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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

 

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When I saw Jurassic World back in 2015, I thought the franchise should die out. A massive box office return meant that it would not, and the announcement of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom raised the question of how would Universal reinvigorate a franchise that seemed exhausted of ideas? Enter director J. A. Bayona, whose career has risen steadily since his feature debut The Orphanage in 2007. Under Bayona’s steady yet unsettling hand, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom emerges like a T-Rex from foliage as a film of two halves. The first half is one we have seen before, with standard Jurassic tropes of island, jungle, rain and the occasional dinosaur. The addition of a volcanic eruption adds surprisingly little additional drama, although Bayona excels with some great set pieces. One features riding a humorous riff on the bucking bronco motif, and the other involves a submerged vehicle that is conducted largely in a single take. This sequence is menacingly immersive in all the right ways, and the menacing environment continues in the second half when the film moves into new territory for the franchise. A grand mansion and long subterranean tunnels, as well as judicious use of shadows and Nosferatu-like limbs, imbue the second half of the film with a Gothic milieu. The second half of the film also features effective villains of both the human and saurian variety, as well as some interesting if brief explorations of cloning, the right to live and that trusty stalwart of science fiction, hubris. There are some points where the preposterousness of the story is a little grating – why attempt to retrieve a valuable asset in a tropical storm? Is the nefarious scheme really likely to be profitable? With that much lava, surely the characters would be overcome by poisonous gas? Happily, Bayona’s effective style and the game cast – including the winning chemistry between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard – ensure that the viewer spends little time worrying over such details. Meanwhile, there are references to earlier instalments that carry just the right level of knowingness to avoid slipping into parody. Overall, JW: FK takes the franchise in an interesting new direction, and ends with the promise of more, that will hopefully be different as well.

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Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Two

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Here’s a shocker: I REALLY liked dinosaurs as a teenager, and still kinda like them now. So the release of Jurassic Park in 1993 felt like a great gift I had been waiting for. It was the first film I saw three times in the cinema on its original theatrical release, and it continues to reward repeat viewings. I remember a conversation with my dad back in ’93 about ‘classic’ films and asked if JP would become one. He said no, because the only thing special about JP was its effects. He may have underestimated the significance of special effects, as Jurassic Park does appear on lists of classic blockbusters, and its shadow stretches over Hollywood cinema like a looming tyrannosaur.

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For me, Jurassic Park was an early stage in my love affair with cinema, as it was like a manifestation of my imagination and, specifically, my dreams. When I was little, I had two memorable nightmares that featured a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a prominent role, and the scenes featuring said beastie in Steven Spielberg’s classic were cathartic because it was fun, while also scary. I have since developed an appreciation of horror cinema, including the (probably superior) Jaws, but Jurassic Park was an early instance of me learning the joy in being scared by a film. Plus my velociraptor impression became a much-loved party trick. Furthermore, it was a magnificent spectacle unlike anything I had seen before. Subsequent spectacles were even more impressive (some of which will be mentioned as these ten days go by), but Jurassic Park will always hold a special place in my heart.

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Top Ten Directors – Part One

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.

To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?

Spielberg

 

As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.

Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.

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E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.

Munich

Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.

The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.

I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.

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Freshness and Familiarity Part Three – Time, gentlemen, please

I saw The Hangover Part III unexpectedly when, after I originally not planned to bother, one of my workmates suggested it and I decided “Why not?” Damning reviews and user comments had lowered my expectations, so I did not anticipate being impressed, but low expectations have previously led to pleasant surprises (see Olympus Has Fallen), so I approached Todd Phillips’ final (?) adventure of the Wolf Pack with an open mind.

