suggests deeply mechanical processes at play – marks the front door. A bicycle hangs above the entrance. Inside is a crowded mess of people and equipment: It’s a bit overwhelming, and seemingly haphazard.

And yet, the work produced here is nothing short of exquisite.

Outside, photographers Rip Williams and Mark Lies discuss the most readily accessible solution on hand to create an effect to denote a tractor beam being emitted from a spaceship overhead.

Creativity and collaboration are two core values of Guerrilla Photo Group.

“Would the most powerful alien beam that we have be –” Lies begins.

“The 1600,” Williams finishes, suggesting a piece of equipment bright enough to turn night into day.

“And in full power, with a 10-degree stem … would it look like a beam?”

“No.”

But Lies isn’t done. He needs his idea to come to life, to manifest itself.

“Would you have anything that would look like a beam?” Lies asks.

The two contemplate, some more photography equipment lingo is tossed around, then Williams suggests something unexpected, but utterly appropriate.

“Just do it with a flashlight,” he suggests. “A flashlight would be the narrowest beam you’re going to get.”

That’ll work. After all, Lies is already holding a silver vegetable steamer to stand in as the flying saucer. Even the Guerrilla Photo Group’s Photographer of the Year has to improvise.

This exchange, on a microcosmic level, is what GPG – officially 10 years strong – is all about: collaborating in bringing creative concepts to life in an environment where, although it’s an essential value of GPG, “education” almost seems like too formal a word to describe it all.

“Some people really gravitate toward teaching the skillset that they know, and some people really gravitate toward organizing things like the art committee and putting together the art exhibitions,” said Williams, the founder of Guerrilla Photo Group. “It gives everybody a spot, something to participate in.”

Group Values

Williams, who worked for many years as a marketer of big-name liquor brands such as Bacardi and Samuel Adams, said he began the group in 2006 on ideals of mentorship, networking, collaboration and exhibition.

While GPG has remained faithful to those core values over the last decade, it has simultaneously functioned on the concept that each role in the photography process is equally important. In that spirit, the photographers are considered as vital as the models, as the makeup artists, as the hair stylists and clothing designers.

Five specific “portions of the community that we serve,” Williams said, manifest in GPG’s logo – a five-pointed star modeled after the moving shutter of a camera.

And they’re not mutually exclusive within group; it’s common for professionals of one area to become enticed amateurs in another, devoting their time and creative energy to a different aspect of the process.

Annalee Davey, who started out as a model with the group, said she eventually picked up a camera and “hasn’t put it down since.”

It’s a common sentiment echoed by the group’s active members: not only has GPG allowed them to express their creativity, using their talents in the process, but it’s offered the opportunity of exploring other avenues of photographic creation.

“The last show that we put on, I actually did makeup,” Davey said, and added that she still models for the group as well.

“I don’t prefer to model, but people ask me and I say yes because this group has helped me build a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities,” she said. “I’ve pushed myself, and Rip has pushed me to push myself.”

GPG’s five-pointed logo is, as shown by Davey’s experience, perfectly representative of the group and the experiences that can be had by participating in it. No one point on the star is greater or lesser than the others; they work in tandem, just like the different niches filled by GPG members who work to produce eye-catching photographs.

Too often, Williams said, it’s the photographers and models who have the moment of inspiration for a shoot, which they fine-tune and formulate deeper. Only after that are hair stylists and makeup artists brought in to help bring the concept to life.

Turning 10

The group’s recent 10th Anniversary Show, which was on display at the Albuquerque Press Club, turned that concept on its head.

In addition to providing an intimate look at the group and its members, the exhibit emphasized the group of artists whose work is just an integral to photography as the models and photographers themselves.

And the exhibit wasn’t shy about the unorthodox manner in which the works were created – it’s right there in the name.

“What we did was say, ‘We don’t want any of that. Only the makeup artists and hair stylists, you guys drive the creative, come up with what you want to do, and then you build the team of photographers and models,’” Williams said.  “So we made the show About Face wholly predicated on the concept of makeup artists themselves and the hair stylists themselves.”

The group – about 60 active members strong at this point – is made up of individuals of varying skill levels and measures of experience.

But it’s GPG’s warm embrace of anyone checking out the group for the first time that is also a large part of its having lasted 10 years.

“I literally typed ‘Albuquerque photography club’ into Google, and they were the first hit,” Lies said. “So I came here.”

Lies, who attended his first GPG meeting before officially calling himself a New Mexico resident, said beyond the work he saw on the group’s website, it was the camaraderie on display that also caught his eye, a more spontaneous form of art in itself.

Those first impressions drew him to start participating in GPG, and a little more than a year after joining a photography group with not much more than “the basics I knew since I was a little kid,” his work is being exhibited in public shows, alongside works of other members.

