Monday’s movie(s) you might have missed: Summer Wars and Wolf Children
No country’s cinema has so thoroughly explored the family as Japan’s. The master Yosujiro Ozu focused almost exclusively on interactions within families in his films. Animation, such a robust part of Japan’s cinematic legacy, is no exception. Among animators, I don’t think anyone, from any country, has asked what it is to be a family with such inventiveness and curiosity as Mamoru Hosoda.
Today, I hope to bring to your attention two of the very best animated films of the 2010s: Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Both films center squarely on families: one a huge, sprawling clan gathered for a reunion, the other a mother and her two children, simply trying to get by.
Summer Wars is one of those films so loaded with detail that explaining all of it can seem dizzying. The protagonist is a young man named Kenji. He is a mathematician who helps moderate a social network called OZ. OZ is a vast virtual world that is half-RPG, half every app you have on your smartphone. You can have a duel with a ninja rabbit there one moment and take care of your banking the next. Kenji gets invited by a pretty young woman named Natsuki to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. She explains that her family expects her to have a boyfriend, and she asks him to pretend to be hers. He accepts. We think we know where this story is going: a sweet summer romance plot, where the two characters find they actually like each other. It goes there, sure, but that ends up only being a fraction of the film’s plot.
There are two overarching plots in this film. First, Kenji goes around meeting Katsuki’s family. Her great-grandmother, Sakae, is a matriarch in every sense of the word. The family bends to her wisdom, and thankfully she possesses an ample supply. A vast army of parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and every other form of family in between shows up for the birthday party. There is nowhere to run without bumping into multiple sets of scrutinizing eyes.
The other plot involves a hostile AI called Love Machine taking over OZ. This has global implications: most of the tech-using world uses OZ, including entire banks and militaries. Somehow, Summer Wars manages to meld these two storylines together. Kenji ends up getting mistakenly blamed for creating Love Machine, and ends up having to recruit Katsuki’s family to defeat it. In classic anime fashion, we see these showdowns in full theatre: real time fights play out in the virtual world between the family’s characters and the AI.
What I just described could easily be a plot for a mindless yet fun story. What elevates Summer War is how deftly it works the story of a family into the fabric of its gleeful sci-fi absurdity. Long before we witness combat between avatars, we meet every member of the family. There are long breaks in the action for dinners, conversations, and arguments. The story is always driven the characters, and the cast is large and lovingly written. When the showdown with Love Machine ends up threatening the world, and the family rallies together to attempt to defeat it, it’s a joyful moment. The climax of the film involves a series of escalating stakes we might expect from a sci-fi adventure, but the stakes are higher and the moments more meaningful because we know and like everyone involved. We are rooting, not for a character, but a team.
Wolf Children is a major change of pace from Summer Wars, but its plot is similarly unusual. Its protagonist is a college student named Hana. She meets and falls in love with a man who (it is revealed on their first night together) is a werewolf. That doesn’t affect her feelings, and they settle down and have two children together; a daughter, Yuki, and a son, Ame. The children are also werewolves, changing between their human and wolf forms as they see fit. What happens after that I will not spoil: this is a film that spans years in Hana’s life, whose power is derived from the small moments it uses to tell the story of those years. Wolf Children is abundant with splendid scenes that deserve to be seen without being spoiled. This film is full of heart and empathy. At its core, it is about the struggles of raising children with few resources. Hosada gracefully integrates the wrinkle: the children are werewolves. Raising human children is hard enough. When an argument can turn into a literal dogfight, or if your apartment forbids pets, it creates challenges that demand some extraordinary resourcefulness from Hana.
Hosada takes this material seriously. We are soon drawn into its rhythms, its portrayal of a family with a unique set of challenges. We never see the expectations of genre storytelling creep in. Hosada has more important questions to ask of these characters. As the children get older, do they have to continue to hide their identities? How do they handle those identities? Yuki and Ame begin to develop fiercely independent streaks: Yuki wants to blend in with her friends, while Ame finds himself drawn more and more to the woods. Hosada casts no judgements on the characters for the decisions they make for themselves. He is simply observing, letting this most unusual and fascinating story play out on its own terms.
Hosada is a storyteller of immense ambition and precise touch. Both Summer Wars and Wolf Children could easily have succumbed to their inherent strangeness. Instead, both films achieve a familiar quality without pandering to genericness. Summer Wars achieves this through an extraordinary balance of its stories. Wolf Children, meanwhile, is a fable told by a scribe more interested in the characters than in lessons. Both films are lovely to look at as well. OZ is one of my favorite science fiction movie locations. Like the very best places sci-fi can take us (my personal favorites are the cities from Dark City and Metropolis) OZ is both vividly rendered (my favorite detail is a shot of half a dozen stadiums, each for a different sport, floating in an arch in the void) and replete with possibility. It is full of charming minutiae and seemingly infinite in size. And Wolf Children is often extraordinarily beautiful, in Hosada’s mastery of its tone and his attunement to its emotional beats.
