REVIEW: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

Rated PG-13 : 124 min : Released March 8, 2018

Higher, further, faster . . .

Hello, dear reader. Me again.

I know, it’s been a few months since you’ve heard from me. I feel like I’ll spend a decent amount of time in the future doing so, so for the sake of brevity let’s consider this apology a standing declaration.

Moving on.

A few months ago we were hit with the trailer above after it had been announced that Brie Larson was to play the incredibly powerful Carol Danvers, ostensibly the one figure in the current MCU who could stand toe-to-toe with Thanos and win (something our gallery of heroes is in dire need of at the moment.) The trailer charmed, it intrigued, it confused (Larson decks an old lady for a fraction of a second), and more than anything it gave moviegoers a glimpse at the receiving end of that ominous signal Nick Fury sent as he dematerialized into dust at the tail end of Infinity War.

Well, now I’ve seen the movie and I’m here to tell you, dear reader and prospective Marvel viewer – Thanos has reason to worry.

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Captain Marvel is an early-year treat, for sure, but not in the same way that Black Panther was to kick off 2018. Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury investigate the invasion of Earth by the Skrull, a shape shifting alien race at war with the Kree – for whom Danvers is a soldier. Together and with the help of a few friends, they hit their requisite plot beats and throw in enough of that trademark Marvel humor to ensure at least a billion worldwide when this thing finally closes shop.

I’d wager good money that Marvel will dominate its opening weekend and every weekend until Endgame premiers, but audiences won’t propel this to the stratospheric domestic run akin to last year’s slate of superhero flicks; Nor do I see this receiving a “placate the masses” nod at the 92nd Academy Awards. It’s a great time, really, but nearly disappointing considering the massive hype machine leading up to release.

I’ll try my hardest not to spoil anything, though there really isn’t much to spoil. Writer and Co-Director Anna Boden imbues the proceedings with a fair bit of levity, cheeky dialogue, twists and turns, and a generally coherent narrative arc that culminates in one hell of a fireworks show; but this film exhibits one of the more common complaints levied against Marvel, particularly for its recent slew of origin stories: It’s too safe.

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I’m not referring to the fact that this is Marvel’s first ever female-led superhero film. And I’d be a fool to ignore the social narrative surrounding the film. It’s in the promotional material, the junkets, and is spewing angrily from the slobbering horde of incels that have been tanking the film’s user reviews on sites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. However, it isn’t really in the movie – not in the terms said incels are accusing Marvel of. It’s present, to be absolutely clear, but in no way does it tackle it’s broader social commentary as explicitly as Black Panther. To be completely honest, any messaging is hidden into the very presentation of Captain Marvel very skillfully.

Danvers’ is often sparring with her superior officer, played by Jude Law, with his frequent instruction being that she remove herself from her emotional impulses – that she restrain herself and play a role. As the film transpires, Danvers’ eventually succeeds specifically because she embraces the traits that make her who she is. The film does this without ever explicitly stating so. Again, very well done. Proponents of this film needn’t worry of a Mary-Sue type argument being thrown their way, either. Danvers struggles tremendously in this film, and relies on her skills and some clever ingenuity early on. Her charisma and strength are two forces working in her favor, but it isn’t until she discovers who she really is, how she earned her powers, that we see her in top form.

No, when I call this movie safe, I’m instead referring to narrative devices, a lack of genuine stakes, and the over-reliance of Marvel on blurry CGI, a muted color palette, and incredibly generic brass wailing for a musical score.

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It’s a shame, because by and large the film does so much right. Brie Larson’s Danvers is great. While she may not spout off a whip-smart one-liner every few moments, or growl in anger at her enemies, what she does embody is a kind of resolute heroism. She has fallen often – as a montage late in the film shows – but each and every time she rises to meet her adversary face to face. It’s a blunt tool, her perseverance, but an effective one. She has noticeable star power, a real presence opposite co-stars Sam Jackson, Jude Law, and Ben Mendelsohn. Would we expect anything less of an Academy Award winning actress?

The acting isn’t the problem here. While the dialogue is light and fun, so too are the stakes. At no point are we to believe that Danvers is in genuine danger. This has little to do with her portrayal and more to do with the lack of context surrounding this Kree vs Skrull war going on, and her role in it. After a lengthy and frankly uninspired train chase, the middle of the film commits to fleshing out what we already know of Danvers – that she is from Earth and had a life here prior to intergalactic warfare. Though we are generally aware of her past, we aren’t allowed much time to dwell on it.

The more interesting elements of the plot – Mar Vell, the lightspeed drive, Danvers’ time in the military, her relationship with her best friend Wendy, her childhood – are all given their seemingly mandated five minutes of exposition before we are whisked away toward the next set-piece, or a dig at the antiquated technology of the 90’s (when the film is set.) We see Danvers during her transition from super-powered, to more super-powered, which would fall incredibly flat if we weren’t allowed access to a handful of her memories. We are enlightened to her struggle, enough to dispel arguments to the contrary, but we don’t experience them in a manner that endears us to her as a character – at least as well as it could have.

That these narrative beats feel more like a checklist, however well composed on the screen, stands testament to my next point: This film doesn’t feel like the project of an artist, though it is and of many. There’s no voice. Somewhere during production I have to imagine a memo from corporate circulated with demands for an exact count of humorous character exchanges, some gross-out scenes, the requisite plot twist at around the 2/3rd’s mark, and four or five scenes that be shot with the specific intention of using them for the trailer.

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This is an inoffensive movie. One without risk or noteworthy creative flourishes. Explosions are bassy, the CGI flamboyant and excessive, the superhero is punch-happy and posed triumphantly at every occasion. These things exist because they should, no modern superhero film is without them, but the result is a film that leaves one imagining the insane potential of every scene, rather than fall into a unique and engrossing movie-going experience.

I’d liken Captain Marvel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, rather than to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.

Homecoming was the return of the Spider-Man character to the MCU, and for the most part did its job. The action was uninspired, the CGI apparent, and it was positively stuffed to the brim with lighthearted character interactions. It was . . . fine. It’s villain was introduced with one hell of a twist, but the climax of the film is just a loud, flame-broiled bout of fisticuffs between two steely eyed supers. Which, again, is fine. It just isn’t particularly memorable.

DC’s Wonder Woman stole Marvel’s thunder, admittedly, releasing their female-led adventure a full two years before their rival studio. But at the core of Wonder Woman was a vibrant character, a more compelling fish-out-of-water narrative, genuine stakes in the trenches of The Great War, and one incredible show-stopper of a scene with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince rising to meet a hail of gunfire with nothing but her shield.

 

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Captain Marvel relies too heavily on Marvel’s already well-worn formula. It introduces little more than a handful of quirky revelations as to the larger plot of the MCU, a few fun scenes, and features an endless string of easter eggs and fan-service. It’s fun, easily worth the cost of entry. The film is more than competent in every department, but a lack of weaknesses does not a strong or memorable movie make. More than a solo outing, this is a stepping stone, a necessary introduction to a character needed to help win the battle coming April 26th.

However, despite these gripes, my lack of enthusiasm for what is obviously the product of studio mandates – and the continued depression of creative expression in Hollywood blockbusters – shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing the movie yourself. This is not a poorly made or uninteresting film. I was thoroughly placated throughout its entirety. Go on and head to the theater. Eat it up.

You’ll see it and smile like a buffoon at the adorable cat, Goose, as well as the many quips and jabs between Danvers and Fury. You’ll cheer as Danvers overcomes her opponents, “aw!” at the Stan Lee cameo, and poke your seat-neighbor each time you spot a reference to another film in the franchise. You’ll also leave the theater having expected a fair bit more. Disappointed but not dismayed by how whisper-close this film came to saying something, to being something more than it was – competent, but certainly not marvelous.

Verdict: 3.25/5

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Thank you for stopping by the blog today! I know it’s been a while. I’ve taken on a few projects recently, and will be sure to update you all on those once I can.

In the next few days, look forward to reviews on a few games that I’ve played, maybe a video or two on the Black Beanie Gaming YouTube channel, and new episodes of the That Was Okay I Guess podcast. Other than those projects, I’m working on two long-form pieces of fiction and have started writing freelance.

