Last weekend, two movies that won grand jury prizes at the Sundance Film Festival hit theaters, both of which revolve around the way movies inform modern life. At the same time, “Jurassic World” provided a thundering reminder of their ability to offer an escape from it.
With its record-breaking $208.8 million domestic gross in the U.S. over the weekend, the success of “Jurassic World” leaves no doubt about which option appeals to more audiences. But anyone eager to discover first-rate cinema must wonder what this inevitable outcome says about a fundamental disconnect in modern culture, where traditional satisfaction overwhelms the desire for original experiences.
Imitation Isn’t Always Flattery
In “The Wolfpack,” director Crystal Moselle examines just these very issues: Following a group of six teenagers raised by an ultra-strict father who forbade them from leaving their Lower East Side home, the boys turned to the movies at their disposal. For much of the running time, Moselle cedes control of the project to her subjects, with their simultaneously adorable and unsettling reenactments of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Halloween,” not to mention one very impressive cardboard Batsuit.
At first, the Angulo brothers may look as though they have been buried by the fantasies at their disposal to an outrageous degree, driven to the point of delusion by their domineering father. But on another level, their enthusiasm to bury themselves inside the works they admire resembles the process by which cinema can inform behavior.
Fortunately, the Angulo’s DVD collection was far edgier and eclectic than the form of entertainment represented by “Jurassic World,” a sequel and a reboot that excels at illustrating blockbuster logic in every scene. As Sam Adams amusingly points out in Criticwire, “Jurassic World” is “a bad movies about why movies are so bad,” in which “there’s no lampshade big enough to cover the movie’s lack of a soul.” But it still delivers a series of outrageous CGI showdowns, none more ambitious than a finale that plays like the world’s most expensive fan film. It makes you wonder how “The Wolfpack” boys might have pulled it off.
However, the cinematic imitations found in “The Wolfpack” most definitely do have soul, embodied by the personal kinship between these young, sheltered creators and the material that inspires them to think about the world. That’s real power of cinema too often lost in the fog of formula: It excites us with fresh possibilities.
Blockbusters Don’t Have to Be Bad
In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the teen protagonist — aspiring filmmaker Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) — manages to cope with his neighbor’s cancer by making a movie for that’s purely expressionistic and intimate. Even before then, he turns to movies — good, varied movies — to help him grapple with existence. While often excessively maudlin and sometimes frustrating in its simplified characterizations, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is nonetheless a sincere ode to the role of cinema to inform one’s relationship to the world.
Even the more outwardly entertaining blockbusters have the capacity to do that: While “Jurassic World” stumbles along with its half-baked script about gene-spliced beasts, trained raptors and empty-headed militant types eager to exploit the technology, “Mad Max: Fury Road” offers a thrilling joy ride that supplants the desire for CGI with rich details, feminist and environmental themes, and an extraordinary vision of post-apocalyptic disarray that’s undeniably poetic. So moviegoers who shrug at complaints that “Jurassic World” lacks a brain with a sigh of “That’s entertainment” may want to consider the alternative — don’t sell the movies short.
It’s worth pointing that while there are better options out there, “Jurassic World” never sinks to the level of a “Transformers”-level travesty. Its plot, while messy and non-sensical on both micro and macro levels (Why is the park’s security so inept? How does Bryce Dallas Howard accomplish so much in heels?), it playfully resurrects some of the 1994 movie’s appeal. Even as it lacks the nuanced storytelling qualities that made the word “Spielbergian” a household name, “Jurassic World” at least delivers some measure of craft in its capacity to offer up a genuine crowdpleaser. As far as bottom-line corporatized entertainment goes, Hollywood can do a lot worse.
Your Better Options
But while the success of “Jurassic World” hardly introduces an original problem to film culture, it obscures the more enterprising possibility for cinema to advance toward new horizons. Rather than settling with a formula that sticks, movies should be celebrated for building on past successes or upending them altogether. “Mad Max” is an ideal example — but in the 32 days since its release, it has yet to gross as much as “Jurassic World” made on opening weekend. It’s easy to give audiences what they want and harder to convince them to take on a challenge. “Jurassic World” provides the latest evidence of this frustrating tendency, which studios all too eagerly exploit.
Though the marketplace for specialty titles may not stand a chance in the shadow of “Jurassic World,” countless alternatives exist among this week’s new releases alone for anyone keen on something different.
The brutal sign language drama “The Tribe” explores the experiences of deaf teens at a boarding school where crime runs rampant; though it borrows the language of silent film in its storytelling techniques, the process of pulling viewers into the frame is thoroughly original. In the sprawling ensemble drama “Eden,” director Mia Hansen-Love tracks the history of the French electronic music scene with a delicate rhythm that renders the hip party scene into an experimental flow of encounters not unlike the music at its center.
There’s even the opportunity to see movie stars in unique terrain, as Al Pacino delivers a fascinatingly subdued turn as an alienated locksmith in David Gordon Green’s minimalist “Manglehorn,” one of the director’s most peculiar experiments with tone. Patrick Bryce’s “The Overnight” hails from the more familiar terrain of American sex comedies, but it still finds a cast of famous faces — mainly Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling and Jason Schwartzman — gleefully pushing beyond the boundaries of political correctness for a bawdy, perceptive satire of monogamous relationships. And in “Gabriel,” Rory Culkin elevates the conventions of the teen angst genre with a bracingly unsettling performance as a young New York teen coping with dangerous rage issues.
All of these new releases offer welcome alternatives to the all-consuming spotlight of the blockbuster du jour (as do many of the titles in New York’s BAMCinemaFest, which begins this week, previewing other alternatives in the release calendar yet to come). But they’re joined by one ginormous bright spot in the form of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” a colorful animated look at one young woman grappling with her personified emotions that hints at more profound ideas in every scene. Not a sequel or a reboot, “Inside Out” provides another terrific alternative to traditional blockbuster methodology, and the glimmer of hope that such ambition has its rewards. As Ian Malcolm puts it in “Jurassic Park,” life finds a way.