A Review of Jurassic World

The original Jurassic Park, 22 years later, is now an official cinema classic. Not only is it a superior thriller with lots of great action sequences and special effects the revolutionized the summer blockbuster,  it contains a lot of unexpected commentary about the folly of man and what happens when they try to play God.

Jurassic Park was mostly built around character arcs. It was not a film about a T Rex eating people. It was about John Hammond watching his lifelong dreams turn to dust. I’ve made jokes about how incompetent inGen is not to perform background checks against a guy heavily in debt with access to their system, but that’s part of the point. inGen didn’t know what it was doing and innocent people paid the price.

It’s also about Dr. Alan Grant realizing just how foolish it is to be stuck in the past. He was obsessed with his fossils and discovering what these animals were like. It was to the exclusion of all else, to the point where he was unable to really relate to Dr. Sattler, hated children, and unable to use the technology that was revolutionizing his field. Once he found out that dinosaurs were alive again, he began to explore more options and was finally able to realize that the living people around him were the most important things in life.

That’s why the film works – because the characters actually have arcs. “Well, obviously,” you’re saying. “All great stories do.”

Someone should have told that to the creators of Jurassic World.

Absolutely none of the characters undergo any sort of change based on what they experience. They are convinced that either they were entirely right or the dinosaur attacks were not their fault. They have no new bond with anyone else and no new insight into the world around them.

The creators do try to introduce concepts that may be used to help characters develop, but even then nothing is ever done correctly. If I were to ask you how a Jurassic Park sequel would open, you would probably guess there would be some little teaser about a civilian seeing a dinosaur or being attacked by one. Jurassic World opens with a Christmas song playing as two kids prepare to go on vacation. The kids – who are so memorable and noteworthy that I’ve completely forgotten their names – are the nephews of Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who are going to Jurassic World. Claire is a workaholic inGen executive at the park who meets with investors so the facilities can open (I swear this is true) a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant along main thoroughfare of the park. The whole point is that Claire would discover that work is not everything in the world and would bond with the two kids and discover her love of family. This doesn’t work because a) the first Jurassic Park already explored that theme and b) it’s the same problem with Aliens in the fact that it suggests women are only fulfilling their roles in society when they bond with children. Claire seems like she has a great career to me and nothing that happens in the film actually is her fault. Besides, she never actually does bond with those kids in any meaningful way. The most we get is a scene of her taking off her business suit top to venture into the jungle to save them, but still runs around in heels during the entire movie.

How does the other big star, Chris Pratt, fit into the film? He plays a game warden named Owen who seems to have discovered a way to train the velociraptors to obey commands. He also is tasked with using his training technique on a new species of dinosaur, which inGen created in order to help boost visitor interest in the park – some sort of cross between a T Rex and several lizard species. Of course the specimen escapes and wrecks havoc, killing many park staff members and trapping those aforementioned children in the jungle after they don’t follow the specified tour route. Owen and Claire do team up to go find the kids, but that’s not really any sort of great character change on his part. How does he feel about the dinosaurs being alive and his employer for thinking they can control them? I honestly don’t know. He has many one liners about how what they’re doing is wrong, but I’m never convinced Owen actually feels that way. Mostly he exists so that the film can show Chris Pratt in a leather vest carrying a Winchester rifle around. He certainly doesn’t undergo any deep revelations about the park or humanity playing God.

So what we’re left with is a movie that’s mostly about the attractions at a theme park turning a dream vacation into a nightmare. It’s a sound idea – showing Jurassic Park as a fully functional amusement park with all of the state of the art technology to give the 20,000 visitors to the island a once in a lifetime experience that quickly turns into a nightmare could lead to all sorts of wonderful moments. But it never does. By the time we get to the second act, the film almost becomes a parody of itself, with elaborate death sequences that undermine the tragedy of what’s happening and bad action one liners. While watch the pterodactyls attack park guests, I kept thinking about how much overtime the inGen lawyers would have to put in to settle the lawsuits. That’s not a good a sign.

Even the references to the original Park fall flat  Mr. DNA, the animated character from the original who famously pronounced the name “dinosaurs” as “dihno-sahrers” does make a brief appearance in one of the exhibits and there is a bronze statue of John Hammond shown in the main visitors’ center of the new park. Dr. Henry Wu shows up again to give the lecture about how it’s wrong to turn nature into a commodity. (He goes on at length about how splicing DNA can lead to unexpected mutations – even though he was completely ignorant about this fact in the first film.) And inGen’s lack of corporate morality is still a plot point. Vincent D’onofrio plays a man named Hoskins who is convinced the raptors could be used as weapons for the military. But this never leads to anything worthwhile (unless you count raptors going on a “hunt” in the jungle) and just demonstrates inGen shares a board of directors with Weyland Yutani.

By the time the film ended, I was not sure what I had experienced. The pacing was very unusual and I could not think of a great sequence that stuck out for me. Still, the film is not aggressively bad. The special effects are decent – there’s a fairly good scene with Owen comforting a dying Apatosaurus that is filmed with an animatronic figure. And I did like the product placement at the park. I talked about Margaritaville showing up – and it’s played as a deliberate joke that reflects the overpriced themed restaurants at any number of amusement parks. I also liked the Sea World – esque sequence in which a shark is fed to a giant aquatic dinosaur. But these sequences were too small and don’t compare to, say, the T Rex attack or the first scene where we see an apatosaurus in the original film.

It really looks as though the artistic success of the first Jurassic Park will never be replicated. It is a much better film than Jurassic Park III, but that’s not saying much. World feels like a missed opportunity. It is a sequel content to hit the same notes as the original film and didn’t seem to care about its characters. The film could have been worse, but I wanted more. I know many are probably excited to watch it, but if you want me advice, just rewatch Park and know that filmmakers still don’t understand what makes that one good.

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A Review of Mad Max: Fury Road

The Mad Max franchise has achieved that rarest of all things. It’s a series of films that not only pleases whatever crowd watches it and has been cited as one of the best film series of all times. In the same way John Ford invented a genre while pleasing a mass audience, Mad Max director George Miller created a slew of imitators all based on a simple idea about the open roads and fast cars.

Miller’s been trying to make Fury Road for almost 15 years. By all accounts, the production was a disaster, suffering from budgetary overruns to reshoots to recasts. This is normally an indication of an epic disappointment in the making. Disregarding those problems, there was no artistic reason for a Mad Max sequel. The films have been imitated so many times that everyone would assume a new Max film is part of worn out genre.

But Fury Road is incredible.

It is one of the few films that creates an entire self-contained world with only the simplest of ideas. Fury Road has one question – what would actually happen if the entire world collapsed and the only people left were a group of Jodorowsky-esque creatures who are trying to find some sort of hope? There is no attempt to reconstruct what is lost and there is no attempt for anyone to be morally good. Despite its bizarre characters and over the top set pieces, Fury Road comes across as incredibly realistic. I have a feeling that, if human society were to collapse and we found ourselves slowly returning to nature, the “might makes right” attitude of the characters in Fury Road would be exactly what humanity would face.

And the action sequences are exciting and exhilarating.

That idea is used as a subversion for every trope about post-apocalyptic fiction, even in the way that Max (Tom Hardy, replacing series mainstay Mel Gibson) is characterized. He is not a typical postmodern hero that has to have a quip about his situations in order to lessen the impact on the audience. He’s not even a hero, really. As he explains, his existence is based only on his own survival.

