Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World

Title: Jurassic World
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas-Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson

There's a scene in the first half of Jurassic World in which the Operations Manager of Jurassic World, a dinosaur theme park and resort, tells her animal trainer that the park's scientists have created a new dino hybrid to attract customers. "Corporate felt genetic modification would up the 'wow' factor," she says. The trainer shoots back, "They're dinosaurs. Wow enough." If only that were true. In 2015, now 22 years after the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, dinosaurs -- or flying robots or alien invaders, for that matter -- appear insufficient to appease the movie-going public. We want more: more carnage, more spectacle, "more teeth," as they say in Jurassic World. Colin Trevorrow, who directed this fourth installment of the Jurassic franchise, seems to understand this. His movie is knowing, self-referential, and critical of the bloated summer blockbuster. Yet, at the same time Trevorrow lampoons the runaway budgets, thin characterizations, and expensive digital effects of the modern movie blockbuster, he embraces them. The movie lurches from set piece to set piece, stopping to admire its product placements, but never bothering to tell an interesting story or elevate its characters from glorified extras. 

Set two decades after the first dinosaur theme park ended in disaster, Jurassic World returns to Isla Nublar, an island off the coast of Costa Rica where, finally, the dinosaur genetic experiment is a success. The park, now a luxury resort, is fully functional. Revenue is up. Customer satisfaction is in the 90s. The only problem: dinosaurs, once thrilling, are now yesterday's news. The public wants something new, something more dangerous. Enter Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), the park's new owner, and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas-Howard), the park's Operations Manager, who work with geneticists to create a brand new attraction: Indominus Rex. Indominus, who belongs to the same on-the-nose family as unobtanium and Darth Sidious, of course escapes captivity and runs amok.

Trevorrow, who has only one other feature to his name, the 2012 indie Safety Not Guaranteed, actually directs the movie serviceably. Guided by his mentor and executive producer Steven Spielberg, he hits all the right notes, especially during the movie's action scenes. Burdened with a huge budget and tasked with making a straightforward blockbuster, Trevorrow does his best to inject the movie with a sense of humor and levity. But it's not enough. The characters are boring and expendable. The story is stupid. And the sense of awe and grandeur of Spielberg's original creation is long gone. 

And, really, that's what Jurassic World needs most desperately: the humanizing touch of Spielberg. Even though the original Jurassic Park was something of a diversion for Spielberg -- he edited it at night and filmed Schindler's List during the day -- he managed to bring its characters (and its dinosaurs) to life. The same cannot be said for Jurassic World. The relationship between Claire and trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, in a bland performance) is totally without chemistry. The animals, once objects of fear and respect, are mere digital props to be introduced and quickly discarded.

Jurassic World, in a way, is critic-proof. Moviegoers will flock to the theater to see it, because the Jurassic brand is strong and because, well, dinosaurs. But audiences deserve better than this. Jurassic World is a flat, dumb mess of a movie, with one-dimensional characters and silly story lines. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Title: Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne

Over 35 years ago, visionary director George Miller unleashed Mad Max, a low-budget, dystopian western-on-wheels. The movie, an international commercial success, spawned two sequels: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Now, three decades later, Miller has returned to the series that made him famous. The result is Mad Max: Fury Road, a high-octane, half-insane, deliriously enjoyable action flick that renews faith in the summer movie season and in blockbuster entertainment in general. It's the best Mad Max movie yet, and it's one of the best action movies ever made.

Something of a sequel-reboot, Fury Road finds "Mad" Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) alone in the wilderness, focused only on the basest of human instincts: survival. Chased down and abducted by the servants of a tyrannical warlord named Immortan Joe, Max is made a slave. When one of the warlord's lieutenants, Furiosa -- played powerfully by Charlize Theron -- steals his vehicle and property, Joe sends his "war boys" in hot pursuit. Max, now a "blood bag" for an injured war boy, goes along for the ride. Soon enough, Max and Furiosa join forces and struggle against overwhelming odds to survive a long trek across the desert.

Mad Max movies have never been about deep, meditative stories or powerful character arcs. They're about the smell of burning rubber, the crunch of metal and flesh, and archetypal characters driven mad by the post-apocalypse. Fury Road is no different. However, the movie is not all car chases and gravity-defying stunt work. Fury Road features a surprising amount of depth and character development for the genre, and, unlike many modern blockbusters, it has something important to say.

