“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

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“Logan” Review

Logan_2017_posterIf the typical comic book movie is one that is light on its feet, quippy, sterile, and sanitized, Logan operates as the direct inverse. Directed by James Mangold, this entry into the X-Men franchise is bleak, dirty, and fixated on violence. Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe also is obsessed with death and destruction, but while Disney covers its sadism with a sickly sweet sheen of special effects, Twentieth Century Fox’s Logan hurls mutilated bodies at its audience with a focused and unrelenting consistency. On the surface, this may sound like a necessary correction to a genre that increasingly cowers from the consequences of its own carnage (note the critical skewering of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) but Logan functions as little more than a reactionary explosion of over-the-top violence that, aside from its nihilism, offers nothing substantively distinct from the numbing parade of big-budget blockbusters.

In a strange way, Mangold seems to have adopted a mirror position of fallacies typically made by religious fundamentalists in judging artistic merit. The fundamentalist will view a film and reject it out of hand because the work contains content (actions, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc.) which the individual objects to, neglecting how those aspects of the story may be utilized in a manner that is both artistically compelling and humanly truthful. Likewise, Logan confuses the mere presence of horrific violence as a sufficient response to the glossing over of said violence in countless blockbuster franchises. Forcing the viewer to witness innumerable skull-punctures and dismemberments (all depicted in graphic detail) does nothing in itself to justify its own existence, and therein lies the chief problem with Logan: it offends, but it offends with no purpose.

Logan may depict violence, but it offers no meaningful questioning of that same violence. The brutality simply exists. The film is ostensibly an exploration of the modern fear that in a capitalist society we have all been reduced to weapons and tools at the mercy of corporations. Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the eleven-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) are saddled with powerful claws and regenerative abilities, yet the film never presents the opportunity for either character to solve conflict with anything other than the very tools of weaponization the narrative purports to hold in disdain. Scene after scene of slaughter is put before the audience, culminating in a dizzying massacre of nameless bad guys that we’ve seen two-dozen times too many (and this time at the hands of children, a fact that the breathless film never seems to seriously mourn but instead plays as cool and exciting). This climactic battle sees the film perform perhaps its most egregious act of moral jujitsu: it celebrates freedom for children born in test tubes and weaponized in labs while simultaneously reveling in the violent and repeated annihilation of X-24, a mutant clone of Logan also born in a test tube and weaponized in a lab. The obvious parallel is disregarded by a film too obsessed with its own faux-seriousness.

Mangold does certainly know how to direct actors, and Jackman works extremely well with the small-scale material (it’s undeniably refreshing to have a superhero movie where the world/galaxy isn’t at stake), while Patrick Stewart makes quite the impression as an aged and unstable Professor X. Hints of novel ideas, like this theme of aging, pepper the landscape, but Logan is so obsessed with its own brutality that it literally eviscerates every shred of creativity as soon as it threatens to emerge (the excessive and casual disposal of a kindly farmer’s family should sear the most hardened conscience). The cinematography is of the competently mediocre variety that most comic book movies tend towards, an anonymous succession of mathematically consistent close and medium shots that fail to use visual language in any meaningful way other than to linger over a shattered skull or bleeding stump. Its villains are of the cartoonishly predictable and one-dimensional variety, one a soulless scientist, the other an insecure rank hopper who feels lazily plucked from Mangold’s far superior 3:10 to Yuma.

Mangold’s sense of character and moral complexity is alive and well in that also-violent Western, while Logan is content merely to beat its audience over the head with cruelty and refuse to provide any artistic form to the proceedings. Most offensive and concerning of all, Logan seems to think that this shotgunning of brutality with little rhyme or reason is in fact its primary virtue. It is a film that can be considered worthwhile only in relation to the recent slew of obnoxiously safe Marvel titles. Because it is essentially an exercise in excess without craft, Logan often feels like the once repressed child of sheltering parents gone overboard in teenage rebellion. If you find yourself wanting a thoughtful exploration of violence and nihilism, pulling out No Country for Old Men from the DVD pile may prove more worth your time.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” Review

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngSpoilers ahead. Evasive maneuvers.

Another December, another Disney Star Wars film; and so it will be from now until whenever the box office returns are outstripped by the marketing budget. At the end of a year that saw tent-pole franchises provide unexpected masterpieces (Zack Snyder’s phenomenal Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition) alongside carcasses picked dry by studio executives and fan service (Suicide Squad), Gareth Edwards, fresh off the aesthetically impressive if narratively inert Godzilla, tries his hand at besting a system stacked against him by stakeholder meddling and extensive reshoots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though Edwards’ original vision for a Star Wars war-film has been watered down to a mere shell of the grounded and brutal film that was originally promised, Rogue One still holds enough artistry and life to distance itself from the creatively stagnant The Force Awakens and finally bring us back to a galaxy far, far away.

