Rewind Review: The Kids are All Right

Introduction

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right is a film for whom success, marginal as it may be, rests entirely on the shoulders of its cast. The film tells the story in a rather tight nucleus focusing on the parents (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), the kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) and finally their heretofore unknown sperm donor/father (Mark Ruffalo). Ultimately it is the compelling, truthful, funny and touching performances in this film that make it worth watching even in spite of some very serious problems.

While this is a more sure-handed feature effort from Lisa Cholodenko than the disjointed and awful Laurel Canyon it is not without its serious deficiency. That deficiency to be discussed in full warrants a spoiler alert.

Having said that the major conflict of the film occurs when Jules (Julianne Moore) starts having an affair with Paul (Mark Ruffalo). At one point you think it may just be a one time thing but the film almost revels in showing the multiple relapses that Jules has and her enjoyment of this seemingly inexplicable affair. Your hopes that it will never surface are also quickly dashed.

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Now while I will not dwell in the land of film theory in this review and speculate on the potential impact of yet another homosexual character engaging in a heterosexual tryst in a film it is also a plot contrivance that fails in terms of cinematic mechanics in several ways.

First, to simply state it it’s lazy. My major grievance with Valentine’s Day is that even with the sheer number of couples in that film nearly all of them were dealing with infidelity. Oddly enough that film deals with its one homosexual couple in a unique and taboo-breaking way and they have no issues.

While barring some other grievous offense this is the biggest cause of conflict possible it’s not one that had to be introduced just to create drama. While it does allow there to be a very emotional tearing apart and subtle reunion of the family as Joni (Mia Wasikowska) goes off to college one wonders if there would ever be a film that would ever do the opposite and get away with it. Would a man be able to have an affair with another man and be able to repair his marriage, family and have an audience believe it? Doubtful. However, here a gay couple faces the ultimate betrayal and while you want them to resolve things it doesn’t make it any less implausible that they’d manage to stay together.

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Yet, plausibility is overrated and almost anything can be accepted in a film if it is sufficiently set up but aside from the one cliché I-Hate-You-I-Want-You glance they exchange right before they kiss you don’t see it coming and further more when pressed Jules doesn’t have a satisfactory answer for Nic (Annette Bening) that would explain not only an extra-marital affair but one with the opposite sex. If that is going to happen in homosexual relationship more needs to be cited than a lack of attention. It’s not like flipping a light switch and while sexuality is between the ears and the affair doesn’t make Jules suddenly straight, this kind of thing does take convincing to make sense and it never quite does.

Unfortunately, this affair is a major event and does take up a significant portion of this film and thus this review. Ultimately, the audience is the determinant of meaning so it is the director’s job to convey that meaning clearly so we can see intent. I am quite sure that perhaps there was some symbolic or representational intent with the affair and that Cholodenko didn’t want it interpreted in a possibly negative way, however, whatever message or motivation existed there was not clearly conveyed.

The overall affect the film has on an audience is a positive one. It is a touching and fitting conclusion and Julianne Moore’s apology scene is a tear-jerker as is Laser’s (Josh Hutcherson) final assertion of why they belong with one another. It’s a film that makes it by on the strength of its actors and its finale it’s the journey I would’ve preferred changed somewhat. Perhaps the message lies in the title that The Kids Are All Right even if the adults aren’t but isn’t that an awfully dangerous mixed message?

6/10

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Rewind Review: A Single Man

A Single Man is a film that thrives on Colin Firth’s performance. He is the titular character and thus the fulcrum upon which the entire film rests. At many times he is alone, more often than not though he is one on one with another scene partner and thus the cast must be exemplary to match him. Firth’s performance is not one of tremendous fireworks but one where we are allowed to get the occasional glimpse beneath the surface. It’s brilliant and true and the finest performance of the year, and was honored as such in Venice.

Accompanying Firth in a few of his more pivotal scenes is Julianne Moore. Moore doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this film but she uses it to her full advantage playing her character remarkably and in so little time breathing life into Charley. In a fascinating bit of turnabout she put on a British accent and is hardly distinguishable from Firth in authenticity.

