Monday, August 24, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

I think I missed a memo, because in the last few years, Ethan Hunt has managed to become the American James Bond (Jack Ryan might have had that title long ago, but I was one of only a few who liked his most recent appearance). It’s a bit of a surprise that a franchise which began nineteen years ago is having something of a resurgence in the last five years, but if the series continues to be as good as its latest outing, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise may end up giving 007 a run for his money. (He’s already played the part longer than anyone played Bond, besting Roger Moore’s 12 years.)

After a Senate hearing disbands the IMF, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself cut off in the middle of a global search for the invisible Syndicate, a network of terrorists whose existence is doubted by nearly everyone. With the scantest of leads, Hunt seeks help from his tech-savvy comrade Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) while continually crossing paths with the mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose true allegiance is perpetually in doubt.

The James Bond comparison is really and truly invited by Rogue Nation (perhaps more than its immediate predecessor, Ghost Protocol), which begins with a Bond-style opening sequence in which Ethan boards a plane mid-flight from the outside. This audacious stunt, which Cruise performed himself, sets a tone for the film that roots Rogue Nation in an era where action films tried to show moviegoers something they hadn’t seen before, rather than aim first to outdo the competition or just outthink the audience.

As I said of Ghost Protocol, the joy of these films is that they don’t focus so much on transcending the genre as they do on playing very well within the established conventions of the espionage narrative. What’s even more refreshing is the way the films recall the early Bond films’ one-and-done format, without baiting the audience back for a sequel or relying on their memory of a small detail from movies past. As someone who hasn’t seen the first three (but who now wants to, desperately), it’s striking how well the film introduces its main characters, some of whom have been around since 1996. I hadn’t met Ving Rhames’s Luther before, but I had a good sense of who he was and how he fit into the story because the film has a very acute sense of narrative integrity, respecting its audience enough to give us a complete experience.

Rogue Nation is spectacle cinema doing what it ought to do with neither pretension nor laziness. With each Mission Impossible film directed by a different person, I think there’s less of a burden to outdo oneself or someone else, and more room to focus on the quality of the experience itself. Director Christopher McQuarrie, reuniting with Cruise after the very compelling Jack Reacher, has a knack for stories told well without compromising clarity, and the surprising sense of humor from Edge of Tomorrow (which he cowrote) is present also in Rogue Nation, punctuating moments of tension with unexpected moments of delight.

I had gone to see Rogue Nation because an action film always looks better on the big screen, and I’d had such a good time with Ghost Protocol that I wanted to give the franchise another look. Now that Mission Impossible is two for two, it’s probably time for me to go to the back catalog, because now I have a brand that I trust. If nothing else, I have something to tide me over until Ethan Hunt’s British counterpart returns to theaters, and something to which I can look forward when the inevitable sixth Mission Impossible film debuts. That’s my mission, and I do choose to accept it.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is rated PG-13 for “sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity.” There are quite a few action set pieces with chasing and fighting, but it’s mostly bloodless; there’s a somewhat intense scene where a character is deprived of oxygen for minutes at a time. A woman removes her top, but it’s seen from behind with no visible nudity.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Monday at the Movies - August 17, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  We haven’t done one of these since May, but it seems worth commenting on the “director’s cut” of X-Men: Days of Future Past, dubbed “The Rogue Cut” for reasons that will become apparent.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut (2014/2015) – I’m not doing a full review of The Rogue Cut, which adds about fifteen minutes of unseen footage, because my original sentiment still stands. I called the theatrical release “one of the better outings in the series,” and The Rogue Cut doesn’t change that. If anything, it makes the film a stronger one, filling in what I had perceived to be a stumble before the third act begins, the beat when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) goes missing. Here, The Rogue Cut fills in the gap by 1) restoring Anna Paquin’s turn as Rogue in the dystopian future of the film, and 2) giving Mystique a wonderful moment with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) in 1973. While I concede that the theatrical cut isn’t less by omitting these sequences, the film is overall richer for having them. In fact, I got more of a sense that I was entering a world during The Rogue Cut, rather than the crossover event the theatrical release felt like. Although the changes are almost universally positive additions to Days of Future Past, I have a small complaint, which might not even be a negative. The Rogue Cut juxtaposes Magneto (Michael Fassbender) retrieving his helmet with Magneto (Ian McKellan) rescuing Rogue, and while I think the cross-cutting is a nifty formal trick, I can’t help but feel the former sequence was better served on its own, building more tension as we got inside the young Magneto’s head. But it’s a moment that only rings hollower if you’re familiar with the original incarnation, and everything else in The Rogue Cut is so well-crafted that it might now be my new favorite X-Men film. PS – Stay tuned for a new mid-credits sequence! (The original post-credits scene is still intact.)

