Friday, June 16, 2017

Cars 3 (2017)


I decide when I'm done.


It may be titled Cars 3, but it's really Cars 2.  The actual Cars 2 was more like Mater's Tall Tales: The Movie, which contrary to the rest of the world, I thought was just fine.  That sums up my opinion on the first film as well; a perfectly fine movie with stellar animation and sound, featuring a story and characters crafted with heart by John Lasseter.  Cars isn't up to the usual Pixar standard, but it's a solid little film about the values of slowing down and the importance of making genuine connections with other (car) people.  The world-building is shaky at best, and the humor is hit-or-miss, but having seen it again recently, I found it to be very charming.  That certainly colors my opinion of Cars 3, which delves a bit further into racecar Lightning McQueen's life and career.  He no longer has to deal with growing up, but the much more sobering issue of growing old.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is at the top of his game, winning races left and right while indulging in some good-natured ribbing with his rivals on the track.  One day, a rookie car shows up named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who's been designed as a next-gen racer with incredible speed and precision.  Storm wins the race, and soon after more next-gen racers who train on high-tech simulators and are overall better built (born? This is why good world-building is important).  With all of his former rivals retired, McQueen still gives it his all, but winds up in a racing accident that nearly puts him out of commision.  Now saddled with a new sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen has to learn to accept the fact that he's getting older and considering retiring and selling his face as a brand name.  He makes a deal with Sterling to race one more time, and if he wins, he decides when he finishes.  Unlike his late mentor Doc Hudson (voiced through recordings of Paul Newman), who was also in an accident that forced him to quit, McQueen isn't ready to give up his dream career.  Helping him along the way is his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who prefers to train with simulators rather than in the real world, and that idealism that clashes hard with McQueen's "get dirty" sensibilities.


You can't turn back the clock.  But you can wind it up again.


The story seems predictable at first glance (a wash-up wants to make a comeback), but the script is surprisingly smart in this regard.  It takes far more interesting turns when the focus shifts to McQueen's (unromantic) relationship with Cruz, unearthing a poignant theme about what it means to pass on a legacy.  McQueen essentially has the opportunity to consider what his legacy will be, and if it can be objectified.  Is what you leave behind physically as important as who you influence?  Like any technology, who decides when we as people become obsolete?  These are not questions I thought I'd be asking myself after seeing Cars freakin' 3, so needless to say, I'm quite impressed.  The characters are very likable, there's some smart dialogue on display, and the story builds on the first film in a meaningful way, just like a sequel should.

The animation is ridiculously gorgeous at times, constantly trying to convince the eye that what you're seeing isn't cartoon cars rendered by a computer, but the real world with all its quirks.  The way the camera shakes during close-up shots of the races is beyond impressive, the '50s footage effect over old film looks ridiculously real, the expressions that somehow trick us into thinking that a character that is nothing but a head and wheels could possibly live comfortably; it all adds up to a tremendously entertaining viewing experience.  Randy Newman returns to score, and he infuses it with his unmistakable sound (even if it's more reminiscent of Toy Story than it has any right to be), and the songs are well-integrated (there's no Life is a Highway-esque standout, however).  It's a well-paced film as well, making nearly two hours (when you include the adorable preceding short Lou) fly right by.


You seemed so fearless.  I wish I knew what that was like...


Cars 3 may not win over anyone who already dislikes the Cars franchise, but for myself, it was a lot of fun.  The story takes detours into midwestern small towns just like the first film and inject them with this lived-in sense of hominess.  It's not an especially funny film (Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is relegated to being a background character for the better), but I did laugh quite a bit during the demolition derby scene, plus McQueen and Cruz have some charming banter.  There's still some iffy world-building; racial and sexual discrimination is an issue that I was pleased to see brought up, but it only made me ask more questions.  I did occasionally slink into what the hell am I watching? mode, as the world of Cars is a strange one to behold (the country-Western band made of cars in the bar scene threw me a bit), but when it sticks to the racing scenes, the characters, and the thought-provoking themes of inclusion and legacy, Cars 3 is surprisingly pretty great.


8/10

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)


Pirate's life...


The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are quite the anomaly when it comes to Hollywood franchise filmmaking.  The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was an outrageous gamble in 2003.  It was a rousing success the likes no one could have predicted, partly due to Johnny Depp's amazing turn as Jack Sparrow.  The next two films, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were produced back to back as an extremely ambitious and costly set, turning Pirates into a trilogy that could rival Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (financially anyway).   The Pirates trilogy, with Sparrow as its mascot, could have ended right there and been Disney's to milk through merchandising alone for all eternity.  Then On Stranger Tides came along and it all felt so... stale.  The spontaneity of Jack Sparrow was all but gone, the script doubled-down on cliches, and there was no creative spark.  It feels like nowadays, some people at Disney get together and say, "Hey, that new Pirates movie made a lot of money, wanna make another one?"  "Yeah! But not right now.  How about in a few years when we're bored?" We now have a series of five films that has no clear direction, and Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers for it.


