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Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
Difficult film to love, but rarely uninteresting and oddly captivating when it's at its best.
Reaching a comprehensive conclusion on the first part of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" is a grisly yet satisfying exercise. The film is generally refreshingly observationalist, in its taking a step back from what it depicts from what I can garner, it neither glamorises nor demonises to any great extent the behaviour of the characters within. By the end, the characters have been neither punished nor rewarded for their actions. There is a very cold, empty tonality to von Trier's first Nymphomaniac volume, but this is not a criticism the life of the film's lead, a middle aged woman who goes by the surely deliberately androgynous name of Joe (Jo), has almost entirely consisted of furrowing about trying to find that next lay with the opposite sex. She has done very little else and, despite living through the latter half of the twentieth century, not to mention possessing a gift for oration, we sense has very little else say on any other subject.
The film consists almost entirely of flashback. It is Charlotte Gainsbourg playing present-tense Joe, a woman found beaten and bloodied on the concrete courtyard of an apartment block in an unspecific English locality on a rainy day. Stellan Skarsgård's Seligman, a grey suited monosyllabic neighbour from abroad, finds her en route coming home from the local shop - rather than call for help when she asks him not to, he brings her back to his dwelling so that she may recover and that is when she decides to recount her life hedonistic life-story which will lead us to this very moment.
In the past, she is played by new-comer Stacy Martin, whose job it is to bring to life Joe's years of adolescence and young adulthood one characterised by a radical outlook of anti-marriage; anti-bourgeois and anti-love on top of a demonstrating of just how much of a bohemian hedonist she really is. During this time, she will garner some menial office work; maintain a friendship with her father and have an on-off relationship with boyfriend Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). It is during these scenes that von Trier seems to combine props; attire and other mise-en-scene from the 1960's; 70's and 80's to create a very non-specific era his shooting of it in Germany is further designed to disorientate us during the viewing.
But why was she lying on the concrete, bloodied and bruised, in the first scene? Why is she deciding to tell Seligman her tale in the first place? What, precisely, is Skarsgård in relation to anything at all anyway? These are not questions von Trier answers in Volume One indeed, they are in a sense irrelevant to the film's nucleus. But then, what of that? It seems to be that, no matter what you are talking about, be it fly-fishing; organ music or something else, you can incorporate philosophies or stances on sex into it sex is life and life is sex and parallels can be found between the actions of a good fly-fisherman and a woman on the prowl; between the makeup of the specifics of a Johann Sebastian Bach sonata and the way a sex-addict balances their lovers. Correlations and equivalents are everywhere, if only people would just take the time out to look for them...
But is this really the end of it? Perhaps one character is actually the figment of the other's imagination: a bored, single and lonely Seligman imagines he meets Joe coming home and concocts a story possessing everything he doesn't have. Moreover, perhaps a concussed Joe is still lying there in the street imagining aid from a stranger. Whatever the case, von Trier essentially allows his audience to fulfil the role of Seligman someone who listens on in either silent awe or restrained disgust at how Joe had a sexual revelation as a young child with her friend Bea (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and decided to act on it in a way that saw her spend her teenage years as she did.
Their dual-dynamic itself opens up several tins of numerous kinds of worms in its basis the gender imbalance is a pseudo-feminist driven psychoanalytic nightmare: a clear distinction between orator and receiver, it is the woman propelling proceedings but her tale is one of often perpetual sexual humiliation as she lowers herself to playing the whore; the tart; the loser. She has nothing else in life and is one-dimensional she recounts her experiences for the pleasure of the male, be it Seligman or the member of the audience.
While they are Joe's experiences, the entire film seems to be made up of figments of Seligman's imagination: it is he who is picturing Joe in the bathroom; on the train and with on-off boyfriend Jerome something alluded to when he tries to picture Joe studying geography although apologies for imagining it incorrectly before we carry on again. Then, there is the problem of the unreliable narrator an issue Seligman himself even raises towards the end when he deliberately stops Joe mid-flow on account of not believing an aspect of the story she is telling. This is an odd and very disorientating moment, wherein Seligman wrestles power off the story-teller and is suddenly in command of what we play witness to.
What are we left with when everything is said and done? We certainly come away feeling like we have experienced something there is a centrepiece which I will not spoil that seems to get stuck in to whether Joe has lived a worthy life: it reaches the conclusion that she has not, for bohemianism and nymphomania is a fatuous, rotten thing which destroys your life and the lives of those around you lives you did not even know existed. Indifference is a strange reaction to have to the film, but then loving it or hating it is very difficult. I would certainly recommend it, but with reservations.
God Bless America (2011)
Quite striking social commentary on modern America and where it seems to be heading.
Speaking in November 2009, American social-critic Christopher Hedges argued as to how America's decline, certainly as an empire, was inevitable he lamented how Americans have become 'disconnected from who (they) are, what (they) represent and where (they're) going' and how they have essentially been kept in a perpetual state of adult-infancy through a series of badly judged political decisions over the last 40 years. The result of this, he asserted, was that people will begin to 'search for a demagogue or a saviour that promises moral renewal, vengeance and the glory.'
