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Monday, June 27, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Those dastardly dinos are back (yawn)

Screen Grabs: Those dastardly dinos are back (yawn)

Jurassic World roars in. Plus: Afrofuturistic fantasia Neptune Frost, Clash semi-doc Rude Boy, Throne of Blood, more

Popular wisdom has it that the modern movie era began with Jaws in 1975 and/or Star Wars two years later, popcorn flicks so unprecedentedly huge that they not only spurred endless imitation, but generally dumbed down the medium—why make 10 movies aimed at different audiences when you might hit the jackpot making one that theoretically appealed to (almost) everyone?

But in a sense the kind of blockbuster now delivered assembly-line fashion every couple weeks really began with 1993’s Jurassic Park, which was another all-access thrill ride (even directed by Jaws’ own Spielberg), but with the key difference that it was the first one to rely so completely on computer-generated effects for its entire appeal. People were drawn in by the undeniable lure of seeing dinosaurs as they might have really looked and moved. (As opposed to, know, the obvious trick photography and “guy in rubber suit” effects of prior “prehistoric” films.)

Never mind that the plot was a by-numbers excuse to present cute dinosaurs, then scary dinosaurs, then people running and screaming from scary dinosaurs. Technology had brought the impossible back to “life”—even if everything else about Jurassic Park was completely lacking in inspiration, let alone imagination.

Not surprisingly, CGI began determining what movies would be made, since those movies tended to make a lot of money—even if CGI (which at first was expected to eventually lower production budgets) continued to cost a lot of money. Now “anything” could be visualized… though mostly what got visualized was the same old monsters, spaceships, flying superheroes and so forth, albeit better-realized, in service of scripts even dumber than before.

The miraculous became expected, then banal. Some grownups stopped going to the cinema. Some cinemagoers never stopped having the taste of 13-year-olds. The 1970s became permanently enshrined amongst nostalgists as the last era when Hollywood made movies that weren’t basically video games with a tad more “story.”

Three decades later here’s Jurassic World: Dominion, which is welcome if only because it will probably knock that glorified military recruitment poster Top Gun: Maverick out of the #1 slot. There’s a Bay Area connection (beyond the usual CGI-related ones) in that director Colin Trevorrow was born in SF, then raised in Oakland. His first feature Safety Not Guaranteed a decade ago was a really nice, precocious little indie comedy-fantasy, but still it seems rather flummoxing that he went directly from that to 2015’s Jurassic World, a franchise reboot (the prior trilogy had ended in 2001) that cost $150 million and grossed ten times that. He did not direct JW: Fallen Kingdom, a sequel I don’t even remember coming out in 2018, and which nobody liked—nobody but the public, which dropped another 1.3 billion at the box office.

He is back, however, for Dominion. So are surviving principals from the first films (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong) and the recent ones (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Omar Sy), plus some new people, notably Campbell Scott as the chief villain this time—a biotech CEO. His company is messing with dino DNA for supposedly humanitarian reasons that of course turn out to be greedy and disastrous. When all the above persons gather at the high-security research center and “sanctuary” for corporation Biosyn (look! it says “sin” right there!!), naturally all hell quickly breaks loose.

I don’t know if Dominion is better or worse than the intervening four films I didn’t see (save catching a clip here or there) since 1993. It’s what you expect from such an enterprise, with familiar faces going through their paces for bigger money than they ever made for the movies you’ll actually remember them for. Plus energetically ludicrous action setpieces; some colorful far-flung locations; dialogue that feels spat out by a computer less adept than the ones making dinosaurs; and hair-breadth escapes so incessant there’s no real tension at all, just alternating interludes of static and frenzy. The screenplay flirts with awareness of mankind’s looming eco-disasters (from climate change, GMO’s, etc.), but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable. One’s brain can rest.

This movie is 146 minutes long, and we’ve all seen worse. But I could have left at any point without the slightest fear of having missed something “really good,” let alone, y’know, important. Which has absolutely no relevance to the extent to which it will satisfy millions worldwide, even if they toss it like a candy wrapper when the final credits roll. Plus: STFD, Top Gun. Jurassic World: Dominion opens this Fri/10 on so many theater screens I’ll wish you luck in finding anything else to see.

Other openings this weekend include two much less multiplex-suited voyages into the fantastical, plus a couple revivals.

