Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Thing ★★★★

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    John Carpenter, a reputable filmmaker whose name has become quite synonymous with anything that frightens or anything that emanates a feeling of pure unsustainable terror, is a man who crafts each film--while under his directorial monitoring--with a universal foundation of fear and paranoia. Just take the 1982 horror gem entitled "The Thing" for starters.

    Much like Carpenter's previous indulgences (including "Halloween" and "The Fog"), here is a picture that relies heavily on its setting--which in this particular instance--becomes that of a United States research base on the remote continent of Antarctica; an environment characteristically designed to evoke a mood of isolation and claustrophobia. This remarkably uninviting atmosphere is not only comparable to the likes of "The Shining" in regard to its form and external surroundings, but it also creates this inescapable sense of stillness; a somewhat indefinable quality that pervades another masterpiece in science fiction infused horror: "Alien." (This tone generates suspense in the most flattering manner, and certainly comes in handy when our resident alien, or "thing" if you will, begins to invade our cast of characters.)

    Although "The Thing" tends to cater to audiences with an apparent need to become physically nauseous (in addition to several grotesque mutations, there are a number of malformed creatures that appear on-screen, including a human head with the body of an arachnid), it is this poignant mood that grasps our attention the most. Additionally, it is the eerie score of Ennio Morricone, an Italian composer who has worked on countless cinematic triumphs, including Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," that heightens this anxiety-filled ambiance. We are fearful of the unknown, as well as any subsequent appearance of this unearthly entity, which in part is due to its rather stomach-churning forms.

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    The plot simply revolves around the discovery of an extraterrestrial being and its ensuing infiltration of this research station, in hopes that it can infect the Earth's population. (It absorbs any living organism that it can find and can mimic its behavior and look thereafter.) This brings us into contact with a large ensemble cast, headlined by Kurt Russell as the resourceful, yet drunken, R.J. MacReady. Russell, who seems to take on a resemblance to that of rock star Jim Morrison, is unforgettable in a role that would normally be deemed inconsequential. He is the centerpiece to this mysterious and heart-pounding sequence of human commandeering, which culminates in an ending that has been the source of an innumerable amount of discussions and debates. (Our ambiguous resolution has sparked much speculation as to which remaining human being is the "thing," and although it is a fascinating topic of study, it is evident that we are destined to form our own opinions fruitlessly.)

    John Carpenter's "The Thing" will always be characterized by the aforementioned conclusion and by an untimely box-office run that was financially unsuccessful to say the least. Of course, this is largely due to the release of "E.T." two weeks prior--a picture that certainly provides more of a charming portrayal when it comes to the otherworldly--and the release of Ridley Scott's timeless science fiction masterpiece in "Blade Runner," which just so happened to debut on the same night.

    Also not helping the cause were several mediocre reviews of the film, most notably that of the renown critic Roger Ebert, who thoughtlessly dismissed the picture for a plethora of reasons, none more disturbing than a criticism of its lack of dramatic irony. The mere fact that the audience is unaware of who the "thing" actually is, seemed to, in his words, "take the fun away." Yet, that is exactly where the enjoyment comes in. It is this level of uncertainty with regard to the attacker, which has certainly become a staple of the horror genre, that ultimately makes this film an achievement in its own right. Without it, we would simply be asking ourselves, "who is going to get it next?"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ★★★★

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    "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is the second installment of a franchise that continues to charm with its lovable characterizations and with an ambiance that surely never shies away from its magical proceedings. (What other films could possibly bring flying cars, House-Elves, and talking spiders to unbounded life without even the slightest pondering toward inconceivability?) And yet, what we have here essentially is a picture that foregoes the theme of identity--a theme that undoubtedly permeated its predecessor--and instead opts to focus on that of a plot driven storyline, which certainly exudes more qualities of its novel counterpart than ever before; nonetheless, succeeding invariably.

    We are transported once again to the captivating Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (albeit in a more comically induced manner this time around), as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) inevitably begins his second year at the most cherished educational establishment for any scholar under the age of sixteen. Little has changed since our last encounter with this remarkable display of architecture and wonderment: Hagrid, the charismatic and beloved groundskeeper, resumes his role of caretaker and friend; Draco Malfoy maintains his envious disposition and responsibility as dramatic foil; and the engaging duo of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) never cease to amaze in their contribution to Harry's adventures and social graces. (In fact, it has come to my attention that Hermoine is clearly the most talented of the three, which naturally highlights Rowling's convictions pertaining to a woman's resilience and aptitude for anything deemed unfit for a female's consideration.)

    Of course, this all changes, however, when a mysterious chamber--located within the confines of the property itself--opens for the fist time in half a century, and when several students find themselves to be victim to an entity that is as puzzling as it is threatening. Subsequently, our central protagonist becomes the target of a number of accidents and conspiracies (coming in the form of a tampered Bludger during a jolting match of Quidditch and a handful of instances that harken back to Harry's relatively unknown past), which only adds to this rather undefined mystery that will span the entire school year. "The Boy Who Lived" will have to muster enough courage to come face-to-face with this unknown threat, not only to save his life and the lives of others, but to protect the only home that he has ever had.