On the back of this, and if the depiction of America (or more importantly, Americans) in Bobcat Goldthwait's film "God Bless America" is at all accurate, I would say that there was almost certainly something in the fact that the British Channel 4 network decided to air "God Bless America" on the night of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election. To understand the deeper meaning of this, one needs to first understand the hypothesis of Goldthwait's film, but also be a little more familiar with the basic view of those such as Hedges who, if his public lectures and television interviews on the topic of America's direction are anything to go by, seems to have had much of what he has to say heard and then adapted to the screen right here.
In conjunction to his other remarks, Hedges commented on as to how America is shifting from a 'print' based society to an 'image' based society how it was 'moving away from nuanced thought and from the struggle with ambiguity' for 'jargon and clichés'. He continued: 'We are seeing the dying gasps of a culture that is severing itself from print and entering an age of terrifying illiteracy', which will in turn supposedly give rise to certain horrifying things....
The crux of this evident in "God Bless America" an ambitious, morbid comedy which seems to fuse the droll, even blackly empty, tonality of "America Psycho" with the sheer terror of the apparent barrenness of life as terrifically demonstrated in "Taxi Driver". It is confrontational and quite upsetting, but then most films which try to explore the fatuity or frustrations of a given era are.
Narrative is secondary to subtext here, but for the sake of simplicity I will reveal that the film centres around a middle aged American man called Frank (Joel Murray), who is divorced; lives alone and struggles over custody of his young daughter. He hates his life and those around him. Oddly, he seems to insist on engaging with the very thing he despises most: television, which glamorises fatuity; revels in the obscene and promotes a sort of sordid liberalism where everyone, no matter how contemptible they really are, is a champion in some of the ways Hedges argued. Away from home, he finds himself unable to escape the idiotic monotony of his co-workers and neighbours, who speak of nothing else but low-brow pop-culture. An exemplar of this divide lies in as to how he trades a BOOK with the receptionist at his desk job.
Frank is tipped over the edge when he is fired, in what appears to be a statement from the film on how maddening modern political correctness is when it comes to talking to/making moves on women, before completely loses contact with his daughter. Put briefly, the ingredients bubble up into an explosive rage forcing him across America and it isn't long before he and a young female accomplice named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), whom he meets along the way, are in way over their heads.
The film's tone is flippant throughout, and events seem to have been transplanted to an unreal universe which still strangely seems to be grounded in the real world. The characters are often viciously unlikable and hideously hypocritical Roxy's left-wing mantra sees her rage against right-wingers who lobby for foreign wars and are against gay-marriage yet exudes a punk-fascism herself.
It is remarkable as to how cine-literate the film is done deliberately, I'm sure, to disorientate the audience as it makes its overall point on the commoditised nature of American culture. Roxy's backstory is remarkably similar to Mallory Knox's in "Natural Born Killers"; a scene in a lay-by with a state trooper calls to mind "Psycho"; the leads dress at one point like "Bonnie and Clyde" and Samuel L. Jackson's riff on AK-47's from "Jackie Brown" is rehashed seemingly without shame.
Goldthwait's film is not generic, yet we have seen films like it in the past; it is satirical, yet seems to rage against a society whose fascination with funny quick-fixes and the visual image essentially began in the 1960's with a boom in the satire genre. It despises popular culture, yet cannot help but draw influence from it so as to either prove its point or garner a few laughs. The film plays like an amalgamation of the ideas put forward over time by various commentators warning where television; celebration of trash and the Capitalist free market might lead. It is Neil Postman merged with Hedges by way of the now conventional point on how the Western world has largely adopted the model of the universe found in Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World": where Orwell feared totalitarian regimes banning books, the reality now is that no one is willing or able to read them having been 'educated' out of liking high-culture and taught to sneer at intellect.
Few things have changed since "God Bless America's" release, but then it has only been three years. In Britain, the 2016 series of "X-Factor" made popular a would-be rapper named Honey-G, who was evidently terrible, and yet came to represent a true-to-life version of the Steven Clark character found within this very film the fact they are so bad makes them so good. The fact "God Bless America" is as good as it is warrants you seeing it.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Falls well short of any kind of standard, in what is a series which once stood tall but now seems like all the others.
I am somewhat confused. It is widely accepted that the first of the now five "Die Hard" films is the best one if not, the most renowned and looked upon as the most inspirational. Indeed, if you were told you could only see one of the rather now bloated franchise, it would most likely be John Mctiernan's 1988 effort which kicked the entire series off. Odd, then, that the last two entries seem to draw more from the third in the series than any other 1995's "Die Hard: With a Vengeance", what with its sense of the sprawling and of the madcap; of driving and of charging around with an accomplice to crack-wise as you aim to avoid yet another pile-up. Do not get me wrong, I have the time for "Vengeance", but this process of throwing action at the screen and hoping that doing nothing with a lot will compensate for your inability to do a lot with very little, is waning.
Indeed, it is unfortunate that "A Good Day to Die Hard" is as bad as it is a throwaway film with nothing to really mark it out amongst any other action thriller; a terrifically grey film, cold and metallic and arid in character; a film lacking a villain and any sort of real tension. Then again, perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is the removing of the film from its Christmas setting of the first two, or that Bruce Willis is a quarter of a century older now. Willis reprises the role of John McLane, a veteran NYPD police officer who is established as a decent shot in his taking down of numerous targets at the range it seems you are expected to come to the film knowing the rest: the tempestuous relationship with his family; the never-say-die-attitude and the ability to handle himself in a crisis. Time has moved on he was an analogue watch in a digital age in the fourth outing, powerless to stop his now adult daughter dating, and here now finds himself alone firing off rounds at the range under the watchful eye of a portrait of America's first black President.