Rogue One is a prequel of sorts, occupying the timeline space between George Lucas’s masterful Revenge of the Sith and the original A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a tough, jaded woman caught up in a rebel mission to (unbeknownst to her) assassinate her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who walked away from the Death Star project for moral reasons, but was forced back into working for the Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) at the same time Jyn’s mother was killed. Heading up the rebel mission (which takes a detour to visit some rebel extremists led by Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker) is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, whose hardened methods and steely resolve come into conflict both with Jyn’s familial loyalties and cynicism towards both sides in the Galactic Civil War. Also gathered along for the ride are the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and the mysterious Guardians of the Whills, the burly Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the blind Force-zealot Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen).

Of course, one has to address the extensive reshoots Edwards was forced to conduct by Disney executives, a pox upon Rogue One that the film is able to overcome, if not ever fully shake. There is no way at this point to know for certain the degree to which Edwards was forced to alter his film at the request of corporate executives (detective work can be done by analyzing trailer and behind the scenes footage); the main point is that it was extensive, and it does show. Compared to Edwards’ recent Godzilla, it’s recognizable pretty early on that Disney has its director on a tight leash. To his credit, Edwards frequently bumps up against the top-down dictated aesthetic sanitization, but the war-film target that the initial creative crew were aiming for is pretty watered down. Glimpses of this tension are particularly evident in the muddled handling of Saw Gerrera’s extremist group on Jedha. In an engaging action sequence, a group of Gerrera’s rebels ambush an Imperial cargo shipment in a crowded marketplace, and Edwards does something that Lucas did to great effect in his original six episodes: he taps into a real-world iconography to frame his space-fantasy narrative, in this case the visual language of Mujahdeen or Taliban fighters fighting Soviet or American occupation forces.

The usage of such imagery is fraught with charged implications (similar to Lucas’s complex visual fashioning of Republic planes in the Attack of the Clones as Vietnam-era gunships), but unfortunately Gerrera’s cell is later cast in a muddled fashion more akin to Maz Kanata’s castle than a serious terrorist organization. There’s an interrogation octopus more campy than creepy (between this and the rathtars in The Force Awakens it seems post-Lucas Star Wars can’t quite get creatures sorted out), a total lack of spatial awareness within the base itself (shot tightly, cramped, and blandly) and the charismatic extremist version of Gerrera glimpsed in the first teaser trailer (“what will you do if they break you!?”) is replaced with an eccentric, quirky, unstable and goofy figure lacking in menace and coherence, but abounding in vague exposition. While the destruction of Jedha at the hands of the Death Star is visually remarkable, Gerrera’s role leaves disappointingly little narrative impact, his driving impetus obscure and undefined. Characters in the film tell us that Gerrera and company are extremists, but the film never truly convinces that Gerrera does anything “extreme” beyond shooting stormtroopers, a tonal shift most likely handed down by executives fearful for the marketability of the film.

Choppy editing in this first half of the film generally muddies the proceedings as the crew takes a tour of the galaxy to assemble the members of the crew. Slower-pacing to establish both place and character is eschewed, and dialogue and character bits feel pasted together from multiple cuts of the film, shortchanging consistent and natural character development (this weakness may actually be the fault of Edwards himself, as the human element was the one area where Godzilla noticeably floundered). Other moments that should be darker are declawed (Cassian’s murder of an informant at the beginning of the film is played as ho-hum and without tension rather than as disturbing), a Darth Vader appearance at about the midpoint is textbook shoehorned fan-service (and another example of the Disney strategy of raiding Lucas’s discarded idea junk pile for visual concepts), and the film in general continues the baffling Disney tendency to sonically quiet Star Wars. Blasters, spaceships, and explosions continue to lack the sonic bite and distinctness that Lucas’s films had. This all combines to divert the film from the unsettling and visceral war-film we might have gotten had Edwards been left alone with his artistic vision.

