Friday, June 19, 2015

Blogorium Review: Jurassic World

 Jurassic World is a pretty good movie and a great example of corporate filmmaking at its best. That is to say that it reflects the kind of movie that fulfills all quadrants, offends nobody, and coasts along on enough charm that it does not bore or annoy audiences. Just don't think to hard about it, and you'll be just fine. It's weird, because I feel strange saying that I thought it was enjoyable. I've watched the Screen Junkies debate and I watched Red Letter Media's Half in the Bag review, and to be perfectly honest, I can't mount a defense of any of the problems raised about Jurassic World. The characters are barely one note, the contrivances and narrative conveniences are at time embarrassing, and yeah, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through. I'm not even going to try to defend the movie from the type of criticisms I'd normally hold it accountable for. I can't. By the same token, I've tried to talk myself out of the fact that I did enjoy it, and it's not sticking.

 Let's get the elephant out of the room right away: I don't view Jurassic Park with rose colored glasses. I feel like that's important to point out, because I didn't watch Jurassic World through the lens of nostalgia. I think Jurassic Park has some fun moments, mostly the suspenseful ones, but have always felt like most of the characters are broadly drawn cartoons who dress in such a way that you can easily tell their toys apart. I'm the weird person who still kinda likes the mostly terrible The Lost World, even though I just watched it again, and yeah, it's still pretty bad. The "Spielberg does Godzilla" part still makes me laugh, because it's such a stupid, audacious way to close out that movie. But I didn't really care about seeing Jurassic World. I wasn't interested at all, and when I did see it, my thought process was "what the hell, I just watched The Lost World yesterday, and it can't be worse than Jurassic Park III." And it's not. Unlike just about every review, I'm not going to say that Jurassic World is better than the sequels but not as good as Jurassic Park, because I don't hold the first one in the same standard as most people. Bear that in mind as we move forward, because your mileage may vary.

 For starters, I guess I do like the premise: Ingen finally got its shit together and John Hammond found somebody to reopen the park. His name is Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), and he's immediately not like the usual sleazy businessmen you've seen in the other Jurassic movies. He's one of those carefree billionaires who is managing the money and taking care of Hammond's vision, but mostly just wants to show off that he's almost finished his helicopter lessons. He leaves the actual running of the redubbed "Jurassic World" to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is a numbers, spreadsheet type that thinks of the dinosaurs as "assets" and is concerned about the bottom line and appeasing investors. In other words, the character we're probably not going to like but since she's a main character, she'll eventually see the error of her ways, right? Eh... maybe not so much. Back to that later. Claire is supposed to be hanging out with her sister (Judy Greer)'s kids, but she doesn't have time and foists precocious Gray (Ty Simpkins) and moody teen Zach (Nick Robinson) on her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath). They have VIP passes, so they can go anywhere which is a good way for us to see the park. It beats seeing the control room, which is where comic relief audience nostalgia surrogate Lowery (Jake Johnson) works. (He bought a Jurassic Park t-shirt on Ebay and has dinosaur toys on his work station).

 Anyway, nobody cares about the characters, because there's a new dinosaur. Like, a new, genetically modified dinosaur that never existed, and as dumb as Indominus Rex ends up being a lot of the time, but reason for her existence is actually a pretty sound one. In the universe of Jurassic World, the park reopened two years after Jurassic Park (well, actually they completely rebuilt it, as we find out) and it's been a tourist attraction with a cruise ship that takes people to Isla Nublar every day since then. Claire is explaining to investors from Verizon (no, really) that after twenty years, the allure of dinosaurs has started fading, and they want something new. Audiences want something they've never seen, something scary, so Dr. Wu (JP alum BD Wong) cooked up the I-Rex, a mystery hybrid that has super powers. We'll also come back to the convenient super powers later. The reasoning behind creating the new dinosaur plays like a commentary on moviegoers today. I mean, the novelty of seeing dinosaurs in a movie has pretty much worn off, so lets make them bigger stronger faster scarier. More CGI. More mayhem. Jurassic World the movie is the proof that Claire the character isn't wrong: people went in droves to see it.

