Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Jurassic World

Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Michael Crichton (characters). Starring Chris Pratt (Owen), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire), Ty Simkins (Gray), Nick Robinson (Zach).

Bottom line: All aboard the nostalgia train that is Jurassic World; but like a second class Amtrak train, not a Polar Express train.

Jurassic World has broken just about every box office record so you’ve probably seen it but, for what it’s worth, if you haven’t – don’t. Please don’t.

The very name “Jurassic World” gives an indication of the shenanigans the film is going to try and pull. I can almost hear a business team saying, “Alright, we want a new Jurassic Park movie. We want it to be bigger! We want it better! And, just for good measure, let’s use all the memorable moments from the movie that started the franchise!”

While there are several plots throughout the movie, the overarching plot is that the park’s yet to be released attraction, the genetically engineered dinosaur hybrid “Indominus Rex,” escapes from it’s holding pen. It’s racing towards the innocent tourists! What is Chris Pratt and company going to do?

The cast of characters includes the ruggedly handsome, Velociraptor trainer, Owen (Pratt), the high-strung career focused Claire (Howard), and her two nephews. We have a couple token characters that exist to drive their respective plot lines. We have Mr. Military-Industrial Complex (D’Onofrio) who wants to turn the trained- velociraptors into “the perfect soldiers/weapons.” We also have Mr. Scientist (Wong) who created a monster in the name of science. We have a brother-bonding story via the nephews. None of the side plots are really ever developed so, similarly, few of the characters are developed either.

But, let’s be honest, this isn’t a movie about the story or the dialog or the actors. It’s about the graphics, right? Oh, and the nostalgia. Graphics and nostalgia. That’s why I went to see this movie. I love Jurassic Park. And, man, this movie is banking on the fact that you love Jurassic Park.

I think I distinctly remember hearing the iconic theme song played in three different ways; solo-piano for introspection, horns for majesty, full-orchestra for success. Do you remember the final shot from Jurassic Park where the T-Rex breaks through the T-Rex skeleton and roars? Well, they have a T-Rex and the Indominus Rex do it. Nice nice, I could say it twice. Jurassic World even goes so far as to have the nephews take refuge in the original park, and fix up one of the original jeeps so they can drive to safely. The list goes on.

I’m all for references and in-jokes but I’m even more a fan of restraint. If I want pure fan service, I’ll go see Street Fighter: The Movie. Jurassic World uses all of these references just so you can feel all warm and fuzzy rather than nodding to its heritage.

In terms of graphics, the movie falls short. Maybe it’s just that they marketed the heck out of it but I saw the shot of the water-dinosaur too many times to count. By the time I saw it in the theater, it didn’t do anything for me. Overall, there’s no build up or context. It’s pretty graphics for the sake of pretty graphics and, unfortunately, that doesn’t really work. I’ll get into details in a bit but, for the time being, I’ll just say “eh.”

Overall, Jurassic World was a painfully disappointing movie. Its selling points were nostalgia and graphics and it didn’t succeed in either. If you want those, you can save your time and money and just see the original. Now, mind yourself of spoilers for the next part, but let’s get into more detail about why the effects didn’t really work for me. Then, after that, I’d like to talk about the bizarrely, ethically hypocritical message in Jurassic World.

As Jurassic World references Jurassic Park so often, I feel like it’s ok to make comparisons between the two. That is, to explore why the one works and the other doesn’t. And, don’t worry, I’m not going to say, “it’s because the original didn’t use any CGI!” I’ve read that on a bunch of YouTube comments (not that YouTube comments are a reliable source of anything but passive aggressive rage). First, if you’ve never seen the original, just put reading this on hold and go watch it.

