I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Hal Ashby’s 1978 film Coming Home (I think it’s a fine film, but not much more), but I love how, toward the end of the movie, during a climactic confrontation (which I won’t spoil), a young woman is seen prying open a window, then starting to climb through it, in the far right background of the shot:

Obviously the film’s title refers to her.


dino dollAs I argued in my last post, Jurassic World is largely built around showing its audience things from the first film. Some people have told me that there’s nothing wrong with those references—that the new film is just an homage. I don’t deny that it pays homage, but I don’t agree that it’s OK.

I have no inherent problem with nostalgia—it’s a powerful emotion that I’ve explored in my own work. But the problem with Jurassic World is how it goes about treating that nostalgia. By and large, the filmmakers simply took things from the first Jurassic Park and dumped them into their film, rarely bothering doing anything more with them.

To cite but one example, think about how much work went into putting that 10,000 volts sign in Jurassic World, during an action sequence. Some crew members had to make the sign, the fence. They had to make it look dingy. Other crew members had to go film it. All this took time and money. (Nothing in a film is free and none of it winds up in the finished movie on accident.) Someone then had to edit that shot into the film so it didn’t disrupt the flow of the action, but instead provided a little boost—the boost of nostalgic recognition—to the sequence.

In my previous post, I counted at least forty-two of these references or homages or whathaveyou to the original Jurassic Park. That is on average roughly one every three minutes. (Minus credits, it’s more like one every two and a half minutes.) Those references, plus the CGI dinosaur mayhem, are the true content of Jurassic World. That is where all the time and money and effort and attention went. This is why the writing and the characterization in the movie are so poor, why the direction is so flat and devoid of tension—the money went to CGI and scattering familiar props throughout the movie. The filmmakers knew what people would pay to see. The kids got the dino action. Their parents got the nostalgia.

The original JP delighted kids and adults alike because it was thrilling. It used its formal elements concisely and economically to create the sense real people were in peril. The 10,000 volts fence provided one of the tensest action sequences: will Timmy finish crossing it before Ellie Sattler flips the switch restoring power? Prior to that, the night-vision goggles were a crucial part of the T. Rex attack scene, and used for one of the funnier jokes in the film:

Gennaro: “Are they heavy?”
Timmy: “Yes.”
Gennaro: “Then they’re expensive. Put ’em back.”

A few minutes later, Timmy uses those goggles to see the goat is missing.

Spielberg knew how to use the elements of a scene to simultaneously craft exposition, character, action. When John Hammond sits there all alone eating the melting ice cream, we understand at once that he’s a grown-up little kid who can’t believe how his plans are now melting all around him. It’s a wonderfully compact expression of that character, and part of its emotional power (pathos) comes from how elegantly it’s rendered. It also grows logically out other actions: Nedry turned the power off, and there are so many tubs of ice cream, so many flavors, because Hammond “spared no expense.” There’s nothing like that in Jurassic World, which is why the film ultimately fails as a tribute to Jurassic Park. It references the original endlessly, but it doesn’t embody its spirit.

One of my favorite moments in the original JP comes right after the scene where Alan Grant and Lex and Timmy have escaped from the T. Rex, and taken shelter in a tree—evading predators just like our hominid ancestors. Grant throws his fossilized raptor claw on the ground, and Spielberg cuts from that to a closeup of a Brachiosaurus doll. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition: we humans made toys out of dinosaurs, convinced ourselves via science that we were nature’s masters—but now we’re back up in the tree again, prey to nature. (This is a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s work. See, for instance, my recent post on how Raiders of the Lost Ark is organized around Indy’s realization that there is a force—God—far greater than science.)

That plush doll reappears toward the end of Jurassic World, a toy on a wall in a souvenir stand during the dino finale. It isn’t doing anything; it’s just … there. And it’s sad to see those previous props and elements, once so skillfully employed, now simply scattered about, pretty pearls of nostalgia on a string, affording nothing but cheap frissons of recognition.

Jurassic world parkThe makers of Jurassic World worked very hard to repeatedly reference the first Jurassic Park. What follows is a list of what could be called either “callbacks” or “homages.” (Spoiler warning, obviously.)