Mamoru Hosada has been cutting his teeth in animation since 1999. He worked on shows like Digimon and Samurai Champloo before getting his feature film break with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That film, a more straightforward sci-fi (based on a beloved novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has had 8 total film and TV adaptations), hinted at what he was capable of as a filmmaker: taking old-fashioned genre plots and propelling them with strong characters. Summer Wars and Wolf Children show Hosada in full command of these strengths. With both films, he turns plots that look like grab bags into stories of remarkable beauty and power.
Toil, tears, and sweat: The unlikely beauty of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice
In college, a favorite debate among my friends was over which adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was superior: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film? The public consensus usually seems to be the miniseries. This is understandable. Its 327 minute runtime allows it to more thoroughly cover the breadth of Austen’s novel. It has charming performances and is as faithful to its source material as one could imagine an adaptation being.
And yet it’s Wright’s film I find myself returning to again and again. Its opening shots are what convince me, every time, that this is how Austen ought to be adapted, and how her books rarely are. We meet the characters in a rush. They are lively, hair tousled, faces sweaty, the sort of traces of dust and dirt on their skin and clothing that appear after one gives up appearing tidy in front of their family at around midday. No attempt is made to quote or evoke the legendary opening lines of the book. I won’t quote it here because you know them, I know them, and the last person you spoke to today knows them too. The movie knows that we know them. Quoting them would be a matter of course, something perfunctory and expected.
But how often do we think about those words? How charmingly conversational they are. Austen disarms us by jumping headlong into the nuts and bolts of the story; in her bluntness, she makes us feel at home. The opening to this film has the same effect. I have four sisters and a brother. I grew up always an arm’s length from at least three cats and a dog. I cherish fictional homes that clatter with the the sort of perpetually awake half-chaos I grew up immersed in. Joe Wright’s vision of Pride and Prejudice matches mine.
So, too, does Keira Knightley’s take on Lizzie Bennet. Watching the film again recently, I was taken aback by her ferocity. There are many ways to play Lizzie Bennet. Jennifer Ehle’s take was drier, her wit more for her own amusement than for weaponry. Knightey uses words like a sniper. They are her first plan of attack, and she is always ready to open fire. Knightley’s performance puts a charge into the film that Wright uses to propel the narrative.
There is a headlong urgency to this film. It’s too easy to say it feels rushed; if anything, this suits the material. The tone is set the moment Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, realizes that a window has opened for one of her daughters to be married. She pursues setting up her daughters (primarily her eldest, Jane) with a relentlessness that comes from true desperation; they are poor and have no inheritance coming their way, meaning that good marriages are the main source of security for her daughters’ futures. She buzzes with energy in every scene she’s in. Her contrast to her husband (Donald Sutherland) is amusing, but his comparative aloofness serves the narrative as well. He seems to be coasting, hoping for as little stress as possible in his older years, unable to keep up with the pace of his family. When Lizzie comes to him at the end with the announcement that she loves Mr. Darcy, he is about four steps behind everyone else.
Period films rarely resemble a time and place in which people lived. They usually represent a vision through a modern lens, either romanticized or a deliberate deconstruction of romance. Wright attempts neither here; he aims for realism, and succeeds. The Bennet household is constantly in movement. Animals wander in and out of the frame. Lizzy’s youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone- this movie was astoundingly prescient in casting young stars before they took off), seem to have learned sprinting before walking, dashing from room to room. Her middle sister, Mary, is glued to the piano. Despite her practicing, she is quite bad. The Bennets have quite a lot in common with the Sycamore family from You Can’t Take it With You. Both families have little use for convention and want simply to lead happy lives, pursuing their personal interests. They also have some trouble adapting when those conventions are thrust upon them. In the cheerfully un-capitalist world of Kaufman and Hart’s play, the the Sycamores always get by, rejecting currency and drawing anyone willing to listen into their lifestyle. In Austen’s world, male primogeniture isn’t so easily brushed over.
Finding a way through the quagmire of societal mores that reject the Bennets’ lifestyle is one of this story’s most potent sources of drama. Wright vividly highlights the contrast between the Bennets’ world and those of the Darcys and Bingleys of the world. Wright is perhaps a bit too fond of tracking shots, especially the type that call great attention to themselves. But in this film, a long tracking shot does its job well, swerving through a house during a ball as the Bennets attempt to make it through a ball at Bingley’s estate. The tracking shot condenses a lot of story material into a sequence of a few minutes, far more than enough time to take in everything that Darcy ends up objecting to. Our greater knowledge of this family makes us sympathetic to them, but empathy for Darcy’s view is essential for this story. The shot keeps things centered on the action. Rather than seeming like a shortcut, the camera turns voyeuristic. Not in a prurient sense, but rather like Kitty and Lydia frantically going from room to room looking for gossip material.
