The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

By Joanne Laurier
3 July 2015

The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle; Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa

The Wolfpack

At the center of Crystal Moselle’s debut film, The Wolfpack, winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, are seven young people who have been locked away for most of their lives in a New York City public housing apartment. Their father’s social fearfulness lies at the heart of this peculiarity.

Six boys and a mentally disabled sister lived with their parents in the Seward Park Extension projects, which house some 800 residents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Homeschooled by their mother, the children were forbidden by their father, Oscar Angulo, to leave their 16th-floor, four-bedroom apartment.

The Wolfpack

Confined to one thousand square feet of space, the boys became absorbed in watching films, of which there were some five thousand in the apartment. Making props and costumes and reenacting scenes from their favorite movies became their mode of existence. In Moselle’s film, the boys come across as endearing, articulate and emotionally vulnerable. Their long black hair—which their father forbid them to cut—only adds to the mystique. Their overall appearance and the peculiarity of their circumstances, however, tend to distract the viewer from considering what must be serious psychic scars.

Only in the barest outlines does the filmmaker trace out why the Angulo children were confined. Susanne, their mother, briefly explains that she and her husband Oscar were afraid of their offspring being “socialized” by a bad and hazardous world. The Wall Street Journal cites Moselle’s comment: “It’s not like they were chained. … They were just not socializing with the outside world. They didn’t leave the house because they were scared.” She documents the family’s odd and fascinating—mostly by virtue of its oddity—story, but seems generally unconcerned with probing the larger questions at work.

The movie’s production notes provide a sketch of the family’s background: Peruvian-born Oscar aspired to be a musician. He met and married Susanne, a hippie from the American Midwest, in 1989 and became a Hare Krishna devotee. In 1994, after the birth of five children—Visnu, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana and Mukunda—the family traveled around the country looking for opportunities for Oscar to become a rock star, during which time one of the children was birthed in their van. In 1996, the family moved to the Manhattan housing project. There, the last two children—Krsna and Jagadisa—were born.

In The Wolfpack, the boys explain that Oscar believes that having a job makes one a social slave and robot. Susanne gets money from the state for homeschooling. Clearly protective of their shy, somewhat bewildered mother, they discuss Oscar’s abusive, domineering nature, made worse by his drinking. Only toward the movie’s conclusion does a dejected Oscar appear on screen. Earlier, he makes a brief comment regarding the family’s shabby living quarters.

In January 2010 Mukunda finally escaped the apartment, wandering the streets wearing a Michael Meyers mask. (Meyers is the psychotic killer in theHalloween horror movie series.) He was arrested and spent some time in a hospital psych ward. In April 2010, the brothers started regularly leaving the apartment as a pack, a bizarre vision of dark hair, black suits and sunglasses.

The Wolfpack

It was at that time that Moselle met the boys. She states in the film’s production notes that it “was serendipitous that I met these boys the first week they started going out into the world. It almost felt as if I had discovered a long lost tribe, except it was not from the edges of the world but from the streets of Manhattan. I was moved by their openness, resilience and sense of humor, and I formed a trust with them that could never be duplicated.”

Explaining that it was Oscar who introduced his sons to both classic and cult films, Moselle states that the boys “liked the violent, horrific, morally complicated films the best.” Thus began their obsession with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino [hence the Reservoir Dogs look]. “It opened their eyes to film outside the realms of the standard Hollywood films they were used to watching. Since films were their world, they started to interpret these looks into their wardrobe.”

At one point, the boys explain that their apartment was raided by a police SWAT team looking for a cache of weapons, but finding instead an array of home-made props. Although everyone in the family was handcuffed—a frightening ordeal—the Angulo boys speak about the incident very casually.

In spite of The Wolfpack ’s somewhat careless construction, it has endearing moments. It is almost heartbreaking, for example, when an emotional Susanne sends the boys off to see their first movie at a cinema (The Fighter), acting as if they were traveling to the other side of the world. Or when for the first time in decades Susanne speaks to her mother in Michigan, thrilled like a kid in a candy store. There is also the amusing sequence of the boys at Coney Island, lathering their bodies with sun block (“We don’t need sun. We are vampires.”)

The film never addresses itself to the reasons why Oscar and Susanne are so overwhelmed by the problems of society and especially why Oscar is such a misanthrope. One would have thought that this was rather central to any serious examination of the family’s circumstances. It is telling that Moselle apparently takes all this for granted.