On the aural note, there is one more (and perhaps the clearest) area in which executive meddling seems to have robbed the film of artistic power: the musical score. Alexandre Desplat, Edwards’ collaborator on the muscular score for Godzilla, was mysteriously dropped from the project in September because of reshoot “scheduling conflicts” (a highly suspect explanation that is most likely code for creative disagreements with the second directors and writers brought in to aid in the reworking of the film). Whatever the reason, John Williams imitator Michael Giachinno, a competent composer in his own right, was brought in to write a brand new score in only four and a half weeks. Any composer would find this a daunting challenge and, of no real fault of Giachinno’s, the rushed nature of the score is glaringly obvious. Though Giachinno’s music is featured much more prominently than Williams’ score in The Force Awakens (theoretically a good thing), it occasionally feels like a second rate imitation of the real deal, and, more significantly, is sometimes tonally out of sync with the action onscreen. Most glaring is its negative impact on the otherwise engaging sequence on Eadu, in which Krennic, Galen, Jyn, and Cassian all face off and are interrupted by a rebel airstrike. Jyn’s father is hit in the fray, but the score doesn’t start proclaiming the tragedy of the moment until far too late into the scene, and so an awkward minute or so of action unfolds in which the audience is witnessing the fear and anguish of Jyn for her father, but the brass is still twinkling away in faux-Williams exciting-action-mode. These, and other moments that should have been scored more ominously or tragically (or simply less anonymously), are likely victims of a director and composer not being given sufficient time and independence to formulate a focused artistic vision.

All this being said, if Edwards is on a leash, he is constantly straining at that leash, pushing as far as he can artistically within the constraints placed on him, and this persistence proves to be Rogue One‘s saving grace. Edwards and company, like Lucas before them, try some bold cinematic and technological moves, the digital recreation of Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin chief among them. Not only is Tarkin rendered remarkably well (for the most part) in a daring push of special effects technology to its limits (reminiscent of Lucas’s experimental flair throughout his six films), but he gets a fleshed out role and not a mere winking cameo. Tarkin highlights one of the film’s central motifs in his interactions with Krennic: that of the small, ordinary figures in the galaxy clawing to make an impact on the titans we recognize from Episodes I-VI. Krennic tries and fails to ascend the Imperial hierarchy as an individual, his project seized by Tarkin at completion, and credit slipping out of his reach. This failure of solitary ambition is juxtaposed with the collective efforts of anonymous rebel soldiers, whose minute acts of sacrifice compound to lay the groundwork for the eventual toppling of the Galactic Empire.

Edwards also works on this motif with his visual constructions, even if his knack for elaborate set-piece construction so evident in Godzilla has been somewhat lost. Edwards films the Death Star as a ghostly, looming specter (not unlike the form of the specter that the Death Star II takes in Return of the Jedi), eclipsing the sun and seemingly the universe itself, literally uprooting the natural order. Of particular note is the framing of the space station moments before its weapons test on Jedha, in which the weapon aligns with the planet in carefully positioned spherical arrangement that calls back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, framing the moment not only as a technological threshold, but the passing from one spiritual era of the Star Wars galaxy into another.

This all builds to a climactic final act that, even if it may have been restructured in reshoots, bursts on screen with color and vigor not seen since Lucas’s explosive conclusion to his Saga in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, nothing can quite compete with Lucas’s near flawless rendering of large scale combat at the end of Attack of the Clones or the beginning of Revenge, but Edwards and company nail the essentials: the bright greens and blues of tropical Scarif back a frantic rebel gambit to seize the Death Star plans and beam them off in a combined land/space effort in the vein of The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. Edwards infuses the rebel scramble with a frenzied fanaticism that pays dividends: X-wing pilots careen into Imperial shield-gates, rebel frigates ram Imperial Star Destroyers, ground troops scramble in an explosive diversion effort, while our main heroes find themselves in hair-raising predicament after predicament. Edwards even performs a bit of cinematic necromancy for continuity’s sake that would make Lucas and his Special Editions proud, cutting in footage of Red and Gold Leaders from A New Hope. Most emotionally satisfying of all is the tangible sense of the unlikelihood of the whole venture: every member of the Rogue One team gets a classic moment of warrior’s sacrifice. Particularly impactful are the ends of the wonderfully animated K-2SO and the religious Chirrut, whose moment of action convincingly conveys a sense of the Force’s all-encompassing will making such an unlikely chain of events possible.

The real payoff comes, however, in two brief moments at the end of Rogue One. After Jyn and Cassian successfully beam the plans off-planet, nameless rebel soldiers begin passing the plans one to another in their desperate bid to escape the just-arrived Darth Vader in his Star Destroyer. Vader boards the rebel flagship and hunts down these anonymous heroes one by one, as they defy the titan cutting them down by the dozens in a collective action (ordained by the Force) to get the plans to Princess Leia and the Tantive IV. It is here that Rogue One feels most like the war-film it was billed as: the story of small people matching up against an overwhelming conflict and making a galaxy-shifting difference.