Jane Austen films so rarely move like this. Austen’s prose is awake. When her characters aren’t speaking, Austen is moving them like chess pieces, setting up as many interesting encounters between characters as she can until the story is spent. On the DVD commentary for the film, Wright said he wanted to make the film as subjectively from her perspective as possible. We meet characters when she does. Major story beats (Bingley’s apparent rejection of Jane, Darcy’s sudden proposal, Whickam running off with Lydia) hit with such pace as to leave her breathless. Even the film’s indulgences (cinematographer Roman Osin makes constant use of how the magic hour looks on the English countryside) coincide with Lizzie’s emotions. When we take in a wide view of a cliffside, she is doing the same thing. It’s a moment to breathe for the audience, and no doubt the same for her. Likewise, a trip to Mr. Darcy’s gargantuan estate feels hushed and overwhelming. It’s a startling contrast in the difference between his wealth and Lizzie’s relative poverty, and yet the sheer beauty of it is itself breathtaking.
Matthew Macfadyen makes no attempt to make Mr. Darcy a heartthrob, and that is right for this film. It is invested in Lizzie’s perspective, it would be a mistake to make him immediately attractive, to make the audience swoon before Lizzie works through her dislike of him. Macfadyen plays Darcy as well-intentioned and socially awkward, woefully ill-equipped to match Lizzie’s initial weaponized verbal contempt. His proposal to Lizzie, and his reaction to her rejection, contains some splendidly subtle acting. Tom Hollander, as the hopelessly stiff Mr. Collins, also nails a scene where Lizzie rejects a marriage proposal. Mr. Collins is a uniquely Austenian character, and Hollander’s performance is equally unique. And somehow, Wright landed Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role demands the sort of authority and spite that Dench can deliver in her sleep. Casts this deep are a luxury. The give every scene the opportunity to be memorable.
The BBC miniseries does cover far more of the novel. In many ways, television is an ideal format for adapting novels if your aim is to adapt as much of the written word as possible. However, Wright’s film captures the spirit of Austen more than any other adaptation I’ve seen. Above all else, it is a delight. This is not just a film about conversations, but the places where they take place. This story is driven by the heartbeats of characters driven by high tempers and emotions. A film like this discredits its material when it becomes a respectful recitation. Wright’s visual bombast works because it is in perfect synch with the massive emotional peaks and valleys of the story. There is a moment near the where Darcy and Lizzie have at last fallen in love, and they rest their heads together as the sun rises symmetrically between them. It’s Wright at his most self-indulgent. For this movie, it’s perfect.
Three Shots: The Apartment
The Apartment (1960)
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle
I very often stay on at the office and work for an extra hour or two, especially when the weather is bad. It’s not that I’m overly ambitious; it’s just a way of killing time, until it’s all right for me to go home. You see, I have this little problem with my apartment.
Has any other filmmaker devoted so much to stories of the lonely as Billy Wilder? Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment- these are films about adrift, some by choice, some through addiction, some through the darkness in their hearts. The Apartment’s C.C. Baxter disappear into his work to distract himself from his internal listlessness. Baxter has little in his life outside his job. He can’t even go home. Here, disappearing into the void of his empty office, is where he can at least occupy his time.
For a while there you try kidding yourself that you’re going with an unmarried man. Then one day he keeps looking at his watch, and asks you if there’s any lipstick showing. Then rushes out to catch the 7:14 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee and you sit there by yourself and you think. And it all begins to look so ugly.
Ingmar Bergman called the human face “the most important subject of the cinema“. Here, we get a good long look at Shirley MacLaine’s as her Fran Kubelik delivers a minute-long monologue. The shot- and speech- are broken just once by a brief shot of her counterpart, Fred MacMurray. MacMurray’s Jeff Sheldrake is Fran’s boss, and once-and-future lover. In sixty seconds, MacLaine runs through all the stages of accepting the ending of a relationship and ends up back where she began: lonely, heartbroken, and looking for someone to comfort her. A lot is asked of Shirley MacLaine in these sixty seconds. She answers in the extraordinary range she conveys in a few distracted glances.
You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.
– Shut up and deal.
A happy ending needn’t be a sappy one. Love stories too often attempt to be all-encompassing at the end: the couple aren’t supposed to be just happy, they need to be so forever after. But it can be more satisfying when the film ends right when the attraction definitively begins. The Apartment is about lonely people looking for something, anything, or anyone outside of work with whom to spend their time. A proclamation of love, or even a kiss, would have been overselling the ending. Playing cards with someone you adore beats staying late at work. It’s a start. Sometimes, a start can be a joyful thing.
