Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jurassic World

3.5 Stars

Steven Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster in 1975 with the film Jaws. He may have invented the post-modern blockbuster in 1993 with Jurassic Park.

There is a scene in Jurassic Park where the camera lingers over merchandise ostensibly from the gift shop of the theme park that gives the movie its name.  Of course, the merchandise on the screen was the very same merchandise available for purchase in the store next to the theater. The line between film and merchandise was blurred. Jurassic World, the third and best sequel to Jurassic Park, seems inspired by this scene more than any other in Jurassic Park.

The plot centers on a new park, Jurassic World, now open and serving twenty thousand visitors a day on the same island where the ill-fated Jurassic Park has been reclaimed by the jungle. Faced with flagging attendance, the InGen scientists concoct a new – never before seen dinosaur. It will be larger, scarier, and it will have more teeth. It will be called the Indominus Rex, and surely, no one will be bored.

The dialogue surrounding this creature seems like it came from a Hollywood production meeting. "Make the dinosaur bigger and scarier." "It should have more teeth." "We need a name that is easier to say." "Nobody cares about authenticity except hipsters." Honestly, I think the script of Jurassic World is just verbatim notes the writer/director got after the pitch meeting (no wonder Hollywood producers gave it the green light, huh?).  And there is something truly fascinating about watching a big budget action picture show you how the sausage is made, but in doing so, the movie commits an error that prevents it from being the sterling picture that the original Jurassic Park was. It forgets that dinosaurs are awesome. All the other Jurassic Park films feature characters truly awed by dinosaurs. Jurassic World features characters referring to them as "assets", or inserting themselves as the alpha in the social order of the raptors. They’ve lost the since of wonder and majesty that made the original film what it was. That doesn’t make Jurassic World bad, but it doesn’t play the same notes as its predecessor. The film even features a character who makes this very point.

The performances are good, but they are unlike the performances in the original Jurassic Park. Where Richard Attenborough, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and even Wayne Knight disappeared into their roles, one never quite loses the movie star luster that has attached itself to their modern counterparts, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and even Judy Greer in a small roll.
I can recommend the film by saying this: Jurassic World is a pretty good film, but it doesn’t provide the experience of Jurassic Park.

I am tempted to end my review of Jurassic World there, except that I feel the need to defend it against the feminist backlash that the movie has received. Most of this backlash has been centered on the fact that Judy Greer’s and Chris Pratt’s characters criticize Bryce Dallas Howard’s character for not wanting to have children. This is actually not an accurate statement. Judy Greer’s character does criticize Bryce Dallas Howard’s character for not wanting children (at least implicitly). Chris Pratt’s character criticizes Ms. Howard’s character for showing no interest in the family she does have until they are nearly eaten by dinosaurs. That criticism is a very good and worthy critique of Ms. Howard’s character. One of the lessons that Ms. Howard’s character learns as the film progresses is the importance of family. In this way, she is like a certain male paleontologist from the original Jurassic Park. Dr. Grant didn’t like children, and his love interest forced him to interact with two children during a visit to a dinosaur park. As the adventure progressed, it awakened surprisingly paternal instincts in Dr. Grant. Ms. Howard’s character has a similar (if less well developed) arc. If feminism is about the equal treatment of women and men, then this is a feminist movie. Jurassic World puts Bryce Dallas Howard in Sam Niell’s shoes. Well, not precisely. She wears high heels for the entire movie, meaning that she does everything Sam Niell did backwards and in heels.

What Jurassic Park had in the feminism column that Jurassic World lacks is girl power dialogue. There are two examples in Jurassic Park that spring immediately to mind. The first occurs when Ellie interrupts Malcom’s ruminations on the consequences of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction. Ellie chimes in, “Woman inherits the Earth” because all the dinosaurs are female. This line prompts uncomfortable looks from Drs. Grant and Malcolm. Then later in the film when Hammond points out that he should go turn on the power instead of Ellie, Ellie retorts that they “can discuss sexism in survival situations when she gets back.” Basically, Jurassic Park wore its “feminism” like a chip on its shoulder. Jurassic World is much more comfortable with its female hero. When the dinosaurs attack Chris Pratt, she bats the dinosaur away with a gun, turns the gun around and fires two shots into the dino’s face. Christ Pratt gets up and kisses her in a reversal of the classic damsel in distress story beat. Jurassic World doesn’t need to have Bryce Dallas Howard tell us to hear her roar. It trusts us to hear it for ourselves. I guess those criticizing the Jurassic World's gender politics heard something different than I did.