This entry eventually sees him fly to Moscow, in Russia, where during his visit to meet his son John jr (Jai Courtney), the Central Intelligence Agency breaks out of prison a political prisoner in the mould of an Alexei Navalny or a Mikhail Khodorkovsky named Komarov (Sebastian Koch). In the area at the time for an unrelated reason, and uncovering both that his son was involved and that some especially nasty people want Komarov back, the charge is set for some Die Hard shenanigans as a race against time and for one's life plays out across the Russian capital's road systems and high-rise buildings.
Only, that is not what especially happens - in fact, far from it. The film is cold and detached; the opening hour might just as well be any standardised CIA/FSB/breakout espionage thriller, the difference here lying with the fact one of the most celebrated heroes in cinema (at least, according to those many AFI lists) just happens to be in amongst the thick of what is going on. McLane's son begins the film hating his father are we sure this will still be the case, once they have had their adventure and Junior gets a taste of what his father has had to go through on all these occasions, by the end?
It has often been the case that a franchise, when it is loose on ideas but high in box office potential, begins to mix father and son relations into sequels. We know this from Indiana Jones (3 and 4) and one or two of "The Mummy" sequels. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is so contrived that one can be forgiven for rolling eyes at it. Admittedly, some of the action sequences are somewhat impressive, with the standout being a long repelling down a tall building, but gone is the sense of danger; of the sense of threat or terror in facing down obstacles with the potential to do you harm.
A later twist involving Komarov and the true reason why most of what's happened in the film has played out as it has done has us feel as if we have seen more than we actually have and has the plot feel more layered that it actually is. Meanwhile, director John Moore, he usually of remakes and video-game adaptations, would be better advised to resist invoking imagery of past entries if he wants his own version here to possess any stand-alone credibility. Anybody with any kind of real awareness about contemporary Hollywood cinema is going to seek out to watch "A Good Day to Day Hard" purely from a completest perspective; the film is, essentially, 'critic-proof', but that does not stop it being just about the right side of terrible.
The Big Bounce (2004)
Nowhere near the best of what Leonard adaptations have to offer.
"The Big Bounce" is not a boring film, but it is certainly unremarkable. It is too often the case that the film feels like a six-episode television series that has been scrapped and then condensed down into a 100 minute feature. It is rich in character diversity and snappy put-downs; overflowing with a sense of people coming and going in and out of one another's universes that can often be refreshing and is laden with micro-narratives pertaining to heists; betrayals and collapsing marriages, but there is no finished product no substance to really sink one's teeth into.
Owen Wilson plays Jack Ryan (no, not that one) a handsome conman who has served time for his petty crimes but now lies low on a Hawaiian island and works on a construction site. He's cool; calm and amusing. When he breaks the law, in infiltrating the glamorous surroundings of a beach house hosting a pool party so as to nab a couple of hundred in notes to tide himself over, he does it in such a way that we cannot quite hate him for it.
Ryan lands himself in some trouble when he clobbers a foreman with a baseball bat following an altercation on his work-site that involves protesters unhappy at the desecration of their lands to make way for a new hotel. Fired, and told menacingly by the henchman (played by Charlie Sheen) of his ex-boss that he should leave the island, he finds solace in working as a handyman for Morgan Freeman's district judge Walter Crewes on a small holiday-camp he runs on the side.
It is around this time that he meets Nancy (Sara Foster), a blonde twenty-something beach-bimbo with a backstory of city-based exotic dancing and a fetish for criminality not a dangerous girl, but one who is fast and loose and too pretty for Ryan to turn away from when she demonstrates an interest in him. The reason for this is, of course, that he himself has a penchant for criminality, albeit petty burglaries. The relationship occupies the bulk of the film's middle third Nancy, already having an affair with the chap who wants to build that hotel, is thus able to garner access to yachts and luxury villas otherwise off-limits where the endless teasing; flirting and talking plays out.
Sadly, there is no real substance to this core relationship: Nancy is turned on by criminals and Jack commits crimes. Elmore Leonard, author of the novel from many years earlier upon which the film is based, would later bring a character similar to Jack Ryan together with a federal marshal in "Out of Sight" two binaries that should repel but who eventually come to attract. Rum Punch, later adapted as "Jackie Brown", possessed at the core of it a far tougher love story to bring to life between the eponymous Brown and Max Cherry.
Eventually, Nancy digs out that the man to whom she plays mistress possesses the sum of $200,000 nearby located, as it happens, in a safe in one of these luxurious homes he owns. She hits upon the idea that they could steal it, but Ryan already has an angry foreman in a neck-brace out for payback; an on-off criminal accomplice in the form of Frank (Gregory Sporleder) saying he needs $1500 to pay off some bad people and a job to hold down for Crewes who has his own plans for Ryan...
The film is not remarkably well made it is bouncy in that way "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" are without ever being frivolous, but does not amount to the satisfying experience those films were. We are provided with endless shots of surfers to transist between scenes, while the close ups of the rolling white waves as they crash into the beach as Nancy and Jack make love is just clumsy. On one occasion, there is a particularly silly sequence whereby Nancy nips back and forth between the first and ground floors of a house to appease Jack and another male visitor (with whom she is additionally having an affair) without the other knowing either of them is present.