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fant4stic (2015)

By now, the critical consensus is in – hovering in the high single digits on Rotten Tomatoes, Fant4stic is a fantastic flop (or, in a pun I wish I’d thought up, a fantastic bore). Entering the critical conversation on a Monday puts me in a weird position, with the benefit of hindsight beside my keyboard. I’ll try to nuance my stance on Fant4stic, but I’m closer to the 90% who didn’t like it than the ten or so who did; it’s an uneven and occasionally bizarre experience that seems to want its audience held at arm’s length.

Look, you know the story – super genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), his pal Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), and polar opposite siblings Sue and Johnny Storm (Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan) find themselves the bearers of incredible abilities after a teleportation to another dimension goes awry. In this version of the story, the abrasive Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), their future nemesis, joins them in the experiment but with only his own interests in mind.

Here’s the biggest problem with Fant4stic (and it’s not the clunky stylization of the title): there are the beginnings of enough good ideas in here to power what should have been a very engaging and unique superhero film. Instead, we have a movie that is substantially less than the sum of its parts, a collision of half-baked notions assaulted by an apparent disdain for the very existence of the superhero genre. The traditional superheroics comprise maybe eight minutes of the film, played off unconvincingly when the characters decide to become heroes purely out of generic conventions. That is, the characters only decide to become superheroes because they’re in a superhero film; in any other genre, I can’t believe these characters would have made that choice.

The thing is, I don’t think these characters are actually The Fantastic Four, as much as the movie hopes to convince us that they are by the time the credits roll. Teller is quite good at conveying the awkwardness that comes with Reed’s immense intellect, but I don’t sense the leadership skills that Reed ought to possess. Perhaps the best casting decision is Jordan’s Human Torch, whose natural showmanship suits the character quite well, and perhaps his confidence would have been played up more in the sequel that now may never come to pass.

The other two, Mara and Bell, are actually quite dull, which is really disappointing considering that the orange rock monster ought to be the most interesting part of any Fantastic Four film. (Michael Chiklis, we hardly knew ye.) And let’s not say much about the film’s handling of Doctor Doom because, again, this isn’t Doctor Doom. This Doom is a petulant demi-hacker who only nails the character’s signature ego after a bizarre attempt to explain away the fact that the comic book character wears a head-to-toe metallic suit.

There are, in fact, a few moments that induce whiplash in the audience as our heads collectively boggle at the inexplicable narrative shifts Fant4stic takes. The film actually gets off to a great start, getting it note-perfect when it introduces Reed as a boy genius who’s proud to be labeled “insane” by those who don’t understand him. But the film drags its feet en route to the superpowers, and once the team has acquired their dysmorphic abilities the movie jumps forward a year, presumably so director Josh Trank didn’t have to show us how the four mastered their abilities – in short, what makes them fantastic in the first place.

Even setting aside Trank’s peculiar tweet-then-delete casting shade on Fant4stic, one senses that he really wanted to make a different film here. I detect no passion in the film’s obligatory climactic battle (which seems ripped straight from the vastly superior Big Hero 6), but there’s a wonderful invocation of David Cronenberg’s The Fly during the moments of physical transformation. Kudos to Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm for conveying that blend of wonder and revulsion so central to the subgenre of body horror.

The film is at its most content – and most compelling – when it’s focusing on the horrible things that happen to these reclusive scientists. But when it comes to the superhero aspects of the story, the film absolutely fails to introduce Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, and The Thing. In fact, the final scene of the film is a real groaner in which the characters propose their superhero codenames with a perplexing self-loathing, as if Trank and company are legitimately embarrassed to have made a superhero film. If you want to do a body horror superhero film, I say fantastic! The best superhero films seem to be the ones that mash-up preexisting genres with the conventions of a superhero tale. Just don’t pull your punches and then cave in to the genre while wearing your utter contempt on your sleeve. Everyone comes out disappointed there.

In other words, make mine Marvel.

Fant4stic is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence, and language.” Some of the displays of the team’s respective superpowers are played first for fear, but audiences quickly become acclimated to them. Doom telekinetically explodes several heads, with surprisingly bloody results for a PG-13. Language consists mostly of a few uses of “the brown word.”

Monday, August 3, 2015

Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)

I’ve been a little lukewarm about the recent animated output from DC Comics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for the world’s greatest superheroes, and it’s very hard to outright disappoint me when you have a film with Batman in it. But I’m somewhere between “devotion” and “obligation” when it comes to direct-to-DVD features like Batman vs. Robin, most recently. News that Bruce Timm, he of Batman: The Animated Series fame, was returning to the animated DC universe brought leaps of glee. I rushed to the store on its debut (shunning as I did its earlier digital release), and...?

It’s okay. It’s not Bruce Timm’s best work, but it is diverting enough; it’s far from DC’s recent disappointing work, but Gods and Monsters is disappointing in a different kind of way.