Monday’s Movie You Might Have Missed: The House at the End of Time
Hey all. I’m rolling out a new feature: every Monday, I’m going to highlight a movie worth seeing that might be new to you. There’s not going to be a strict formula to these choices. These will be films I enjoy that I want to spread the word about, that perhaps you haven’t seen and I hope you will enjoy.
Let’s kick this off with my favorite genre, horror.
The House at the End of Time (original title: La casa del fin de los tiempos) is now available on Netflix. This nimble little haunted house movie, written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, was a massive hit in its home nation of Venezuela, and made some rumblings on the horror festival circuit in the US.
Most horror is paint-by-numbers, with no personality, never mind scares. Personality can go a long way in making a horror film worthwhile. What are the horror films you return to long after you know every shock and fright like a loved one? Why can I watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, You’re Next, or Psycho as a ritual and never grow tired of them? Well, many reasons, but the simplest answer is that they all have a real story to tell, not just a slideshow of blood. They all display passion behind the camera. That passion is what makes The House at the End of Time so entertaining.
The film opens right in the middle of the action: a woman comes to in the middle of a pile of broken glass, her face cut. She grabs a large shard for protection and heads to the basement. Many jump scares and violin stings ensue. Let me tell you, I have never heard violin stings in a movie try quite so hard. They linger and swerve like they’re trying to outlast the jumps they’re meant to highlight, as if auditioning to be part of a romance next.
The woman, named Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez), finds her husband stabbed to death in the basement. One of her sons appears in the far corner, reaches out to her, and then disappears. She is charged for their murders, found guilty, and finally emerges 30 years later on a compassionate release. She is now old, weak, and looking simply to understand what happened that night.
What happens next contains a lot of familiar ingredients. A kindly young priest (Guillermo Garcia) offers her guidance; spiritual at first, which she rebuffs, and then more practical, as he heads to the library to find out more information about this house she claims did the deed she was convicted for.
The film goes back and forth between the present day; as Dulce explores her home, which is as on the verge of collapse as she is; and 30 years before, in the days leading up to her husband’s death and her son’s disappearance. We learn sinister details about the home, involving Freemasons and possibly evil spirits and definitely creepy old women with frightening messages. There is nothing really here we haven’t seen before, but there is an earnest energy driving the narrative. Its main story is broad, but it gets the little details right; the conversations between Dulce and the priest, for example, could be the sort of rote butting of heads we have come to expect from the movies when someone with no faith talks to a true believer. But they quickly realize where they both stand and how he can be of best use to her. They form an honest relationship, not a series of arbitrary obstacles.
Other scenes in the film wouldn’t be out of place in a domestic drama, which further adds to the film’s substance. An extended sequence shows her seeing her two sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante) and Rodrigo (Héctor Mercado), off in the morning before they go out with their friends. The boys eat breakfast, promise Dulce they’ll be back before dark, and proceed to have a day’s worth of shenanigans with their friends, playing baseball, pranking rich men, and picking silly fights over who has a crush on whom. The movie momentarily feels like a low-key family comedy. The boys lose track of time and arrive home hours late, bracing themselves for their mother’s fury. Instead Dulce greets them warmly, sends them to bed quickly. We wonder why she’s not more upset. We find out when one of them tells her he’s hungry. She has no response. The meaning is clear: they can’t afford supper, and her guilt about this hangs over all else. Later, Dulce bitterly chides her husband Juan Jose (Gonzalo Hubero) for not working hard enough to provide for their children. We learn a bit about how they ended up in this house, how her husband has struggled to find work… or perhaps has avoided looking hard enough. The flow from the beginning of the day to the end is thematically seamless. The long, jolly buildup to a sad jolt of a payoff ends up telling us a lot about this family, their relationships with one another, and the tensions under their roof. It’s the sort of character driven exposition that horror films rarely provide. In turn, having a deeper knowledge of the characters makes the climactic scenes later in the film, when the frayed ropes holding the family together finally snap, significantly more effective. A man with a knife can be scary, but not as chilling as a man looking at his own children with seething contempt.
The film is not quite to smooth when it switches into horror mode. It telegraphs important details by withholding them; when Dulce gets a note that she hides immediately after reading it, we quickly surmise what’s in that note based on what we already know about the plot. By the time it’s revealed it’s meant to be a shock, but the payoff comes far too late to have the desired effect. Other plot details are shoehorned into the very end of the film, some of them not remotely necessary. At what point does knowing the backstory of the house and its original owners (spoiler: it has a reputation) become too much telling in place of showing? There’s a scary scene involving a fortune teller, but it overplays its hand, more than toeing the ever present line between horror and camp. There’s a kitchen sink quality to this movie. Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo seems disinterested in cutting out ideas to make things more cohesive; some he just trims until they’re dangling there with no apparent use, because he couldn’t bring himself to cut them off entirely.