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    What is most satisfying about this film, beyond the reliance on this riveting "whodunit" type of atmosphere, is the inclusion of a number of fresh faces (most notably that of Kenneth Branagh, who steps into the role of the egocentric and rather narcissistic Professor Gilderoy Lockhart), along with the subtle build-up of numerous aspects of this remarkable wizarding world that will soon play a part in upcoming chapters. "Chamber of Secrets" hits this mark more than once, as the Ministry of Magic (also perceived as the political realm) rears its head for the very first time, as well as the underlying detestation among wizard social rankings and classes; an imperative move for a picture that serves as only a portion of a much larger and spellbinding whole.  

    Furthermore, much can be said of the adolescent actors and actresses that carry this film, simply because the majority of its success hinges on their performances. (Cuteness can only last so long and can only take one so far.) Although the collective skills presented here are somewhat impassive in form, there seems to be a hint of maturation in terms of playing to the camera. This can be seen in a number of moments, as Grint's facial acting and overemphasized expressions add to the playful humor of the story, and while Radcliffe stands firm in several scenes that direly warrant a sense of grit and backbone.    

    Which brings us to the most important detail of this specific production and seemingly the entire franchise up to this point: That being, the relationship between the author, J.K. Rowling, and the screenwriter, Steve Kloves. There is no denying the importance of this collaboration, especially considering the inability of Kloves to fully understand where the material is headed. (It is widely known that Rowling keeps the overall storyline close to heart, and only issues particulars when absolutely necessary.) The script must not only indulge heavily into entertainment and the distinct events that color this picture, but it must showcase the most integral facets of a timeline that has yet to be told. "Chamber of Secrets" does just that, and becomes quite endearing along the way.     

Jurassic World ★★1/2

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    The most pivotal scene in "Jurassic World" takes place--not in the re-imagined park where action and events tinged with misfortune seemingly never end--but in the laboratory, behind the scenes of this newly renovated theme-park and latest example of humanity's ignorance. It involves a simple discussion with Dr. Henry Wu, chief geneticist and sole returnee from the franchise's original storyline, and the notion that the company must "innovate or be left in the dust," so to speak, in terms of its approach to its prehistoric creations and accompanying attractions.

    What makes this conversation so important is the fact that it alludes to a trusted theme of prior "Jurassic Park" installments; a theme that can only fully be understood if considered under a humanistic lens, or more specifically, under a focus of morality. (Is it morally acceptable for a man to play God and so on.) It is a central concern deeply instilled in the writings of Michael Crichton (the forgotten genius behind this renown blockbuster series of films) and his numerous techno-thriller novels, which mostly highlight the ill-effect of man's unwarranted tampering with technology and the illusion that one is ever subsequently "in control" of that product.

    Now, although "Jurassic World" does hit on these notes from time to time, (mostly via references to John Hammond and his failings) the film ultimately chooses to center on vacuous entertainment and the thrills aligned with mindless action and gruesome on-screen deaths. Case in point: When the opportunity presents itself to provide our audience with even an inkling of substance, the moment is interrupted by a ferocious dinosaur attack; therefore, squandering any chance for intellectual endeavors. 

    There are even several moments where the picture pokes fun at this somewhat insatiable consumer appetite for all things "big and bad, and with more teeth," however, this is surely a moot point, considering the overall mindset of the film, which surely aims to please the restless minds of a summer audience; minds fueled by a desire to be simply entertained.

    Twenty years have passed since the preview tour of John Hammond's original biological preserve. This new expenditure, owned by a naive and carefree businessman, has adopted a Disney-esque sense of wonderment, as the park becomes home to a handful of new and creative features, including a baby dinosaur petting zoo, live feedings, and a "pod" ride in which the ticket holder can manually roam through a stretch of herbivores. Everything is essentially run by way of a high-tech control room and by a single woman, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who acts as the chief operator of all the island's activities. (Not only is she concerned with focus groups and recent polls, but she must keep an eye on her nephews, who coincidentally come to visit on this rather somber afternoon.) And, of course, there is the resident male persona, Owen (Chris Pratt), an ex-Navy Seal turned Velociraptor trainer. 

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    From here, the film inevitably transitions into a free-for-all type of atmosphere, as the genetically engineered premier attraction--the Indominus Rex--breaks free from its physical constraints. (I mean, what other conflict could there plausibly be?) The characterizations are undeniably dull and one-dimensional, and rightfully so; for, the focus here is that of action sequences, not character-building dialogue.

    Yet, with that being said, this lack of motivation certainly had a trickle down effect when it came to the acting, as Howard pieces together a mediocre outing and while the charming Pratt, a hot commodity as of late, provides us with a rather subdued and bland performance. (The former is limited to scenes that thrive on melodramatic energy, and the latter is reduced to lines oozing with dinosaur behavior psychology, even though this knowledge surely doesn't fit the mold of a Navy Seal.) This is in addition to a romantic inclination between the two, which is about as unenthusiastic as they come.

