Terminator Genisys * (out of 5)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Dayo Okeniyi, and Courtney B. Vance
Written by: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd
Directed by: Alan Taylor
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Say what you want about the Terminator franchise (you surely could), but there exists an absolute earnestness to each film that elevates the “B” movie premise. I love that about the first four films, how unabashedly sure they are about themselves. That’s the glue that holds them together. On the other hand, it is quite possibly the most milked of all the franchises, barely hanging on for relevance. So many have had the rights to the property, so many have tried to capitalize on the name, that I’m amazed anything is still left to present. Terminator Genisys is the long-gestating culmination of an attempt to make new what many had seen as old, unappealing, and unnecessary. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the film is an astonishingly vile culmination. The final product is far worse when considering the time and effort put in to resurrect this lifeless brand, as well as our time as the audience, shoveling in the drivel, waiting for the payoff. Genisys is a clear indication that a new direction, whilst noble for creative purposes, is not always the best direction.
Describing the story of a Terminator film cannot happen without a prior understanding of the utter silliness. We are, after all, talking about pseudo-science, killer robots, and time travel here. The beginning of the film brings us up to speed on the eve of victory for John Connor (Jason Clarke) and the ‘Resistance’ against Skynet and the ‘machines’ in 2029. Connor, his right hand man Kyle Reese (Courtney), and the remaining soldiers arrive at a typical ‘Deus Ex Machina’ inside Skynet headquarters. Connor knows what happens next, and so do we- in a last-ditch effort to save itself, Skynet sends a terminator back through time to eliminate Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) before she gives birth to John. He then sends Reese back to protect her. This takes us up to the opening of the original film, and we’re in familiar territory. So familiar, in fact, that the film even reproduces (as much as possible) the arrival of the original T-800 in 1984 Los Angeles. Here’s the catch- another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is waiting for him, and a brief battle ensues.
Meanwhile, Reese has arrived in 1984, but there’s another catch; a T-1000 (the liquid metal version) has inexplicably shown up to dispose of him. Sarah Connor appears out of nowhere and helps him escape. What? Come again? I know, this all seems strange, and it is, even though we knew this from the surprisingly revelatory trailers. According to the following expository scene, the future has been ‘reset’ due to the events of the first two films. It’s the Star Trek ploy- once you reset the past, you can write whatever you want to fit the needs of a new franchise, based on a loose understanding of parallel universes. Nevermind that we lack an explanation for how a T-1000 appeared, nor do we understand why his appearance is altered. Nevermind that somehow, John and Kyle are the most clean-shaved post-apocalyptic soldiers to ever appear on-screen. Nevermind that this entry blatantly ignores the events of the unpopular third and fourth films, despite audience investment in new characters and destinies.
Audiences have been trained by now to accept most time travel films on faith alone, for there is no basis for reference. However, Genisys lacks the common decency to even follow the franchise’s rules. Before, we knew that characters could never ‘return’ to the future, but here, it’s as simple as using material from 1984 to accomplish the goal. Before, we understood this story’s timeline to be cyclical- Kyle Reese came back, fathered John Connor, died, Connor survived a second attempt, and it all led to an inevitable future war that Connor was to overcome. Before, we understood the real threat of nuclear holocaust as the driving force behind our heroes’ actions. Now, this film wants to tell us that “Genisys”, a “cloud” type of system invented by the Miles and Danny Dyson (remember them, Terminator 2 fans?), and our attachment to smart devices, will be our demise. That’s how these writers brought social consequence to this film? Give me a break. By ignoring the third and fourth films, and thus creating an alternate timeline devoid of nuclear fear, Genisys has spat in the face if its’ own continuity, a bold statement to make for what amounted to an already flimsy timeline. The film even creates a subplot about wanting to know who actually sent ‘Pops’ back to protect Sarah as a child, but then never resolves the matter. In fact, that’s the whole onus for Skynet to find out that info, yet it isn’t resolved. This film is simply not intelligent enough to coerce us into forgetting what came before.
Furthermore, what happened to these characters? Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Conner was inept at first, but gracefully inept; then menacing and ruthless. Hamilton made this role legendary for those very reasons. This film fails Sarah Conner by writing, then portraying her, as a petulant brat. Emilia Clarke bears a slight resemblance to Hamilton, and her vocal imitation is close enough, but that’s where the comparisons end. She certainly lacks the grace and gravity of Hamilton’s performance, and it’s a befuddling choice. Jason Clarke is unintentionally comical as John Connor, lacking the weariness and cautious optimism we’ve grown to understand from the role. He opts for a plain delivery, and clearly doesn’t know the character like we do. I say this knowing full well that the character isn’t the character we know for most of the film (no spoilers there, the trailer gave it away). The worst offender, again, is Courtney. Not only does he inexplicably react differently than the Kyle Reese we knew before, he offers the polar opposite performance to Michael Biehn’s in the original (even markedly different from Anton Yelchin in Salvation). We’ve previously known that the man adores Sarah Connor, but somehow can’t manage to care much about her in this film. I’m confused. I can handle obvious needs to re-cast for a film 31 years later. What I cannot accept is a bland, unaffected delivery from an actor playing a character that grew up in an apocalypse, yet clearly has no shortage of access to grooming products, weight training equipment, or protein-laden foods.