There is a certain style and a certain logic to the film, although I am perplexed as to why one character seems to spend the duration of the film trying to talk Ryan out of doing something which is crucial to a plan of his own that he has up his sleeve for later on. When all is said and done, this is tough to recommend as both a genre piece and as a standalone accomplishment.
The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)
Buckles under the weight of what it knows it needs to do and depict - will likely leave you unsatisfied.
I will spare any reader the lecture on Freud if, indeed, I could even provide you with one. We have all heard, casually or otherwise, the psychoanalytic ideas pertaining to men; women and fear before fear of one's mother or the opposite gender or whatever else is on offer, but of course all conveniently sub-consciously: we know what we think but have no idea that we think it. Somewhere at the heart of "The Million Eyes of Sumuru" there is a reason to fear women; to fear their beauty and their company to be sceptical as to their motives and to be mindful as to their ideas.
The decade of the 1960's was a time of extraordinary change, no less on the issue of women in the Western hemisphere abortions; easier access to a divorce; better opportunities on various career ladders are but three items which revolutionised a female's "place" in society. "The Million Eyes of Sumuru", certainly a piece of its time, is the strange amalgamation of these two articles crashing head first into one another: women are powerful and independent they have a newfound sense of freedom and power; they are capable of things they were deprived of previously. They are to be at once both feared and found attractive. The fact that those responsible for the film considered it befitting to depict aspects of these psychoanalytic/post-feminist notions as some kind of horror piece is interesting.
Alternatively, the film is merely a somewhat strange and relatively incompetent 80 minute long thriller which is ultimately both too uninteresting and too confused of its own individual identity to be something really worth recommending.
Shirley Eaton is the eponymous Sumuru; a woman whose origins are not provided nor whose overall vision is ever fully explained. She is the stock movie antagonist somebody who wants world domination and she plans said conquest from the confines of an island just off the coast of Hong Kong. She presides there with a small army of women aged between 18 and 35: they are beautiful, but deadly - in the opening scene, Sumuru kills 19 men with one bomb explosion on the mainland. Arriving home, the women are coldly watching on as a comrade uses her thighs to choke a man to death. The whole operation reeks of a cross between the Czech-based "Other World Kingdom" and the infamous "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant".
This combination of terror and heightened sexuality is the thrust behind Sumuru's plan: to send each of these gorgeous girls out to seduce and marry the richest men in the world. Sumuru assumes that, once they meet grizzly ends, most of the money will be left to their new muses money which will all come back to Sumuru who'll thus be able to fund her campaign to take over the world.
On another strand, Nick West (Nader) and Tommy Carter (Avalon) are CIA agents holidaying in Italy. Carter, the younger man, likes his girls whereas West appears more prudent early nights and an oral affirmation that he does not force himself upon anyone seems to characterise him. They become entangled in Sumuru's plan when a murder in their vicinity that she ordered was already connected to somebody they knew, and after a bit of prodding and poking, both men are in the Far-East. West is later forced into working for Sumuru as they seek to kill a local tycoon, while Carter spends most of the film trying to find and save him.
In spite of the globe-trotting; the high-concept idea; the efficiency in how the enemy is conveyed to us and the plot of world domination, it is remarkable as to how the film does not really lift off. We are distracted too often by other things: Why is Central European Klaus Kinski cast as somebody from Hong Kong? Why doesn't the lead react as he should when he is provided a tour of the villain's lair? Why do characters act with remarkable inconsistently throughout as per their established outlooks on life?
The film is not without a sprinkling of substance it allows both Sumuru and West to seem to come to question their outlooks on life and the world. Eaton's character punishes one of her girls early on with a death sentence for the "crime" of falling in love, but then appears to come to quite like our lead agent providing him in the process ample opportunity (too much to be consistent with her views, hence why we sense it to be so central) to return that fondness. West, comparatively, who begins the film with a cautious attitude towards women, seems to fall under a spell of promiscuity the longer he stays on the enemy's island. By the end, he seems to have fallen for his gaoler and realised the pleasures one can derive from sexually submitting to a woman. This, however, makes the film sound more substantial than it actually is.
It is difficult to entirely work out what point the film was trying to make. Many have laughed the whole thing off as camp nonsense an idiotic piece of its time and era. It seems to me it had something to say about the way men and women co-exist; that sex, love and power are too interlinked with one another as elements to ignore one or all of them. The sexualisation of our culture in the years since it was made, not to mention the more prominent role women have had in where we live, have had an incredible impact on our civilisation - "The Million Eyes of Sumuru" seems to have been made by people aware we were heading into a brave-ish new world, where girls; sex; power; mass-influence and Technicolor would be more prominent, but it is a very difficult piece to be entirely enthused by.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Not quite quick enough for a place beyond the last-eight...
It is quite remarkable that "The Quick and the Dead" hangs together as well as it does. The film, needlessly overly stylised and forced into balancing too many ideas; stories and characters all at once, does not disgrace itself but similarly does not have you walk away from it feeling as if you have seen anything of any terrific substance. We are left wondering as to how a character, who was pronounced dead the last time we saw them, was up and walking and shooting as straight as they always could a mere five minutes later; left unsatisfied at the actually rather fascinating narrative between an aging sociopath and his cocksure son who is looking to inherit the autocratic rule which dominates the destiny of the small Old West town he runs; left underwhelmed at how the potential for romance between said cocksure son and a certain female character is not taken any further than what it was.
