Thursday, June 28, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Spoilers!

So now the island that housed the disastrous theme park Jurassic World of the last movie has a volcano on it, and it's going to explode. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), turned from prim and proper business woman to free-spirited animal lover in the last film, is heading up an organization to save the dinos. The government decides to stay out of it, so she jumps at the opportunity when a private company run by Rafe Spall offers to help her relocate the animals. Then she ropes in Owen (Chris Pratt) because his favorite Raptor, Blue, is still on the island.

Should've bombed the island as soon as all the humans got off. Then they wouldn't have this problem.

But surprise! Rafe Spall isn't actually relocating the dinos to another safe island -- he's bringing them to the mainland and keeping them in the cellar of a massive estate that belonged to John Hammond of the original, original film. What could possibly go wrong? Oh and Dr. Wu (BD Wong) helped him and Toby Jones create a new, new dino by mixing Raptor with the Indominous Rex of the last film. The Indoraptor. Super creative name, yeah? They plan on bidding all of them off to the wealthy and ill-intentioned of the world. Things go exactly as you imagine they will.

And that's not really a bad thing in itself. The giant house wound up being a fun set piece for the last act; the first was getting on and off the island, and the second was adventures stowed-away on the transport ship. With a little tweaking it could have been a rollicking and pure-blooded adventure. But it gets distracted, by focusing way too hard on... trying to teach us a lesson? They were pushing us to feel sympathy for the dinos, which I guess they didn't realize is something we naturally feel. Dinosaurs are freaking awesome, and unless they're actively portrayed as evil beings, we not going to be eager to see them die.

I mean seriously -- look how freaking cute she is!

But they went all ham-handed on the tragedy of their situation anyway, and went so far overboard with it. At the end of the first act as they sail away on the ship, a Brontosaurus is left behind, literally calling to them from the dock as the ash and lava catches up to it. The music swells dramatically; the cloud engulfs the majestic creature; the fire lights its silhouette as it rears and seems to dissolve away.... and I was about to roll on the floor laughing. Feels bad. The harder I tried not to, the funnier it became. I did manage to laugh quietly, so hopefully I didn't annoy the person next to me.

There's also a big plot line involving Blue being a good dino, and one secondary bad guy (Ted Levine) who pulls teeth out of the dinos to collect for a necklace. In case the point about him being evil wasn't clear enough. But guess what they neglected to do? Yep, create sympathy for any of the humans. Maisie (Isabella Sermon) is the most because she spends time alone figuring out the bad guy's evil plot and running for her life. Claire and Owen are complete blanks except that they care about the dinos, which doesn't help me much. They had a bad break and allude to that, and by the end they're kissing again, but nothing happened to get them there.

If one shared near-death experience couldn't keep them together, why should a second? 

And the two sidekicks, Franklin (Justice Smith) and Zia (Daniella Pineda), I actually forgot existed whenever they disappeared from the screen. Everything they did could've been accomplished by Claire and Owen, or was unnecessary in the first place. Like, they have a whole sequence where they reboot the ventilation system to save the caged dinos from poisonous gas, but later their efforts have only stalled for time -- so the leak could've been slower in the first place with no different outcome. They didn't annoy me particularly, but were blank too, and if their time had been redistributed through a smaller cast -- but the problem wasn't lack of screen time, but of attentive writing.

The poisonous gas bit was inter-cut with Claire, Owen, and Maisie hiding from the Indoraptor, in what is probably the best extended sequence of the film. The dark house of endless rooms and museum-displays of fossils, the one dino tracking them down. It's the classic Jurassic Park stuff and only seemed lacking because it wasn't given time to breathe. It needed to revel more. Linger and seep in. It did that in brief staccato moments, but jumped around too much for the feeling to stay.

"Rafe?" "Yes, Toby?" "Are we the bad guys?" "I think." "Well, crap."

And it's probably just me but I wanted a lot more out of the villain. I like Rafe Spall. But he did his thing and then disappeared until it was time for his death scene. And speaking of deaths, literally all but one death goes as follows: person discovers dino danger; person tries very hard to survive; person survives by skin of teeth; person relaxes -- bam! -- person is dino lunch. Not that that's a terrible way to do a death scene, but a little variety would've been nice. Also, I felt weird watching bad guys get munched on. It was like the movie wanted us to enjoy it; to cheer or feel satisfaction over it.