Indeed, the parents’ disorientation is consistent with that of a substantial social layer, and even a portion of a generation. The Wolfpack never makes what seems an obvious connection between the father’s view of American society as a bottomless pit of sin and iniquity (crime, violence, drugs, gang activity, etc.) to be shunned at all costs and his sons being drawn to Tarantino’s shallow, sordid output and other gloomy films of the last several decades, likeThe Dark Knight, Taxi Driver, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Don’t these films, in their own way, reflect and even validate precisely the outlook Oscar espoused, that the family needed to be locked away, protected from the dangerous, sinister modern world?

In any event, The Wolfpack still intrigues, largely because of the Angulo boys’ liveliness and tenacity.


Another form of individual effort at escape is at the center of Rick Famuyiwa’s comedy Dope, which starts with three dictionary definitions of its title—a term for drugs, a term for someone stupid and a term of high praise.


Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a high school senior living with his single mom (Kimberly Elise), a bus driver, in the Bottoms, a gang-controlled neighborhood in the city of Inglewood, in southwestern Los Angeles County. He is a self-described “black geek,” a moniker that also applies to his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel), who claims he’s 14 percent African, and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian whose family tries to “pray away the gay.” Malcolm, who sports an old-fashioned flat-top hairdo and button-down collar, is a straight A student, has aced his SATs, plays in a punk rock band with Jib and Diggy and is determined to get into Harvard.

While the film’s opening sequences are amusing and charming, Dope veers off in a convoluted, scrambled direction involving the unloading of drugs that have fallen into Malcolm’s possession (to prove the point—see Wikipedia’s endless plot description). Implausibly, he sets up a clever and successful online drugstore, wowing an admissions officer who turns out to be a drug kingpin!

Moore is worth watching; Revolori and especially Clemons are also amiable. There is nothing cynical about the lead trio. Through them the movie attempts to break down certain stereotypes about “typical” Inglewood residents. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is drenched in clichés and populated with boilerplate bad boys: sneaker-stealing school bullies, neighborhood drug dealers and teens negotiating typical “hood traps.”

While it is refreshing to see a reasonable facsimile of working class youth on screen, most of the film’s better moments end up by sermonizing, along the lines of platitudes such as “Don’t underestimate yourself” and “Always aim high.”

Famuyiwa (The Wood, 1999, and Brown Sugar, 2002) has a reputation for making films that dare “to show middle-class blacks as ordinary Americans.” This seems a pretty limited and limiting ambition. While individuals like the overachiever Malcolm may well escape the relatively mean streets of Inglewood, Dope seems largely unconcerned with the majority condemned to remain.

“Steve Jobs,” portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce

When we abandon the arts, this is what’s left 

"Steve Jobs," portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce
Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” (Credit: Universal Pictures)

The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.

The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.

The likening of tech savants to artists goes back at least as far as Richard Florida’s books about the creative class, but it picked up energy with the 2011 death of Jobs, who was hailed as a job creator by Republican politicians and mystic genius by many others. You see this same impulse in the opening of Jonah Lehrer’s now-discredited book “Imagine,” which compared the inventor of the Swiffer (which “continues to dominate the post-mop market”) with William James and Bob Dylan.

The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)

So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?

The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.

While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.

Cold War funding supported culture even more directly – Eisenhower sent Louis Armstrong overseas – and television stations and magazines considered the dissemination of the arts part of what they did. Maria Callas, Thelonious Monk, and Leonard Bernstein showed up not just in small-circulation specialty publications but on the cover of Time magazine.

For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.

Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.

How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.

In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?

So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?

Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.

The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash.He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”




Whatcha say folks? Now that we are banning/censoring all things Confederate, should we ban “Gone With The Wind?” (Both the book and the movie?) If so, we could have book burnings/BBQs for the 4th. How about the yearly commemorative charge of the VMI cadets (one of my distant relatives was in the original)? Trash all the Confederate graveyards? I understand people are rushing to buy GWTW DVDs lest pressure mounts to take it off the shelves.

Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By David Walsh
24 June 2015

Directed by Julie Taymor; written by William Shakespeare

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream was screened in a number of movie theaters in North America this week for one night only (on or about the summer solstice). The film was shot during a run of Taymor’s version of the play at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2013-14.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Scholars theorize that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Nights Dream, perhaps for an aristocratic wedding, in the mid-1590s. The comic-magical play, one of the few whose basic outline the dramatist did not derive from another source, has several interconnected plot strands.