Luckily, they can address this controversy through veiled dialogue in Jurassic Solar System in 2018. I've got it. They could name the next dinosaur they cook up in the lab Feminist Rex.

From Out in the Void,


Mad Max: Fury Road

4.5 Stars

I’ve hit a bit of a snag in my attempt to review the best films of the previous decade. It’s taken me some time to locate a copy of Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen. Happily, it has allowed me to reenter the modern world and review Mad Max: Fury Road.

To my mind, it’s the best of the Mad Max franchise (and I say that with apologies to both Mel Gibson and Tina Turner). As my film going companion put it, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best version of what it is.
Tom Hardy takes over the role of “Mad” Max Rockatansky from Mel Gibson. He was a cop before the world ended, and now he’s a lone warrior, hunted by the soldiers of the warlords who run the new world. As the movie opens, he’s on the run from a particular baddy, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, returning to the franchise having previously played “Toecutter” in Mad Max). He is caught, captured, and his relatively healthy blood is fed to one of Immortan Joe’s acolytes, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Then just when it looks like curtains for Max, he finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between Immortan Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who seeks to liberate Joe’s nubile young wives. The rest of the movie is a chase film, first away from Joe’s home base and then back to it, as the plot carries us from one brilliant action set piece to the next.
There’s not enough dialogue or character complexity in Mad Max: Fury Road for it to make the list of best movies of 2015, but it is possibly the most fun and unique action picture that I’ve seen in a long time. Mad Max: Fury Road features a fully formed mythology that its characters subscribe to. It seems to be some combination of Norse mythology and vehicle worship. Tom Hardy’s age makes this unlikely, that the traditions of westerners could have changed so much between Max’s life as a cop and the still relatively young Max that rides the post apocalypse. Nevertheless, I liked how “lived in” this world felt – as if it were real.
The action, set, and sound design are spectacular. The bottom line is that Mad Max: Fury Road will likely be the best action film of 2015. It was put best by a friend of mine: “Mad Max: Fury Road is the best version of what it is.” Honestly, you can’t ask for much more from a film.
From Out in the Void

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Pianist

4.5 Stars

The Pianist is an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography of the same name. Even as I write this review, I can’t actually decide if I think the film is brilliant or a misfire. I think it might be radically both.

The Pianist opens with Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor for a polish radio station. Nazi Germany bombs the station, and Szpilman refuses to leave the piano bench until he’s finished the piece. As everyone flees the station he runs into a friend, and meets the friend's sister. As the bombs fall, Szpilman chases the girl beginning a brief and doomed romance. As imagined by Brody and director Roman Polanksi, this is a trait that will define Szpilman. He seems oddly un-phased and unreactive to the Nazi invasion for large portions of the beginning of the film, cracking wise about the government of occupied Poland’s official decree banning Jews from the park.

This strange use of comedy is a defining feature of the film. Polanski uses the grammar of comedy films to deliver deeply tragic information from real life history – for instance Polanski cuts from the Szpilmans vehemently objecting to wearing arm bands marking them as Jewish to the family patriarch walking down the street with an armband prominently displayed. The film has set up the joke, but history has denied the punchline.

The rest of the film concerns Szpilman’s survival against all odds, fueled by coincidental meetings with old friends who aide and hide him until the Soviets liberate Poland. These passages while tragic, continue to evoke comedy in a strange way. In fact, the work The Pianist most resembles in many respects in Candide, by Voltaire (or maybe Samuel Beckett's entire collected works) which also used comedy to skewer the frightening madness and horrors that history could set upon its protagonist.

I have reservations about using this manner of story telling to tell this story, but I yield to Roman Polanski’s (Academy Award winning) vision – especially in light of the fact that the story of Szpilman is so closely connected to his own experience. The film is perfect from a production, sound, and set design. To watch it, is to see war torn Poland. The Pianist also features a fantastic (and Academy Award winning) performance.

So, if I have yielded my reservations about Polanski’s use of the grammar of film comedy to tell this story, why 4.5 stars and not 5?