Imagine if you will a Justice League from a harsher world: Superman (Benjamin Bratt) is the son of General Zod, raised by Mexican laborers; Batman (Michael C. Hall) is actually the vampiric Kirk Langstrom, known to comics devotees as Man-Bat; and this world’s Wonder Woman (Tamara Taylor) is a warrior descended from the gods of New Genesis. The world fears them, and someone is murdering scientists in a bid to frame the Justice League.

I’ve often lamented the loss of Timm’s art style in DC’s animated films – in fact, I called out Flashpoint Paradox for its “choppy and bargain-bin” animation. Timm’s style has always seemed clean, perhaps because it’s quite literally the stuff on which I was raised, but he’s also in possession of an exceptional flair for design. This film’s trinity all have distinctive, original looks that convey difference while maintaining an echo with their counterparts. You’ll hear me throughout this review praise the character of Bekka, Gods and Monsters’ Wonder Woman analogue, but I must also say that I’d buy a vampiric Batman action figure in a heartbeat.

On the subject of Bekka, amid the dismal lack of female superheroes in the current renaissance, she’s far and away the most compelling character in the film. (Cinema King second-rates Batman? Say it ain’t so!) Visuals aside, Bekka’s character is intricately crafted, with a compelling personality, engaging snark in an otherwise gloomy film, and a backstory that’s worthy of Superman: Red Son in terms of alternate takes. But where Red Son had Superman’s rocket landing in Moscow rather than Smallville, Bekka hails from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga, the epic narrative of opposing god-planets. Timm’s visual style borrows from Kirby’s wheelhouse, but it’s Bekka’s flashback that embraces Kirby most directly, much to the glee of this reviewer. Each character gets a flashback sequence to fill out their origins, but it’s Bekka’s that I’ll be flocking to rewatch first.

Illutrating these points of difference is ostensibly a highlight of any divergent-timeline story, and director Sam Liu paces these out quite well, interspersing them throughout the film in a clear manner without frontloading all the backstory. (And don’t worry, you don’t need to have read the tie-in comics or seen the Machinima shorts, though the latter are strongly recommended.) In fact, in some ways, these are more interesting than the main plot itself, which is a bit underwhelming. Let’s say this – anyone who’s read a fair share of comics will crack the mystery almost immediately.

That brings me to my first qualm with the film (of which I have two) – who is this movie for? As all alternate takes usually do, Gods and Monsters fills itself out with a who’s-who of parallel universe versions of DC’s vast tapestry. In place of Lois Lane, we have ace reporter Lana Lang; Amanda Waller is president, Batman was the college roommate of Will Magnus, and micro-scientist Ray Palmer has a lab aide named Ryan. Now, if you’re steeped enough in DC lore to get the references, there’s a chuckle to be had – of course the power-savvy Waller would end up president – but in these moments the film doesn’t depart enough. The names are the same, and so too are the personalities, which makes this alternate-universe exercise seem a little too same old, same old. On the other hand, if you don’t know who Will Magnus is, that subplot doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything for you.

My second complaint about Gods and Monsters is that the movie never answers a central question about its team, one which could have made for a fascinating movie altogether – how did this Justice League assemble in the first place? Because Timm (a cowriter, with Alan Burnett) gave us such very engaging points of departure for the trinity, he in turn gave us characters that are monstrous mirrors of the Justice League proper – and by extension their path to collaboration was probably a bit rocky. They are, as the title tells us, both gods and monsters, and what drives three such individuals to work together? Gods and Monsters hops over the second act in favor of an underboiled third-act mystery, when I suspect the real meat was in what we didn’t see.

If it’s all addressed in the rumored sequel, spinoff comics, or second season of Machinima shorts, that’ll be fine when we get there, but as a standalone Gods and Monsters doesn’t stand enough apart to be another home run for Timm. It’s disappointing in a different way; where Son of Batman was disappointing because it never rose above the level of “generic Batman adventure,” Gods and Monsters is a bit of a letdown because it displays enough promise to remind us of what Bruce Timm is actually capable. At the end of the day, though, it is still a Bruce Timm product, which puts it at least shoulder-height above most of the other comics cartoons out there. But it does need to bear that qualifying adverb of “enough” – it is good enough, entertaining enough, and creative enough, but it isn’t transcendent in the way that I suspect most DC disciples expect.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters is rated PG-13 for “violence throughout and suggestive content including nudity.” This is somewhat bloody by DC’s animated standards, particularly because one character is a vampire. The nudity is actually an unclothed silver robot with a female body shape, though Wonder Woman makes several innuendoes as well.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Amid the recent Sherlock Holmes renaissance – two films and two television shows in six years – there seems to have been something of an effort to find the “more authentic” Holmes by doing something quite different from Basil Rathbone in a deerstalker cap. Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes takes a similar tack, albeit by locating Holmes in his later years, giving us a more sobered and more affective detective than the others, one that succeeds largely on the shoulders of its star performer, Ian McKellen.

