Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jurassic Park ***1/2 (1993)

Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to the big screen. Almost 25 years later the effects still work and its status as an iconic blockbuster remains undisputed.  Although it lacks the cinematic virtuosity of Jaws, Close Encounters, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park succeeds as an amusement park ride movie - a formula Spielberg  crafted to near perfection.

The opening scene imitates Jaws.  A group of native workers are handling a dangerous animal that's out of sight. Someone makes a mistake and workers gets killed by the predator as head of park security Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck) looks on, a low rent Quint. The two protagonists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), both paleontologists, are recruited by the Walt Disney (Steven Spielberg?) like visionary John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to inspect the park.  Neil and Dern are pleasant enough screen presences, bringing life to a CGI driven venture.

Once they arrive at the park, set to classic b-movie John Williams music, we meet Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a mathematician skeptical about genetic engineering for profit.  Goldblum makes the movie, contributing humanity and reason.

The exposition scenes are my favorite because they most closely resembled the Michael Crichton novel. Scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from mosquitos and use it to clone dinosaurs. They cut corners and assumed they could control an ecosystem, not considering the consequences of bringing together two species separated by millions of years of evolution. In the best scene, the closest to USS Indianapolis moment from Jaws, Dr. Malcolm explains chaos theory.

Inevitably, things go wrong and the dinosaurs attack.  The most harrowing sequence of a T-Rex terrorizing two kids who are there to visit their Grandpa.  From then on Jurassic Park is an adventure story, some characters become dino snacks; some make harrowing escapes.

But its unfair to compare Jurassic Park to Spielberg's earlier triumphs. By 1993 he had yet to score a Box Office Smash since the early 1980s (outside of the Indiana Jones movies). So he had to adjust his style for a new decade.  George Lucas played a significant role in post-production and his signatures are present: faster paced action, thinner characters, and awe inspiring effects created by his company Industrial Light & Magic.

Compared with the tent pole movies of this summer, Jurassic Park has aged well. Spielberg took notes from adventure films of the past, duplicating the magic of Ray Harryhausen's special effects extravaganzas.  And it's a perfect introductory film for anyone interested in the Sci-Fi genre.

Monday, May 29, 2017

War Machine *** (2017)

The Netflix film War Machine stars Brad Pitt as a fictional version of the Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal who was removed from his post after an unflattering 2010 article in Rolling Stone.  I recall reading the article as a depiction of McChrystal and his staff as cowboys running roughshod out on the fringes of Empire, they were also less than thrilled with President Obama. 

Pitt plays the fictional version (General Glen McMahon) as a laconic dunce with good intentions.  Upon arrival, a defanged version of Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglorious Basterds, he inspects the base of operations like George C. Scott in Patton.  Only he ain't no Patton, in fact the entire movie is a Patton told in reverse.  McMahon walked into the middle of a war with unclear objectives, a counter-insurgency impossible to defeat, and a lukewarm public on the homefront. Attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghani locals meet with predictable results.

It should also be pointed out there's hardly any actual fighting in the film, except for a brief battle at the end.  The tone of War Machine falls somewhere between satire and drama, a combination that will irk some, but appropriate for the material.  A first rate supporting cast and some A-list cameos are a big plus.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Get Me Roger Stone *** (2017)

Get Me Roger Stone will be remembered as an educational artifact from the 2016 election, but beware, watching the film is akin to sticking your head inside the filthiest toilet you can imagine. 

Who is Roger Stone?  A self described dandy who helps political candidates destroy their rivals, Stone started out as dirty trickster back in the Nixon days. According to William Safire's Political Dictionary the term "dirty tricks" was used in the 1960s to describe CIA Cold War operations, but took on a new meaning during the Watergate era.  Watergate involved all sorts of dirty tricks orchestrated by Nixon's reelection committee (CREEP), which ranged from Fraternity type pranks to shady slush funds, and eventually to illegal surveillance on political enemies.

Stone played a key role in many GOP campaigns to follow. In 2000 Stone organized a "riot" to stop the Bush v. Gore Florida recount.  The documentary suggests Stone is analogous to "The Cigarette Smoking Man" from the X-Files, a shadowy figure manipulating the course of history.  But he's more of a rake straight from a Dickens novel, a scandal monger who thrives on creating chaos.