Conversely Nicholas Hoult, who is British, plays an American and much more convincingly so than when he co-starred in The Weather Man. His scene opposite Firth in the bar was quite memorable and he was perhaps the perfect casting choice as the young man who gives our protagonist a glimmer of hope.

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The cast of the film overall is exceptional and because all the scenes were of an intimate nature, in terms of emotion if not subject matter, all actors in parts large and small had to connect and play up to Colin Firth and they did so tremendously.

The edit of this film is likely to go unrecognized and thus we shall call attention to it here. Both aesthetically and technically it is a job very well done. With ease it manipulates our perception of reality on one occasion but more often than not it combines with the cinematography to give the perfect launching point for a flashback. One of the flashbacks being shot in black and white was also a very welcome touch.

The greatest tool at the disposal of the cineast is the ability for him to manipulate time. This film manipulates time brilliantly as we see virtually the entire story of this man’s adult life unfold itself over the course of a day. So much is learned so simply and quickly.

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Having all of the events take place over the course of one day is also a great benefit to the film as it lends immediacy and urgency to even the most mundane of actions. As the day starts we think we see how it will end and makes every moment have that much more surpassing beauty because of it.

This is a film which is a subtle tragedy. In as much as the audience experiences the tragedy of events much more so than the characters involved. The film also leaves you wanting more and leaves you wondering what happened to characters after it faded to black for the last time.

10/10

Welcome to Jurassic World, Part 2: Park Lost

Introduction: A Grain of Salt

It’s fun, when feeling particularly nihilistic, to think that things have never been this horribly commercial or trite in the world of cinema. In certain ways, it’s just more overt and honest than it ever was. The point of saying this is that, though the landscape is different and more cluttered with product-films, many of the same issues persist.
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to blockbuster hits. As a director who makes many a big film he has not been immune from certain struggles and realities. Sure, he’s long been one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, but only when Spielberg launched DreamWorks did he really reach a new level of clout.

For years Spielberg had been pestered for a sequel from Universal. It could have been E.T., which they were asking for. When Jurassic Park set the world on fire, and it too was a Universal project he agreed that there would be the sequel. In that light, it’s a good compromise for that reason if for no other.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

Even factoring some things about the film that’s the best thing that came out of it could be no sequel to E.T.

However, even with that, and the fact that when this film came out it had the unique distinction at the BAMs of being chosen as the worst film of the year, while still being the best in regards of scoring and effects; in terms of the science fiction and its place in a larger franchise there are interesting things that bear noting besides the fact that it was a memorably painful theater-going experience.

Science

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Universal, 1997)

When planning to continue a science fiction series you have to look for new mysteries to unravel and new theories to float; in short, new tricks. A few of the old favorites are back. We have the introduction of a second island, Site B (Isla Sorna). At this location dinosaurs were developed before being brought over to Isla Nublar, then Isla Sorna was hit with a hurricane that wiped out the facilities, the dinosaurs were then free and left to live & do their own thing. As per the Lysine Contingency, there should’ve been no way for the dinosaurs to live.

But “Life finds a way,” the mantra Dr. Malcolm uttered reverberates throughout the films no matter how far or close he is to the action. What happens here is that the herbivores survive on the lysine-rich foods and then the carnivores eat them, this theoretically provides them the lysine necessary to sustain life.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

It’s unspoken but the amphibian DNA factors in here as well as there is breeding afoot. So these are the things necessary to create an environment wherein it truly is a Lost World, hearkening back to the Arthur Conan Doyle story. Here in the modern age, with the help of genetic engineers, are newly created dinosaurs on an island that was devoid of human life.

What’s also interesting is that this series never shies away from introducing new nuanced paleontological debates and talking-points. Of note and relevance in this film, are debates being settled on the parenting of dinosaurs (the two camps always arguing between a more nurturing, mammalian sensibility of a more laissez-faire or cruel, by human standards, fend-for-yourself approach), and also the territorialism that dinosaurs display here that factors in.

Introduced in this film are a few dinosaurs including the Pachycephalosaurus, called Pachies here as well, though not causing any hubbub back then – a bit more on that later where it’s more pertinent.

Themes and Motifs

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

In discussing things that pop-up in each of the films, it seems to make sense to address the kid topic first. Vanessa Lee Chester, was a young actress who I didn’t see in many parts, but I did like her a great deal in her prior film Harriet the Spy. One thing about her character that does work is that her existence though it seems fairly random is that it does follow suit with Malcom’s assessment that he’s married “Occasionally.”