To be fair, I was not exactly disappointed because I had not expected very little, and it is very easy to make me laugh. The last laugh-free comedy I saw was The Cable Guy (Ben Stiller, 1996) on TV, and The Hangover Part III is similarly unfunny. But it lacks laughs for a different reason, which makes it an interesting continuation/conclusion (hopefully) to the franchise. The Cable Guy is not funny because all of its jokes are creepy, based around the premise of Jim Carrey’s character being borderline psychotic. Hardly great comedic material, which is a shame because writer/director Ben Stiller went on to find great humour in male models (Zoolander, 2001) and Hollywood stars (Tropic Thunder, 2008). The Hangover Part III is a different beast because it deviates from the formula of its previous instalments, making it a sequel mainly by virtue of its characters, although some plot elements continue from the first and second films. The first film featured the bachelor party in Las Vegas that went horribly wrong and the Wolf Pack had to find their missing friend. The second one had exactly the same premise, but cranked up to 11, set in Bangkok and with rather more racist humour. Part III is less comedic and more dramatic, as the Wolf Pack pursues Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). The opening scene in a Thai prison explicitly references The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994), and the evasion of danger remains a conceit throughout, as Doug (Justin Bartha) is held hostage by Marshall (John Goodman) while Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zack Galifianakis) attempt to find Chow. Their escapades include breaking into a heavily fortified house and invading the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas hotel, as well as grappling with some fighting cocks (don’t ask).

While these stunts are dramatic they are not particularly funny, and much of the film feels as though the characters have stepped out of their genre into something more akin to Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) or Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988). But the action scenes are not gripping enough to be exciting nor crazy enough to be funny. In a standout moment, Phil and Alan abseil down a rope of sheets from the roof of a hotel to the balcony below. Alan (of course) loses his grip and Phil tells him to drop down but not to push off; Alan (of course) pushes off and almost falls off to his death, Phil pulling him back in the nick of time. I found this sequence dramatic, but as I swallowed my heart back into my chest, I wondered why it wasn’t funny. It is not that the scene could not be funny because it was a brush with death – such narrow escapes are played for laughs in films as varied as Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) – but this scene is played straight, with Alan’s mental peculiarity simply a device that almost kills him.

The lack of humour in Alan’s madness is particularly annoying, because the scenes that do play it for laughs are among the funnier moments, such as his eulogy at his father’s funeral and reaction to his friends’ intervention. His first scene in the film involves a giraffe-related motor vehicle accident, which is funny in a horrific way (much like the tazering scene in the first film). Alan and Chow demonstrating their peculiar friendship is passingly amusing, as are Chow’s intoxicated outbursts. At one point, Chow parachutes off a tall building, singing “I Believe I Can Fly” and proclaiming his adoration of cocaine. Stu catches him on the roof of a limousine and has to drive blind before almost killing Chow when he stops suddenly. Had this scene been simply a crazy stunt, it might have been funny, but the stakes are such that if Chow gets away, Doug will be killed, and this neuters the humour because the two elements are not meshed together. This is the film’s fundamental problem – it continually feels like two films jostling for dominance, and both end up losing. Freshness in this case spoils the recipe, and the bursts of familiarity feel like another film trying to re-establish itself without success.

There are enough of these bursts to indicate what The Hangover Part III might have been. Best of these is Alan finding love (seriously) with Cassie (Megan McCarthy), as their scenes are both funny and touching. Alan’s romance suggests the film I would have liked to see, with the Wolf Pack preparing for Alan and Cassie’s wedding, and then in a post credits scene they wake up the morning after asking “What the hell happened?” That would have actually been The Hangover Part III, and considering how outrageous the events appear to have been (boob job?!), I predict the results would be hilarious, or at least wild, zany and shocking. Unfortunately, the film we get is none of these things, because it tries to be something other than a Hangover film. The franchise’s laddish, outrageous and sometimes shocking type of humour is not for everyone, but at least the first two films committed to this and delivered wild and zany humour. Part III’s failure to deliver on this front results in a film that is confused, misguided and deeply unsatisfying, providing a few laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to justify the involvement of the talent involved nor the investment of the cinema viewer. Perhaps it’ll work better on DVD, especially if drunk. Just be careful what you drink…

Chow

 

Frightful Five No 4. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks.  Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it.  Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did.  It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room.  I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.

Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today.  Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws.  Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score.  Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy.  Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth.  As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat.  I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.

The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power.  Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence.  But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us.  Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea.  Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water.  The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea.  This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own.  The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse.  Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.