Context Sensitive Episode 3: Spy vs. Spies

This episode of the Context Sensitive podcast – about how every spy film in a great year of spy films was in conversation with 007 and his upcoming 24th feature, SPECTRE – was in the pipeline long before the Paris attacks. But those attacks radically transformed the context needed to think about Mr. Bond. This episode:

  • How the NSA shows up in mainstream entertainment
  • So many Bond themes
  • Melissa McCarthy showing the men (mostly Statham) how it’s done
  • Kingsman’s scathing class critique
  • Ilya Kuryakin and the demonized other
  • Bridge of Spies and the reality of spycraft
  • The wonders of Ilsa Faust
  • The murky waters of Sicario
  • A cameo appearance from HERCULES MULLIGAN!

Context Sensitive: Phantasma-gorier

It’s the Halloween episode of Context Sensitive. This week, one hour on the misunderstood Crimson Peak. Why do people expect it to be a certain type of scary, and why are they disappointed when its an altogether different sort of scary? To tackle that question, Charles takes a journey back through ghost stories like Paranormal Activity, The Others, and The Innocents, and wonders where Gothic texts like Jane Eyre and Rebecca sit in our modern consciousness.

 

What can you expect from this episode:
– An impassioned defense of Crimson Peak
– Really moving clips from the 2011 Jane Eyre
– Some Kate Bush
– Gossip about Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and a lady with nipples for eyes
– A really great moment from a horror movie trailer where a guy in the audience yells “OH… NO… Too Scary…”
– Lots of Haunted Mansion
– Charles doing not one but two British accents (but, notably, deciding not to try to do a Guillermo del Toro imitation)
– Lots of Guillermo del Toro sounding smart about stuff
– Vincent Price, of course
– Charles admitting he’s a fraidy cat, because he’s an honest person

2015 Mid-Year Movie Awards

It’s my birthday, and as a present to myself, I’m going to imagine that Hollywood is waiting with bated breath for Culture Conquistador’s officially sanctioned, universally beloved mid-year film awards: the City of Golds!

PERFORMANCES

Best Female Performance:

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Originally posted by do-androidsdreamof-electricsheep

Honorable Mentions: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road; Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years; Mae Whitman, The DUFF; Sally Hawkins, Paddington

The rest of the performances on this list, they’re playing for keeps in 2015, which is fine. What Ex Machina is doing, and what Vikander is doing in it, is showing an awareness that being recognized as the cream of the crop in 2015 is small potatoes. This is one of those movies we’ll be talking about reverently in 50 years. Kendrick and Whitman hold down the fort in movies that could easily go off the rails without them, and Hawkins, in a tiny role, is the reason Paddington possesses all the cozy warmth it needs. And as we’ll see shortly, Theron embodies a persona that has captured our imaginations (and won over cosplayers) in the here and now. But Vikander is on some Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Maria, genre redefining shit. We won’t know it for a while I suspect, but Vikander’s performance – which is really a performance hidden within a performance – is a game changer.

Best Male Performance:

Shameik Moore, Dope

Originally posted by fy-zoeisabella

Honorable Mentions: Ryan Reynolds, The Woman in Gold; Oscar Issac, Ex Machina**; Nicholas Hoult, *Mad Max: Fury Road; Jeremy Jordan, The Last Five Years; Robbie Amell, The DUFF

It’s one thing to give a great performance in a movie that’s working. Reynolds, for instance, is in a really good film after a long journey in the desert and, even though his performance is quiet and free from his trademark smarm, he really pops. Isaac and Hoult are in film’s so instantly iconic that every actor in them seems to be basking in a rare glow. I wanted to call out their performances, and performances by Jordan and Amell, because they have extra weight to pull humanizing characters that have a lot going against them. Jordan in particular does an enviable job of making Jamie work in a musical that makes it really easy to hate Jamie.

But you know what’s really impressive? Giving a remarkable lead performance that shines even when the movie around it falters and fumbles. Such is the case with Moore in Dope, a film that hops harshly from tone to tone, trying to encompass far too much in its frail frame. Through it all, Moore underplays like a champ and holds on to what makes his character special even as that character unexpectedly becomes a bitcoin-trading drug kingpin.

Most Iconic New Character:

Imperator Furiosa, Mad Max: Fury Road

Originally posted by gameraboy

Honorable Mentions: Bing Bong, Inside Out; Ava, Ex Machina; Stu, What We Do in the Shadows; Owen Grady, Jurassic World

This is a fairly easy call. You look around you and ask which new character has gone from 0 to 60 in the cultural consciousness within a few short weeks or a few months, embedded themselves in think pieces and memes and Twitter feeds. Stu and Ava both have a lot of currency among the select audiences that saw the film’s they’re in. Everyone saw Jurassic World, but I had to look up the name of that film’s most iconic character to be sure, which says something.

No, the closest we have to a challenger for Imperator Furiosa would have to be the stellar cast of Inside Out, a massive hit full of original innovations like Bing Bong the imaginary friend that has the Internet bawling. Still… it’s not even close. Imperator Furiosa isn’t just a film character; she’s the mascot for a paradigm shift. She’s what we’ll think about when we think about 2015.

Best Breakout Performance:

Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland

Originally posted by officergrski

Honarable Mentions: Shameik Moore, Dope; Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service; Nadia Hilker, Spring

Here’s what no one’s telling you about Tommorowland (including the marketing for the film, which is, in retrospect, awful): Athena is the best thing about the film. She may be my favorite single thing in any film this year, and that’s largely because because little pre-teen Raffey Cassidy is astounding. Girl has to carry a strange robot romance with George Clooney, and darn if she doesn’t devastate you with her final line. Against that, what can Moore, Egerton, and Hilker do? Only Alicia Vikander (another great Artificial Intelligence performance) would have stood a chance here, but she’s had too established a career at this point (including a big part in Anna Karenina playing across her Ex Machina costar Domnhall Glesson) to really be the out-of-nowhere sensation that Cassidy is.

Worst Performance:

Hugh Jackman, Chappie

Originally posted by hughxjackman

Honorable Mentions: Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door; Roger Guenveur Smith, Dope; Bill Murray, Aloha

Guenvuer and Murray aren’t so much awful as completely wrong for the movies they’re in. Guzman is pretty awful, but I can’t hold too much against him considering the role he was given. So it’s gotta be Jackman, a great actor whose handed a meaty part in a supposedly complex film, and turns the whole thing into a cartoon. I stand by what I said in my Chappie review: Jackman’s character is supposed to be jealous, sure, but he seems like he’s been possessed by a Lovecraftian totem of envy, so outsized is his fury. Any chance Chappie has to succeed died in whatever meeting Jackman and director Neill Blomkamp had to talk about this villain’s motivation.

Best Performance in an otherwise subpar film:

Rachel McAdams, Aloha

Originally posted by mcadamsdaily

Honorable Mentions: Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey; Alexandra Daddario, San Andreas; Douglas Booth, Jupiter Ascending; Forest Whitaker, Taken 3

Every one of these actors is starring in a pretty good mini-movie that’s trapped in a larger movie that pretty profoundly stinks; except Johnson. Once she puts away the repressed kid routine and starts to really play Anastasia Steele, she rocks it and nearly steals the movie from its own retrograde inclinations; but the way her paramour Christian Grey is presented is so rancid, she can’t save Fifty Shades. Daddario so subverts expectations in San Andreas that she renders the half of the film starring Dwayne Johnson sort of irrelevant; Booth’s segment is so entertaining it actually makes Jupiter Ascending better (the film might have actually worked been the only Abraxas child); and Whitaker actually undermines Taken 3 completely by being such a competent, assured detective – he makes Liam Nesson look like a jerk.

But this is all about McAdams, who (in a better world) would have been the focal point of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and not something Bradley Cooper needs to check in on before he can woo Emma Stone.

Worst Performance in an otherwise good film:

Nicole Kidman, Paddington

Originally posted by duckodeathreturns

Honorable Mention: Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland; Jude Law, Spy; Scoot McNairy, Black Sea

Tomorrowland has this strange, unfounded notion that Laurie’s Governor Nix is some mustache-twirling villain, a memo which Laurie apparently did not get. What he’s doing is much better, but it also doesn’t do the film any good in the long run; it hampers the film’s ending and message.

Spy has its own strange, unfounded notion that Law, playing a spoof on Bond, should be… American? And McNairy, high strung and polo shirted, is all wrong for the grimy, submarine thriller he’s stumbled into. All of this pales in comparison to Kidman though. It is because of her that Paddington falls short of perfection. It’s not her fault the part was written – it didn’t need to exist – but here she is all the same, chewing scenery in a film that would be much better if its scenery were left thoroughly unmasticated.

Best Offscreen Performance:

Phyllis Smith, Inside Out

Originally posted by kristoffbjorgman

Honorable Mention: Richard Kind, Inside Out; Amy Poehler, Inside Out; James Spader, Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ben Whishaw, Paddington; Brendan Gleeson, Song of the Sea

Even without the wonder that is Inside Out, 2015 has been a marvelous year for voice and motion capture performances (and all this with Andy Serkis’s only work this year being actually on-camera!).

The most notable instances in live action – Spader and Sharlto Copley as Chappie – have been odd choices for their AI movies, but in the end, quirky choices made those movies better, not worse. (Chappie didn’t have anywhere to go but up…)

The disaster could have been young Ben Whishaw filling in at the last minute for Colin Firth, but Whishaw lends the perfect amount of naive warmth to his Peruvian bear.

And in the animation realm, just about every film has been a gem so far, with even Strange Magic providing some fun parts to actors with robust singing voices. At the end of the day though, this has to go to someone from Inside Out. There’s not a wrong note here, but once again, I have to admire someone who has a hard job, and Phyllis Smith has a truly monumental task turning a character that is intentionally irritating for the majority of the runtime into one of Pixar’s great hero’s and the poetic encapsulation of melancholy’s benefit to humanity.

MOMENTS

Most Magical Movie Moment:

Furiosa’s anguished collapse in a sand dune, Mad Max: Fury Road

Originally posted by headlesssamurai

Honorable Mentions: Saorsie becomes a selkie for the first time, Song of the Sea; Joy and Sadness are born, Inside Out; Procession of the Celestials, Tale of the Princess Kaguya; Final Scene, The Woman in Gold; Old vs. Young Montage, While We’re Young

What I said above ain’t a lie… This has been a landmark year for animation, and my fondest recollections of this year belong almost exclusively to that realm. This award is all about showing off the things that only cinema can do, and Song of the Sea and Kaguya are frequently transcendent, especially when they get magical – not just movie magical but fairies and aliens magical. Just as magical: the efficiency with which Pixar illustrates the ins and outs of Riley’s emotional headquarters, and Riley’s youth, in three minutes!

Live action has had some inspiring movie moments as well: While We’re Young is uneven but it has one killer montage that illustrates its conceit in five or six insightful contrasts: young hipsters do this and aging yuppies do this. And, while many may find the sight of Helen Mirren walking through her own memories sappy, I absolutely worship Woman in Gold’s climactic sequence. But nothing this year has been as powerful as the image of Imperator Furiosa, shell-shocked, walking out onto a sand dune and collapsing. It is a once-in-a-lifetime image. The colors are perfect. The framing is perfect. The performance is perfect.

Best Scene in an otherwise subpar film:

Danielle Rose Russell and Bradley Cooper reach a silent realization in Aloha

Honorable Mentions: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan negotiate terms in Fifty Shades of Grey; Super Bowl con, Focus; B.D. Wong and Irfan Kahn debate ethics in Jurassic World

Sometimes, a scene comes along in a movie that’s not working that makes you sit up and go, “Uh…. who made this? It can’t possibly be the same people who made the rest of this, right?”

Such is the case when Johnson and Dornan spar while negotiating her submissive contract – you think, “Well this is a Fifty Shades movie that might have subverted its source material’s retrograde notions about BDSM.” And such is the case when B.D. Wong gets to dig into that one scene that you just know is the whole reason he came back for another go as Dr. Wu (and probably money). Suddenly, as he roars to life, Jurassic World is alive with ideas.

Both of these are “Aha!” moments. The centerpiece of Focus isn’t an “Aha” moment, it’s just the only time that the movie’s overriding conceit – that neither we nor the female lead have any idea what’s going on in Will Smith’s head at any given time (because he’s such a tortured genius, y’know?) – actually has enough room and pacing and verve to work.

These all pale in comparison to what happens at the end of Aloha. Suddenly, you realize you’ve been watching the wrong movie all along, and there was this wonderful, moving family drama about communication hidden inside the other two movies Cameron Crowe wanted to shove down our throats. The final scene of Aloha moved me. But it also angered me, because I felt robbed that I only saw a good movie emerge when it was already over.

Worst Scene in an otherwise good film:

Fleeing in the carriage, Cinderella

Honorable Mentions: “Oh bullocks”, Tomorrowland; Anal Sex, Kingsman: The Secret Service

As discussed previously, Hugh Laurie’s performance as Governer Nix and what we’re supposed to think of Governer Nix through the rest of Tomorrowland are very at odds, and it leads to an immense amount of dissonance. Particularly when his arc comes to a head.

Kingsman is a very cheeky film on the whole. I would characterize it as laddish. But it edges once or twice into overt crassness, and it does nobody any favors when it does.

It’s Cinderella, though, that features a scene that nearly does the greater whole in. Cinderella is an immaculately designed bauble. That is essentially why it exists. Why it suddenly turns garish, festooned in obvious CGI, when Cinderella flees at midnight, I will never know.

Best Musical Moment:

The selkie’s song, Song of the Sea

Originally posted by falldiewakefly

Honorable Mentions: The end of “Schmuel Song”, The Last Five Years; The entire short, Lava; Tripledent Gum, Inside Out

You guys, Song of the Sea moved me so much. The entire conceit is that all the magical creatures need this little selkie to sing her song or they’ll all fade into nothingness, and it happens, and it is… it is everything. This is so killer, it beat every moment in an actual musical – a really good musical – including the moment when Jeremy Jordan got me a little misty (many people think “The Schmuel Song” is the absolute pits, and it doesn’t hold together on the whole, but I love the emotional place it goes). It beat a Pixar short that got me a LOT misty. And, oh yeah, how about a shout out for Tripldent Gum, which’ll “make you smile” and “last a while!”

Best Action Moment:

Colin Firth takes down an entire church to Free Bird, Kingsman: The Secret Service

Originally posted by sokillintime

Honorable Mentions: Melissa McCarthy has a slapstick throwdown in the kitchen, Spy; Race back to the Citadel, Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is one long car chase that is intricately choreographed and perfectly calibrated for thrills, so understand that the two scenes I’m calling out over it must truly be great. I don’t know that a lot of Spy is as great as it wants to be, but something happens when Melissa McCarthy gets in hand-to-hand (and hand-to-pan) combat in a restaurant kitchen. The comedy and the fluidity of movement made me think of nothing less than Jackie Chan.

And then there’s Kingsman, which, in one scene, may have rewritten the book on how we film action scenes. After years of Zach Snyder slooooww downs, Matthew Vaughn opts to keep his pace absurdly fleet-footed. It’s not sped-up, it’s just viscerally quick, as each move transitions into another move. It’s balletic. It’s gruesome, but it’s also legitimately beautiful.

BEHIND THE CAMERA

Best Screenplay:

Inside Out

Originally posted by kristoffbjorgman

Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Woman in Gold; What We Do in the Shadows

Props are due to Woman in Gold for condensing a complex true story into a satisfying picture that doesn’t feel cloying or manipulative (some may disagree with me there); that’s always tough. Props to What We Do in the Shadows for the pace with which it flings out jokes. And props to Song of the Sea for being an all-out masterpiece.

But I have to bow before what Pixar did to make Inside Out work. We’ve spent a few years dogging Pixar for abandoning originals, but you know what, it’s really hard to get an original off the ground! You have a lot of foundation to lay down without the audience feeling like they’re watching a construction project. Inside Out is masterful, and it’s best trick is the way it subverts our expectation that Joy – intent on keeping Riley happy and childlike – must be our hero and must be right. She is not, and realizing that is most of what makes Inside Out so profound.

Worst Screenplay:

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Originally posted by sanziene

Honorable Mentions: Project Almanac; Aloha; The Boy Next Door; The Wedding Ringer

The Boy Next Door would be awful enough without thinking it’s some sort of subtle modern retelling of Oedipus the King. The Wedding Ringer is similarly convinced its saying something profound – about marriage – which makes it’s overall dunderheadedness all the more infuriating. Project Almanac and Aloha both have so much more potential, but both are simply not the movies they need to be. They promise us with the kernel of something effective, but drown it in pablum

Hot Time Machine 2 has nothing redeeming about it. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s time travel paradoxes make Project Almanac’s look pedestrian… this is a comedy, let’s assume that’s all intentionally screwy. From the moment the screenwriters realized they were writing a comedy that focused primarily on Lou Dorchen, the immature douchebag (mostly because John Cusack wouldn’t come back for a sequel), they should have packed up, walked out, and said “No one can make this work.” Lou Dorchen is the worst.