At the beginning of the film, Max is captured by the tribe of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an old man who has drilled down into the earth to bring the increasingly rare water to his people. They worship him as a god and his warriors, including Nux (Nicholas Hoult) dream of dying for him so they can go to Valhalla. He also keeps female slaves to bear him children.

So, does Max see these women in peril and spring into action? No. That falls upon Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is the true main character in the film. She’s the one who steals a truck to take the brides to “the green place.” Max, as usual, is an ancillary character to the proceedings. He spends the first act as Nux’s blood bag (tied to the front of Nux’s car with his blood being fed into Nux’s veins) and is only introduced to these characters when he tries to shoot one in the leg and steal their truck for his own getaway.

What’s interesting is how Miller changed the characterization of Max. This is not really a sequel to the second or third film, but wants to take Max back to the beginning. He’s haunted by very abstract images of his dead family, but doesn’t fight for them. He’s running from them and doesn’t care about anything that could remind him of his past. Max doesn’t even like saying his name. That obsession with the world as it was before (as Furiosa demonstrates) is more insane than grabbing a gun and hoping you can kill the warrior tribe before they kill you. Even the wives, at times, are desperate to turn around and beg forgiveness from Joe rather than keep going into the unknown. It’s all handled quite well because the actors make it believable.

But that’s not what makes Fury Road so incredible. The characters are almost ancillary to the breathless action sequences. I said that, after Furious 7, Fury Road had a lot to live up to. I was completely wrong to assume that Miller wasn’t up to the challenge.

Miller creates an entire world using his action sequences, from Joe’s war rig that includes drummers and a guitarist to play his war cries and the acrobatic drivers who use trapeze style maneuvers to yank people from moving vehicles. I’ve already mentioned the fact that Max is used as a blood bag for a warrior. This is because everyone seems to be suffering from a deadly illness, including Nux and Joe. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the necessity to cool engines and use winches.

None of this is really explained by anyone. These are characters who have been inhabiting their world for decades. (Furiosa mentions being away from home for 7,000 days.) And the sequences themselves are handled very well. The editing is rapid, but that’s an artistic point rather than a standard. There are beautiful shots of the vehicles as they pursue their prey. And above all, there is a sense that the heroes may not survive. It stirs the imagination as you see warriors descending from vehicles on long poles and snatching someone. Who are these people and how did they arrive at this point?

It’s exactly what made The Road Warrior so unique. That film ended with a fifteen minute car chase filled with a great deal of bizarre characters who were fighting out of duty and their beliefs.  Fury Road is almost nothing but car chases – and it finds something new and unique to do each time. There are so many moments that stay in the imagination that I have a feeling I’ll need to re watch it in order to capture everything.

Fury Road, like The Road Warrior, is one of those films that no one would expect to set off a revolution. It’s an energetic ride that takes the simplest ideas and uses them to create something new. Miller could have easily just remade The Road Warrior and made fans complacent. But Miller wanted to show a new generation WHY The Road Warrior was so widely beloved and why imitators still pop up. It’s about showing the same passion you had about the films that inspired you. That’s a lesson that Kurosawa knew, that Spielberg knows, and that Miller demonstrates perfectly with Fury Road.

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A Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers wrote the current Marvel movie formula. It’s something they’ve stuck to very carefully since then. From a monetary standpoint, it’s been highly successful.

But from an artistic standpoint, it’s been a case of diminishing returns. The new Avengers movie shows why. Marvel and Disney seem so stuck in the formula that they’re unable to break it using the very series that should break the rules, no matter how many talented people they hire.

I want to emphasize that I didn’t find Avengers: Age of Ultron to be an outright disaster. It’s well-directed (particularly the opening scene) not badly written (although some of the jokes, such as the one involving Captain America scolding Iron Man for bad language, isn’t funny the first time and goes downhill from there) and does have a few good moments with its characters. But it’s not as good as the first one and it seems rather disinterested in explaining itself.

I’ll tell you what I mean. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr once again) and Ultron (James Spader). In Iron Man 3, Stark destroyed all of his suits and renounced his identity. But he still appears here in his Iron Man role with no explanation in the context of the film.

They do try to explain more of Tony’s motivations with the creation of Ultron. Ultron started out as a program Tony designed so the Avengers could retire and the world would still have protectors. Stark finally cracks the secret of this new program when the Avengers recover Loki’s staff at the start of the film. Of course, within ten seconds of going online, Ultron decides that humanity must be destroyed and that the Avengers are the true enemies of the world, based mostly on their recent actions in the fictional country of Sovokia (where Loki’s staff was being held) that harmed many civilians. That would definitely be an interesting dynamic and, indeed, many superhero stories discuss how the heroes attract the villains and may be causing more harm than good to society.

It is not handled well in Ultron because Ultron remains a cypher. We never understand HOW he came to this conclusion or whether this is a choice he’s making or some sort of suicide desire that Stark secretly had. It would be great if he had more scenes with Stark alone to explain what’s happening. The most we get is Ultron singing “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio. In addition, nobody on the Avengers team seems to care that it was Stark who unleashed this entity that may destroy the world. Even his attempts to fix the problem (I will say no more to avoid spoilers) don’t address this failing. All of the Avengers yell at Stark, it still gets done, and then everyone forgets that Stark once again went behind their backs.

I’ve often singled out Stark as  my favorite character in these films, but this time I found myself drawn more toward Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who is slowly falling in love with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). It’s the sort of dichotomy that made The Hulk such a popular character. Hulk himself even gets a few moments of humanity when he sees the people who are afraid of him after his rampage. Banner wants to feel love but knows that such a relationship could prove dangerous to the world. I also liked Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) victims of violence in Sovokia who realize that the Avengers may still be the heroes after all. I wanted to know more about their past and more about their relationship.

It would have been more interesting to focus on one character and see what motivates them and how they overcome their own demons. But Avengers once again tries to shoe horn as many characters in as possible. This means that no character is given prominence – everyone is given equal time. It’s a shame because some of the Avengers are boring. Captain America (Chris Evans) once again is obsessed with the past and the fact that he outlived the love of his life. (Agent Carter, of the vastly superior ABC tv show, makes a small cameo). Thor is stuck doing nothing while Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) reveals his secret family. It’s just too much for an action film. I found myself distracted trying to keep up with everything to the point I was unable to get emotionally invested in anyone.

Are there good things here? Of course. I liked the scene when, as a party game, each Avenger tries to lift Thor’s hammer. The opening action sequence is well done and I also liked the Hulk/Iron Man fight from a technical standpoint. There’s nothing about The Avengers that really feels incompetent and I can see why a mass audience who wants a brief distraction or brief entertainment will like it. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen everything the film had to offer before and in this age of sequels, I’m tired of properties unable to take risks. You laugh, but the first Avengers was a huge risk. I wanted that feeling back.

I said in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel could find itself in real trouble down the line if it doesn’t change. I see that trouble brewing with Age of Ultron. There’s no longer any thrill in this sort of film – we know what the ending will be, we know that the characters are not in any danger, and we’ve seen everything the actors can do with the characters. I will not say that Avengers is poorly made, but frankly I’m bored. Daredevil just got a show on Netflix that’s an absolute joy. Avengers, no matter how well made it is, just feels limp.