In the previous movies, even a villain death was played for horror, not elation, right? We felt they deserved it, but it was still grisly and disturbing. It's also worth noting that no good guy is killed by a dino in this film. Not a single one. Not even a neutral, innocent bystander. It's not like even a hint of stakes were ever in place for anyone except the dinos -- that was just adding fuel to the fire.

Forgive me if I want to care about human characters in a movie where the human characters are the leads.

Fallen Kingdom builds on a decently solid skeleton, and that keeps it from falling into a distracted oblivion. That, and the innate likability of Pratt, Howard, and newbie Sermon. A quality level equal to Jurassic World was out of reach I think, simply because the "horror at the theme park" premise is tough to top -- but though it's not unworthy of the name, it clearly could've been better than this.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Annihilation

Spoilers.

From Alex Garland, the writer of one of my favorite movies, 28 Days Later. I wanted to be biased for this film.

Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) goes through a mysterious shimmering wall in search of answers as to what it is and what it did to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Lots of super weird things happen that are ostensibly explained through the imagery of a cell replicating and an overarching idea of biology blending inside "The Shimmer." In the end she more or less knows what happened to her husband due to some videos he shot while inside, and even gets him back, but overall the mystery is little more than an occasionally creepy or cool roller coaster of disappointments.

Whenever a Why is explained about The Shimmer, it's not a revelation. It's just ... "Oh ok."

I don't mind it out of principle. I'm totally okay with a movie not explaining itself, or using an umbrella explanation like "this unexplainable thing is making unexplainable things happen." I quite enjoyed it earlier this year when The Cloverfield Paradox utilized it. The two were received like polar opposites, but from my seat -- at home on my couch -- they're remarkably similar. Annihilation felt very much like a Netflix film -- in both the good way and the bad. Bad in that it was less than advertised, and good in that it was an original and well-assembled film.

It has practiced pacing, a slow increase of tension throughout, and a firm grip on how to build a quality moment. Each one gets ruined later of course. Sometimes preemptively through flash-forward interrogation scenes. It's like the exposition scenes are there because there was no confidence in the audience's ability to understand visual storytelling. The dialogue is reiteration of what we've seen but simplified; making it all feel mundane. But the curious moments in and of themselves work well. Disregarding the glaring soft white light, the cinematography is thoughtful and fits the style, and there are moments when the score is mesmerizing.

I presume the idea was the lights and colors were blended like everything in The Shimmer -- a neat idea in theory, but visually unpleasant. It gave an eye-ache. 

It's in the details that the movie most shows signs of life. Though many moments were ruined by the too-revealing trailer, including the return of the bear. Though it having Sheppard's voice was still a wonderfully disturbing feature. Also interesting: the guy who'd grown into the wall like a clicker from The Last of Us, the tree people, Kane's bear-rose tattoo, Lena's tattoo which appears on her arm and is also visible on Anya and Last of Us Dude; and the end sequence was extremely unusual to say the least. Things like the tattoos are just tidbits. Others like Dude and the trees are explained in ways that sucks out all the wonder while never satisfying your curiosity.

"Everything gets blended." Great, cool idea, but that's not an explanation, it's just a description of the result. Why? How? Is it good or bad? Why should we care? Scientific terms are used, but it's not challenging to understand. This movie was advertised like another Interstellar; promising mind-bending, science-y scifi. It spends half its time in exposition, but it never goes deeper than the main idea. I can't have my mind blown over the same thing twice, no matter how many times its illustrated. And they introduce many potentially strange things, only to explain them away in the same disengaging way over and over.


The rules were all-encompassing, so I accepted everything that happened unfazed.