Much of the issue here is not Chester’s actual performance. In the first film, Tim (Joseph Mazzello, who only makes a token appearance in this film) was supposed to grate on Grant with incessant questions, maybe the fact that he seemed and sounded quite a bit younger than his older sister made him come off to some as more bothersome. In my estimation, Richards (who also makes a token appearance) was the biggest casting concern in the original. Here it is sadly Chester but upon review it had less to do with her and more to do with the character the stowaway plot plants the seed in the audience’s mind that “You’re not wanted here.” It’s far too easy keep that momentum up especially for an audience that’s reeling with changes: Hammond isn’t running his own company as much as his son is, InGen ousted him from the Park in an official capacity, Malcolm’s flying solo, Grant and Sattler aren’t there, there’s a new island (a fact which never seemed to be as harshly scrutinized as the second SETI location in Contact), and now a random kid along for the ride that shouldn’t be there, and more. It just sets itself up for her to be a scapegoat in certain regards though there are far greater issues here.

Some of the debates brought up are interesting but they do not support a compelling, visceral drama you have the battle of hunters on safari versus the scientists, which is an extension of the preservation of wildlife versus the notion that indiscriminate mass killing is an extension of survival of the fittest. Those on the hunting side of the fight state that “An extinct animal that has been brought back to life has no rights,” these exact sentiments will be echoed in Jurassic World to great effect. Similarly the barb “Predators don’t hunt when they’re not hungry” is damning both a game hunter and a hybrid that acts more like a human would given those irrepressible predatory capacities.
“Really?”

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

It’s quite nearly redundant to have a “Really?” section in a film where I’ll touch upon this sentiment probably under every heading but a few are noteworthy. The hubris and bad decision-making on the part of humans running this dinosaur enterprise is a given, however, even that has its limits. The notion of transporting the dinosaurs is just one in a laundry list of bad ideas in this film. Hammond acknowledges mistakes were made in the past but Malcolm correctly cites “You’re making brand new ones.” His agreeing to go to this new island is really just a rescue operation to save his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) from being in harm’s way. She’s there as Hammond’s liaison to study the animals an interfere with InGen’s designs ultimately.

One thing that is brought up but never really comes back into play, not in the films anyway, and I don’t know if Crichton expounds on this in his novel: This film introduces the notion that Sorna and Nublar are part of an accursed island chain of the coast of Costa Rica referred to colloquially as Las Cinco Muertes, the Five Deaths in English. Does Hammond or InGen have a claim on all of them? If all goes well could there eventually be five parks like at Disney World?

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

Another serious concern in hindsight is that fact that Hammond, after the latest deaths and catastrophes states on national television that he has had a change of heart. ”Preservation and isolation” is the new goal of the islands. Furthermore, “If we trust in nature life will find a way.” How is that philosophical gap bridged between Hammond the sudden naturalist to the dying man who asked a good friend to do right by the original intention of the park?

The other curious thing is that the explanation of Site B seemed odd. There were dinosaurs being hatched on Nublar, so why Sorna is an incubation site is only partially explained. Yes, isolating at first may be a benefit if things go wrong it never affects the main park, but transport is fraught with concerns as this film proves.

What Works

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, Universal)

Before I continue to beat the dead horse that this film is I may as well take a respite and discuss the things that work, even if briefly: John Williams’ score is the best part by far, there are some Spielbergian touches that worked that I forgot about: visually the blood in the waterfall is very cool and the shipwreck is a well-staged action set-piece. Perhaps, the best combination of comedy and horror in the film is the T-Rex being visible from the little boy’s (Colton James) window.

While I always appreciate to tongue-in-cheek joke of a dinosaur running amok around a gas station it does slow things and it only otherwise noticeable because it’s a pretty big instance of product placement (76) that no one ever talks about, but more on that later.
At least Spielberg avoided excessive CG and cited an example from Lost World where he talked about more not always being more.