This is my fate...


Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of William and Elizabeth Turner, seeks the Trident of Poseidon in order to free his father from the Dutchman's curse.  He seeks the help of the infamous pirate Jack Sparrow (Depp), but tries in vain for nine years.  Now a young man working on a Navy warship, he encounters the undead pirate Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who also seeks Sparrow, albeit for purposes of revenge.  Meanwhile, in Saint Martin, a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) is being accused of witchcraft due to her interest and knowledge of astronomy (a running joke that gets old fast).  The paths of Carina, Henry, and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) all eventually cross, each of them seeking the Trident for their own reasons.  In the middle of all this is Jack Sparrow himself, a drunk, dysfunctional mess who can't pull off a decent bank robbery or hold down a small crew.


Tell him death will come straight for him...


The film begins rather strongly, starting from Henry's vantage point as he promises his father that he'll free him from the curse that we as the audience have been waiting (without much vigor) to get some closure on.  This is all well-intentioned, and had it been the focus, Dead Men Tell No Tales might have been much stronger.  The villains in the Pirates franchise are often striking and memorable, and the same is true in this case; I love everything about Captain Salazar and his ghost crew, who are visually interesting and have a solid backstory.  Javier Bardem is excellent in the role, and I'd go so far as to call his flashback story the best scene of the film.  Digitally de-aged Johnny Depp feels like Jack Sparrow again, and it's such a breath of fresh air.  Between the special effects and the location shooting, this is a really good-looking movie.  There are noticeable moments with CG effects, but there are enough gorgeous sets and prosthetics to make up for it.


What a horrible way to live...


What the film lacks most of all are the two things it needs to be successful: a dark atmosphere, but good comedy to balance it out.  In this regard, the first Pirates film is the only one in the franchise to achieve it effortlessly, but some of the jokes in Dead Men Tell No Tales are just painful.  Depp's not given good material to work with, but he plays everything too goofy and slurry.  It's as though he's doing a Jack Sparrow impression, not embodying the character.  There are expensive looking set-pieces abound that all have the potential to be really funny, and the actors are just not selling it.  Speaking of which, a romance is shoehorned in here between Carina and Henry, and the actors have no chemistry at all.  Everything to do with Barbossa is forced, including a relationship twist that is rushed and pointless.  It seems that at every turn, the film disappoints on a narrative level (save for the epilogue perhaps).


You are my treasure...


The action is big, loud, and dumb, but it's at least competent.  There are some visual gags that work in spite of their silliness (Jack swinging around on a guillotine as the blade repeatedly approaches his neck) and the climax takes place in an underwater chasm that just looks plain beautiful.  It's bloodless and awkwardly toned down at points (Salazar kills an unfathomable amount of pirates, but it's mostly offscreen), which hurts the sense of terror and genuine stakes.  At least the music puts the original Pirates of the Caribbean score to good use, showing up most modern blockbusters and their unmemorable, bland background music.  All of this is unfortunately meaningless if the script lets it down, which it does.  The overabundance of characters, bland romance, barrage of unfunny jokes, and tonal dissonance all add up to a film with a distinct lack of heart.


We should be allies...


It may seem like I expect too much out of a film based on a theme park ride, but Disney can do much better than this.  I say get Gore Verbinski back to direct one more of these monstrosities and then kill it.  Get good writers that have some affinity for the characters, and have some fun making a straight-up pirate movie.  Why all the needless mythology?  Just let the pirates be pirates and give them a good adventure.  The day that happens is far off I'm afraid, and unfortunately what we have in the meantime isn't very satisfying.


4/10

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Originally posted June 2nd, 2015


What a lovely day.


Wow. WOW. Wow. While I feel a bit unqualified to talk about a Mad Max movie (considering I haven't seen any of the first three films front to back), I do feel justified in reviewing Fury Road as an action spectacle.  Because honestly, fan of the series or not, the exhilaration and mastery of practical effects exhibited in George Miller's newest masterpiece is pretty much unprecedented in today's theatrical entertainment.




Let's face it, the post-apocalypse craze is getting old.  All these abandoned cities ravaged by zombies and futures with societies that only exist to act as class warfare metaphors are starting to look indistinguishable from one another.   But here comes Mad Max: Fury Road, the very definition of in-your-face action, apocalyptic wonder, and astonishing special effects.  The story is deliriously simple, but the world is so interesting and layered that simplicity was definitely the smart way to go.




In keeping with the original series' Cold War themes, Earth is a barren wasteland due to a nuclear war.  Max (Tom Hardy) is a former "cop" who now wanders aimlessly through the desert, either running from members of the War Boys (mutants who run a corrupt, savage society), or from his own personal past trauma.  He's abducted by the War Boys and used as a "blood bag" for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who appears terminally ill (though it's hard to tell when he lives in a society of deformed mutants).  When leader of War Boys, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), realizes his five wives (selected for breeding) have escaped with the help of the bad-ass truck-driving chick Furiosa (Charlize Theron), he sets out with his entire army to track them down, kill her, and take back what's his.  Max is taken on the pursuit to keep Nux alive, but he escapes and joins Furiosa on her quest to lead her and the other women to "The Green Place," where they hope they will be safe.