Still, Hidalgo’s story and style are relentlessly energetic. The film takes a turn about two-thirds of the way through that genuinely surprised me. Hell, it delighted me. Plot twists are too often arbitrary and superficial. This one needs the full remaining half-hour for the film to fully explain. Yes, it got there by withholding key bits of information that would have ruined the surprise. It doesn’t play fair with its information, but in this case I didn’t mind so much. Movies like this have the appeal of a street magician. We know we’re being had. We still want to see what the grand finale has in store. The House at the End of Time earns its finale. It pulls us into a world that we can relate to, gives us characters who feel drawn from real life, and throws them into a blender of phantasmagoric bliss. Perhaps this review has gone on too long: that sentence alone should tell you whether or not you’ll want to see this movie. I hope, for your sake, that it does.
Review: Inside Out
When I was 10 years old, my family moved from San Diego, California to New Bedford, Massachusetts. I cried endlessly some nights leading up to the move. In Reno, I saw for the first time what a sea of city lights in a desert looks like at night, an image I have never shaken. In Iowa, I prayed as a tornado twisted out of the sky some half a mile from our gray 12 seater Ford, before dissipating mercifully without touching the ground. And once we reached New Bedford, I will never forget the feeling of being in a new place, permanently. The sense that this would only be a visit, that we’d go back to San Diego sooner than later. The fear that I’d never adjust to life here. The curiosity of being surrounded by a place so utterly new.
Inside Out, the latest film from Pixar, directed by Pete Docter, is about an 11-year old named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) grappling with her family moving far from her childhood home. In how it addresses that premise it reveals a lot of truths in its heart, truths that came flooding back to me as I watched it. The swirling, vivid power of emotions in children is chief among them.
Few films are so earnest and thoughtful about the thoughts and emotions of adolescents. Even fewer of those films are about girls. It’s right for a film about an 11-year-old to feature emotions as the protagonists. Inside Out’s greatest strength is that it takes Riley’s emotions so seriously.
Inside Out features one of the most high-concept premises yet for a Pixar film. It plays out mostly within Riley’s mind, where Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) collaborate to get her through each day with optimal emotional stability. Each new memory that Riley forms takes the form of an orb, color coded to each character. Joy is bright yellow, and she takes pride in pointing out how overwhelmingly yellow each day’s supply of memories is. Important memories shoot straight to Riley’s emotional core, taking shape as a sort of theme park tied to something that matters immensely to her; at the outset of the film we see Family, Honesty, Friendship, Goofiness, and Hockey. They are from Minnesota, I suppose.
The emotions and the world they inhabit are rendered as lovingly as we have come to expect from Pixar. The characters are well-tailored to their voices. As a longtime Parks and Recreation fan, it’s impossible not to see a bit of Leslie Knope in Joy’s unrelenting desire to please. Sadness is a brilliant little meatball of a character, like Eeyore with less self-esteem and a knit sweater. Joy assumes the leadership role early in the film, but it’s Sadness who emerges as the film’s most dynamic character. The bulk of the film plays out over about 24 hours in Riley’s life, immediately after her family moves to a new home in San Francisco. Joy displays Riley’s daydreams about their new home with great pride. Those come crashing down as we see the house is a sort of modest, sort of cramped Victorian. The film uses this moment, the New House moment that anyone who moved as a kid remembers vividly, to run Riley through more or less every feeling possible in a few short moments. It’s an effective sequence; we get to see how deftly director Pete Docter cycles through these characters without ham-handedly speaking in broad metaphors. Joy, Sadness and company aren’t merely acting parallel to Riley’s interests; they care about her and are trying as hard as they can to keep her stable in a time of intense instability.
Joy’s overbearing attitude overflows into dangerous controlling when she realizes that Sadness can touch any memory and alter it. She literally draws a circle on the ground and asks Sadness not to move from it. Sadness does. Antics ensure, resulting in Joy and Sadness falling out of their control booth into the deep recesses of Riley’s mind. Fear, Disgust, and Anger are left to hold fort, and a family dinner predictably turns ugly as a result. During this dinner, we also peer into the minds of her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan). There are perhaps a few too many reductive gender norms going on here. The mom is the more emotionally in tune with Riley, nudging her husband to pay attention to the conversation as his mind drifts to memories of a hockey game. But the characters are vividly rendered through their own sets of feelings, and the miscommunications that ensue- resulting in Riley losing her cool at her parents and her dad snapping at her- are both very funny in their execution and sad in their emotional truth.
