Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Is a Bad Original Film Better Than An Okay Sequel? Last weekend, “San Andreas” and “Aloha” entered theaters to decidedly mixed reception (or, in the case of “Aloha,” some deeply negative reception.) But despite their flaws, both these films are original properties, unlike the numerous franchise sequels that flood theaters every summer. EW’s Darren Franich ponders whether a bad original film is in fact better than an okay sequel.
“Originality” as a concept has maybe never been less essential to Hollywood. By general consensus, the best wide-release movie of the year so far is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the fourth film in a franchise that started when Cameron Crowe was undercover in high school. The 2015 film that I’ve personally seen the most — four times in theaters, I can’t help myself — is “Furious Seven,” the film where a gang of car thieves save America from a private terrorist by crashing a bulletproof car through three skyscrapers. (Not to be confused with “Aloha,” the movie where Cameron Crowe archetypes save America from a private terrorist by blowing up a nuclear satellite with a boomer-rock mixtape.) The question I want to pose today isn’t about those good movies, though. It’s the bad ones that fascinate me. Because if you can get a unique high from a great franchise movie — the lizard-brain immediacy of “Watching A Good Movie” combined with the insta-nostalgic resonance of “This Is Just Like When I Watched The Last Movie,” the magical feeling of rewatching something for the first time — you can get a unique low from watching a bad franchise movie. Or even a middling one. Expectations for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” were high for a lot of people — and no matter how much money the movie makes, it’s easy to read the muted reaction to that film as disappointment bordering on depression. I wonder if the excitement for “San Andreas” indicates a minor sea change — if, after three years of sky-high expectations, people were ready for something humbler. I wonder if that’s the reason why “Aloha” is the bad movie I can’t quite get out of my mind: The movie is only frayed edges and missing scenes and unsketched plotlines, the kind of thing you can never get from a movie factory chugging out product launches on a quarterly release schedule.
2. How “Jurassic Park” Tells the Story of the Modern Blockbuster. “Jurassic World,” the fourth film in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, comes out next week 22 years after the original was released. It’s easy (and foolish) to look fondly back at “Jurassic Park” as a summer movie that eschewed character, plot, etc. in favor of dazzling effects, but that’s not the whole story. Little White Lies’ David Jenkins theorizes about “Jurassic Park” and claims it tells the story of the modern blockbuster.
“Jurassic Park: is, for want of a better term, a self-aware blockbuster. Like the raptors, it has far more intelligence and wile than we may have given it credit for. It’s a movie which tells the story of its own production. And not only its own production, but the ensuing history of mammoth effects movies. Until its inception, computer effects in movies were mere cosmetic spectacle. Movies were a reason to innovate in that field. The movies came first, then the effects came afterwards. Yet there was a Brechtian, destabilizing effect to their inclusion in a film because you were instantly reminded that you’re watching a movie, that it’s an expressionistic reflection of reality. There will of course be exceptions to this rule, earlier films whose effects manage to dazzle the eye into a state of disbelieving wonderment. Yet what makes “Jurassic Park” special is that the quality of its effects are what prevent it from being pigeonholed as a fantasy movie. Indeed, it’s the actors, acting and talking like actors act and talk, which implicitly remind the viewed that it’s only a movie. Even magical realism doesn’t quite cover it. Jurassic Park is romantic realism.
3. Understanding “Star Wars” as Junk Cinema. There’s a vocal group of cinephiles who sneer at “Star Wars” for turning movies into rides and putting the first nail in the coffin of 1970’s U.S. auteurism. Obviously this is a simplistic and ultimately flawed notion to hold, but why exactly? What is it about “Star Wars” that has permanently captured the imagination of generations? The New Statesman’s Tom Shone reviews Chris Taylor’s new book on the subject and shares his thoughts on the phenomenon.
“Stars Wars” was a battle that landed Lucas in hospital and it shows. There’s fight in the picture. Everywhere you look, you see marvels – hammer-headed aliens, high-speed dogfights, lightsabers and landspeeders, twin suns and an exploding planet – all filmed by a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly summoned universe to the other. The characters treated these wonders with the disdain that you or I might reserve for our crappy old cars. “What a piece of junk” Luke exclaims. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” It’s a piece of dialogue that provides such a neat summary of the critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t put their feet up and leave the film to review itself.