 

Postscript: Normally I would not address something like this, but one aspect of the film has attracted some attention from those annoying “social justice warriors.” For some reason, they feel Black Widow’s kidnapping in the film is “degrading to women” and demonstrates Whedon (who created one of the strongest modern female superheroes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a “sexist pig.” This is absolute nonsense in terms of the plot and in terms of the character.

I find it ironic that such individuals seem to promote minority viewpoints but cease looking at characters like Black Widow once they find she’s a woman. To them, her womanhood is all they need to see. There’s no need for nuance and no need for strength or figuring out what she does in the story. They see her in mild peril and decide that it’s degrading just because her character happens to be a woman. That’s unfair and, if I may be blunt, dumb.

The scene involves Black Widow being kidnapped by Ultron as she is trying to recover something for the team. (Again, avoiding spoilers here.) Ultron wants to use her as leverage against the Avengers.

Sounds like a “damsel in distress” scenario where Black Widow waits for the menfolk to come rescue her. But it doesn’t play out that way at all. First, the kidnapping is a random event that could have easily happened to another character. She was not targeted for being a woman. Second, it makes sense to target her; she doesn’t really have any superpowers and thus would not put up as much of a fight against Ultron. And she doesn’t just sit back and wait – she uses the limited resources to engineer her own escape and absolutely does not act helpless. It’s also not a major plot point and is resolved in five minutes or so. This is not a depiction of a woman in peril. This is something that happens to a character to further the plot and get the team to where Ultron wants them to be. That’s it – no theme about the subjugation of women, nothing that take’s Black Widow’s strength away, nothing. It was a narrative choice using a character that made the most sense. Think about it this way – do you think The Hulk is someone who could be kidnapped?

There are a lot of real issues facing the world today about violence against women. Stop trying to win your moral credits and pretending like you’re helping people by being offended by a five-minute scene in a movie that you are either unable or unwilling to examine in its proper context.

You’re not helping your cause.

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A Review of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind

Most people are probably going to spend the weekend talking about The Avengers.

But I’d rather talk about something nearer and dearer to my heart – The Other Side of the Wind. I’ve never seen it, and neither have you. But it still occupies an important place in cinematic history for those increasing few that like to keep track of that sort of thing.

The Other Side of the Wind was supposed to be what finally revived Orson Welles. In the decades after Citizen Kane, Welles was viewed as a one hit wonder who took whatever project he could as long as the check could clear. He still directed other films. Some of theme are amazing. But none of them were completed in a manner Welles approved of. They were recut, redone, redubbed, and failed to find an audience.

Welles tried to take control of his work by financing everything on his own. The Other Side of the Wind was shot over the course of five years and was never released, owing to legal issues related to the Iranian revolution (Yes. Really.) and Welles inability to pay anyone involved. Producers promised money and rescinded at the last possible moment. The negative is locked up in a Parisian vault. To date, only two scenes from it can be seen – they’re available on the documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band. Others have been leaked, but are buried just as quickly.

Last year, the New York Times announced that the film would finally be released in May 2015, to coincide with Welles’ 100th birthday. As I write this on May 1st, and I have not seen anything from The Other Side of the Wind. No release date, no premiere, no trailer, no new stills, nothing. It will probably remain lost in the wind, the same way Welles’ career has been outside of people who love to imitate The Brain.

But still, in April, Josh Karp’s exposè on this lost masterpiece was released. It’s the first “making of” book about The Other Side of the Wind in existence. Karp, who previously wrote a book about National Lampoon its effect comedy, seemed well versed to expose forgotten pieces of pop culture. I read it with great anticipation, hoping to get new insight onto the work – perhaps even new footage or descriptions of new scenes.

It doesn’t. If you search The Other Side of the Wind on Wikipedia, you’ll find out everything the book reveals about Wind’s production. There is nothing really revealing about the content of the work. Nor is there anything revealing about how Welles tried to find money to finish it, sneaking onto backlots with crews posing as amateurs.

This was an incredible disappointment to me. I know most of what happened during Wind. I also know about Welles’ money troubles and how he loved to lend his voice to whatever he can. I also know how Welles was inspired to make it and why he felt it would revive his career.

But Karp lends an incredible voice to the proceedings. There’s a sense of urgency about Welles and how much hinged on this film. There’s also an emphasis on how inadvertently original the making of Wind was. At the time Welles was shooting, there was no such thing as “independent film making.”  Welles (along with John Cassavetes), inadvertently created a revolution. Karp’s work gives a sense of that accomplishment – and helps us lament the loss of how sad Welles’ situation has become.

There are numerous descriptions about how Welles was being given life time awards – which were meant as an insult. It confirmed that Welles deliberately didn’t attend the Oscar ceremony and the only reason he attended the AFI ceremony was to raise funds for his films. But Karp offers a unique perspective about how Welles still inhabited that larger than life figure. It was the classic Norma Desmond syndrome – Welles is big, as he called up his crew at 7 in the morning after four hours sleep and lived with Peter Bogdanovich. It’s the pictures that got small.

Because of this, the book is never boring. Karp frames the book as a Orson Welles work, including the opening death scene (I take it that Welles’ death in 1985 won’t come as a surprise to anyone) and the italicized opening narration that Karp invites us to imagine in Welles’ voice. The third act is a little clunky and has no resolution, but that’s only because the story of The Other Side of the Wind remains incomplete and unreleased. Still, we do hear about how the film evaporated as money disappeared and Welles alienated those he was working with. His sad death is described as the sort of Shakespearean tragedy that would have appealed to Welles.

But, overall, Karp’s work is just another brick in the gigantic The Other Side of the Wind road. There will be no end to that road until the film is finally released. Until then, we are stuck with glimpses like this. The film may very well exceed all expectations, but if this scant information is all someone like Karp has to work with, then maybe The Other Side of the Wind is doomed to remain a footnote.

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A Review of Furious 7

I know that I am ridiculously hard to please, which is why I had avoided every single Fast and the Furious film after the first one came out in 2001.

The first film was like a compilation episode of an incredibly bad soap opera on MTV. It was poorly written, had bad characters, bad dialogue, and absolutely no originality. (It was pretty much an unauthorized remake of Point Break.) The one thing that did work were the race scenes that were featured so prominently in the trailer.

So, somewhere along the line, the producers said to themselves, “Screw it. You people want cars and action scenes? We’ll give you the most ridiculous ones we can think of.”

And, judging by Furious 7, this is entirely the correct approach. Furious 7 is what The Expendables was meant to be – an action film so over the top it almost becomes a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker deconstruction of the genre. Furious 7 uses every single action film clichè you can think of, and then adds in a few more for good measure.

It stumbles out of the gate. After a fantastic credit sequence that sees Jason Statham (his character has a name, but who cares what anyone’s names are in this movie?) walking through a destroyed hospital and vowing revenge for his brother, we get Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez driving to a drag race that has Diesel trying to help Rodriguez get through her amnesia. It’s the sort of dumb soap opera scene that killed the original film. To its credit, Furious 7 still stands up on its own even if you haven’t seen the previous entries, so there isn’t a lot of focus on this plot point. But these scenes at the beginning are mostly pointless. After that opening, it was pretty obvious that Furious 7 was never going to be a character drama, so why bother talking about how Walker’s character is not enjoying family life as much as he should be? The drag race scene also displays every problem I had with the first film, with it’s objectifying of women, it’s sickening rapid pace editing, and the complete lack of tension.

Iggy Azaela even shows up to congratulate Rodriguez, which nearly gave me a brain hemorrhage.