The Pianist steps wrong by consistently linking the love of art with morality. Szpilman is certain that a certain non-Jewish person will help him because “she’s a singer; her husband’s an actor. They’re good people.” (Szpilman says this line multiple times). Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), a German officer who helps Szpilman, bonds with Szpilman because he also loves the work of the Polish composer Chopin. Even the Jewish violinist who yells abuse at the captured Nazis at the end of the film gets to prove that he is a great person because he comes to regret his cruelty (hardly a cruelty worth mentioning given the actions of Nazi Germany). The history of the world teaches us that love of art does not in any way equate to moral decency. Hitler loved art. Mao was a poet. John Wilkes Booth was a great actor. Hell, we don’t need to go that far. Roman Polanski loves and creates great art; he’s hardly the poster child for moral decency. This theme is false, and it is so woven into the heart of this film that it corrupts it – robbing The Pianist of the chance to be the classic of modern cinema that it could have been.

The Pianist finds itself on this list because it was selected as the best film of the 2000s by Ty Burr of the The Boston Globe. It was also selected as one of the 10 best films of the decade by one other member of the esteemed panel of experts.

From Out in the Void,


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Best of the 2000s: You Can Count on Me

3 Stars

I have been staring at a blank page trying to figure out how to write my review of You Can Count on Me. This is the first film in my quest for a classic that I feel doesn’t belong on the list. It’s an above average film, but it’s not among the best films of the decade (and it’s been largely forgotten).

You Can Count on Me follows the adult siblings Sammy and Terry Prescott (Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) who lost their parents to a car accident when they were children. Sammy has become a single mother to her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). Terry has become a sometimes criminal, and seems deeply ill at ease with his place in the world.

This movie steps wrong in its opening scene – the car accident that kills their parents. Then a cop shows up to tell the babysitter what happened. Then the movie leaps forward to present day. Sammy has a new boss, Brian (Matthew Broderick), who is driving the employees hard because his home life is falling apart. Sammy is also in an awkward romance with an okay guy, and Rudy has reached the age where he is beginning to ask questions about his missing father (an underused Josh Lucas). She receives a letter from Terry announcing that he’s visiting, and hopes that her brother will help take the stress off of her by helping her with Rudy. The rest of the movie concerns Terry’s attempts to bond with Rudy and Sammy’s attempt to navigate the love triangle she engages in with her boyfriend and her boss.

Writer-Director-Actor multihyphenate, Kenneth Lonergan, provides a meaty script. By that I mean that every scene gives every actor an opportunity to engage in the kind of acting that will fill out their real and get them awards at film festivals. It’s a feast for the actors, but it’s not a feast for the audience. Lonergan gets there with a writer’s cheat, he provides a character (played by him) that simply prods his characters with perplexing questions: Do you think your life is important? Why do you think you’re in this situation? Then he lets his characters unleash a torrent of finely written prose that is beautiful, interesting, and extraordinarily well acted and delivered by actors doing great work. Unfortunately, all the characters are talking to Lonergan and not to each other – which means that it’s really undramatic. Imagine if Sammy had tried to wake her brother up to what his life had become by asking, “Do you think your life is important?” Instead, the question comes from a priest played by Lonergan, and the scene is inert even though Mark Ruffalo breathes life into his character’s response.

That’s what happens in every scene in this movie. Lonergan steps wrong, and great actors (Linney, Ruffalo, Culkin, Broderick, and Lucas) act him out of the corner. They dive into the great monologues he writes for them and swim around.

Lonergan may have a firmer hand as a director than as a writer. He reigns in his actors just after they have saved his script and prevents them from showing off, but his mastery of the director’s chair ends in front of the camera. There are scenes in this movie where I think I can actually see the edits – that is, I can tell where the scene was cut and edited back together.

In the end, I was wondering why this movie was on this list. I think it’s because the acting is so brilliant. The script for this movie might work better on the stage, and it feels like a festival darling. It's perfect for those question and answer sessions with the film's cast and crew. It also ends with one of two scenes in the movie where Lonergan lets his characters Sammy and Terry really talk to each other. Linney and Ruffalo make the most of this material and send the audience off on the absolute best scene in the movie.

It’s an above average movie. It earns that rating because the actors did such good work. It’s fortunate for Writer-Director-Actor Kenneth Lonergan that he could count on them.

You Can Count on Me finds itself on this list because Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle named this the best film of the 2000s. It is also the first film in my quest for a classic that appeared on two of the thirty-seven critics’ best of the decade lists.