Best Direction:

Ex Machina

Originally posted by neonearthtone

Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Paddington; Mad Max: Fury Road

Did I mention Song of the Sea is a masterpiece? I think Paddington (minus Kidman) comes pretty close, and is laced with so much visual wit and whimsy, and that Fury Road is right there knocking on that door. But I’ve got to give this for Alex Garland for his work on the year’s other no-reservations masterpiece, Ex Machina.

Worst Direction:

Chappie

Originally posted by oldirtybubba

Honorable Mentions: Taken 3; The Boy Next Door; Hot Tub Time Machine 2

As I’ve already stated, The Boy Next Door and Hot Tub Time Machine are painful. Taken 3 is worse. But none of those films stood a chance. Chappie had the ingredients to be great, but chef Neill Blomkamp was not looking at the recipe, because he grabbed handfuls of everything – every performance, every idea, every theme – threw it sloppily in a bowl, and said “Viola!”

Most Underserved Character:

Jess (Margot Robbie), Focus

Originally posted by rhodestark

Honorable Mentions: Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), Far From the Madding Crowd; New Bellas (Hailee Steinfeld and Crissie Fit), Pitch Perfect 2; Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), Juputer Ascending

There have been a whole bunch of actors/characters who have deserved better. Kneecapping their storylines severely handicaps the films they’re in. Far From the Madding Crowd falls quickly apart (and, being actually good to this point, it falls from a high precipice, like so man sheep from a cliff) when Sergeant Troy shows up. Why? Because the film has taken shortcuts to establish him and it takes shortcuts to erase him. It doesn’t even bother with a shortcut to bring him back; his reappearance is jarring in the extreme. Pitch Perfect 2 does little for any of the Bellas, even giving star Anna Kendrick an entire storyline about being disengaged and disinterested, but it particularly hobbles its newest additions, a one-joke Latina and a next-gen optimist who got left the keys to the franchise without anyone teaching her how to drive it. In a movie called Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowski’s have astoundingly little concern for their Jupiter beyond the faintest of Hero’s Journey outlines.

Can we pour one out for Margot Robbie though? I think she’s one of the most exciting young actresses in Hollywood, and the trailers seemed to promise that the folks behind Focus got that. This seemed to be a film about Will Smith and Robbie engaged in a tango of seduction and deception. As it turns out, Robbie was hired for her pretty face; her character is as clueless as we are. In the end, she just wants to be a pickpocket and be in love. Which means we were conned into believing there was something more there.

Best Score:

Far From the Madding Crowd

Originally posted by entertainingtheidea

Honorable Mentions: Song of the Sea; Paddington

Honorary Award: The Last Five Years

Far From the Madding Crowd may not work as a story, but its score is like catnip for me. I hear those tinkling pianos and rousing strings and jaunty ballroom numbers and I just roll over on a belly and wait for more. Can we save a little bit of respect for The Last Five Years too; all of its music was written for the stage, but the filmmakers do an incredible job of transferring it to the screen. As we’ve seen over and over again, making that transition is not easy.

Best Production Design:

Mad Max: Fury Road

Originally posted by filmovieit

Honorable Mentions: Cinderella; Ex Machina; What We Do in the Shadows

I thought this would have to go to Cinderella, which excels mostly on its exquisite Production Design, but then I saw this guy. He has a flamethrower guitar. Which is the perfect encapsulation of Fury Road’s madcap, ceaseless inspiration.

FILMS

Worst Movie:

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Originally posted by daddymymouthisfullofstars

This film may actually be the branching off point for a dystopian future. We may need to send people back in time to destroy it. I’m calling it now.

Most Underrated Movie:

Tomorrowland

Originally posted by starberth

We’re going to be really upset with ourselves that we whiffed on this one so profoundly in 2015. Give it five years. We’ll wonder, “Why was that delightful film such a bomb? Isn’t this a Brad Bird film?”

Yes, yes it is. Respect.

Most Overrated Movie:

Pitch Perfect 2

Originally posted by justjaredjr

I don’t think that people really like this film all that much. But they love this franchise. I say enough. One riff-off does not a movie make, especially with jokes this sour.

Biggest Surprise:

Paddington

Originally posted by gifsbyrosie

Paddington was moved back and recast. It was supposed to be troubled. It is anything but. It is a legitimate delight. Not just for a kids film. It is one of the best films of the year.

Biggest Letdown:

Focus

Originally posted by focusmovie

Focus looked so good. But that hope hinged entirely upon the film giving someone other than Will Smith something -ANYTHING – to do. Instead, this is an anti-fun romp about a tortured genius stumbling into happiness.

Funniest Movie:

What We Do in the Shadows

Originally posted by raisedbyspiders

The rare comedy that’s joke-to-guffaw ratio is high enough to keep you from realizing how hard the filmmakers are working to break down your defenses. You’re laughing too hard to notice anything. A brilliant film.

Best Documentary:

Cobain: Montage of Heck

Originally posted by soundsofmyuniverse

This has been a really strong year for high-profile influential documentaries. Going Clear and Red Army are both phenomenal. Even Monkey Kingdom is diverting. But there’s something about Montage of Heck that seems to open the door to a new way of exploring the psyche of celebrity. Some of that comes down to access. Brett Morgan got diaries, home movies, voice recordings, and a sit down with Courtney Love. Given those weapons, most filmmakers could have made something worth watching. But that’s the thing: most filmmakers would have obtained that and called it a day; Morgan’s delivery of these finds is formally dazzling, especially when a rotoscoped Cobain reenacts moments from the singer’s life.

Best Hidden Treasure:

Spring

Originally posted by pawntakesqueen

You probably haven’t heard of Spring. It did not come to theaters in Gainesville (to my knowledge). It does not have a star or a major movie studio pushing it on talk shows. It is a really interesting film you should seek out. It starts out less-than-promisingly but really comes into its own, and constantly evolves, from scene to scene, into a more interesting film. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfect encapsulation on what’s going on on the edges of mainstream cinema, where young guns with low budgets feel free to go a little crazy and try some interesting things.

Most Deserved Windfall:

Inside Out

Originally posted by dragonlikecats

A lot of films have made a lot of money. No film has deserved diving into a vat of its own gold more than Inside Out, and the studio that made it, Pixar. Pixar needed this. It needed us to all shut up about Cars 2. It needed to prove it could still make the next Up or Finding Nemo. Watching it pull that off is a bit like watching your childhood redeemed. It’s worthy of a fist-pump.

Least Deserved Windfall:

San Andreas

Originally posted by ajipcollectorenthusiast

You’ll notice that the three highest grossing films of the year have barely appeared here. That’s because Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Furious 7 are… alright. They’re fine. I really thought about putting Jurassic World here because it has made such an ungodly amount of money so quickly, and it just is not that good, but then I remember how happy I am that people really seem to be showing their appreciation for a universe Spielberg and Crichton made so real.

So lets hop past those films, and even Fifty Shades (which, say what you will, is a fascinating cultural phenomena) and look at #6, San Andreas. What do we see in this film? Why have we made it a hit? What you see in the first thirty minutes – rumble rumble crash – is what you get for the rest of the runtime. There’s literally nothing here.

Best Movie Actually Released in 2015:

Ex Machina

Originally posted by sickfuture

Ex Machina is so startlingly good. It’s pretty much just three characters locked in a house stylish it will make you cry. Our POV character talks with one, learns some things. Our POV character talks with the other, hears some counterarguments, learns some more things. And back and forth. Whose playing who? When you find out, and when you leave the theater after a giant gut punch, you’ll wonder if it was you who got played.

A must-see.

Best Movie I’m Counting As a 2015 Movie, Official Release Years Be Damned:

Song of the Sea

Originally posted by lifeimitatesmovies

I’m not sure I’ll ever see movies the same away again after Song of the Sea. I’ve never seen a film that wasted fewer frames. Every frame is painstakingly artistic, is saying something. There’s this rock the family lives near, it looks like a man hunched over crying. (We see later on why.) When the family’s patriarch takes a ferry to the mainland to drink and mourn, he stands in profile, and we see that he is the double for the rock. It’s a subtle hint at the doubling that will take place between real-world characters and magical analogues. But that’s the thing – it’s subtle. It doesn’t announce itself too forcefully. Someone labored over that image and made sure it was just right – not too obvious or in your face. With every cell I have in my body, I will champion this film until the end of time.

(Also, I’m calling this a 2014 film even though I caught it at the beginning of 2015, but have you seen Selma yet? I implore you to see it. You have to now, because it’s my birthday wish. Birthday’d!)

Parallel Park: Jurassic World (B-)

The numbers are hyperbolic. $208.8 mil in the U.S. and $524 mil worldwide… Those are the kind of box office figures you’d dream up if you were writing a Mad Magazine article (or, uh since it’s 2015, Clickhole post) about absurd box office figures. That’s the highest domestic opening weekend of all time! The highest worldwide opening of all time!

But I’m pretty sure that Jurassic World – not the box office phenomenon that just rewrote the record books, but the actual film – is averse to all the hyperbole that we are going to want to throw at it.

I am not, in good conscience, going to be able to stand with those people who will excitedly squee that this third sequel to Jurassic Park is as good as (or shudder better than) the original.


Originally posted by onyx-the-dino-hybrid

I am also going to steadfastly refuse membership in those camps that poutily posit that this late-arriver, which comes 14 years after its nearest predecessor, is as poor a follow-up to Jurassic Park as the two films (Lost World and Jurassic Park III) that it ostensibly pretends never existed.

https://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m5xyshvwD61qh3wnco1_500.gif
Originally posted by pastaforian

On most days, I can work myself into the steadfast belief that Jurassic Park is the greatest/my favorite film of all time.* It is my personal definition of a masterpiece. It’s two sequels are not particularly good films. They are paced poorly and they misunderstand this: the first film isn’t great because children are in perpetual peril, it’s great because John Hammond’s dream of a dinosaur theme park is so easy for us to glorify and abhor in equal measure.

  • The line between objective and subjective opinion is blurry, and I often wonder why I should subject myself to others definitions of greatness when no film brings me more joy than Jurassic. For the record, the competition on both counts is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

https://38.media.tumblr.com/828bcee3284a3c7f554e098555f11b79/tumblr_msdj4zQ2nL1qiec10o1_400.gif
Originally posted by iliopsoas

There is a wide, Gulf of Mexico-sized gulf, then, between Jurassic Park and its first two sequels, a gulf that thousands upon thousands of films can fit snugly into without issue. Jurassic World is one of those countless films, nowhere near the equal of Speilberg at the top of his game (Jurassic Park, Jaws, Indiana Jones) but also, you know, a perfectly okay movie.

Really, Jurassic World is the sort of sequel that Jurassic Park always deserved all those years ago IF you are inclined to believe that, as a general rule, sequels can not surpass their forebears in quality. It is about man reaching too high, too far, too fast, and probably not for the right reasons. It is about how money, corporations, and commerce fuel that greed. But it is also fundamentally about the little magic spark, the gleam in a child’s eyes, that the dream could be at its purest and simplest. Unlike Lost World it doesn’t twist that conundrum into an obvious good vs. evil parable. Unlike JP3, it doesn’t completely ignore any pretense of theme (one poorly thought-out egg theft aside) just so it can take another tour of a dinosaur infested island. In it’s own giggling, sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating, easter egg laden way, Jurassic World is the first film since Jurassic Park to fully wrestle with John Hammond’s grand dream and society’s resultant nightmare.

Speaking of greed:

The Jurassic Park franchise soared and then had its wings melted in the very brief window when it was known that a film that had as large a cultural footprint as Jurassic Park did should be exploited and fast, but also when it was not yet known how to keep that exploitation sustainable. Like many a 90s phenomena, those dinos burned bright and, ten years later, sulked in the shadows, where franchise’s that have lost their audience’s goodwill go to sulk.

But life… uh… life finds a way.

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Originally posted by lurk

In our current climate, where it is never to late to resuscitate even a franchise as moribund and long-forgotten as Mad Max, or as confounding and desiccated as the Terminator kerfuffle, it is no surprise that Jurassic World could thrive by finding the perfect gene splice of the original film and our modern blockbuster sensibilities.

What is surprising is that Jurassic World put up Avengers/Harry Potter numbers. Both those franchise’s highest grossing entries had multiple high grossers rolling out the red carpet for them, and both featured returning casts packed with stars renowned worldwide for their portrayals of some of the world’s most famous and beloved fictional characters.

But this new Jurassic behemoth was the first entry in the dino franchise in 14 years, a gap that had happened for good reason… Because, erm, Jurassic Park III was… something that happened to us. It has one returning human character, and he’s a guy who showed up for one scene in the original – essentially he was an important book character who was written out of the story and exchanged for Exposit-Bot 1994. The cast’s biggest stars would have been considered, before this coup, next-gen up-and-comers at best. As strong as the Chris Pratt charm offensive is, I’m not willing to say his turn as Star Lord secured Jurassic World the best opening weekend of all time.

More than saying anything about the film currently on offer, that opening speaks volumes about Spielberg’s initial tour of the park. It speaks volumes we didn’t even know that film had, a Library of Alexandria full of volumes that we just unearthed. The most likely driving force behind Jurassic World’s nigh unfathomable conquest: Jurassic Park has appreciated in value far more than anyone could have anticipated. It was huge when it came out for sure, but, as it has become one of the Four Horseman of Early Onset Millennial Nostalgia (here are my four nominees, all released within the same year and change: Jurassic Park, The Sandlot, The Lion King, and Mrs. Doubtfire) it has taken on an almost magical, untouchable aspect.

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Originally posted by favoritedisneyclassics
So of course, the rational response to that is: how can we recapture the magic? How can we touch the untouchable? Give Jurassic World this: it is aware that it is treading upon the ground of the recently anointed.

I’m fairly certain that no piece of art this resoundingly successful has expended so much effort warning us away from it. Or at least warning us away from the Blockbuster Industrial Complex that created it.*

  • Maybe the Lego Movie. But the Lego Movie follows through on its symbolic insurrection to its last minutes, and it also made as much in its entire theatrical run as Jurassic World made in three days. It’s an inexact comparison.

Jurassic World loses some its acute metatextual awareness as its more parodic concerns are subsumed by tense dino business. Still, at its purest level, this is the story of a foolhardy entertainment corporation that focus grouped and corporate spoke its way into a bloated hybridized sequel to a beloved original product so that it could milk more money from a consumer base numbed by “old news” like, y’know, a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

That is some Grade-A shade the movie is throwing at its own weird development process. Speaking of which… This will forever be a strange footnote about one of the most successful films of all time now, but I want us to remember this: the cart leading the horse aspect of Universal desperately needing a fourth Jurassic film not because anyone had a good story for a fourth Jurassic film but because not making one was like throwing away money led to what you see below.

That’s a hybrid dino man… So as silly as I and many people think trained raptors are, and as much as I can’t take the possibility of an American military operation that involves stealth dinosaurs seriously, everything in Jurassic World is a tame version of something bananapants that came earlier in development hell.

And the cycle will repeat itself. Now, because we all went and saw Jurassic World the moment it came out, it is all but certain that one of the biggest blockbusters of this decade, if not of all time, will be about trained dinosaur soldiers, under the command of Dr. Wu, taking down terrorists while Chris Pratt squintilly glowers at the hubris of man. We did that.

In spite of all that – in spite of how ludicrous military raptors are, in spite of the cheeky self-awareness as a guarding mechanism rather than an engaged commentary on anything in particular, in spite of the consequences laid out above – I can’t hate too hard on Jurassic World. Because, ultimately, it is very often fun.

I have to keep checking myself, reminding myself how delightful a ride Jurassic World is while you’re on it, because Jurassic World is a surprisingly easy movie to get frowny-faced about once you leave the theater.