The film’s long center period meanders perhaps a bit too long on Joy and Sadness’s literal journey back to their headquarters. They wander through trains of thought (a literal train), long-term memories (vast, towering hallways of fading memory orbs), and abstractions (I won’t spoil how this one plays out, but Chuck Jones would be proud). Dreams are made by a film production studio, and forgotten memories reside in a pit at the bottom of a canyon. Docter has a lot of fun coming up with literal versions of internal ideas. Wisely, we never get to see too much of them; Docter fills the edges of the screen with details, giving each location a sense of fullness and life that we don’t get to see in their entirety.
Inside Out takes its time to get Joy and Sadness back home, but in doing so it slowly reveals its thoughtfulness. Sadness, it turns out, is not simply a conduit for misery. The film also avoids truisms such as “we need sadness to know what joy is”. It is wiser than that. Sadness is part of the complete portrait of our lives. Acknowledging it, letting it happen, is healthy. It’s okay to be sad might be something we teach kindergarteners, but it’s rare to see a film demonstrate it so effectively. Typically sadness is simply a blip on a hero’s journey, a fall from which the protagonist can rise triumphantly. Inside Out‘s climax is not a moment of gleeful victory, but familial acknowledgment and validation of melancholy: Things aren’t so great right now, and it’s okay to feel bad about that.
Review: Jurassic World
Jurassic World understands the core emotional beats of Jurassic Park. It knows what made that film such an enduring piece of popular culture. World endlessly calls back to Park, with references both sly and blatant. But there is little winking at the audience here. This is neither a sendup of Jurassic Park, nor an attempt to bring it more in line with the times. It’s an earnest effort to follow its footsteps. It mostly succeeds, which makes it splendid entertainment.
Jurassic World will no doubt deal with endless comparisons to Spielberg’s original film, and director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow knows this. His script is littered with references to how audience expectations have changed since 1993. At one point, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), an administrator at the immensely popular Jurassic World theme park, says that audiences now view dinosaurs as they would zoo animals. They need new, bigger, genetically engineered attractions to “up the wow factor”. “They’re dinosaurs, wow enough” retorts Owen (Chris Pratt), a macho raptor trainer. Well, perhaps in a world where dinosaurs have actually come back. For real moviegoers, movie dinos have had a long run on the hedonic treadmill. In 1993, Spielberg could simply show a brachiosaurus and get a standing ovation. To his credit, Trevorrow knows that’s no longer the case.
The bulk of Jurassic World is a chase film involving a new, terrifying dino called Indominus Rex. It looks more like a kaiju than anything we recognize from previous films. Its teeth are gnarled, its claws long and imposing. It can change color for camouflage like a chameleon. Its wow factor is beyond reproach.
It also ate its only sibling. You can see where this is going.
Jurassic Park set a standard for gratuitous child peril that few films have been able to match, but this film gives its all in that department. The at-risk youths here are the brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), Claire’s nephews who are on vacation at the park. Zach is a moody teenager, Gray a jack-of-all-knowledge tween. Gray is the more sensitive and knowing of the two; he has to tell his older brother that the reason they’ve been sent on this vacation is so their parents can finalize their divorce in private. Zach is weary of his brother’s penchant for spouting scientific facts every few words, but the film mostly avoids the wearying trope of siblings hating one another so they can get closer together. They end up surviving (come on, this isn’t a spoiler; this isn’t Game of Thrones) an absurd number of situations involving the world’s newest apex predator, a tremendous feat given that we see Indominous Rex take down several much larger, significantly stronger creatures than two adolescents.
Claire barely knows her nephews. She is all about work, see. It goes without saying that Claire, whose lack of children is depicted as a trait (sigh), will bond with her nephews as she tries to keep them alive once Indominus Rex inevitably wreaks havoc.
If I have gotten this far into the review (some 500 words by my count) without sounding enthused about the movie, that all changes with the word “havoc”.
Jurassic World takes its sweet time putting its pieces into place. Its world-building is not particularly deep, but once dino hell breaks loose, the movie reaps the rewards of its patience. The second half of the film is almost endless action. I usually find this wearying, but as a 20 minute catnap can rejuvenate you when you are weary, some basic, competent exposition can do wonders for making action scenes meaningful. It’s the difference between watching a fast car speed by and being in the car. Action is so much more interesting when we understand where everything is, where everyone is going, and what the stakes are.