He never thought he would reach that point, he said.

“I just thought, ‘This looks like fun, I’m going to do it,’” he said.

A Family Feel

It certainly doesn’t hurt the group that it is situated in a diverse, culturally vibrant metropolis, an easy 30-minute drive away from Santa Fe, which many consider to be the arts capital of the country – and some, the world.

The city’s diverse community of artists has helped keep things at GPG interesting, with some participants exploring a new, artistic side of themselves that they may not have been exposed to before, including dancers and athletes.

“And we maintain a very strong social aspect as well,” Williams said as he held up a glass of beer that was brought out to him just minutes before.  “We have a good time in and out of the studio. We enjoy it. It’s supposed to be a little bohemian, a little subversive, a lot fun.”

That isn’t to say the group hasn’t evolved in its decade of existence. Building up a core group of members who continue to hone and fine-tune their skills, it was inevitable that some of the work produced through the group started to get some exposure.

GPG has in recent years begun to emphasize exhibitions: how to organize one and prepare pieces for it, all the way down to negotiating a location.

“It’s really kind of closing the loop on the rest of photography, the rest of that process,” Williams said.  “We’ve evolved in all those processes, technically speaking, but I think the core values are still the same, like ‘let’s get together and do something fun.’”

That is, after all, how he became interested at an early age, running around shooting whatever he could in the “old ‘60s metal-body film camera” his dad had gifted him.

Eventually, that lifelong interest turned into his desire to create GPG – a place where creative minds could discuss how to bring their ideas to fruition over a beer on weekday evenings.

“I’ve always liked the idea of collaboration. I’ve always like the idea of working with people on projects, working with people in art,” Williams said. “It just sort of evolved out of the things I enjoyed and the peer group that I had.”

Public Visibility

Shawna Cory, who has been with the group since 2008, still finds immense satisfaction in the aspect of the GPG that lies in expressing ideas within an environment completely closed off to any kind of underlying burden that may influence the final product.

Cory serves as Chair of the Art Committee, the kind of formal, business-like title she might normally feel uncomfortable holding.

But not in GPG, where it’s practically a family.

“I do this totally for the love,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to watch people grow and create amazing things. It’s so much fun to be in this constantly creative environment with all these amazing people.”

Especially for people who have little to no experience with any aspect of photography, GPG – with its passionate members, pressure-free environment and abundance of talent and imagination on hand – provides an avenue to potentially be introduced to something that might occupy a sizeable, but desired, part of one’s life.

“When people are able to just kind of go in and screw around a little bit, happy accidents are likely to happen,” Cory said.

Although Williams said that, 10 years into GPG’s life and 60 members strong, there has been discussion about potentially reaching deeper into the local collaborative arts community, there’s no pressure to turn it into something it isn’t, because what it is “just keeps getting better.”

At its core, it’s Guerrilla Photo Group’s intersectional nature that continues to draw artists – some of whom may not even think if themselves as such just yet.

“The specific mix in the environment we’ve created is attractive to all sorts of different people who might not otherwise spend time with one another,” he said, “People who are all artists in their own right and their owns ways who can link up, not to this specific common interest of photography necessarily, but the specific common interest of collaboration.”

For more information on Guerrilla Photo Group, visit guerrillaphotogroup.com.

Meet Our Cover Artist: Anabel Martinez

This story first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.


Local Artist Inspired by the Fantastic

There are certain qualities of sci-fi and fantasy that Anabel Martinez said really connect with her as an individual: Science fiction’s creativity in answering “what if?” and exploring vast spaces beyond what we’re accustomed to. Fantasy’s nature and legends, tethered to its dark roots.

They’re a pair of genres in which there is no limit to what the imagination can conjure up, whether it is something totally new or a personal spin on the familiar. These limitless creative avenues drive Martinez to make sci-fi and dark fantasy the focus of her art.

BY SAM MORT

“I think both kind of speak to me,” she said, having physically manifested that sentiment in her work.

Martinez, who said she’s always been especially fascinated by the fantasy stories of different cultures, attended CNM for graphic design. It was there that her hobby of drawing digitally “kicked off,” and where she was exposed to the endless possibilities of computer-produced art, a hobby that’s become her own contemporary sci-fi trope of imaginative exploration.

Later, it would also become the foundation for her day job.

All’s Fair in Love and Cosplay

Martinez is now a full-time graphic designer living in Phoenix, even selling some of her original works in various forms. That came about through a deal of sorts with her husband, who is heavily involved in art of a different sort: cosplay.

“I’d always been pushing him [saying], ‘Look, people sell cosplay stuff at comic-con, you should do it too,’” she said. “His deal was that if he did that, he wanted me to sell some of my artwork as well. So we kind of motivated each other to not just do it as a hobby.”