The movie falters equally as a horror film, for the same reasons -- less than advertised, and lack of exploration leaves potentially disturbing elements as merely weird, so the terrifying things such as the bear are left as fleeting external threats. It's unclear if the alien being was meant to be viewed as a threat. Characters talk about it in an understanding way, but it's pattern is one of causing death, and the film ends with Lena tricking it into self-destructing instead of herself self-destructing for it. The Shimmer still exists inside Lena and Kane, so presumably it lives on -- but if it's a representation of self-destruction, isn't that bad?

"It wasn't destroying. It was making something new." "Making what?" "I don't know." That exchange sums up everything. We're meant to look at it positively but are given no reason why. Not even a vague one that invites interpretation. It seems to clash with the film's theme of self-destruction and replication. There's also a cancer thread that goes maddeningly unexplored. The movie only ever points out things; details that tie together into a meaningless theme. It's all very tidy and interesting, but at some point, I need satisfaction, and something concrete to hold on to.

"Kind of a lame movie." -- My Dad. It's not that it lacks the proper features; it just doesn't work them properly. 

As a drama, it's weird and very hit-or-miss. I liked what the actresses did to give an extra smidgen of personality to their characters, but the supporters are given one or two lines of exposition dialogue as their character development, and it doesn't go far. I liked Sheppard's quiet, matter-of-fact manner. And a clear thematic reason for all the cancer mentioned was missed. Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman are good together. So good that I found it a stretch that she'd cheat on him. The idea is introduced that self-destruction is in our DNA, so she can't help it, but the ending was meant to counter that, I believe.

Never lacking something odd to look at, the main fault I have with Annihilation is that I looked hard for answers to the mysteries beneath the oddities, and the hidden intelligence I thought I'd been promised; I was prepared and ready to have my mind challenged, but I never found anything inside to interpret. It was all a pretty shell; and when laid bare, the fascination crumbles.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Spoilers.

Whelp.

In its long and not at all reassuring build-up and production, the biggest apprehension I had over this film was the casting of Han Solo. Turns out, that's the one thing they got right.

I won't even argue if he was miscast. I don't know and don't care about that. He put in a heck of an effort and saved the whole movie as far as I'm concerned. And Chewie helped. Man, I wish the movie had just been about them...

This project is so convoluted I have no idea how anything got done at all, but now that I've seen it, I imagine a Think Tank for this film that goes something like:

"Okay fellas, what should the plot be for this Han Solo solo movie?"
"It could show his home planet, and how he leaves."
"It could be about how he meets Chewie!"
"Or about how he meets Lando."
"I think it should be about the Kessel Run."
"I want to know how he got his blaster."
"Shush, Karl."
"It should be about him being a pilot and a smuggler."
"What's the most important thing about Han? The Falcon! It's gotta be about how he gets her."
"I think it should have romance."
"Shut up Karl!"
"Ooh, I know! The origin of his NAME!"
"Karl! I swear--"
"Okay now fellas, listen up, I've got it -- we'll make it about ALL those things!"
"Even Karl's?"
"Yes."
"Cool, who should play the love interest?"
"Ooooh! Oooooooh!"
"Yes, Karl?"
"Emilia Clarke!"
".... Brilliant."

"And then we'll bring in DARTH MAUL." "YYYYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"

In short, the only idea that was worse than all the small ideas that made up the plot of this film was the main idea that it should be a film at all. I held out hope that it had potential -- I did. But there is only one feature in this pile of a result that I'm willing to give any significant amount of praise to, and that is Alden Ehrenreich. He tried his damnedest, I'm sure he did. Maybe he was trying to salvage his career at some point, but he really gave 110% and I think his career is intact. While pros like Harrelson and Bettany were phoning in, he was searching for an impossible balance between an impression, and an original interpretation, and the pleasing of different directors with different visions, and honestly, well done to him.

Han isn't written well. He has no character arc and is constantly overshadowed by inferior characters. Every time the plot starts heading in a direction that might lead somewhere interesting for him, it quickly diverts back to the safety of fan service. But this I can say for Ehrenreich: he did everything he could with what he had. He performed admirably. There were moments where you could see a glimmer of Harrison Ford inside him, and there were times when you forgot who he was supposed to be at all and he briefly became his own thing. And he gave the acting side way more than was necessary for a movie like this. Even if it was a good Star Wars movie he didn't have to be that good.