The film follows Stone through his acrimonious relationship with the Trump campaign as an adviser in real time, he was hired, supposedly quit, then came back.  Stone had a long history with Trump, going back to 2000 when he engineered Trump's quashing of the Reform Party.  A media savant always good for a sound byte, Stone fed Trump many of his best attack lines and conspiracy theories.

At one point in the film Stone says he's merely playing a character. Is the whole persona an act? You be the judge.  When asked if he's afraid the movie will make everyone hate him he replies, "I revel in your hatred." Enter at your own risk.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

Jackie *** 1/2 (2016)

The 2016 biopic Jackie is about the aftermath of the JFK assassination. While countless movies have dealt with the events of November 22, 1963, none have been told from the point of the First Lady who witnessed the terror firsthand.  Natalie Portman literally becomes Jackie in a poignant performance.

Jackie is about trauma on all levels - personal and historical.  The script and direction did a great job of recreating the hours after the assassination.  The first 20 minutes are unbearably emotional, with the immediate minutes after the assassination recounted in wrenching detail with a chilling movie score by Mica Levi.

Based on an interview Mrs. Kennedy gave to a Life Magazine journalist a week after the tragic events in Dallas when she sensed a plot to erase JFK's legacy from history. Lyndon Johnson believed a low key funeral would serve the country best and encouraged her to retreat into private life. 

Out of respect for her husband, but also to let the her husband's enemies know the extent of what they did, Mrs. Kennedy insisted on a public funeral that would follow the path of President Lincoln's and also selected the President's resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Other performances stand out as well: Peter Sarsgaard as a stoic Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as Jackie's assistant Nancy Tuckerman, and John Hurt in one of his final performances as a priest consoling Jackie.  Above all Portman portrays her character with intelligence, poise, and determination.

Jackie comes back again and again to the idea of Camelot, a brief period when America lived up to its ideals. Mythology of course, the early 1960s look grand in many ways but they were far from paradise.  Just ask Martin Luther King or Rachel Carson. Bobby wonders in a moment of doubt, "What did we really accomplish"? Jackie comments, "Isn't this what the Birchers wanted"?  The tension of memory and reality are in conflict, preventing the film from entering into hagiography territory.

Despite the mythmaking, the iconography of the Kennedy's continues to glisten.  The power of personality in history cannot be underestimated, and I don't mean hero worship, but leaders who brought out the best of its citizens: a call to service, not to ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.




Friday, May 12, 2017

Colossal ***1/2 (2016)

Colossal blends two genres, Indie Mumblecore and the Monster Movie, and does it with intelligence.  Anne Hathaway stars as "party girl" Gloria who returns to her hometown after a break up.  Back in town she meets up with former High School Classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who runs the local bar.  He offers her a job, but their attention soon shifts to a monster attacking Seoul.  After some initial shock, Olivia discovers she may be connected to the mayhem in Korea.

Many of the Indie Drama's conceits are addressed in Colossal, the cliché of returning home and discovering the real meaning of life being among them. It's also a hangout movie with a crew of barflies who engage in Cheers like conversations on life.  Pick your indie to parody, Garden State immediately comes to my mind.

Alcohol also figures into the story, there's constant drinking throughout.  Drinking never helps the characters, it holds them back and prevents them from moving forward.  The bar itself, the setting where most of the movie takes place, looks and feels more like a purgatory - like that one in The Iceman Cometh.

As with all monster movies there's deep metaphor running through the picture.  Watching Colossal it's hard not to think of it as a commentary on America being the richest (and most disruptive) country in the world.  Americans have the right to act like irresponsible, drunken fools if they feel like it.  Unfortunately American actions have repercussions for the rest of the world - which literally happens in Colossal.  Look no further than the past election, the rest of the world, not just the U.S.A., will have to deal with whatever shit the administration stirs up.