Not every performance is lacking, however. If there is anything to take from Genisys, it is again the presence of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. For what little he offers in depth, we always love him in this role, for his limitations as an actor actually work for the character. His choices have been curious and reasonably unsuccessful since his stint as governor, but the old reliable T-800 fits him so well. He’s also the only main character that appears to understand he’s in a Terminator film. He’s the franchise’s best asset, the constant amongst the changing of ownership, the bevy of different writers, and the re-casts. He’s the one delivering the most honest performance, which is clearly ironic, as he’s the freaking robot. I mean this with the greatest of affections for our most unlikely of screen legends, but when your film’s most professional moments come from Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’re doing it wrong. I’m almost sympathetic to the man, for his earnestness deserves a better film. J.K. Simmons, the recently minted Oscar winner, is also inexplicably in this movie. He deserves a larger, more integral role as someone who actually watched the first four films, and appears to be the only human putting the pieces together. The audience needs that character, yet we barely see him. It’s another miss in a series of misses on character development.
The success of the previous films (even at their worst) relied on the effort put forth by the filmmakers to take a B-movie concept with mostly action stars and attempt science fiction or comment on society. Genisys is neither honest nor successful in that venture. The whole project appears to suffer from bad intentions, which appears to be the desire to proliferate a story once thought of as complete back in 1991. It suffers from poor marketing decisions, such as the baffling choice to showcase the film’s one big twist in the theatrical trailer. It suffers from a constant need to shed what we already knew (and loved) about the story just to get a new direction, and thus new films. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the films have progressively been worse, even as they’ve promised to take the material in newer, darker, and more exciting directions. It’s a patchwork quilt of a franchise, constantly changing actors, scenarios, and stakes to fill whatever the plot needs. Now, these new caretakers have made it a Transformers clone- unintelligible special effects, paper-thin characters, grand but dumb ideas, and “inconsequential consequences”. You’ll find none of the tense, almost horror-film tendencies and tones of the early films here, none of the realistic, brutal, physics-accessible fight scenes we know and love. In Genisys, you’ll get only easy, lazy moments meant for broad appeal. That just sucks.
It would be silly of me to suggest that the Terminator franchise actually mattered beyond a reference to what James Cameron’s career has become, or the prescient undertones warning us about artificial intelligence. They don’t matter- but like many, many others, I harbor an unreasonable, deep-rooted affection for this property. The strong desire of Megan and David Ellison of Skydance Productions to ‘reboot’ or ‘reset’ this franchise’s timeline is wholly unnecessary, for even the weakest of the previous films (Salvation) attempted continuity of tone and character. Genisys is the worst possible outcome, ignoring Rise of the Machines and Salvation for no reason other than lazily succumbing to popular opinion. It stands to reason that if your story asks us to ignore the events of two entire films because of their supposed poor quality, yours should exceed that quality, or at least be replacement level. That’s not the case here. One of the most exciting, tense, groundbreaking, enjoyable franchises of the modern film era has been reduced to lazy cliches, substandard effects, inaccurate call backs to what we already experienced, and a clean PG-13 sheen. It’s the apocalypse, sponsored by The Sharper Image. How depressing is that?
The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorite Films
In “celebration” of the fact that my blog still exists after two years, I’d like to share with the readers the movies that are closest to my heart and mind. You may already be aware of them, but the idea was to guess as many as possible.
So, without further ado, here are my twenty favorite films, in countdown order:
20. High Fidelity- “What came first, the music or the misery?” Exactly. With all of his odd takes on society and politics lately, it might be hard to remember when John Cusack was the stand in for all of us neurotic, fast-talking, hopeless romantic white guys. The film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is the high point of Cusack’s career. The actor’s inherent neuroses fit the character of Rob Gordon, as we both loathe and love him for being so talented yet so indecisive. His desperate need to not grow up and his need to cling to the ‘fantasy’ speaks to all the males that just haven’t figured it out yet. Oh, and Jack Black is an absolute force of nature here as a record store employee that just keeps showing up. Let’s not forget the graceful and gorgeous Iben Hjejle, and the outstanding soundtrack. It gave me a new angle on music, which led to what my current tastes are. It’s amazing how I loved the movie at first for being so crisp and funny, but now I love it for understanding it. Every guy should meet a Charlie, but end up with a Laura.
19. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Those unfamiliar with ‘Star Trek’ lore may not understand the carnal hatred that exists between Captain James T. Kirk and the nefarious Khan, but it matters not for this sci-fi classic. It works on so many levels, from the hell-bent rage of Khan to the overarching themes of birth, re-birth, and death that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this, the best of the ‘Trek’ films.
18. The Lion King- As I navigated my pre-teen and early teen years, I wrote off Disney. In my eyes, everything was princesses accompanied by radio-friendly adult contemporary tunes. Then I took a chance and saw The Lion King while I was chasing after a girl (surprise!). It was transformative, for not only would I never see Disney with a jaded eye again, I kept looking for that next Lion King, that next masterpiece. It’s both a darker and more beautiful film than Disney had ever attempted, and every single scene is near brilliance. That soundtrack- not just the well-crafted Elton John pieces, but the Hans Zimmer score as well, just brilliant. It’s just the best thing that Disney has done before, and may ever do, save for Finding Nemo.
17. Alien- It may not be the original “original” sci-fi horror movie, but nonetheless it’s the modern standard for the genre, and the benchmark of female heroine characters. Ridley Scott and crew created a claustrophobic, organic/metallic spaceship, and brilliantly made the choice to hire gothic artist H.R. Giger to design the xenomorph and its’ interiors. Many have imitated, nothing has duplicated, even in its’ own saga.
16. Once- It would be impossible to limit my love of this film to a cell on a spreadsheet. Once is full of wonderful singer/songwriter music, unspoken passions, unspoken loves, missed opportunities, and incredible “moments in time” that seem to last forever, but are limited to 2 hours. The final scene is both touching and heartbreaking in a way that no other film has given me, and the soundtrack is pure, original magic.
15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail- Monty Python’s magnum opus of farce is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen. From catapulted livestock to enchanters named “Tim”, how can one not find this supremely hilarious? Admittedly, humor can be a tricky subject, and some may not find this brand of English witticism to their liking. Me? I think it’s the best comedy ever made.
14. Finding Nemo- Pixar’s best film, in this guy’s opinion, is director Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece. Funny, for sure, but sublimely touching, Nemo is also the most beautiful animated film I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the color of the fish, the interesting way water works with animation, maybe the brilliant Thomas Newman score, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that I feel exactly like Marlin in the way I see my own son. Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of this movie.
13. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- This film has meant different things to me at different points in my life. At age 3, it was complete wonderment at the sight of aliens, rousing music, and funny moments. As a teen, I was ambivalent and couldn’t find a copy to watch. As an adult, I was bummed about the special edition changes, but rejoiced when the original edition became available, and enjoyed it with my child. It’s a nostalgic, touching film about how children’s innocence occasionally triumphs over adult paranoia.
12. The Dark Knight- There is no doubt that this is the penultimate superhero film. It’s hard to even consider this a superhero film- it’s more of a crime thriller with a moral center. With perhaps the most bravura performance in recent memory, Heath Ledger cemented the Joker as one of entertainment’s best villains, and the chaotic nature of the film’s events make this just as much of an experience as a movie.
11. Shakespeare In Love- Despite the clamor to strip this film of its’ Best Picture Oscar, it really is an amazing film, stooped in romance, whimsy, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s character calls it, a ‘stolen summer’. It may not be an accurate account of Shakespeare’s life, but who cares. It’s the most enjoyable romantic drama I’ve ever seen, topping even the material that it apparently inspired, “Romeo & Juliet”.
10. Contact- No film to this date has better encapsulated the hope, spirit, and arrogance of the human race as it relates to space travel and the universe than this film. Based on Carl Sagan’s novel about first contact, Foster plays my favorite role of hers as Ellie Arroway, a stubborn yet determined astrophysicist. I watch it every July 11th to celebrate the film’s release.
9. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope- Although not my favorite, it’s the best film of the saga, and one could argue that modern cinema exists in the fashion that it does because of this film. It’s constructed so well, and so delightful in every way that we forget George Lucas created it. It may just be the most popular film of all-time as well. There’s nothing I could say that would be revelatory. Everyone already knows Star Wars.
8. Poltergeist- To me, this is the penultimate ‘scary’ movie. Steven Spielberg’s brilliant mind is all over this project, even if he isn’t credited as director. The touches of nostalgia, the subtle commentary on suburbia, post-Vietnam paranoia, and Reaganomics, and the graceful way Beatrice Straight explains the possibilities of an afterlife are the hallmarks of this classic. I watch it every year in October now, and it seems to get better every time.