Martinez said she especially likes how sci-fi and fantasy allow her to experiment with color, something that is evident when observing her work. In fact, color has to be a part of the process from the start.

“Some artists work a lot with black and white and they add the color afterward, but I just work straight with the color from the get-go,” she said.

Fantasy inspiration

While Martinez works to make her art all her own, she is influenced by existing stories and franchises. She said there are mannequins set up in her living room, some sporting outfits from video games like “Dragon Age” and films like “Aliens,” so inspiration is always present.

“A lot of my creations have been based on other works or characters,” she said, citing her imagination was only pushed further once she got into videogaming, specifically the vast “Mass Effect” universe. “I had to learn to have a balancing act of respecting the character as well as putting my own spin on it.”

Learning how to consistently accomplish that balance – whether for commissioned work or her own personal creations – is something that has gotten easier the more work she’s produced. But Martinez acknowledged that she sometimes has to put her work down and return to it later.

For someone fascinated by the possibilities of the unknown, Martinez’s art provides her own universe to return to and continually shape, where she can keep testing her own limits and continually find answers to the question: “What if?”

Adam Savage, Michael Stevens Coming to ABQ

This story first appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be read here.


Searching for answers to the most dubious scientific mysteries in our world doesn’t have to be a total white lab coat affair. It can be pretty fun too, and change the way we view ordinary things.

That’s the idea behind “Brain Candy Live!,” an upcoming tour set to visit Albuquerque in March. The tour features Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” fame and Michael Stevens, the YouTube star who has amassed millions of followers while exploring questions like “What is déjà vu?” and “What if the Moon was a disco ball?”

Enter Savage, who was looking for someone to tour with. A phone call would lead to a marriage of the intellectual and logistical, and born from the union was “Brain Candy Live!”

“There are some things that I know nothing about that he knows everything about – actually making things and using tools. I only talk,” Stevens said.

While the tour doesn’t kick off until mid-February, Stevens called the planning phase alone a mind-blowing experience. Here was someone who made his name through YouTube videos paired with an icon of the modern science-entertainment-education arena.

“It’s the best position to be in,” Stevens said.

As far as the tour itself, its website likens the show to “a two-hour playdate with Walt Disney, Willy Wonka and Albert Einstein.”

“[Audiences] can expect to leave with a whole new set of skills that they never knew were possible,” said Stevens.

Topics like barometric pressure, how electricity works and scientific principles discovered by pioneers with alphabet soup names? Stevens is confident attendees won’t forget the science they witness after seeing it through his and Savage’s eyes.

He said he is looking forward to a bit of a change of pace as well, returning to the stage – he did some theater in Chicago before finding a niche online – after spending nearly seven years establishing himself as a YouTuber.

“It’s a totally different feeling – you get immediate feedback,” Stevens said, adding that some interaction with the audience will also play a part in how individual shows go.

The subjects explored on the tour are different from anything Stevens has touched on as VSauce, which is almost hard to believe considering the dozens of videos on his channel. As it turns out, live performance is the best format for solving some of the lingering questions that have dwelled in the back of his mind over the years.

“It became obvious that there are some things you just can’t do with a camera and a microphone. You need to do it in person.”

Humble about the craft

Stevens first caught the science bug from his father – an engineer who possessed an unrelenting drive to understand the things around him. That eventually rubbed off on his son.

Stevens went on to become passionate about experimentation and research. A big part of that, as anyone who’s taken a middle school science course knows, is admitting when your initial hypothesis may be wrong. Stevens embraces that.

“I’ll go ask for help, or look it up in the dictionary. One of the most powerful things we can do is be humble about how little we know,” he said.

To explore some of the heavier topics of science, you also need to have a little bit of fun. Stevens’ YouTube videos are as lighthearted as they are informational, like when he says we would become “supersonic tumbleweed” if the Earth ever stopped spinning.

He said people can expect the same memorable approach at “Brain Candy Live!,” the tour’s name itself suggesting an educational experience of the sweetest kind. Their thirst for knowledge might not be quenched on the stage, but for Stevens it’s as much about the curiosity as it is replacing a question mark with a period on a scientific inquiry.

“Nothing is impossible to understand,” he said. “It just might take more time than you might think.”

On a broad scale, Stevens said he’s encouraged by the place science has in society. When he was just getting into the world of asking questions and finding answers, all he had was “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and minimal literature at the library.

But while shows like “Magic School Bus” and “Mythbusters” aren’t pop culture mainstays anymore, it’s because the new generation of answer-finders are taking on that role in spades.

“Now you can watch channels (on the internet) covering everything from medicine to physics to music to biology, hosted by a more diverse group of people,” he said. “It also means we all have a responsibility to share it.”

Locals can take in the knowledge that Stevens and Savage themselves will be sharing when “Brain Candy Live!” visits Popejoy Hall on March 31.

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