Surpassing even this thrilling set-piece is the brief lyrical and visual moment that directly precedes it. Having successfully completed their mission, Jyn and Cassian sit exhausted on one of Scarif’s island beaches as the Death Star turns to vaporize the facility in a last-ditch Imperial effort to foil the raid. The sky before them is engulfed in flame in an inversion of A New Hope‘s binary sunset; if Luke’s horizon spoke of the infinite potential of the future, Jyn and Cassian’s tells only of the imminent and fiery end of the present. Giachinno’s serviceable score suddenly swells with strings and choir, pairing with the beautifully composed image of two friends embracing for comfort in the face of coming death. It is a moment of tragedy, beauty, and tenderness that overwhelms in both its visual and aural power. It is a moment that feels right in line with the loftiest of Lucas’s operatic ambitions, yet conveyed in a fashion that distinguishes itself from Lucas’s sensibilities, and it is in this moment of undiluted cinema that the purest spirit of Star Wars stirs suddenly and potently back to life.

“Arrival” Review

arrival_movie_posterDenis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.

Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.

In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.

Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.

“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.

“Last Days in the Desert” Review

Last_Days_in_the_Desert_posterIn the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.

García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.

Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.

The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.

It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.

Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” Review

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster PULLINGIt was inevitable that The Force Awakens wouldn’t quite be able to live up the swelling levels of anticipation that have been building in the years since Disney acquired the franchise. I had braced myself for a bit of disappointment on some level, recognizing that this sequel trilogy would never be able to totally recapture that rapturous wonder and excitement that the entire Saga, Episodes I through VI, had inspired in me as a child, but I couldn’t foresee the disconcerting and slightly traumatic realization that I had walking out of the theater: J.J. Abrams has delivered a well-made and enjoyable film, but one that feels more like a tribute to Star Wars than Star Wars itself.

Let me give the good news first: our new heroes are, for the most part, excellent. Rey, as played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, is particularly compelling. A young, rugged, but hopeful scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, she follows in both Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s footsteps admirably. I’m especially pleased with the decision to make our primary hero a woman, giving young girls a heroic model who is also strong in the Force. Rey embodies everything we love about Star Wars at its best: she’s plucky, resourceful, and 100% earnest. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, likewise, is a scrappy Resistance pilot with both skill and spirit, similar to Wedge Antilles with a bigger role to play. His astromech droid co-pilot, the ball of both fun and emotion known as BB-8 does more than simply fill R2-D2’s role: his own beeps and twerps combine with his magical physical design to make him the single most charming element of The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren, as played by Adam Driver, also shines as an insecure wannabe-Sith, the first time we’ve gotten to see a dark side villain who appears to be straight-up psychologically unhinged.

While the new heroes themselves feel authentic, the narrative forged by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan unfortunately misses the forest for the trees, correcting George Lucas’s intentional shortcomings as a director (acting, dialogue) while jettisoning what Lucas brought as a visionary that made Star Wars unique (titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative). These failures do not necessarily make for a bad movie, as I will strive to explain, but instead leave The Force Awakens feeling distinctly out of sync with rest of the Saga.

The chief obstacle to The Force Awakens is the amount of fan-service and self-referencing present in the film, as almost every major plot point is recycled from the original trilogy and done in an inevitably inferior manner. While such a move is understandable from a business standpoint, as Disney and Abrams strive to assure fans that the franchise is in good hands, it does the narrative arc of the Saga a tremendous disservice. The Starkiller Base (the primary weapon of The First Order) is perhaps the most egregious offender. Its inclusion seems meant to simultaneously call back to both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, while attempting to up the ante by making a point not only of its ability to hit multiple planets but also its planetary-scale that dwarfs the Empire’s previous battle stations.

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Starkiller Base

Abrams and company here show an unsettling disregard for the metanarrative of the Saga they undoubtedly love and cherish so much. When Resistance planners bring up a schematic comparison of Starkiller Base and the Death Star, it comes across as a lazy attempt to top the stakes and gravity of the original entry. “Oh, so you thought what Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca had to wrestle with in the original trilogy was tough? Pssht. Gimme a break. Get a load of this thing.” But even in this attempt to outdo the original films, Abrams fails to provide significant reason to fear the technological terror he’s constructed on both a narrative and visual level. Unlike the destruction of Alderaan, clearly presented as Leia’s home system to provide some shred of emotional heft, when the Starkiller Base fires up its giant laser it takes aim at a system only vaguely known as part of the Republic and with hardly any knowledge given to the audience of why this system matters. If you missed the fact that it’s the capital system of the New Republic, you are not alone. Disney’s aversion to the political machinations of Lucas’s prequels is so powerful that they fail to give even the skeletal bones of political context A New Hope supplies.