Who dat, who dat, who dat on the right? Dat is someone who reminds me just how much we’ve failed as a species.

Luckily, Furious 7 abandons this format very quickly. The film is two hours, but the second and third acts just fly by after Diesel and crew are hired by a government agent (Kurt Russell in an inspired role) to track down a surveillance system called “God’s Eye” that will allow them to find Statham before he finds and kills them. Flimsy? You bet, but that doesn’t matter at all.

I know that Fury Road isn’t going to be released until next month, but it has a lot to live up to after Furious 7. The chase scene in the second act, which sees the gang rescuing a hacker that has access to God’s Eye, is incredible. It’s long, but then the end chase of The Road Warrior went on for almost 20 minutes and the climatic chase of Stagecoach lasted 15 minutes. What works is whether or not we respond to those chases. And Everything about that scene in Furious 7 is engaging. The stunts (including the one where Paul Walker has to run along side a bus falling off a cliff) are incredible, and there is actual tension in them about whether or not they’ll succeed.  Action directors – you want a template for how to create pacing and spectacle? Furious 7 provides it for you.

The film also does something I had thought no mainstream film would do – show us something new. There’s a scene in the second act where the crew has to steal a car (and the surveillance device) from the top floor of the famed Etihad Towers in Abu Dubai. It’s a spectacle that would make James Bond proud – Diesel and Walker drive the car through three buildings, causing havoc. It’s a scene that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – why does a billionaire keep a car that’s locked in a vault stocked with a full tank of gas? Who cares? It’s another opportunity for the film to do something unique and cool when there was absolutely no expectation that it would.

Furious 7 goes completely for broke and lets nothing hold back its desire to create an amazing spectacle. On that level, it’s impossible not to like. I know many who will complain about the numerous plot holes, the choppy editing, and the nonsensical characters. They’ll be right. But I still want to have fun something and unlike similar blockbuster films, I found myself not caring about Furious 7’s flaws. It’s an easy film to get lost in once you realize what Furious 7 is trying to accomplish. On that level, I wanted to highly recommend everyone see it at least once.

And then….the film had the postscript that nearly destroyed it all.

Many of you probably know that Paul Walker died in a car crash before this film was released. I expected the filmmakers to pay some sort of tribute to him. But the way they do it is the tackiest way possible, considering what we’ve just seen.

The scene is Diesel doing a monologue while a bad rap song (surprisingly not Puff Daddy’s “Missing You”) and clips from the previous films are played. It ends with Walker and Diesel driving their separate ways, which could work if that was meant to an important plot point. But, the plot has already been resolved.

There is no emotion in this scene at all and no reason for it to be included.

Second, and this is most important: it’s a reminder of the real life and the consequences that Furious 7 had spent two hours ignoring. Again, Paul Walker was killed in a car crash. Over the course of Furious 7, I watched hundreds of car crashes and spectacular stunt driving that the characters walked away from with barely a scratch.

It was a reminder of how those scenes would play out in real life. If people didn’t die, they would be crippled and forced to undergo years of therapy. We see numerous cars exploding – some with people clearly in them, including a police officer trying to pull over the crew- and no acknowledgement is made of the carnage. That’s standard action fare and Furious 7 is far from the only film to ever treat wanton destruction so callously. Yet to remind me of a very real person who was killed in something that Furious 7 lovingly showed made me think of the moral failings these characters must have in order to walk away from everything they did.

In order for Furious 7 to work, there needs to be a level of fantasy in the proceedings. It’s that way for all films. But Furious 7 destroys what it had built up for a tacky tribute that does nothing to honor Walker or the way he died.

It’s an epilogue, so I don’t want to say it completely destroys the film. Walk out after the jail scene and you’ll have witnessed a film I recommend. Stay for the epilogue and you’ll end up with a bad taste in your mouth. This is probably a case where that “For Paul” interstitial was enough.

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Retro Review – Air Force One

Air Force One is a film that almost exists out of time. It was released in 1997 but seemed to predict a lot of issues the world would face. It was part of the unusual trend of portraying the President of the United States as an infallible hero before George W. earned that (incredibly bloated) reputation after 9/11. In fact, this film and Independence Day seem to acknowledge our nation’s love affair with movie stars more than politicians.

These are not really critiques. If anything, that’s what makes Air Force One such an effective action movie. And Air Force One embraces its premise to a degree that Michael Bay never has.

Harrison Ford plays James Marshall, a popular president who assists Russia in removing General Radek, the dictator of Kazakhstan, from power. Gary Oldman plays the head of a terrorist group loyal to that dictator who hijack Air Force One to get Radek released.

Now, I could be reading that plot synopsis with the deep, gravelly voice that we still hear whenever we think of “movie trailer.” It’s schlock. But director Wolfgang Peterson and the rest of the filmmakers manage to get a lot out of that premise.

For example, one subplot of the film is an enormous Constitutional discussion about the transfer of power when the president is incapable of acting in the best interests of the United States.  According to IMDB, these scenes are a reference to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempting to assume control of the government after Ronald Reagan was shot. How often do mainstream blockbusters do any sort of “ripped from the headlines” references like that, especially in an era where practically everyone pretends to know what the United States Constitution actually says? But it’s integrated seamlessly into the plot.

But the main reason the film works is because of the performances by the two main leads. Harrison Ford has the appropriate presence of a U.S. president. He is also able to examine the human aspects of such a man, demanding that people on the plane not spoil the outcome of a football game that he is hoping to watch in his office. He also breaks down when he sees his family being threatened. Un-presidential? Maybe so, but the president is still a human being. I’ve always enjoyed films that explore the little hobbies of powerful people. It makes them seem like the rest of us, which means their plight is that much more incredible. I mean, surely President Obama enjoys watching March Madness? For some reason, we never see that in reality. Films have to provide that for us.

Marshall doesn’t even really work as the stereotypical Hollywood action hero – which makes the film better. He’s a very scared individual who doesn’t know how he’s going to resolve the problem. In fact, he’s not the person that saves the hostages. I can’t imagine anyone else taking on this role. Ford is so perfect for the superhero president the film called for. He’s capable of beating the bad guys but at the same time he does so without arrogance and without pride. Marshall acts like he never wanted to be the center of an action film.

But it’s nothing compared to Gary Oldman. He never tries to be human – which is what the movie required. Even when he’s caught in a private moment, it’s all about his love for Mother Russia and the strong men who can lead her. I probably laughed at this in 1997, but today it sounds like a Putin speech. Oldman is completely ruthless – I began to believe he was willing to kill for Mother Russia as I watched the film.

The performances are great, but there are also many great moments in the film. One that stuck out to me was a tribute to the unbroken shot in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Marshall looks around Air Force One to see what sort of damage the terrorist have caused. The scene in which the national security adviser is executed is also great. It’s a very fearful scene, in which Oldman demonstrates his commitment to his cause.

Are there flaws? Well, everything has flaws and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. For one, there was a fourth act in the film that was completely worthless – something about Air Force One crashing after the terrorists had already been defeated. For another, certain characters are worthless. William H Macy plays a major who is on board. He quickly is set up as someone important for reasons I can’t explain. And yes, the film is cloying at times, especially through Glenn Close’s vice president. There are also scenes that make no sense – like when a refueling tanker blows up after a minor malfunction. I would hope the Air Force has a few more safeguards than “leaky fuel = everyone dies.”