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Breakfast with Curtis

I saw Breakfast with Curtis (2012) last night. It’s delightful, a charming ultra-low-budget film using mostly non-actors and shot in two neighboring houses in Providence. It’s easy to see why it’s become something of an underground hit.

I’d point you toward some footage, but the trailers for the movie make it look like some terrible formulaic indie film, which is exactly what it isn’t. I’m glad I didn’t watch them first; they really don’t do it justice. (They’re like the Shining trailer.)

If I had to say whose work the film reminds me of, I might say Jim Jarmusch, Agnès Varda, David Gordon Green, Richard Linklater, and Hayao Miyazaki—but much more underground and low-key than any of them (yes, even Jarmusch). The whole thing is deftly plotted and structured, with a sweet and gentle tone maintained throughout. Everyone in it is acting, playing what are apparently thinly-veiled versions of their real selves, but the film as a whole feels natural and slack. And yet the movie is also pleasantly stilted and awkward at the same time.  It’s not Mumblecore, in that it’s more hippie than hipster, but I can see why some might make that comparison. And it’s similar to Linklater’s Boyhood in some ways, but more offbeat/eccentric—plus its scope is much, much smaller (a single summer).

Particularly worth mentioning is Theo Green’s performance as Syd, the aging hippie bookseller who’s constantly drunk on cheap red wine. Apparently some are now calling him “the Lebowski of Providence.” I hope he appears in more movies. (Lunch with Curtis?) You can see him in a series of YouTube videos he made with costar Jonah Parker (who plays Curtis): Breakfast with Theo, which partly inspired the feature. Snippets of that series appear in Breakfast with Curtis—but the feature is not anything like the shorts.

Breakfast with Curtis is easily one of the best new films I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended! Here’s the film’s official site, where you can view one of the aforementioned trailers, and buy a copy of the entire film if you’re so inclined.

P.S. Thanks to Ben and Kat Sachs for organizing the screening, and the invaluable Nightingale for hosting.

When I was in college, Federico Fellini was the first foreign filmmaker I really got into. I watched  repeatedly, and made it my mission to watch every one of his films. I had some trouble finding La voce della luna, but eventually tracked down two VHS bootleg copies: one letterboxed but lacking English subs, the other subtitled, but pan-and-scanned. My pal Elf and I watched them simultaneously, on two TV-VCR setups. We had to keep briefly pausing one of the videos every few minutes, to keep them both in sync. (I don’t know if the movie ever got official US distribution. I see there’s a copy up at YouTube, but it lacks English subs.)

So I’m what you might call a Fellini fanatic. But until the other day, I didn’t know he’d directed TV commercials. I’ll embed them below the jump.

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Over at PressPlay, I have a new post that surveys the history of the critical film term mise-en-scène, in order to argue past the tendency to oppose that concept with editing. I also push back against the current obsession with long takes, and analyze a clip from the very rapidly cut Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (still my favorite Hollywood film of the past five years). Also discussed: essays by David Bordwell and Brian Henderson. It’s a long post!

In response, Richard Brody kindly alerted me to this New Yorker article of his, which complicates the image of the 1950s Cahiers du Cinéma crowd as being entirely opposed to montage. Key paragraph:

[Henry K.] Miller rightly notes that André Bazin, the editor of Cahiers until his death, in 1958, made a name for himself as an opponent of the then-dominant trend in film theory—as an opponent of montage, of editing, as the essence of cinema. Miller goes on at length about a 1962 essay by Gérard Gozlan in Positif that challenges Bazin’s ideas, but Miller fails to note that the most important French refutations of Bazin came in the pages of Cahiers itself, beginning a decade earlier—from Jean-Luc Godard. […] Godard’s ideas both superseded and encompassed Bazin’s theories and paved the way for his own approach to filmmaking, in which tightly edited sequences and long takes, closeups and deep-focus shots coexist.

It’s well worth reading in its entirety.

Meanwhile, I hope to do more writing soon on short takes. I’ll of course be seeing the fourth Transformers film, and have wanted for some time now to do some analysis of the Bond film Quantum of Solace—in particular the pre-credits sequence, which might be the most rapidly cut sequence in modern Hollywood:

That video is so cribbing from Derek Jarman:

The Jarman video is much better, but I still like the Suede song.