 Indominus has been raised in her paddock, alone ever since she ate her sibling, and Masrani wants Claire to have ex-military consultant Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to check it for security before the consider opening it to the public. Claire doesn't like that because of course they went on a date when he started working there and of course it didn't work out because she's into designing itineraries and he's into the Matt Foley school of living life. But he's Chris Pratt so we mostly like him and he's capable and manly and cracks jokes, etc. He cares about the dinosaurs and has raised a pack of Velociraptors from birth and is their alpha. Just in case we don't get that, their names are Echo, Delta, Charlie, and, uh, Blue. I guess maybe they thought audiences might not understand why a raptor was named "Bravo" or maybe the network said they couldn't use it, so it has blue markings instead.

 The raptor subplot is actually a lot less stupid than the trailer made it look, because Owen just barely keeps them in check for most of the movie. It's established early on that they accept him as the alpha, but only to a degree. They listen to him, but he still has to roll under the closing gate to get out of their pen when he saves some idiot who falls in. They know he's not like them, but he's their alpha, so it's a tenuous balance. You've seen the part in the trailer with the motorcycle, but that happens because he's following them as they follow the scent of the I-Rex, and that happens as a matter of last resort. Mostly thanks to subplot we didn't need in this movie character Hoskins (Adventures in Babysitting's Vincent D'Onofrio). His "lets militarize dinosaurs" contractor guy feels like a leftover plot thread from the abandoned John Sayles draft of Jurassic Park 4 with the human / dinosaur hybrid Dirty Dozen*.

 But anyway all of these characters have to converge so of course the kids are out in a gyrosphere rolling around when the I-Rex gets loose and Claire has to evacuate most of the park while the Asset Containment Unit gets slaughtered. See, the I-Rex can mask her thermal signature if she wants to, so she tricks them into thinking she's not in her cage and Owen can see how dangerous she is when she eats a fat slob red shirt (seriously, this dude has a tie that's not on straight, a barely tucked in shirt, and a safety hat that's tiled at an angle: he's clearly getting eaten from the moment we see him). I-Rex goes on a murder spree, killing everything, in a once again reasonably explained way. Owen correctly points out that having been raised in captivity with no contact at all, Indominus Rex has never encountered other dinosaurs (or anything) before, and doesn't know its place in the food chain. And they really don't want her to find out.

 Anyway, dumb kids somehow go "off road" and Claire and Owen have to find them. Hoskins takes over the control room, and everything goes straight to hell. This leads to the disaster part of the movie, where people die horrible, horrible deaths. Like, I was surprised how horrible in some instances. There's one character whose death is wildly disproportionate to their behavior in the movie, unless being inattentive means you should be pecked apart by Pterodactyls and then swallowed alive by the Mosasaurus, the Sea World-like attraction. I mean, the dude who grabs his margaritas while running doesn't even get it that bad. He might not die at all, and there's no way he ordered both of those drinks for himself, if he ordered them in the first place. There are people who totally deserve to have their arms bitten off or to be dino-stomped or Pterodactyl impaled**, but there's dome disproportionate brutality going on. Maybe director Colin Trevorrow had a bad vendetta with somebody or just hates Mary Poppins or something.

 Well, now's as good a time as any to transition into the "why people think this movie sucks and I can't even argue with them" part of the review. I'm going to start with two pieces of dialogue from the dumb kids who are only in Jurassic World because the movies are ostensibly aimed at kids (and not their 30-something parents who saw Jurassic Park twenty years ago). I'm going to slightly modify what they say to point out what incredible plot conveniences they introduce, but if you're SPOILER averse, you might as well skip ahead to the last paragraph.