Neptune Frost
An antidote to one-size-fits-all franchise blockbusters like the latest Jurassic, this directorial debut feature from US rapper Saul Williams and Rwandan writer Anisia Uzeyman is an Afrofuturist fantasia that’s nothing if not idiosyncratic. Its heady, eye- and ear-filling brew evokes everything from Born in Flames to Max Headroom to Jesus Christ Superstar, while very much carving out its own singular niche.

The parabolic story—which is both slender and a bit hard to follow—has an androgynous runaway (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja) fleeing abuse to join a tribalist hacker collective bent on overturning the stubborn remnants of colonialist exploitation. But then, conventional storytelling is not a priority here. Trading in revolutionary mysticism, musical numbers, and design elements that put an African spin on steampunk, this inventive sensory overload is a DIY fabulist spectacle worthy of comparison to Jodorowsky. It opens at the Roxie on Fri/10 (more info here).

The Righteous
Sharply contrasting with Neptune’s rainbow-hued ebullience is this bleak psychological fantasy-thriller from Canada, shot in suitably sober B&W. Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk play an older couple grieving the death of a granddaughter they’d raised (their awful daughter was an absentee mother) when a mysterious, wounded stranger (writer-director Mark O’Brien) shows up on their doorstep. His presence turns turns out to have a supernatural dimension that effects different people differently, in particular seeming to serve as kind of Judgment Day courier, targeting the ex-priest husband with the heavy toll for his past sins.

Its striking monochrome look lends The Righteous considerable atmosphere, and the always impressive Czerny (who first rose to prominence playing another dodgy cleric in the miniseries “Boys of St. Vincent” 30 years ago) is certainly up to conveying the level of guilty torment required here. But while O’Brien’s talky film is fairly serious in theological terms for a quasi-horror thriller, it doesn’t quite successfully straddle those two things, ending up a little cheesy for a morality play, and ploddingly self-important for a genre film. The sum effect is rather dreary, though the story does head somewhere, and its ambitions are (at least in the abstract) admirable. Arrow Films releases the feature to Digital platforms and its own SVOD service on Fri/10.

Throne of Blood, Rude Boy: Two Roxie Revivals
Two recently restored oldies at the Roxie offer over-the-top Japanese feudal violence and British kitchen-sink realism, respectively.

After the huge international success of Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa had a commercial failure with modern drama I Live in Fear (1955), so he agreed to return to more samurai action in several consecutive projects. He hadn’t intended to personally direct Throne of Blood, which transplanted Macbeth to the Edo period, but agreed to do so when the budget grew large enough that studio Toho insisted. Toshiro Mifune at his most blustery is the fatefully ambitious swordsman serving a local lord—until he murderously usurps that superior’s place—while Isuzu Yamada plays his dead-eyed wife in a stylized Noh theater manner, as rigidly coiled as a cobra.

About half the length of Seven, its pace hurried along by lots of vertical-line-wipe transitions, Throne may not have Shakespeare’s language, but it’s Macbeth, all right—a version as idiosyncratically stylized as Welles’, or Joel Coen’s recent one. Its most famous innovation is the protagonist’s protracted demise, a reverse-porcupine rain of spears that directly inspired later inspired Piper Laurie’s memorable exit in De Palma’s Carrie a couple decades later.

Halfway round the world and in another universe entirely lies Rude Boy, the 1980 film by co-directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay, who’d remain better known as a cinematographer and editor, respectively. It was shot while UK rockers The Clash were making their Give ‘Em Enough Rope album, but greatly benefitted from being released after double-disc followup London Calling was a commercial breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic. As punk movies were still pretty scarce then, it was a pretty big deal in the subculture.

Those (like me) lured in, however, were somewhat dismayed to discover the band was largely incidental to a story focused on one rudderless youth (Ray Gange, one of the screenwriters) who drifts from Soho sex shop employment to being a roadie-slash-hanger-on for the musicians. To the latter’s chagrin, he’s more an example-of than a counter-to the working-class bigotry and reactionary politics they stood against.

The implied critique wasn’t enough to mollify The Clash, who were not happy with the finished film. But their performance sequences, including a 1978 Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park, remain the reason to see it. Age has also lent rough-hewn, near-plotless Rude Boy value as a time capsule of Britain at a low point of economic and social dispute. Many wish they were present for punk’s original heyday, but this 133-minute movie sure leeches the fun out of that equation—it’s feckin’ grim. It plays the Roxie Sun/12 only (more info here); Throne of Blood opens there Sat/11 (more info here).

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