“To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Jurassic World

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Regarding this weekend’s big summer blockbuster release Jurassic World, my animal advocate mom posted this on my Facebook wall earlier today: “But are they mean to dinosaurs? Are the dinosaurs the villains? Is it a glorified hunting movie? Inquiring minds want to know these things? Would Sarah Palin approve and reignite girls to wear clean sportsy clothes and hiking boots? Posing with bears and rabbits and deer and giraffes pretending they killed them? Because if so, my friend… ha!”

I can pretty safely say that it’s not a glorified hunting movie, and I don’t think the Sarah Palin-types would like it, as most of their stand-ins in the film get eaten pretty quickly by roaring, teeth-gnashing dinos. However, the film is a typically schizophrenic Steven Spielberg production (he executive produced this installment but directed the original Jurassic Park way back in 1993). Is the film making a satiric point about how horrible humans are to the environment, how we reap what we sow, and how we deserve any and all climate change payback which results from our rampant over-development of land, air, and sea? Or is Jurassic World just more yuppie disaster porn designed to sell Happy Meal toys, glistening Jeeps, and Patagonia safari gear? I’m still scratching my head. I just don’t know.

When you look at Spielberg’s filmography, as both director and producer, from Jaws to Close Encounters, E.T. to Gremlins, Poltergeist to, yes, Jurassic Park, he returns time and again to themes of man’s infinite ineptitude and limitless arrogance in the face of a planet, nay universe, full of mystery, wonder, and violent counterbalance. For Spielberg, karma is a four-color funny – build a beach home, destroy a burial ground, feed a cooing creature after midnight, genetically modify a reptile for an overpriced amusement park? You’re gonna get sliced, diced, and eviscerated, all to the strains of a symphonic John Williams score.

And you know what? That is ok by me!

The problem with Spielberg’s films is he wants to have his sardonic cake and eat it too. Spielberg’s movies are expensive and they make a lot of money; whether directed by Spielberg or under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment or DreamWorks, these big budget boogers are sold to every demographic quadrant an army of polished marketers can dream up, so ultimately the flicks dare not go too far. We don’t want to alienate any viewer, slurping over their Mr. Pibb and Kit Kat bites (yeah, that’s what I had today), and, consequently, any unique and incisive POV gets diluted in a gauzy haze of product placement, no matter how postmodern and ironic said placement may be.

No, Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World. Those honors (?) go to Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), but Spielbergian DNA is all over this sucker. Sorry, Colin. I can only imagine this must have been like being hired for a dream design job at Apple, only to find they really just want you to arrange, into artful displays, the new Apple Watches when they arrive in stores.

Jurassic World does its job efficiently and effectively. It entertains, and it will make a mint … but it has no real raison d’etre. (Yeah, I got all fancy. It doesn’t need to exist.) It basically lifts the very plot from the first film, but this time we get Bryce Dallas Howard (how is this mugging, one-note actor still making movies? oh, right, Ron Howard’s kid) instead of Richard Attenborough and Chris Pratt instead of Sam Neill. Jeff Goldblum is now Irrfan Khan, and Wayne Knight is now Vincent D’Onfrio. B.D. Wong? Still B.D. Wong – that man must be an automaton as he hasn’t aged one freaking bit.

Seriously, these actors may be playing different characters (obvi) twenty-some years later (natch) but their narrative functions are still the same.

Portraying a grizzled velociraptor trainer (and apologist), Pratt is the best thing in the film by far. Wearing a steady exasperation that seems to suggest he wishes he had a better script with which to work, Pratt does a fine job channeling Neill’s gravitas: just because you can make a dinosaur does mean you should make a dinosaur. Pratt is a delight, one of the few actors in the film who seems to believe where he is and what is doing and who has a genuine affection for the misunderstood creatures in this world (dino or otherwise).

Howard fares less favorably as the Isla Nubar theme park’s chief executive who in sexist Hollywood shorthand is an out-of-touch, controlling, insecure ninny with a severe bob, impractical shoes, and an ever present iPhone. Ugh. It doesn’t help that her emotions range from sweaty to panicked to rigid to … sweaty.

D’Onofrio is a kick in an underwritten role as a nebulous InGen contractor who wants to use these “assets” (that’s how mean people refer to animals in this cardboard world) for military purposes. Boo hiss. Blessedly, he has the chops to fill in the mile-wide gaps the script allows. He exudes the oily opportunism of those post-millennial types who see our natural resources simply as walking/breathing/pooping dollar signs. He may as well have had Monsanto painted on his backside.

At one point, Wong’s character (you may recall he is the ethically-dubious geneticist who figured out how to fabricate dinos from whole cloth in the first place) intones what passes for a philosophical thesis in the film: “To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Yup, amen to that.

There is a perverse joy in seeing blank-faced, cornfed tourists hoisted by their own petards, tossed like beach balls from one pteranodon to another above Jurassic World‘s Starbucks/Margaritaville/Pandora encrusted main street. I also loved the jab at Sea World with a dino sea creature (mosaurus?) that grudgingly entertains a nautical football-arena-size stadium of onlookers but gets the last laugh when he/she gobbles a few vacationers down.

Ultimately, by the final act, when the Frankenstein’s monster dino “Indominus Rex” (cooked up by Howard and Wong to sell more t-shirts and key chains) has shredded the park top to bottom and is now fighting a pack of velociraptors and a t-rex for no real explainable reason, I was in a Mr. Pibb/Kit Kat coma. I just didn’t care.

And the adult in me kept thinking … Who is going to put these dinos back in their paddocks? Is the Hilton corporation going to rebuild their opulent hotel on Isla Nubar for future product placement? Who is going to clean up this mess, and will Starbucks return to sell more mocha-choca-lattes? And why didn’t the dinos just finish off all the humans? That’s a movie I’d pay $10 more bucks to see.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent

Indiana's Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in ... private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence signs this (unnecessary) law in … private? Who invited the Mel Brooks movie extras?

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive, and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a soon-to-be-former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.

____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…