Duke Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, are making preparations for their wedding day; four young lovers—Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius—attempt to sort out their relationships, in the face of a host of external and internal pressures; Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of Fairyland, are in the midst of a quarrel, with all sorts of implications for the natural world around them; a group of Athenian “mechanicals” (workmen) are rehearsing a play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe [a story that resembles Romeo and Juliet], to be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Much of the play takes place in the moonlit woods presided over by Oberon and Titania. Angered at his queen, Oberon has his “sprite,” Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, locate a flower whose juice, smeared on the eyes, will make any creature fall in love with the next person—or animal—he or she sees. Puck changes the head of one of the workmen, Bottom the weaver, into a donkey’s, and Titania, on seeing him, falls madly in love.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream [Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

Meanwhile, the four lovers are stumbling around the forest. At first, both Lysander and Demetrius are in love with Hermia, much to the unhappiness of Helena, who adores Demetrius. After Puck drops some of his potion in the wrong eyes, Lysander and Demetrius direct their affections and attentions toward Helena, who becomes convinced that the other three have conspired to play a cruel prank on her.

Bottom passes the time with Titania and her attendant fairies, until Oberon and Puck intervene and restore him more or less to his previous condition. In the end, Oberon and Titania are reconciled, the three other couples find their way to the altar, and Bottom and his fellow workmen stage their play successfully at the wedding reception.

Taymor (born 1952) is best known for spectacular theater stagings, especially of The Lion King (1997) and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2010). She has directed a number of films, including Titus (1999, based on Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus), Frida (2002), Across the Universe (2007) and The Tempest (2010). While visually intriguing, none of these films was an artistic success. Frida, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was significantly misconceived.

Taymor’s work in general has seemed a triumph of style over substance. Fortunately, with A Midsummer Nights Dream she has taken on a work that brings her considerable skill to the fore. Imaginatively staged and exuberantly performed, Taymor’s effort is largely a delight. If it does not explore the play or its themes deeply, and it does not, it certainly allows an audience to experience something of the work’s relentless beauty and poetry.

The play takes place on a stage deeply thrust into the audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. A central image is a giant silk bed-sheet that makes itself into a balloon, a sky, a sort of hammock, a projection screen and a good deal more. Taymor makes great use of lighting, harnesses, trapdoors and a variety of equipment, especially in the Titania-Oberon-Puck scenes.

Kathryn Hunter as an androgynous Puck, who twists herself into any number of poses, is thoroughly engaging, as are David Harewood as Oberon and Tina Benko as Titania. A crowd of small children charmingly represent the fairies. To her credit, Taymor has made the play accessible to contemporary audiences, without sacrificing the original play.

There is something genuinely breathtaking, almost “unbearable” (as I noted in a review of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film version of the play), about the sweetness of the language in A Midsummer Nights Dream. This is Oberon to Puck:

Thou rememb’rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea maid’s music?

And further:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and eglantine.

And that sweetness is powerfully brought out here, by Taymor, Harewood, Benko and Hunter in particular.

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream is perhaps “the gentlest of Shakespeare’s works.” That review went on:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream[Photo credit: Theatre for a New Audience]

“Puck plays his pranks, and Oberon takes his relatively harmless revenge on Titania, but this is not a nightmare, it is a dream born of a warm summer night. Oberon takes pity on Helena, ‘a sweet Athenian lady … in love with a disdainful youth.’ Puck says, although mistakenly, of Hermia lying near Lysander: ‘Pretty soul, she durst not lie / Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.’ Later Oberon instructs Puck to prevent a fight between jealous Demetrius and Lysander, and declares his intention to release Titania from her spell, ‘and all things shall be peace.’ Or, as Puck puts it, even more suggestively, ‘Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill.’”

One of the remarkable themes of the play, bound up of course with great changes in social relations in Shakespeare’s time, is the extraordinary and novel malleability of human personality and emotions. Granted that Oberon and Puck intervene supernaturally from time to time, but the four young people, as well as Titania herself, demonstrate that love, for example, is hardly a sentiment fixed for eternity.

Demetrius observes that his love for Hermia—which he was only cured of the night before!—“seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon.”