 "Hey, do you still have those matches neither of us ever mentioned at any point before now even though we just got away from the I-Rex by jumping into water?"

 "Do you remember that time we fixed up Grampa's car which would totally mean we can repair this Jeep we found in the old Visitor's Center from Jurassic Park and then drive back?"

 Putting aside the fact that any theme park that offered a "gyrosphere" attraction without a guide should have a way to bring said gyrosphere back when the park is unexpectedly closed, those two lines are indicative us just how lazy the writing in Jurassic World is. They both happen within five minutes of each other, and I think they were hoping we'd be too caught up in fact that "hey, it's the old Visitors Center! I remember Jurassic Park! Omg!" to really think carefully about how contrived those plot points are. Almost as contrived as Indominus Rex, who is white (except when she's not), can mask her thermal signature (once), pulls out her own tracking device, and is part Raptor. How do we find out she's part Raptor? Someone in the movie has to say it. In fact, here's what Owen says:

 "No wonder they didn't tell us what's she's made of: she's part Raptor..."

 This happens at the end of the motorcycle scene, when the Raptors find I-Rex and, even though she's never seen a Velociraptor before, she begins communicating with them. Guess there's a new Alpha. Oh wait, that's also something Owen says. The Raptors of course turn on Owen and Hoskins men and kill them, and then go all the way back to their paddock to chase Claire and the stupid kids who are sitting in a truck that the boys for no apparent reason won't close the back doors of. It's one of the many, "wait, what?" moments that Jurassic World hopes you won't ask questions about, like "where did the other helicopter pilot go if Masrani and the helicopter are still on the island?" or "wait, wasn't the Mosasaurus attraction further away from the main park area?" or "would you really stop to comfort a dying dinosaur when there's nothing you can do to help at all and you're searching for two children that may or may not be in mortal danger?" Yes, the last question is the closest scene Claire has to a humanizing moment, and it may be the only dinosaur in the entire movie that isn't CGI, but if you give it a moment's scrutiny, why does it need to happen?

 And yet, I didn't really mind while watching it. Yes, in retrospect, the film compounds so many lazy, convenient, or "we hope you're not paying attention to this" moments that you probably won't even remember the loose plot thread they leave for the next Jurassic sequel (hint: BD Wong). Does it really matter what happened to Lowery? Eh, I didn't even think about him in the last scene. In truth, most people are only going to remember the final battle, and to Jurassic World's credit, it takes the humans out of the equation and goes for full on dino fight. And it's a pretty good fight with a great (if implausible) conclusion. You'll be excited, you won't care about product placement - I mean, have you been to a theme park? Is the Jimmy Fallon scene really that out of place? - and if you loved Jurassic Park, you might even cheer when T-Rex makes her grand return by crashing through a Spinosaur skeleton. Take that, Jurassic Park III. You never forget that everybody hates you. I'm sure there's tons of press material where producers and the director and four writers talk about making the fans happy, and that lip service is expected, but this movie was created by committee. And to be honest, for what it is, it's better than it has any right to be. I cannot pretend that it's a well constructed, well thought out film, but Jurassic World gives you what you came for. If you're the nostalgic type, there's a chance you might like it even more than I did. It's not really the best or the worst, which I know the internet hates, but that's how it is sometimes. Every now and then you get a mostly happy middle, and for reasons I can't quite fathom, Jurassic World was entertaining, in spite of itself.

 * I am not making that up.
 ** Although, if we're picking nits, one was done in The Lost World and the other was the original ending of the film before Spielberg took T-Rex to San Diego.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Retro Review: Jurassic Park III

 Jurassic Park III is the one that Steven Spielberg didn't direct, the one that has a dream sequence with a talking Velociraptor that says Alan Grant (Sam Neill)'s name on an airplane. I mean, that really ought to cover it, right? It's the one that's universally recognized as terrible and that director Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Rocketeer) somehow managed to bounce back from. William H. Macy and Tea Leoni are in it, somehow they talked Laura Dern into shooting a cameo but Jeff Goldblum said, "nah, there's a line and I'm not crossing it again." I guess that Cats and Dogs money was too good to pass up. But enough about Jeff Goldbum - people will debate until the end of time about whether The Lost World really sucks or just kind of sucks - Alan Grant is back you guys! I choose to believe that this is the work of Sutter Cane, but obviously I have no evidence to support that because Cane hasn't given me any.