This particular one features an insufferable SJW robot and decides that it's just too far-fetched that Solo might be his real name. A pinnacle of filmmaking, it is not.

The rest of the movie is garbage -- as someone has said about its iconic ship. Garbage; mildly assembled into something that if you tilt you head and squint and the lighting is juuuust right has some semblance of a scifi action adventure plot. It's got everything the "Think Tank" members came up with. None of it works. If they had picked one thing and focused hard on that, maybe it could have pulled off the decency level of Rogue One. Instead it never spends enough time anywhere to do anything except serve some fans while simultaneously irritating others.

I didn't care for the idea that Han might have fought for the Empire, but if the movie had been about that they could have given a good reason; expanded on what they had and convinced me why it makes sense and matters. Make something matter for goodness sake! There was so much jumping around and switching of tracks that absolutely nothing stuck. Ideally, I think the movie should've been smaller. Cut out characters; cut mini origin stories for things that don't matter; give Han a character arc and make us care for the new iteration of him. Have him do something that isn't inspired by one line of dialogue from a forty-year-old movie.

The number of times they edge on something good, and the glimpses of a compelling character he gives us, are downright infuriating. 

This movie is afraid of intimacy. Afraid that if passion and dedication had been given to any part, it would've been the wrong part, and people would hate it. So, they compromised, and threw in everything they had in one sheepish haul, shrugged, and figured it would do in a pinch. Well, I still hate it, and if they had really tried -- like their star of a star -- and produced something that had actually been handcrafted, but not what I wanted, I could at least have told them good job on the effort. Instead, production-line mediocrity leaves me number than ever. Is it time for the rebellion yet?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Thoroughbreds

In this relaxed thriller, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a very unhappy teen living in a very uncomfortable lap of luxury. She hates her step-father (Paul Sparks) but suppresses and hides her emotions. One person she can't hide from is her childhood friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke). When they reconnect after a while, Amanda admits that she is incapable of feeling emotion, and as a result is perceptive enough to see through Lily's mask. She's also supremely cold and logical, so when she suggests that Lily might murder her mean step-father, the idea... rather takes hold.

Good breeding doesn't mean beans when it comes to the human heart.

The prominent feature here is character study. It's character study mostly by observation because characters never analyze themselves and when they analyze each other is more often says more about the character doing the analyzing. We watch them interact and make decisions and slowly a clear picture emerges. The movie utilizes every facet at its disposal, both in technical film techniques and the more organic ones, creating a machine of many moving parts that work together to point to the same conclusion.

On the "well, duh" side: casting, acting, and characterization. Olivia Cooke's naturally blank deadpan is fascinating in that you would never learn a thing about her from watching her face. For her, we must look to body language, dialogue because Amanda is an honest person, and decisions. Decisiveness is important to Amanda and she has a solid, if skewed view of morality. With Anya Taylor-Joy, her emotions boil under her face, and while she tries to hide behind a stone mask, what does leak through is the good stuff. Emotion drives her and overcomes her sense of morality.

Who's the real psycho here...?

These two characters are almost opposites, and as such they inform our understanding of each as we compare them. Then you must add Anton Yelchin's character to the mix, because without his Tim, there's not quite an ideal balance. Tim is older, less privileged, already has mistakes under his belt, and aspires to be like the two girls already are. He wants wealth and power, and think he has what it takes to achieve that through dealing drugs. But without anti-social disorders or a lifetime of oppressed emotion and lying, that's a path that he's surprisingly ill-equipped to take.

Next, and probably my favorite aspect of the film is the camerawork. Long Takes is the name of the game, but not in a showy, complicated, "look at me" kind of way. It's simple: the camera is placed in a spot where it can view a whole scene with only adjusting focus as a character moves in and out... and it watches. It doesn't decide for us which part of the performance is the most telling; it stays out of our way. Zoom-ins are used to express importance of the moment, and there's plenty of shot-reverse-shot too. I think the idea was to capture the story and character is the simplest, most comfortable, and most effective way possible.

Love him. There's still movies of his I haven't seen, but I never want to finish them.