Maybe it’s not that surprising since it is trying to stand up with/pay tribute to one of the most universally beloved examples of the cinematic arts (and a personal favorite of yours truly). Comparing this kooky DNA splice of a sequel to its genetic donor is patently unfair no matter how much all those Isla Nublar easter eggs make the comparison fair game. It’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of putting Jurassic World scenes or characters up against iconic moments that have had two decades to marinate in our memory. It’s much harder to recall that I gave Pacific Rim an “A” while actively excusing its thin characters and nonsense plotting because it was such an insane thrill ride and I was tickled pink when a giant robot split a giant monster in half with a giant sword. I can’t suddenly not be that person when one Rex has another in its gaping maw. Pacific Rim was a tribute to B-movie creature features that happened to technically be an original property. Jurassic World is a tribute to B-movie creature features that happens to be a self-aware brand extension of one of the most popular film’s of all time. Aside from who they pay royalties to, they could be each others’ reflections.

So, as I dive into what makes Jurassic World tick as a film, I will of course break down why it doesn’t work quite as well as some Grade-A Speilbergia. But I will counterbalance every doomed comparison with a reasoned argument for why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim.


Originally posted by justepicmoments

Owen Grady (Chris “Call me Star-Lord” Pratt)

Why Jurassic World’s got nothing on Jurassic Park: Who is this guy? Where did InGen find him? Everyone keeps throwing around this guy’s Navy experience like its some sort of dinosaur-wrangling qualification, which begs the question: was he the Navy’s top dolphin trainer? Was he Seal Team 6′s lion tamer? If I’m looking for someone to imprint on flesh-eating lizards from birth, I’m not sure why the Navy is on my shortlist.

Even more confounding is the question of what Owen does now. He’s referred to by Masrani, the park’s owner, as “a consultant,” which implies he’s some visiting outsider who is providing valuable insight on something, but from everything we see, this guy’s been entrenched for a long time, and he’s running his own operation. He’s been with these raptors since they hatched, he’s got a loyal buddy, he’s got a cool lakeside bachelor pad, heck he’s even already had time to go on a bad date with the leading lady and then ignore her for months. When the film transitioned from Mizrani’s request to bring in the “consultant” over to the raptor pen, implying this consultant was present, I initially assumed Vincent D’Onofrio’s character was the consultant. He seemed new to the island and he seemed to be throwing around a lot of outsider’s opinions. When I’m getting characters mixed up because jobs are unclear, there’s some work that needs to be done on the screenplay level.

So if he’s not a consultant, what does Owen do? Well, he trains raptors obviously, but also: everything. He is the most competent man you are ever likely to meet. His job seems to be “always being right in every situation.” Having a character this sculpted, this chiseled, this righteous, this perfect… it actually puts a major drain on the fun we’re having. I think the filmmakers thought that by putting Chris Pratt in those tight shorts, they were making their own sexy jungle Wolverine, but they ended up writing the most self-righteous version of Cyclops into their film instead.

So let’s do the unfair thing and consider Doctors Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm for a moment. Did Speilberg have to cast then 45 year old Sam Neill as his film’s central human character? Couldn’t he have grabbed a young, smoldering hunk like Patrick Swayzee or Christian Slater? He could have, but it would rob Grant of a certain hard-won ruggedness and weariness if he does. It’s important to Jurassic Park that Grant has been out in the field digging up bones for decades. It means that when Hammond comes to him with a truckload of money, Grant has to bite. This guy’s too pragmatic and knows all too well what happens when you have no sponsor to reject that sort of interest from a walking blank check. His age also means that Grant is reasonably insecure in the face of this rowdy, young chaos theoretician with the leather and the attitude.

Speaking of the man with the stuttering monologues: Ian Malcolm is always right too, isn’t he? It’s true, but recall that we are shown the contrast between Malcolm’s high-and-mighty ideals and his less-than-stellar execution. Malcolm’s a great guy to have around if you want someone to smirk at you and condescendingly tell you you’re wrong. He is not the guy to get you safely through Killer Dinosaur Island.

See what Speilberg and Crichton have done? They’ve put all the characteristics that will save everyone right there on the island, but they’ve split ‘em up evenly between two guys. Neither one of them is flawless. Both of them are right pretty much constantly, but they’re also undercut by personality flaws. Owen Grady, by contrast is Adonis in a zookeeper’s vest. If this guy’s so righteous about the wrongs being wronged on Isla Nublar, how did he end up there working for a guy like Hoskins in the first place? We know how Alan Grant ended up in Hammond’s employ; we see it and we need to see it, to see how much he knows and how much he doesn’t. With Grady on the other hand, we pan up to this shining, glimmering figure commanding the most vicious beasts on earth with utter rectitude. There’s no room for an arc there; Owen is the same moral compass pointing due north at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Which proves to be a problem when you compare him to his co-lead.

Here’s why this is really a problem. Owen Grady is in the wrong movie. At least until he and Claire go out on the hunt for Claire’s nephews and he transforms her into a better person (ugh), Grady is a square-jawed adventure hero trapped in the middle of a corporate satire. It’s clear from Claire’s exchanges with every other InGen employee that Jurassic World is going for Network; it’s when Owen changes the channel to Romancing the Stone and forces an unnecessary “we hate each other to mask our love for each other” dynamic on Claire’s corporate ice queen character that the nightmare really begins.

Why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim: In short, Chris Pratt. Pratt is the guy you want on the ground selling your movie right now. He will make your character work, even if that character is a poorly assembled collage of Manly Man traits. Pratt is toning his inherent smirk quotient down from a 9 to about a 2 here, but there’s still this light in his eyes that no amount of squinting can extinguish. Pacific Rim was saddled with a charm vacuum attempting a grizzled American accent. Even if Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket had something resembling an arc, Hunnam’s take on the moping action hero with a grudge was completely at odds with del Toro’s colorful kaiju romp. Pratt is nuetered of his man-boy immaturity, stuck playing a white-hat in a gray movie, but even with all that stacked against him, Pratt is first round draft pick in every producer’s Fantasy Casting League right now for good reason.


Originally posted by katicisms

Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas “Not Jessica Chastain” Howard)

Why Jurassic World’s got nothing on Jurassic Park: Okay look, the fact that Bryce Dallas Howard is playing a cold company woman who can’t compute all your human emotions is NOT anti-feminist. Initially…

Inititally! It sucks that we all hissed at Jurassic World when Joss Whedon told us to, because we hadn’t seen the film, and we had no idea what they planned on doing with that character – a totally fine character to have if she’s done right. Because if Jurassic World wants to be a ruthless corporate satire (which it is for like forty minutes), it has full license to get its Faye-Dunnaway-in-Network on.

But this movie can’t leave well enough alone. It NEEDS to redeem this woman. It needs to FIX her. And that’s where we get in big trouble. The moment Claire realizes she’s out of a job so, screw it she’s going to go off with the raptor hunk and save her nephews, Jurassic World throws it’s rather savvy satirical elements out the window. Now Claire needs to learn that the dinosaurs are not “assets,” they’re wonderful animals. And she needs to learn that there’s more to life then being really dedicated to your job – like fawning over a man who’s really dedicated to his job. And, god dammit, she needs to learn her nephews ages or she’s never going to fulfill her destiny and become a doting mother! And who’s going to teach her. Owen Upstanding Grady, that’s who. (Come on, his middle name’s got to be Upstanding, it can’t be anything else.)

This is baked right into the script in that line where Claire’s nephews are like “Naw Aunt Claire, we want to be protected by the burly badass, not you.” What did Owen do to earn that level of admiration from the boys? A bunch of people were stampeding towards them, so Owen… drove a car backwards? Couldn’t they have all just… run the same way as everyone? I’m still baffled by this. Whatever, it doesn’t matter what Owen did or didn’t do, the filmmakers want us to know he could do anything. And Claire best stick by his side.

The movie gets to write off all this hand-wringing by having Claire save Owen’s life, earning her a big ol’ surprise smooch – SEE SHE’S EMPOWERED, AND OUR GOOD GUY SEES IT!!! – but it simply isn’t enough to say these two are on equal footing now because Claire can knock a dinosaur in the noggin. This is Jurassic World trying to overwrite a whole bunch of “bitch-shaming” that’s coded into every single wardrobe choice.

Especially the choice where Owen condescends Claire into turning her crisp white suit into some weird facsimile of Ellie Sattler’s get-up. Ellie Sattler was perfect ten years before the scrutiny of the Internet had studio’s watching their backs when creating “strong female characters.” This just highlights what a step back we’ve taken.

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Why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim: I’d say that Claire and Owen’s romance is the most unnecessary, most underwritten pairing in sci-fi blockbuster cinema, but look at the movie we’re comparing it to. Pacific Rim is the winner and still champeeeen and it’s not even close. Once again, I was willing to excuse that horrible last kiss because mechasuits with swords are the shit. I’m similarly willing to let certain things fly if the Indominus Rex is the shit.

And you know what else? I really enjoyed Bryce Dallas Howard’s untamed take on Claire, before Owen turns her into Ms. Nurturing. And I even occasionally like her after. She’s great in the scene where she’s watching the raptor strike from the ambulence while her nephews look on from the back. She pops. She’s really funny, especially in her scenes with Ifran Khan. I also love the way she walks through dinsoaur holograms multiple times as if she can’t even see them – its a nice visual way of illustrating her disconnect from the majesty of resurrected dinosaurs.

Like I said above, this character has every right to exist, and has every right to be a woman. It’s when we start attributing Claire’s inability to see the flaws in her park to her slavish dedication to being a working woman or to her lack of maternal instincts that we wade into hot water. And it’s when watching Chris Pratt shephard a brontosaurus from this world to the next makes Claire expel all her bad juju out of her system in a single beautiful tear that the hot water boils.

The Kids (Ty “Moptop” Simpkins and Nick “’Tude” Robinson)

Why Jurassic World’s got nothing on Jurassic Park: You know what, I don’t mind the kids that much. Tim and Lex are nobody’s favorite Park characters (even though they completely own what is arguably that film’s best scene), and I think the “visiting kids” trope actually makes more sense in a film about a fully functioning theme park. We need to see how Gray and Zach see the park differently. Zach, largely ambivalent, skulking behind his phone and his headphones, shows us that Calire is at least somewhat right: her audience is restless and she does need to go bigger to satisfy them. Gray shows us that Claire is wrong: there’s a portion of her audience that will always respect these creatures for what they are and what they represent.

That said, I’ve got to call out one utterly wasted thread: what is up with Zach checking out every lithe teenage female in the park while he’s got a girl waiting for him at home? Zach can’t say “I love you” and has wandering eyes? Fine… So, what does that do for the movie? To some extent, we’re supposed to look at that and go “Oh, he’s a TOTAL teenager,” and to some extent, we can read into Zach’s restlessness a sort of “I learned this behavior from my divorcing parents” demeanor. But, considering there’s no payoff to multiple scenes of Zach scoping out chicks, it’s also a waste of time. It’s indicative of a script with a lot of fat to trim. It has threads that go nowhere and characters that do nothing: I quite like Omar Sy’s performance as Owen’s raptor trainer bestie, for instance; but imagine the film without him for a second. It’s the exact same film, right? Barry is just Owen’s mouthpiece when Owen is elsewhere on the island. He’s one more body to worry about when the raptors turn. In Jurassic Park, if a character shows up and says something, you better believe that will pay off down the line.

(Also, Gray telling Claire to go get the T-Rex by vocally adding together the number of teeth present and saying more teeth are needed… That’s a stupid, terrible line, plain and simple. Even avowed dinosaur fanboy Tim wouldn’t stoop to that.)

Why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim: Zach has an actual arc. By that, I mean we see him transformed by things that happen in the film from a somewhat immature individual into a very mature individual. This isn’t always necessary but it’s nice when it happens, and it’s nicer when that transformation is somewhat nuanced. I like that Zach starts to bond with his brother after he sees how cool the Mosasaurus (Shamu the dinosaur) is, but he’s still a bit of a jerk. It’s not until things get dire that a more parental, protective side of Zach comes out. This is a vast improvement on the other character with a major arc in the same movie, Claire, who becomes a radically different character the minute she touches a dying brontosaurus; I mean, I’d be pretty rocked by that moment too, but I don’t know that it would fundamentally change everything about me instantaneously. Zach’s arc is also a transformation that’s better written and better performed than anything in Pacific Rim.

The InGen Team (Irfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus)

Why Jurassic World’s got nothing on Jurassic Park: Maybe the InGen of World is more believable than the InGen of Park – we do not live in a world today where the entire power of a major corporation is represented by an old coot with a cane and a dream, and I doubt we lived in that world in 1993. There’s something to be said for the way Jurassic World presents an InGen with a corporate structure so baffling that no one really seems to no who reports to who, because, if this is a satire of corporations, that detail is spot on.

It’s also baffling.

It’s really difficult as an audience member to tell which way is up at any given moment, because the three major InGen characters – the park owner, the InGen security chief, and the lead geneticist – are doing this weird power struggle dance.

So while it may not be believable that Hammond could have really put an entire park together on will alone, it’s also efficient storytelling. It boils our feelings about the impetus behind the park down into one man. And Hammond is a freakin’ fascinating character. I said earlier that the raptors in the kitchen scene is arguably Park’s best. Fact is, Park is a film with about six or seven best scenes, and my personal favorite is its quietest. Just Ellie and Hammond eating ice cream while Hammond tells us about his flea circus. It does nothing for the plot, but it tells us everything about why this park exists and how it all could have gone so wrong. Credit where credit is due: Jurassic Park transcends its creature feature leanings riding on the back of Richard Attenborough’s tender performance as a deeply flawed, irresponsible, but ultimately sympathetic man.


Originally posted by dinosandwichpwned
Irfan Khan is essentially playing Hammond in Jurassic World. I like him. He’s got swagger to spare, and he captures some of that special magic. His character is also a contradiction in a designer suit. Khan sells Mizrani as a carefree, happy-go-lucky guy who sometimes accidentally backs himself into a situation he can’t handle – piloting helicopters, asking for cooler dinosaurs, stuff like that. But, with one line, the film undoes everything we think we know about this guy. The man who sternly puts down Owen’s request to use lethal force on the Indominus Rex because he has $26 million riding on that abomination is not the same man who was genuinely curious about the happiness of his customers AND his dinosaurs. That line could have gone to anyone else, especially Claire. That line should have gone to anyone else. This guy’s death is the most important one in the film, and he features in the film’s two best scenes (with Claire at the enclosure, and with Wu in Wu’s office); but all of that is undermined because it’s impossible to get a read on who he actually is.

At least D’Onfrio’s performance as Vic Hoskins leaves no such room for ambiguity. Hoskins is this big, swaggering military id who repeats the same message over and over again until you want to see him get eaten: basically some variation on “I want to see these raptors in uniform!” Hoskins genuinely believes, based on one display of Owen’s appeasement of the raptors that any guy could just command the raptors do his bidding (”Raptor, go kill Osama!”) and they would. It is a phenomenally stupid conceit, and it only gets stupider when Hoskins realizes that the raptors aren’t as under control as he initially suspected, so he decides miniaturizing the beast that just destroyed the whole theme park and controlled the raptors is a better military strategy. I can’t believe I’m saying this but: training raptors to perform tricks ina a Sea World-like show is one thing; training them so they can replace Seal Team 6 is pure idiocy and it renders Hoskins completely limp from the moment he speaks.

At least Jake Johnson (Nick!) gets this. When Hoskins takes over the control room and starts getting up close and personal with Johnson’s character, Lowery Cruthers, Johnson looks at this Neanderthal like the idiot he is. It’s gratifying, to say the least. Johnson and his control buddy Lauren Lapkus are great, but while we’re talking problems, one more to throw out there before we move on: Lowery and his fellow techies are never even remotely close to danger, and that’s a problem.

Jurassic World sets up these huge stakes.

Over 20,000 people!!!!!

You thought Jurassic Park was bad??? There were only like 10 people on that island when the dinosaurs got loose. We’ve got hundreds of kids and grandmas and innocents!

And for one brief moment, it capitalizes on that conceit. Flying dinosaurs swoop in and start carrying people off or pecking them, and one named character dies a horrible, gruesome death at the hands of Shamu-asaurus.

And then…

Apparently, all those people get locked up in a faraway bunker and nobody attacks the main part of the park until only the villain and the four heroes are left in it.

Look, I get it: Man of Steel got schooled on city-smashing decorum, and now films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World are taking the lesson plan to heart. As a filmmaker, you’ve got to make sure you don’t callously wipe out a populated area without thinking about the innocents. Words to live by, for sure.

But there’s a difference between Kal-El and Indominus Rex. The reason Zach Snyder was criticized was not because two superpowered beings flattened Metropolis without thinking about the little people. No, he was criticized because one of those superpowered people was Superman, and that’s just not how we expect Superman to operate. But a T-Rex/raptor/tree frog/cuttlefish genetic splice? Sure, go for it!