This is a difficult film to recommend, but an even difficult film to entirely dislike. Its struggles derive from its short run-time and its bloated number of characters: a number of actually really fascinating stories about people who might otherwise have existed some 130 years ago are being told at once, but director Sam Raimi is forced, seemingly, into squeezing each of them into a run-time that constitutes as "commercial".
Sharon Stone, in the tradition of westerns looking to tear up the rule-book, plays an otherwise unnamed lead (referred to throughout as "The Lady") who rides into an isolated Old West town called Redemption for reasons unexplained. She takes no flak from anyone when one of the town's many grizzled male sociopaths drools "You're Purty" to her, she whips back "...you're not", which was particularly brave given he had just shot a man in the back and carved a mark onto his arm with a blade.
Stone does what she can with the role, but her job is made harder by the film's eagerness to fall into traps of transgression specifically, a woman is allowed to effectively 'lead' the film but the male audience, for whom the film is made, must be reminded of her 'to-be-looked-at-ness'. Take the opening, which is typical of any western opening with regards to its guitar music and desert locality, whereby somebody is shot off their horse by a trigger happy gold hunter. When it's revealed to be Stone, we are surprised at the fact it's a woman, and the manner about which the music begins to encompass sounds of a whip cracking, on top of the fact Stone has comically shackled the gold hunter to his wagon, suddenly alludes to a certain sexiness or quirky kinkiness she's supposed to embody.
Meanwhile, in the town, Russell Crowe's character Cort is having a bad time at the hands of he who runs the place Gene Hackman's suitably evil John Herod. Herod, a sadist and a psychopath, has dragged Cort away from his existence as a Christian missionary and to a place where people have seemingly been blinded into spitting on religion because here, Herod is God. Cort has some history with the man they both used to be as bad as Herod presently is until Crowe's character turned away from violence. During The Lady's time in this place, and without giving anything away, it is alluded to that Herod was responsible for the death of someone quite close to her, while complicating matters is Leonardo Di Caprio, who play's Herod's son. He takes a liking to The Lady.
These dynamics revolve around, of all things, a gun-slinging tournament, whereby 16 entrants fast-draw every time the town clock strikes the top of the hour needless to say, most of the fighters are present in the tournament to make up the numbers so that the four that count can come to blows. In the interim, we find out what makes each of these people tick and how they have reached where they are in their lives the backstories are substantial and often gripping; many would make for fascinating films all unto themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the competition very quickly mutates into a fight to the death, lest the film's title seem misplaced.
There is enough to admire in "The Quick and the Dead", but equally enough to become frustrated by. I've no doubt of the film's origins those Italian and Spanish westerns of the 1960's, the likes of which are embedded at the very epicentre of Raimi's piece. The trouble with this is that, during one particularly harrowing scene, we are instantly reminded of the similar fate of a character in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. There are other issues, such as the realism related to whether Hackman's character, having experienced what he did as a boy in relation to his father, would then grow up to bestow upon everyone else what it is that he does.
As said, there is too much going on and too many characters and their tales to fit into a mainstream run-time. Three years later, Raimi would make "A Simple Plan", which really is a quality film about people; predicaments and the way folks interact with their situations and one another. Needless to say, that film was longer and much better. You could do much worse than "The Quick and the Dead", but then if you looked hard enough, you could probably do a lot better.
Jurassic World (2015)
Tough to truly dislike, and I'm glad I took the time to track it down, but Jurassic World does not uproot trees.
Films such as "Jurassic World" are so often the most difficult to review; you find yourself in a strange place wherein you really want to like it, but must remember that impartiality and balance are so crucial as to forging views on anything, that to resist them means to completely waste your time in the first place. There is not, in many ways, much to remark about Jurassic World: it does not overstay its welcome; its second unit content is exciting; it a least attempts something resembling character study and manages to take a franchise into new directions without wrecking too much of the nucleus of the initial idea. Unlike, say, recent "Die Hard" or "Terminator" entries.
Many of the ideas coined in the aftermath of the blow-away 1993 success "Jurassic Park" by critics and theorists remain; observations which were never meant derogatorily, but are either included here out of a rooted urge to stick to the source material or by way of academic homage. Thus, much of what was written twenty years ago with regards to the symmetry between a theme-park ride and a movie going experience with films such as "Jurassic Park" still stand. I believe it was Tom Shone who once remarked that, in a post 1977 Star Wars era, cinema/film-going experiences are becoming more like trips to an amusements park with each passing summer-blockbuster line-up.
In Jurassic World, a tracking shot once we are in the park after some formalities is deliberately set up so as to resemble a standard person's height as the park is entered and a woman steps before us with the line "Welcome to Jurassic World" it is the closest to a process of breaking the fourth wall that one can realistically come without cordially turning to the camera and asking the salivating multiplex audience if they are ready for what they are about to experience over the next 90 minutes. It does, in many ways, call to mind Spielberg's self-conscious references to the various items of "Jurassic Park" memorabilia which were actually on sale in shops anyway in 1993 by way of his otherwise needless tracking shot around a gift-shop full of theme park memorabilia towards the end of that film.