You don't want to notice shot length or the reasoning behind a shot composition while watching; you just want it to make the desired effect. With this not showy but intentional method, it did its job -- I had to watch it again to pick up on it fully, spurred by the longest oner -- a three-minute one that was masterful. I adore watching films with minimal cutting and being able to see performances play out -- to be allowed to look at what I want to, instead of the camera's framing forcing me to look somewhere where I don't see performance coming from. When a performance is as good as this cast gives, different people will see it in different places.

Even with their backs to the camera they are still readable, and when they're off screen the sound effects take over, and you'd might be surprised at how telling they can be too. Paring the heightened moments that would tend to overload down to only sound focuses the tension and engages the imagination. And it allows the film to keep it's deliberate, relaxed pace even through the crazier parts. The soundtrack also needs a mention: it's mainly spastic tribal drums which is hilariously fitting to the otherworldly setting. At one point a character's running footsteps could be easily confused for scoring too.

It's all so wonderfully strange.

Despite dark subject matter and the character study of extremely flawed humans that you'd rather be fascinated by than identify with, the film is well grounded in entertainment. Richly comic in wonderfully subtle and dark ways that works alongside the film's other moods for beautiful and unexpected combinations. My favorite bit was Ave Maria playing as Tim slow-motion smells soap and caresses a shiny red car in Lily's fancy house. Drop-dead gorgeous. I also loved watching the girls act in front of mirrors, and the neat detail where Amanda only uses the pawns and knights as she plays chess with herself.

Thoroughbreds is stimulating to watch, never lacking visual interest on screen that draws the eye and engages the mind, so even as the film moves casually and methodically it is not for one second boring. Its fascinating characters aren't spelled out for us, and the final delivery isn't a message or moral, but simply a few character journeys that will make you think hard about their situation, their burdens, and their decisions. We are invited not to judge, but to understand -- as we are entertained by the film's lavish, well-bred existence.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

In May I got the surprise of the year when I went to see Deadpool 2, and absolutely loved it! Read my review here. My favorite superhero movie since Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was very R-rated, but used its rating with more discretion than the first one, making it more loyal in tone to the comics. The jokes hit and Deadpool "dies" a lot in some awesome action scenes which was something the last one sorely missed. I'll probably see Solo soonish too. Maybe today.

Let the summer officially begin! What's been your favorite of the year so far? And what are you looking forward to next? Let me know in the comments. With five Fridays in June there's LOTS to look at this month! Let's get to it:


Upgrade
Jun 1st; R
This looks like a fun hardcore action flick. One neat premise -- where an AI implant allows a crippled man to go on a revenge spree -- that's just about as catered to the R-rated action genre as a premise can be. I expect some of the plot will be familiar, but that's okay by me as long as it's done well. The action looks great -- by the cinematography mostly. I really like it when the camera is far enough away so we can actually see what's going on, and doesn't cut every half-second. Plus -- those spin moves. This one's out today, and already has enough good reviews that I'm definitely interested to see it for myself.




American Animals
Jun 1st; R
Also out today, and also getting some good reviews. This one caught my attention with it's cast of Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters, but finding out more about it, my interest has only been dropping since. It definitely looks like a well made movie; I just expect that the plot would irritate and stress me out. I don't know anything about the real-life event, but I seriously doubt this movie could end well. It's the sort of thing I'd watch when it's streaming for free.




Adrift
Jun 1st; PG-13
Hopefully that's the last time I ever have to see a trailer for this movie. (Update: It wasn't.) As far as true stories go, I'd a million times rather watch the above than this, even though I expect this one has a happy ending. Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin are meant to be a big draw (Tris and Finnick, together at last! Wait...) but for me it has the opposite effect. I'm so full of ugh over this movie, but I had to include it, to say no thank you. So -- no thank you!




Breath
Jun 1st; NR
Simon Baker directs, based on a novel. It's set in the 70's in Australia, and it appears to be a coming of age type movie with surfing. So that's all different and interesting. I'm not much a surfing movie fan, but I do like a good coming of ager. Will keep an eye open.