7. Field of Dreams- Don’t mistake this as being simply a ‘sports’ or ‘baseball’ movie. While it certainly is both of those, it’s more of a father and son movie, and learning to accept and love who your parents are after you learn they’re real people, and not superheroes. The fact that the film’s main set piece is still available to visit and play on certainly helps to play up the aura of the film.
6. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi- Not the best of the saga, but always my favorite. The nostalgia oozing out of this film always brings out the best in cinema for me, despite its’ obvious flaws. This film may be the most important to me on this list, simply for the awe factor involved with this being the first real blockbuster saga I experienced.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey- THE quintessential science-fiction film for me. It holds more sway when taking in the entire story, including the subsequent sequel film and novels. Groundbreaking for its’ time, but perhaps no longer as relevant due to the lack of wide interest in the space program, it is interestingly the most spiritual story I know.
4. Aliens- Not only does this deliver on thrills and science fiction goodness, but Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is perhaps most enjoyable female role I’ve ever watched. This is a classic as a sci-fi film, a special effects showcase, a well-honed script, and a blockbuster.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark- A throwback film to a time when movie serials existed, Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece deftly weaves heroism with archaeology, and manages to make history exciting. Harrison Ford has never really been better, and Karen Allen’s spitfire of a sidekick/love interest is still one of my favorites.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King- No other film that I’ve watched has combined so many varying emotions into one and pulled it off with flying colors. It’s an astonishing accomplishment that pushes all of my emotional and technical “film buttons”. Hard to defend as one of my ultimate favorites, and I just recently unseated it- but I still love it, and the whole series.
1. Cloud Atlas- It took me over eleven years to find a new favorite film, and dare I say that I didn’t even realize it until recently. From the film’s extra-long final trailer to the end of my first viewing, I was moved to tears by this sci-fi fable. The tag line of ‘everything is connected’ is far too simple a phrase to explain the emotional impact this had on me. Sometimes, we ‘put’ things onto a film based on what we want to get from it. Sometimes, the film not only fulfills what we want, but seems to explain that the filmmakers believe it too. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took a beautiful premise and gave it the respect it deserved, resulting in an honest experience that doesn’t pull punches. It is a brave film, occasionally gory and violent, moving to abstract and odd, then tender and graceful. This story blends everything I love about film, and the potential it has to take the fantastic to a higher level of entertainment. It may be pretentious, but maybe I’m pretentious. Or maybe I just fill in the gaps well. Whatever the case is, this is my favorite film.
*honorable mention: Groundhog Day, Casablanca, Seven, L.A. Confidential, Garden State, Ghostbusters, Batman (1989), Pulp Fiction, Fargo.
Jurassic World **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, and Judy Greer
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow (screenplay); Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (story); based on characters originally created by Michael Crichton
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Grabstalgia. Oh, that’s just a new word I made up to describe what happens when a piece of art doesn’t have a single aim, aside from grabbing and plucking those nostalgic strings of your memory. In 1993, Jurassic Park became an instant classic; not necessarily because of a riveting, life-altering plot, but rather because of the fresh, carefully crafted grand spectacle it provided. Until then, we knew nothing of dinosaurs in our movies, save for poorly rendered versions showing at our local museum’s theater or stop-motion beasts from yesterday’s earnest puppeteers. Now, we’ve seen everything. Jurassic World knows that, and plunges forward into “bigger and badder is better” territory. After all, the next logical step (because there is a pile of cash to collect from this franchise) was to create a grander spectacle, and constantly remind us why we loved the first film. That’s a neat strategy for a cash grab, but let’s be clear: if you’re looking to recreate that feeling of sheer awe from the original, you likely won’t find it. If you’re looking for a grounded film, you won’t come close to a glimpse. If you simply want to be entertained without consequence in the presence of the theater’s industrial air conditioner, Jurassic World was made for you.
The film is aptly made, appropriately sequenced and rendered, and provides likable, if not typical leads. The problem, it appears, is that none of Jurassic World‘s characters have seen, and thus none have learned, from the original. For all of the wanton loss of life and destruction of property we witnessed in the film’s first three installments, John Hammond’s original vision has somehow been seen to fruition. In fact, the park has been open for some time. Where there are myopic billionaires like Hammond, I suppose there are giant piles of cash ready to dump on problems and pay off vast numbers of people. Speaking of myopic billionaires, a new “Hammond” has taken ownership of the park, in the name of Simon Masrani (Khan). He’s a cool customer, and a modern CEO at that. He’s hired a young woman to run his park, a young, rogue-ish fellow to train his raptors, has younger techs in prominent positions, and even flies his own helicopter. What a guy! He’s Elon Musk without the social responsibility (I imagine the role was pitched that way).