Star Wars fans may object to my complaints on the grounds that Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace both call back to this structure, building to a climax that centers around destroying a space station from within, but Lucas understood that he couldn’t simply repackage the same threat, and so he forced the superficial similarity to serve greater narrative purposes. While one can easily argue that Lucas fails at this intent in The Phantom Menace, at least the droid control ship has no planet-destroying power, serving rather to reveal Anakin’s remarkable piloting abilities, and in Return of the Jedi the true menace of the Death Star II isn’t so much literal as symbolic, the station used as bait by the Emperor to lure the Alliance into pitched battle, a battle which itself provides the basis for the spiritual temptation of Luke Skywalker. But Abrams doesn’t realize what Lucas did: that calling back to the old familiar structure should also forge ahead into new ground within the context of the overall narrative, and here the failure is most obvious. The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday? Lucas’s vision for the Saga understood that the universe he created must be consistent with itself while pushing towards new horizons, and Abrams at multiple points disconnects with that universe by remaining narratively static.

What made the Star Wars Lucas created so unique, so brilliant, so utterly unlike anything else ever to grace the silver-screen is its ability to call back to ancient myth, integrating its own stories in a cyclical fashion that continually sheds new light on the Episodes that have come before. The Force Awakens certainly cycles back to the original trilogy, but in attempting to simply restate previous entries louder and with more nostalgia than Lucas’s prequels, Abrams has missed the heart of Star Wars: he has not expanded our imaginative conception of the galaxy far, far away. The frequent and cute quips referencing the original trilogy might be fun in 2015, it having been roughly thirty years since we’ve seen our original cast in theaters, but a decade down the road, when The Force Awakens is simply part of a much larger web of the new Disney canon, I’ll wager it may feel more than a bit overdone.

Such nostalgia is redundant, as Lucas had already worked a self-referential system into his Saga with the cheesy one-liners that crop up repeatedly and consistently through both the prequel and original trilogies (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” “This is where the fun begins.” “Artoo-Detoo, where are you?”). In The Force Awakens, however, Abrams has taken what should be superficial reminders that we’re in the same hokey galaxy and made them the entire movie. The Death Star/Starkiller Base comparison is not the worst of it. Abrams recycles the trench run, the reactor core, the Emperor’s hologram, the Resistance/Rebellion as underdogs, Han Solo’s job as a smuggler (effectively negating his narrative arc, one of the more egregious rehashes), the cantina scene, Maz Kanata as a Yoda figure (even repurposing lines about the Force to much less effect) and the lush forests of Yavin 4 reappearing on both Takadona and D’Qar (it’s a curious imaginative decision to have two planets appear successively in the narrative with such similar and derivative visual palettes).

To a certain degree, one can’t be too angry at Abrams. Perhaps the source material is so beloved to him that he couldn’t help but simply give us what we’ve already gotten (a more cynical mind would see it as a safe attempt to court those disenchanted by the prequels). For all the derision that Lucas’s prequels received, it cannot be denied that they stayed true to the heart of Star Wars in a sense that The Force Awakens does not. Episodes I-III continually opened our eyes to an ever expanding universe, challenging the viewer with new and iconic sights and sounds (the classical Naboo aesthetic, the skyscrapers of Coruscant, the climactic duel on the lava planet of Mustafar) as well as challenging and profound mythic thematic material (the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force, the framing of Darth Vader as a tragic hero, the intricately plotted demise of a democracy through manipulation by fear). One can also easily forget that no one thought that the original Star Wars, A New Hope, would succeed, that Lucas received death threats for making Vader Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back, and that redeeming the trilogy’s main villain in Return of the Jedi rather than killing him at the hands of the hero is a fairly bold move for the swashbuckling adventure story Lucas originally set out to tell. By catering to what fans expected and wanted from Star Wars, Abrams neglects what sets Star Wars apart from most Hollywood franchises. What good are real sets and practical effects if they just deliver inferior versions of what has come before?