Two strands set the film running, the likes of which somewhat clumsily merge towards the end. The first revolves around two minors: essentially one child and a teenager with Justin Bieber locks and an eye for the girls. They head to Central America and Jurassic World: a realisation of John Hammond's dream to one day build a theme-park where the dinosaurs are the attraction. This is doubly rewarding, because the head of the park is the aunt Claire, played by Bryce Dallas-Howard.
The second strand follows an Alan Grant-knock off by the name of Owen Grady, played with a really good balance of energy and vulnerability by Chris Pratt. Grady works in a strange capacity as some sort of dinosaur trainer; a process whereby the once-feared velociraptors are now essentially pets performing tricks at a click. Occupying him on his strand is Vincent D'Onfrio's shady Vic Hoskins, who wants the raptors signed over to the military to essentially fight Al-Qaeda, but we have previous experience of this archetype by way of Paul Riser's character in James Cameron's "Aliens".
He is present in the park to help Claire with a new hybrid dinosaur the park has created: the Indominus-Rex, which is director Colin Trevorrow's taking of the franchise to bigger places: "The Lost World" needed to put a Tyrannosaurus Rex in an urban environment; "Jurassic Park 3" needed its Spinosaurus to juice up proceedings and now the 2015 vintage technically needs something that doesn't even exist to keep people interested. With a Tyrannosaurus-Rex in place of the lab-creation, but the film exactly as it otherwise is, things just wouldn't be as much fun. The trouble is, this new creation, echoing perhaps Frankenstien's Monster, is a bloodthirsty killer which does not take to being caged up, and it is not long before things get out of hand once it cuts loose. What follows is essentially a B-movie trussed up like an A-movie, an old adage which, I believe, was once attributed to Spielberg's "Jaws" anyway, although not in a derogatory manner, as the kids strive to survive in the wilderness; the park tries to contain the Indominus and Vincent D'Onofrio refuses to take "no" for an answer.
Along the way, we get plenty of dino-on-human and dino-on-dino action, but Trevorrow has a trick up his sleeve and it is the development of the Dallas-Howard character, whom is transformed from cold and robotic bureaucrat barely able to recall her nephew's name to hard-bodied supporting heroine on the front-line saving their lives. A very physical epitome of this might be the moment she physically tears away some of her clothes beside a waterfall in order to shed one 'skin' and embrace another. Various "body" theories have been coined about allowing the viewer to technically gauge just how far along the film has progressed by the state of a lead character's "body" without so much as even glancing at a watch.
Alas there is not much to marvel at away from the heavy spectacle of dinosaurs doing what dinosaurs used to do to one another, not to mention what they would almost certainly do to human-beings if in close proximity to them, aside from Dallas-Howard's aforementioned arc. Colin Trevorrow should strike us as a shrewd director, in that he manages to pay homage to the 1993 original in fairly audacious ways without ever really encroaching on it. Despite this, he manages to take what now appears to be a franchise that has been re-energised and reinvigorated to new and exciting places. The film is for sure a success, but is not innocent of lacking in several areas.
Not the sort of adaptation we would have hoped for, as plastic action and rushed storytelling dominate.
To be blunt, "Parker" doesn't work. It isn't thrilling enough to be the crime thriller it evidently wants to be and is not satisfying enough to be the rock-'em sock-'em actioner it seems to want to in part be as well. Its pace is unmeasured; its narrative loses us too many times; it doesn't seem to know what to do with its supporting characters and isn't funny when it's trying to be.
Jason Statham is the titular Parker, a thief with very little background to him other than the fact he is English; possesses a vast experience in engaging in heists and is married to a woman who is the daughter of an elderly gentleman that seems to know the ins and outs of the coast-to-coast American criminal underworld. Aficionados will already know that he is based on a character going on 60 years old: Donald Westlake's (writing under the penname Richard Stark) rouge gangster-cum-thief Parker, who first appeared in the novel "The Hunter" and the film "Point Blank". Back then, he was played by Lee Marvin but has, over the years, undergone an array of modifications that has seen him depicted by people as somewhat diverse as Mel Gibson and Peter Coyote.
Indeed, the last we saw of him was in 1999, when a troubled picture by the name of "Payback" was shoved into cinemas off the back of changes at the very top and a variety of re-shoots. In the meantime, he has appeared in a series of Darwyn Cooke graphic novels in the late 2000's which, from what I have seen, caught the mood and tone of a lot of what Stark wrote. "Parker" is brighter and breezier than much of its preceding kin; it is fluffier and more throwaway. The film, itself an adaptation of a book entitled Flashfire, which I have read, seems to be aware of who all the characters are but doesn't have the faintest idea in how to direct them around the screen.
The opening heist is at an Ohio county-fair, where the money made on the day is targeted by Statham and four other goons: a black one; a balding sociopath; a wormy one who's only there because of who he's related to and a demolitions expert, whose role is much smaller than in the novel upon which this is based. We are informed fairly early on that Parker is not an animal, in that he takes time to calm down a nervous hostage where another may have killed them on the spot. From here, violent disagreements (unrealistically played out in a moving vehicle) lead the others way with Parker's share to another job they need the total haul to pay for, and this causes Parker to have to start from scratch in getting over an injury; finding clothes; a car and whatnot so as to eventually find his share.