But these flaws never outweigh the whole. Air Force One remains a great action movie that pays debt to the past and puts its fingers on a pulse of America that beat very briefly. I wish influenced more filmmakers. You don’t need to insult our intelligence  just because someone on screen fires a gun. We can still follow more complex issues about the nation while explosions happen.

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A Review of Tommy Wiseau’s Neighbors

Even more than The Room, Neighbors feels like a huge passion project for the enigmatic Wiseau.

After The Room was certified as an official cult success, Wiseau began thinking about his next steps. He wanted to conquer another medium and began dreaming up a television series about a bunch of doofuses in a shabby apartment building. It would be called The Neighbors  and would conquer American TV.

There was a trailer with a cast attached to it…and that was pretty much all anyone knew.

I remember (as longtime readers might) going to see Wiseau at a Q & A and The Room screening in 2010. I asked him about The Neighbors and the trailer I had discovered on YouTube.  He liked the question so much he brought me onstage and hugged me. Then he told the crowd about how it was a sitcom that he was developing and hoping to get picked up as a series on Adult Swim.

Five years later and we finally get to see four episodes of whatever Wiseau was dreaming up at that moment. Better still, he’s skipped the old media entirely and gone straight to Hulu.

Always an innovator, that Wiseau is.

The Disaster Artist, the wonderful book written by The Room costar Greg Sestero, recounts how that wondrous film came to be. On the surface, The Disaster Artist paints Wiseau as a control freak who has no idea how to interact with other people, much less write a movie or act. Now, all film directors are eccentric to a certain degree. The best directors have even been tyrants to ensure their vision makes it to audiences worldwide. But they at least deliver the goods. Wiseau started off in the wrong direction and refused to let anyone stop him. That’s what made The Room so special. What made it even better was the fact that it seemed to be Wiseau chasing his version of the American dream, with all the glamor and fame that comes with it.

It lead to something that, really, can only happen once. If Wiseau tried anything else without improving his craft, it would demonstrate he’s incapable of learning anything and come across as a very sad attempt. But if he did try to improve, he would just be another bad filmmaker without the passion and downright insanity that drove The Room and lose his audience.

Well, honestly, Wiseau does not seem to have learned his lesson. I was expecting ineptitude. But The Neighbors lacks the passion that The Room had. There are no quotable quotes, no amazingly wrong performances, nothing that suggests the misguided soul that wants to be a big shot. In his own way, Wiseau had succeeded. I guess the sophomore slump was inevitable.

The Neighbors seems to take place in some low rent apartment project in some random west coast city. Wiseau plays Charlie, who appears to run the apartment building and, like some sort of lazy Greek chorus, responds to everything that happens to him with, “What a day!” He works in the office with Bebe, who may be his secretary, his business partner, or his romantic partner. The pilot episode features all the residents in the apartment coming into the office and back to their rooms to engage in wacky shenanigans. And these are some incredibly Lynchian tenants. There’s a Lindsay Lohan lookalike named Philadelphia who’s always wearing a bikini that’s far too small, a woman named Cici who’s constantly screaming about her lost pet chicken, a stoner named Troy who’s quite violent as he throws his rent money at Charlie, busty roommates who try to use their sex appeal to get out of paying for a pizza (and somehow this isn’t a porno), and a guy named Tim who constantly loans $20 from Charlie so he can pay off Bebe and vice versa. Also, that aforementioned pizza guys decides to move in to the building. I guess this is meant to be the big dramatic payoff of the episode, especially because Bebe decides to approve him without checking his credit score out of laziness.

Does any of this sound funny? Because it’s not.

The pilot feels like it was made by a group of people who knew better, but just didn’t care about the quality of their product. The picture quality looks like it was shot on an iPhone running low on batteries. There was even a visible error on the picture that was kept in. The lighting is amateurish and seems to change from shot to shot. The costumes are ridiculous. (In one of the most bizarre examples of cinematic homage, Tommy Wiseau’s name appears on a brand of underwear worn by the building’s maintenance man.) There are flubbed lines that are left in. The sets are all wrong – I never once thought I was looking at a functioning apartment building.

That’s not even getting into the script. Nothing that happens seems to be connected to anything else. We get no sense of the people in that live here outside of their skin color or their prominent breasts. As you can guess from that last sentence, racist humor and poor taste are a problem. (“Why can’t you get along? What is this, the nineties?” Wiseau asks a black and Asian man as they argue over a disrupted internet connection.) The jokes seem to be based around dumb running gags, like the previously described $20 loan. There’s no punchline to accentuate comedy, no arc for any of the characters, no conflict that needs to be resolved, nothing – just a lot of grotesque set pieces. One very bizarre sequence has another young lady in a low cut shirt “hypnotize” someone into giving her a gun for free. The scene ends with a girl getting a gun for free and the guy cursing at himself for being so stupid. Ha…ha?

These are all problems that were present in The Room, but they’ve been celebrated by fans as perhaps the definitive example of cinematic outsider art. Neighbors just comes across as sad and lifeless, like you’re watching a home video production by your uncle who still refers to women as “doll face.”

The Neighbors is not really unique. There have been a ton of anti-comedies that still live on networks like Adult Swim. They take the same broad approach to stereotypes and often are filled with equally dumb jokes. Tim and Eric come to mind, as does Rob Choddry’s Childrens Hospital. But unlike The Neighbors, the creators of that fare inject an ironic knowledge about their tropes and their humor comes from the fact they are making fun of all the stupid stuff a mass audience watches with enthusiasm. The joke is that American media usually appeals to the lowest common denominator and keeps our perception of the world skewed. The Neighbors contains no more stupid moments than, say, 2 Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men. Had The Neighbors rose to that level of anti-comedy, I would be praising it.

But I never got the feeling that Wiseau was thinking along those lines. I got the feeling he thinks such racial humor was meant to be funny on its own. Without that knowledge, Neighbors was doomed to fail.

I ended the experience by watching a Bill Hicks documentary so I could remind myself what comedy really was and how it works. The Neighbors sure wasn’t going to do that for me. I didn’t laugh once. I was filled with a sadness. Maybe Wiseau is trapped and is giving the audience what it wants. But it was just ineptitude that made The Room special. It was a passion and the fact that Wiseau was in over his head. Along the way. He stumbled into greatness and what now seems like a deliberate deconstruction of turgid Oscar fare that hits the audience of their heads with its message. The Room will undoubtedly live on. I don’t think The Neighbors will survive even for a season.

What a day.

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The Sexiest Actresses Ever in Cinema

One of the big reasons that people have always flocked to cinemas is so they can pretend that the gorgeous people they see on screens may one day throw them a look. Ever since the days of Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood has sold glamor and sex appeal to sell films.

I’ve lost count of how many times one actor or another has been declared “the sexiest actor ever.” I’m not even one hundred percent sure how one is awarded that label. To me, it seems very personal and not something that can be objectively agreed upon. Some people might find some overlaps, sure, but surely someone like the late Paul Bartel was sexy to somebody?

…Ladies?

But the fact is, as long as there has been a film industry, there has been a voyeuristic component that extends beyond what happens on screen. People invent their own fantasies around their favorite actors. This has been encouraged by the number of details that we hear about their personal lives and the entire pathetic magazine industry that has sprung up about showing people all of their favorite celebrities in enticing poses.