Politics and drinking aside, Colossal is also well written and acted.  No one plays passive- aggressive better than Sudeikus, his nice guy façade takes some ominous turns, a troll who lives a double life on the web.  And Hathaway does an amazing job with the absurd material, moving from apathy to awareness in a believable character arc. One of her best performances.

With a year full of other monster movies due for release, Colossal will easily be remembered as most in tune with the times.

The Founder *** (2016)

The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, the man who popularized McDonalds and fast food culture.  Played with subtle menace by Michael Keaton, Kroc's story is an all too familiar one in the lives of successful Americans.

Kroc begins as a typical Willy Loman type, a middle aged salesman barely eking out a living.  A seller of milk shake machines, one day Kroc discovers a revolutionary roadside restaurant managed by two brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who are able to serve delicious hamburgers and fries in under thirty seconds. Blown away by their system, Kroc begs the McDonald Brothers to franchise their idea.  They've tried before, but were unable to make it work.  Kroc convinced them into entering an agreement with him and he made it a regional and eventual national phenomenon.

The McDonald Brothers symbolized the mythical American idea of business: you have an idea, build a small business through hard work and guts, and make it thrive to improve the community.  Kroc's ethos looked further to the future, a business model of expansion, homogenization, and obliterating the competition. The brothers got a raw deal, representing a swath of the business community politicians pay lip service to every election, who at the same time arguing a corporation is a person.

Keaton brings humanity to an unlikable character. While struggling on the road he listens to Norman Vincent Peale records on the power of positive thinking after going through years of rejection.  He finds the country club world his wife yearns for, played by Laura Dern, static and dull.  Success changes him, but unlike the real estate men in Glengarry Glen Ross or the bible salesman in Maysles Brothers documentary Salesman, he triumphs over all. 

The art design and direction capture the 1950s as the decade is mostly remembered - all blistering sunshine boldly striving into the future.  In the current cultural moment Americana makes us nervous and pensive for a past we barely recognize, yet at the same time provides a burgeoning faith that the project is redeemable.



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Circle **1/2 (2017)

The Circle imagines a near future world with a catch all social network that dominates the media landscape.  Tom Hanks plays the creepy-nice CEO and comedian Patton Oswalt co-stars as his henchman who envisions a "post-privacy world" where people will live in total transparency, meaning anybody, anywhere can monitor each other at all times. A brave new world of newsfeeds and minute by minute status updates. Based on the Dave Eggers novel of the same title, I hate to pull out the "book was better" cliché, but in this case it's true.

Emma Watson stars as Mae, the company's latest recruit who rapidly climbs the ranks after leaving a boring temp job.  Mae's the ideal millennial: bright, compassionate, awesome social skills, tech savvy, and attractive.  The script, unlike the Dave Eggers novel, doesn't give Mae much to do.  She mostly interacts with people without establishing anything beyond a surface relationship -  no one is allowed to develop.

At its best The Circle satirizes the false optimism Ted Talks speeches and 21st century workplace culture.  The company, obviously inspired by Google and Facebook, looks Utopian on the surface. Most employees live on the "campus" where there are endless extracurricular activities and social events.  Their motto is "sharing is caring" which they repeat like a well behaved cult during the Steve Jobs-esque presentations.

The dark underside of social media is handled with sharper wit on TV shows like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. The Circle works more as a sardonic companion film to the 2013 comedy The Internship with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, an amusing commercial for the Google worldview.

The design of The Circle and the music are both well done, obviously inspired by David Fincher's 2010 film The Social Network.  But Fincher's movie kept the focus on human relationships and had a heart within its dark soul.The Circle is a jumble of half baked themes.

Hanks is never convincing as the nefarious CEO and Oswalt is given little to do.  The same goes for John Boyega as the mysterious genius who started the company, he only gets one worthwhile scene that's all exposition. Bill Paxton appears in one of his final roles as Mae's father. Karen Gillan stands out as Mae's co-worker/frenemy Annie.

So The Circle disappoints, which is a shame considering the timely subject matter and the strong source material (Eggers did get a script credit).  The ending feels especially rushed and ineffective. The final result is a milquetoast of a movie that's too timid to fully explore the questions it attempts to raise.