Statham, the wrong choice for the role, struggles with a character that is one-dimensional; flaccid and needs various shots of his scars to develop character. Stark's novel, neatly unfolded and indelibly written, provides all these people with the room they need to breath: the ditzy estate agent whose down on her luck looking to 'pull' the lead; the local Florida policeman who fancies her and thus threatens to rumble the plan she has with Parker the more he follows her around; the Latin-American forger who has his own problems; the gang of four who betrayed Parker in the first place and are now busy planning a new job; the anonymous assassin sent by the mafia to kill Parker after he interferes with their circles of influence.
Taylor Hackford looks to paint a canvas of similarly broad scope of these characters; people and scenarios, but does not manage it. His film constantly feels as if it is in a rush to get where it's going, when tone and mood are what characterise film-noir. Parker's relationship with Jennifer Lopez's estate-agent is not tense or teasing enough to have us genuinely feel like he is torn between falling for this woman and remaining faithful to his existing partner, who are very much into one another. Its centrepiece, this quite gruelling fight scene in a hotel suite involving knifes; shower curtains and all the other elements, merely reminds you of a better crime film in "Eastern Promises".
The great, overbearing thing hanging heavily over this film is the quite brilliant 1998 Steven Soderbergh film "Out of Sight" which, like "Parker", depicted a likable villain amidst a sea of psychopathic ones; provided its protagonist with an unlikely love interest and saw events dart from bleak industrial cities to sunny Florida hotspots. The casting of Lopez in this sense was poor judgement on the producer's behalf, who must have been aware how akin to Soderbergh's piece "Parker" would represent and that she played a role in making it as god as it was. I wanted to like "Parker" more than I did, but its existence is a sign of the times: flashy, shiny and colourful crime fiction featuring people ill-suited to the roles provided and unsure as to how to unfold a burning story because this is not the age of narrative film-making. If there is to be another Parker adaptation in the future, which I hope there will be, I would hope few people involved in this one have any say in how it turns out.
Terse and often quite involving, but this is fairly hollow stuff in the long run.
"Savages" has very little that is profound to say about both drugs and the narcotics trade, save that they can land you in a lot of trouble and that its universes are inhabited by some very dangerous people. The film is fast, loose and kinetic; its runtime clocks in at over two hours, despite not feeling like it. It is extraordinarily visceral and wallows in postmodernism to the extent that cathartic events towards the end are quite literally rewound by the narrator so as to depict them in a different way. It is also somewhat of a generic film at one point, a character utters a ridiculously clichéd line along the lines of "smoke that....", before dropping an f-bomb and making an impossible shot with a scoped rifle unrealistic to the circumstances.
Quite, this is not for the crowd that enjoyed "Traffic" its multi-stranded nature; insistence on dipping in and out of a varied glut of characters' fates and very airy, almost dreamlike aesthetic, as the camera waves in and out of compositions and has fun with focus and depth of field to put across a sense of feeling to the audience, is about all it has in common with said film.
"Savages" is told from the perspective of Blake Lively's Ofelia, whose name is abridged to merely "O" and who spends most of the time away from the very people whose actions she is telling us about and the places within which these things happen. She lives in Laguna Beach, California, with Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Taylor-Johnson) two young-ish men who are to the local marijuana trade what Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were to computers and microchips. We are told Shaun fought in the Middle East, and buries his scars with weed and blunt sexual intercourse with O, but this is not revisited. Both he and his dreadlocked accomplice, we sense, are too young to be competent enough to be running the operation (which extends as far as Africa and South East Asia) they do. They unrealistically possess access to a "Bourne"-like command centre; maintain an uneasy relationship with John Travolta's DEA agent and have an endless supply of cannabis.
O's background sees her, like so many people who get into marijuana, come from a family made broken by the lack of a father figure something which saw her tumble out into the Californian counter culture and into a universe of hedonism and self-gratification. The abruptness of her name derives from a hatred of high-culture; reading and intellect, something synonymous with her type, in that it derives from a William Shakespeare text, and that cannot be tolerated... At one point, Shaun perfectly sums up the three's philosophy when he reminds Ben: "You were dead the second you were born."
"Welcome to paradise" O tells us as things open, but we then witness the threesome proceed to dull their brains and numb their senses through smoking in order to pass the time - in spite of living under the roaring sun; on a fabulous beach and with more than enough recreation in the form of cycling; surfing and otherwise to fill their hours. We have all frequented places that offer these things, at least once in our lifetimes, either in the capacity of holiday makers or otherwise at no point, as we occupied these places of such beauty, did it occur to us that stupefying our minds with illicit substances might be rather a good idea.
The trio are so good at what they do, although we are unsure as to O's actual purpose, that they attract the attention of a bigger, broader Mexican cartel based just south of the border going through its own fiscal problems. Offering to move in and thus soak up some of the action, the gang, run by Selma Hayek, are aghast when Ben and Shaun say "no" something which kicks off the kidnapping of O and forces the two supporting males into a spiral of blood; guts; guns and grief. But much of this has the film sound as if it is better than it is.
For what it is, "Savages" is bouncy and energetic, and it involves us enough to want to observe as to where things venture. Oliver Stone, a versatile and often very impressive director, has essentially made the Mexico-United States border narcotics thriller for this generation: the Skype calls; the keyboard warfare and the sub-Call of Duty sniper fights. The characters are young and hip the expert on the hacking and computer data side of things even looks as if he fell out of an episode of "The O.C." When the time comes to see two stalwarts such as Travolta and del Toro share the screen, in what is a fairly intense dialogue-driven sequence, it feels as if Stone is pausing in order to provide those who can remember a little further back with a moment for themselves.