One of the reasons why Jurassic Park was so effective and why it holds up so well is the balance between computer graphics and practical effects (physical props). Consider the scene where the raptors learn to open the kitchen door. The camera focuses on the little window. You see the raptor’s snout as it snorts, fogging up the glass. It moves and looks through the glass, focusing on its’ prey. It’s up there in my list of favorite shots of all time. Your attention is focused on a specific point in the frame and the varying textures (the cold metal door, the scaly skin, the hot breath, etc.) create such a visceral experience. Moreover, even the placement of the camera adds to the shot. We are hiding in the kitchen with the terrified children – the raptor is looking at us too – and because we know we’re safe in the audience, we want to see more than the fleeting glance provided by the window.

To compare, let me discuss a sequence from Jurassic World. It’s the most memorable point of practical effects (of any effects quite frankly) in the movie. Don’t worry about spoilers; it’s in the trailer.

Claire kneels down and pets a dying long-neck (I’m not sure of the exact name, sorry).  There isn’t really any build up like there is with the raptor in the aforementioned scene. You just see it. It does, however, allow you to see the complexity of the of the dinosaur prop. By showing it’s pained eyes and that it causes Claire to tear-up, she is humanized for the first time in the movie. The shot abruptly ends. The model may be detailed and the shot might be trying to provoke an emotional response, but it doesn’t quite work. Claire crying is one of the only clues that this scene is particularly sad.

One thing that I find fascinating about Jurassic World (for that matter, any movie I really dislike) is that it forces me to really think about why. Let me digress for a moment.

When I first drafted this review, I was disappointed by the movie, feeling guilty about not writing reviews in a while, and probably hungry. When I sent it to my wife to read, and then I read it again, I just had to laugh because it was so angry! I was so upset that I was essentially saying, “This was bad. That was bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.” I didn’t say why it was bad because I was just so caught up in upsetness. That’s no fun to write or read. Whew. Now where were we?

A major component of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, or anything with a special effects creature (be it a sci-fi movie alien, or a horror movie monster) is that, at some point, it’s going to show the full creature. Jurassic Park does that right off the bat with the super long show of the Brachiosaurus or Brontosaurus. But the shot that I most enjoyed was the group of gallimimuses that are ”flocking this way.”

The Dr. and the kids have to run to safety as the dinos run around and past them. Now, mind you, these are 1993 computer graphics. There are technical limitations. The way they work around those limitations is by carefully composing the shot. The camera is shaky so it’s like your running along with the group. The shakiness isn’t enough to become a distraction but it makes it harder to focus any single thing. The dinosaurs are fast so you don’t have a chance to audit their detail and, finally, the plight of our heroes forces you to focus on the scene as a whole.

In Jurassic World, during a big fight scene, the camera turns to a raptor that approaches from the distance. The lighting is pretty clear, the landscape is flat concrete and nothing else is happening on screen. The shot starts in slow motion but then speeds up as the raptor gets closer. Because there’s nothing else to look at, we can take our time in picking apart the graphics. Don’t get me wrong, they’re clear and detailed, but it’s just a spectacle rather than a scene.

In Jurassic Park, the practical effects and CGI are used interchangeably where appropriate; first you see the prop claw of the raptor opening the door then see the computerized body as it moves through the door. In Jurassic World, it seems like they injected practical effects rather than using both styles to make memorable sequences.

One last major point I’d like to make comes with the ethical statements made throughout the movie. Owen’s relationship with the raptors is presented as positive. He has built up a relationship, based on love and respect, with the three dinos. They are shown being led around their pen, responding to audio queues from a device operated by Own (it’s like a clicker or a whistle or something). The immediate image that came to mind was training dolphins and aquatic creatures tricks. Instead of feeding them fish, the raptors are fed with rats upon completion of a task.

Cut to the business people and the scientists who have just created a new super-dinosaur by splicing different dinosaurs together. The CEO told them to create a bigger, scarier dinosaur. Why? It’s because people are bored with the same old dinosaurs. Owen says that they shouldn’t have created this Indominus Rex: it’s an artificial monster. Now, why is it that the Indominus Rex is a monster while the Velociraptors are animals? The one scientist even notes that all of the dinosaurs are artificial. The dino-dna was spliced with frog dna so the velociraptors are just as “real” as the Indominus Rex.