 What's most striking about Fury Road is its design; the vehicles that the War Boys drive are mind-blowingly creative.  A Mercedes Benz body with a tractor on the bottom; forties Dodge trucks equipped with monster truck wheels and machine guns; 30s Fords with metal spikes all over them... I could go on for hours.  However the winner for best design is clearly the moving rock stage with strapped-in drummers, dozens of amps and speakers, and a blind man in a red jumpsuit playing a flamethrowing guitar (Australian musician iOTA).  It might just be the coolest thing I have ever seen.




Beyond that, there are excellent performances all around, good character development, a script that relies on very little dialogue, and crash stunts that are insanely fun to watch.  I admire that most of the stunts appear to be done practically, and while CGI was used to enhance the environments and things like the giant sandstorm, the chases and crashes have incredible weight to them that's missing from a lot of modern action movies.  The make-up work on the mutants is bizarre and disgusting as well, aided by several actors who are actually deformed to help sell the idea.




These are, of course, all things I was hoping for.  What I couldn't have expected was an underlying feminist theme that runs beneath nearly every scene in the film.  There's an idea in this primitive future society that women can be property, made to wear spiked chastity belts, and used as sex slaves. Escaping that life is what Fury Road is at its heart.  They are rescued not by Max, but by Furiosa, who judging by her lack of a left arm, has gone through some incredible hardships no doubt related to her being a woman.  There's never any doubt that she can kick as much ass as any man in the movie.




While the action scenes are relentlessly fun, make no mistake that this is a dark movie that earns its R rating.   It's a savage world with savage rules, and the name of the game is staying alive (which several of the characters can't do).  Just as I feared the movie was taking itself too seriously, we get some great comic relief in the form of a few old ladies who've seen some serious shit, but at least have a sense of humor about it.  I know it's essential that I go back and watch the other Mad Max movies, but for now, I'm unbelievably satisfied with Fury Road. Some of it is bizarre, much of it is crazy, and all of it is brilliantly realized.

10/10

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Originally posted May 29th, 2015


There are no strings on me...


My favorite part of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a party scene.  There are no superhero costumes, no loud explosions, and no CGI effects.  The scene is about a group of very different people who have been through a lot of crazy experiences, and this is their chance to relax, hang out, and drink with each other.  It's a really fun scene, with razor-sharp writing and excellent acting all around.  If you've been following this eleven-film-long saga, this is a major payoff for you, and definitely a showcase for writer/director Joss Whedon at his most pure.




The rest of the movie is (for the most part) a good superhero team-up movie.  While the novelty of seeing all these classic characters interacting is gone for the most part, their chemistry and dynamics shine through at every turn.  The film kicks off with an extraordinarily over-the-top action scene on a snowy mountain in the poor country of Sokovia, as The Avengers have already assembled and are retrieving Loki's old scepter from evil scientists who have been experimenting with it on humans.  Two of these experiments, twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff, have special abilities that allow them to take on the Avengers and pose a major threat.  Once the scepter is retrieved, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) a.k.a. the Hulk, begin experimenting with an artificial intelligence found within the gem that gives the scepter its power of mind control.  Naturally, while trying to harness the power of the A.I. (voiced by James Spader) for the good of humanity, it backfires and decides that in order to save Earth, he must destroy all humans.  It's up to the Avengers and their allies to stop Ultron before he eviscerates the entire planet's population.




Age of Ultron is well paced, with solid character development and fun action.  The balance between comedy and drama is handled nicely (like the first), and none of the main characters get totally lost in the shuffle.  In fact, the only underdeveloped character from the first film, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), gets plenty of great focus.  I've seen complaints about a love story between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner, and while I admit that the actors don't have much chemistry, their reasons for wanting to be with each other are really compelling.  I'm also interested in this whole Infinity Stone thing (and I can't wait until The Avengers meet the Guardians of the Galaxy in a later film to tie everything together).  Add to that all the fun and unexpected cameos from other characters in the Marvel cinematic universe, and things are looking really good from a character perspective.




I don't want to rant about the overuse of CGI in modern movies, so all I'll say is that it actually becomes exhausting to watch so many CGI-infused action scenes.  I've heard that Age of Ultron is the most expensive film in the franchise to date and has the most digital effects, but I probably could have guess it just by looking at the thing.  There has yet to be an Incredible Hulk that doesn't move like a cartoon character during action scenes, and this is no exception.  In close-ups and slower moments (aided by motion capture) he looks fantastic, but otherwise, I just don't believe he's there.  Yes, there were moments when my jaw dropped in amazement or I got chills from a thrilling battle, but honestly, most of the action could have been cut in half and the movie would still have been enjoyable.  Imagine that last scene from the first Avengers, which was a busy, over-the-top, but very entertaining CGI showcase.  Now imagine watching it three times, buffered by expository scenes and you have some idea of how the plot flows in this movie. Meanwhile, the score by Brian Tyler and Danny FREAKING Elfman of all people manages to be somehow less memorable than Alan Silvestri's incredibly generic score from the first movie.