It’s an exciting time.

Later on.

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Rated PG : 117 min : Released December 14, 2018

With great power . . .

Hello, dear reader.

When I first heard of the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I was beyond skeptical. Without a doubt, I thought, there was nothing more to say about our favorite web-slinger – especially not with Tom Holland assuming the role of Peter Parker back in 2015.

Holland’s solo-outing, Spider-Man: Homecoming, was a perfectly serviceable movie. It entertained, had all the charm and requisite one-liners one would expect from a Marvel film, and offered a fairly nuanced relationship between Holland’s Parker and Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. It was good, not great, and at the time it felt like Homecoming was as good as we were going to get.

I was wrong.

Not only is Into the Spider-Verse a superior Spider-Man film, it’s a better film period. It’s easily as fine a piece of entertainment as Spider-Man 2 was back in 2004 – if not better – and, as I see it, probably the best comic-book movie ever made.

That’s high praise, I know, but as far as replicating the feel, exuberance, and artistic chaos of a comic book – no modern superhero film has done it better. And that’s only the beginning.

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Without divulging much of the plot, I’ll say this: Spider-Verse is whip-smart. In a world full of derivative origin stories and fan-service, Spider-Verse offers a fresh and fun self-examination of the Spider-Man narrative, while adhering strongly to the themes and morals presented in the very first issue of the comic. That’s thanks in large part to the stellar direction by collaborators Bob Perichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, but almost entirely to another superb script by Phil Lord.

Easily the smartest decision Lord made when crafting the script was to focus on Miles Morales as our new web-slinger. He’s immediately endearing, relatable, funny, and full of the type of charisma and vulnerability that makes for a great underdog. Sure, Peter Parker is there, but he acts more as Miles’ mentor (begrudgingly) than as the hero of this story.

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Dialogue is fresh, quick, witty, and so saturated with easter-eggs and asides that the film warrants multiple viewings if just to catch them all.

No character feels out of place, no motivation unclear, and no potential catharsis left untapped.

Yeah, it’s sort of a kid’s movie, but it doesn’t behave like one. You’ll see a few sight gags here and there, but none too juvenile to dissuade parents from enjoying every minute of the film.

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More than anything, it’s a script that allows its characters to fail and to feel. Even once the multi-verse splits open and all the different iterations of Spider-Men (and woman and pig) come tumbling out. All of whom are brought to life by a stellar voice cast, lead by Shameik Moore and Jake Johnson as Miles and Peter respectively. Characterizations are brief, at times, but ultimately effective.

If there’s one deficiency, it would be the film’s several villains. The narrative assumes viewers possess a casual knowledge of some of the more obscure members of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. That the film has so many Spideys to contend with, the motivations (and even names) of the villains are left simple and, at times, underdeveloped. But, the villains aren’t really the point here.

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At the core of the story is the fundamental understanding of what makes Spider-Man such a beloved character. Beyond exploring the memes and pop-culture legacy of the character itself, the film brings to light the more universally applicable set of morals that have been apparent from the very first issue of the comic: That if one possesses the ability to do good – they should. And that the good fight is worth fighting, over and over again.

It’s a film that believes in its characters, and wants them to believe in themselves. It’s difficult to overstate exactly how much of an impact that makes as the narrative progresses to its more emotional moments – of which there are many. That the film balances moments of levity, action, and emotion while indulging in a sort of sly, playful self-examination without ever devolving into the sort of sardonic hi-jinks of say, Deadpool, is a testament to the type of storytelling on display here.

It’s a film that recognizes the potential for heroism in all people. “Anyone can wear the mask.”

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If there’s one thing I must commend the film for, it’s a distinct lack of corporate schlock. This does not feel like a Disney film, and it’s better for it. Rather than ham-fistedly promoting a progressive agenda in press junkets or through cringe-inducing dialogue – the film embodies such ideals in its very presentation. There are no women stuck in refrigerators, no insufferable romantic entanglements, or any of the other stale, self-congratulatory committee-approved audience hand-holding. This is a film that puts its people of color and its women front and center, and treats their problems with respect, and allows them to fail and grow as characters rather than as talking points. Its respectful not only to its characters and the story its trying to tell, but to the intelligence of the audience – while never forgetting the best-interests of said audience.

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I’ve said all of this without mentioning the stellar animation or character designs. The film’s adherence to comic-book stylings is seamlessly integrated into its 3D animation. It’s immediately the most aesthetically intuitive film to Marvel’s name.

If I can gush for just a moment. Each iteration of Spidey, be they man or woman or pig, has their own unique power and art-style. They each have their own personality and embody the same selfless heroism.

Look at these.

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To say much more of the world and characters would not only be an injustice to you, dear reader, but would fail to adequately describe just how vibrant – how wonderfully expressive – this film is. It’s the complete package.

I’ll end with this:

This film get’s Spider-Man right. It just does. And it does so with such a love of the character, in its many forms, and of the many things that make the character so universally beloved. The quirks, the witticisms, the heart, the energy, and the morals.

Swing over to the theater and check this out as soon as you can. Enjoy this bookend to a wonderful year for Spider-Man.

Verdict: 4.25/5

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Thank you for stopping by the blog today.

Please enjoy your holiday season safely and respectfully.

Until next time.

BOX OFFICE: ‘Halloween’ returns to its roots and wins big at the weekend box office

Before we get started

I need to address the two weeks I’ve been absent from this blog. Without saying too much, while also remaining as transparent as possible, I hit a bit of a mental block when it came to writing for this thing. To the few of you that read everything I post here, I’m sorry. Our behavior is so dominated by the reward centers of our brains, that when a sense of hopelessness settles in it can appear daunting to even sit at the keyboard and clack away for a few hours. Progress isn’t quite as obvious when the nature of your work is stationary – no pun intended. I’m back and hopefully on the right track with generating content.

Also, I am working on a manuscript for a novel. That takes time.

Why not post a separate article as an update on the blog? Because, dear reader, that’s more effort than should be spent airing out personal matters. Work smarter, not harder.

On to the box office.


Halloween’s back, baby

Normally when an old property is revived with the original cast, the results are less than stellar. In today’s nostalgia-laden and quality-conscious age, a long-awaited sequel can carry near insurmountable expectations. That isn’t the case with Michael Myers’ return to the big screen. I guess a mountain of shit-quality sequels lowered the bar enough for the average consumer to walk away happy with anything other than absolute garbage. However, Halloween (2018) has managed solid scores from critics and audiences, which allowed it to leap to the top of the box office pile, eclipsing both Venom and A Star is Born, which both have seen some serious legs.

The only other film worth mentioning was the limited release of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, which only hit four screens. We’ll see how that performs once it goes wide on October 26. The early response from critics has been decent and Jonah Hill is a big name, especially coming off the success of Netflix original series Maniac, where he stars alongside fellow Superbad alum Emma Stone. We shall see.

Anywho, let’s take a glance at BoxOfficeMojo.com and break down the weekend numbers.