Because the whole point of a film where theme park attendees put down good money to endorse the remaking of man as capital-G God, resurrector of extinct Life, only to have that impulse shoved right back in their face raptor-claw style is that some innocents might die. Not just bad people. Not just flashy owners. Not just bored assistants and incompetent guards. But, like, a grandma.

In this, dinosaurs are no different than earthquakes or volcanoes. They don’t discriminate good victims from bad victims. Ask Arnold and Muldoon if they deserved having raptor claws inserted into their persons back in 1993. But, hey, their deaths are nominees number 5 and 6 for Jurassic Park’s best scene, so…

Why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim: One scene: Mizrani confronts Dr. Wu, and two great performers go toe-to-toe in a perfectly composed, perfectly writen scene. We think we know how this will go: Mizrani is an all-around good guy who can’t believe his geneticist would stoop this low, and Wu has gone full-on mad scientist. But, for once, the film expertly turns the tables and successfully makes it about something bigger than what’s on screen. Wu chews Mizrani up and spits him off, and his kiss off to Mizrani (”Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”) seems like the result of a seance with Michael Crichton himself. I love that Jurassic World brought back Henry Wu and made him, twenty years on, the character that Michael Crichton originally wrote. This is basically an update on my favorite scene from Crichton’s book, in which Wu and Hammond have a tiff about the direction of the genetic future of the dinosaurs, and, as one might expect, it stands head-and-shoulders above any scene in Jurassic World; and any scene in the past few years of sci-fi blockbuster filmmaking, for that matter. It’s so great, it almost makes one forget that such a layered, interesting character is eventually reduced to a big bookmark that the filmmakers throw in the saga – “We’ll pick up from the scientist with all the Dino DNA who just got secreted away on that helicopter next time, so come back now y’all!”

Originally posted by pieceofartonly

The Dinosaurs (A Bunch of CGI Artists and One Brontosaurus Animatronic)

Why Jurassic World’s got nothing on Jurassic Park: Look, I hear you.

“If you’re watching a Jurassic film for the verisimilitude of the human characters, you’re doing it wrong…”

Maybe you’re right. As incredibly crafted as Arnold and Muldoon and Nedry and even Malcolm and Hammond were, none of them have had anywhere near the effect on our culture as that first glimpse of the T-Rex coming through the paddock fence did.

So let’s talk about what Speilberg does with dinosaurs. First of all, he keeps them off-screen for a long time after we first glimpse them. As our explorers venture out in their vans, the dinosaurs don’t just show up and roar on cue. They’re not entertainers; they are as ambivalent to the needs of Tim and Lex as a lion napping the day away at the zoo.

Their absence makes the heart grow fonder. When they show up… wow… Speilberg’s dinosaurs are awe-inspring and dangerous. They also have important limitations. The idea that a T-Rex can only see motion is fake-science mumbo jumbo. It’s also movie magic, pure and simple. With that rule established, we have a rubric for understanding what the T-Rex will and won’t be capable of going forward.

The raptors are full of surprises (they can open doors!), but we’re ready for them from the moment Alan explains their tactics to that terrified kids. That’s not just a character establishing his surliness and lack of affection for children; it’s tablesetting we need. And even the raptors are not infallible; they have a tendency of bickering over their prey at inopportune times and even they are powerless when they are interrupted by a dues Rex machina.

This is the difference between a cool moment (like the raptor jumping through Claire’s driver side window, or the Indominus Rex suddenly emerging from out of nowhere to take out a team of combat specialists) and a good setpiece. In Jurassic Park’s best setpieces, we understand the rules of the game at every turn, and are happy to watch tense scenarios play out minutes on end.

The Indominus Rex, on the other hand, breaks the game every chance she gets. We keep finding out surprising, impossible things about her that only really make sense after she’s pulled them out of her toolbelt and, twenty minutes later, they are tediously explained. We are playing catchup with this ridiculous monstrosity that can 1) turn off her own heat signature, 2) remember where she has had medical procedures done, 3) camoflouge herself, and 4) order raptors to turn on their masters!!! Every time, the effect is cool for ten seconds, but it’s not as cool as laying the groundwork so we can play along in the audience for seven or eight minutes.

The Indominus Rex is so tricked out that she ceases to be fun or impressive. The moments where she falters (like not being able to notice hidden people in spite of being able to READ HEAT SIGNATURES! [which is the exact opposite of Speilberg making his mythic beast functionally blind]) seem like bad screenwriting, and the moments where she succeeds begin to feel a bit old hat. She’s just here to be such a beastly collection of traits that man and raptor and T-Rex and Shamu-asaurus must form an uneasy, unnatural alliance in order to mitigate her sheer psychopathic gluttony.

Jurassic World is blaming you and me for this nonsense. Keep that in mind. It saves most of its satirical wrath for the corporation that kowtowed to the audience demand for Cooler and Meaner and Bigger, but lays it right there at the feet of the Jurassic World consumer, both in movie and out, too: you’ve done this, you asked for this thing, and now there’s no turning back.

But, you know what? I reject this movie’s easy skepticism. It sounds too much like old Speilberg and old Lucas shaking their fists at the moon, saying audience demand for bloated blockbusters will crash the film industry. I think that audience’s would have seen a much-desired follow-up to Speilberg’s dinosaur park movie if it featured a roving band of compsognathi as its big bad, so long as that gang of compys was presented with the diligence – the filmmaking acumen, the intelligence – that Speilberg presented his raptors and his T-Rex with.

Why Jurassic World is just as good as Pacific Rim: The first time I saw Jurassic World, that moment when Claire called forth the spirit of the first film, flare in hand, did not sit well with me. I couldn’t allow myself to get lost in the splendor because the movie was dramatically pointing to how cool it was that the T-Rex and velociraptor (the same two dinos who duked it out twenty years earlier) were teaming up to take down a bigger threat, and, when director Colin Trevorrow shouted FINISH HER, the Shamu-asaurus was there to do the job. This was manipulative fan service, and it was entirely too cute by half when all the victors gave each other this “I don’t like you, but for today, I’ll let you enjoy this” look.

The second time I saw it, I just gave in. It was wonderful.

I love dinosaurs. I always will. Dreams like dinosaurs walking the earth will always be one of the main reasons we need our movie screens to be so big.

This throwdown can’t hold a candle to that moment when Alan Grant first saw a dinosaur and stumbled over, but not everything needs to. If we didn’t allow anything on the screen if it couldn’t reach that level, the number of movie’s allowed in cinemas would reduce to a trickle.

This is what we’ve thirsted for since King Kong fought dinosaurs on Skull Island and batted down planes from the spire of the Empire State Building. We love reckoning with the huge and impossible, with attempting to fathom what this movie tells us: it’s not about controlling what you can’t understand, it’s about respecting it. The movie says it over and over again, “control this,” “control that, and I give it credit for ending on a shot of the T-Rex standing on top of the control room bellowing to the world “This is my house!” It’s big. It’s grand. It’s movies.

This thirst for spectacle isn’t some new phenomena.

It is as old as the movies themselves.

Say Anything…: Aloha (C-)

The final scene of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha is just about impossibly perfect.

Wordless, moving, engaging, tearjerking, entrenched in native Hawaiian culture: this is everything Aloha could have been for its preceding two hours, and just about everything about Aloha that we might want to preserve for posterity’s sake.

What teenager Danielle Rose Russell does in this scene… it’s the announcement of something big, of the kind of presence that can own a massive screen, take every inch of it and turn into pure, unfiltered feelings broadcast straight into the collective brainspace of an entire theater. To some extent, it validates much of what Crowe’s latest melodramacomedy has to say about the value of communication… but, I’ll be honest, mostly you’ll be thinking “Where WAS this girl the whole movie?”

Russell plays Grace Woodside, the (mostly invisible) daughter of Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), our protagonist Brian Gilcrest’s (Bradley Cooper) old flame from 13 years back. Grace Woodside is 12 years old. Draw your own conclusions from those numbers, because the movie pretty much begs us to do so when it announces this fact early on.

Everyone glances around awkwardly when this is first brought up, but no one says anything. As it turns out, all three principals – alpha-male-of-the-moment Cooper as Jerry McGilcrest, McAdams doing really fine work as an ex who prefers compassion over scorn, and John Krasinski as Tracy’s current husband Woody – know exactly what those numbers mean (they’re not idiots), but they are not going to talk about it right now. Because in the world of Aloha no one really talks to anyone. That is the whole point.

Gilcrest is a wounded mercenary who’s had his innocent dreams of government-sponsored space travel squashed at every turn. He’s turned inward. Keep all conversations to 5 words or less, he barks at his Air Force handler (more on her later). “Good… Super Good…” he mutters unconvincingly in response to any questions about his state of being.

In any ordinary film, this cartoonishly anti-social man’s man would be the most inarticulate character, but Crowe also gives us Woody, whose whole schtick is his monosyllabic nature. Poor Rachel McAdams is forced to say it about ten different ways – “Woody never talks.”

This isn’t a nagging wife complaining about a lack of communication, mind you. As Gilcrest comes to discover when he visits the Woodside’s military base home, Woody’s vocal cords may very well have atrophied. His entire lexicon is comprised of nods, shrugs, smirks, and firm shoulder grabs. The film makes a big joke of the fact that Brian understands this macho posturing – first by having Brian translate it for an oblivious Tracy and then, in the movie’s cathartic confrontation between the two men, by having the entire silent conversation play out via subtitles (a cheap gag that’s a huge mistake).

A trophy then for Ms. McAdams, who is Aloha’s real hero. There is every opportunity for her to play Tracy as resentful, shrewish, uncommunicative, or cold; pretty much any other family drama in this vein would have asked her to do so. Trapped as she is in the middle of this masculine staring contest, it’s a small miracle then that she opts to play Tracy as warm, forgiving, and immensely willing to share (a characterization, to be fair, that is in Crowe’s otherwise ludicrous script). She treats her ex-lover not like an enemy but like an old friend, opening up to him about her troubles with Woody, warning him to shut her down if she treats him too much like a “girl friend” (which the film makes clear Tracy feels like she’s lacking). It is clear that all of this “not talking” is eating her up inside, and that keeping that one big secret that is so glaringly obvious everyone knows it but refuses to confront it has really done a number on her. When she finally confronts Brian about it, relief comes immediately. She is such an open book that even her kids can tell early on, when Brian first arrives, that her surly mood is a put-on and that she’s happy to have Brian back around.

Oh yeah, her kids… So Brian ends up bonding with one of them over stars and stuff. Somehow, in a boneheaded screenwriting mix-up, it’s the wrong one. You see, Tracy and Woody have a younger child that is actually theirs, and he is literally around for three reasons:

  1. To carry around the always-running camera that will eventually reveal an important plot point to an important character
  2. To spout symbolic non-sequiturs about Brian coming back on the same week when the Hawaiian god Lono is supposed to return nudge nudge
  3. To remind us when things look especially open for a Brian/Tracy reunion that there’s a moppet out there whose real dad is Woody, so it would be a bit messier then a simple separation so don’t get your hopes up shippers…

All three of these are shoddy screenwriting contrivances, but even if they had been necessary (and all of them do more harm then good to the film’s tone, so they’re not), only one of them couldn’t have been taken over by Russell’s Grace. You, really need a kid for Brian to bond over stars and native mythology with? Fine, how about his daughter? Need a precocious camera-toter to move the plot along? How about the kid that’s already important to the plot?

Instead the film gives her nothing. Literally. Nothing. She hula dances and looks for a dress for a school dance. She casts her eyes downward and mumbles out of the room whenever Brian’s around, which – considering he is the star of the film – is always. You’d think, with the way this character’s been taken out of the equation in spite of her existence driving the movie’s drama and being important enough to warrant last-scene status, that Russell must be absolutely toxic as an actress, and they just loved that little boy so much, they gave him all her scenes. But then you see Russell cycle through every emotion possible as she discovers the truth behind why everyone’s been skulking around silently since Brian arrived; you see her eyes well with tears, her face light up; you see the slight change in her hula dancing before she knows and after she knows.

And you wonder: how on earth did Cameron Crowe luck into the next Shailene Woodley in The Descendants discovery, and then only use that power in one scene?!

https://38.media.tumblr.com/8dc3f0b797a20184c7ce773f43b7cae7/tumblr_inline_np8mt7LkeC1t0nnh2_500.gif

It would appear Cameron Crowe is going to direct a film about a man who has been embarrassingly ejected from an already embarrassing profession who finds redemption in the arms of a woman who is sometimes horrified by his callousness while still absolutely worshiping the ground upon which he walks… oh about every ten years or so.

It’s like clockwork. Is it the middle of the decade? Then you can probably bet that somewhere, in a theater near you, an optimistic blond is coaxing a stymied failure of a man out of his funk.

And lo and behold, we have Aloha, which sees a brilliant but down on his luck(sports agent/ad man) space science mercenary (?) go through the ringer while taking some solace in the fact that, in spite of his surliness, that blond(co-worker/flight attendant) Air Force pilot still believes in him.

How can that entire plot fit in the movie when all the plot points I previously mentioned about Tracy, Woody, and Grace (who literally provides the movie’s grace note) have no connection to either Brian’s work failures or his budding romance with that woman whose eyes light up when he walks in the room?

Ummm… Go see the movie and tell me… Your guess is as good as mine would be.

Because they don’t fit. At all. All of the movie’s most dramatic, cathartic, joyful, and romantic scenes deal with the Woodside’s (and that’s in spite of all the issues we already discussed). Lets’ see why:

  • Tracy has a secret that’s been eating her up
  • Brian doesn’t know, and once he does, he’s not sure how to navigate the minefield
  • Woody does know and it’s been killing this otherwise stoic guy

This is engrossing drama. How is this not the main plot of the movie? Better yet, how is this not a Rachel McAdams movie? When the director doesn’t get in the way (as with the too-cute subtitles) we see the best of Crowe only at those times when McAdams’ storyline is involved. But see what the driving force behind all those scenes is, and you’ll see why he can make them work so well, why Woody’s letter is so good, why the decapitated Santa joke lands so well. This is the man whose directorial debut was Say Anything, and more than 25 years later, that is still his chief obsession: saying things. Crowe has always been known for his bordering-on-glib/saccharine prose; this film is an argument for making the effort to say those things, even if they’re trite, even if it’s awkward, even if you can’t find the words. When it’s at its best, Aloha is a movie about going out of your way to make communication possible. The drama may as well be boiled down to Say something, I’m giving up on you.

So how well does that theme carry over to the film’s numero uno concern – the courtship of Brian Gilcrest and Allison Ng (Emma Stone)? Well, it’s vaguely present. Brian isn’t quite reaching Woody levels of terseness, but he is very forthright about his lack of desire to form a connection. Allison is chipper and ebullient (in essence, she is Emma Stone), but she is not being the same person around Brian that she is with, umm, whomever she’s speaking with on the phone when Brian accidentally hears their conversation so the plot can move forward. That’s a weird, manipulative way to get the real talk started, and it gets even weirder when the film implies that if accidental spying can’t get these two crazy kids over their differences so they can fall in love already, then the ancient Hawaiian spirits will just have to help!

Crowe seems to be insinuating that, as Allison and Brian fight and flirt their way across the Hawaiian landscape, the ancient spirits are cheering them on from the side of the road. At one point, those spirits rustle some trees to stop a shouting match and get the leads to make googly eyes at each other for the first time. At another point, the sky seems to tell certain characters it’s sad, which kinda sorta drives Brian’s climactic decision. Does this happen because Brian is, in some way, the god Lono, as that precocious moppet keeps saying? Who knows? Aloha never commits to this idea, or any idea about native Hawaiians. A film like Song of the Sea fully engages with the idea that the beautiful, ancient beliefs of a forgotten or marginalized people coexist with our modern world in strange ways. But Crowe’s film nods to spiritualism when he needs it to, and then backs the heck off when the plot kicks in. Which means that by the time Bumpy, the leader of a nationalist organization seeking Hawaiian independence (playing himself) looks helplessly, mournfully up at the sky as a nuclear payload is secreted into orbit, it’s a strange reminder of a movie about Hawaii (and not just set there) that hasn’t existed since the film’s first thirty minutes.

Maybe, given some breathing room, this Hawaiian angle could have worked, especially if Bumpy had been allowed to become a more prominent character with some agency. As it is, it’s surprising to see how prominent he is initially considering the uproar that preceded the film; he has so much agency, so much presence. But then he agrees to a deal with Brian and the military. You wait for him to come back, and you wait for him to come back, and when he does, he’s a set of sad eyes, regretting his decision to allow Brian to do whatever it is he’s doing, wondering what will become of the future.