    What separates "Jurassic World" from its captivating predecessors (with the exception of "Jurassic Park III") is its inability to provide audiences with that magical and suspenseful build-up and its unfortunate dependence on computer graphic imaging to produce our prehistoric eye candy. A stroll down memory lane (culminating in a scene in which our adolescent figures stumble upon the remains of the original tourist destination) seems cramped and out of place, and although the Indominus Rex is everything she is advertised to be, it can never give off that quality of verisimilitude as effortlessly as the animatronic creatures could. (This is not to mention a CGI enhanced brawl for the ages, that will surely have any "Jurassic Park" fanatic shivering with excitement.)

    The foremost point is this: The subject matter of "Jurassic World" could have theoretically been about anything, considering the worldwide popularity of the brand and the boundless anticipation of its release. (The film made enough revenue in its first weekend to already warrant a green light for a sequel.) So why not infuse the story with some sense of intellectual, tangible meaning, as opposed to simplistic run-of-the-mill entertainment? Take away any theme of significance and the picture becomes nothing more than a dinosaur killing spree. How many more times are we going to fork over our hard earned cash to view such dealings?    

    Sure, one could say, "its intention is what it is" or "escapist films are what they are," yet where would the art of film-making be if this mindset became prevalent? Of course, there are colleagues of mine who can find solace in just about anything--most notably Richard Roeper--who instructs audiences once they obtain their 3-D glasses to "Check your brain at the door and pick it up on your way out." I would much rather prefer to keep my intelligence.    

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The LEGO Movie ★★★1/2

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    Beyond the colorful and rather scintillating exterior design of the 2014 children's animated picture entitled  "The LEGO Movie" is a film unquestionably instilled with a sense of heavy satire and a theme brimming with the importance of individuality and creativity. Of course, this is only if one can look past the unadulterated reliance on branding and marketing, which just so happens to permeate the film's construction to such an extent, where even the slightest cameo seems to allude to some motivation of sales.

    Let's be honest here: This production is the most ingenious marketing ploy ever developed. In addition to being bombarded with the presence of numerous popular culture personas turned play-set figurines, (ranging from several DC comic-book characters to the likes of Gandalf, Dumbledore, Abraham Lincoln and certain "Star Wars" personalities) the film emphasizes the notion that even old and tired LEGO sets can now be re-used and re-imagined--to produce realms of wondrous imagination; not to mention the fact that a handful of the settings actually used in the picture have now been patented and sold in every toy store from here to Timbuktu. 

    Yet, despite this overwhelmingly selfish ulterior motive to break financial records and to pave the way for the inevitable follow-ups and spin-offs (and maybe even to increase the sale of LEGO-themed video games), "The LEGO Movie" does provide moments of pure joy and entertainment with its light-hearted surface storyline and with a lovable cast of characters that will surely keep the children intrigued. The plot merely consists of a sole construction worker, Emmet (Chris Pratt), and his journey to becoming some being of moderate importance; throw in a corrupt president in Lord Business (Will Ferrell), a prophecy involving the forthcoming of a "Master Builder," a piece of resistance, and an alternate dimension in which reality is preeminent, and you basically have the gist of a picture that will surely evoke a feeling of amusement from audiences of all ages.   

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    In essence, the film simply follows the events at hand--that being a relentless attack on Emmet and his fellow patrons of resistance by Lord Business and his wretched first commanding officer in Bad Cop (Liam Neeson)--and travels from one disparate LEGO world to another in a wonderful display of production design. (The computer generated surrounding environments not only become interchangeable at will, but seem to transform--or become demolished for that matter--in the most fluid of motions.) There's LEGO-Ville (which claims the role of microcosm due to the emphasis of the above-mentioned satire), the Old West, and an overly optimistic land named Cloud Cuckoo.

    As far as the subject matter on more of an intellectual plane is concerned: There are certainly a plethora of instances infused with situational and physical humor (which is undoubtedly aimed toward younger viewing audiences), however, it is also quite clear that much of the so-called hilarity is satirical in form and is designed to impose its critical mind on the vices and ineptness of modern society. The film takes subtle jabs at sports fans, hipster coffee hangouts, mega corporations, and even acknowledges the negatively domineering effect of television on our lives and the inability of mainstream society to think for themselves. (The latter of which will most likely be composed of individuals who deem the song "Everything is Awesome" to be extraordinary, unaware that its lyrics and existence were born from a fascist mindset.)

    Which brings us to the theme in question; if we are to truly believe that this picture is concerned with issues aligned with contemporary society (which is quite easy at this juncture), then the message is clear--individuality, creativeness, and anything that can be designated unique or original, must be allowed the freedom of expression in order to break free from the banal constraints placed on our twenty-first century population. (Whether it be a fascist government or simply a parent's oppressive mindset toward their child, this could not be more important in terms of the advancement of art and humanity itself.) This conviction can be applied to any walk of life and seemingly any trade, as even the likes of the film industry have become somewhat unimaginative over the last decade. For what it is worth, the world needs "The LEGO Movie."