Mr. Holmes finds the great detective (McKellen) in exile-by-retirement with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). While tending his bees and staving off senility, Holmes is haunted by his failing memory of his last case and the need to resolve it before his powers of deductive reasoning falter for good.

First of all, Ian McKellen is absolutely amazing in this film. Among the panoply of talented Sherlocks we’ve had in the past few years, McKellen is, I can safely say, in a league of his own. I confess I haven’t seen much of Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary performance, but Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have wildly different though engaging screen presences; both, however, do have a similar superhuman aesthetic about them, detaching them somewhat from the Doyle stories. McKellen’s Holmes, on the other hand, is the definition of grounded, all the more so because of the weight of his past and, he confides in one of the film’s most intriguing turns, the burden of his own fame in the wake of Watson’s publications.

McKellen is mesmerizing, unsurprisingly so given the fact that he apparently can do anything on screen. In another striking debut by a child actor, though, it’s Milo Parker’s scene-stealing turn as young Roger that makes the best impression. As a kind of new Watson to the aging Holmes, Parker plays precocious deftly, reminding one just a little bit of Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love Actually. (Or maybe I just think all British children are alike.) To make one’s mainstream debut (setting aside Robot Overlords, of which I hadn’t so much as heard) opposite two giants like McKellen and Linney is one thing, but to hold your own is something else entirely. Parker provides the biggest laughs in the film, as well as the most emotional moments when we see what constitutes growing up in a home with Holmes.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most was the pronounced lack of action in Mr. Holmes. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect rousing fight choreography from a septuagenarian playing a nonagenarian, but the big screen Sherlock has of late been something of a master martial artist, but Condon’s treatment is much more contemplative, much more sensitive than the casual (or careless) snark of RDJ and Cumberbatch. Consequently, the film has an air not of melancholy but of introspection, mirrored quite well by the film’s balance of three distinct timelines which unfold and interweave to address all the unfinished business of Holmes’s life.

Mr. Holmes is a quieter Sherlock Holmes film than that to which we are accustomed of late, but it’s in the vein of what we might call “traditionally British” – the same as what Eddie Izzard satirized as “room with a view with a pond and a staircase.” I don’t recall a pond, but there is still the same serenity in Mr. Holmes, something very calming amid the otherwise blockbuster summer season. And at the center of it all is a very wonderful performance by Ian McKellen, one which ought to be seen by any self-professed admirers of the great detective.

Mr. Holmes is rated PG for “thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.” There is mention of miscarried pregnancy, bee stings, and loneliness; Holmes discusses smoking pipes and cigars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

When a movie studio takes on “juggernaut” status in the way that Marvel Studios has, there’s a rubbernecking tendency among the media as they begin to speculate when it will fail, when that first flop will fall. We saw it with Guardians of the Galaxy, which succeeded more than anyone expected (especially for a film with talking trees and raccoons). Now, between the departure of initial director Edgar Wright and the problem of name recognition, Ant-Man had been floated as Marvel’s first failure. The truth is, however, that Ant-Man stumbles through its exposition before ending up as a surprisingly entertaining superhero film.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a reformed cat burglar who wants to support his daughter, but his criminal past and ex-wife won’t let him. Meanwhile, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) discovers that his shrinking technology is being appropriated by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Against the advice of his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tasks Scott with stealing the technology from Cross, offering him the Ant-Man suit to accomplish the heist.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way for those of us true believers who love these movies – Ant-Man is a little bit clunky, especially in the exposition department. There’s a very funny line in the trailers – slightly different in the finished film – where Hank Pym tells Scott, “I need you to break into a place and steal some stuff.” The thing about Ant-Man is that the first twenty minutes or so is exactly like that, with characters very directly expressing their motivations, desires, and plot arcs. Scott’s relationship with his daughter could have been somewhat poignant, but every scene he’s in involves him telling someone else how much he cares for his daughter before being reminded that he has a criminal record. It’s very on-the-nose screenwriting that distracts from the Marvel emphasis on character; compare, for example, to Iron Man and the way it introduced Tony Stark by showing him in his natural habitat rather than telling us, “Tony, you’re irresponsible.”

Having said that, with a first act that feels very perfunctory, once Ant-Man gets going it’s a much more successful film. It manages to walk that line between acknowledging how absurd the concept is and just running with it, without feeling parodic or naïve. It’s aware of the innate absurdity of a superhero whose power is talking to ants, but at the same time it demonstrates just how much can be done with that power. There are several moments in the film where I said to myself, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” moments that demonstrate the creativity of the writers and the way in which they’ve taken the concept seriously without being too serious about it.