Which brings us to Brian’s professional life… Is Cameron Crowe being serious with us here?!

  • Does Bradley Cooper really stop a nuclear weapon from hovering ominously over the globe by shooting rock music at it?
  • Does he really do it because Emma Stone’s tear soaked face is too beautiful to bare?
  • Does he really foil the dastardly plans of pre-captivity Tony Stark as played by Bill Murray?
  • Does Alec Baldwin’s Air Force General really shoot privately-funded satellites into space without checking them for weapons?

This stuff doesn’t even deserve a deconstruction. What it is that Brian does for a living is entirely unclear: are we really supposed to believe that the same guy who helps a billionaire negotiate with Native Hawaiians for cell phone service and mountains is also his resident genius scientist and hacker responsible for keeping the Chinese locked out? Really, these aren’t two different guys? They seem like two different skill sets to me.

Brian’s history is so convoluted that whenever someone brings it up – his breakup 13 years ago; the time he left the military and joined the private sector; the time he left the private sector and sold his soul in Kabul; the time he returned injured, tail between his legs, to the private sector; the time he used the private sector to get back in with the military – it’s like reading the Wikipedia entry on a superhero that’s been around for decades. Like you’re skimming something vast and confusing without any reference to the specifics that would make all that stuff feel real and genuine.

If this were seasoning on the movie, that might be okay. There have been plenty of romances and screwball comedies that have seasoned their stories with professional mumbo jumbo jargon and made it out no worse for wear. Heck, some of those are classics. But this isn’t seasoning. It’s the main course. It drives everything that happens between Allison and Brian. The meet-cute. The first kiss. The complication. The big gesture. The reconciliation. It’s all military space orbit nonsense, and climaxes in one of the most dramatically inert set pieces imaginable. The stakes of this movie are about communication with loved ones, and suddenly, the stakes are about keeping the world safe. A movie audience can’t handle that kind of errant escalation. And sure this only happens because Brian keeps a secret he shouldn’t, and Allison comes to discover that the military is much like the Woodside house – no one is telling anyone else the full story – so, yeah, thematically, the connections are there if you want to reach really far out and grab them. But ultimately, the thematic rollover doesn’t matter; watching Allison sit on the ground and cry while Bumpy looks sadly skyward and evil Bill Murray smirks from a distant launch platform, all while Brian and some programmer we JUST MET, play music at a CGI sattelite until it breaks… that’s just bad moviemaking, plain and simple.

It’s not all as bad as that. On a scene-by-scene level, the good Crowe shines through often enough. But ultimately, seeing a cute scene where Emma Stone and Bill Murray drunkenly dance together only serves to satisfy in the moment, checking off an item on every film nerd’s bucket list (see Emma Stone and Bill Murray dance together). In the grand scheme of things, it just confuses things. The two characters never interact meaningfully otherwise, and it sends the audience the wrong messages about Murray’s character. It’s just there to… be there.

So, even though the last scene of the film – that tour de force from the otherwise ignored Danielle Rose Russell – is truly magical, it isn’t the ending to the film Crowe made. It’s the ending to a better film that was hidden within. The film Crowe made was about space and the appeal of Emma Stone, not about fathers and daughters. The film had already ended by the time it got to its epilogue. But I’m glad it kept going. No dialogue. Just body language. Just Brian standing there until Grace got it, truly understood what he was saying. (Thank god Crowe didn’t break out those subtitles again.)

Ninety percent of the reason this scene works so well is Russell, but ten percent is because her character never got dragged down by the film’s weaker subplots. She never talked about mana. She never talked about nukes. Sure, she never talked about anything. But in her final scene, Russell didn’t have to say a word and she said more than anyone else in Aloha said all movie.

Devil DOES Care: Netflix’s Daredevil Review (B)

This post contains spoilers for all 13 episode’s of Netflix’s Daredevil

Daredevil is the only superhero with his own poet laureate.

In his half-century, Daredevil has had more iconic, era-defining arcs than really seems plausible. This is doubly true considering that, relative to contemporaries like Spidey or Doctor Strange, the Man Without Fear was a late bloomer. He didn’t really become the character that inspired such transcendent greatness from the likes of Bendis, Mack, Maleev, Waid, Brubaker, Nocenti, and many more until more than a decade into his existence. That is when pretty much everything about the character (besides the whole “blind justice” angle) that makes a serial television series such an exciting prospect – Bullseye, Elektra, Stick, the Hand, the Kingpin as Daredevil antagonist – coalesced in just a few short years, finally becoming the melange of pulpy, noirish wonder we know today under the watchful eye of a certain yakuza-obsessed young gun named Frank Miller in the early 80s.

To truly contextualize this vigilantism in an articulate manner – to ruminate on what it means that Daredevil is a lawyer who feels he must go outside the law to get real work done – Daredevil stories needed a wizened ally, a powerful last-honest-man figure who could serve as Matt Murdock’s faithful Jim Gordon. The main difference between Gordon and Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich? Urich can write like a boss, and pretty much every time Daredevil transcends “consistently good” and becomes “the leading edge of the superhero craft,” you can bet that Urich is involved, playing a major role, acting as the vigilante’s personal Homer.

That Urich is constantly stymied in this quest by the world’s worst boss (you can hear Peter Parker shouting “Amen!”), J. Jonah Jameson, makes Urich’s quest to tell the truth, serving as the voice of an informed New York (while hiding the one truth that matters, DD’s identity) almost as Olympian as Matt’s.

Phil Sheldon, the everyman photographer from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, gets a lot of praise for showing us, in his four issues (and a short follow-up series), what it must be like to be a mere man among gods. Urich (who actually appears in Marvels as Sheldon’s fellow reporter) fills that same role, but he’s done it – enviably – for hundreds of issues. He even essentially got his own in-continuity Marvels, a series that followed newspaper reporters embedded in rival factions during Marvel’s Civil War crossover. This would probably be the biggest thing to happen for the Ben Urich character except for the fact that maybe the most important Marvel story of all-time, Miller/Mazzucchelli’s “Born Again” arc, is, for two or three issues, essentially the story of Ben Urich summoning up the bravery to do what needs to be done in spite of intimidation from Wilson Fisk’s thugs.

This is a long-winded and rather impassioned way of saying that it’s difficult to tell, without knowing where Marvel plans to go with its street-level Defenders lineup (Matt plus Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand a.k.a the Iron Fist), whether killing Ben Urich in the penultimate episode of Season 1 of Netflix’s Daredevil was brave – because it firmly sets a new course for the MCU – or boneheaded – because it dispensed with Marvel’s greatest journalist while only ever teasing us with the idea that he might get around to some journalism sometime soon.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: his death is final. Unlike Leland Owlsley, another longtime Daredevil stalwart you kind of hope isn’t gone and (considering we only glimpse a shattered but not necessarily deceased body) maybe just maybe isn’t… Ben is for sure 100% coffin dead. There will be no Coulson resurrection for Ben, no “we just stopped Nick Fury’s heart to fool Hydra” moment where we walk into a room and see Vondie Curtis-Hall again and laugh relievedly because we fell for it, ha ha. The MCU only has so many of those “comic book deaths” to spend before their audience turns on them, and Ben Urich does not have the stature to merit one, which is sad because that lack of stature misunderstands the ways in which a supporting cast adds texture to a hero’s journey, but oh so true.

Ben is a glue guy. He’s the type of character who takes a place like Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen, a playground for kooky mobsters and ruffians, and allows it to become multi-dimensional. Literally, in the comics, he affords us the chance to see the problems Daredevil is seeing from a different perspective, adding another dimension or layer to the goings-on. It’s not really fair to tell you how important he is in the comics as a way of belittling the show – I am a crusader for allowing interpretations to stand on their own, apart from the need to be faithful to source material – but what is the Ben Urich of Netflix’s Daredevil if he doesn’t become this confidante/hype man. He barely interacted with Matt, so is he Karen Page’s Stick-like mentor? Does he symbolize the futility of a past generation? Does his death even carry much weight for those who just know Netflix Ben? Instead of becoming the guy who soliloquizes about Daredevil’s deeds, instead of becoming a practical outlet who uses Matt as a source to get real work done through the power of the press, Ben’s death is just one final way for Netflix’s Daredevil to show us how costly a vendetta can become. Or a way to let Karen move on and grow up a little, giving Ben one last beyond-the-grave chance to be novice snoop Karen’s enabler with an assist from his grieving wife. Or one final statement on one of the show’s pet themes: print media as an objective American institution capable of showing people the way is a far-off memory.

I’ll give it this: for a series as bold as Daredevil has been, it’s a very audacious move, and for a moment it pays off – with Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” ringing in your ears and resonating mournfully in your soul while Wilson Fisk makes his mad dash to freedom and to his Vanessa, Daredevil seems to be calling forth the soul of the pragmatic realist, Ben Urich. It’s the perfect capstone to the kind of story Urich would write. It’s harsh but oh so soulful.

But what’s the point of making audacious moves if, in the end, you’re just going to turn it all on a dime into exactly the kind of conventional Marvel-prescribed one-man-can-save-a-city superhero fantasy the other 12 and ¾ episodes argued so persuasively was utter bullshit?

The last fifteen minutes of Daredevil’s first season are unremittingly awful.

It’s not even that that new costume looks bad. It does, but that’s beside the point. The camera knows it looks awful, and the editing is dancing around the idea of this costume without ever truly committing to it as a physical reality.

You can tell when the editing gets skittish, because this is a show that knows from good editing. It gave us the single-take hallway fight scene in episode 2, obviously, but also countless other fight scenes that seemed completely comfortable showing off Matt’s practical black duds. Everyone went into this show ready to hate that DIY ninja look, but it is, in execution, perhaps the most iconic onscreen superhero look since we first saw Tony Stark’s painted armor. What’s most incredible is this: like we Netflix viewers befuddled by promotional images, no one onscreen knows how to discuss this look or label it. This isn’t what superheroes wear. This is just a bruiser in a black mask. And so Matt can only be identified by his adversaries and his public as “the black mask” or “the masked man,” as fitting a tribute to pulp forebears like the Shadow and Zorro as I think there could possibly be.

And then Matt meets a man he should consider his true nemesis, poor Melvin Potter. For his final showdown with Wilson, Matt debuts that Kevlar body armor that’s all the rage these days, and the show becomes a bit of a joke.

Not just in its production design, which is lacking, or its editing and direction, which are scared to death of the way that motorcycle-helmet-esque headpiece and that high-collared jacket scrunch the handsome, angular features of star Charlie Cox into oblivion. This goes right down to the script level. Because now, the series’ overriding obsession with Matt needing to find a solution that both keeps Fisk off the streets and squares with his Catholic upbringing, a serious quandary that would seemingly have no real solution, is easily tied up when this new suit allows Matt to apparently level up in the ninja department. Now Matt can just neutralize Fisk with his fists while knowing exactly where to draw the line! Well if we were always going to go that route, we could have probably skipped just about every nuanced conversation Matt had with Father Lantom, and Claire Bishop, and Foggy, and just about everyone about his tenuous moral position… How convenient.

Even worse, now, with a ribbon nicely wrapped around everything just so, the characters have a shorthand with which to discuss this masked vigilante (“Oh look at that, the papers are calling him Daredevil now!”). It’s strange to bitch that a show that waited 13 hours to intone that name in the opening credits rushes the establishment of the Daredevil persona, but with this new shorthand for a once hard-to-define entity comes the kind of winking bonhomie among the leads that one would expect from “get it?” Stan Lee cameos or subpar non-Marvel Studios adaptations of Marvel characters.

None of this would be that aggravating if Daredevil did not wave about its raw, seething potential so flagrantly. As if struck by its own radioactive isotope, this show is coursing with the good stuff, the awe-inspiring power and finesse, that promises something special. And, bless it, with Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio inhabiting their lead roles so convincingly, it frequently delivers.

Also, there’s just so much of it! To put it in perspective: in one evening’s upload, there was suddenly just as much, if not much more, of Charlie Cox’s low-key, laconic, bruised Matt Murdock as there is, after years of franchise-building, of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill. A Netflix series is, by its very nature, not intrinsically one whole; it is many parts that eventually coalesce into something bigger. Some people (with superheroic constitutions) may combine all those parts into a whole in one 13 hour sitting, but for many, assembling the puzzle will be a slower, episode-by-episode process. And so writing off all of Daredevil based on the last quarter of one of its thirteen episodes would be like writing off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe because Iron Man 3 squanders all of its quirky promise once it turns into an orange-glow action spectacle.

Instead, the barometer for reading and understanding something as episodic and sporadic as Netflix’s Daredevil is far from the air-conditioned largesse of an IMAX screen, where you take in one continuous two-hour shot of spectacle and then go through two years of withdrawl waiting for a sequel; instead let’s look to where Daredevil has thrived for decades – the comic shop.

Walk into a comic shop and you will be overwhelmed by volume – stacks and stacks of back issues, current issues, preview issues. Comics, with this glut of product, have a luxury that Kevin Feige, who gets two opportunities to wow us a year, does not. They are allowed to vary in quality. Wildly. Comics people sort of accept this as a reality; in decades of continuity, you can’t win ‘em all. You treasure what’s great. The most seasoned, most contented comics fans will tell you that there is little point in following a single character’s every exploit – only aggravation lies down that completist’s road. Here there be Clone Sagas…

Instead, the recommendation you’ll get is to find the writers and artists you think do good work, and follow them where they go. Track down their arcs and you’ll delight in the ways that they’ve fused their idiosyncrasies and sensibilities onto characters that have been soaring through skylines since long before they picked up a pen. And so, you’ll rarely get an argument against Daredevil being one of the most splendid examples of the mainstream comic book form, largely thanks to those creators who have defined his adventures; you’ll also be unable to find a person who loves every Daredevil comic. There have been too many of them, and not every one of them is a “Born Again” or “The Murdock Papers.” Daredevil has been a jovial yellow-clad jokester who fights Stilt-Man while spouting off Peter Parker-like witticisms. He’s been possessed by bad juju and driven away all his friends. He’s done that again. And again. Like every superhero created before 1990, he went through the 90s… Protect a Manhattan neighborhood for five decades, there are bound to be one or two “lost decades” in there.

13 episodes is nothing compared to appearing in 562 issues of your own solo comic, but yeah, in these 13 hours, there are some high points and, lamentably, there are some “lost hours.” None is more lost than Episode 7, which suffers from Marvel’s persistent mythology-building problem (see: Thanos in Avengers, Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos until he actually does any darn thing). At exactly the moment when the show has picked up a full-head of steam after a slow build, right when Matt has the next name (Leland Owlsley) that will get him closer to the impossibly grand Wilson Fisk, and is ready to jump into his next arc, a man from Daredevil’s past comes along and says “Hey audience, look over here at this other thing!”

The thing about a slow build – and this series handles its build masterfully, slowly introducing us to Wilson Fisk and his criminal associates and only letting Matt and Wilson confront each other at the end of episode 6 – is that a slow build is only worth it if you actually open the building once its finished being built. Instead, episode 7 wants to inform us that there are bigger things – magic things… – afoot outside the world about which Matt (reminder, the guy who is our protagonist) knows or cares. And, sad fact is, he cares as much about these things after he is schooled on them in a vague and unsatisfying manner as he did before he was even aware they existed. To which I can only respond: Marvel, come back to me when you actually have something substantial and can artfully work up to it in a way that doesn’t involve sporadic, painful, shoehorned-in mentions across untenable periods of time (see: the Infinity Stones, also Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Centipede, which was that shows blockaded [and dumb] way of hinting at Hydra before that was allowed).

This undernourished mythology (almost certainly the mysticism of Doctor Strange or Iron Fist) is on loan here to the Hand, the faceless, shadowy army of ninjas that’s always dogging Matt in the comics. And so, even once the show has moved past its detour into something mystical-ish, the Hand and their figurehead Nobu (now in red-clad ninja mode) continue to carry the stain until they are summarily dismissed from the proceedings in episode 9, sure to return to prominence oh some two or three years down the line. So that makes episodes 7-9 an arc. It is the show’s low-point. But Daredevil recovers. And even if it hadn’t recovered, it would still be great based on its first half.

Daredevil’s first episode begins with a young boy in dire straits pleading for his father’s help. It ends with an echo of that same scenario; once again, the father can do nothing to help his son, but a far-off stranger with especially sensitive hearing can. And will.