In terms of the Military-Industrial Complex, why is it not ok for the raptors to be trained by the military but they can be trained to amuse tourists? Aside from the fact that they shouldn’t be used as weapons, being used to make more money isn’t exactly treating them with the respect that Owen seems to claim. I got the vibe that they were saying that the dinosaurs should be appreciated for their natural majesty…so why are they being taught tricks? And, now that I think about it, ultimately the raptors are used as weapons; they help fight the Indominus Rex. I suppose the difference is that the raptors “choose” to fight.

The positioning of the audience is strange too. In the original, we are in the party of the group of excited archeologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Dern). We learned about the dinosaurs and came to understand the dangers of bringing them back to life. In Jurassic World, we kinda fall into the role of the investors and tourists. We’ve been to the park before and we want a bigger, badder dinosaur. Even more, we want to see the new super dinosaur fight our favorite T-Rex in spectacular CGI. It’s violence for the sake of violence.

So what do you think? Was my assessment fair? Are you excited for the sequel that was already announced for 2018? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 27, 2015

WWE Smackdown (7/21/15)

Bottom line: This one WWE Smackdown filled my professional wrestling quota for the lifetime.

I know WWE Smackdown isn’t a movie but I wanted to write about it because, after watching it the other day, I was left perplexed. It’s a moral can of worms that I hesitate to open.

WWE stands for World Wrestling E-something, it’s not to be confused with what I think is its main competitor, WWF (World Wrestling Federation). This type of “wrestling” is the type that includes Hulk Hogan, Andrei the Giant, John Cena, and Dwayne Johnson (when he was known as The Rock).

WWE Smackdown came to Lincoln, Nebraska. I remember WWE and WWF were huge when I was in elementary school and the tickets were cheap so we decided to check it out. The show started at 7:00pm and lasted until about 10:00pm. I expected there to be like two matches but there was closer to half a dozen. It makes sense. Despite this being mostly all show, it’s still physically taxing. There are lots of acrobatic movies.

Each match had a good guy and a bad guy with each having their own intro sequence, backstory, and chant. When everyone was chanting something it was kinda fun. Silly, certainly, but fun. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough to keep the crowd going at all times.

There was no music during the matches, there were no announcers or commentators (they pipe that into the TV broadcasts apparently), and the wrestlers weren’t mic’d so when they spoke to each other we couldn’t hear what they were saying. It would’ve been a lot more fun if there were something consistently hyping up the crowd.

The cast of characters included several obligatory stereotypes. The fire-red haired Sheamus was from Dublin, Ireland. The Lucha Dragons spoke Spanish. Rusev was Bulgarian so he filled the role of Eastern European.

As this event was broadcasted live on the WWE Network during the interim of each match there was a five-minute or so commercial break during which we were shown commercials for upcoming WWE events. Let me tell you, after the tenth time that the WWE Summer Slam is coming, I got a little tired of hearing it.

The moral can of worms to which I alluded to early requires some backstory. This is based on what I picked up or what we were shown. KO (Kevin Owens) is the name of one wrestler. The previous week, he was in a 3vs3 match. Facing defeat, he walked away from the match. He came onstage this particular evening to justify his actions. “I have a family to care about,” he explained, “I am not going to risk sustaining a career ending injury just for the sake of a stupid fight.” As an outside observer, it seemed reasonable to me.

Fast forward to the main event of the evening, the current world heavyweight champion was going to face a more inexperienced Swiss wrestler name Cesaro. During the pre-match interview, Cesaro says that ever since he was a child he dreamed of coming to America to become a professional wrestler, “I haven’t spent Christmas with my family in 11 years but it’s worth it because I’m following my dream. I’m going to prove that the American Dream still exists!” Suddenly, KO comes out, takes the microphone and says, “Boo hoo! Why should we feel bad for you? You abandoned your family to pursue your own selfish goals.” To avoid an ethics debate, Cesaro retorted with, “Oh yeah? Like you abandoned your last two matches?!” The two parted ways and the match began.