Sure, like the other films, we hear talk of ‘cautions’ and ‘safeguards’ with the park. We hear about backup systems, genetic inhibitors, and other devices ready to quell the monstrous reincarnations known as dinosaurs at bay. Just typing that bothers me, though, as it should the collective of theoretical ‘Jurassic’ investors. Trying to keep nature, especially extinct nature, from being itself just doesn’t fly. It simply begs for a righteous smattering of Murphy’s Law, the natural sibling of Mother Nature. By creating a new breed of dino, Masrani and his team of nearsighted nitwits have gone and taunted the both of them, and thus deserve a steaming heap of karma. Dubbed Indominus Rex (a name even the script scoffs at), this beautiful and horrific creature has more teeth, just like the investors ordered. It also hasn’t paid nature’s dues, the tried and true steps every living creature has gone through to earn their place on our planet. Through no fault of its’ own, the “I. Rex” is sufficiently underdeveloped, and thus cannot behave predictably. Can you imagine what happens next?
Amidst the ensuing chaos, the young woman named Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs this massive park must figure out how to contain the already deadly I. Rex and bring her two visiting, meandering nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) in from the park safely. Luckily, she has Owen Grady at her disposal (Chris Pratt), and he trains velociraptors. I’m quite serious. His job, quite literally, is to form a bond with ancient killers in an attempt to; well, I can’t give it away, but you can easily figure it out. So, the villains from the first film (raptors) are now our pals. I hate to sound snarky, but let’s be real. How many trainable reptiles can you name in today’s age? What do you think the odds are of training one that went extinct and has a super tiny brain? I suppose the plot needs this, or the finale wouldn’t come together, but come on. This is only a simple step from the ‘laser raptors’ of Kung Fury. At that point, what little science still remained from the genesis of Michael Crichton’s already far-fetched idea officially fades into the ether.
I find myself in a similar position to Clerks‘ resident gas station attendants/Star Wars skeptics. Their perceptive concerns about innocent contractors caught in the crossfire may seem like a silly, irrelevant point to make about a sci-fi fantasy film, but it brings into focus the critical mass of characters and plot these films churn out. If we hold comic films to a ‘death toll’ standard, chiding them for blase attitudes to human lives, shouldn’t we do the same for these Jurassic films? Each subsequent sequel barely touches on the fallout of all previous entries. Each film has bland characterizations of the individual in charge, as they create and spend, but never ask whether they should. A paraphrasing of Ian Malcolm’s line from the original has always been the right angle, but not a single person really listened to him, or reason.
That simple statement invites a litany of questions. Who harbors responsibility for these animals and what comes of them? For that matter, what became of the hundreds of dinosaurs from the first three films? What has happened to Isla Sorna from The Lost World and Jurassic Park III? How is the original visitor’s center from Jurassic Park still standing? Does it serve a purpose to the plot other than to call attention to our strong nostalgic feelings for the original? How can this park be sponsored by major companies, when they know full well the risk inherent in having their product connected to a possible catastrophe? How can world governments not want to be involved in the safeguarding of this park? How can a company like InGen still be in business? Can someone blow the whistle there already and ‘Enron’ the bejesus out of them? How unoriginal is it to have the archetypal “bad guy” be Vincent D’Onofrio? Isn’t his presence enough to know he’s hiding something sinister? By now, how are there not pteranodons and pterodactyls, last seen flying from Isla Sorna, not picking off swimmers on the Gulf Coast?
The unfortunate side effect of the glorious disease of nostalgia is the latitude we allow, thus the need for all of those questions of logic. We hear John Williams’ Jurassic Park cues, and we forget that the film rushes head-long into a plot without catching us up to speed. We see B.D. Wong reprising his role from the original, and we forgive his unabashedly broken moral compass. We see set pieces from the original, and we forget to ask how these landmarks still stand. We see a huge dino battle and ignore the convenient ease with which the mosasaurus picks off its prey. Reading my words, you might imagine plenty of glorious movie visions, and there are; in fact, I’ll credit Jurassic World by proclaiming it as the most impressive of the monster movies in terms of sheer scale. I simply find myself frustrated with a franchise that acts like its’ own antagonists, and continues to deliver the same “gather people up, run away from dinosaurs” story line. Every person with power in these films is corrupt or blind, and by the time morality catches up to them, salvage is impossible. Director Colin Trevorrow, for all his accomplishments with the brilliant indie Safety Not Guaranteed, spends so much time honoring the original in every way that he may have forgotten to make his own film.