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Weekend top ten

  1. Halloween debuted to $76.2m domestic, $14.3m international, and $90.5m global. Thanks to tremendous word of mouth and the return of Jamie Lee Curtis, this sequel / refresh earned the second largest October opening of all time, behind Venom‘s $80m from several weeks ago. This is a stellar debut for a film made for $10m.
  2. A Star is Born earned $19m domestic in its third weekend, surpassing Venom almost every day this past week. The Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga drama has yet to drop over 40%. It’s totals so far are $126.1m domestic, $75.6m international, and $201.7m global. For an R-rated directorial debut, it doesn’t get much better.
  3. Venom narrowly missed third place over the weekend, having earned $18m in North America. Last weekend it suffered a drop of over 50%, whereas this week it held on more firmly with a drop of 48.5%. Just goes to show that comic book fans aren’t concerned with the quality of their entertainment, only that it’s their entertainment. The film currently sits at $171m domestic, $290.7m international, and $461.7m global.
  4. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween remained in fourth place with $9.7m in North America. The film, a sequel to a movie I didn’t see, based on a R.L. Stine’s celebrated children’s horror book series, dropped a respectable 38.5% and has the following totals: $28.8m domestic, $11.1m international, and $39.9m global.
  5. First ManDamien Chazelle’s third feature film, continues to underwhelm audiences. The tale of unrepentant stoic Neil Armstrong as he stone-faces his way to the moon, ignores his wife, and silently resents Buzz Aldrin, earned $8.3m domestically. Its totals are currently $29.7m domestic, $25.7m international, and $55.4m global. That’s about $4m shy of its production budget. The far-reaching allure of Gravity has officially waned.
  6. The Hate U Give added over 2,000 theaters. Officially in wide release, it earned $7.6m to bring its domestic total to $10.7m. It has a long way to go before it earns back its $29m budget.
  7. Smallfoot, an incredibly forgettable movie that’s barely worth talking about, earned $6.5m domestic. Its totals are currently $66.3m domestic, $71.2m international, and $137.5m global.
  8. Night School, another pitifully forgettable movie and shameless appeal to Kevin Hart’s arguably diminishing appeal, earned $4.8m domestically. Its totals are $66.7m domestic, $17.6m international, and $84.3m global.
  9. Bad Times at the El Royale dropped 52.1% and two places in its second weekend. So far the Drew Goddard ensemble feature is struggling to earn back its $32m budget. So far, it’s earned $13.4m domestic, $7.9m international, and $21.3m global.
  10. The Old Man & the Gun, Robert Redford’s supposed final film, jumped up five places to round out the top ten. Fox Searchlight added over 500 theaters to bring it into wide release following decent reception in limited release. It earned $2.1m, bringing its domestic and only total up to $4.2m.

Honorable mention to Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, which debuted in limited release to $258k, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that that’s from four theaters. That’s a stellar $64.5k theater average. Oh, and for some reason, Disney still has Incredibles II in theaters. The smash of the late summer, Crazy Rich Asians, is still raking in over a million a week, half a million just this past weekend. Wonderful.

Alright, that’s all I care to talk about.

Since I’m a few weeks behind on predictions, I think I’m just going to leave you all with a shorter article today. I might separate the predictions into their own things right before the weekend. Who knows. I leave you with a calm and colorful image of autumn. Enjoy the season, dear reader.

Until next time.

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REVIEW: Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’

Released October 5, 2018; Directed by Bradley Cooper; Distributed by Warner Bros.; Runtime 2h 16m; Rated R

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When purchasing the tickets for this movie, an older, grizzled man cut the ticket and made an offhand remark about the film. “A Star Is Born,” he said dryly. “Fourth time they’ve made this one. Theater six, to your left.”

Normally, I’m inclined to ignore the dismissive language of the jaded, but what he said stayed with me as I took my seat in the center of the theater. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a remake, but it’s been promoted as a kind of re-imagining. Rather than focus on the glamorous toxicity of fame, this film offers a raw, intimate portrayal of art and success. In many ways, it’s exactly that, but it’s beholden to the same tropes and clichés as is common in the typical rise-to-fame narrative. Point being: You’ve seen this before. Only, Cooper and Gaga are so damn good that it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen a million tortured musicians take a million amber-lit stages, baring their souls in a million different ways.

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I’ll refrain from summarizing much of the plot. It’s a simple premise. Gaga’s Ally is an aspiring musician who has all but given up on success, while Cooper’s Jack is an aging Country-Rock star who’s resorted to boozing his way through his old hits to make a living. After a chance encounter at a bar, they grow enamored with one another and develop a working relationship on stage. Ally’s star rises, while Jack’s begins to fade as his substance abuse worsens.

While its premise is simple, and beholden to all of the archetypical rich-man-meets-woman narrative beats you’ve come to expect, this iteration of the classic narrative succeeds where others have fallen by the wayside. How? An insistence on unflinching intimacy and emotional honesty between the two leads.

Cooper and Gaga both give complex, varied performances here. Gaga is especially vulnerable early on, shedding much of the audience’s preconceptions about her status as a world-renowned musician. As Ally, she’s stripped down, sometimes literally, to reveal the depth of her earnest ambitions and love for Jack. We are never, as an audience, lead to believe that the love these characters share for one another is in any way imbalanced or unfair. If one character suffers, they both suffer. And there is suffering.

Cooper has lowered his voice here, lightened only by his scenes opposite the inimitable Sam Elliot. His pitch is raspy, aged, and his face is leathery – tarnished by his time in the limelight. His diminishing health walks hand-in-hand with his diminishing returns as an artist. Although Ally gives Jack a much-needed shot in the arm, the film is smart to subvert the typical woman-as-muse trope in favor of a far more honest, and visceral, portrayal of the nature of addiction. Jack is heavily flawed, and though Ally is certainly a force for good in his life, she isn’t there to save him. Nor can she.

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The film is strongest when focusing primarily on the relationship between Jack and Ally, mainly due to the superlative performances of Gaga and Cooper, but also due to Cooper’s startling proficiency behind the camera. We are treated to close-up after close-up, wavering dialogue and all the “uh” and “um”s that indicate strong, believable conversation. The script has its fair share of platitudinal idioms – the type of fortune-cookie vaguery that belies many inspirational narratives – but it delivers them earnestly through the mouths of two characters that the audience trusts have each other’s best interests at heart.

The narrative needs that trust, and builds it diligently and intelligently in the film’s first half, but at times struggles to maintain focus on it as the film progresses toward its conclusion.

That isn’t to say that Cooper doesn’t know what he’s doing as a director. The smartest move he made was keeping Gaga dead-center throughout so many of the film’s more intense emotional moments. It cannot be understated how well she performs in this role.

Unfortunately, at around the mid-point, when the narrative capitalizes on an hour’s worth of anticipation by having Ally perform her first duet with Jack on-stage, the film’s carefully cultivated lacquer of authenticity begins to fade.

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Following that goose-bumps inducing performance, the film becomes a juggling act between its disparate themes. Cooper seems to manage this by giving each individual element of his film equal screen-time, but all that manages to do is distend the second act into something more akin to a biopic, rather than the down-to-earth fairy tale of the film’s first hour.

One thought kept creeping into my head as addiction and toxic-fame began to take center stage. The balance between what constitutes whimsical coincidence and insightful commentary just isn’t there. Some moments are reminiscent of Scorsese’s claustrophobic portrayals of spousal conflict – raw and uncompromising – while others require a suspension of disbelief simply beyond what should be required of the audience. Considering the lengths the film goes to in order to place this film in reality – our reality – it struggles to maintain it.

The film simply struggles to resolve its plot-threads in its closing act. There’s a poorly-communicated B-Plot involving Sam Elliot’s Bobby, Jack’s brother, as well as a comically over-simplified caricature of the money-hungry Hollywood type in Ally’s manager. Jack’s back story is fleshed out in bite-sized increments and delivered through gruff, farm hand mumbling. The emotional impact that those elements intend to deliver is massive, but being the tropes that they are, eventually offer little. I’d argue that they go so far as to diminish the aforementioned narrative focus on Ally and Jack.

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That will be my lasting complaint with this film. Whereas the first hour is enthralling, the latter hour and fifteen simply does too much. There’s a Dave Chappelle cameo that provides literally nothing substantive to the arcs of either character, save for what they do while in his company. The narrative moves so quickly through Ally’s rise to fame that it becomes difficult to discern exactly how much time has passed between her discovery and the accolades she inevitably receives. Time and space mean little in fairy tales, but in a film that attempts to ground itself so thoroughly, it’s frustrating that the film has so little setting to speak of.

Sure, there are sets. There are apartments and tour busses and hotel rooms and many, many stages upon which Cooper and Gaga actually performed live music. Commendable, all of it. But, the film is content to not clearly define when exactly all of this takes place, and for how long a period, preferring instead for the here and now. That’s it. It takes place in the age of smart-phones and Spotify. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. How, then, are moments of titanic personal achievement supposed to resonate with an audience when the context of spent time is lacking? Especially considering the weight of the film’s closing moments.

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That isn’t to say that the film isn’t a stellar entertainment. Bradley Cooper has proven himself a competent director and vocalist, and Lady Gaga can act like it’s nobody’s business. That’s on top of her impressive vocal ability. Despite the film addressing too quickly the nature of addiction, fame, creative expression, love, and art; despite its struggle to choose which character’s lens to filter the story through, Ally’s or Jack’s; and despite all the rocky melodrama that bogs down the third act – it’s still a wonderful time at the movies.