Again, I thought KO’s statement was perfectly valid but as I came to understand doing anything that could be construed as cowardly is of the worst offences in the WWE world.

There was a “Diva Match” which was a tag team match between two pairs of scantily clad women. It wasn’t quite what I expected and I don’t really know how to take it. They gave the same pre-match hype speeches as the male wrestlers, they did the same moves, and they wore similarly bedazzled outfits. It didn’t seem like they were being actively sexualized like I anticipated. Their hair and physical structure was similar to the guys in that everyone is an action figure. Granted, there were some male wrestlers were looked pretty pudgy but, there were still lots that I couldn’t imagine walking around in real life. There were tons of women and girls cheering for the divas too. This brings me to my next point, the demographic.

There were a ton of kids! I didn’t think this was such a family based event. Though, in retrospect, it explains why there was no real profanity. I think the worst thing that was said was by a villain who bellowed, “Your ass…is…mine!” It also explains the style of insult chants for the villains. For “New Day” instead of saying the slogan “New Day rocks!” everyone chanted, “New Day sucks!” For Sheamus, the chant was “You look stu-pid,” in reference to his red Mohawk.

During the Rusev vs. somebody else match, it was particularly odd because if Rusev was losing, people would chant some chant I couldn’t understand but if he was winning people would chant for his competitor by saying “U S A!” I didn’t know who was the good and who was the bad guy!

It’s a spectacle passing as a sport if there ever was such a thing. First, would I recommend this? Eh. Not really. Would I ever take children to see this? I don’t know. There was a basic theme of good vs. bad but I don’t know if I agree with the definitions of good and bad (assuming I understand them). At the same time, the violence is mild compared to videogames; there is no blood and each “hit” results in a pause for the wrestler to respond with a demonstration of pain (thereby given each other a chance to catch their breath). I think I’d error on the side of caution and pass.

I can maybe see some of the appeal. It can be exciting (there were fireworks in some of the intros). Each of the characters has a backstory to be explored and a chant to be learned. There is a sense of community when cheering for a hero or booing a villain. It’s just not my cup of tea.

Instead of thinking about it more, I’ll probably just pack it in a box and store it somewhere indefinitely, like they do with the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Indian Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts! Thanks for reading!

Two-Lane Blacktop

Directed by Monte Hellman. Written by Rudy Wurlizter, Will Corry, and Floyd Mutrux. Starring James Taylor (The Driver), Warren Oates (G.T.O), Laurie Bird (The Girl), Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic).
Bottom line: Two-Lane Blacktop is an awesome ‘70’s car movie; it’s a mixture of Vanishing Point and Easy Rider.

I dig ‘70’s car movies because they are so focused on cars. I watched Two-Lane Blacktop after reading about Fast and Furious. Where in Fast and Furious you have cars and women and women sitting on cars, in a '70's car movie, you simply have cars. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson make a great pair of disillusioned youths who love cars. They built their '55 Chevy from the ground up and use it to just wander the country, racing when they need money.

The characters are simply billed and I'll refer to them as such throughout this post. James Taylor plays The Driver (yeah, the musician!), Wilson is The Mechanic, Bird is The Girl, and Warren Oates is the GTO.

The premise of the movie comes when the Driver and Mechanic meet and oddball driving a GTO. The protagonists and the GTO decide to race to Washington DC for pink slips (the cars' ownership papers). The Girl is a youth who just hitches a ride. You don’t really know much about her. You’d think that Two-Lane Blacktop would be a straightforward race movie but it's really a reflective journey across America. There doesn't seem to be much character development per se but it's compelling to learn more about the characters.

I don't know much about cars but I can tell that cars are a major point of the movie. In one scene, the protagonists are driving around a car meet, scoping out the competition. They are going to wager their last $200 on a single race to last them another couple days. The Mechanic rattles off specifications for cars they pass by. Some cars would simply beat them or the race would be too close.