Casting is also essential in a film like this. Everyone has an archetype to play, but you mask cliches with charm if you cast correctly. Chris Pratt is an immensely charismatic, likeable actor. Bryce Dallas Howard has an inherent affability that comes through even when she is forced the trudge through Ice Queen cliches in the film’s opening scenes. Ty Simpkins is very good here, selling exposition (like when he tells his brother about their parents’ divorce) with great emotional authenticity. Other, smaller roles are filled with good actors that help bring some vibrancy to the film’s edges. Irrfan Khan is a wonderful actor whose supporting roles in major Hollywood productions have still managed to show his range, from weary brutality (Slumdog Millionaire) to gentle wisdom (Life of Pi). Here, he’s the eccentric billionaire who own the park, an all-to-common trope that he, like Richard Attenborough before him, injects with ample charm. As an arrogant private military contractor, Vincent D’onofrio chews scenery as he is wont to do, and he does it well. Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Omar Sy, and BD Wong all take turns in the spotlight and make the most of them. This is not the sort of film that one thinks of as an ensemble piece, but a strong, deep cast can make even throwaway moments enjoyable.
I am a bit surprised at the tepid critical response to this film. It is eager to please but not cloying. At some point during the final act I realized that its action was no longer simply enjoyable; it was actually thrilling. For all its callbacks to Jurassic Park, the film realizes that trying to match that film’s iconic set-pieces (the confrontation with the T-Rex in the rain; the scene with the raptors in the kitchen) would be fruitless. Jurassic Park‘s action was surprisingly lean and frightening, and it has aged well as a result. Jurassic World does go bigger, with far more gunfire and, yes, explosions. But it never tilts into excess. It knows the draw here is still the dinosaurs. And the way the final showdown ends up being about the dinosaurs works magnificently, both as an homage to the original film and as a fitting final battle in its own right.
Movie dinosaurs may not be able to drop jaws in wonder anymore. But they can still, all on their own, give me chills. That’s Jurassic World knows, that the previous sequels did not. You can’t simpyl show dinosaurs and have the same effect each time, but give them something fun to do and they will shine. Give me a pack of raptors racing through the night. Give me two thirty foot carnivores locked in a battle for reptilian supremacy. Give me a swarm of pterosaurs swooping down on a mob of people running like hell, trying not to drop their margaritas. This may not be your type of movie. But I will be there. By god, I will be there.
Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, and earned tragedy
Major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 5 and Orange is the New Black season 3 ahead
On last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, a young girl was burned at the stake. Unsurprisingly, as is often the case with this show, there was a sizable negative reaction to this turn of events. If nothing, Game of Thrones is a reliable delivery system for shock. The death of Shireen Baratheon by flaming filicide (her murder was given on the order of her father, Stannis, on the recommendation of the priestess Melisandre) might have been the most disturbing moment yet on a show rife with them.
And yes, the scene delivered its intended impact. It deeply disturbed me. Although the show had good taste enough not to show Shireen burning, her screams of agony were enough to make to turn off my TV and not finish the episode. But when that feeling of disgust faded, there was nothing left. I’ve made this complaint before. The show has become too reliant on shock without substance.
I was not alone in being critical of this scene as wallowing in nihilism without having anything to say. But I also think that talk of how much the scene disturbed us overshadowed how awkward and contrived it was. Although the scope of Game of Thrones sometimes necessitates telling the story in broad, unsubtle strokes, the circumstances leading to Shireen’s death were too stilted for me not to notice.
In the waning minutes of the previous week’s episode, Ramsey Bolton suggested to his father Roose that he take 20 men to raid the invading Stannis Baratheon’s camp. It seemed to be a setup for something significant, something meaningful in its own right; perhaps a showdown between Stannis (a character who had come to life this season after having little to do before but look dour) and Ramsey (who has assumed the late King Joffrey’s mantle as the most vile character on the show).
Instead, Ramsey’s raid was portrayed as almost an afterthought; some shots of a few burning tents. We are told after the fact that the raid was actually incredibly damaging, wiping out much of Stannis’s food supply. Now, he is told that his only option if he wishes to defeat the Boltons is to sacrifice his daughter to the god R’hllor. With nary any true hesitation, he does so. Shireen dies horribly soon thereafter.
The plot bent over backwards to create a situation where Shireen died. It came across like a child improvising a story on the fly, spackling gaps in logic as they go along. I have not read a convincing argument that Shireen’s death adds anything to the plot but shock value. There was more than setup enough to create ample drama, with the brilliant general Stannis preparing to do battle with the ruthless and wily Boltons for control of the North of Westeros. As the flames rose the message seemed clear: Shireen had to die to shock us.
Worse yet, this revelation that we only got to know Shireen so she could die horribly rendered many of her previous scenes during the season trite. Earlier in the season, there was a wonderful scene between Shireen and Stannis where he told her the story of how he refused to let her die when she was inflicted with a horrific disease as a baby. It was the sort of character-driven storytelling Game of Thrones almost never seems to have the time for. Now, the scene comes off as a cheap trick, some sentimental foreshadowing designed solely to build Stannis up as a good father in one scene simply to tear him down later. A great character moment is ground up in the gears of cheap plotting.