Monster Movies More Heavily Influenced This One

King Kong (1933, RKO)

There was sufficient King Kong reference in the first film without rampaging T-Rex thru a major metropolitan area. Then you add the shot where at the start only running, screaming, Asian businessmen recalling a Godzilla film and it just becomes too much. Aside from the fact that this illegal capture to take an animal to a zoo is like something right out of Tarzan in the first place.

When you add this over-reverence to the aforementioned issues it’s doomed to fail, but wait there’s more!

Why it Fails

Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

There seems to me a more overt, forced attempt at comedy in this film that falls so flat. At the very least it didn’t present the ill-fated combination of not being terribly funny and being impossibly, incessantly loud like 1941.

The film also lacks equilibrium. It’s all chase or hide all the time in much closer confines and with nothing else really buoying the action, no further plotting or intellectual intrigue upping the interest beyond simple life or death for a handful of characters we just met and barely know, barring Malcolm.

Even if you were cool with Kelly’s handy use of gymnastics it was foreshadowed clumsily and rather tepidly followed up with an obligatory one-liner. The InGen teams arrival slows the progression of the film to a halt when it had barely gotten going. Getting going is made harder when you don’t really know these new people and those you do know aren’t there as much.

Ultimately, this film fails almost everywhere sadly.

The Intervening Years (1998-2000)

Michael Crichton (1998, LA Times)

Between Lost World and Jurassic Park III two noticeable things happened. First, there was the death of Michael Crichton at too young an age. The film sequel happened because, in large part, he wrote a sequel to the book. Any further installments would all be breaking new ground and would not be part of Crichton’s canon.

Spielberg in this time would become more heavily involved in pushing DreamWorks forward; and following The Lost World he was taking on some of his most ambitious projects: first, Saving Private Ryan and then Artificial Intelligence: A.I. Clearly, he was past a point of feeling the need to direct a sequel. So much so that he’s even planning series with him stepping out after the first film. Spielberg broke ground personally directing animation and with the most convincing motion capture to date on the first Tintin film but the plan was always that Peter Jackson would do the second film. Now, if there are more does Spielberg return? Possibly but for now there’s no guarantee of that.

So with a few years off, the loss of an author, and a new director at the helm the slate was essentially wiped clean for the Jurassic Park franchise. There were givens in place but they could go almost anywhere.

Review- Being Flynn

Robert De Niro and Paul Dano in Being Flynn (Focus Features)

If one watches the trailer then a lot of Being Flynn is revealed. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in this era of film, but it was enough to convince me to watch this film, and it also illustrates the major hurdle the film has. The film deals with what occurs when Nick (Paul Dano), a youth seeking direction in his life, starts to work in a homeless shelter and sees his estranged father (Robert De Niro) there.

It’s a plot in the trailer that makes it seem like a very unlikely chance encounter. In actuality, the leap of faith needed to believe this scenario is not nearly as large. There are furtive awkward reunion attempts prior to fate intervening as it does. This is a very good thing indeed and it allows all the baggage the two characters have to be dealt with when tension is at a boiling point.

The film does use a good deal of voice over narration and what’s more it has two narrators, father and son. Voice over is always a treacherous balancing act but this film does rather well with it and gives additional insight into these two not completely dissimilar characters. Voice over can be looked at as a story-telling bridge, bridging the gap that a visual cannot for editorial or aesthetic reasons. The key is to build footbridges not suspension bridges, to build them intermittently and this film does that.

That does not mean this film is devoid of visual signature and style quite the opposite there is quite a bit of visual interest, which is mainly added through the edit. The film has quite a few flashback sequences that mainly serve to illustrate Nick’s upbringing and the impact his father’s absence had. The film enters these passages creatively and more often than expected but always with great results and it really resonates.

These flashes aside from giving us very good fragmentary performances from Julianne Moore, shades of her turn in The Hours, and Liam Broggy as Young Nick, also help establish the tonality of the film. The sequences aren’t juxtaposed as much as they are forerunners to the twists and turns of fate in the present day. There’s a bittersweet quality as it shows what was, with hints of what could’ve been and eventually there are echoes of the past in the present that seem equally unavoidable.

Yet as dour as the film is at times there is a certain balance of emotions at play. There is some humor to it when appropriate and certainly tenable drama not just voyeurism, you feel this movie not only watch it.