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Rey and BB-8

This is not to say that The Force Awakens fails at setting a grand stage for Episode VIII, and I remain hopeful that Rian Johnson will take the Saga in a new and exciting direction. I look forward to seeing new adventures with characters like Rey, BB-8, and Kylo Ren; I’m simply frustrated for the moment at having to watch them relive a previous generation’s. The new cast is truly remarkable, and though I may be disappointed in the way that Finn was written, I have to tip the cap to John Boyega for bringing obvious heart to his performance. It’s an inescapable reality, though, that only a few moments grasp for Lucas’s ambitious brand of visual storytelling: Rey and Kylo Ren locking sabers, Leia and Rey embracing in shared loss as the Resistance celebrates victory behind them, and a weary and weathered Luke Skywalker turning to face our young heroine. It is this final moment that filled me with the most hope for the future of the Saga. Luke’s robotic hand calls back to Anakin’s, his grieving countenance speaking of a man who has been beaten down by both the light and dark sides of the Force, all while Rey offers him Anakin’s lightsaber, pleading with the old to forge a path ahead into the unknown. In this moment we see the entirety of the Saga invoked at once. Past, present, and future are summoned through specific use of imagery that carries newly illuminated narrative weight, and I see a glimmer of the sort of storytelling Star Wars provides at its best. If only The Force Awakens had been able to tear itself away from the mirror long enough to realize the visionary potential hidden within itself.

At the end of the day, however, one can’t fault Abrams for not being George Lucas, and what may seem to some a scathing indictment of this sequel trilogy should rather be read as a wistful reflection on what we have lost with the passing of the torch. I insist on feeling none of the anger with which some fans regularly chastise those who cherish Episodes I-III, the films that formed the backbone for my imagination. There is much to like about this new installment, even if Finn’s character is incomprehensible (a bred-killer who defects and shows no signs of internal conflict), or Kylo Ren’s force powers are frustratingly inconsistent. One writer notes in his own review that Lucas stayed so true to the internal rules of the universe he created in the prequels that he consciously insisted on providing us with dislikable characters for the sake of a greater narrative. Abrams has done the opposite, providing us with likable characters at the expense of the logic of the Star Wars universe. We finally have formally good Star Wars movies, but I fear that the price may have been Star Wars itself.

“Mr. Holmes” Review

Mr._Holmes_posterGenre films find most of their value and merit in transcending their respective genre, using it as a launching point, a familiar and comfortable language with which to convey far greater meaning. Interstellar succeeds because it is just as much a family drama, a tale of one man’s love for his daughter, as it is a deep-space adventure. The Thin Red Line haunts viewers because though it follows war film conventions it places primary emphasis on the metaphysical and spiritual longings of the men fighting the battle of Guadalcanal. In the same vein, Mr. Holmes, while technically a mystery, finds its true power as a sobering and touching reflection on a great man’s inexorable march towards death. As one critic astutely observed, in the midst of a summer season typically committed to making superheroes into immortal figures, Bill Condon’s powerful little film is too busy reminding us of one iconic figure’s mortality.

The narrative structure of Mr. Holmes is delightfully non-linear, juggling three mysterious plots simultaneously. In the present day of the story, 1947, a rapidly aging and retired Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) struggles to cope with both his failing memory and his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), along with her young and inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker). Tension boils underneath the surface between Holmes and the feisty Munro. Munro desires to move herself and her son to better work, but as Holmes develops a budding relationship with Roger, helping him to develop the hobby of bee-keeping, Munro begins to see Holmes as a rival. Holmes, on the other hand, has been struggling both with his age and reflecting on the last mystery he solved thirty-five years earlier, which prompted him to quit detective work. A second plot recalls Holmes’ recent trip to Japan to find “prickly ash” in hopes of restoring his fading memory, a memory that prevents him from remembering the details of this last mystery (the third plot-line). Holmes has been attempting to write his own factual novel of this mystery to (purportedly) combat the falsehoods of Mr. Watson’s novels about himself, but soon he finds Roger to have a profound influence upon him, and in directing his novel towards the young boy he begins to piece together and reconcile himself with the events that drove him to abandon his investigative duties.

Mr. Holmes is a slow burner, but it rewards the patient and attentive viewer. Condon wisely allows the multiple mystery plots to play second-fiddle to the realistically physical struggles of Holmes, who is played with grace and honesty by McKellen. This is a flawed Holmes, a mortal Holmes, but a human Holmes. McKellen plays Holmes as a man of pure logic who is finding his logical capabilities deteriorating as the ultimate illogicality, death, approaches. Holmes must learn how to face death, and in doing so must return to reconciling and making sense of the life he lived. I will refrain from exploring the details the film explores, but Holmes wrestles with the consequences of his highly analytical and detached genius. At the end of his life, Holmes is forced to reckon with what it is to be truly human, and through Roger and Mrs. Munro, Holmes is given the chance to pour the wisdom of his old age into coming generations. Questions of the relationship between factual truth, fictional narrative and morality are also posed using the legendary stature of Sherlock Holmes the detective. These narrative threads prompt the provocative question as to whether right and noble fictions are preferable to bleak and hopeless facts (essentially, Truth vs. truth) and thus, in a fascinating way, the film wrestles with justifying its own existence.