Generally, I’m not a complete buffoon, devoid of appreciating escapist joy at the theater. I can forgive honest films that simply mean to be aimless summer fun. As a monster movie, the results of Jurassic World are most impressive. I understand why it exists, and why most crowds are drawn to its’ promise of awe, but the reasons are disappointing and cynical to me, yet somehow acceptable to the masses. Crowds might not have wanted a new Jurassic film, per se, but they sure want homages, repackagings, and familiar blockbusters. They might not even notice what’s wrong with the narrative. Like the film’s teenager Zach, our heads are probably too buried in our phones to bother noticing the transfer of our money into Universal’s coffers. Jurassic World is not a bad film, but nor is it a good one. It is not a loud, garish disaster, but neither is it an intelligent, thoughtful film. It simply exists to remind us that we loved a movie 22 years ago. That’s great and all, but we already paid for our movie ticket once in 1993 (if not two, three, and four times), bought a VHS copy, bought the DVD, bought the Blu-Ray, and paid again to see it in 3-D upon re-release in 2013. I would never ask a Jurassic film to stop dreaming like a child it once was, but I do expect the story to grow up, and attempt to break a film barrier like its’ forefather.
Aloha *** (out of 5)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, Danielle Rose Russel, Jaeden Lieberher, and Bill Murray
Written and directed by: Cameron Crowe
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
A common thread running through the films of Cameron Crowe is the flawed hero. Whether it’s Lloyd Dobler awkwardly pursuing his future plans, Jerry Maguire fumbling through his professional and love life, or Drew Baylor contemplating life and death, we know what to expect from a Crowe lead. We can only speculate as to whether this reflects his own personality and challenges, or is simply derivative of where his mind goes to find a story. Unsurprisingly, Aloha has much of the same DNA as his other films, flawed hero and all. It’s because of that DNA that we recognize where Crowe wants to go with this latest entry. I accept and applaud Aloha in spite of continued problems with character development and focus from the director, and love the handful of scenes in which the film works. It is a film whose characters resemble the ‘realness’ we love about other Crowe movies, but places them in odd, unclear situations at times, without allowing them to breathe. Amidst problems involving the studio and leaked emails, the supposed trouble surrounding Aloha leads me to believe that Crowe had something, but may have lost most of it in the shuffle.
Bradley Cooper and his baby blues star as Brian Gilcrest, a “contractor” for the military. I have no idea what that means, and the film only shows him as a “contractor” for a brief time. What we do know is that people make fun of him for flubbing a past assignment in Afghanistan, and that he sustained a lasting injury as a result. He’s managed to get a second chance “contracting” under the watchful gaze of Carson Welch (Murray), one of the world’s wealthiest men. Welch has a penchant for aerospace engineering, too. Think Richard Branson without the music, or Elon Musk with less philanthropy, then insert everything we expect from a Bill Murray performance.
This new “contracting” gig is in Hawaii, of all places. For 99% of us that means absolute joy, but for Brian, this is a painful homecoming of sorts. His escort en route to the local Air Force Base is John “Woody” Woodside (Krasinski), a hot-shot pilot that just happens to be married to his former love Tracy (the always radiant Rachel McAdams). Awkward! She doesn’t know he’s coming, so when he arrives, the jolt of emotion is enough to throw her out of whack. We’re sure this is bound to cause issues because 1) Rachel McAdams was cast for a reason, and 2) she’s so flustered upon first seeing him that she ends up extending a dinner invite.
We also see that the Air Force has assigned an escort to Brian in the form of pilot Allison Ng (Stone). Allison is an energetic, no-nonsense woman whose presence seems to encourage the positive side of Brian’s otherwise cynical personality to emerge. Being a ‘quarter Hawaiian’, she’s also in tune with the history of the islands, and what natives consider to be spiritual. That’s a big help for Brian’s first “mission” in his new job. He is to get “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself), a native considered the heir to the throne of the lost Hawaiian crown, to ‘bless’ the site of a new base for a joint Air Force/civilian project. This project will launch satellites above Hawaiian airspace, a delicate subject considering how sacred these skies are to native islanders. These scenes with Bumpy’s clan are much of the film’s heart, and reveal both Brian and Allison’s true natures and ideals, not just as officers filling a post.
What follows for the remainder of the film’s story cannot be easily summed, for it is a wee bit rushed and at times hard to follow. Brian must deal with his conflicting feelings for Tracy and Allison, try to mend his reputation, stay true to the promises he made to “Bumpy”, perform in his new job (whatever it is that he actually does), and come to terms with the conflict inherent in each. Aloha loses points here in this second act by rushing to the conclusion, in spite of strong singular moments. It does seem odd, though, coming from a director known for letting moments ‘breathe’, that his latest film seems hurried. So odd, in fact, that I wonder if it was really a choice he was had to make.