And so we come away from the film unable to either love or hate it it would not be a misstep to recommend it, but to place it against some of Stone's other work and other films on the subject matter would be a mistake. Where "Savages" ends up, that is to say what propels its final act in the form of a counter-kidnap, might very well have occurred at the hour mark is the best exemplar of its structural problems. Films big in both scope and scale of the contemporary crime thriller sort, as two sides appear to constantly rub one another the wrong way, often have the potential to be truly memorable: "Heat" and "The Usual Suspects" taught us that. "Savages" is not one of these instances, but that is not to say it is of no worth.
The Avengers (2012)
Very little to Marvel at here - a somewhat tame effort with an odd chuckle and a decent stunt, but mostly underwhelming.
When we observe a supporting character, a mere mortal a defenceless human-being, in Joss Whedon's "Marvel: Avengers Assemble" decide to single-handedly take on a near-indestructible son of a God, purely so as to come to the aid of a SECOND son of God, who is trapped inside a glass box, although has at his disposal a large hammer, and indeed pays for it with their life, you know you're not mining particularly intelligent territory.
This largely disappointing 2012 effort begins in a quasi-Area 51 style military base where a mysterious blue cube is pulsating enough for a race of monsters, who dress like the creatures in "Stargate" but look like something you might have caught in an episode of "Power Rangers", located on the other side of the universe to be attracted to it. Like Stargate, although with the roles here reversed, Tom Hiddleston's Loki (turns out Nordic mythology was the one, true religion) emerges from a portal created by the cube into this top secret laboratory and steals the cube in order to fabricate it so that the rest of the war mongering creatures can come through at a later date to destroy all human life.
A measure as to his menace and ability is put across in two ways: first, the ease to which he neuters the human beings finding no threat in automatic weaponry and 'converting' them to his cause through a magic staff. Second, the way in which he is framed so as to encompass an eagle-like emblem in the background (actually the badge of the good guys) as he utters "Freedom is life's great lie..." something designed to invoke a Hitler-like personality with what resembles the German 'National Adler' behind him.
Later on, there will be a strange allusion to Nazi Germany again when, in Germany of all places, he forces a score of German citizens to kneel before him, with one brave citizen standing up and making some allusion to how there will "always exist people like you" people who "want power". Had it been me, I would have cited a very famous remark, actually made famous in the twentieth century by a Communist, which goes: "It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees". Had I still been in one piece to offer a further retort, I would have recommended he hop on over to the Middle East, where they're heavily into sprawling themselves out on the floor because a deity tells them to. Loki's philosophy on human existence essentially being one of desiring submission would be right at home.
But nobody watching Marvel: Avengers Assemble will know of anything about German life between the wars, nor will they have heard of the Versailles Treaty, nor that Hitler commanded not for people to kneel before him, merely salute out of respect and recognise that his policies had made Germany a nation that was rich enough to fool itself into thinking the Great War never even happened.
After Loki's theft, an otherwise needless character played by Samuel L. Jackson, whose purpose in the film is to look cool wearing an eye-patch and firing a bazooka, gets together a string of superheroes whom have each had their own blockbusters from as recently as 2008. These are the titular Avengers, although what they are "avenging", we do not know and the film's title card appears on the screen as if itself a response to a character's asking "What do we do?" following Loki's theft of the cube doomsday device. Given this, the film ought to be entitled "Assemble (the) Avengers". Tossed in is an archer and an expert in kung-fu, because they offer an alternative way to kill an enemy to the main heroes, who can do nothing more than keep blowing them up or swatting them away with their power.
The film is mostly noise, but good looking noise; made more bearable by the wonderful editing during the action sequences, particularly when a flying battleship loses its ability to fly mid-air and New York City is besieged during the finale, wherein it is clear what each of our protagonists are doing; where they are in relation to each other and how they are going about fulfilling their tasks amidst the elements. The film is essentially Superman II with multiple Supermen; a concoction of 1994's "Street Fighter", wherein each character is designated a fight with every other one, despite some of them being on the same side, with Stephen Norrington's damp 2003 squib "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen".
I don't mind action films, but action films with a great deal of special effects are often somewhat tiresome affairs. This 2012 feature is no exception here. Over the last 25 years, Hollywood has proved time and time again that the best action films carry with them that grounded sense of base-level operation being propelled by realistic heroes. This is why the street; highway and inner-city set event movies of a "Speed" or a "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" will always be superior to a Marvel: Avengers Assemble, films that do not rely on a tremendous amount of special effects but provide you with enough chase; pomp and bullet-time to have you feel as if you are caught in a crossfire.
Should be unfortunate to catch this good looking, although ultimately vacuous, 2012 feature, I sense you will be disappointed. I was left dissatisfied in being asked to believe that there could exist a form of authentic theism AND the existence of an alien species elsewhere in the universe without any of it being explored; left perplexed at the tremendous amount of science on display, in Iron Man's suit and Bruce Banner's fascinating ability to shift into a separate molecular form the likes of which essentially smashes the concept of creationism. It is harmless; inoffensive and does indeed fly past nicely, but there's nothing here to get excited about.