Best Discoveries - 2015

Dream of Light (El Sol Del Membrillo) Victor Erice, 1992

Greaser's Palace Robert Downey Sr., 1972

The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie) Larisa Shepitko, 1977

The Highlands Trilogy 
(First Contact - Joe Leahy's Neighbors - Black Harvest)
 Bob Connelly & Robin Anderson, 1983 - 1989 - 1992

Long Live Death (Viva La Muerte)  &
I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (J'irai comme un cheval fou) 
     Fernando Arrabal, 1972; 1973

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter William Beaudine, 1966

Nightfall Jacques Tourneur, 1957

Walker Alex Cox, 1987

The Swimmer Frank Perry, 1968

Goltzius and the Pelican Company Peter Greenaway, 2012

Wanda Barbara Loden, 1970

Planet of the Vampires Mario Bava, 1965

The End of Time Peter Mettler, 2012

The Astro-Zombies  &
The Corpse Grinders Ted V. Mikels, 1968; 1971

The Damned Don't Cry Vincent Sherman, 1950

Roar Noel Marshall, 1981


"Jurassic World" dir. Colin Trevorrow, 2015

Luis Bunuel and Salavdor Dali famously began their influential Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou with the slice of an eyeball, while the Russian Futurist filmmaker Dziga Vertoz closed his operatic collage film Man With a Movie Camera by melding the human eye with the lens of a movie camera. The opening frames of Jurassic World confront the audience with an eyeball as well, but one that represents a very different relationship to movies than those manifesto-fueled avant-garde masterpieces of the late 1920's.  The opening optical confrontation presented by this box-office record-breaking behemoth got me thinking about the ways in which all of these films are very much invested in their sense of themselves as movies. Where Un Chien Andalou and Man With a Movie Camera are both exercises in anti-narrative, privileging non-linearity and anti-realist camera trickery over story, Jurassic World is a post-narrative film, resigned to its repetitious story elements and characterizations, and confined to having a conversation with itself, and us, about its own nature as pure cinema product. In this way, Jurassic World is a perfect gauge for how the medium of film has changed in the intervening 85+ years. It's also a perfect gauge for how the movie industry has changed since the release of the original Jurassic Park.

Like the sullen, inoffensive baby dinosaurs depicted in the film, sentenced to a life of having child after child ride them in circles, Jurassic World is a tired tourist attraction that is excessively aware of the tired gaze of its audience, but even more aware of their gullibility as consumers.  The opening scenes of the film are riddled with dialogue that seem to be desperately reassuring the audience that this entry will certainly have "more teeth," while simultaneously sounding utterly hopeless about the fact the film will have any "bite" at all. As Bryce Dallas Howard's corporate liaison Claire states early on to some potential sponsors of the park: "No one's impressed by a dinosaur anymore." What we have in this new entry is a film that looks right at the audience, states that it's a failed product, and then laughs at us for having vaulted it to untold box office success.

To be fair, like the character of young Gray (Ty Simpkins), there are a lot of people out there who, simply put, are just into dinosaurs. The history of cinema holds a long fascination with dinosaurs, from the animated Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), to The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), the pioneering stop-action work of Ray Harryhausen, and on through the ever-evolving CGI work of Industrial Light and Magic. Historically, the cinema has served as a magical tourist destination to witness these extinct creatures. Jurassic World conflates this idea of cinema-as-tourism in numerous ways throughout the film.

A few years before the release of the original Jurassic Park, John Urry published an influential book in tourism studies called “The Tourist Gaze” which would define our movie-going preoccupation with these giant reptiles as a Collectivist Gaze--the same type of mass, pre-packaged tourist experience depicted as the central location of the film. Tourists who flock to theme parks are central to the Collectivist Gaze--you see them running in colorful, multi-cultural, chaotic streams as the new, mutant products of this entry easily pick them off. Tourists who stray from the Collectivist path, like brothers Zach and Gray in their protective "eye-pod" deciding to go off-roading, are travelling into the realm of what Urry would call the Romantic Gazer, solitary and in search of the Authentic.