From out in the Void,

Steven Johnston

P.S. Because my review was so at odds with every other reviewer, I went and checked out the rest of Kenneth Lonergan's filmography after I finished my review. He is the writer of Analyze This (but not Analyze That). However, he’s also the writer of the film adaptation of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the lesser Scorsese picture Gangs of New York, The Starry Messenger, Margaret (which I heard good things about but was delayed for about a decade before Lonergan put together a more than three hour cut), and the upcoming Manchester-by-the-Sea. Mr. Lonergan has not lived up to the overwhelming praise he received fifteen years ago.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 149, or "Dakota's Story Gets Cut and So Does Everything Else!"

Things get cut, fights don't happen, and there is just a general sense of confusion. Still, movies had to be watched, so Dakota, Nick, and Brit were on the case! In an attempt to thwart the efforts of all sorts of acronym-ed internet users, no matter where they stand, they talked about these movies. If only Brit hadn't cut so much out!

Oh, well. This week the Void Zone crew reviewed The Dark Crystal, Pitch Perfect 2, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Get the episode at this link or stream it below!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 148, or "Don't Get Hot Under the Collar. It's Only the Pursuit of Taste."

Nick and Brit fight again, which, you know, is a return to form. Dakota listens and thinks, "Why subject myself to this?"

At the same time they reviewed movies. Those movies are Harlem Nights, Blue Velvet, and Hot Pursuit.

Get the episode here or stream it below!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

4 Stars

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up where Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 left off. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) confronted the fact that “The Battle of New York” (known to movie fans as the plot of The Avengers) had left him scarred. By the end of that film, he was contemplating the end of his superhero career. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark begins to consider the next step – how he should be replaced.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) realize that the all powerful military-intelligence organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., previously led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), was actually a front for a post-Nazi spy organization called H.Y.D.R.A. Captain America oversaw the downfall of that organization, and has reassembled the super group he led in The Avengers in order to mop up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mess.

An early victory over H.Y.D.R.A. allows the Avengers to reclaim the scepter (a weapon wielded by 
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the previous film). Stark begins to analyze the scepter and realizes that it contains a powerful computer. He recruits his teammate, Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and his digital butler J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) to help him use this alien device to allow him to take a great technological leap and create artificial intelligence. If I remember The Avengers correctly, S.H.I.E.L.D. previously attempted to use alien weaponry to create advanced weapons using alien technology which led to an alien invasion of Manhattan. I must have an inaccurate memory of that because surely someone would have said that to Stark if that’s what happened.

Together, Stark, Banner, and J.A.R.V.I.S. create an artificial intelligence dubbed Ultron (James Spader). After about twenty seconds of existence, Ultron concludes that the Avengers are the problem with humanity (for some reason). Ultron downloads himself into one of Stark’s robotic assistants, and wages war on the team. Along the way, Ultron aligns himself with a pair of twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and builds himself a new body (also played by Paul Bettany) that he intends to use to destroy the Avengers once and for all (again, for some reason).

Look, this movie isn’t about the plot, it’s about the spectacle. All your favorite superheroes are back fighting alongside each other and trading screwball dialogue as they do. I enjoyed this movie, but I have to admit that eleven or so movies into this franchise, the creative seams are beginning to show. There’s a needless repetition here. Once again a villain has decided to rain death from above down on the Earth. Once again, the villain finds a way to get his hooks into Bruce Banner and unleash the giant green rage monster inside him in order to distract the heroes while he gets away with his evil plan.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some fresh wrinkles on the same old themes. Much has been made in the press over Natasha Romanov/Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) rumination on her characters inability to be a mother. But all the characters (yes, all of them, even the male ones) find themselves confronted by the possibility that their uniqueness means that they will never be able to have ordinary homes or families. And that leads to the film’s strongest idea: Ultron was right. These people aren’t even humans anymore. Maybe we aren’t theirs to save – or avenge.

Age of Ultron for all its faults actually does do a pretty good job of addressing that question. They have to do a few narrative contortions to get there, but once they do Age of Ultron does actually suggest an answer – and set up a half dozen sequels that will take us everywhere from a fictional African republic to the far side of the universe.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” If he was right nowhere is safe. Age of Ultron is to be believed, we might just be okay.