It does appear as if the theatrical version of Aloha is an abridged version of the film, made to satisfy the corporate souls that financed the film instead Crowe’s devoted, established audience. Much has been made about former Sony president Amy Pascal’s disdain for the film, as witnessed in the leaked emails back in 2014, but after seeing the film, I’m unsure which party is at fault. After all, the romance between Allison and Brian simply feels rushed, not forced. The plot appears incomprehensible at times, but how much of that is a studio trimming? If it sounds like I’m making excuses for Crowe, well, I am. Other than the manically unfocused Elizabethtown, I’ve known nothing but positive experiences with his films. His characters are almost always interesting, and they are in Aloha too- it just doesn’t appear they were allowed to ‘breathe’. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the studio meddled with the final product.
The film has also come under some heavy fire for casting Stone, a Caucasian, in a role for someone described as part Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. In most cases, I fully understand complaints of whitewashing, and sympathize with how damaging that can be to a population. Aloha seems different, however. The film doesn’t ignore the traditions of the native people, and in fact, seems to wholly embrace them as the most honorable of all involved. I already mentioned Bumpy Kanahele’s role, one I feel is important in pointing out what I feel is not exploitative on Crowe’s part. He has since apologized for the casting decision, but does he need to? The problem with crying ‘whitewashing’ in this case is that the accusers assume they know what an individual of Chinese, Hawaiian, and white heritage should look like, and then they place that assumption on the role. I’m happy to hear the other side of the argument, but knowing a bit about Cameron Crowe, and knowing that he based the character on a real-life person he knew seems to speak against the uproar in this case.
The final word on Aloha is, well, incomplete. If any film in the past five years deserves a director’s cut, I’d vote for this one. The performances are quite strong, the emotion is real and deserved, and as usual, the music of a Crowe film stands out. It simply doesn’t play like a full idea realized on-screen. Cameron Crowe still delivers a modicum of sensible adult interaction, romance, and humor that is accessible for everyone from teenagers to seniors. I don’t mean that to say Aloha is ‘gentle and pleasant’, but like most of his films, it connects with the audience. His characters have emotions that run deep, and they often wear them on their sleeves. We root for his flawed heroes, and for the well-rounded characters that usually litter the screen around them. I liked this film for its’ warmth, its’ honesty, and for some unexpected character moments that are just out-of-bounds enough to keep the film from being predictable. That being said, let’s hope for an “Untitled” version of this, to fully grasp what Crowe wanted to say. It’ll complete you.
Mad Max: Fury Road **** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Riley Keough, Nathan Jones, Josh Helman, and Hugh Keays-Byrne
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
Directed by: George Miller
If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, maybe you can relate. When I browse art, it’s clear that some pieces are great, and I appreciate them for that. That isn’t to say I’m moved to form an attachment, nor do I care for them beyond a passing glance. I feel much of the same towards Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a very well-made action film, occasionally fun, always weird, and daring, but I certainly don’t care to remember it. Can I consider the film to be a masterpiece, or George Miller to be a visionary? I’m sorry to disappoint, but this franchise’s third sequel never “breaks the mold” or sets new standards for action films. It just happens to be a superb action movie, with superb parts that I’m going to easily forget. Here’s a thought- were audiences ever really clamoring for another Mad Max film? Did the “Thunderdome” really leave us yearning for more? No, but I suppose if an iconic character exists, and the opportunity to unload more tales of apocalypse on an apocalypse-starved society presents itself, why not? Fury Road will certainly give those hungry for a heaping of nihilism a bellyful of joy.
Max himself is basically the same guy thirty years after we last saw him. He doesn’t really want to be a part of the aftermath of civilization. He just wants to survive. That’s fine for us; after all, we don’t need another hero (see what I did there!). He’s on the scene, he appreciates the struggle of the good guy, but he doesn’t have much to say or do. Well, he occasionally hallucinates, but that’s about the extent of his ‘madness’. Max will defend himself to the death, and in the process will likely take out a dozen or so foot soldiers. For a film entitled Mad Max, however, you’d think it would, well, center around that character and his struggle. It’s simply not his struggle, and as wonderful as Tom Hardy can be, a multitude of actors could have played Max. He’s captured by the soldiers of the despot Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the same actor who portrayed the lead villain in the original Mad Max), and held as a prisoner/perverted version of a blood bag. This need for blood comes from Nux (Hoult), a dying “War Boy” doing his best post-apocalyptic Jack Skellington cosplay.