 Anyway, so I saw Jurassic Park III in the theatre because that was back when I'd go see anything and maybe we didn't know it was going to suck. Or we hoped it wouldn't. Or maybe we did know and we went to see it anyway because, hell, we'd already seen Jeepers Creepers. It was a long time ago. We watched the terrible movie where the Raptors have quills because dinosaur research had continued to advance and now they're closer to birds than lizards to yeah, multi-colored quills. Some dumb kid with rich parents got lost on Isla The Other One from The Lost World (I would like to point out that in The Lost World you can also see this island chain includes Isla Muerte. I'd love to see the dinosaurs on that one) and Alan Grant has to find him. Even though he's never been to that Island. I guess Vince Vaughn isn't considered trustworthy enough to find a kid. Probably a good call.

 So we left the stupid movie and went to a friend of a friend's house, which is never my idea of a good time, especially when the friend who brought you there (and is driving) goes in one of the back rooms to get high and you're watching South Park with some dude who is half conscious and mostly paying attention to his turtle aquarium behind the couch. Good times. If that doesn't already sound sketchy enough to you guys, the people who lived in this apartment would later steal a bunch of stuff from some girl, get confronted about it, and decide to just leave it all on the runway of the airport for them to find. True story. But eventually my friend comes back out and he's going to drive me home which is what I wanted to do, and he grabs two beers "for the road." This is my only option of getting home and we're well before the days of cell phones here.

 Well, as luck would have it, while driving back there's a police checkpoint and he's already opened one of the beers to drink while on the road (in his defense, he's a very functional alcoholic) and can't turn around. So, uh, we're going to have to deal with this prickly situation. In his infinite (read: under 21) wisdom, he opens the other beer and proceeds to pour both of them onto the floorboard of the driver's side, hoping that they won't notice. Take a guess how that well that worked. We are both ordered to get out of the car and to submit to a breathalyzer, which is fine with me because I haven't been drinking and I'm not going to jail. On the other hand, they continue to ask him "Sir, have you been drinking?" and he answers "No."

 Taking the breathalyzer out: "Sir, are you sure you haven't been drinking?"

 Him: "I have not"

 Handing him the breathalyzer: "Are you certain that you were not drinking tonight?"

 Him: "No"

 He's blowing into the breathalyzer: "One last time, have you been drinking tonight?"


 Him: "Well, maybe one beer."

 And they put him in handcuffs and take him off to jail. Me? I'm sober and without a ride home, so I get to walk with the officer back to his truck so she can take a look around and see if there's anything else they should know about. The entire cabin reeks of cheap beer and I'm getting a headache just standing there. She finds his back pack filled with issues of High Times and says "this is promising" and to this day I don't know how she didn't find his bowl or why she didn't check the ash tray, which is exactly where what he normally smoked was tucked away. I mean, you are a cop, right? Well, I'm not going to be too rude, because she very apologetically explained that I would have to take his truck home because they couldn't spare an officer to drive me to my parents house (that'll be important in a minute). She have me her badge number and name in case someone pulled me over and noticed the pungent odor of beer everywhere, and off I went.