What will stick with me, more than anything, is the image of Cooper and Gaga during their first duet, singing a song they wrote the night prior in a convenience store parking lot. When it commits to telling a fairy tale, one with its feet planted firmly on the ground – weighing its character’s aspirations against their circumstances – that’s when it shines very, very brightly.

The songs are catchy, the performances solid, the cinematography adherent to theme, and the emotional core resonant. It may be the best iteration of this old Hollywood story, flaws and all.

Score: 3.75 / 5 – Good film. See in theaters.

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BOX OFFICE: Eli Roth’s ‘The House With A Clock In Its Walls’ wins a down weekend.

Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias.


The disappointment is strong with this one.

Despite a slew of new releases last weekend, September 21-23, Hollywood took a hit. Once-popular franchises are showing diminished returns, and new properties aren’t finding an audience. And Michael Moore still sucks the fun out of everything while saying absolutely nothing of substance about anything he can. Eli Roth’s The House With A Clock In Its Walls may not resonate well with critics or audiences, but it sparked enough interest in kids to lure some of their parents away from Football – which I chose to watch rather than hit the theater. The other movies? Not so much. In fact, attendance was down 15.5% from the weekend prior.

All of that portentous doom and gloom won’t keep me down, however. It’s time to check in with Box Office Mojo and Brad Brevet, pretend Scott Mendelson hasn’t already cornered the market on box office commentary, and get to analyzing the weekend’s results.

A quick cringe-filled run-down of my top ten predictions from last week:

  • Life Itself
    • $40-45 million
  • The House With A Clock In Its Walls
    • $15-20 million
  • The Predator
    • $12-15 million
  • A Simple Favor
    • $10 million
  • The Nun
    • $8 million
  • Crazy Rich Asians
    • $5.5 million
  • White Boy Rick
    • $5 million
  • Peppermint
    • $3 million
  • Fahrenheit 11/9
    • $2.5 million
  • The Meg
    • $2.5 million

Yeah. I actually predicted $40 million for Life Itself. You can see where this is going. Whether you hope to learn something or enjoy that sweet and savory schadenfreude, let’s get to looking at the numbers.


The Numbers

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Photo by Black ice on Pexels.com

As I mentioned above, total box office receipts were down 15.5%. That represents a domestic cume of $91,819,514. That’s across all studios and theaters. Granted, Hollywood shed about 3,900 theaters – probably for cleaning or something, I don’t know – but the dollar-per-theater average was still an abysmally low $2,253. That’s with three highly marketed new releases in Eli Roth’s The House With A Clock In Its Walls (House), Michael Moore’s Trump-bunking documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, and “what the hell happened here” head-scratcher Life Itself – WHICH DIDN’T EVEN OPEN IN THE TOP TEN.

Inhale. Exhale. Just focus on the numbers.

Here’s your weekend top ten:

  1. House debuted to a respectable $26.6 million. That’s good news for Universal Studios, as this could potentially add another lump of cash to their third-placed $1.09 billion yearly earnings. Eli Roth isn’t much known for . . . accessible entertainment, so this could prove to be a nice change of pace for the director. Buzz isn’t strong about the movie, however, so we’ll see if it struggles to recuperate its $42 million budget. As of today its domestic total sits at $27.8 million domestic, $9 million foreign, and $36.8 million global.
  2. Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor dropped a reassuring 36% and earned $10.2 million over the weekend. Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively’s popularity have pushed the film to a domestic total of $33.2 million, $10.2 million international, and $43.4 million global.
  3. Below that is Conjuring sequel The Nun, which earned $9.9 million off a 45.4% drop. It continues to earn well in its third week, with its domestic total finally pushing past the $100 million milestone. Currently it’s earned $101.3 million domestic, $192.1 million foreign, and $293.4 million global. Remember that it was produced on a budget of $22 million. The fact that it’s nearing $300 million worldwide should explain why studios keep making these things.
  4. How the mighty have fallen. In its second weekend, Shane Black’s The Predator only managed to earn $9.1 million at the domestic box office. The R-Rated sequel has only earned $41.6 million domestic so far, less than half of its production budget. It’s earned $54.8 million internationally for a worldwide total of $96.5 million. Including marketing costs, it’s doubtful the film has managed to break even at this point.
  5. Still in the top five after six weeks is Crazy Rich Asians, which added $6.3 million to its domestic haul – which currently sits at a rock solid $159.8 million. Its foreign earnings amount to about $47.4 million, pushing its worldwide gross up to $207.2 million. That’s off a $30 million budget. You better believe Warner Bros. is giving director Jon Chu the run of the place.
  6. Here we have White Boy Rick. You know who stars in this alright, alright, alright? I genuinely abhor writing his name out so I’ll let you figure it out. It earned $4.8 million in its second weekend for a domestic total of $17.7 million. It hasn’t released elsewhere, and seeing as it’s struggling to earn back its $29 million budget, we might see a home-release sooner rather than later.
  7. Peppermint dropped only 38.6% in its third weekend, adding $3.6 million to its domestic total. So far it’s earned an above-budget $30.6 million in North America and only $6 million everywhere else. A $36.6 million worldwide total isn’t bad, but distributor STX Entertainment was undoubtedly hoping for more.
  8. Opening well short of expectations was Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s attempt to shine new light on the already exhaustively researched 2016 Presidential Election. It debuted to $3.008 million on over 1,700 screens, which represents a bomb-certain $1,750 on its opening weekend. Not that the film was going to draw huge crowds, but I’m sure Moore and company were hoping for a lot more. Another forgettable, indignant, stunt-heavy documentary come and gone.
  9. Here we have the big fish that refuses to leave the top ten, The Meg. It earned $2.2 million domestically over its seventh weekend, bringing its North American gross to $140.5 million, below Crazy Rich Asians. Where the shark has the rom-com beat is oversees. The Meg has managed a very impressive $377.3 million international, for a significant worldwide gross of $517.8 million.
  10. Rounding out the top ten was social media thriller Searching, which managed to earn $2.1 million in its fourth weekend in wide-release. Screen Gems’ decision to increase its theater-count has paid off well, as the film is sitting pretty with a domestic total of $23.2 million, $31.1 million international, and $54.3 million global. It has to have earned back its budget, considering the whole thing was shot using webcams and iPhones.

Outside the top ten is how-did-I–fuck-up-this-badly film, Life Itself (2018), which was made by the same bozos who made that television show. You know, the one about normal, everyday people who get killed by slow-cookers? Yeah, it debuted in eleventh place with $2.1 million in 2,609 theaters. That’s a piss-poor average of $814 per screen. It’s domestic total is just an image of Oscar Isaac checking his watch after depositing a check at the ATM.

Some other totals worth mentioning are Mission: Impossible – Fallout reaching $218.2 million in North America and $778 million worldwide. Christopher Robin is still earning over $1 million a week, so Disney might keep it in theaters until Christmas (that’s a joke, but watch out.)

Oh, and two films that I predicted would fade from existence, A.X.L and The Happytime Murders have both sunk to forty and 123 theaters respectively. Each is earning less than $100k and that’s schadenfraude, baby. Crash and burn you awful movies.

Alright let’s see how I did (Prediction / Actual):

  • Life Itself
    • $40-45 million / $2.1 million
  • The House With A Clock In Its Walls
    • $15-20 million / $26.6 million
  • The Predator
    • $12-15 million / $9.1 million
  • A Simple Favor
    • $10 million / $10.2 million
  • The Nun
    • $8 million / $9.9 million
  • Crazy Rich Asians
    • $5.5 million / $6.3 million
  • White Boy Rick
    • $5 million / $4.8 million
  • Peppermint
    • $3 million / $3.6 million
  • Fahrenheit 11/9
    • $2.5 million / $3 million
  • The Meg
    • $2.5 million / $2.2 million

Excluding Life Itself, I can boast a margin of error for the other nine films of about $800k. That’s closer than I’ve managed in the past. Including Life Itself . . . well, let’s not.

Let’s take a look at next week.


Speculation

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Photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com

This coming weekend, September 28-30, we have a few new releases to look forward to. I won’t be seeing them, and hopefully you’ll glean a sense as to why once I describe them.