Titania declares her undying love for Bottom at the beginning of one scene (“O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”) and, only a few scant moments later, once having woken from her “visions,” exclaims, “How came these things to pass? / O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!”

As we noted in 1999, A Midsummer Nights Dream suggests “a world of infinite possibility. After all, this is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays in which a man on the Bottom sleeps with (or by) a Queen, at her instigation no less. In the forest in the middle of the night in a dream all things pass into one another and are transformed, love and hate, man and animal, spirit and matter.”

The rapid, dramatic changes of Taymor’s set and design have the advantage of suggesting something of this transmutability.

The weakest point here is Max Casella’s Bottom, or rather, not the actor, but Taymor’s direction. Casella is far too broad, with his clichéd New York-New Jersey accent, and works far too hard for broad and rather cheap laughs.

Shakespeare was not writing his play principally for “mechanicals,” for laborers, although they formed a section of his audience. And certainly there is a degree to which the playwright laughs along with Duke Theseus and the rest of the Athenian elite at the artistic-theatrical pretensions of the weaver (Nick Bottom), carpenter (Peter Quince), bellows-mender (Francis Flute), tinker (Tom Snout), joiner (simply “Snug”) and tailor (Robin Starveling).

As occasionally foolish as the “mechanical” actors are, however, their essential geniality, solidarity and sincerity come through. Is there a genuinely warmer moment in Shakespeare than that in which Bottom makes his reappearance, after losing his asses’ head, among his fellow artisans?


Where are these lads? where are these hearts?

QUINCE [and the others]

Bottom! O most courageous day! O most happy hour!


Masters, I am to discourse wonders: but ask me not what; for if I tell you, I am no true Athenian. I will tell you every thing, right as it fell out.


Let us hear, sweet Bottom.

Essential to the success of the “mechanical” scenes is the workers’ spirit of togetherness. Despite their various idiosyncrasies, they stick up for and stand by one another. In Taymor’s version, Brendan Averett as Snug, Joe Grifasi as Quince, William Youmans as Starveling, Jacob Ming-Trent as Snout and Zachary Infante as Flute all do well, even memorably. Infante’s “death scene” as Thisbe is quite remarkable. On the other hand, portraying Bottom as something of a scene-stealer and “ham,” and not simply an enthusiast, is a mistake and detracts from the work.

Whatever intentions he had in his head to begin with, Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and once he began to work through a character’s situation, he generally got to the heart of things. We recently noted the comment by Orson Welles that Shakespeare’s Falstaff (who appears in a number of the history plays) was “the most completely good man, in all drama.” Then Bottom is certainly one of the kindest and most endearing.

He is the favorite of the artisans; during the time he spends away from them in Titania’s company, they are at a loss. He has, according to Flute, “the best wit of any handicraftman in Athens,” and he is “the best person, too,” adds Quince. “O sweet bully Bottom,” cries Flute, sadly.

We noted in 1999: “The weaver is unfailingly thoughtful and considerate, and apparently unfazed by any of the astonishing things that befall him. When Titania unexpectedly proclaims that she loves him, he replies, ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that.’ Nonetheless, it is not unthinkable, for ‘to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’

“Offered the part of a lover in the workmen’s theatrical, Bottom expresses the desire to play a ‘tyrant’ instead. No one is less fit for such a part. So concerned is he about the ladies in the audience becoming frightened, because a lion appears in the piece, he explains that were he to play the part, ‘I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove. I will roar you an ‘twere any nightingale.’

“Worried as well about the impact on the female spectators of his character killing himself, Bottom suggests adding a prologue in which he will explain that ‘we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus [his character] is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. That will put them out of fear.’ I think Harold Bloom is entitled to assert in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that Bottom is ‘a sublime clown … a great visionary … and a very good man, as benign as any in Shakespeare.’”

In any event, despite the missteps in this regard, Taymor’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is enjoyable and absorbing. It will open more widely later in the year.

Jurassic World, summer blockbuster

By Christine Schofelt
23 June 2015

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; written by Trevorrow, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly

Twenty-two years after the events in the original Jurassic Park (1993), the dreams of that film’s dinosaur-resurrecting scientist John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) have been fulfilled with the establishment of Jurassic World in the new film of the same name.

Jurassic World

The island (fictionally located off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica) on which the original, failed park was built is now the home of the wildly popular dinosaur theme park, laboratory, hotels and shopping complex. In order to keep customers returning, increase profits and thereby satisfy corporate backers, new attractions in the form of different—and bigger—dinosaurs have to be constantly introduced.