 I was living with my parents, who were asleep, so I had to sneak into their room to get the cordless phone out. That way they wouldn't wake up when he called me from the drunk tank to come pick him up, as he did at about 2 in the morning. I took my car (much better idea) and navigated through downtown - which I didn't know very well - and found him outside of the jail, giving a homeless guy the last five dollars he had. Then he smoked a cigarette and I took him back to his truck, which he drove home without incident. He lost his license for a year and there was probation or something else and now he has a PhD and four masters and is an expert on bats. So I guess it worked out. One time we shared a motel room during a wedding and there was a bat outside. He brought it in, but because he was drunk, he dropped it and the bat went under the bed. He laughed and said "that's what you get when you party with me!" and then went to sleep.

 Where was I...?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Blogorium Review: Ex Machina

 There's really only one way that Ex Machina can end, and it does. It would hardly be fair to hold that against a film that poses so many intriguing questions about mankind and our relationship towards (if not, eventually, with) machines. For ninety or so minutes, we watch a Turing Test play out, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, with parameters that aren't well defined, and based on agendas we can't necessarily predict. And yet, despite the "all is not what it seems" atmosphere which is as pervasive throughout the film as it is in the trailer, writer / director Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) manages to address concerns as the narrative unfolds without betraying the audience. After all, there's only one way it can end, but how it gets there is best part.

 Ex Machina is ostensibly the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, Frank), a code writer for Blue Book, the largest search engine in the world. He wins a company raffle - of sorts - and is sent to spend a week at the estate of Blue Book's creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), for purposes undefined. There are clues in the opening scene that something else is going on, some subtle, some less so - although we don't know why until later. Nathan, who lives in the midst of a fortified compound in the midst of mountainside land (as the helicopter pilot explains when Caleb asks when they'll be at Nathan's property, "we've been flying over it for the last two hours!"), is very strict about who he allows to visit. Custom made ID badges are required, and they don't always grant access to rooms. Nathan himself, a coding prodigy who built Blue Book as a teenager, lives in isolation, exercising and drinking in equal measure. To say the least, Caleb is intimidated. This man is his boss, trying to talk to him like a friend, but under specific parameters. Parameters he's not always willing to divulge.

 But Caleb isn't really there to hang out with his boss for a week. No, Nathan's invited him for a very specific purpose, one that explains the need for no windows and a self-sustaining generator. And no cell phone service (can't leave that one out). Nathan's been working on an advanced artificial intelligence, and he's chosen Caleb to be the man to administer a Turing test. Can Caleb determine whether Ava (Alicia Vikander) passes for human or not? Nathan's already decided to bypass some of the original rules Alan Turing designed for the test: he's confident that if Caleb couldn't see Ava, he'd be convinced, so instead Caleb has to interact, to see. Ava has a human face, human hands, and fee, but is otherwise clearly a machine. So the question becomes, can Caleb, knowing he's talking to a machine, discern the presence of intelligence and be convinced that Ava is more than artifice?

 In writing the last paragraph, I caught myself trying to write the word "she" when referring to Ava, which is a nagging pet peeve I have, even for myself. The concept of trying to anthropomorphize, to gender identify, something which is explicitly identified as non-human is still difficult to shake. Pay attention to how many people refer to Apple's SIRI as a "her": because a woman recorded the audible responses that SIRI provides, we give it a gender. But SIRI is not a human being, and neither is Ava, which became the first philosophical point of contention I thought I would have with Ex Machina. Why sexualize Ava if all Nathan wants to do is prove its intelligence is genuine? Ava has a woman's face and hands, contoured plastic breasts and buttocks, so even if the arms and torso are transparent, even if the top of the head is, too, Caleb's eyes are going to be drawn to some degree to the fact that Nathan made a specific decision to gender-ize Ava.

 As it turns out, just as I was beginning to really think about the conscious decision to give Ava a gender, Garland chose to address it by having Caleb come right out and ask Nathan about it. The film is broken up into "sessions" between Caleb and Ava, punctuated by conversations with Nathan or sequences where Caleb learns more about the house. It's not far into the movie - maybe the second or third session - before the conversation comes up, and like many things which appear to be adhering to "audience expectation" tropes, there's a method to the madness. In fact, as Garland slowly reveals, there are several: Nathan has a specific reason for making Ava look like a young woman, one tied to the nature of the testing. But there are other reasons as well, although I'm not going to SPOIL much about Ex Machina. Suffice to say that many of the plot points I thought were or would be problematic turned out to be better thought out than your average screenplay.