First up we have Warner Bros.’ next kid-friendly feature, Smallfoot. They’re opening it across 4,000 screens, so expect a sizeable pile of “mommy, please!” money by next Monday. Why to avoid it: You know those Ice Age movies? Not the first one, the fourth one. No? Well, this movie looks about as entertaining as the fourth Ice Age.

Second, we have the latest Kevin Hart cash-grab, Night School. Allow me to summarize the plot of a movie that hasn’t released yet: Man-baby working fast-food blunders his way back to night school; has what the narrative describes as a good heart; improbably manages to have the independent, professional young woman who teaches him (Tiffany Haddish), fall for him; takes some important test at the end and passes or something. Kevin Hart will make faces, warp his voice, and he’ll cash his check.

The third new release worth mentioning is Hell Fest, a generic teenager-centric horror movie set in a Halloween-themed amusement park. If you’ve seen Cabin in the Woods, you know exactly how this will play out. Save your money.

My predictions for the top ten:

  1. Smallfoot debuts on 4,000 screens and earns $20-23 million.
  2. Night School Kevin Harts hard enough to earn $15-18 million.
  3. The House With A Clock In Its Walls falls over 50% to earn $10-13 million.
  4. Hell Fest earns $8-10 million.
  5. A Simple Favor drops around 35% to earn $6.25 million.
  6. The Nun drops 45% to earn $5.5 million.
  7. Crazy Rich Asians drops 25% and earns $4.75 million.
  8. The Predator drops around 65% and earns $3.2 million.
  9. White Boy Rick drops 50% and earns $2.5 million.
  10. Peppermint drops 40% and earns $2.25 million.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned next week to see how we did!

To stay up to date with game, film, and television commentary, be sure to subscribe to the blog using the widgets below or by following the social media pages here and here.

Until next time.

‘Fallout 3’: Ten years later

Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias.


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I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, I’m not terribly excited for Fallout 76, Bethesda Game Studios’ upcoming entry in their blockbuster post-apocalypse franchise. Though there’s still plenty to see of the game in the coming months, I’m nevertheless left feeling tepid – apprehensive, even. Some of my hang-ups with Fallout 76:

  • Online only
  • No NPCs
  • Card-pack based leveling system
  • “Upgraded” Creation Engine
  • “Beta” being held too close to release
  • Pre-orders went live before any aspect of the game was shown to the public
  • It’s literally just the scrapped multiplayer component of Fallout 4 given new life and expanded upon

There are other, nit-picky things that have me worried, but the general fear is that Bethesda is taking Fallout too far from its roots – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Also in the news are a shit-load of mods coming for Fallout 4 (ostensibly available for console users through Creation Club after their respective releases). For starters, you have Fallout 4: New Vegas, Fallout 4: New York, and the massive Fallout: Miami – each of which feature enormous overhauls to Fallout 4‘s map or introduce entirely new maps, characters, weapons, music, etc.

It’s exhausting to keep up with all of this. It’s Fallout pandemonium out there. As if the chaos following the Jones Soda Co.’s Nuka-Quantum tie-in wasn’t bad enough, there’s a new Nuka-Dark rum, based on the beverage in Fallout 4‘s Nuka-World dlc, available for pre-order. Replica Pip-Boys are everywhere, cosplayers are making incredibly detailed suits of foam power-armor, and I’m left wondering, after seeing this franchise reach its apparent critical mass: How did we get here?

It wasn’t so long ago that the Fallout franchise was in limbo. Fallout 1 and 2 were a pair of well-received top-down isometric RPGs developed by Black Isle Studios in the 90’s. Following the financial fuckery of publisher Interplay and the subsequent shuttering of Black Isle, Bethesda Softworks saw fit to purchase the franchise rights in the early 2000’s. They then proceeded to sit on it for years.

It’s a long story, one that I can’t spend too much time writing about here, so check out this fan-made documentary detailing the franchise’s tumultuous rise to prominence. What precipitated that meteoric rise was Bethesda Game Studios releasing Morrowind and Oblivion to massive financial success and thinking, “Hey, uh, let’s make that Fallout game now.”

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What resulted was 2008’s Fallout 3. A magnificent game worthy of universal acclaim. It not only brought the franchise to 3D, but proved that Bethesda wasn’t a one-trick pony with their Elder Scrolls series. It thrust players from the relative safety of Vault 101 and into the dark and unforgiving Capital Wasteland – the ruins of Washington, DC, left to decay for 200 years after nuclear armageddon. It touted an unprecedented level of freedom for an open-world RPG: Go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone. On October 28, 2008, Fallout was reborn as a franchise and hasn’t slowed since.

But how does it hold up today? People are still playing it, creating enough demand for Bethesda to release it for Xbox backwards compatibility, and later a 4k update for the One X. I first played it way back in 2008, a full decade ago, and have returned to it countless times to continue logging hundreds of hours into new characters. I’ve done the same for New Vegas, and thanks to the settlement-crafting in Fallout 4 I’ve probably logged over a thousand hours into that title alone on my Xbox One.

I love this franchise. But, as with some others, I felt a tad burned by Fallout 4. It was too similar to Fallout 3, but without the latter’s sense of charted moral consequence or player freedom. Fallout 4 was missing . . . something. Something beyond its aesthetics. It’s hard to describe. Many have tried, and many are quick to draw comparison to Obsidian’s franchise-best entry, Fallout: New Vegas, which largely ignored a generalized karmic point-system in favor of uninhibited player choice and consequence. I, however, think it’s important to start at the source of the Fallout revival.

So, earlier this week I decided to dig up my old GOTY-edition of the game and pop it in the Xbox One X and, well, there’s plenty to talk about. So, without further ado.


War Never Changes

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War never changes; unless, of course, it receives a 4k-patch. PC players have long enjoyed the optimal playing experience for Fallout 3 (assuming they can tackle the game’s notorious Windows Live requirement), but no longer. If you own an Xbox One X and have an old copy of Fallout 3 lying around, you’ll enjoy a fairly sizable update that enhances the game from Raven Rock to Rivet City.

It isn’t immediately noticeable when you start a new game, seeing as your character is literally born into darkness. The silhouette of your father, James, voiced by Liam Neeson, coos you into picking your gender and name (I chose ‘male’ and ‘fig newton’), before your mother dies off-screen and you’re carried forth into a blinding light and Vault 101.

This was a clever conceit on Bethesda’s part, having Ron Pearlman insist that no one enters or leaves Vault 101, and then showing your birth, which leads you to presume that you were, in fact, born in the vault itself. You weren’t of course, but it plays out well once you spend a few hours growing up in the vault, taking tests and getting acquainted with the game’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and skill systems, only to have dear old dad start a rebellion against the tyrannical vault-overseer by simply leaving the inescapable vault.

Playing on a 4k television, old textures are suddenly given new life. Colors have been enhanced, objects are crisply defined throughout the environment – a subtle, but noticeable jump in fidelity from the 720p upscaled presentation used on the Xbox 360. It doesn’t match Fallout 4‘s lighting, not by a mile, but the level of detail in Vault 101 – from the environment to the ecosystem inhabited by the vault-dwellers – puts Fallout 4‘s terse opening sequence to shame.

It may be a slog to replay – allocating points and picking your S.P.E.C.I.A.L., taking the G.O.A.T. test, and escaping the vault – but it represents a design philosophy notably absent from Bethesda’s follow-up. From the jump, players are given a plethora of choices. Do you talk back to the adults at your birthday party? Are you kind and understanding to those around you? Will you help Amata by shooing away Butch and his Tunnel Snakes gang? Do you cheat on the G.O.A.T. test? Are you a dick to your father and the Overseer? Do you tell Amata to keep her 10mm pistol, which she eventually uses to murder a security guard?

Your actions, yours, have immediate and world-changing consequences within the first hour of the game, beyond just point allocation. NPCs live or die depending on your input. That agency within the game, the winding and wide-branching possibilities of your decisions, are notably absent from Fallout 4. In 4 you are restricted to a single personality until you leave Vault 111. Your objective? Son, go find him. And that’s it. You create your character, say hello to your family, coo your crying child, set up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. and two minutes later you’re sprinting for the vault. Then you’re frozen, your spouse dies, yadda yadda, and boom – rush through the empty corridors to the exit and behold the Commonwealth Wasteland. It’s a far less nuanced experience, focused instead on expediency and a truncated role-playing experience.