The Jurassic films of the past have allowed audiences to travel these imagined borderlands of the gaze, but Jurassic World truly falls short when it comes to discovering anything authentic. In fact, much of the film feels like it takes place in "Meta-World," with the Gen-Y dinosaur monitor Lowery (Jake Johnson) explaining how he got his Jurassic Park T-shirt on e-bay, extolling the authenticity of the original; Claire's exasperated comment about a potential "Verizon Wireless" sponsored attraction; the vigorously infused product placement involving not only the park's Margaritaville outlet, but a Jimmy Buffet-penned song on the soundtrack to boot. Once again, our sense of ourselves as consumers is a primary concern of Jurassic World, almost to an extent that would make German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht take interest, were it not so narrowly focused on capitalist gain. Brecht was a pioneer of meta-theatrical techniques who was invested in continually reminding his audience of their role as spectators, and the constructed aspects of spectacle. Brecht saw this awareness as essential to liberating audiences from the dark goals of propagandists and myth-makers after WWI. In Jurassic World, utilizing the main attraction of the theme park as an antidote to war is a theme that echoes this sentiment throughout. Yet, the film’s villain, Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), comes to a wholly uninspired end at the jaws of the raptors he has been taunting and planning to exploit throughout; ultimately, his most relevant moment comes when he kicks back in front of the monitors during the final action sequences, takes a long draw from a cine-plex-sized Jurassic World soda cup and inquires: "You recordin' this thing?”  An unsubtle reminder of the endless reproduction of these types of franchises, to be sure, but also a moment that feels like the makers of Jurassic World are just rubbing our noses in the proceedings late into the film.

With all this in mind, I want to read Jurassic World--that is, the park itself--as the current movie industry, desperate in its attempt to cross-breed any number of market-proven ideas, particularly of the recycled variety. The immersive audience experiences of the park, from the rolling gyro-scopes to the drop-down audience experience, all echo recent attempts by the industry to try and offer more immersive cinema experiences to a public that is less and less interested in going to movies. One central character to this reading is Masrani (Irrfan Kahn). Dressed in what you might call “Industry Couture,” it is perhaps no mistake that this freewheeling, helicopter-piloting stakeholder’s nationality is the largest movie-producing country in the world. His wonder at the new "Great White Hope" creation reminds us again of our spectatorship, and the state of the movie business. When Masrani first sees the creature, is he seeing the attraction, or the audience for the attraction? Claire speaks of "measuring the animal's emotional experience," to which Masrani replies: "You can see it in their eyes.” Recent marketing research tools that track exactly where the spectator's eyes are looking at any moment came to mind, as I stared again into the eyes of the mutant beast. In reverse shot, we see the look in Masrani's eyes reflect his excitement at this new advancement, and the potential profit. 


"Tomorrowland" dir. Brad Bird, 2015

Near the middle of Brad Bird's second live-action feature Tomorrowland, a melee in a sci-fi memorabilia store involving our young heroine Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and two inexplicable geek-chic robots (Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key) sends more than a few artifacts from our movie-going childhood splintering across the screen. The filmmakers revel in the opportunity for multiple visual references in this sequence, as Newton places her trinket of time travel at the center of the swirling art design for Disney's 1979 feature The Black Hole, and eventually, as the conflict over the trinket ensues, a model of the iconic robot Gort from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still collapses in shambles. This cue to the audience that Tomorrowland is not exactly your grandma's thinly veiled apocalyptic warning occurs around the point that most audiences will likely experience their own narrative comprehension begin to spiral into a black hole, so to speak.

Tomorrowland is a troubled piece of storytelling that offers four or five different narrative paths, each one a bit more tonally skewed from the last. The design of the picture matches the film's hapless narrative pastiche, juxtaposing sequences that rely heavily on historical recreation in one moment (the 1964 World's Fair), and the cartoonish design of Bird's more successful animated film The Incredibles in the next (bulbous robots with Swiss Army knife appendages). All of this is wrapped in (or around) a simple tale of light vs dark, optimism vs pessimism, good wolves vs bad, yet fraught by an inability to tell it simply, or even clearly. A dedication to the “Disney Ideal” is on display from the very beginning of Bird and fellow screenwriter Damon Lindelof's script, along with tiresome homages to their Spielberg-saturated childhoods. Tomorrowland gives the impression of mature filmmakers who have culled together the references of those childhood influences, but childishly failed to heed any of the lessons on display in even the most basic of their predecessor's oeuvre. In other words, both Bird and Lindelof could have benefited here from reviewing Spielberg's first feature Duel, where a man in a car is chased by a man in a truck until he defeats both man and truck.