Pietro and Wanda are given some backstory that is supposed to make them hate Tony Stark (making them villains for the time), but their inclusion in the story is unnecessary and their motivations are flimsy. They come off as kind of stupid for helping out Ultron, and so their redemption rings a bit false.  Ultron's motivations are also muddy and his conception as a villain might make more sense if I knew anything about the comics, but I don't, so I found it needlessly unclear.  I did, however, appreciate that he has a sarcastic personality and doesn't speak with a bland, robotic monotone like I expected.




I can't help feeling a bit disappointed by the second Avengers movie, but it's still a fun ride all around.  It's a bit too long and overstuffed with characters for its own good, but it can be thrilling and funny all the same.  A stronger villain motivation would have surely bumped my score up a notch, but at the same time, it's impressive that the movie works at all.   It becomes a series of events rather than a compelling story, and even though the climax is chock-full of spectacle, it's unfortunately a bit empty, not unlike the Transformers sequels.  I saw it in IMAX 3D, and my feelings on the format remain the same: IMAX good, 3D bad.  It's still a must-see for fans of the franchise, and entertains on a number of levels.  The film focuses on action scenes rather than a story, but thankfully the characters don't get lost in the all the digital pyrotechnics.


7/10

It Follows (2015)

Originally posted April 28th, 2015

It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. 
Whatever helps it get close to you.




The best horror films reach deep inside an audience's mind and tap into their primal fears.   The unfortunate majority of studio horror movies substitute tension-killing jump scares and gratuitous amounts of gore for genuine terror and scary fun.  So when I hear good buzz surrounding a new horror movie, as I did with It Follows, I get pretty excited.  Disappointed I was not; in fact, I'll be damned if It Follows isn't the best horror movie to come out since The Conjuring (although I have yet to see The Babadook... let's just go with "best American horror movie").  Unsettling, nuanced, and horribly beautiful in too many ways to count, It Follows fulfills its promise to linger with you long after you see it.





A young, gloomy college student named Jay (Maika Monroe) lives a perfectly average life in suburbia.  She becomes cursed by her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) after having sex with him for the first time.  A person will follow her wherever she goes, walking slowly toward her until it catches up and kills her.  It can look like anyone, so Jay's guard must constantly be up.  She confides in her friends, and they try to find ways to kill the creature following her, but it seems as though the only way she can escape the curse is by having sex with someone else to pass it on.





In all honesty, I think Hitchcock and John Carpenter would have liked It Follows.  The tension and suspense are so on point and nerve-wracking that half the time I forgot I was even watching a movie.  Typically, modern horror movies have unlikable characters, nonexistent plots, and unlikable characters.  It Follows is like a defiance of all those elements; the horror comes from slow builds and intense payoffs, the plot builds and the story is constantly moving, and the characters are sympathetic.  I care about Jay, her fate, and the fate of her friends.  The rules of the curse are laid out clearly, and rather than becoming tired in the second act, it only gets more interesting and terrifying.  Because you care about the characters, you're constantly in anticipation of the creature's next appearance.  Sometimes the creature is already in the scene and you don't even know it yet. This is damn good horror movie-making.




What adds to the unsettling mood is the world the characters inhabit.  At first it appears to be modern day.  But the cars and fashion seem to be straight out of the 70s, the movies everyone watches are from the 50s (and all their televisions have rabbit ears), and one of Jay's friends has a small, electronic device that she reads books on.  Add to that the magnificent, synth-tastic music by Disasterpiece, which adds a sharp 80s flair, and you're placed in a world that's just a little off and uncomfortable in all the right ways.  I'm so tired of movies with droning, forgettable soundtracks, so listening to this intrusive and eerie score was really satisfying.




Director David Robert Mitchell has created a movie akin to experiencing a nightmare.  Drawing from the best elements of the original Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, It Follows is the rare horror movie that focuses on suspense rather than gore, smart characters and a tight story instead of idiots played by models in a convoluted series of events.  The actors in It Follows give very naturalistic performances and look like real people, which means not everyone is conventionally attractive.  The world, despite how otherworldly it feels, looks lived in and authentic.  The subtext about STDs, sexual anxiety, and the fear of inevitable death add untold amounts of substance that can be picked apart and analyzed upon multiple viewings.  Despite my slight confusion about the ending (maybe I just don't get it yet), I can't say enough great things about this movie.


9/10

It Follows (2015) (Video Review)

Originally posted April 28th, 2015


Hey all you lovely people. I'm trying something new with this video review.  It's very on-the-fly and unscripted, so apologies if it lacks polish.  Hopefully I get my opinion across.  Leave a comment on how I can make them better and what you'd like to see me review.  Enjoy!