On its own, this first episode, with that thematic backbone, is promising – it tracks Matt and Foggy’s attempts to defend an innocent person, the frightened Karen Page, surprisingly the only time the lawyers do any actual defending of the innocent – but it’s when the next episode picks up on that same night, with Matt left for dead in a dumpster, that the show really shows what it can do. This is not a show, like first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, that leaves the concerns of its previous episode’s behind, twiddling its thumbs until something big and explosive happens.

Netflix’s Daredevil is a tightly wound crime thriller, and it’s a satisfying payoff when that child abduction is not just some mostly-off-screen affirmation of Matt’s willingness to step into action, but actually forms the backbone of the entire next episode. This is probably an unpopular opinion, but that second episode is probably my favorite, and it’s not even because of the now-famed hallway fight. The episode artfully cuts between Matt’s past – his relationship with his father – and present – an evening of healing and bonding with a good Samaritan who tends to his gnarly wounds – showing a deft, Lost-like touch with flashing back at the most opportune thematic moments. It also gives Matt someone interesting – Rosario Dawson! – with whom he can discuss his mission, and it makes sure to complicate her black-and-white view of things by presenting her with the extreme ickiness Matt must face on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen. When she informs Matt from behind her own ad hoc mask how to most effectively torture a man, it is both a fist-pumping victory and a melancholy corruption of the innocent. Daredevil is at its best when it picks at this triumphant weariness. That is the hallway fight’s true masterstroke: the camera trickery is fine, but it’s the choreography, emphasizing just how weak and sapped of energy Matt is, that makes the scene so memorable. It’s especially evocative because – in the episode in which we see our final flashback to Battlin’ Jack – it shows just how much Matt has become the spittin’ image of his dad.

This is tight, effective, craftsman-like scripting. It’s important to note at this point that these two episode’s were the only two written by original showrunner Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) before he decamped for seemingly greener pastures (Son’y Spiderman… oops…). You can see this in the end product. Both episode’s tie together beautifully, taking place chronologically in an extremely compact window, and both lean heavily on something future writers seem to care not one lick about – Matt’s relationship with his father. Episode 3, just about the only episode I would consider a standalone issue rather than a piece of an arc, looks lost in the woods in comparison, brilliant introduction of Fisk aside. It abandons what seemed to be Goddard’s unifying flashback conceit and leans heavily on Matt’s maneuverings in the courtroom, which, as we see through the rest of the season, are a completely expendable facet of this show’s idea of Matt Murdock. We never really enter see Matt giving an impassioned speech to a jury or dealing with objections again; based on how confusing his motives are in this episode (in which he defends a man who he knows is guilty), this might actually be a blessing.

About that Fisk reveal though: saving that for episode 3, and keeping him seperate form Matt until episode 6… those were some big risks. The show ramps up to the idea of this unknowable figure who runs a vast criminal syndicate while never allowing anyone to speak his name. This could be a chore, having three whole episodes of waiting for someone to speak a name we all know will be spoken (a la “come on Benedict Cumberbatch, we all know you’re Khan…”).

But the show has an ace up its sleeve, a stand-in who ably carries the ship until Fisk appears – the persnickety lieutenant Wesley. In what turns out to be a stellar cast across the board (Cox, with that sleepy croak in his voice, is a true discovery as Murdock and D’Onofrio brings unexpected pathos in every single one of his barked whispers), Toby Leonard Moore may very well be the first season’s MVP. In a role that could have been a sniveling appetizer to D’Onofrio’s beefy main course, Leonard Moore owns a room full of baddies and lends a certain mystique to his boss, even once Fisk does finally appear and ask sweetly for wine recommendations.

The only other time I’ve seen Moore, it was in a bit part in John Wick, a film that serves as a fine template for what Daredevil pulls off in its transcendent second arc. In John Wick, a group of Russian gangsters unintentionally draw the ire of an unstoppable foe who takes apart their burgeoning empire. The fascinating trick Daredevil pulls off is turning these Russians, who start as stereotypes (and never truly transcend stereotype) into sympathetic, even tragic figures – evoking Icarus in the way they fly to close to the sun – without ever letting us lose sight of how awful they are. This is where Joe Posanski, co-executive producer of the series and writer of episode’s 4 and 6, completely changes the direction of Daredevil. This is the show’s longform masterpiece.

Episode 4 returns unexpectedly to flashback storytelling, just for one little prologue; but this time, our POV characters are the Ranskahov brothers, who escape a Siberian gulag and vow to make a new start in New York. As we know by now, they’ve done a bang up job, getting a place at the table in Fisk’s Legion of Doom Ethnically Delineated Mob Stereotypes. Keep in mind, as your heart sinks when one of them is decapitated even as he went out of his way to swallow his pride and reaffirm his dedication to Fisk (chalk it up to bad timing), that we’ve seen these directly or indirectly traffic young woman, kidnap a child, and brutalize Claire Temple. These are two despicable brothers, but Posanski finds the soulfulness in their attempt to keep their own identity in tact while kowtowing to the subordinate of a man whose name they can not speak. Everything about this series is clicking at this point (with one notable exception), and its fascinating to see how plotlines feed into each other – how Fisk’s courtship of Vanessa escalates Fisk’s existing plans to consolidate power and eliminate the Ranskahovs, how Matt’s activities lead to him being an easy target for a frame job, how the firm’s involvement with Elena and the tenement building puts him in the right place to find out about the extent of police corruption in the NYPD. Here is where we see most of the show’s “Oh wow” moments: Fisk unleashing his id for the first time, Detective Blake and Hoffman’s heel turn, the unexpected bombing of Hell’s Kitchen, every single delicious moment of Episode 6…

Episode 6 is perfect. It is a master class in how to follow up a big twist (the bombings) with fallout that feels emotionally relevant for our characters. We spend most of the episode locked in a dreary building with Matt and a dying goon we should abhor. Yet, with everything boiled down to its essence, the show finds its soul, unlocking the kinds of depths that the 13th episode’s climax so clearly lacks. It is in this arc, and specifically in this episode, that Vladamir Ranskahov, separated from his brother, in his death throes, becomes a legitimately great character. As he tells Matt the name of his next target (and we prepare ourselves for an arc in which Matt takes down Lelend) and goes out in a blaze of glory, the potential for this series seems pretty much limitless halfway through!

But as we’ve already mentioned, Stick comes along and puts the kibbosh on all of that so we can think about magic children for a hot minute.

It’s not like Stick is the only problem with Daredevil. His storyline (not his flashbacks, which are fine, but the predicament he introduces) is indicative of a universe that always feels the need to hint at something bigger rather than reveling in the now. But the loop that Ben, Karen, and Foggy get caught in for much of the front half of the season introduces a new problem to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it brings Netflix into the fold – bloated Netflix runtimes mean that sometimes the show can live a little too much in the now.

Pretty much every episode asks “What we can we do with the 10 minutes we need to dedicate to those characters this episode?”

Pretty much every episode fails to answer that question satisfactorily.

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Let me be clear. I love each of these performances. I disagree with the consensus that Eldon Henson’s long-haired jester is a drastic departure from comics’ Foggy; I actually think its a truly great interpretation. I also had no qualms shipping Foggy and Karen when the show asked me to (especially during that one hospital scene), and still see little reason to ship Karen and Matt outside of their history in the comics.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? These characters all work in the same office (Ben excepted), but Matt and Karen may as well live in different cities from, like, Episode 1 until Episode 10 or so. The Continuing Adventures of Ben and Karen, Crack Investigators. The Continuing Adventurers of Foggy and Karen, Moony-Eyed Do-Gooders… these are both shows that operate in the Daredevil universe, and would be fine shows on their own I suppose, but where they are placed in context of Matt and Fisk’s ongoing battle always means they’re echoing back information that we already know. Union Allied is bad. Fisk wants the tenements. Fisk killed his father.

Their quest puts them in perpetual peril (and leads to the show’s most notable deaths) but it never contributes any momentum to a show that thrives on it. So while it’s nice to see Karen and Foggy get drunk together, again, it begs the question: are these characters we needed to keep up with every episode? In an ideal world, they would be; but Daredevil intentionally inverts the traditional hero-focus dynamic. It gives all the innovative inspiration to the various characters in the criminal syndicate, and explores their humanity as they turn on each other; it leaves Karen and Foggy out to dry.

The last few episodes of the season attempt to address this by introducing conflict between the Nelson & Murdock team. Foggy discovers that Matt is a vigilante, and his anger causes him to lash out at Karen, ending their flirtation. Ben and Matt come this close to forming something like their comic book relationship until Ben, under immense financial strain, tells Karen he’s backing down. The Scooby Gang is splitting up! This, of course, leads Karen to do the very silly thing she does that ends up getting Ben killed and leading Wesley to her. It would all feel tightly plotted if revealing Fisk’s past misdeeds actually led to his demise, but this proves to be another dead end. The show’s bloat actually presents a unique problem: we are presented with about fifteen ways to bring Fisk down (Union Allied, the murder of his father, dissension in the ranks), but the one that does it (Detective Hoffman, whose survival feels like a footnote when it comes back up) feels a bit like Al Capone being brought down for taxes. There is undoubtedly a measure of satisfaction in watching D’Onofrio counter every move, but he does it so many times that he eliminates some of the show’s more interesting avenues.

Still, there is a measure of poetry to what ends up doing Fisk in: a temper tantrum, just like the one that led to the downfall of the Ranskahovs. D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk is consistently fascinating. It has little precedence in the comics, where Fisk is always the picture of dapper confidence and unerring menace. D’Onofrio instead seems to be playing on Fisk’s uncanny resemblance to a grown-up newborn. He plays Daredevil’s nemesis as immature to the point of an almost sweet naivete. He loves Vanessa completely – tenderly even – and believes completely that bombing Hell’s Kitchen is an act of similarly tender love for his city. It’s incredible the amount of symbolism and poetry they pull out of Fisk’s attempts to use routine and culture to counteract his innate brutishness, his childlike temperament. His obsession with white canvas, the way the show uses his preferred classical music as signpost for his misdeeds, and especially the contrast in his routine pre- and post-Vanessa are all artful explorations of the soul of this man. There’s a part of you that hates him for evading capture and making his grand dash for Vanessa and freedom, but also a part of you that hopes he’ll get away.

Had the show ended right there, with Fisk on his way to Vanessa (or even with Matt standing in the truck’s path) this may very well have been the triumph of the MCU, the most evocative encapsulation of the Marvel ethos. As it stands in that moment climactic moment, everything feels so complex, so gray. It feels far from some tidy punch-kick solution.

And it is preordained that the solution that has been presented, with Matt jump-punching Fisk so hard it knocked him straight into a prison cell, will be complicated by Season 2. Just about the only moment that shows promise in the season’s final scenes is the one in which Fisk, now fully cognizant of the beast he is, stares at the prison wall, a blank white canvas just as daunting as the one he bought for millions from Vanessa.

Daredevil has more arcs in store for us, and Fisk will be a big part of them. Some will soar. Some will suck. Still, I have to admit that a little part of me will never be able to cope with the fact that none of them will include Ben Urich breaking down the dichotomy of Daredevil the way only he can.

Ice Cold War: Red Army (B+)

Possibly the most telling revelation in the hockey (and so much more than hockey) documentary Red Army?

If it seemed like the almost-but-never-quite-a-war between the Soviet Union and the United States was actually being fought on the ice, with stick-wielding skaters as soldiers, it’s because – at least for the Soviets – it essentially was, and the skaters essentially were.

Director Gabe Polsky – in a fun, graphically arresting documentary – recounts the saga of the Центральный Спортивный Клуб Армии, known colloquially as the Red Army Club. This examination of the Soviet sporting mindset is filtered mostly through the recollections of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a soldier (and yes, he was a drafted soldier, as were all the members of his team) who was the undisputed hockey star of the Soviet Union from five years before the Miracle on Ice until five years after it, and struggled mightily with higher ups in the Soviet military (including his coach, installed by the KGB) before being allowed to play in the NHL without any of his contract being sent back to the USSR.

This is the story, then, of the all-too-familiar (Miracle, Rocky IV, etc) American underdog complex of 1980s sports, but told told from the perspective of Ivan Drago.

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It’s a fun twist, and revealing in its own disarming way.

The main point is this: to demythologize our deeply-embedded notion of Soviet athletes as monosyllabic steroidal hunks of learned doctrine. This mission is helped along immensely by Fetisov, one of the more vivid interview subjects a “talking heads” style film like this could hope for. Slava is charming, well-spoken, and far enough removed from both his highs and lows to add a wry, ironic perspective to most of the proceedings (though notably, watching the Miracle on Ice game still dims the twinkle in his eye). He’s also ornery and stubborn – Polsky goes out of his way to show us that his subject is not a trained monkey reciting the filmmaker’s hoped-for script. As soon as a distracted Slava raises a middle finger to an inquiring Polsky within the film’s opening sequence, we are reassured in knowing that what we’re getting isn’t Polsky speaking through Slava – Polsky would have an easier time blowing out a forest fire – but Slava unfiltered.

It’s a neat trick – it lends an air of authenticity, important when dealing with a subject like the Cold War, which still has people who were on the “front line” tight-lipped to this day – but it is a bit cute. Polsky uses a similar device to defang the KGB. The seasoned KGB spook he’s interviewing – the guy who went along with the team to places like Canada to ensure none of them would defect – is occasionally interrupted by what appears to be his adorable Russian granddaughter, who will hop in the frame and remind the audience of a few things: that modern little girls in Russia don’t know what the KGB is, that many years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that even KGB agents grow into adorable old men who eat ice cream with their granddaughters. That KGB agent isn’t just there to recite his interpretation of facts; he lends atmosphere, context, and more than a little bit of metatextual hindsight.

So yes, Polsky’s documentary may be presented in the fairly straight-forward talking heads format, with no narration or personal editorializing, but the director’s guiding hand is obvious in these peaks behind the curtain. He has an innate narrative sense. Look at how he contrasts the Red Army coaches: he presents the jolly, red-nosed eccentric Anatoli Tarasov as a mix between a Soviet Santa Claus and Yoda, and really does a number on his KGB-installed replacement Viktor Tikhonov, who may as well be hockey’s Gran Moff Tarkin.

I’m sure there’s evidence out there that would complicate both of these readings, but Polsky keeps it simple so that – when Slava, feeling exploited and missused by Tikhonov, takes a stand and leaves the Red Army and is unofficially banned from pretty much every hockey institution – a narrative circle is closed and an immense feeling of catharsis is triggered when the padowan returns to his disgraced, hobbled master, Tarasov, for the training that will keep him in shape for his imminent victory lap in America. It’s poetic. It’s perfect.

It would be too perfect if the story ended here, with Fetisov freed to earn the big capitalist dollars in the good ol’ USA and the Soviet Union whimpering red-faced and defeated. Instead, the documentary truly takes off in its third act as it faces the complicated reality for Russian superstars in an America that still resented them. In many ways, American teammates, coaches, and fans were as cruel as the Soviets had been to the Fetisovs and their ilk; they had no way of knowing what a ballsy move Fetisov had made in essentially telling Soviet higher-ups to shove it and using his immense celebrity to make an unprecedented move. He was just Ivan Drago in ice skates, the face of the red Army hockey team in a New Jersey Devils jersey. The situation uses the sports underdog complex we so love to further humanize the Russians while also speaking, as so much of this doc does, to the sociopolitical.

Vindication for Slava and many of his teammates, now cast-offs, came when they were assembled by Scotty Bowman on the Detroit Wed Wings and allowed to replicate thier nearly telepathic ice ballet by a coach who appreciated rather than resented the Russian system of play. The documentary doesn’t dote on it, but many of the hockey star’s late-career and post-career achievements color our ultimate understanding of a figure like Fetisov. He could have been an exile from his homeland, but when he won the Stanley Cup, he fought to bring it to Russia. This tugs at the heartstrings. But… During many of his interviews, he wears a Sochi Olympics shirt, and we come to find out that, during filming, he is actually working under Putin to help plan the now divisive 22nd Winter Games. He and many of his teammates, after fighting with resolve to part ways with the Red Army, have returned to offer a helping hand. Having told us this, Polsky leaves us without commenting too much on the current regime. Are we proud of these Red Army stars for returning to their homeland to act as benevolent Tarasovs for a new generation of Russian sports fans? Or are we dissapointed that they have become a new generation of Tikhonovs, enforcing the doctrine of an increasingly dark regime. For once, Polsky keeps out of the way and lets us demythologize this conundrum on our own.