Aided with stately cinematography from Tobias Schliessler and gripping performances from the entire cast, Mr. Holmes is a delicate reflection upon life, death, truth and reconciliation. There are moments of laughter, moments of intrigue, and moments of sadness. This is the story of an aging man who is confronted with the reality that there is more to this life than fact and reason, that there is an element of human existence inaccessible to the rationale, and that there is meaning beyond the drawing of our own breath. Because of this, Mr. Holmes is a profoundly human film and no mere mystery tale. Indeed, it is something far, far more valuable.

“Jurassic World” Review

Jurassic_World_posterIf you go into Jurassic World a bit skeptical, you have good reason. Mega-franchises rule the box office, crowding out original concepts with cinematic constructions designed to tantalize the senses with just enough thoughtless violence, humor and fan-service to separate film-goers from their cash. In such an environment, do we really trust Universal to bring back Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking but progressively floundering franchise? Frankly, I didn’t, but let me reassure you that while director Colin Trevorrow and company can’t quite tap into the magic of Spielberg’s first two installments, Jurassic World stands head and shoulders above Jurassic Park III, cleverly satirizing contemporary blockbusters while supplying a heavy dose of digestible thrills and surprising heart.

Jurassic World demands immediate suspension of disbelief, as every one of these films does, with its assertion that twenty-two years after the initial disastrous attempt, John Hammond’s original dream park has finally opened to smashing success. But there’s a problem: just like real-life American consumers of entertainment, the visitors of Jurassic World have grown bored with normal dinosaurs, and just like their real-life American corporate counterparts, the powers that be have decided that fulfilling customers’ every desire is the most effective way to turn a profit. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire Dearing, the park operations manager, who opens her role by giving a tour to Verizon executives who have eagerly financed the genetic creation of a “cooler” and “scarier” carnivorous predator: the terrifying Indominus rex. She consults with Chris Pratt’s Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady, with whom she has an awkward romantic past, on the strength of the park’s containment strategies for their focus-group-crafted dinosaur. Predictably, the highly intelligent killing machine mounts an escape, and with Claire’s two nephews, the teenaged Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) visiting the park as their parents prepare for divorce, the park breaks down into a terrifying, hellish nightmare.

What sets the original Jurassic Park apart from the majority of horror/thriller/action films is not only Spielberg’s immense technical skill in drawing out both suspense and wonder, but also the film’s development of surprisingly thoughtful themes (man vs. nature, the questioning of what is natural and unnatural, fatherhood, corporate greed) throughout the narrative. These questions are not window dressing, but rather part and parcel of the narrative. Jurassic World wisely reintroduces these themes to the franchise, while adding an interesting commentary on the nature of entertainment, continually emphasizing the discontentment of the consumer and the horrific results when corporations feed human desire. Jurassic World, we are told, must continually introduce new and innovative attractions to its guests in order to stay relevant. Apparently, visitors have become tired of riding baby dinosaurs in the petting zoo or seeing a Tyrannosaurus rex in the flesh. Instead, InGen (that delightfully inept representation of corporate greed) creates its own dinosaur that will not only scare the kids but terrify the parents. Indominus rex and her rampage, then, becomes a literal embodiment of corporate excess, ambition and the insatiable desire for more.

Trevorrow also directs most of the action in a properly frightening manner, following the techniques of clear logic and discernible structure shunned by far too many films. An early sequence in the film is notable for humanizing a group of containment officers slaughtered by Indominus, characters normally treated as disposable fodder in lesser franchises. As the men are picked off, quick cuts to the control room draw attention to the men’s faces next to their rapidly flat-lining vital-signs. It’s a small detail, but one that admirably puts focus on the human tragedy rather than mere spectacle. Trevorrow, throughout the film, strives to hit this mixture of wonder and terror that Spielberg so often struck upon in films like Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, (and to a lesser extent The Lost World) and while he never quite reaches the existential dread of the first two dinosaur films, the presence of actual menace certainly elevates the action above other such fare. The film does stumble during an embarrassingly cartoonish and excessively violent mass flying dinosaur attack (a T-Rex/Pterodactyl genetic hybrid is particularly groan-inducing) but thankfully this proves to be the exception rather than the rule.

The infamous Velociraptors continue their evolution of intelligence, with Owen training them like attack dogs (a subplot involving InGen’s desire to develop them as a military technology is a clever insertion of President Eisenhower’s fear of the military-industrial complex, even if the character pushing the plan is laughably one-dimensional). Chris Pratt is an excellent choice for this role, imparting equal parts charm, swagger, and moral nobility. His performance in Guardians of the Galaxy may be the only truly redeeming element of that film, and audiences will be pleased to see his continual evolution into a Harrison Ford-esque action hero. Some occasionally poignant moral observations on the effect of parents upon children are hit upon through Claire, Zach and Gray’s characters, and a not-so-subtle critique of modern teenage detachment via technology is present as well.