A large part of the film’s attitude comes from Rudd’s naturalism in the role; for me, he’s always been the member of the Judd Apatow “Frat Pack” who can step back from the material and wink at it without compromising the integrity of his performance, and he brings that grounded irony to Scott Lang. At the other end of the spectrum, it is an absolute delight to see Michael Douglas in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve said before that he’s one of those actors who is watchable no matter what he’s doing. In the role of the mentor – Marvel’s first “legacy” character – Douglas shines as someone crippled by loss and haunted by his past. Lilly, for those who haven’t seen her since Lost, is also quite compelling as Hope, the kind of character of which we just can’t wait to see more, and thank heavens we’ll almost certainly see her in a film down the road, because Hope has the potential to be a breakout star of the MCU – spirited, heroic, and unique (there isn’t really a comparison character, fortunately).

The thing that makes Ant-Man a real success, aside from the inevitable tie-in aspects (including cameos from Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and one other name I won’t spoil - though for God's sake, people, stay through the credits!), is its adherence to the formula of the heist film. Marvel’s been pretty good with this lately, giving us a 70s spy film with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy, so the genre play here keeps the superhero genre from growing stale (really, how many times can one replicate the structure of Superman before wearing it thin?). Think of it like Ocean’s Eleven if Danny Ocean could shrink. And the rousing score by Christophe Beck helps that atmosphere work for the audience.

I went into Ant-Man expecting it to be a passable superhero venture, one of a dozen generic entries, but the film won over the cynic in me fairly rapidly and convinced me it had something to offer – a return to form of sorts, something akin to Iron Man with its emphasis on corporate espionage rather than saving the world. It’s not as strong a film as Iron Man, but it’s no less entertaining than at least half of what Marvel has put out in the last decade.

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence.” There is a fair amount of running, jumping, and punching, done at an atomic level so we only see full-size people recoiling from being hit by Ant-Man. There’s also the usual amount of peril and menace from the principal antagonist.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

When I saw the trailer for Jurassic World, I asked the same question twice, once of the characters in the film and once of the filmmakers themselves: “Why did you think this was a good idea? We saw what happened last time.” Honestly, why anyone would build an actual Jurassic Park seemed unfathomable, given the fate of the original, but I also wanted to know why the filmmakers were ostensibly remaking the original with a higher body count. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I can say that the answer to both versions of the question is, “But this one’s bigger,” and I’m actually not as disappointed with that answer as one might expect.

Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) manages the successful theme park Jurassic World, with little on her mind but business. On the eve of the park’s newest debut, the genetically modified Indominus Rex, Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins, late of Iron Man 3, and Nick Robinson) visit the park, but it’s also the day before disaster in the park – disaster to which Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his trained velociraptors respond.

I’ll try not to get too philosophical about the difference between spectacle and storytelling here, though the difference is key on the subject of Jurassic World. It is, in short, the difference between The Maltese Falcon and Transformers. In The Maltese Falcon (the 1941 John Huston version, of course), we have a brilliant story and very substantial character work, leaving the audience feeling satisfied and accomplished by film’s end, even though (spoilers) very little is actually resolved. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Michael Bay movies, which are spectacles turned up to eleven, with next to nothing by way of plotting or characterization. Both can be entertaining in their own right – though, of course, Transformers is patently offensive in some of its disregard for storytelling (and offensive in other insensitivities as well).

Now, Jurassic World clearly values spectacle more than storytelling. There was some controversy about whether or not the film chastises the character of Claire for being professional at the cost of her personal life, for not wanting to follow the cliché of marriage-then-motherhood. I don’t agree with that assessment of the film (I actually think her sister comes off quite poorly for nagging Claire to “settle down”), but I think it exposes a problem with the film – the characters are so thinly written that it’s quite easy to impose an interpretation like that onto the film. That is, the characters consist of one personality trait (Claire=business, Owen=badass, kids=imperiled), and the screenplay doesn’t quite bother with value judgments on those traits.

On the other hand, while the characters are fairly flat, director Colin Trevorrow is much more interested in the theme park atmosphere of Jurassic World, about the fleshed-out attractions such a park might include, and naturally about the ways all that could go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s almost as though Trevorrow has anticipated the detractors’ cries of “Been there, done that” and responds with, “Well, of course it goes wrong. That’s what this franchise is all about.” Jurassic World doesn’t have the same kind of cautionary allegory as the Michael Crichton source material.

Jurassic World is not better than Jurassic Park, nor, I would say, is it even as good. But it is good enough. Less than three-dimensional characters aside, the horror movie-inflected direction works surprisingly well, overcoming the cynical me that came to the theaters that day and giving me that “Oh, this isn’t good” feeling in the pit of my stomach. Trevorrow does something quite intriguing, by way of comparison to Jurassic Park, which began with a tour of the grounds and devolved into chaos. Jurassic World, however, intermingles the two; as the park’s security measures fail sector by sector, the film carries on in tandem with the ignorance of the park attendees. It’s a nice change-up that keeps Jurassic World from feeling too much like a retread of the original while substituting the escalating sense of menace borrowed from, I think, home invasion and slasher films.