This is something that transcends genders. Yes, it does seem to be affecting women very badly, to the point where talented actresses get shafted while those that photograph well keep getting $20 million contracts while having all the personality, charm, and talent of a seven legged black widow spider. (Looking in your direction, Cameron Diaz.)

But I figured, so long as everyone else is playing this game, I might as well give it a try. I’ve selected the actresses I consider to be the “sexiest” in cinema. I am unable to examine their male counterparts – I leave that in the hands of more qualified writers.

A couple more things – this will be presented in rough chronological order rather than ranking. I find ranking to be mean. Also, this is my list, so I’m sure I will exclude some of your personal picks. I’m sorry in advance. Oh, yes, and I also feel my picks should be people from great films.  I’ve excluded a few because their body of work is just (excuse the pun) limp. So I will include at least one film from each that I consider to be great.

Paulette Goddard (As seen in: Modern Times)

Paulette Goddard’s gamin character in Modern Times was the first really great female role.

As can be expected, most female roles before this were what you would expect. The women were trophies for the menfolk, who had no aspirations of their own. They were just there to look good. Even Mae West, who at least pushed out of that mold a little bit, was ultimately just a dumb fantasy.

Goddard was a fantasy too, but one that was so much better. She spent the film helping The Tramp realize his own potential – and at least, made him realize life wasn’t so bleak. This, despite the fact that she herself was escaping from people who wanted to tear her life apart

What was most important about Goddard was strength. She realized what life was all about and seemed to make it her priority to teach everyone else. I know Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic dream pixie girl” as a derogatory statement about this type of character, but Goddard made it seem wonderful.

Finally, isn’t that hair just gorgeous?

Rita Hayworth (As seen in: Gilda)

Instead of a picture, I would like to present this video. (They won’t let me embed it here.)

These days, Hayworth is most remembered as a plot point from The Shawshank Redemption as opposed to the glamorous idol she is. She was one of the post WWII actresses who embraced the changing role of women on film.

After the war, films abandoned their perception of women as meek housewives into fuller characters who had their own desires. The backlash against this trend is what created the “femme fatale” character. Hayworth’s most famous role embraces this trend, where she plays a woman that destroys a man’s carefully laid plans.

But Hayworth had developed that aspect of her personality long before Gilda. Watch her dancing in that video. Look at the confidence she exudes, even as she’s paired with Fred Astaire. Look at how proud she appears to be at the dresses that ride up on her figure. And even though this is edited from her best clips, look at how she overshadows every other person in the scene.

That’s something that’s never been replicated since. To Hollywood’s shame, most women are directed to still remain less prominent than the menfolk. Hayworth would not have worked with those conditions. She knew she what her power was and embraced it every time she appeared on camera.

Marilyn Monroe (As seen in: Some Like it Hot)

Come on. How could I exclude her from this list?

Marilyn Monroe is still the the most famous cinematic sex symbol of all time, and she did it at a time when there should not have been any sex symbols in cinema. I got into a debate once with someone who didn’t “get” Marilyn Monroe. She was a bad actress (a fair point) who was worthless. What purpose did her movies serve?

The answer simple. The 1950s were a buttoned up time where sexuality, particularly female sexuality, was practically Victorian in its outlook. Monroe, with nothing more than a high pitched voice and a sewer grate, shattered all of that. I would go as far as to say that the next decade with its focus on human liberation – well, it at least would have been quite different without Monroe.

Plus, come on. Just look at her.

Audrey Hepburn (As seen in: Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

Hepburn came at the time when women were becoming stronger on film. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is what people keep mentioning, and it’s a fair recommendation.

Tiffany’s embraces a world of feminine glamor that has not really been repeated. Holly Golightly in not some airhead that one would expect to see in a socialite. She’s almost wearing a mask that breaks when she sings “Moon River” to herself. She always knows exactly what to say – almost as if she’s playing an elaborate game of Yuppie chess before Yuppies were a thing. And she accomplishes all of this without bedding anyone. It might seem quaint now, but back in the day it caused a firestorm for all the right reasons. There was finally a female character that could be admired as more than a sex object. I guess that means my inclusion of Hepburn on this list is inappropriate, but that sort of role has always been alluring to me. I’d rather have a conversation with Holly Golightly than temporarily bed a Bond girl.

But my favorite film that demonstrates Hepburn’s appeal is Charade. It happened completely by accident to. Costar Cary Grant felt he was too old to be openly flirting with the younger Hepburn. So, the filmmakers gave her all of the sexually suggestive dialogue.

This works because it gives her the power that many women want to have. And frankly, the results are breathtaking. There is still an almost Puritan attitude toward the female sex drive. I’m still trying to figure out why. And I’m wondering why there aren’t more women like Hepburn to destroy that notion once and for all.

Guiletta Masina (As seen in: Nights of Cabiria)

Masina was most famous as Frederico Fellini’s wife. She possesses the qualities that you would expect someone married to Fellini to possess. She has a sort of dreamlike quality that other people don’t seem to possess.

I’m surprised she doesn’t get mentioned more. She is quite glamorous, albeit in a way that could only exist in a Fellini movie. Usually, she played a downtrodden figure (as in La Strada) that made it impossible to really see her for what she is.

But then she took the lead in Nights of Cabiria, Fellini finally showed everyone exactly what drew him to her. She was a wonderful free spirit, who never let anything get the best of her. She was able to talk with the same lust to life to millionaire actors and to the post World War II Italian poor. Not only is she able to relate to them, she was able to do so with no effort. The result is that she comes across as the popular girl in high school who is still able to talk to the AV geeks and even give them hope that they’re lives will get better.

What was unusual about her in Nights of Cabiria was how Fellini surrounded Messina with women who were taller, more made up, and wearing far more glamorous clothes. But all eyes were drawn to Messina, as she wandered through her surroundings dancing, laughing, and flirting with everyone she meets.

Sophia Loren (As seen in: Marriage, Italian Style)

Sophia Loren has long been one of the most famous sex symbols of all time. There is a good reason for this, which most will be able to see in the picture below.

For those remaining, it shouldn’t take much to convince you. Loren was the first real superstar of world cinema. Most actors had to immigrate to the U.S. before anyone cared (see Greta Garbo). But Loren gave audiences a view of a rebuilt Italy only ten years after it had nearly been destroyed in World War II. She starred in a few Hollywood productions, but it was her Italian filmography that caught everyone’s attention.

What does that mean? It means that Loren was a sort of exotic window into a world that no one really knew existed. And despite Italy’s paternalistic society, Loren was able to use that world to her advantage every time. At the same time, she embraced the life she was leading and lived with a zeal that most people cannot fake. Her grace and power ensured that she would always be able to overcome whatever was put in her way.

For those who remain unconvinced, please refer again to this picture:

Anna Karina (As seen in: Band of Outsider)

During the 1960s, world cinema finally gained some attention in the U.S. I’d like to think that most of this is because of Anna Karina.

Karina has been off the radar for many years. Her last big role was in the American remake of Charade strangely retitled The Truth About Charlie. Does anyone reading this article remember that movie? Put your hands down; you are lying.

Before that, Karina was the most exciting actress in cinema. She’s stared in some of the greatest films of all time, which were really memorable because she stared in them.

Take a look at A Woman is a Woman, which is a film modeled after what seems to be the ultimate female fantasy. But A Band of Outsiders remains her most appealing film. It’s a heist film where she plays the lead. She’s the one who plans the theft and assembles the accomplices.