Not so with Fallout 3. It takes its time, makes you take your time. When you emerge from Vault 101 it isn’t a map-marker or a voice over that guides you forward – it’s the map itself.


A World On Fire

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The game world is what sets Fallout 3 apart from Fallout 4, and maybe even New Vegas. I love New Vegas, but its eighteen-month development time shows with how cramped and clamped together so many areas feel – though, I’ll never forget my first nighttime glimpse of the Lucky 38 from afar, blooming with light. Wonderful stuff.

Fallout 3 is different, though. Like I mentioned earlier, after emerging from Vault 101, the eyes are drawn in different directions by the geometry of the map laid out before them. To the right is a metal-looking structure, what you learn is Megaton, and to the left are the battered homes of Springvale. In the distance, marvelously clear due to the added horsepower of the One X, is the Washington Monument. Three choices and one objective, find Dad, but how? Where do you go? Easy: left, right, or center.

Fallout 4 followed a similar approach to populating its map with locations, but offered very little in the way of actual wasteland to explore, a stark contrast to Fallout 3. As you can see in the screenshot above, my Winterized T-51b-clad Lone Wanderer has a choice to make. To the left is a power station, unexplored; to the right is a water tower and another structure; below-center is a bombed out building below the interstate. Between all of it is unpopulated, nuclear-ruined wasteland. Points-of-interests are decorated by terrain that accentuates them, differentiates them from other areas. All of which is meant to invite you, distract you, entice you forward to lose yourself in another dungeon full of Super Mutants or Feral Ghouls.

In writing there’s an element to the page that works for you without a single word being typed. It’s called “white space.” It’s a clever little tool that writers use to add emphasis to words by isolating them on the page. An example:

Fallout 3 still has bad graphics.

Still.

Notice all the space around “still”? Everything around it is white space. The extra millisecond it takes the eye to trace down the page creates a cadence – instilled in your mind by the writer.

Me.

See? Did it again. Anyways, my point is that sometimes the best elements of a game, especially a role-playing game, happen in the moments where the game isn’t telling us to do something. Forget dad, he’s in Smith Casey’s Garage, get to him when you can. Find the power lines north of Megaton and go for a jog. Stumble on some wastelanders fighting over some water, kill a few radscorpions. The guns are painfully inaccurate but the game has a means to compensate for it. It isn’t a shooter first. Not when you can hit the road, stress-saving every five minutes, and let the atmosphere absorb you in the space between those points-of-interest.

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Does the game world look any better? No. Not at all. No 4k patch is going to fix flickering or texture pop-in. You can see very far now, in certain areas both the Washington Monument and Tenpenny Tower are clearly visible. I’m not sure I like it, either. It makes the map feel kind of . . . small. Which is a shame, because we live in an age of over-stuffed, lifelessly organized open-world games. A game like Fallout 3, dripping with the charm of its own aesthetics, shouldn’t feel so unassuming.

It isn’t much of a complaint. After so many hours played, the game loses some of that freshness – the ability to toss a few surprises at you every now and then. With so much of the map being available to the naked eye, any elevated platform is going to show you how the game devs arranged the map. There’s a fairly uniform amount of space between important locations, jagged rocks are jutting out of the ground literally everywhere to create some variation, and no urban planner would ever sign off on the nonsensical infrastructure of the Capital Wasteland.

Cul-de-sacs are plopped in random areas, neighborhoods consist of three houses, there are maybe one or two schools, every church is identical, huge boulders are jutting from the national mall, highways have one or two off-ramps and neither are in the city. It’s a logistical mess. But, none of that really matters. Fallout 3 still has charm everywhere else.

It’s in the transatlantic accents, the thirties big band and swing, the atomic powered car carcasses littering the highways, the “die-commie!” jingoism, the retro-futurisitc stylings of every billboard and box of cereal, and all the notes and scraps of civilization left behind in desk-terminals in the derelict office-buildings. All of which is in every Fallout game, but it’s integrated more effectively in Fallout 3. You are small in Fallout 3, with an enormous world – seen and unseen – all around you. Everything is connected.

Caravans travel the wastes and stop at specific locations all across the map, then meet at Canterbury Commons, where you can invest in increasing their supply. NPCs have relatives living in other settlements, other settlements operating under different governments. Super Mutants threaten everyone, and the Brotherhood of Steel has fractured in two trying to deal with them. NPCs need you to fetch a document, which leads you to another band of NPCs who you can choose to help or ignore, or kill. Bump into a Scavenger trying to survive on their own, kill them for bad karma, and in an hour hear NPCs insult you or find yourself ambushed by Regulators. There’s a web holding everything in the game, and your actions send ripples everywhere.

The Witcher III this is not, but in 2008 is was a blast to experience.


Ten Years Later

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I’ve spent a lot of effort talking up this game. I love it, I really do, but it can be a frustrating mess of an experience. An experience exacerbated by my having played many other RPGs over the past decade.

The shooting is awful. Guns are horribly inaccurate, even with beefy stats, and V.A.T.S. isn’t always going to save you. Action Points regenerate quickly and stimpaks are plentiful after a few levels, so consumables are borderline irrelevant. Enemies offer no real challenge aside from wasting extra ammunition, larger creatures simply requiring more bullets.

The randomness of combat is always refreshing, though. Walking up to a grain silo and having a Yao Guai charge forward to tear your arms off really gets the adrenaline pumping – as does visiting Old Olney for the first time. It’s still fun to explore and survive, but it isn’t difficult anymore.

Caps are the name of the game. The in-game currency is easily obtained, I mean it. Cram valuable junk lying around every office or metro tunnel into your pockets and sell them to vendors. It requires very, very little effort to eventually have more money than you need.

Skill-checks aren’t as prominent as they are in New Vegas, but they’re still here. Intelligence and Science and other perks will offer unique dialogue options that can change conversations or unlock non-violent paths to completing quests, but the Speech requirement is a huge missed opportunity. It’s worse in Fallout 4, as there are no fucking skills in that game, but you are still given a percentage chance to pass any Speech-check. You aren’t meeting a previously withheld barrier and surpassing it, you’re simply raising your chance of success. All you have to do is save before a conversation and reload when you fail a check, then roll the dice again. Simple.

I don’t mean to insinuate that the game is in any way broken because there are ways to exploit it – [if a vendor has duplicate objects of low quality, buy and sell the same item repeatedly to eventually glitch the barter mechanic and take all of a vendor’s money] – I’m simply saying that it speaks to the quality of the vanilla experience if all I want to do is take measures to circumvent it.

And I do that a lot. Especially after playing Fallout 4.

It’s frustrating how slow the movement speed is, how glitchy all the rubble is, and how easily the game crashes. NPCs are mentally vacant, walking into one another or inhibiting quest-progress on multiple occasions. Dialogue is acted very poorly most times, and the four voice actors don’t have the range to differentiate the dozens of NPCs populating the game.

Most textures are muddy, even after the patch ramped up the resolution, meshes are low quality, there’s absolutely no interaction between light and the objects within an environment unless it’s from your Pip-Boy, etc.

Some may find the rag doll character models endearing, but the Gamebryo engine and its Havok physics don’t hold up by today’s standards. The player character floats across the map when running, arms and legs too stiff to adjust angles until the player inputs in a cardinal direction.

Saves get corrupted, easily, and at times my DLC won’t even be recognized.

But damn it, there was one thought that kept running through my mind as I encountered these problems. One thought that I had while diving into a flooded metro station, or the trenches of the national mall, or clearing out Evergreen Mills, or scouring the wastes for the Keller Family Transcripts:

I really, really missed this game. The game’s engine fails by today’s standards, and that’s okay. Yes, it’s rough around the edges – enough to give it a sort of jutting-boulder shape – but it’s immersive in a way that most modern games don’t even try to be. Only a handful of studios are concerned with delivering this type of single-player experience anymore, and few manage a game as consistently engaging as Fallout 3, from its world to the narrative within it.