Back to the chases and stunt work: all of it is magnificent. Miller, armed with a huge budget and total creative freedom, has created in Fury Road an action movie for the ages, filled with a dozen show-stopping set pieces. Souped-up, fetishized muscle cars routinely careen across the sandy wilderness, colliding and exploding, while their human occupants leap, crawl, and shoot around them. What's impressive is that Miller and his stunt team achieved this spectacle with very few digital effects; Miller claims that 90 percent of the effects are practical.

Even more impressive is the fact that all of the action makes visual sense. Often, action movies, burdened down with special effects, end up visually confusing or disorienting. Not with Fury Road. Together with Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, Miller manipulated the frame rate of the movie in order to achieve a visual coherence. Said Seale, "It'll be running below 24 frames because George, if he couldn't understand what was happening in the shot, he slowed it down until you could."

Adding to the brilliance of Fury Road is production designer Colin Gibson, who worked previously with Miller on Babe, and Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, who scored the movie. So much of Mad Max's visual identity relies on the design of its cars, costumes, and paraphernalia. In Fury Road, Gibson acts like a demented artist, mashing together icons, motifs, and vehicles into something bold and original. Take, for example, the "Gigahorse," which uses a monster truck body to support two long-finned Cadillac Coupe de Villes, one mounted on top of the other. Complementing that visual identity is an audio track as menacing and throaty as the roar of a supercharged engine, thanks to Junkie XL.

Three decades have passed since the last Mad Max movie, and yet it seems like things haven't changed at all. Miller, now 70, is still a master of analog action film-making. His character, Mad Max, is still the gruff, succinct hero who personifies humanity's survival instinct  -- as Miller says, "he's all of us, amplified." What's changed, perhaps, is the summer movie landscape and the audience's lowered expectations of it. Maybe that's why Fury Road, with its dedication to practical effects, visionary direction, and metaphorical meaning, is so refreshing, revelatory, and, if enough young filmmakers follow suit, revolutionary.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Title: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Director: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the ultimate comic book movie. It's not the best -- far from it. But it is the ultimate, the quintessential comic book movie. Concerned not only with its own story, but with the stories of several other movies -- past, present, and future -- Ultron brings to the big screen the serialized nature and looping character arcs of comic books. In no way is it a self-contained narrative; instead it's the prism through which the Marvel Cinematic Universe is reflected. It's not really a story; it's connective tissue. And yet, despite this reality, despite the fact that Ultron is over-stuffed and bound by the narrative logic of the larger Marvel cinematic project, the movie is enjoyable. It's inferior to director Joss Whedon's first attempt at the Avengers series, but it's still an efficient and capable entertainment.

Age of Ultron starts kinetically with an Avengers raid on a Hydra base in the eastern European country of Sokovia. The Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) manage to pummel the bad guys and retrieve Loki's scepter. Back at base, Stark and fellow genius Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) decide to use the artificial intelligence inside the scepter to power "Ultron," Stark's global defense program. Unfortunately for the Avengers, Ultron achieves sentience and decides that the only real way to protect Earth is to eliminate its human population.

Age of Ultron is an entertaining movie, but it would benefit from an extra 30 minutes, or, perhaps, half as many characters. Writer/director Joss Whedon has a penchant for writing groups, but even he, skilled as he is, cannot devote enough time to develop each primary and secondary character. Ultron, voiced mellifluously by James Spader, is unfortunately underdeveloped. Newcomers Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are egregiously underdeveloped. Others are more lucky. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who spent most of The Avengers possessed, gets his fifteen minutes of fame in Age of Ultron. Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Banner also get a healthy amount of screen time; it's their story arc, along with Hawkeye's, that help provide a human touch to a movie that's concerned mostly with elaborate fight scenes.

Speaking of the fight scenes: they're interesting enough, although not as visually inventive or daring as those in recent Marvel movies. There's nothing in Age of Ultron that compares with the Heat-esque street shoot-outs from The Winter Soldier or the brawl through dimensional portals in Thor: The Dark World. Still, Ultron's set pieces are serviceable, and Whedon manages to elevate them with a few shots of humor and his trademark group shots. A panoramic slow-motion shot of the heroes fighting in tandem during the movie's climactic battle is especially thrilling.

The movie is at its best, unsurprisingly given Whedon's credentials, when the superheroes are "off the clock." The finest scene in Age of Ultron isn't a knock-down fight between The Hulk and Iron Man, or a clash of superheroes and supervillains. It's a party at Stark's high rise, where the movie (and the audience) can take a breath and learn about its characters. The pacing, sense of humor, and composition on display in this short, intimate scene outpaces everything else in the movie.