She’s also the most memorable character in whatever film she appears in due to her stunning eyes, her amazing presence, and her incredible charm. She has been the model for many subsequent actresses who take the center stage in their films. But none of them looked quite as good as Karina does while she dances the Madison.

 

Pam Grier (As seen in: The Big Bird Cage)

Pam Grier once granted an interview to the AV Club. Grier openly wondered about why actresses were getting paid $20 million just to take off their clothes. Grier pointed out she had been doing the same since the 1970s but had been paid much less.

Some people may claim this is exploitation. And to some degree it was. Grier admits she played the characters she played in order to break into film, as those were the only roles that were offered to a minority woman.

And by doing so, she broke down barriers.

Grier was famous for all of the genre pictures she starred in. Quentin Tarantino eventually showed everyone the extent of Grier’s talent in Jackie Brown. But Grier was always destined for such a role. She was a powerful figure that was not afraid to express herself and her needs on celluloid. It was a perfect representation on what some actresses still have to face. It also gave Grier a presence that has not been equaled. From her husky voice to her amazing figure, Grier dominated over everyone she shared the screen with. This article has been secretly about revolution, and how the most attractive women were the ones who shattered the sexpot role that Hollywood still demands women fulfill. Grier was someone who did when no one expected her to accomplish anything in her roles.

Faye Dunaway (As seen in: Network)

These days, Dunaway lives in infamy after Mommie Dearest destroyed her as a serious actress. But she ruled as one of the best actresses of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

She was also, to me, one of the first actresses that reflected the changing role of women in society. They were becoming equals to men, if not more important. Check out her career driven performance in Network, where she can barely stop talking about ratings long enough to complete coitus.

That’s what was so amazing about Dunaway. Her looks were somewhat unconventional, but she was still able to draw audiences in with her incredibly strong personality. She was the dominant woman of the future, and I can’t think of anyone who really replaced that role.

Natassja Kinski (As seen in: Cat People)

Granted, dating Kinski would earn you some very awkward conversations with her dad that might lead to your own demise.

It’s probably worth it.

Kinski became one of the most recognizable sex symbols of the early 1980s thanks to the famous “python” picture. Naturally, she jumped into films. Unnaturally, it was largely thanks to Roman Polanski, who I’m not entirely convinced isn’t some mutant elf from another planet.

To me though, the film that really cemented her in my mind was the unfairly maligned One from the Heart. The film was about people exploring their own fantasies after becoming bored with their lives. It sounds like it would collapse, but at least Kinski prevented that. She embraced that role, offering everyone a husky voiced pixie that was impossible not love. Then she turned around and mocked this in Cat People, stating that she should NOT be just a fantasy because of the quirks that come with every human being. It was pretty daring for someone who had been a Vogue cover girl.

Many people are going to notice that I keep mentioning about the fantasy aspects of these actresses. They are correct – as I stated above, this is part of the appeal of cinema. Kinski represented that in a way that has never been captured. Coppola’s One from the Heart embraced that aspect of her public persona, while Cat People turned up that persona to almost gratuitous levels. Then again, there certainly is something appeal about “unleashing the beast inside” Kinski.

Scarlett Johansson (As seen in: Under the Skin/Her)

With Scarlett Johansson, we’re getting into actresses that I didn’t retroactively discover. I remember going to see Eight Legged Freaks in theaters, which is a film that probably doesn’t show up during Johansson’s Oscar clips. One scene featured her wearing nothing but a towel, the way every actress in a B-movie must.

Thankfully though, she didn’t succumb to those temptations of wearing towels for her paychecks. No, Johansson managed to become a very classy actress of the highest caliber, who simultaneously exudes endless sex appeal and class. It’s sort of like how I imagine a date with Kate Middleton might go, without all the ramblings about her in laws.

What’s incredible is she’s even able to do this without being seen. This is why I included Her in my examples. She creates such an alluring character that everyone would find desirable. And she does it through her vocal inflections and  her seemingly limitless intelligence.

It captures Johansson’s spirit well. She’s become almost a sort of royal figure, exuding grace no matter what role she’s in.

Lily Cole (As seen in: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)

Cole is another actress who never seems to get mentioned. Actually, I understand why. Her filmography leaves something to be desired. Indeed, her break out role has not been replicated.

But what a break out role! Cole’s performance in Dr. Parnassus was good enough to allow her to be included on this list. She was someone who was forced to play the sort of little girl character that many women have been forced to play. But she stood up against it, evolving throughout the film and refusing to be used as a Faustian pawn.

What stood out for me is her unconventional appearance. By all accounts, Cole does not look like the symmetrical models that dominate all media. She also knows that and uses it to her advantage. Doctor Parnassus required all actors to go through the fantasies of their “customers.” (As in, actual dream fantasies that they would remember, like living in a Salvador Dali painting.) Cole is like a chameleon in each of her personas.

It’s amazing that her filmography afterwards consists of an appearance in Snow White and the Huntsman and a guest role on Doctor Who. I only hope she does bigger roles soon.

Jennifer Lawrence (As seen in: Silver Linings Playbook)

It seems that many people would mention Ms. Lawrence based on her role in The Hunger Games. But to me, her draw has always been her independent films that allow her to really develop her public persona.

Jennifer Lawrence has become famous for acting like the people who go see her movies. This is important for the 2010s. In an era where everyone has their picture on the internet, we expect celebrities to live the same lives that we do. Or, we at least expect them to be approachable.

This is where Lawrence separates herself from people like, say, Angelina Jolie. Lawrence still acts like the girl next door every time she gives an interview – someone who seems to know all about the Hollywood lifestyle and why it’s something to be avoided.

That comes across on screen as well. She’s never played a character who’s really meant to be a sexual being. The closest she’s come is American Hustle, who’s portrayed as a degenerate that only exists to cause disasters. Her other roles may seem like she’s trying to improve the men in her life, but even that is not entirely correct. The Hunger Games focuses on her and her alone, while Silver Linings Playbook depicts her as an equally damaged person who is searching for a cure to her afflictions.

To me, this is important. She is not an angel, but someone who is still capable of living a better life and helping you live yours.

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The 2015 Oscars

I didn’t do a traditional recap this year because I was at a friend’s party. It was a fantastic time.

Anyway, The Oscars and me have a very bizarre history. It’s the one day of the year where I become downright evil. I suppose it can be compared to what Super Bowl Sunday does to some people. I watch for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But this year I was not enthusiastic about the ceremony as I’ve been in years past. There were some great films nominated, but they were overshadowed by the number of snubs and poor choices.

I recognize that “snub” is a bit of a malapropism. No one is really snubbed because no one has a right to or “deserves” an Oscar. It’s based on a vote by AMPAS members and is entirely at their discretion.

But if AMPAS is supposed to celebrate excellence in film, then they failed on so many levels even before the ceremony began. And they continued to fail as the evening dragged on.

Jake Gylenhall was the best actor of 2014. Life Itself was the best documentary of 2014. The Lego Movie was the best animated movie of the year. Gone Girl had one of the best screenplays. Mark Mothersbaugh wrote the best score of 2014.

And none of them had any chance of walking away with a statue.

And that’s not even getting into the winners. We saw The Imitation Game win for Best Screenplay, even though the screenplay was confused and tried to do too much. Eddie Redmayne beat Michael Keaton, even though Redmayne just gave one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a while (in Jupiter Ascending). Somehow, “Glory” beat “Everything is Awesome” for best original song.