In the end, fans of the Jurassic Park franchise will leave satisfied, and those craving originality may be pleasantly surprised at the extent to which this film rises above its blockbuster peers. Unfortunately, convenient plot contrivances rear their heads a few too many times, and Trevorrow’s cinematography is saddled with the mega-franchise tendency to anonymize visuals, but these flaws aren’t enough to seriously rain on the parade of human driven disaster. And that is the genius of a Jurassic Park film done right, as in the case of Jurassic World. At the end of the day, human beings gleefully signed off on this unnatural disaster.

There is a scene early in the film in which a bedazzled audience “oohs” and “aahs” at an underwater dinosaur. The frame is cut as if the real-life audience of Jurassic World has been presented a mirror image of themselves, a subversive moment of self-awareness. This moment speaks to why Jurassic World stands out from its mega-franchise peers: it dares to suggest that we, the viewers, consumers, and producers, might actually be part of the problem. Indominus rex is a beast that we have been complacent in creating.

“Pacific Rim” Review

Pacific_Rim_FilmPosterSometimes it’s good to just sit back, relax, and let one’s self be overwhelmed by the sheer awesome power of gigantic alien monsters fighting massive metal robots with the fate of humanity in the balance. Sometimes it’s good to watch a film that presents a conflict that is delightfully simple, with stark contrasts. Sometimes it’s good to be touched emotionally by the power of human friendship and family even in the midst of overwhelming odds. Sometimes it’s good to laugh heartily at the gloriously absurd. Sometimes it’s good to have a film simultaneously take itself both completely seriously and in the same breath mercilessly make fun of itself. Sometimes it’s good to have a nice, clean film during which you do not have to worry about any content issues or subliminal messages aside from a heavy dose of old fashioned heroism and celebration of the human spirit. And sometimes, very rarely, it’s good to have all these things rolled into one movie. Reader, I am happy to announce that Pacific Rim is such a film.

The plot of Pacific Rim is astonishingly simple: massive alien monstrosities, known as Kaiju, have invaded Earth through a dimension-bridge deep in the Pacific Ocean, and humanity has set aside it’s differences for the greater good, building massive Jaegers, giant mechanized warriors piloted by two mind-melded humans to keep the creatures at bay. These pilots must act in perfect unison, even sharing memories, in order to pilot these massive weapons. I will refrain from detailing the plot further, not because plot details are important or their twists mind-blowing in the slightest, but because the joy of having the story unfold and realizing just how straight up heroic and enjoyable it is is an experience I do not want to rob from you. Suffice to say that the main character, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunman), is a classic cocky yet vulnerable American hero you’ll be rooting for in a heartbeat. Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) proves to be a surprisingly empathetic character (as well as delivering one heck of a pre-battle speech towards the end). Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is also a pleasant surprise as a heartwarming character, while two scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman almost steal the show with their hilarious and endearing banter and antics.

And that is what is so phenomenal about Pacific Rim: it endears itself to you. You feel for the humans, amidst all of the over the top destruction. When the Jaegers suffer setbacks in combat, we genuinely fear and mourn. When they triumph (particularly our main American Jaeger, “Gipsy Danger”) we exult and cheer. Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro wisely does not use his impressive special effects to bombard his audience into submitting to the peril of the story (as Michael Bay’s Transformers films did, relying on cheap humor to fill gaps between destruction). Rather, del Toro focuses primarily on building genuine characters and an engrossing tale so that when cities start getting flattened and our heroes are in peril we actually care who wins and who loses. When Gipsy Danger swaggers into battle to save helpless humans we cannot help but celebrate, because it is truly heroic.

Pacific Rim’s heroes are offered up to us pure and wholesome, as examples to look up to. Humanity’s enemies are portrayed as monstrous and repulsive, evil we genuinely hate. The film is surprisingly colorful, brash and clear in its portrayal of the conflict. It portrays epic amounts of destruction, allowing us to realize the tremendous stakes, but never revels in excessive violence, with a surprisingly low on-screen body count for all the city-leveling. Cinematography-wise, the camera moves slowly and methodically, allowing us to digest the action, instead of being disoriented by it, thus inspiring genuine awe. Pacific Rim is refreshingly simple and optimistic despite its titanic struggles, and is the type of story one would tell to an imaginative young child. Or perhaps it should rather be described as a story such a child would dream up, and is certainly the better for it.