It begs the question: what would Ultron be like if Whedon wasn't attached as writer and director? The movie is successful in spite of itself, thanks to Whedon's mastery of the subject matter and his understanding that human emotion is far more compelling than exploding robots. It's just a shame that Ultron had so little room to maneuver. With a dozen heroes, plenty of bad guys, and a platoon of supporting friends, family, and well-wishers -- each with his or her own back story and movie tie-in -- it's nearly impossible to push into new cinematic territory. Age of Ultron is lesser than The Avengers in large part because of The Avengers, and, for that matter, every other Marvel movie that came before it and will come along after it. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, its individual projects will continue to shrink.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Furious 7

Title: Furious 7
Director: James Wan
Written by: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges

It would have seemed impossible in 2001, when the first Fast & Furious movie premiered, that fourteen years later the franchise would include seven motion pictures and, having earned $3.1 billion at the worldwide box office, be Universal's biggest franchise ever. What began as a small-scale girls-and-cars movie has gradually transformed over the past decade into a big-budget stunt spectacular, with high-wire set pieces that wouldn't look out of place in a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. In this latest installment, appropriately titled Furious 7, the stunts are bigger and better than ever. More importantly, the same veins of comedy, camaraderie, and family -- which flow throughout the entire franchise -- are on full display in Furious 7, which ranks among the best of the series so far.

Furious 7 tales place shortly after the events of Fast & Furious 6, when Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O'Conner (Walker), and the rest of their gang have returned to the United States after securing amnesty for a laundry list of past crimes. Interrupting their tranquility is Deckard Shaw, a rogue special ops assassin intent on picking off members of Dom's team after they put his villainous younger brother in a coma. With his friends and family threatened, Dom gets the gang back together to stop Shaw before it's too late.

Furious 7 boasts plenty of gravity-defying stunts.

The story in Furious 7 isn't anything special. It's a variation of the anti-heroes-fight-villain arc that's defined the series since its second installment. What elevates the proceedings are the action set pieces, which are thrilling and spectacular, and the heartfelt interaction among the movie's protagonists. More on that later.

The action is Furious 7 is fast, frenetic, and decidedly over-the-top. Often in action movies, implausible or exaggerated action scenes turn out to be immersion-breaking and distracting. This was certainly the case during a few of the impractical action scenes in Fast & Furious 6. But Furious 7 deals with the potential landmine early, setting the stage in the opening scene when Deckard Shaw single-handedly takes out a small army protecting his brother's hospital room. It introduces to the audience an idea of heightened reality, of the possibility of the impossible. And that idea is further elaborated upon throughout the movie, as cars fly out of planes, across skyscrapers, and into each other. In a particularly impressive set piece -- maybe the best of the series -- Dom, Brian, and others attack an armored convoy on a winding mountain road an attempt to rescue a kidnapped hacker. Expertly paced, choreographed, and edited, it's the stand-out action scene of the movie.

Dom's crew cleans up nice.

When director James Wan (Saw, Indidious) isn't crunching metal, glass, and bodies, he turns his attention to the relationships among Dom's crew. What's kept Fast & Furious afloat for 14 years, apart from the fast cars and half-naked women, is the sense of family and loyalty that binds a ragtag crew of ex-cops, street racers, and criminals together. In one of the more moving moments of the movie, Dom says simply, "I don't have friends. I got family." Wan and Chris Morgan, who penned Furious 7, understand this. Furious 7 is perhaps the most openly emotional of the series, as themes of parenthood, sacrifice, loyalty, and family are unpacked in the quiet moments between car chases.

Furious 7 concludes with a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

What makes the movie even more emotionally powerful is the death, two years ago, of Fast & Furious star Paul Walker, who passed away tragically in a car accident with filming for Furious 7 only half complete. Using stunt doubles, including Walker's two brothers, and digital wizardry courtesy of Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, Wan and company were able to redevelop Walker's character and orchestrate his exit from the series. But the sting of his death is felt anytime Walker shows up on screen. As Dom says, "I don't have friends. I got family." After seven movies and fourteen years, Walker is family. And it hurts to see him go.