You can sum up the film quite nicely with a key moment from its climax, in which the human characters step out of the way and let about a dozen dinosaurs fight it out amongst themselves. Indeed, the last word of the film (if we can call it that) belongs to a dinosaur. Trevorrow has said he’s not terribly interested in a sequel, but if one existed, a) would we call it Jurassic World 2 or Jurassic Park 5?, and b) would it consist almost entirely of dinosaurs? The lesson of Jurassic World seems to be that a skeletal narrative can support a spectacle, providing that the spectacle is diverting enough. Either Jurassic World 2 will dispense with the pretext of a human supporting cast, or it’ll find a way to use them more effectively; either way, I’m decidedly less cynical about more Jurassic films than I was before seeing the film.

Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.” I’m not really sure what more to add by way of description: there are dinosaurs, some of them are scary, and a lot of them eat people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Let’s get one thing clear about Terminator Genisys right off the bat:  I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. There’s some stuff – and that’s kind of the best word for it, as I’ll discuss momentarily – in this film that is entertaining to watch, but there’s a lot about the film that is largely hollow, and the word I keep coming back to is ponderous, even overly so.

After an apparent victory over Skynet, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to the past to save his mother from an inbound Terminator. But when Kyle arrives in 1984, he finds that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already prepared for his arrival, with a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on her side. Together they realize that they’re in a divergent timeline, with Skynet set to rise in a new form.

I’ve actually never seen the original Terminator film – shocking, I know – but I have seen all the other films in the series (we’re up to five now). Even in spite of not having seen The Terminator, I have the same critique of Terminator Genisys that I had for Star Trek Into Darkness – that is, the allusions to the original source material are so obvious that even someone who hasn’t seen the original is aware of them, the effect being something akin to a clubbing over the head (I imagine) for those who are truly in the know. In both cases, the filmmakers have mistaken reference for reverence.

As for the exceptionally ponderous quality of the film, it’s as though the script writers looked at the original films and wanted to succeed by multiplying out the component parts. If you liked the liquid Terminator, this film has one of those and a shapeshifting nanobot Terminator. If you liked the time travel plot, this film has three. And if you liked Sarah Connor evolving into a badass, this film gives you a Sarah Connor who has always already been a badass. Of course, the difference is originality – we liked those beats in the films because they were different from what we had seen before. Okay, to be fair, the nanobot Terminator is pretty cool, a good adaptation of where our current understanding of robotics has taken us (even if I’m left thinking, “Didn’t I just see that in Big Hero 6?”).

Then again – and I’m not blaming director Alan Taylor for this, because he’s apparently miffed about it too – the big reveal of the nanobot Terminator was spoiled quite audaciously in the trailers. If you’ve managed to avoid the twist of which character is actually a Terminator, well done, and I won’t spoil it here because I think I would have liked the film more if I hadn’t known it ahead of time. (Although again, to be fair, it’s telegraphed a bit clearly quite early on.) And then, to top it all off, the plot is once more a race against the clock to blow up a computer before something really bad comes out of it.

I like alternate timeline stories; I think one of the best of them is Mark Millar’s Red Son, in which Superman’s rocket lands in the Soviet Union rather than Smallville, Kansas. But the difference is clear by way of one more comparison to the Star Trek reboot – where JJ Abrams’s Star Trek used an alternate timeline as a way to clear away the detritus of decades of continuity in order to do its own thing, Terminator Genisys does a soft reboot but then buckles under the weight of an inevitable future and a few obligatory callbacks (such as the inevitable “I’ll be back”).

There is “stuff” in this film – exploding things, car chases, action sequences – that is diverting enough, but they’re very much in a switch-off kind of mode that doesn’t advance the plot so much as puts it on hold. Even then, though, I’m left with questions the film shouldn’t force me to ask, like whether or not a Terminator ought to be too heavy to fit in a helicopter with two humans and their arsenal.

Unfortunately, the film ducks out on a lot of its big questions – like who sent “Old Arnold” into the past in the first place and what that mid-credits sequence actually means – because, surprise, there’s a new trilogy in the offing. That’s right, Terminator Genisys goes full Prometheus in the ending. And if the message of the film is that the future really isn’t set, let’s hope that the inevitable next Terminator film takes advantage of the alternate timeline’s freedom and does something new and surprising with the franchise. Just don’t be surprised if the next film climaxes with a few explosives around yet another computer.