This is the kind of film that for all its other merits hinges on its performers and with these two the film excels. This is the kind of challenging emotional and engaging work that Paul Dano does frequently and that Robert De Niro doesn’t do nearly enough of anymore. They work brilliantly together and regardless of the frequency with which either does this kind of film it’s great that they do it here.

Since the Weitz brothers have stopped working exclusively in tandem they’ve done some rather interesting work, and this film is no exception. While this film takes its unexpected turns and ends well but a bit loosely but is very good and worth seeking out.

9/10

Review- Crazy, Stupid, Love

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love is for lack of a better word a film that isn’t receiving a lot of love but more important than that it is a film that breaks free of a few molds, works on a few levels and does so exceedingly well. It’s funny, heartfelt, dramatic and a truthful family story. It has pretty real and rounded characters that we meet in isolation and learn about more so when they interact.

Now I know that many of you are asking “Hey, isn’t this a RomCom and therefore sucky?” The answers to those questions are it’s not that easy and most definitely not. The problem with most romantic comedies is not just the formulaic nature but the lack of dimension, which they have. They too often tend to be all about the relationship and the obstacles two people face in trying to be with one another and reach that ultimate pinnacle. What separates a film like this is first it’s about its characters’ struggles and not a relationship but in each serious relationship it builds it does things a bit unconventionally and unexpectedly. The main relationship is a marriage of 20+ years that is falling apart, which is not your usual recipe for one of these films. Similarly, the secondary relationships don’t follow the typical patterns.

There’s also a lack of schmaltz, contrivance and other kinds of BS you’re usually saddled with in a film of this kind. I’d call this film the best of its kind since Love, Actually (In part because few make me want to see them and few are any good) but what this film does better than Love, Actually is it doesn’t need the pretense to tell several kinds of love stories, they’re all intertwined in much more organic way. I’m not sure it’s better than that but if it is we might be looking at perhaps going all the way back to French Kiss for something as good.

I could go on for quite a bit about the performances in this film, however, I will attempt to reach some semblance of balance. First, there’s Steve Carell, which brings to mind another apt comparison for this film is that this is kind of like what Dan in Real Life yearned to be, both in terms of his arc and performance but it just never got there. I’ve seen a lot of Steve Carell in the years since he left The Daily Show and this may just be his next great performance the only stronger being Little Miss Sunshine. Then, of course, you have his wonderful counterpart Julianne Moore, who is so consistently brilliant as of late it may be easy to overlook her contribution to this film.

Ryan Gosling has no simple task in this film either. He has to be equally convincing as the can’t-miss-womanizer and also a guy who lets his guard down and falls for the one girl who can crack through the facade. Similarly, Emma Stone has a deceptively simple job; she has to bring her comedic chops and feminine wiles to the same part so she needs to be equal parts sarcastic and smart and lovable. Her persona is infectious but as Zookeeper proves your aura does not guarantee the elevation of a film.

The third pairing features perhaps the most surprising turns. First, you have Jonah Bobo as Robbie. Bobo has been infrequently seen since his debut performance in Zathura. His character is refreshingly written in certain regards and very well interpreted. Bobo exudes an intellectual maturity and emotional naivete that are essential to this part. Conversely, Analeigh Tipton poignantly captures an essentially young girl with a woman’s desires and makes it a third strong combination.

This is a film, as the genre-related discussion above implies, is also a comedy, if not primarily, and it most definitely delivers in terms of laughs. There are laughs to be had in this film and in good quantity. Since I viewed it it’s already proven rather quotable but also it packs a wallop in terms of dramatic emotional content. This balance along with a sizable portion of it being funny is what places it head-and-shoulders above most films of its kind. This makes the film quite moving as well as funny in the end.

As if it was out to disprove many notions I typically find annoying this film also includes a twist which works to great effect and like a good one does it elevates the film and it’s helped by the fact that it’s not too close to the end and doesn’t have the whole film hinge on it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is an old kind of film done in a more modern way. It takes some 21st Century notions and mixes it in with tried and true storytelling techniques that are executed here better than you’ll find in most films regardless of genre. Typically, the amount of value you get out of you admission price is not a barometer I use but this film makes itself worth the price of admission in many ways. It’s well worth it.

10/10