Luckily for viewers, Furious 7 ends with a beautiful tribute to Walker. It's the perfect way to say goodbye, and it wraps up one of the most emotionally intelligent and entertaining movies of the long-running franchise.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Game: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
System: PS4 (also on PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC)
Genre: Adventure 
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release date: June 24, 2014

Pros: Amazing art direction, top-tier production values, engaging and diverse gameplay
Cons: Easy puzzles

In an industry filled with war games that ask players to shoot first and ask questions later, it's refreshing to find a game that takes a moment to meditate on the causes and effects of violence, on its meaning, and on its meaninglessness. Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the latest from acclaimed studio Ubisoft Montpellier, is such a game. 

Set in and around the Western Front during the First World War, Valiant Hearts follows several star-crossed characters whose lives are uprooted by the monumental conflict that engulfed all of Europe from 1914 to 1918. The four main characters, all playable, include a French farmer named Emile, conscripted into the French army; his son-in-law Karl, a German native, drafted into the German military machine; a Belgian nurse named Anna; and Freddie, an American expatriate living in Paris who volunteers to fight for the Allies.

Players must solve a variety of puzzles to advance.

Throughout the game's four chapters, which span the beginning of the war to its waning months, players will control all four characters as they solve puzzles and complete a variety of action events, all of which, while not necessarily difficult, are nonetheless engaging. Puzzles include everything from distracting guards to deciphering codes to ordering a faithful canine companion to retrieve out-of-reach items. The puzzles, which come in many shapes and sizes, are fun and rewarding, but difficult they are not. No adventure game enthusiast would ever confuse the linear and approachable puzzles in Valiant Hearts with the brain-melting riddles in the LucasArts canon, for example. Nevertheless, the puzzles are regularly entertaining. 

Even more entertaining that the game's puzzles are its action events, which include stealth sections, chase sequences, military assaults, and, yes, even boss battles. Avoiding sentries and dodging machine gun fire in real time is thrilling, and it provides a much-needed foil to the methodical puzzle-solving that makes up the rest of the game.

Real-time action sequences add variety to this puzzle adventure.

All of these action and puzzle sequences come to life thanks to the UbiArt Framework, a 2.5D engine developed in house at Ubisoft Montpellier. With gorgeous hand-drawn characters and backgrounds, Valiant Hearts at times plays like a wonderful piece of animation, something out of Les Armateurs. The engine and its artists capture the serene beauty of rural France, the fiery hellscape of no man's land, and everything in between. The end result is one of the most visually arresting video games ever made.

While Valiant Hearts may be shorter and less substantial than other big-budget epics, it still manages to pack a punch, artistically and mechanically. The puzzles, however easy, are fun and involving; the action scenes are thrilling and imaginative; and the whole package is beautifully drawn, scored, and written. It's a testament to the creativity of Ubisoft Montpellier. Moreover, it's a testament to the studio's bravery in making a war game less concerned with winners, losers, and kill count than it is on the heroism of everyday people and on war's devastating human cost. Francois Truffaut is credited with saying that making an anti-war movie is impossible, because all war movies end up making combat look like fun. Valiant Hearts is the rare anti-war piece that, by reflecting on the indignity and insanity of war, achieves its goal.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Order: 1886

Game: The Order: 1886
System: PS4
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Ready at Dawn
Release date: February 20, 2015

Pros: Amazing graphics, stellar production values, first-rate weapon design
Cons: General lack of interactivity, poor aspect ratio, generic shooting gallery sequences

Last year, Dana Jan, who directed The Order: 1886, made headlines when he stated that storytelling is at the "top of the pyramid" and that everything else, gameplay included, supports that capstone. For some, who enjoy the cinematic intensity of games like Uncharted and Heavy Rain, this news was promising. For others, weaned on early-generation games in which storytelling was an afterthought, the idea of gameplay being subordinate to script was anathema. After playing The Order: 1886 for myself, I can say with confidence that Ready at Dawn achieved its mission of placing story and graphics at the forefront in its newest game. The graphics, physics, textures, and lighting are all spectacular. The story, although derivative and anticlimactic, is genuinely intriguing and presented with gusto by a talented cast of voice actors. But, by committing its workers to story and graphics at the expense of gameplay, Ready at Dawn chipped away at the agency of the player. The end result is a gorgeous, atmospheric, stylish video game in which the player is not trusted to do much of anything at all. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, "The Order is like a museum. It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything."

Set in an alternate history London, The Order follows an ancient order of knights who protect the world, or at least the British part of the world, from half-breed monsters like werewolves. In the fall of 1886, four of these knights run afoul of two enemies, half-breeds and anti-government rebels, and, perhaps, a larger and more sinister conspiracy.