Terminator Genisys is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language.” Robots and humans fight, occasionally shooting or stabbing each other. We see one or two naked bottoms with implied nudity during the time jumps, and one F-bomb is dropped.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Top 10 Star Wars Musical Moments

Having just completed my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the first in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Star Wars Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “Imperial Attack”
 Before we had “The Imperial March,” we had to “settle” for this motif for the evil Empire. And I say “settle” in scare quotes because even when John Williams outdoes himself as he would in Empire Strikes Back, the original ain’t bad, either. Bassoons and trombones – the lower end of the brass section – dominate, with the occasional four-note punctuation mark indicating a transition to the Death Star. Those four notes also herald the first appearance of Darth Vader on screen, so it sets the tone wonderfully for the antagonists of the film.

9. “Destruction of Alderaan”
 Here’s perhaps an offbeat choice for a Top 10 list, but I’ve always found it deliciously effective in its place. At the moment when Princess Leia is asked to betray the Rebellion to save her homeworld of Alderaan, the music spirals into confusion before the militaristic notes of the Empire take over and blast the planet to smithereens. It’s a small moment musically – only about a minute long – but Williams smartly conveys the murderous power of the Death Star in the construction of the score.

8. “The Little People Work”
 I’ve always been partial to this, ostensibly a theme song for the Jawas. Played on reedy instruments with a swirling and ambling quality, this is a crystallized example of Williams’s ability to communicate musically, one of those moments that works equally well without dialogue – indeed, the film has none, aside from the occasional nonverbal jabber and cry of “Utinni!” It tells us so much about the Jawas, implying a life of scavenging and work-as-play while inviting us just what awaits our repossessed droid companions.

7. “The Throne Room”
 This wonderful announcement of accomplishment fits just brilliantly at the end of a grand epic as at the conclusion of a long night of paper drafting (take it from someone who’s experienced both). It’s impossible not to recall the wry infectious grins of Luke and Han as they receive their medals, nor can a listener not feel a swell of pride through this ostentatious reworking of the “Force theme” (see below). Its reuse at the end of Revenge of the Sith’s soundtrack suggests that Williams regarded this as proper ceremony for the end of a long journey.

6. “The Battle of Yavin”
 You might think it cheating to put a ten-minute action cue on a Top 10 list (honey, wait’ll you see what I do for The Empire Strikes Back), but the entire climax of the film succeeds on the back of Williams’s score. The fighter pilots’ run on the Death Star is tense enough with death-by-turbolaser lurking around every swoop and dive, but it’s the Williams score that draws out the tension, kindly pausing to mourn the death of a fighter with an honorific fanfare before giving us that relentless bum-bum-bum as the final moments of the battle are decided. Finally, a wonderful breath of relief when the Death Star explodes is announced by the piece’s twinkling last notes. And it works just as well without the visuals – in your car, for one.

5. “Rescue of the Princess”
 Here we’ve got a collision of motifs – Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, and the Imperial fanfare – in a medley that communicates the entire plot of the film. Luke’s theme creeps into the Empire’s, encounters Leia, and blasts back through the Empire to freedom. That Williams conveys this as well as, if not better than, the film proper is testament to his genius. It’s a nice climax of sorts for Luke’s heroic journey – he rescues the princess in a sweeping moment of majesty – but ends with a reminder that the real battle is yet to come.

4. “Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack”
 After a kind of musical prologue representing the tragic moment in which Luke witnesses the death of his mentor, this smaller action cue gives us a relentless sense of impending danger and nonstop science-fiction action to underscore the well-directed attack sequence. It’s worth noting that when Family Guy did their spoof of Star Wars, they really didn’t have a joke to go with this scene other than Peter Griffin as Han Solo singing along to the score. This has always been my favorite action cue from A New Hope, in part because of its appearance during the Death Star run of Star Tours.

3. “Cantina Band”
 The mere fact that you’re already hearing this infectious Benny-Goodman-in-space tune in your head justifies its presence on this list.

2. “Main Title”
 From the epic fanfare blast that opens the film, John Williams’s score sets the stage for the saga to come. With the equivalent of a brass drumroll building to the instantly iconic main theme, the “Star Wars” theme defined for a generation what science fiction scores ought to sound like. It would, of course, go on to recur in each subsequent installment, but never to such great effect as upon its debut. When Marvel Comics unveiled their new Star Wars comics, they did so with a full page of “A long time ago...” followed by a two-page spread of the “Star Wars” logo over a starry background; while some might have found that a waste of three pages, I felt chills move up my arms because the comic captured precisely what the film did, and as I heard the John Williams score in my head I murmured to myself, “This is Star Wars.”