Spinning Its Wheels: Furious 7 (C+)

As big a game as we, as a culture, talk when it comes to the ubiquity of sequels, franchises, and the attendant fatigue that comes with them, we’ve rarely had occasion to tackle something like the Fast and Furious franchise. Something this massive, lumbering, unwieldy, convoluted, and – on the flip side – brilliant, awe-inspiring, and utterly cinematic is almost entirely unique. Perhaps only the James Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe have built to a place quite like this one, a place where their seventh film (or beyond) wasn’t some tired retread or affront to the memory of fans, but instead established the series as a continuing and well-regarded institution of the cinematic arts. Of those, only the Fast & Furious series couldn’t get the principles of its cast to return for its second and/or third installments, seemingly relegating the franchise to forgotten speed-freak curio status.

These films are 21st Century Cinema’s Strange Symphony. Where most contemporary tentpoles are at least adapted from other works, it is entirely original, based on no existing property (unless you count car makes and models). It is unabashedly goofy (in an adorably tone-deaf way initially, though now, endearingly and artfully). Its melodies combine elements – revving cars, roaring explosions – that everyone finds cacophonous in just about every other composition (especially when the composer is Michael Bay). It is also burdened with the unique distinction of nearly forcing everyone in its audience outside of true diehards to nod off or duck out of the concert hall during its third movement.

Everyone has some snippet of the symphony they don’t love; for most it’s that sojourn to Tokyo. (For me it’s Letty’s amnesia.) Many would argue that more than half the movements in the symphony are nothing more than mediocre. And yet – and YET – if film historians aren’t using this series 100 years hence as a case study for the ways it typifies the blockbuster culture of the early 2000s… and for the ways it defies and confounds just about everything we’d expect from said culture, then film historians 100 years in the future probably aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Fast Five is, for many, the peak of not just this still-in-progress symphony but of action cinema of a recent vintage, period. A heist movie set in Rio, it may as well have been a standalone movie for as little as it had to do with the street-racing drama that had come before it. It also could not have existed, or assembled the group of actors and themes it did, without the first four films (whatever their merits) having already done most of the heavy lifting. It felt simultaneously weighty – in the way it assembled the previously segregated gangs of racers, and an already insane amount of continuity, under one Robin Hood-steal-from-the-rich umbrella, giving us a franchise that felt as diverse and representational as its audience, which is still novel four years later – and light as air. None of this continuity seemed to weigh Fast Five down at all. If you hated Tokyo Drift, that was okay; Fast Five was going to make sure you loved Fast Five.

Furious 7 feels heavier. Part of this is out of necessity: Paul Walker’s death came abruptly, halfway through what should have been a long life and long career, and halfway through production on this film. This necessitated rewrites and ensured a sense of finality would color this movie even if there are countless more Fast films yet to come.

If we were grading on a curve, then Furious 7 would get a massive boost for managing to pull together a full, fleshed out, and fitting farewell storyline for a character who had been the lynchpin of the franchise from the word “go” (or in the parlance of the films’, from the moment a scantily clad woman dropped both her hands and ducked between two oncoming cars) in spite of the fact that the actor who played him could no longer perform (a fact which, as is well-known publicly, left the rest of the case in legitimate and ongoing mourning).

Paul Walker’s Brian is a major part of Furious 7. He is always present, in on the action, playing off the other characters. There’s never any plot device that sidelines him in an overly obvious way; by that metric, an uninformed viewer might accidentally assume that it was the actor who plays Hobbes, rehabbing in the hospital for most of the film’s runtime, who had met an untimely end and not the guy who is in nearly every scene. At a certain point, I stopped trying to gauge which scenes had been played out by real Walker and which had been fudged using body doubles, CGI, and archival audio. Taking stock at the end of the film, I had simply assumed that only some action work and an obvious climactic car scene had been manipulated. Let it be a testament to movie magic, then, that in truth it was actually much (MUCH) more all-encompassing than that and I was blissfully none the wiser.

Still, even if nothing about Brian seems that off, something about the film does.

Reversing Out of the Driveway

Furious 7 begins in media res – we don’t find out until after an imposing speech from Declan Shaw (Jason-mutha-f’in-Statham) to his comatose brother that an entire throwdown has already occurred. We have to play catch up as we follow Declan out of the hospital and see the aftermath of what he has already done. This subterfuge right out the gate is a brilliant move on the part of new director James Wan. It shows confidence. Confidence that we’ll play along, that we’ll follow him wherever he’ll take us. Confidence that he can live up to the promise previous director Justin Lin made when he brought Statham into the picture for a continuity-solidifying seconds-long cameo.

It’s also just about the last time for almost an hour that Furious 7 stays out ahead of the curve and actually leads its audience somewhere it doesn’t expect to go. Because now the film proceeds to pretend that the previous film’s post-credit tag doesn’t exist. Maybe, for some, it doesn’t (there are still actually people who, at a film like Fast Five or Iron Man 3, get up as soon as the credits role as if they have some important appointment they might miss; with how bad post-credit teases of recent vintage have been, they may be the lucky ones), but for someone who saw Declan blow up Han and finally close the circle on Tokyo Drift’s time displacement, for someone hoping for forward moment, this is downright painful.

We now spend an almost unfathomable amount of time learning three things we already know – Declan Shaw kills Han, Dom Toretto goes to Tokyo after Han’s death, and Letty has amnesia. Until Kurt Russell shows up and blessedly gets the plot moving after Han’s funeral, this is really all Furious 7 is; an in-depth flashback examining events that were pretty nicely summed up in much shorter, much better scenes in previous films. The swerving and speeding will still come, but first Furious 7 has to reverse slowly out of the driveway. In the course of doing so it even brings back Lucas Black as Shane, pretending to talk to Dom mere seconds after they last interacted on film nine years ago. We can now do wonders with movie magic. We can make it seem like Paul Walker was present for scenes in which he could not have been present. But we cannot ensure that Lucas Black (who was already an unconvincing high schooler in 2003) does not wear every one of those nine intervening years on his face.

The only new material in the film’s opening act deals with Letty’s amnesia. Now maybe this is a personal bias, but amnesia is a pretty silly plot device by any metric. I understand that, scientifically, it is an all-too-real affliction, but it still seems like something a bad screenwriter came up with to make sure something that needed to be conveniently forgotten was. Such is the case with Letty in the previous Fast and Furious film. Her amnesia dragged down that sixth installment even when it was a necessary evil (how else to explain Letty’s extended absence?) but, once that plot necessity was fulfilled, I fully expected it to be swept under the rug. Instead, it is used in Furious 7 not for any discernable plot reason, but as an “important emotional struggle.” Translation: a crutch.

Letty is having trouble adjusting to what she is being told is her “real” life. This is a life she doesn’t remember. It seems like a nice life, and the lumbering fellow who gazes at her with googoo eyes seems decent, but all she knows of her life to this point is a terrorist cell and a grave with her name on it. To some extent, this is just filler to pad a runtime – something for non-Brian characters to deal with that has absolutely no consequence on the story. Still, it could be a pretty okay hook. But it necessitates an unfortunate nostalgic detour even further back into franchise mythology (further even than Lucas Black drifting in Tokyo), all the way back to film number one and its NOS-fueled street races. It’s a neat idea: Dom and Letty have built a street race utopia where no innocent bystanders can get hurt and no one has to listen to police scanners or block roads. There is racial harmony, none of the segregated posturing of that first Fast film. Still, it feels extremely retrograde in one aspect – the way it ogles women. It helps little that a woman wins the race when every other woman in the scene (hi there Iggy Azalea?) is fetishized. As the camera crawls up and down the body of the “starter girl,” making sure to catch her from behind as her skirt flaps up revealing her thong, it feels less like an acknowledgment of where this series started (pretty much every film has featured a street race scene like this) or celebration of a cultural milieu, and more like a palate cleanser for the male gaze. “Hey male gaze, there’ll probably be tears coming from your gazing eyes later because of the whole Paul Walker thing, but before we get there, how about… this!”

Bro-oap Opera

It’s important to remember – and easy to forget – that as sensitive and progressive as these films have become in most respects, they are still catering to the “bro” element – that element of energy-drink-hoarding, GTA players to whom it is easiest to attribute the franchise’s success. (Which is utter nonsense at this point; Furious 7, the fastest film to reach 1 billion dollars worldwide, is being watched by everyone, everywhere. Especially women, including women who hoard energy drinks and play GTA!)

Take our only new gang member as an example: Ramsey is a brilliant computer-programmer, but, to Roman’s surprise, she is also a beautiful black woman. She defies stereotypes on all counts, which is a really, really nice thought. She is also comically beautiful, ogled in a slow motion bikini shot, a la Ursula Andress/Halle Berry (let us never forget that Daniel Craig got equal treatment). It straddles a line this franchise has never been great at straddling, between including competent women in the action at critical junctures and condescending to them because they are, above all, pleasant to look at. Gal Gadot was a particular victim of this before she joined the Justice League as Wonder Woman. But it’s also hit Mia Toretto hard too. She is the mother of Brian’s child and, if she’s put in danger, a really good way to get the gang riled up. Because of Walker’s limited availability, she is kept far from the action this time.

Perhaps because of the way women were written into corners, the Fast films prioritized male relationships, sometimes to an almost comical level. Sure, Brian and Mia are in love, and so are Dom and Letty, but anyone who got more out of their relationships then they got from the extremely close bond between Brian and Dom was reading against the grain of what the film’s explicitly spelled out.

Michelle Rodriguez does an incredible job of carrying the climactic scene where she coaxes Dom back to life by telling him that the real Letty is back, but something feels off, because, in our hearts, this is where Paul Walker’s absence is truly felt. If Walker were really there, he would be the one propping Dom up, asking him to come back. Because Dom and Brian aren’t just friends or associates. They are family. They are brothers. Bros in the noblest sense of that term. And the Fast and the Furious series is the greatest example we are ever likely to see of the Bro-oap Opera.

No saga this endearingly silly has ever been more serious about eliciting real feelings out of close male relationships. The bromance has been taken next level under the stewardship of the men behind the Fast franchise. It was right there at the beginning, with the way Brian and Dom fell for eachother even though theirs was forbidden love, one a cop, the other a robber. Lin refined that into a magnificent cocktail of bro-nificence, his true masterstroke being the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the fold. When the series needed an infusion of conflict, Johnson was brought in to reenact Brian’s arc, from pursuer to ally to family member, all over again. But next to Walker, Johnson looked like a caricature of masculinity, and spoke and acted like one too. By acting first in defiance of this muscled-up Uncle Sam, and then acting under his orders, the once criminal gang was given a sheen of lawfulness and innate goodness, especially as they’ve stood in opposition of foreign threats.

There are a lot of absurd and wonderful things that happen in Furious 7. Cars reverse out of a plane and parachute to the earth. Brian runs up a vehicle as it falls from a cliff. An expensive supercar jumps from one skyscraper to another, and then does it again. Dom jumps a car towards a helicopter and neatly places a bag of grenades on it… just… so. But nothing trumps what Johnson is asked to do. He is thrown from a building after a scuffle with Statham, and comes out of it alive. He then drives an ambulence off an overpass into a drone, which explodes. At this point I assumed we had to have seen the last of his Hobbes, but no, Johnson kicks out the front window of the ambulence and quips. He is indestrucible. He, like Diesel, is a God.

Brian, amongst these effortlessly cool, multicultural badasses, was our way in. Not because he was white (okay initially that was definitely part of the impetus behind Walker’s casting, let’s not lie) but because, as a cop, he came at situations with what we consider a traditional dichotomy of right and wrong and, as a normally proportioned human being, he looked like he could actually be hurt. Had Brian been in that ambulance, his heroism would have been a deadly sacrifice; for Hobbes it is another trump card in an ever-escalating game of chicken. As incredible as it is to see Johnson engage in fisticuffs with Statham, and then to see Diesel do likewise with Statham (and as fun as it is to remember when Diesel and Johnson duked it out in Rio); and as much these dream battles of today render the creaky dream battles of yesteryear in the Expendables series irrelevant and sad… this series needs the human element that Brian brought out in Dom. The sense that everytime he brought his team out in the field, Dom might be endangering the lives of someone important. Certainly not himself, because Dom is a freak of nature. But someone in his family. Someone like Brian.

This is why, in strict story terms, the film’s coda makes absolutely no sense, but it still, without any doubt, works. By the logic of this world, Dom’s departure from the happy beach hangout is a jerk move – what, is he never going to see his sister again? Will he not be at his new niece/nephew’s birth? Is that supposed to be the takeaway?

But as soon as Roman tells Tej to shut up and take a look at the beautiful moment before them – of Brian’s family happy, at peace – Furious 7, with its story about the team putting the Shaw saga behind them, is officially over, and a short film about finality and moving on takes its place. In this short film, the lines between characters and actors is blurred. For Tyrese, Ludacris, and Michelle Rodriguez, this was a fourth outing with Walker. For Diesel, this was film number five. That’s no small potatoes. The filmmakers were faced with a fork in the road, similar to the one we see in the film’s last scene. They could have serviced the continuing story, as they’ve tended to do since Lin took over. Or they could say goodbye. They chose to say goodbye. It was the right choice.

While the filmmakers truly worked magic keeping Brian in the film, Walker’s death and the rewrites hobbled the narrative momentum of Furious 7. It’s not a black mark upon the series or any of those involved – here’s to hoping that no other film will ever have to go though what those involved in this film did. I fully expect the next few films to be great, especially if Tyrese and Ludacris (especially Ludacris, who is really quite phenomenal) continue to do good work as the team’s new default everymen.

With all that said, with all those missed opportunities in the flabby middle, Furious 7 closes as well as it opens. Actually, it closes better. Statham’s hospital escape is a great opening statement to this movement of the Fast & Furious Symphony, but it could have come from any composition, really. Only the Fast and Furious symphony has earned the earnest emotion that’s on display as Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa send Vin Diesel one way and send Paul Walker – surrounded by the sort of uncanny halo you might expect to see around someone who’s been poorly greenscreened onto a background, which would normally seem to indicate poor craftsmanship, but seems downright intentional here, seems legitimately poetic – the other.

Artificially Intelligent: Chappie (D+)

Hugh Jackman has made a career – quite a great one at this juncture – out of stretching. Considering the bodybuilding regimen he goes through every time he is fitted with his X-Men claws, he may well be the most apt thespian when it comes to the art of stretching: stretching his body to the very outskirts of believability when he beefs up and veins out to play tough-guy Wolverine; stretching his vocal range to the stratosphere in an attempt to keep up with the angelic high notes that reverberate to this day from Colm Wilkinson’s take on Jean Valjean belting “Bring Him Home.” Only Jackman could have taken on both those roles in the same year, and worn a ballsack prosthetic on his chin, and still made it out with a viable film career.

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How odd it is then that Jackman has never seemed more lost than in Chappie– the third feature film, most definitely not the charm, from South African director Neill Blomkamp – playing a non-singing human with no claws and no testicles covering his neck. As a rather ordinary engineer with a silly haircut and an unfortunate predilection for short shorts, Jackman has a simple emotion to convey – jealousy – but comes off such a grotesque for Chappie’s entire runtime that he doesn’t seem so much driven to madness by envy as possessed by an ancient Lovecraftian totem of envy that boils his blood and turns him unwittingly into a sociopathic, imperialist asshole. Jackman’s Vincent Moore is everything that makes his prized robot MOOSE such an unwieldy sell to the Johannesburg police department – big, clunking, a blunt force instrument when something with finesse is required.

This falls completely on Blomkamp since Jackman has already given cinema one of its more iconic portrayals of jealousy gone off the rails in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

Blomkamp was, after the phenomenal success of District 9, hailed as a potential blockbuster auteur, in the vein of mentor Peter Jackson and of Nolan, but Elysium dampened the enthusiasm of most (though I found it emotionally effecting) and Chappie has euthanized that enthusiasm in all but a hearty few. It is a film full of miscalculations – not just Jackman’s lunkheaded antagonist, but rappers Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord as gangsters whom Chappie comes to see as his adopted parents (and who eventually reciprocate that feeling), and Dev Patel, who is initially quite able in his role as a passionate scientist who unlocks artificial intelligence, but who, in lockstep with Jackman’s rival engineer, loses his ever-loving mind.

Pretty much the only significant player who comes out of this looking alright (and no Sigourney Weaver is not significant enough in Chappie’s world to merit that distinction) is the only other human on the planet whose stock has dropped more precipitously since District 9 – that film’s star and Blomkamp’s muse/friend Sharlto Colpey. Since playing Wikus van der Merwe, Copley has been wonderful in a film no one saw, Europa Report, and has been awful in everything else – Elysium, A-Team, the new show Powers, and especially Maleficent. He is an overactor and scenery chewer par excellence.