Cinderella (2015)

Originally posted March 27th, 2015

How charming... how perfectly charming...


The current decade's wave of fairy tale reimaginings has led to mostly mediocre efforts, often times borrowing major elements from the original stories without any semblance of charm and little to no heart.  Actually, let's be honest: these aren't new versions of classic fairy tales; they're riffs on classic movies based on fairy tales and old classics.  I have yet to view one of these "re-imaginings" that exceeds or even matches the originals they're capitalizing on, and unfortunately, the new Cinderella is no exception.  However, I won't deny that I still liked it.




Stop me if you've heard this one: in what seems to be the Victorian Era, Ella (Lily James) is a young woman living with her father in a gorgeous house in a thriving kingdom.  Her mother died when she was a child, and years later her father dies on a business trip.  She now contends with her horrible stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and selfish stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger).  An opportunity arises for Ella (now degraded and nicknamed "Cinderella" by her step family) to attend a ball where commoners are invited to mingle with the noblemen. Tremaine sabotages her efforts to attend, leaving her feeling truly hopeless for the first time in her life.  She gets some help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter), who makes her a carriage out of a pumpkin, fixes up her dress, and sets her on her way to find the prince of her dreams (Richard Madden) and escape her terrible life.




I'll be damned if that isn't beat for beat what happens in EVERY. SINGLE. CINDERELLA. STORY. But I'll also be damned if actually watching and enjoying it yet again doesn't prove just how timeless the story is.  When contrasted with its animated counterpart, there are notable elements that get a bit more fleshing out.  The loss of Ella's parents is shown to us rather than told, and Tremain's motivations are clear and easy to relate to.  There's also a nice touch of humanity given to the prince character that was missing from the original film, being that he's actually a character and all. He actually meets Ella early in the story when she doesn't know he's a prince, and it's one of the most enjoyable scenes in the movie. These changes are all well and good, but they are counterbalanced by things that the animated movie does ten times better.




The biggest emotional moment in the original is when the stepsisters brutally rip Cinderella's dress apart, leaving her (and kids in the audience) emotionally disturbed.  Maybe the classic Cinderella story gets a bad rap for its main character being too passive, but I've always seen her as an underdog.  She goes through a lot to get her happily ever after, and it's well-earned.  In the live-action version, the dress ripping scene is so subdued and brief that it hardly registers; Tremain rips the dress's shoulder and tells her it's outdated.  That's what gets Cinderella to her lowest point?  That scene needs to be an emotional gut punch, and instead it was more of a poke to the arm.  I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it lacks the "I have the other slipper" moment that really defined the original movie, and while I appreciate the effort to not rehash the same twist, what replaces it falls a bit flat.  Add to that the lack of musical sequences, (another part of what makes the original a classic) and you're left with yet another unnecessary remake that can't hold a candle to the original.




Comparisons to the original aside, how does it stand on its own?  It's a visual stunner for sure; the costumes and sets are gorgeous, and the acting is great throughout.  Aside from a few scenes in the opening with Ella's mother (Halley Atwell, AKA Agent Freakin' Carter!), the film doesn't take on a cheesy tone, mostly because of the actors' commitment to their roles and Kenneth Branagh's spot-on direction. While her evil stepmother could never replace Eleanor Audley's Lady Tremaine, Cate Blanchett puts her own spin on the character and gives her a weightiness I wasn't expecting.




Like The Amazing Spider-Man, the new Cinderella movie tries to justify its existence by changing many little things while leaving major beats from the original intact.  That does not mean it needed to exist, but like the Spider-Man remake, the execution is just good enough to give it a pass.  Good performances across the board, a sense of fun, and a brisk pace help make Cinderella a nice "turn off your brain" kind of movie, and one that I was content to watch.  This isn't a "gritty" retelling like Snow White and the Huntsman, a disastrous misfire like Oz: The Great and Powerful, or a "villain's side of the story" like Maleficent.  This is a perfectly nice remake that, despite being 65 years older than the film it's based on, fails to be better than it or countless other Cinderella movies that have come in-between.


7/10

Friday, June 9, 2017

Jurassic Park (1993)

Originally posted June 9th, 2015


Hold onto your butts...


You can't talk about the history of visual effects without talking about Jurassic Park.  You can't talk about dinosaur movies without talking about Jurassic Park.  You can't talk about Stephen Spielberg without talking about Jurassic Park.  As it stands, it's one of the most influential movies in all of blockbuster cinema, right up there with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  While certainly not the first movie to use computer generated imagery, it was the first to use it extensively to create living creatures, and what better way to introduce CGI creatures to the world than with dinosaurs?  But I don't want this review to focus solely on the visuals, so I'll gush now and get it out of the way: Jurassic Park features extremely well-animated CGI, that when integrated with Stan Winston's remarkable animatronic dinosaurs, looks as mind-blowingly good today as it did in 1993.


What do they got in there, King Kong?