While the story itself is a tad too earnest, it’s nowhere near the sentimental sci-fi that plagues Fallout 4′s worst missions. You can explore the main quest-line at your leisure, enslave some scavengers for profit, give a homeless man forty water bottles to offset the negative karma, hunt down all the bobbleheads, and blow up Megaton for money. Or maybe just grab your canine companion, a good rifle, turn on Galaxy News Radio, and head out into the wasteland. There’s plenty to do, in as many different ways as you please, and five stellar DLC expansions to play through. And I highly suggest that you do.

No matter what year it is, 4k upgrade or no.

Here’s hoping that Bethesda can match the storytelling and world-building standard set by their first forray into the Fallout universe. I don’t blame them for the lukewarm response to Fallout 4, they kind of had to make another Fallout 3 with more commercial appeal. That means dumbing things down. I just hope that isn’t the death knell for Fallout 76.

While games continue to evolve into multiplayer services rather than stand-alone experiences, as battle-royale modes are shoehorned into unrelated IPs, and impudent monetization schemes clutter user-interfaces and restrict content, one thing is for certain: In another ten years, I’ll still be playing Fallout 3.

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And that’s it for this essay. If you agree with anything I’ve said here, feel free to let me know. If you disagree, please do the same. Share this content with anyone you think would like it. Like and follow this blog using the widgets at the bottom of the page.

Any and all support is appreciated.

Until next time.

Commentary: The Lost World is not the worst in the JP franchise.

Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias. Photos featured here are screenshots from both YouTube and IMDb.

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I’m on Netflix, and seeing as I’ve finished The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, I have nothing to do. The Last Jedi is available to watch, but I’m still traumatized – it’ll be a long time before I write about that one. I scroll down the page and under “Because you watched: Jurassic Park” is a film I haven’t seen in at least half a decade: The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Oh, yeah, baby. Here we go.

I saw Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opening night and still can’t sleep soundly knowing the piss-poor condition Colin Trevorrow has plunged the franchise into. Seriously, he made Safety Not Guaranteed (which was charming) and suddenly he’s got the green-light to write and direct two-thirds of the Jurassic Park revival trilogy? Ick.

I’m nostalgic for Jurassic Park in a way that Universal Studios can’t monetize. I want the OG-movies back. The blue-steel, smart-phone, and concrete aesthetic of Jurassic World and its sequel isn’t working for me. Give me the jagged, jungle-infused primary colors of Jurassic Park and The Lost World. Blacks and reds and yellows, musky thickets of dense tropical plants, and tiki-themed huts. Isla Nublar is supposedly 100 miles from Costa Rica, and the closest Jurassic World came to that aesthetic was a damn Margaritaville.

Sorry. We aren’t here to trash the other movies, we’re here to defend The Lost World against the other movies.

I’m typing this up as I watch it, so let’s get to it.


Welcome, to the sequel to Jurassic Park

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Can you imagine the hype surrounding this movie? Back in ’97, before Titanic released, Jurassic Park was literally the highest-earning movie ever made. People busted blocks for that movie, and Spielberg grabs Michael Crichton to again help screenwriter David Koepp pen the script for its follow-up. The old team was getting back together. I was a little over four-years-old at the time and I can still remember seeing the rubber r.c. controlled t-rex toys and the lunch boxes and the sit-and-shoot video games at every arcade. Of course, that happens every summer nowadays. Tent-pole blockbusters are everywhere, synonymous with summer movie-going.

Back then, however, fan-boys were either in their infancy or lurking in secluded basements, away from the public eye, so the average movie-going public was allowed to vent their frustration with The Lost World when it didn’t live up to their expectations. Of course, this was back when people were allowed to be disappointed by sequels for sake of the film *glares at The Last Jedi and the ongoing internet-war over the soul of Star Wars*.

I remember liking this as a kid for the same reasons I’m liking it right now. The action is lively, the CGI well-utilized, and the dinosaurs more numerous and with greater variety. You could say the same thing of Jurassic World, but here comes the crucial difference.

Characters.

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We get twenty-some seconds in the beginning of Lost World to introduce this little girl and her rich family, picnicking on the beach of some uninhabited Island (as you do), and every bit of dialogue between them occurs in a real space, playing out as the camera observes the scene from a distance, panning back and forth or rolling up the sand away from them. We don’t have actors spouting decades-old lines of dialogue at the screen in that over-the-shoulder, crisscrossing television-style bullshit way of filming a conversation. We don’t have a back-and-forth here, we have people moving and things being done and characters moving around them. The sets are part of the conversation because people have to move to keep up with their counterpart in order to talk to them.

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Damn near every scene of dialogue in Jurassic World is over-the-shoulder, back-and-forth garbage on a set far removed from any of the action. Spielberg introduces his characters as part of a world, and his worlds as part of his plot. He does all of this simultaneously. Lost World may be a monster-flick, undeniably, but it’s still a Spielberg film.

Things are developing around our characters constantly. You know the plot already, Ian Malcolm (played by the endlessly enjoyable Jeff Goldblum) is coerced into an expedition to Isla Sorna, dinosaur Site B, by Richard Hammond, who is no longer in control of the dinosaur-genetics company, InGen. In fact, Peter Ludlow, Hammond’s nephew, has taken control of the company and hopes to finally turn a profit by exploiting the dinosaurs (BOY I WONDER IF THE SEQUELS WILL LATCH ONTO THAT IDEA).

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Jesus, this movie moves, though. Within twenty-five minutes we have the reason Hammond loses control of InGen (the little girl getting attacked on the beach), Malcolm is shown to be the victim of a smear campaign by InGen and Ludlow to discredit his criticisms of the theme park of the previous film, and then we have to get ready to go to the island so Malcolm can “save” his girlfriend, Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore).

Can we actually stop for a second and appreciate Julianne Moore’s screen presence? She owned every scene in which she appeared in The Big Lebowski and Children of Men, and does so here. She’s also a stoic and unsettling figure in the two Mockingjay movies. In Lost World she’s clearly the only one in control of the situation; having studied the dinosaurs for a few days before Malcolm, Eddie, and Nick van Owen arrive, she’s technically more qualified to speak of them than Malcolm is.

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So, I don’t think pacing is too much of an issue yet. They get to the island and we see Stegosaurus within the first half-hour. Spielberg doesn’t linger too long before throwing our characters into some kind of danger – those spiked tails! – but moviegoers aren’t going to be as impressed at the mere sight of dinosaurs now, so let’s just get on with the show. Either by necessity or principle, effects are a blend of CGI and practical animatronics. The dinosaurs, more than any of the sequels, are technically right there in-camera. It feels good. It still looks good.

And look at this! Characters walking and talking! Talking about scientific stuff! Our protagonists are still interested in proving some theory about dinosaurs, studying them with extended research as the goal. Where the hell did that go?

I know people don’t like Malcolm’s daughter here. She isn’t a great addition, but at least it’s easy to understand why she’s here. In that lengthy prelude to the expedition’s departure we get plenty of information thrown at us economically. We learn that Malcolm isn’t exactly a doting husband, but has fathered a few children (in keeping with his character from JP), and that his daughter wants to come along. We’re shown what all of their vehicles look like, included the RV home-base. We know that she knows where it is and can presume she hid inside of it, considering the dialogue even earlier that it isn’t a long trip to get to the island and seeing that none of the main characters were inside the RV on the journey there.

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Can we also talk about that? That Spielberg and Co decided to introduce aspects of the narrative long-before they became useful? It’s Chekov’s Gun – level storytelling basics, here. We get the RV, the High-Hide, the tranquilizer gun, the wonky satellite phone, the lucky-pack, and plenty more within the first half-hour of the film. All of it pays off or at least becomes relevant later in the film. Compare that to the fan-favorite Indominus Rex in Jurassic World. It’s understood that we, the audience, aren’t to know much about its abilities due to the genetic-splicing that brought it to life, but come on. It’s a walking plot-mcguffin. Whatever the narrative needs at any given moment, the I-Rex can be, and it’s either explained away with a throwaway line just before it happens – “IT CAN CAMOUFLAGE” – or it’s chalked up to mad-science. Lazy.

The Lost World, whether it works for you or not, is far from lazy.