The knights of The Order descend a Zeppelin.

The story in The Order held my interest throughout, even if, at times, it relies too heavily on the rhetorical devices, motifs, and archetypes of the genre. The characters are well sketched and superbly acted, and the twists and turns, however predictable, are convincing. By the time the credits rolled, roughly seven hours in, I wanted to know more about this alternate version of Victorian England and more about Sir Galahad, the principal protagonist of The Order.

Supporting the story are some of the most sumptuous graphics on PS4, or any other platform for that matter. The particle effects, dynamic lighting, and especially textures in The Order regularly stun. Ready at Dawn actually scanned and digitized period-accurate textiles into their graphics engine to ensure that the clothes worn by Galahad and his confederates look and move accurately. Adding to that sense of realism is a volumetric lighting and fog system that reproduces Victorian London in all its gritty, industrial glory. London is, as Art Director Nathan Phail-Liff said, "almost another character in our world."

Sir Galahad runs to cover.

The problem is that all these expensive graphics, cloth physics, and effects are merely window dressing. And the areas in which Ready at Dawn should have invested -- level design, enemy artificial intelligence, and tactical gun play -- are all grievously underdeveloped. Much of The Order is spent watching, not playing. There are hours of cut scenes, both interative and non-interactive, which, while luxuriously painted, aren't very fun or engaging. When Ready at Dawn does allow players to interact with the game world, it's often the simplest and most linear of interactions: walk from point A to point B, listening to conversations; or push a cart or open a door with the press of a button. Shooting sequences aren't much better. They came in two forms: duck-and-cover "Whac-A-Mole" shooting galleries with dumb, generic enemies; and dynamic, tactical episodes where Galahad must constantly move and readjust, picking up guns and ammo on the move, and generally improvise. This latter form is the rarer of the two, but by far the more enjoyable. More importantly, it points to the huge, and arguably wasted, potential of The Order.

When Ready at Dawn returns to make a sequel to The Order, it should drop its cinematic pretensions, including the letterbox black bars that reduce visibility in hectic firefights, and focus on gameplay. The shooting mechanics are strong; the weapons, weighty and deadly, have a satisfying pop and crack; and the characters and mythology are intriguing. What's needed is a studio willing to pull all these things into a cohesive video game experience where the most important person isn't the script writer or the art director, but the player.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Passes Away at 83

The world of science fiction is a favorite of mine: gleaming spaceships dancing among the stars, alien worlds filled with wonders and horrors, the unstoppable curiosity of mankind pushing outward into the inky blackness of space looking for a new frontier. Nowhere, perhaps, were these possibilities and promises better realized than the TV series Star Trek, and no one represented that show better than the character Mr. Spock, played elegantly by Leonard Nimoy, who passed away yesterday morning.

Nimoy, who, according to his wife Susan Bay Nimoy, died from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was synonymous with the character Spock, whose human and alien parentage afforded him a unique perspective on terrestrial and extra-terrestrial events, and very often provided the non-human prism that Gene Roddenberry, inventor of Star Trek, needed to artfully convey what exactly made humans tick.

Throughout his life, Nimoy admitted that Spock was, at times, an ambivalent force, one that simultaneously defined him and restrained him. His two autobiographies, "I Am Not Spock," published in 1977, and "I Am Spock," published in 1995, speak to the difficult relationship between actor and iconic role. In the end, however, Nimoy embraced his role as Spock, starring, between 1979 and 1991, in six motion pictures based on Star Trek, two of which he directed. He would play Spock again in 2009 in the Star Trek reboot and, four years later, in its sequel.

When Nimoy wasn't playing Spock, he was acting in Mission: Impossible, lending his sonorous voice to narration, famously in the show In Search of..., writing books and poetry, and pursuing his interest in photography.

But it's Nimoy's role as Spock in Star Trek, a role Roddenberry called "the conscience of Star Trek," that will remain his most iconic and most beloved. In Spock, Nimoy realized a layered, conflicted, endlessly interesting character whose pointy ears, arching eyebrows, and logical mind are forever enshrined in the science fiction lexicon. Star Trek would not be the same without him. Science fiction in general would not be the same without him. Legions of Star Trek fans, myself included, would have poorer lives had he not invaded our living rooms with his tall frame, lean face, and baritone voice, making us smile and laugh and cry.

He will be missed.