A few hours ago Orange is the New Black debuted its third season on Netflix. It’s late as hell and yet what I just watched compelled me to write about it. In the third episode of the show, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) is pinned for dealing heroin. She is shipped off to a supermax prison, which is the closest the show usually comes to a significant character death (I’ll never forget you, Miss Claudette).
As Big Moments go, this was one of the most heartbreaking Orange is the New Black has ever delivered. I’m still reeling from it. And that’s because there is no shock to this moment, only earnest sadness. Nicky Nichols is self-destructive. A former drug addict, she seems to be in perpetual search of ways to get high without narcotics. This season, her plan was to try to sell a supply of heroin that ended up in her possession. It felt like a ticking time bomb. It felt completely in character. I did not know where the story was going with this plot, only that it was in keeping with a character incapable of helping herself, who knows that about herself, and is heartbroken by it as she once again crashes and burns.
The show’s cruel twist of the knife was not screams of physical agony. It was that the drugs that Nicky got sent away for didn’t belong to her, but rather to the sleazy prison electrician who she’d made a business partner on the drug deal. She had gotten away with her plan. It didn’t matter.
I don’t know if this is the end for Nicky Nichols on this show. I’d be deeply saddened if we were to lose Natasha Lyonne’s splendid performance so early into the season. But at the very least, this turn in the plot is effective storytelling. Tragedy is less effective when it is assumed that misery is inherently meaningful. True tragedy is when a character cannot kill the demons in their nature. We don’t know how their story will end, only that they will almost certainly undo themselves.
Is it unfair to compare an epic fantasy to a character-driven prison dramady?
No. It’s not. Game of Thrones used to know this aspect of tragedy. Ned Stark’s tunnel-visioned nobility was his undoing in season 1. Robb Stark’s inability to be pragmatic while keeping less-than-savory allies happy led directly to the Red Wedding. These two moments, perhaps the high standards for Game of Thrones shocks before this season, were not intricately developed, but they were absolutely character-driven. They seemed to spring from nowhere because the plot didn’t have to twist into knots to make them happen. They were fires finally erupting after the characters had been unknowingly piling on the wood.
Orange is the New Black has mastered this form of storytelling. The lives of dozens of characters weave together, forming a cohesive narrative with almost no overarching plot. It finds the tragedy in human flaws, and turns that into moments of truly crushing sadness, usually without anyone dying horribly.
Game of Thrones is at its best when it does more or less the same thing. The throne is a MacGuffin, something for characters to focus on, to give the story some form. When the plot takes over, and begins to dictate the actions of the characters, the spell the show casts on us comes undone. The characters cease to be people; they becomes a means to a miserable end.
My favorite movie prop
Props might be the most underappreciated aspect of the movies. They fill the screen in almost every movie. They are an essential aspect of art direction, an aspect of film that I care deeply about. And yet individual props rarely get the attention they often deserve. How important is Indiana Jones’s hat to our memories of him? And what became of the puppets that played ET and Yoda?
I recently got an interesting email from a representative of the auction site Invaluable.com. They have sold some very cool movie props in recent years on their collectibles page, and are surveying movie bloggers to see which specific props they love the most. It’s an interesting question: what is my favorite film prop?
A few obvious choices came to mind immediately. If it was simply what I’d like to own as part of a collection, well there are many contenders. I’d take any of the lightsabers from Star Wars in a heartbeat, for example. Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud. The Maltese Falcon. These would all be incredibly fun to have. But as I thought about it, I realized that that line of thought made it less about the props themselves than the films they are in. It’s a subtle but important distinction. These aren’t props I have unique a personal attachment to, I’d want them because they are part of movie history. My favorite prop would almost certainly come from a film I love, but I’d have to have some sort of sentiment for it beyond that. If I owned it, I’d want to be able to say more about it than “this is from a movie I love”.
And with that, two props came to mind.
Inigo Montoya’s sword
I have written before of my love for The Princess Bride. It is, to me, a perfectly balanced comedy-adventure, a film with a wicked sense of humor to balance its deep well of sentimentality. And Inigo Montoya is an essential part of how good it is. Mandy Patinkin’s performance would slip right into an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. And his sword plays a major part in his film. A conversation between Westley and Inigo about its craftsmanship reveals its backstory, and in turn Inigo’s tragic backstory. It’s rare for a prop to be such a catalyst for the most interesting story in a classic film. This isn’t just a weapon from a movie; it’s a physical piece of storytelling.
The giant, bloody curtain from The Fall
Tarsem’s The Fall is one of the most stunning visual creations the movies have produced. And the image I remember the most from the movie is one of its most showboating, a shot of a massive white sheet in the middle of a desert, partially soaked in blood. It’s a gorgeous image in its own right, and it unapologetically calls attention to itself. This is not a special effect. This is a real, honest to god thing we built for this movie. Props are almost never this audacious and beautiful.