Based on the book by Michael Crichton (with a screenplay by David Koepp), Jurassic Park follows Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) as they are led to a mysterious island theme park by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), a billionaire who has made a remarkable breakthrough.  The couple are paleontologists, and Hammond needs endorsements to make sure the park is safe after an incident involving the death of one of its workers.  When they arrive on the island, they are stunned to discover that the park is populated by living, breathing, cloned dinosaurs.  Along with Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum), a chaos theorist, and a slimy can't-wait-till-he-gets-eaten lawyer (Martin Ferrero), the group discusses the ethics involved in the park's creation and how it could change the world, for better or worse.  At the same time, Hammond's grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), visit the park to get a sneak peak at the attractions while the park's computer engineer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) puts plans in motion to steal dinosaur embryos for a rival company.  While the group is on the dino-safari, Nedry deactivates the security systems and inadvertently cuts the power, leaving everyone on the island susceptible to all manor of T-Rexes, stampeding Gallimimus, and deadliest of all, Velociraptors.


The point is, you're still alive when they start to eat you...


Spielberg's direction of tension-building and action set pieces has never been better, teasing out the reveal of the dinosaurs themselves and slowly introducing us to the world before all hell breaks loose.  Seeing the more dangerous dinosaurs safely behind electric fences might would have spoiled their reveal;  it's much scarier to see them for the first time with nothing holding them back after hearing about them so much.  Let's not forget that none of this would mean anything if the actors didn't sell it well, and they do so with flying colors.   The whole cast's naturalistic line deliveries, wide-eyed wonderment at the sight of the dinos, and genuine terror in the face of their certain death lend the movie tons of credibility.  I've seen the screenplay criticized for its lack of character development, but I'm sorry, I just don't see it.  Hammond goes through a fantastic character arc; he's a naive old man with well-intentioned delusions of grandeur at the start, but comes to understand that the world isn't his toy box.  Grant starts out as jaded and against the idea of having a family, but rediscovers his child-like sense of wonder after spending time with Tim, Lex, and some of the friendlier dinosaurs.  And it's a joy to watch Goldblum's performance as Malcolm, a man who looks like he was pulled from the beat generation and serves as an ironic commentator to the story.


You said you've got a T-Rex?


I'm not reinventing the wheel by saying that John Williams is the greatest film composer of all time, but that's my honest opinion.  If you don't have Williams' music playing in your head after you watch Jurassic Park, I hope you communicate through sign language.  The orchestral score is so memorable and grandiose that you get lost in the movie.  I can't describe it, but it just sounds like dinosaurs; it's pretty much become their theme song no matter what media they appear in.  I think it might rank as one of his top five best scores of all time.  And the sound design?  Unbelievable.  Throughout my childhood, I had only seen Jurassic Park on a tiny TV that didn't have a very high volume.  When I heard the visceral sound mix on a five-channel surround system for the first time, I couldn't stop smiling.  The ambiance, the giant footsteps, and... my god... the roars!  Creatively mixing sounds from elephants, whales, dogs, and probably half a dozen other animals, the sound mixers created an iconic T-rex roar as well as countless other hugely influential sound effects.


We're gonna make a fortune off this place.


So we've pretty much established that Jurassic Park is a technical masterpiece, but a few plot holes hold it back from being a flawless movie altogether.  For starters, there's a plot development late in the film that reveals that the dinosaurs have been breeding, despite the fact that they were bred to be female.  Grant and the kids discover this as they are wandering throughout the park, which means that none of the scientists knew this was going on.  He concludes that since some frogs can spontaneously change their sex if they are in a same-sex environment, and since frog DNA was used to help clone the dinosaurs, they must be adapting as well.  It's unrealistic that none of the scientists noticed this was going on, and even more ridiculous that they couldn't have predicted it could happen.  The themes also get a bit buried by the action in the third act the film becomes exclusively a survival story, but that's more of a nitpick than a major problem.


That's chaos theory.


Scientists going too far and creating something they can't control is a tried-and-true formula of the science-fiction genre.  That aspect of Jurassic Park isn't its most groundbreaking, but it has a hell of a lot of fun exploiting it.  Its themes are fascinating when they are juxtaposed to Jurassic Park's real-world impact on the film industry; in the film, the characters react in awe to the new dinosaurs, but then discuss the potential negative side effects.  Once the movie hit theaters, the CG effects wowed audiences, then the industry quickly overused it and does so to this day.  That, of course, doesn't hurt the film itself; the great acting, stellar music, and most importantly, the sense of fun, are the things that keeps bringing people back for more.  The action is full of tension, outclassing its imitators and enduring as one of the best suspense movies of all time.  There's something for everyone in Jurassic Park.  Kids can enjoy the dinosaurs and adults can think about the themes and appreciate the action.    Spielberg is truly a master director, and beyond its fancy looks, there really is something special about Jurassic Park.  I don't think we'd be getting a third sequel this week, twenty-two years later, if there wasn't. 