How on earth can AMPAS accomplish its mission if it’s making such mistakes? The only winners I were excited to see were Patricia Arquette…and actually that’s it. I did not feel like I was really seeing excellent work being rewarded.

I was surprised to see Birdman win the top prize. Actually, I was sort of pleased. Birdman is great, but it’s also very experimental. That usually makes the conservative Oscar voters shudder.

But that’s another problem – there’s been a rallying cry that AMPAS is so out of touch with the public that they are not in a position to judge the best films. I don’t agree with this, mostly because I don’t agree that the “best of” anything is a popularity contest.

But I’m starting to think that maybe they have a point. I keep hoping that winning an Oscar will cause people to seek a film out. That’s happened before (The Shawshank Redemption bombed in theaters but did great business after picking up a ton of nominations) but it now seems to be the exception. People are not going to see these films.

I’m not sure what the balance is or if anything can be done. But considering the ratings were down compared to years past, AMPAS may be getting scared. And that is not a good place for the future of the Oscars.

THE SHOW

I did like Neil Patrick Harris as a host, but at times he seemed a little too subdued. The opening number was fabulous, as was his recreation of Birdman’s famous scene. I also liked the bit about the seat fillers.

But other jokes were just odd. What was the point of that magic trick with the briefcase? That was just a bizarre gag that went on to long at the expense of Octavia Spencer. And that Edward Snowden joke was tasteless. There have been worse Oscar hosts, but Harris won’t go down as one of the greats.

The stand out was Lady Gaga and that Sound of Music tribute. I’ve made my feelings about that movie perfectly clear and don’t understand why it’s still being praised 50 years later.

But Gaga’s medley was sublime. I keep forgetting how great a singer she really is. It made me almost…almost…change my mind about the songs in The Sound of Music.

And then she got to that dumb lyric about bright copper kettles and I snapped back into reality.

Another great stand out was the performance of “Everything is Awesome,” which didn’t end up winning. Most songs that are nominated are dreary affairs. Not this. Everyone was just so pleased for this opportunity to perform that they threw caution to the wind. It’s the most fun I think I’ve ever seen an Oscar performer have. I also want one of those Lego Oscars.

But, those few bright spots didn’t feel like enough for me. Although a three hour show consisting of a few bright spots brought down by dumb choices is pretty much what the nominees meant to me.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

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A Review of Jupiter Ascending

Oh boy. This is going to be a challenging review to write.

Despite all the nasty things I’m about to say, I found Jupiter Ascending to be very compelling. The Wachowskis were onto something here – something that was an original idea and not a retread of an old property designed to set nostalgia goggles off. I think Jupiter Ascending should still be celebrated for being a gamble. I would rather see filmmakers try and fail. It’s better than not trying at all and remaking, say, Starship Troopers just because people have heard the name before.

I hope that comes across in this review.

Now then, let’s get to it.

Ever since the release of the first Matrix movie sixteen years ago (Jesus.) the Wachowski siblings have been in a bit of a conundrum. With the exception of V for Vendetta (which they wrote and produced, but did not direct) they’ve been playing to a diminishing audience and most critics are dismissing them as washed up has-beens that can’t tell a coherent story. It started with the release of the Matrix sequels and the huge audience backlash against the conclusion and continued with what was supposed to be big blockbuster events like Speed Racer.

But there are people who still celebrate their works as being visually arresting and at least challenging. Count me among them. The Matrix sequels are not as bad as their reputation (the same narrative problems and goofy sequences were present in the first Matrix, but no one seems to care). Cloud Atlas was among the best films of 2012. I haven’t seen Speed Racer, but it looked like a great attempt to create a new visual world. That’s becoming rare indeed. And Ninja Assassin – OK, that was awful, but they didn’t direct that.

The Wachowskis seem to be focused on science fiction tropes and examining why they affect us in the way that they do. It means that, sometimes, their films come across more as stoned post graduate essays than narrative films. This is going to alienate some people, but that’s something worth thinking about.

Jupiter Ascending fits into that tradition at its basic level. It’s a gorgeous looking film that examines virtually every single science fiction trope in existence.

But that’s the first of many flaws in Ascending – it’s almost in love with its complexity. I can’t begin to describe all the plot points of the film. I think it’s about the fact that the Earth is actually a gigantic farm for human cells that are sold to wealthy humans on other planets so that they can live for tens of thousands of years. This company is lead by the Abrasax family, who are considered royalty. Mila Kunis is Jupiter Jones, a person on earth who happens to be the exact genetic replicant of the Abrasax’s siblings mother. (This is because the genetic code only has a finite number of sequences, so such copies are treated as reincarnations of the original.) She is thus legally entitled to own the earn the earth. This sets up a great conflict with the Abrasax siblings – one seeks to kill her and one seeks to marry her. She’s being protected by a man named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who I think is a human crossed with a wolf.

After that, you’re on your own.

The film keeps introducing elements of this world throughout the entire run time. We don’t get an explanation about Jupiter until at least an hour into it (and even then it’s rather flimsy), and we don’t hear about the villains’ plans until the third act.

This is a problem. It’s basic story telling – all stakes must be laid out in the first act. Introducing new points that late is a distraction from whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

And the villains are not that interesting anyway. Eddie Redmayne gives the worst performance of his and several other careers as Balem Abrasax. He barely speaks above a whisper and has no emotion in any of the delivery of his lines. His motivations are confused and he’s about as threatening as a small child with a water pistol. He probably just cost himself an Oscar.

Jupiter herself is quite a bland character. That worked in The Matrix, because it emphasized Neo’s transformation from an everyman into a messiah. I never get the sense of Jupiter’s arc though. She also fails to become a strong female character, hopping at the chance to kiss Caine at the first moment. This romance subplot makes no sense in the context of the film. Jones never becomes a strong female character the film so clearly wants her to be.

Again, the whole idea that has kept the Wachowskis afloat creatively is the fact that they know these tropes and these ideas. If they make mistakes with them, then their approach will stumble. That’s what happened in Jupiter Ascending. They had these great ideas about space opera Some worked, but others did not. The Wachowskis were just throwing things and seeing what stuck. That’s not going to make for a real cohesive whole. Maybe what they needed to do was turn it into a TV series. That would have fleshed out the characters more and, perhaps, given audiences a more complete experience. Right now, it almost feels like I’m watching a clip show to some cult sci-fi series.

So what works? Well, the action sequences are fantastic. The gravity boots that Caine wears are a particularly nice touch. They serve as a great reference to The Matrix without being a direct lift of the bullet time. There are also several funny moments in the film, which may represent the Wachowski’s first attempt at comedy. Terry Gilliam makes a cameo during an extended tribute to his Brazil, and most of the “bad” dialogue that other critics have commented were deliberate jokes. Also, when the space opera elements did work, they worked incredibly well. To me, it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was meant to be a deconstruction of science fiction. Jupiter Ascending’s plot is no more complex than Dune’s, and features equally bad dialogue.

So, there are many things to like about Jupiter Ascending. But I just can’t get over the terrible performances and some of the most pointless set pieces. It’s going to alienate a lot of people – and, indeed, already has. The Wachowskis are smarter than this, so I’m not sure why these elements were not corrected.

But, there are so many good ideas present in Jupiter Ascending that I still enjoyed it. Hopefully, they Wachowskis will learn from their mistakes and give us a full experience next time. Hey, aren’t they developing a TV show for Netflix?

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