All Summers End
Jun 1st; NR
I heard about this movie in 2014 whenever Tye Sheridan had a few guest appearances on Last Man Standing as Kaitlyn Dever's boyfriend. I wonder why it took so long to be released, but that explains why they look so young. This is the sort of movie I'll be watching, disregarding reviews, without expecting much. Any other day I might not have given it a second look, but it's got Tye Sheridan, and I've low-key been waiting for four years, so....




Ocean's 8
Jun 8th; PG-13
Oh boy. Another Ghostbusters, or something actually good this time? I expect more the former. I'd be much more interested even if they weren't trying to bank of the Ocean's movies. Whether you call it a remake a reboot or a sequel, it can't help but feel like it's clutching onto the boys for support instead of trying to stand on its own high-heeled legs. Maybe it can stand on its own; maybe it can't. It's just a matter of principle, and one of the warning signs of a bad film.




Hereditary
Jun 8th; R
YIKES. This looks like a great horror movie. Which is why I'll probably never watch it.




Hotel Artemis
Jun 8th; R
If I ever watch this, it will be for Jeff Goldblum and sunglasses cinematography. I dunno, I mean, there doesn't appear to be anything wrong with it. It's got a nice cast, a scifi kind of premise. A siege plot. A nice look. It's just not appealing to me in any significant way. If it ever does, I'll be there.




Incredibles 2
Jun 15th; PG
I know everyone's excited about this, I just find it hard not to be cynical about sequels, even when it's Pixar. Not that Pixar has exactly been up to par recently. There are two main things about this sequel that gives me hope: One, Brad Bird is back. That is extremely comforting. And two, Jack-Jack's portal superpowers. I love that. So we'll see I guess!




The Yellow Birds
Jun 15th; R
Hmm. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan war movie. Oh and Toni Collette. She has quite a few movies coming out this month. I don't think the movie looks particularly good, and I'm not generally big on modern war films, but I may give it a shot sometime for the cast.




Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Jun 22nd; PG-13
I seriously doubt that I'll enjoy this one as much as I did the first Jurassic World, but I also expect that I'll be seeing it in theaters. Unless it really bombs. Chris Pratt has lost some of his appeal to me, but I'm sure he can still carry a movie with star-power. And I'm sure the dinos will look great on the big screen. And hey, this one has Rafe Spall in it. He's probably a bad guy, but that's okay. He's great.




Under the Silver Lake
Jun 22nd; R
Haha wow, this movie looks like it was made for Andrew Garfield; perfect for him in a way no one could have guessed kind of thing. Intriguing and bizarre. My only real question is: how did that girl go swimming and still have all her makeup be so perfect and completely not smudged??




The Catcher was a Spy
Jun 22nd; R
Paul Rudd leading a great cast; WWII spy movie. But, true story, so I guess I should find out what happens before I watch it. Looks kinda fun and kinda serious. I'd be willing to give it a go, even just for Rudd. I was like "Catcher of what?" and then I watched the trailer.




Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Jun 29th; R
The first one was a good movie, and when this one was announced I figured it'd be terrible, especially when I heard Emily Blunt wasn't in it. But really, it's going in such a different direction, I think I've changed my mind. It looks fun; very different from the first, but still with Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin's characters. Brolin in on a roll this summer, my goodness. So I doubt it'll have the immaculate and intentional filmmaking of the first, but I also doubt it'll be a waste of time.




Leave no Trace
Jun 29th; PG
Looks like a sweet movie. Also a good movie for hermits. From the writer/Director of Winter's Bone, whoever that is. And that was a good movie, so sure; advertise that. But one of the blips here compares this girl to Jennifer Lawrence is a completely blatant way, and that seems unfair. Salt-of-the-earth people aren't really that scarce, and I'm sure one could think of a way to praise this girl's performance and demeanor without resorting to such laziness.




Woman Walks Ahead
Jun 29th; R
Sam Rockwell? Sign me up, boys! Although the movie looks to be so full of politics that it doesn't have any room for anything else, I'll give it a chance for Sam. Jessica Chastain is great too. I'm sure she makes an excellent lead. And modern-made westerns are a fun thing. Or at least they can be. We'll see what happens.