4. Brad Bird’s Key Philosophical Influence Is Walt Disney, not Ayn Rand. Brad Bird’s films have been routinely praised by critics for their immersive style, warm characters, and fun action, but they’ve also been criticized for their libertarian leanings, bordering on Randian philosophy. This criticism has recently gained more traction with the release of his new film “Tomorrowland,” but it’s possible that critics have pinpointed the wrong influence. Slate’s Forrest Wickman argues that Walt Disney is the true influence on Bird’s films.
To start with, it’s true that Bird’s stories…all center on characters who have special talents and are sometimes misunderstood by society, mirroring Rand’s interest in creating the Übermensch-like “ideal man.” In “The Incredibles” there are the “supers,” each with their own special abilities. In “Tomorrowland” there are people who are called “special,” apparently due to some combination of aptitude and optimism. In “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant,” the heroes have extraordinary abilities (cooking and gun-eating, respectively), but society attacks them because it doesn’t understand that they’re harmless. But where Bird really starts to make critics and many other viewers uncomfortable is where his movies seem to suggest that these talents — whether they be of rat or robot — are innate. As Slate’s own Dana Stevens puts it in her review, describing “Tomorrowland’s” special recruits: “Then he goes on to posit the existence of an “Incredibles”–esque race (class? breed? All possible words sound creepy!). Here it’s clarifying to take a closer look at “Ratatouille” – Bird’s fullest treatment of genius, and one of the movies’ most memorable depictions of an artist. “Ratatouille,” it’s worth remembering, is a movie about how geniuses do not come from any one class or race (or even species), and it’s a mistake to think that they do. The movie opens by setting in opposition the ideas of Chef Gusteau, whose famous dictum holds that “anyone can cook,” with the staunchly elitist stance of the curmudgeonly critic Anton Ego. To its credit, the movie’s message ultimately lies somewhere in the middle. As Anton Ego concludes in his final review, after his Damascene moment at the dinner table, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
5. How my 1992 Prom Picture Ended Up On “Last Week Tonight”. Can you image waking up on Monday morning to watch the new episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and seeing your high school prom picture, only with you holding a photoshopped bag of pot? It’s a little thrilling, a little embarrassing, and a little funny, right? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Jeremy Olshan, who explains the strange incident over at Market Watch.
The “model release” Toby and I signed entitled John Oliver to use and alter the image in pretty much any way he wanted. The bag of pot in my hand was hilarious, but what if it had been something far more nefarious, like an AR-15 assault rifle, a selfie stick or, still worse, an E.L. James novel? There have been many cases of people who sign such releases never imagining how their images might be used, such as the gay couple from New Jersey who ended up in a political attack ad or pretty much everyone snookered into appearing in the Borat movie. Case law indicates that even if I did find the image defamatory, HBO wouldn’t have to tap the riches of Westeros to help pay off what remains of my journalism-school student loans.
6. A List of 55 1980’s Movies Ready for Reboots and Remakes. Rumor has it that the people behind “X-Men: First Class” will remake John Carpenter’s awesome 1986 film “Big Trouble in Little China,” with The Rock taking over for Kurt Russell as ol’ Jack Burton. It’s just another 1980’s remake in a long string of them, but which movies from that decade are actually worthy of reboots and remakes? Esquire’s Matt Patches lists 55 movies that fit the bill.
“Romancing the Stone” (1984) Enough with Chris Pratt starring in an “Indiana Jones” remake! Cast him in this instead. And, hell, make him Kathleen Turner’s author character. But who would play the Michael Douglas role?
“The Secret of My Success” (1987) “Wall Street” got “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” “Secret of My Success” can get “Secret to My Success: Merger Made in Heaven,” complete with a Michael J. Fox cameo.
Tweet of the Day:
Unfortunate Freaks and Geeks photo session. They learned how to say no as soon as this day ended. pic.twitter.com/PFBTKtmtJk
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) June 1, 2015