9/10

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jurassic World (2015)

Originally posted on June 17th, 2015.


There was a moment - several moments in fact - during Jurassic World, where I probably should have been angrier than I was.  This film clearly has some affection Jurassic Park, but has only passing aspirations to live up to it in any meaningful way.  But I took a deep breath, laughed it off, and continued watching.  For I had low expectations from the moment I saw the first trailer; Jurassic World was going to be a generic, nostalgia-driven cash-in on the original movie and nothing more.  Involuntarily, I started getting a little excited when I actually sat down in the theater.  Wow, I thought, A new Jurassic Park movie!  Then, during the opening few seconds, I watched as a CGI raptor baby cracked open its egg and moved with all the uncanniness of a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull groundhog.  It was precisely then that my expectations were tempered and never rose again.




It's been twenty-two years since the events of Jurassic Park.  Isla Nubar is now a fully-functioning dinosaur-populated theme park, filled with wondrous attractions but also too much corporate interference.  It seems to cost a tremendous sum to keep the place open, given that the park's developers have to keep inventing new dinosaur hybrids to attract more customers.  Their latest creation, the Indominus Rex, turns out to be more frightening and violent than the scientists had expected, and one day, it escapes its pen.  Now on a rampage, the creature kills everything in sight to assert its dominance and become master of the food chain.  Two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), happen to be vacationing at the theme park while their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park's operations manager, deals with investors instead of spending time with them.  Before the Indominus Rex even escapes, the park's raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) has a bad feeling about all this, commenting on Claire's attitude toward the dinosaurs as attractions rather than animals.  When shit starts hitting the fan and the park is thrown into chaos, Claire seeks out Owen's help to find her nephews before they're killed by the curiously intelligent creature.




Directed by Colin Trevarrow, Jurassic World sees John Hammond's original vision for Jurassic Park realized, but dialed up to eleven.  Dinosaur safari?  Screw that! We've got self-operating hamster balls!  Holographic dinosaur movies! Impractically-sized aquatic dinosaurs!  While I think that the idea of finally seeing Jurassic Park opening and drawing in huge crowds is a fantastic idea for a sequel, I feel as though the execution in Jurassic World misses the point of the original concept; the new park seldom feels like it could be a real place.  That's a problem in a movie where I happily buy into scientists cloning dinosaurs.  And it's unfortunately not the only problem the movie faces.




Jurassic World contains enough spectacle to make the film watchable, but there's a distinct lack of effort in the screenplay.  Neither of the Jurassic Park sequels were great, so World hardly ruins a great franchise (in fact, it may objectively be the best). But I was hoping that at some point there would be some suspense to counterpoint the comedy, and it unfortunately never really emerges.  The movie is more concerned with wearing fan service on its sleeve while simultaneously making fun of itself, for better and for worse.  Making fun of obvious product placement?  Brilliant.  Making self-referential jokes while many people are dying?  Eh... we encounter some tonal dissonance.  There's a really nice meta theme running throughout the movie (intentional or not) about how dinosaurs were once an incredible thing to behold, but after all these years, people are growing bored of them.  It reminded me of how CGI effects (which Jurassic Park helped popularize) were beyond impressive when they were new, but we're actually getting bored of them now, too.




Part of the fun of a creature feature is caring about what happens to the characters when they're in danger.  But I'll be damned if I honestly didn't care who lived and died in this movie, save maybe the younger brother Zach.  Characters are either flat and unmemorable or obnoxious and unlikable, all the while making forced jokes and exhibiting no chemistry.  There's so much comedy without enough suspense to balance it out, and it makes the movie feel silly and inconsequential.  The only moment that tried to be genuinely terrifying was the pterodactyl attack, and as a result, it's probably the best scene in the movie.  I must admit to geeking out at some of the references to the original movie.  I won't spoil them here (though I'll bet you can't spot Ian Malcom's book just barely in focus in an early scene), seeing as some of them are a welcome surprise.  The only returning cast member is B.D. Wong as Dr. Wu, and while it's great to see him back and delivering a good performance, he's way underused.  How great would it have been to see him return as a full-fledged villain?  Instead we get a villain in Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), and the less we talk about him, the better.




Technically speaking, the film is well-paced and some of the visuals are amazing, but there is an over-reliance on CGI.  I would have loved to see some dinosaur animatronics (and there are a scant few) mixed with the CG to really sell some of the close-ups, but alas, the Stan Winston is no more, and his invaluable love for prosthetics and animatronics is sorely missing from modern Hollywood efforts.  The dinosaurs often look blurry and muddy, like cartoons or video game creatures.  I seldom felt like I could reach out and touch them.  The use of the classic Jurassic Park theme music is also bafflingly mishandled.  I'm glad it was used at all by Michael Giacchino (who I love very, very much), but over a kid's shoes?  Seriously?