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Look at this Safari-vibe we have going on here. John Williams has returned for the score, and rather than trumpet that old theme-song, he provides a thumping and suspenseful band of music to underscore the darker overall tone of the film. This is far from stock string-pieces that appear at emotional cues; we have melodies and themes for the heroes and villains, key-strikes and percussion for rampaging dinosaurs. It feels tailored to the experience, rather than assembled from a pre-recorded suite of genre-music.

And here comes Roland Tembo and his merry-brigade of profiteers. What a fun character, played with expert pragmatism by the late Pete Posthwaite. These are Ludlow’s guys, under the new InGen, trying to capture these dinosaurs for transport back to the mainland. It’s pretty stupid, but the film realizes this, making the case for saving the animals from people – rather than a fucking volcano. At least here, in Lost World, we have characters with motivations stemming from either a previous film or deeply understood character archetypes. The big-game hunter wants to hunt, the capitalist wants money, the scientists want to science. Spielberg isn’t forcing anything here (not until the fourth act). These are evident in the later films, but…they were derivative to begin with.

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If anything, this is where we can cry foul for pacing. Once the second expedition shows up, all hell breaks loose and it’s a race to the end of the film. They set up camp, the original expedition opens some dino-cages, and things literally burst into flames. Moments later we have the bleating baby T-Rex and the beginning of a ninety-minutes chase-scene.

And honestly? That’s where this film commits its resources, which is fine. It does it magnificently. We have numerous peaks and valleys, setting tension and paying it off. The most impressive of which being the RV tumbling over the edge of a cliff. It isn’t just monsters and mayhem, because we wouldn’t give a damn about the stakes if we didn’t care about the characters.

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And this movie might have the last moment I’ve felt tension for the approach of a T-Rex. Their presence here is incredible. The camera stays on the fucking ground, leaving the audience to feel as vulnerable as our characters. And I’m beginning to think it might actually give the execs over at Universal an aneurism to invest in animatronics again.

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Oh, hold on. Eddie’s about to bite it – or be bitten. What a shame Trevorrow felt compelled to top this unearned character-death with one far more grotesquely-realized in his film if you remember the poor babysitter being dunked to death by flying dinosaurs until the Mosasaur ate her in Jurassic World. Eddie at least dies quickly. Same can’t be said for this unfortunate franchise.


The Moveable Feast

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Well, all the characters are together. And it’s good. We get brief interactions to play these archetypes against one another. The environmentalist vs the hunter, the chaotician vs the capitalist. That the movie is plunging us into Malcolm’s chaos and still stops to remind us of the central arguments forming the narrative is smart. It’s smart, mainly because it works so well. It’s due to that competence that every sequel, save for JPIII, has aped those themes outright and offered no new insight.

Fallen Kingdom wants us to care about these dinosaurs and hope to preserve them, while The Lost World has already exhausted both sides of the debate. This wasn’t some cautionary preamble, this was closing the book. Spielberg’s departure from a directorial role in the franchise should be evidence enough of that. “But he’s stayed on as producer!” Yes, but as with the Transformers franchise, that doesn’t amount to much of substance outside of his bank-account, does it?

Digressions, my apologies.

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Our characters are bickering, and that makes it interesting. They aren’t just screaming into the camera – not yet anyway. Spielberg is embarking on a journey across the island, and we have to follow. Again the pacing is wonky, like Spielberg is anxiously hustling through these bits to show off the next bloody rampage by the T-Rexes. And that’s just what we get. They lose their luster after a while, I’ll admit. This doesn’t operate on the restraint seen in the original film, but we’re a far cry from the wobbly, weightless CGI of the Jurassic World sequels. We’ve got actual actors, awarded actors, playing bit parts to lend some depth to every encounter – selling those archetypical monologues with flair and conviction.

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And let’s take a closer look at those action scenes. After a few more brushes with the T-Rex and some Compies, the “moveable feast” is fractured and leaving the island in their respective groups. The dinosaurs are still cleverly concealed, behind waterfalls or by shadows in the darkness outside a tent.

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They are monsters, but as hunting animals it makes sense as well. The raptors are pack-hunting and hyper-intelligent. We see that in their apparent behaviour. Spielberg isn’t going to waste time explaining them to you all over again, we know they aren’t going to be tricked so easily. So the humans have to evade and fight them using their intellect. Or some form of it. Yeah, the gymnastics shit is strange, but at least they set it up earlier in the film.

Nothing is so outlandish here as using live-animals in the military, or having them appear in dreams.

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If anything, the film does a pretty good job wrapping up what it lays out on the table. Roland gets his prize T-Rex, but loses quite a bit in the process. Sarah and Ian are finally heading off the island in what can ostensibly be seen as a familial-unit. Ludlow should have learned his lesson, but…no. That pesky greed, it corrupts absolutely.

I can give Spielberg a pass for the idea of the San Diego breakout. It’s a lot of fun and has a plethora of memorable moments. It’s tough to ignore, though, that it throws a wrench in the conclusion of the film and all of a sudden we have a fourth act. It wouldn’t have been enough to keep the action on the island and use the data Hammond’s team collected to change public perception of the dinosaurs living on Sorna.

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No. In a silly bit of showmanship, we have a boat with a T-Rex crashing onto American shores. How did the crew of the boat die? Doesn’t matter now, they cut it in post. Boy, Mr. Hammond, this should work well toward changing public opinion of your dinosaurs. The San Diego-scene is where you’re either torn from or galvanized in your support for this film. I can appreciate it for the entertainment that it is, but it undermines so much of…whatever this film was getting at. It never really gets the chance to elaborate aside from a quick bit on CNN by Hammond about the need to leave these creatures alone.

But the T-Rex breaks loose on a major city with a devastating resentment of infrastructure: Take that traffic-signal!

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And you, public transportation!

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How on earth is the Coast Guard just letting that thing sail back home? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and in a movie that seemed so adamant in justifying its existence with some kind of forethought, this ending is disappointing.


So…

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I can understand when people suggest that this is the worst of the JP films, and then say the end is too nonsensical. Those sentiments, I feel, are mutually exclusive, however. You can’t insist that it’s bad because of its ending and also suggest that it’s the worst of the franchise. The entirety of the drama surrounding the newer films has been pilfered from the two original films. Jurassic World is a soft reboot of Jurassic Park, but with a seriously dumb “use them as dino-soldiers” plot-line. Fallen Kingdom boils Lost World down to its most basic elements: save the dinos, capture dinos, capitalism, greed. Fallen Kingdom, however, insists on a very strange and self-defeating location for two-thirds of the movie – the fucking basement of a really big house – then tosses the dinos out into the real world just like The Lost World did.

How is that better? If anything, it’s exactly the same.

The common argument is that we aren’t meant to analyze these movies, that they are big dumb action-adventure flicks with broad-chested men and women running stupidly from bloodthirsty monsters. Which is fine. It’s disappointing, but it’s fine. The movies can be that way, but don’t ape the imagery and plots from better movies in your own franchise.

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For all of the pacing and tonal shifting in Lost World, it’s certainly closer in feel to the newer films than to the original, it still offers dialogue and story-beats worth paying attention to. There are arguments to be had about dinosaur behavior and of observing them as elements of nature rather than theme-park exhibits. We have glimpses of that in Jurassic World, but Chris Pratt’s smoldering at the camera and pinching insects out of the air distracts from anything he’s trying to say about animal behavior.

And Spielberg is just a better filmmaker than Trevorrow. There’s careful attention to detail in sets and in movement. Things are arranged to follow the natural path of curiosity within the audience. We are shown something and it is elaborated on until its function becomes apparent. Action scenes develop as part of an ongoing conflict, and resolve themselves before they wear out their welcome. Dinosaurs are heard approaching, or conflicts with technology are hinted at hours before they become a problem. Dinosaurs don’t just appear in fucking tubes while volcanos are erupting and lava is spewing everywhere. It also doesn’t having a dino-showdown by the ocean as if the dinosaurs carry personal vendettas. Fan-service alone is not good moviemaking.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park is not a great movie, but it’s above and beyond the films that followed. It’s shlocky, but tastefully done. Its humor in balance with its mayhem.

In the race for second-place, which is all a sequel in this franchise can hope for, it’s won handily.

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