Looking for Copley shouting manically in Chappie but can’t find him anywhere? It’s because he IS Chappie. Chappie was performed by Copley on set and voiced by Copley. It’s not quite a motion capture performance, as it didn’t involve those funny little ping pong balls capturing movement – instead Copley was erased by animators and completely replaced with the Chappie design – but its a similar idea. It lacks the facial nuance of a Serkis performance, since Chappie’s expressiveness is limited to pixel eyes, but on the whole, the character of Chappie, essentially an advanced baby born into the worst circumstances and learning the ropes, comes off pretty well.

It’s the maelstrom that Chappie sets in motion by gaining sentience that makes little sense. Essentially we find ourselves in a South Africa policed by Robocops – a South Africa so comfortable with robot officers, in fact, that a cyborg isn’t even needed to convince people of these machine’s human touch. They’re totally fine. They do exactly what they say they’re going to do; they reduce crime. The only people who don’t like them are criminals like Ninja and Yolandi. (And Vincent Moore, because he’s an asshole.) Patel’s Deon Wilson, their designer, is an undisputed hero/savior/all-around-good-guy.

Deon and Vincent work under Michelle Bradley (Weaver) at Tetravaal, the company that manufactures the robots. Chappie is just one of many robots; he (or, really, “it,” at that point) just happens to be out of commission on the day Deon Frankenstein needs a corpse to bring TO LIFE! This is the first of many irresponsible things Deon does in response to what seem like perfectly rational concerns from his CEO, who is essentially ruined by two rogue employees who don’t listen to her reasonable edicts and, in blindly striving for their opposite goals, bring down a life-saving infrastructure and throw a metropolis into chaos. If this is supposed to be an anti-corporate movie, it’s a failure.

It is the story of two petulant geniuses ruining something good for everyone around them, and it helps little that one of the geniuses (the more sympathetic party) made that environment possible in the first place. He is throwing away a corps of soulless but utterly competent robots for the dream of a machine with a soul. A machine that can learn, form its own opinions, and appreciate and create art. We’re supposed to see Bradley as out of touch because she fails to see the romance (or the profits) in this concept, which means that this may very well be the very first movie that not only isn’t at least somewhat worried about what might happen if we created AI – it unabashedly thinks that even an AI that’s been cast out in a desolate ghetto, firebombed, and relieved of an arm would still be a benevolent if slightly foul-mouthed friend – but doesn’t even realize that some people, for good reason, might have reservations.

The only true anti-AI voice is that of Vincent, and his hatred of Artificial Intelligence is not given even a lick of credence. As we come to find out, it’s really just that he doesn’t want a robot out there that he can’t control, making him the last man you want controlling a massive robot. Once he is let loose and put in control of the MOOSE, he shows it wasn’t Deon’s fame or respect he was after, though surely there is some part of him that was upset that his job was “outsourced to an Indian.” Vincent just wanted to the ability to sit comfortably in chair while blowing away people he doesn’t deem human – gangsters, minorities, rival engineers. He is giddy with power. If this prick having the keys to a killing machine is the alternative, AI seems just peachy.

So peachy that, by the end of the film, it is proposed as not just a beautiful thing in and of itself but (major spoiler ahead) as an alternative to death! Vincent happened to invent a neural scanner which Chappie, after a few minutes of learning how computers work, retrofits into a consciousness transfer machine. It is meant only for him, but when Deon is fatally wounded in the film’s climactic battle and Yolandi is killed, Chappie manages to find them robot bodies (this film suggests that a helmet, simply by sitting atop their heads, could scan brainwaves from Yolandi and Chappie, in spite of the fact that their heads are frightfully dissimilar, noth inside and out, so, GREAT HELMET). To be clear: the souls of humans were captured by a helmet and turned into computer code, and now that code resides in the body of a robot, evolving of its own volition. Is this new code-soul really Deon? Is Code-Soul-Deon existentially terrified to be a machine? Chappie doesn’t care: not dying is not dying, and we are ordered to be happy that some piece of Deon and Yolandi remain.

Chappie, a quite realistic looking robot, may not visually trigger our Uncanny Valley sensors (those alarms that tell us the dead-eyed kids in Polar Express are creepy), but here, existentially, it sets off an Uncanny Valley fire. Chappie takes the mad scientist crown from Deon because he is so afraid of the concept of death that he now gives life. Or “life,” it’s tough to tell.

Chappie is terrified of death for two reasons: everyone is always lying to him and manipulating him and he is the most poorly constructed corporate machine ever.

The entire film relies on two completely idiotic conceits. The first is the rivalry between Ninja and Deon. Ninja has himself a police robot he can control and wants to raise his baby robot to be a carjacking thug. Deon believes that Chappie was created for a higher purpose than this, pretty much on the basis that Deon created him and doesn’t like carjacking. Chappie is caught between his Maker, who makes him promise not to commit crimes, and his Daddy (Ninja), who lies and tells him the things he’s doing aren’t crimes… They’re fun games! The people are just sleeping when you throw ninja stars at their throat lil Chap! Literally every interaction sees the same sequence of events play out: Chappie is reluctant to get involved because his Maker made him promise not to eat the apple in the garden of Eden, and the snake convinces him its not really an apple, its a persimmon.

Eventually Chappie is won over to the dark side (turning into an impetuous teenage robot who won’t to talk to Maker or Daddy) when he begins wrestling with Idiotic Conceit #2: Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…

But wait, can’t the battery be replaced?

No, it is melded to the carapace or something. Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…

But can’t the battery be recharged at some recharging statio…

NO!! CHAPPIE’S BATTERY WILL DIE IN FIVE DAYS!!!

So either Tetravaal is making disposable robots that they scrap once the battery runs out (in which case, I take it back. Michelle Bradley is a horrible CEO), or no one thinks to tell Chappie that batteries can be recharged. Either way, it puts a ticking clock on the movie that feels urgent but fake. It forces Chappie to wrestle with big ideas, but in a way that feels contrived.

He is just coming to terms with his crisis when a big robot drops out of the sky and forces his hand anyway; he has to use his consciousness transfer machine on everyone. Dramatically, its inert. Literally every roadblock that’s set up is overcome only a moment later. What’s that, there’s only one robot body to use between Deon and Chappie, forcing Chappie to save his Maker rather than himself?! No prob, Chappie remote connects to a body not even a minute later. Even Yolandi’s death is so short-lived that her resurrection seems abrupt. (Sorry third gangster that’s not in the rap group Die Antwoord, you weren’t important enough for Chappie to lovingly capture your brainwaves on a flash drive, so you’ll just have to stay brutally murdered.)

There are occasional moments of subdued thoughtfulness in Chappie, though they rarely have much to do with the overarching narrative. One scene in particular sticks out: a police captain thoughtfully rejects Vincent’s MOOSE, which the police force simply does not need or want, while stuffing his face with the food that Tetravaal is providing him. There’s implied corruption, or at least gluttony, involved here, but, looking at the bigger picture, the Johannesberg police department and Michelle Bradley have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship that seems to harm nobody until two cowboy engineers get into a pissing match. So what is exactly is Blomkamp trying to say about the police? Maybe he’s trying to comment on the JoBerg of today (and in the Die Antwoord sections, he most certainly is as he readily embraces their “zef” aesthetic) but as a sci-fi director, he has to play be the rules of the world he set up. The police may be lazy bums, but by backing up a force of incorruptible robots, they are lazy bums that are saving city.

A similar thing happens in the storybook scene (lifted pretty heinously from the AI Pinnochio scene, but hey who’s complaining), where Yolandi reads a bedtime story about a black sheep and explains to Chappie what it means to be a black sheep. Okay, so Chappie’s a black sheep… in comparison to whom exactly? Outside of Vincent, and some street kids who throw Molotov cocktails at him (after Ninja abandons him in a ploy to toughen him up, which is JUST the worst idea ever), Chappie is never in contact with anyone who misunderstands him or casts him out for being different. Maybe if he’d tried to fir in with his other robots and realized how different they were, or if he’d tried more readily to assimilate into human society, this might apply. But as it is, it seems to apply more to Yolandi than Chappie. There’s a romance surrounding the ghoetto-chic “zef” lifestyle Yolandi and Ninja are living in their grafitti-covered abandoned warehouse that I think we’re supposed to see as misunderstood. I think to the majority of American audiences, though, it will remain just that: misunderstood.

It’s tough to tell exactly what Blomkamp was thinking casting the rappers as themselves (literally, they appear to actually be playing Yolandi and Ninja of the hip-hop collective Die Antwoord who just happen to need to steal cars for money; they even wear their own merchandise and Ninja mourns Yolandi by wearing a Yolandi shirt), but whatever that thought was, it doesn’t translate well. With District 9, whatever may have been lost in translation was forgiven, because an apartheid allegory is one we will all work to meet halfway. Here, some of the allegory seems hyperspecific to some things going on JoBerg that the decidedly odd (and that’s not an insult, Ninja and Yolandi know they look odd and they love it) features of the rappers-turned-actors fails to convey.

But who am I to complain? Overall, they accord themselves well, and, strange haircuts and face tattoos and all, they far outclass one of 21st century cinema’s most stable presences (and one of the sexiest men alive), Hugh Jackman, who makes Jodie Foster in Elysium look thoroughly understated and ordinary by comparison. Blomkamp has a heavy hand when it comes to antagonists and his direction of action is often too slick; thankfully, on his next film, Alien 5, his antagonist can be as bigoted, mean, and jerkish as he wants. It’ll help that the Alien won’t talk, of course.

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Where the Heart is: Home (B)

So, there was a time on this Spaceship Earth of ours when aminuscule fraction of society – one ethnicity largely confined to one continent really – amassed enough influence to parcel off most of the rest of the world,along with its people. Which might seem drastic, let alone impossible, but this tiny coalition had magic: they told themselves they were superior and they somehow possessed the conviction to believe it. They turned conquering and enslaving the majority of the inhabited world into a charity drive – “We’re helping them, poor souls.”

This was Colonialism. It made today’s innocuous other-countries of Europe – your Belgiums and Portugals – into megalomaniacs of the first order, and it really only stopped being accepted doctrine – scientifically even (eugenics shudder) – well less than a century ago.

It was a magic spell so powerful – telling yourself you’re better and then making it so by force – that we’re still shaking it off today. Who am I kidding? We may never shake it off completely.

Just look at movies – the vast majority of them still portray and, through their power over us all, enforce a world in which all the important things happen to white people and their white friends and white associates and, usually through mandate, they might tangentially affect one non-white person. We have to make ourselves make sure they have non-white people in them. Because, you know, we might forget.

If this seems like a heavy way to introduce an animated film from the studio that brought you Madagascars 1-3, it sort of is. I doubt even one child – and make no mistake, children are the audience for whom Home is primarily made – will state in appreciation, “Mummy, I think it’s quite novel that this film has – for no other reason than the fact that the vast majority of the world is non-white and more than half the world is female, so why shouldn’t she be? – a non-white, female lead.” No child will have much to say about a heartfelt scene in which Oh (Jim Parsons) apologizes to Tip (Rihanna!) for buying into his culture’s doctrine that the humans of Earth, about which he knew nothing beyond what was presented on a tiny pamphlet, are simple, pathetic creatures in need of help and change. Little about the look on the faces of families relocated to what is essentially a Human Reservation on Australia – a look of powerlessness and devastation – will register for them. And surely, as the film climaxes, their focus will be on Oh and Tip as they reunite and save the planet; it will not be on the vast sea of people behind them, which could be deemed shockingly diverse if it didn’t appear that their proportions are derived directly from the diversity of real life – on a real world where, when walking down the street, you are likely to see not just one black face or one turban, but many.

Bless these children, because for many, it won’t even occur to them to point such things out as out of the ordinary. If there are more movies made with the sensitivity of Home, they may never have the need to do so. But since I am not them, and I am 25 and cognizant of some of the attendant issues here, I am going to take a moment to highlight how casually revolutionary Home is.

It has not been that long since Disney made an appropriately big fuss about its first black princess, Tiana (and fumbled the hand-off a bit when it courted controversy by having her initially written as a maid). It has been even less time since an appropriately big fuss was made about how much Merida looked like a real, possible teenage girl (and since Disney also fumbled that hand-off by subsequently marketing glammed-up Merida dolls). We are not even a month away from an Oscars in which Every. Nominated. Actor. Was. White…

At DragonCon this past year, I had the privilege of attending a panel led by the enchanting Kelly Sue DeConnick, who described some of her troubles writing a then-unreleased comic (“Bitch Planet,” now in publication and wonderful) that shunted what we think of as the “default human,” and featured as its core cast an eclectic group of badass non-white females. The trap of the “default human” is apparent whenever a creator has to give a reason why they might include or feature a character who happens to be – instead of a heterosexual white male – gay, or Asian, or female. If no reasonable answer can be given (the reason usually being “This figure was not white in real life,” which is why so many films with black protagonists are based on history) than it is assumed that character will default to “the norm.” This is often subconscious. It is also dangerous.

So even if Home were a failure as a movie (which it is so not), it would be a major victory in this: look at Tip. If we were actually to push our way to something approaching the average teenager of Earth, we might see Tip: dark-skinned, probably mixed-race, with the body of a typical seventh-grade girl and not that of a gym-happy co-ed. Even more delightful: Tip’s natural hair, which is wonderful to behold, and which will hopefully be an inspiration to many whose hair naturally looks like Tip’s. With the imminent box office success of this film, creators will have one less reason not to write a non-white protagonist if that’s what they want to do.

That’s what Adam Rex wanted to do when he wrote a YA book, The True Meaning of Smekday. While much has changed from his original conception of Tip’s adventures with a kind member of the invading Boov race, two very important things carried over to the film: Tip’s race and the science-fiction colonialism allegory.

Without that second piece, the first might just be happy coincidence. But with its thoughtful deconstruction of a supposedly benevolent society that pushes aside whatever civilization is in its way, justifying its actions by denigrating the displaced, Home becomes something much greater. It is downright thoughtful.

It is also a lot of fun. Parsons is perfect, and eminently quotable, as a lonely clutz with a limited grasp of parts of speech such as pronouns. Rihanna is a pretty big surprise as Tip. Occasionally, a line filled with emotion comes across as slightly wooden, but the singer brings a surprising heft to her role as an abandoned teenager searching for her mother. Who knows what brought Rihanna to this project (maybe the chance to do a compilation album?), but whatever the case, the character obtains her Barbadan heritage and a some of her warrior power.

The only drawback in the film’s small voice cast is its most venerated personage, Steve Martin. Martin is hamming it up pretty hard as Captain Smek, a buffoon who unwittingly made off with the entire next generation of a rival civilization. Almost every one of his lines is a riff on “Man, do I love this human object I’m using in a weird way,” and it’s a shtick that wears out quick.

All is well though, because Smek is merely a figurehead, and it would be too easy if the ouster of one ignorant Boov immediately fixed the ills of Home’s colonialism. Instead, Home focuses wisely, as it speeds towards its conclusion, on the reconciliation of Tip and Oh and on the reparations Oh mus make now that he is in charge. The film ties together many thematic threads – humanity’s tendency to hope in spite of hopeless odds, feeling cast out by society, the ties that bind us to family – and every one of these is actually enhanced by the film’s sly insights on colonialism and by pairing a lonely purple alien with a Barbadan girl.

If the film is over-reliant on slapstick, physical comedy setpieces, and Smek’s shtick, it is thankfully free from excessive pop culture homage, Dreamworks’ bread, butter, and jam. It is also resoundingly colorful; actually, visually and aurally, it paints with colors we may not be used to in animated fare. During on alien fight sequence, there is an actual Drrrrooooppp!

It’s interesting to see and hear a film aimed at a young audience play with new flavors, pulling freely from the world Rihanna rules as Princess Regent. (Because Beyonce is Queen, obvi.) The film glows a dancefloor green and purple, a palate borrowed from the Slushies that power Tip’s hover car. It may not seem that novel, but in fact, this is the film’s own quiet revolution. Digital coloring has pushed film comically in the direction of an orange and teal tint: many films look like a broadcast of a Miami Dolphins’ game.

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The basis is, like the “default human,” subconscious but dangerous: the majority of film scenes feature actors with orange-ish skin in front of blue skies. This has formed an accepted color template that affects much of the rest of a shot. Sets are dressed and images are digitally sweetened to match this color dichotomy. It takes something as simple as featuring a girl who doesn’t conform to this “default” or “norm” to subtly reconfigure everything we’ve come to know about film doctrine.

Home is a gorgeous film to behold because of this. Kids will think its pretty. They’ll probably never know what a game-changer it truly is.