In the early 1980's I watched Duel numerous times on Sunday afternoons and never tired of it. To be fair, I could see that same 12 year-old “me” taking much more easily to the pleasures of Tomorrowland than the future, curmudgeonly “me” who has probably fed the "wolf of pessimism" too often for his own good, to borrow the central parable of the film. One reason for this is that Tomorrowland plays relentlessly--and rather expertly--to a child's sense of action and wonder, but at the expense of any semblance of adult patience. Yes, there's a child in me that really digs Tomorrowland, and, by film's end, an adult that can't help but admire the grandiose sense of inspiration it intends. Unfortunately, this message of inspiration is perhaps the falsest note of the entire film, channeled through the character of Casey Newton who is continually and vaguely championed as just "knowing how things work." Robertson's histrionic, goofy physiognomy doesn't help matters, nor does the hokey depiction early in the film of her character’s infant self, a regrettable scene that seemingly forces the script to turn against itself.

Perhaps the truest moment in Tomorrowland comes during one of the film's three or four finales, when our human protagonists drive robot/villain Nix (Hugh Laurie) to "monologuing" (in yet another reference to The Incredibles), as he exclaims: "You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint!" Putting the occasional pessimism of "future me" aside, I truly wish this weren't the most impactful moment of the film, because it’s certainly not the tangled mess that surrounds it: a beyond-convoluted plot involving a new army of robots covertly sneaking Tomorrowland emblems into the design files and guitar cases of potential world-shakers, who will then be transported into an extremely difficult-to-navigate immersive fantasy commercial (?) that might inspire them to alter the course of Frank Walker's generic apocalyptic predictions.

Frank Walker (George Clooney) is our exiled hero, a former citizen of Tomorrowland inexplicably forlorn over an adolescent robot named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Athena is programmed to recruit the next great generation of innovators, and eventually brings Walker and young Newton together before ultimately sacrificing herself for the future of the human race. In this second (or third) finale involving Athena’s sacrifice, the film plays with the possibility of raising intriguing questions about human obligation in a post-human world. Unfortunately, these themes have been explored more fully in recent films such as Spike Jones' Her and Alex Garland's Ex Machina. Even within Bird's Pixar cohort, the creators of Wall-E managed to delve way more trenchantly into this thematic territory, asking perhaps the most intriguing futurist question of any animated film: What is our obligation to two robots that fall in love?

Of course, just because one film does something better than another film is no justification of a film’s success or failure. Tomorrowland certainly fails well enough on its own, and gloriously so, with an absurdly over-stuffed quality that I admire. Did I mention the scene where young Newton lights a combine tractor on fire and sends it rolling driverless toward Walker’s house? Walker’s freeze-gun? The hologram dog? Like the centerpiece memorabilia store of the film, Tomorrowland is packed floor-to-ceiling with shiny, enticing toys and trinkets. Its quality as product far outweighs its shallow sense of social change. For a film that calls toward fixing the climate crisis and various other forms of environmental and social upheaval, it seems hopelessly fixed in the stagnant mentality that Nix so eloquently describes. It’s the same mentality that the memorabilia store perpetuates, that naturalizes us toward a world of adults playing with children’s toys and paying for children’s movies, fixed in the daydream of the past while the apocalypse plays out on a loop. 


Best Films - 2014

Taking a brief look back at my "Best Films" list from the last couple of years, the best I can say is that the few films at the top--Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Leos Carax's Holy Motors--are still reliable indicators of what is invigorating and hopeful to me about the current state of movies. Here are the films that struck an ecstatic chord with me in 2014:

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro Inarritu

The Act of Killing  Joshua Oppenheimer

Ida  Pawel Pawlikowski

Under the Skin  Jonathan Glazer

The Homesman  Tommy Lee Jones

Nightcrawler  Dan Gilroy

Enemy  Denis Villeneuve

Her  Spike Jonze

Jodorowsky’s  Dune  Frank Pavich

The Rover  David Michod

The Best of the Rest:

Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch
We Are The Best! Lukas Moodysson
Nebraska Alexander Payne
Lucy Luc Besson
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night Ana Lily Amirpour
Night Moves Kelley Reichardt
Willow Creek Bobcat Goldthwait
Locke Steven Knight
Edge of Tomorrow Doug Liman
Boyhood Richard Linklater
Frank Lenny Arahamsom
Fury David Ayer
Welcome To Me Shira Piven

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

The Disappointments

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Cohen), Leviathan (Andrey Zivyagintsev),
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle), Slow West (John Maclean)

Just Terrible:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Frances Lawrence), Saw (James Wan - 10th Anniversary Re-Release...my first "Saw movie")