At one point the Girl asks, "Why don't you race them? Didn't they just challenge you?" The Mechanic explains that the Chevy might win in the quarter mile but, because the other car was heavier, they'd win a longer race. It's a switch from the car movies I'm used to where the cars are just mechanized extensions of the heroes; the image that comes to mind is Vin Diesel at the end of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift where he wins a drifting race in his massive American muscle car.

The cinematography is basic but it gets the job done. The music is characteristic of the time; “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin is the first one that comes to mind. The acting and dialog is solid. It's a very quiet movie; the protagonists seldom speak. I'd have expected the protagonists the more active characters in the movie and this reversal is something I'd like to discuss more. We get the most of our orientation in the world from the GTO and the several hitchhikers he picks up.

Overall, I'd recommend Two-Lane Blacktop if you’re into cars or car movies. It's a little weird, especially the ending, and existential but the experience is a positive one. I found it slightly less depressing and more thought provoking than Easy Rider. I watched it once the other day and a second time the next day and I'll probably see it again in the near future. Now, mind yourself of spoilers from here on out.

The GTO is a fascinating character. We first see him as he honks and passes the protagonists. He smiles at them as he speeds away. His first bit of dialog comes when he picks up a hitchhiker. GTO explains that he was a test pilot but got this monster of a car because “you just can’t live on the same sort of high.” The camera cuts away and follows the protagonists for a while and when we get back, he’s telling the (now sleeping) hitchhiker the same story. It took me a second to realize that it was the same story and the realization was a little unnerving. During this second retelling, he passes the protagonists again who are fixing their car on the side of the road. “They’ve been tailing me for two states…three states,” he complains. This is despite the fact that the protagonists barely acknowledged the GTO.  His complaint, perhaps, provides incite into his own insecurities.

With each hitchhiker he picks up, he gives a different story. Have you seen The Dark Knight? It reminds me of the scenes where the Joker (Ledger) tells people how he got his scars. “He's crazy because he keeps changing his story,” is the general take-away.

At first, I thought the GTO was going to be a representation of The Man. He’s a business guy, city slicker, who just bought a fancy car rather than building it. But, the more I thought about it, maybe he’s a Mankind overall. That is, maybe he's just a regular person trying to find himself. The first origin story we get is that he was a test pilot that decided to get a GTO and cruise because "you just can't live on the same sort of high all the time." Another story is that he won the car in Vegas after closing some multi-million dollar deals for his company. He’s trying on different hats to see which one fits.

The fact that the GTO is a stock, store bought car while the Chevy is homemade is a source of tension throughout the film. The Mechanic and Driver have an intimate relationship with their machine whereas the GTO knows nothing about cars. When proudly listing the specifications of the engine he says, “It’s all written on the pamphlet in the glove box." So we have the cars connected to identity, of course, but there seems to be something a little deeper than that. The GTO has all sorts of additions that hamper performance. These additions aren't portrayed as necessarily negative either. At one point, the Mechanic and the Girl are driving the GTO and have the stereo and A/C turned up. It's one of the only times they are laughing and smiling. Sure, A/C wastes fuel and it’s heavy but, it sure can be comfortable.

In something like Easy Rider we have a more pointed political statement about America but Two-Lane Blacktop in ambiguous. The Girl ditches the racers for a motorcycle rider, the GTO picks up some sailors and offers to take them to New York while the Chevy drag races some car.

The film ends as the Chevy begins to drag race. The sound fades away so you hear just the sounds from the engine. You get into the zone that the Driver must get into when he races. He looks longing off into the distance at small farm. Time slows down as the race starts but the camera’s film burns. It doesn’t matter what happens with the race or the overall race to D.C.

What is your favorite car movie? There are car movies, and buddy road movies, but are there motorcycle movies? Leave a comment below to let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!