In the meantime, one of Immortan Joe’s warriors has attempted a daring escape with his five wives in tow. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine why Imperator Furiosa (Theron) went rogue- what with the forced malnutrition of most everyone inside the ‘citadel’, the forced milking of childbearing aged women, and Joe’s generally disgusting nature, what’s not to like? Furiosa drives the ‘War Rig’, a mythological beast of a vehicle. It’s like something out of a twelve-year-old boy’s pre-pubescent dream: armored to the nines, equipped with secret switches and compartments, molded from several cars, tractors, and tanks, sucking up all sorts of gasoline, spewing forth oodles of noxious fumes, and eating your Prius for breakfast.
The War Rig is wonderful, but not as much as its’ driver. The hard-boiled Furiosa yearns for the ‘green land’ of her youth, a place where grass grows and water flows. Nothing will stop her, not even a convoy of War Boys ordered to search and destroy. Nux has been enlisted to drive in this convoy, believing to serve a higher purpose, and hoists poor Max on his vehicle like a drip chamber from a nurse’s nightmare. The feverish pursuit of Furiosa across the ‘Wasteland’ sees a legion of muscle-bound psychopaths use every trick in the spiky, armored car playbook to bring her to justice, but will it work? In the frenzy, Max battles with, then finds himself aligned with Furiosa toward a common goal- escape.
None of this plot really matters, though. There are explosions to enjoy, faces to tear off, sharp things to pierce people, and mega-ton boulders that crush cars! In all sincerity, George Miller is due some credit. He’s made a fun film, and despite a lead character that no one cares for, he’s made up for it in other areas. The film is stunning to look at. Miller and cinematographer John Seale shoot the desert as if it isn’t full of bland, khaki tones and lifelessness. Fury Road is also a film with a great deal of odd character, and odd characters, a clear hallmark of the franchise. Think of the catalog of names: Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, Cheedo the Fragile. Really? Think of the societal norms we witness: the ‘chrome kiss’ given to War Boys on the verge of death, the wives wearing metal chastity belts adorned with fangs, the post-apocalyptic ‘drummer boy’ leading the war cry with his awesome ‘flame guitar’, and even Immortan Joe’s odd body armor.
What I believe the film will be known for most is the creation of Furiosa. Theron plays her like a warrior; not a female warrior, but a warrior. She doesn’t align with Max out of a need for romance, he doesn’t save her, and they both pound on the enemy. She’s an equal, a partner if anything. You could argue that Max needs her. Theron is so good as Furiosa, the clear hero of the film. She’s the best action leading lady I’ve seen in some time, and deserves a place in line with Ripley, Trinity, and other characters I’m likely forgetting. Then again, she’s no stranger to challenging the norm for women on-screen (see Monster, Young Adult, Snow White and the Huntsman).
Let’s go a bit further and state that ‘blurring the lines’ of gender matters, and Miller and Theron have put their best face forward to ensure that happens. As I understand it, Miller enlisted the help of The Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler to shape some of the film’s characters. I suppose that made enough of a difference, as the film’s best characters, the ones with the most moral of centers, are all women. They’ve always been capable of leading an action film, though, and I’d argue women are better at it. Ellen Ripley is still, eighteen years after her last appearance, the best action character. Calm your mind, gents. I’m certain that the feminists are not taking over your action films. However, women can and should be just as efficient at leading an action film as men, and be just as damn exciting doing it.
If we can separate ourselves from the need to consider an excellent action film “groundbreaking” or “legendary”, or from calling George Miller a “master”, we can enjoy Fury Road for what it excels at. It’s a 120-minute playback of an adolescent’s dreams, complete with just enough violence, explosions, nudity, language, and cool stuff to keep it fun and not depraved. Just enjoy the Doof Warrior, as he shreds his flame guitar into battle. Enjoy watching monster trucks collide across the plains of desolation. Enjoy Furiosa’s mad dash to reclaim her childhood and restore something pure about this future world. Then, like I have already done, forget about it, and move on to something that does warrant more than your Saturday afternoon’s attention.
Poltergeist (2015) ** (out of 5)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by: Gil Kenan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings. It’s what Hollywood does today. I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I? I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines. For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original. Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable. Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before. Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly? Wouldn’t it be simply treading water? Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist. You’d be right. Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status. It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though. On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version. To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be. It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form. This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should. Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.
We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed. In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’. Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms. Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right? Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine. The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.
For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed. By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family. Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone? How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates? For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing. Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches. Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.
Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however. Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively. The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses. This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife. I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place. It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.
Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film. Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish. That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist? With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original. If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked. If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked. Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.