 Ava is, indeed, quite impressive, and Caleb finds himself conflicted. On the one hand, he understands his role as the skeptic - he has to evaluate Ava from all possible angles, including whether Nathan's programming is responsible for its "flirtatious" behavior. By the same token, maybe Nathan is right that Caleb is "the first man Ava has seen" other than him. Nathan's a little looser when it comes to talking about Ava, and sometimes says "her," but I'm trying to refrain from that. They don't just talk about Ava, and it's very clear that Nathan has a secret agenda. He's also condescending and dismissive, except when he's not. There's something Caleb just can't trust about the parameters of this "test," which is confirmed when the power cuts out during a session with Ava. Ava warns Caleb that he shouldn't trust anything that Nathan says or does, which sets off the second half of Ex Machina. But which one of them is more trustworthy: the creation or the creator?

 Unfortunately, Caleb's only other point of communication is with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) - Nathan's housekeeper / cook / assistant, who can't speak, read, or understand English. Nathan prefers it that way, as it allows him to "talk about trade secrets" without fear of any leaks. Astute readers are already working out her role in the story, but since Kyoko appears so early in the film and there are so few characters, it would be unfair to leave her out. While attempting to negotiate his living space, or the fact that the television in his room only shows CCTV footage of Ava, Caleb continues his sessions, becoming more smitten with Ava's apparently genuine expressions of intelligence. Ava draws, turns lines of questions around on Caleb, and begins to blur the line between machine and human. In the last instance, literally: Ava puts on a dress, stockings, and a wig (left in a closet, one might assume, purposefully), which obscures much of the artificiality. The results on Caleb are somewhat predictable, although by that point he's far more concerned with Ava's status as "captive" in Nathan's home.

 Although I said there was only one way that Ex Machina could end, I'm not going to address it in this review. In fact, what has been covered leaves out a number of plot points, because there's a great benefit to not knowing much more than what you see in the trailer. That might even give away a bit too much, although the "what" of what happens is more interesting when the pieces of "why" it happens come together. It goes without saying that Caleb is also being tested, Nathan is being far less than straightforward, and that Ava is taking advantage of that. Or are all three of them manipulating the others, and themselves? There are a number of interesting Biblical allusions in the film, as well as nods to Frankenstein, The Allegory of the Cave, Star Trek, Blade Runner, and Oppenheimer's famous "now I am become Death" quote. There are also some smaller references to Wittgenstein, Close Encounters or the Third Kind, and Hoffmann's The Sandman.

 With such a small cast, it's hard to really say any one of the three leads stands out, although much of the credit goes to Alicia Vikander, who has to appear to be human without being human. Considering that most of her on-screen performance is a visual effect, Vikander manages to sell her role in /as the effect. The reasoning behind how Ava is capable of reproducing human expressions has its own interesting plot device, but Vikander's slow evolution on camera as Ava is most impressive. It's hard to tell who is the cat and who the mouse, as Gleeson slowly moves from star-struck rube to man in crisis to his own sense of (possibly misguided) agency. Isaac appears to have the more one-note role, playing Nathan mostly through intimidation - physically, mentally, and emotionally - but there are a few moments in the last act that shed light on him. Some for the better, some for the worse, but I feel like his last conversation with Caleb is a better glimpse into who Nathan really is than the diabolical puppeteer we've been taking him for. It all depends on whose side you take during Ex Machina - and don't worry, the title is quite appropriate - to how you react to the inevitability of its conclusion. Like I said, there's only one way it can end once the pieces are in place. Discovering how it gets to that point, however, is what makes the film worth your while.