Steven Spielberg himself said when he was making a movie about dinosaurs being brought back to life in modern times, you need to inject humor for anyone to take it seriously.  That might seem like a contradictory statement, but it's a subtle way of letting the audience know that the concept may be ridiculous, but you're gonna have a good time anyway.  Jurassic World takes that idea and runs with it, but it doesn't populate its story with enough suspense or intelligent characters to give it any weight.  The movie is pretty funny at points, but it's groan-inducing at others.  There are a few awe-inspiring visuals, but they often support concepts that are too over-the-top to make me believe that any of this could actually exist.  You have DINOSAURS, people!  Don't throw interactive holograms that don't exist in my face if you want me to drool over the dinosaurs later!

6/10

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Midnight Special (spoilers) (2016)





Midnight Special is the rare sci-fi film that treats its audience with immense respect.  There's a deliberate pensiveness to the film that goes against nearly all modern trends; it never bombards the audience with exposition or plot; it instead seeks to intrigue and make the audience demand more.  Jeff Nichols (Mud) serves as writer and director, and it's clear from the start that Midnight Special opts for the feel of an indie film rather than a Hollywood spectacle despite its Spielbergian influences.  There are long stretches with no dialogue, scenes that give us more questions than answers, and a constant air of urgency despite the relatively slow pace.  It tries to instill awe in its audience, and I'd say it mostly gets there.  While its story appears simplistic initially, there are actually numerous complex themes to discover once you start looking for them.




The film centers around a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a powerful gift.  He has the power to show people a wonderful place and give them immense joy, almost like a living drug. Subjected to worship by a religious cult in Texas called the Ranch, Alton is saved by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and are subsequently chased across the country by the FBI.  Alton, growing ever-weaker, needs to get to a location in Florida, burned in his head for an unknown reason, as soon as possible.  Along the way, they stop at the home of Alton's mother Sarah (Kirstin Dunst), avoid a meteorite shower at a gas station, and are nearly stopped altogether by an FBI communications analyst named Sevier (Adam Driver).  Alton eventually discovers that the sunlight (which previously gave him intense pain) is actually what gives him strength, and that his gifts are the result of him not belonging this world.




Some of the strongest parts of Midnight Special are in that first half hour, before we know a lick of what's going on.  The mystery builds, tensions rise, and we're introduced to the characters purely through situations.  There are shocking moments of violence littered throughout the otherwise subtle narrative, which gives them weight and purpose.  There's a sense of grounded reality to the characters' reactions and interactions, and the production reflects that with its very lived-in nature and first-person perspective to much of the spectacle.  It gives us a sense that we're experiencing every moment with the characters, making the story involving even when we don't fully understand what's happening (the gas station meteor shower undoubtedly being the film's best moment).




I would say that while the film is extremely well-acted, the characters aren't especially lovable (save for maybe Lucas) and we don't get inside their heads nearly enough.  This is especially problematic when it comes to Alton, who doesn't seem happy, upset, or much of anything as he's whisked away from the cult by his father and taken on this crazy adventure.  What does he think of having powers?  Is he sad that he has to leave his parents?  What was their relationship like before all this?  On top of that, his most transformative moment happens offscreen, and he tells the other characters about it later (and after all that time without forced expository dialogue no less!)  It all feels just a bit underdeveloped, which collides with the Spielbergian tone the film takes on at times.  Elliot in E.T. is flawed and emotional, Roy from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is determined and charismatic.  Sadly, none of the characters in Midnight Special were able to get under my skin and make me feel anything.




What I find more impressive is the way that the movie handles its themes.   Due to the strong visual sensibilities of the film (it's gorgeously shot by the way) and non-reliance on explanations, the audience can draw their own conclusions about what the film means.  I see it as a parable for smart, misunderstood kids who grow up in small towns, but eventually leave to pursue college, work in the city, etc.  At the end of the film, we see a parallel world that Alton needs to become a part of, and it shines like a futuristic metropolis.  He leaves behind his small, rural town to use his talents somewhere else, even though it means saying goodbye to his parents.  As I mentioned, it could have been more emotional, but it's still a well-crafted moment that echoes the notion that eventually, children have to leave the nest.  Other themes I picked up on center around children in cults, familial bonds, and addiction.  I always appreciate strong themes in genre pictures, mostly because without them, the spectacle is empty.




That's my long-winded way of saying that I respect Midnight Special, and greatly enjoy parts of it, I can't bring myself to love it.  With a firmer grasp on its characters, it might have achieved greatness; but mere goodness is nothing to scoff at.  Its mystery is executed with a fantastic, timeless atmosphere, it features haunting visuals helmed by cinematographer Adam Stone, and a beautiful, subtle musical score by David Wingo.  The actors are fantastic, and commit fully to their unglamourous, grounded roles so fully that I don't think they're even wearing make-up.  So it may not  be at Spielberg levels, but that's an ambition many have strived for and achieved (at least as far as movies go; Stranger Things knocked it out of the park).  Midnight Special is an overlooked gem, and in a cinematic landscape that's sorely lacking in smart, sophisticated sci-fi, that's a darn shame.

7/10