1. “Binary Sunset”
Naming the main title my #1 moment might have been a bit too predictable, but I can safely say that no musical moment defines the first film – and perhaps the entire saga – better than “Binary Sunset.” Utilizing the “Force Theme” to great effect, Williams captures the longing of Luke Skywalker and the promise of the great adventure that awaits him. It’s combined poetically with the image of the eponymous twin suns setting, allowing the genre atmosphere to collide with the plot mechanics and the technical splendor. The Force Awakens needs a “Binary Sunset” moment, a single image with a piece of music that distills the entire filmic experience.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Star Wars musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my “Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments!”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

There was a joke going around the Internet a few days ago that Pixar began its career by asking, “What if toys had feelings?” before turning to bugs, cars, and fish. Now, the punchline claims, Pixar is turning their gaze inward to ask, “What if emotions had feelings?” Every good joke, of course, has a grain of truth to it, and the fact of the matter is that Pixar has always been rather good at probing the emotional depth of the quotidian, and going meta is an inevitable move. What’s also inevitable is that writer/director Pete Docter (of Up and Monsters Inc. fame) has done a first-rate job of it.

When Riley turns eleven and her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotions in her head go along for the ride too. At the helm is Riley’s dominant emotion Joy (Amy Poehler), in charge of regulating Riley’s mood and creating her “core memories.” Also manning the buttons are Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), but it’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith) who seems to be influencing Riley more than Joy would like, leading the emotions into disagreement as Riley begins a new life on the West Coast.

Let’s get the preliminary advisory out of the way – yes, I cried. It didn’t seem like I would, for the longest time in the film, which was not to Inside Out’s detriment at all, but then that trademark Pixar sucker punch arrives right at the climax, and blimey. If the film doesn’t strike that chord with you, I worry for the state of your emotions; honestly I do. It’s interesting that this has become the benchmark of success for me in evaluating a Pixar film, and I suppose it’s due to the apparent distinction between “kid’s movie” and “proper film” that I notice (but reject out of hand) the older I get. Take, for example, the smattering of trailers presented before my showing of Inside OutMinions, Hotel Transylvania 2, Shaun the Sheep, Pan, and Peanuts. Aside from my Charles Schulz nostalgia, I didn’t feel anything but boredom; there is a caliber of storytelling that Pixar films more often than not inhabit, stories told without room for cynicism or cheap gimmicks.

One senses, for instance, that a great deal of thought has gone into Inside Out, with its surprisingly nimble adaptation of how our emotions and memories operate within our own headspace. Though there is little by way of scientific precision in the film, there is a great deal of “truthiness” to the proceedings, as when the film offers an imaginative explanation for why we forget some things but spontaneously recall others. I almost wonder if Inside Out, by deftly portraying certain truths about our interiorities, will help young viewers understand those things about themselves that we adults have already had to learn for ourselves. (For one, the film acknowledges the way that our dreams are reconstructed from our memories – what Freud called “day residues.”) We may not have emotional sprites living in our brains, though we might be better off if we did.

While we’re on the subject of the emotions, it must be said that Amy Poehler is perhaps the best cast of any Pixar protagonist. While the Pixar casting department hasn’t really made any significant bumbles, Poehler is downright inspired as the embodiment of Joy. A kind of manic pixie Leslie Knope, Joy’s relentless enthusiasm is matched perfectly with Poehler’s breathless whimsy and at times infuriating cheeriness. It’s impossible to imagine another voice that would have worked quite so well, but she’s also complimented by a surprising turn by Phyllis Smith as Sadness. Smith turns in a nicely understated performance, playing up not deep sorrow but the exhaustion and defeat that comes with despair. Honestly, the voice cast is all around very strong, but it’s worth noting that the film succeeds largely on the chemistry between Joy and Sadness.

It’s a wonderful relationship, one that doesn’t pander to the simple good-guy/bad-guy narrative to which a lesser film studio might have resorted (heavens, could you imagine Jack Black voicing Disgust, with all the inevitable flatulence jokes that would have accompanied him?). Instead, Docter gives us something much more interesting, a movie about a relationship rather than a movie with an antagonism. There are no bad guys here because it’s all about Riley, about the complex and competing emotions within us and how we navigate our own psychological terrain. It’s surprisingly smart, a kind of “Disney’s Inception” in a way that shows off none of its brilliance because it’s too busy working to get you to feel. And on that account, Inside Out succeeds, one of the more moving entries in the Pixar canon and indeed the film community at large within recent memory.

Inside Out is rated PG for “mild thematic elements and some action.” Do with that what you will – aside from a scary clown and an entirely inoffensive joke about looming puberty, I can’t think of anything really objectionable in this movie. The theater of surprisingly well-behaved kids seemed to agree with me.

Bonus review! As always, Pixar has preceded their main feature with a short that is both whimsical and romantic. Lava is the story, narrated in Hawaiian ballad style, of a lovesick yet lonely volcano who turns his envy of happy dolphin couples into a wistful song of romance. Though not long on story, Lava manages to do that Pixar feat of distilling a host of emotions into one poignant moment that made this grown man realize, “Wait, I’m getting misty-eyed over a volcano?” Sung by Kuana Torres Kahele, Lava is beautiful and powerful and a delightful surprise to those of us who genuinely didn’t know what Pixar would have on tap before Inside Out.