This leads to the splicing of genes from various extinct specimens and the introduction of elements of reptiles from the present era. In typical Hollywood fashion, despite the most advanced laboratories and equipment, scientists fail to look far enough ahead and predictably “unpredictable” side effects take hold making the new creatures smarter and more deadly than their component parts … and the chase is on.

Though largely formulaic, Jurassic World is not without its charms and does touch on some interesting questions.

The film centers on two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), as well as on the relationship between their aunt, a driven businesswoman, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), and Owen (Chris Pratt), an expert on Velociraptors.

The latter pair have dated, fought and parted company, deciding they were “too different.” Owen, an ex-Navy war veteran, has been training some of the raptors, becoming in essence their “alpha.” His acquaintance and nominal boss, Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), sees a military application for the raptors, and indeed for all the dinosaurs (“Imagine if we’d had them in Tora Bora”). He is determined to find a way to adapt them to this end. Owen disagrees with the plan.

Jurassic World

When the inevitable escape of a new, smart, enormous dinosaur occurs, Hoskins’ company, InGen Security, sends in its private troops alongside Owen’s raptors. The classified “contents” of the rogue lizard, Indominus rex, are revealed to include some raptor, which poses problems. Questions of loyalty on the part of Owen’s raptors come into the picture and the struggle between nature and nurture/training plays out. The troops are largely killed off, and the saving of the island and the 20,000 park guests is then down to Owen, Claire, and the “good” dinosaurs.

The machinations of Hoskins, presented in a very straightforward—one might say simplistic—manner as the villain here, include working with the top scientist to develop dinosaurs especially for use in warfare. More time could have been spent on this, to be sure, but the fact that this element is even presented in a negative light in a blockbuster summer release bears noting.

One would like to consider this a let-up in the relentless drumbeat for war that Hollywood has been only too glad to take part in. That might be premature, though the failure of the mercenaries and their firepower to contain (or survive) their fight against the rogue Indominus, who succumbs to the mighty bites of other resurrected/created creatures instead, seems a step in the right direction.

Jurassic World

Co-produced by Steven Spielberg (who directed the first two Jurassic films),Jurassic World seems to want to make some metaphorical points about the dog-eat-dog character of present-day social and corporate life. Director Colin Trevorrow, for example, told Entertainment Weekly: “The Indominus was meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed based on a series of corporate focus groups.”

And Trevorrow commented to, “There’s something in the film about our greed and our desire for profit … The Indominus Rex, to me, is very much that desire, that need to be satisfied.” Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of Ron Howard, told the same news outlet about her character: “The quest for profit has compromised her own humanity.”

Of course, all of this, as sincere as it may be, has to be taken with a large grain of salt. The mild criticisms occur in a film that is very much an integral part of the Hollywood blockbuster phenomenon, which largely obstructs reflecting seriously on anything.

Throughout the film, which is well on its way to raking in a billion dollars in its first two weeks, one is struck by both the simultaneous gratuitous and near constant product placements (everything from Starbucks to Coca-Cola) and the questions raised directly about the ethics of putting science in the service of the “shareholders.” Formulaic as the subplots may be, to its credit the film does come down against the practice. However, unlike recent films such asChappie or Ex Machina, humanity’s scientific abilities themselves are less of a focus, and so the ethical questions are not terribly developed—instead the emphasis is on the chase, escape and the happy ending.

All in all, unfortunately, Jurassic World does what it was designed to do: entertain without demanding too much of the audience.

Entourage and Spy: Celebrity, wealth and the CIA—Hollywood’s idea of summer fun

By Joanne Laurier
19 June 2015

Entourage, directed and written by Doug Ellin; Spy, directed and written by Paul Feig

Once upon a time Hollywood could make funny, entertaining movies (and still does, very occasionally). Because comedy (like tragedy) has something to do with life, believe it or not, the most memorable of those earlier films directed their humor against the rich and powerful, or at least the stuck-up and pompous: Chaplin, Keaton, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and more.

The most pointed comic works had a certain logic and cohesiveness to them that sprang from a protest on behalf of the population against the way life was organized. Genuine comedy in art and film tends to punch upward.

Is such a phenomenon imaginable in the present-day American film industry, which so thoroughly identifies with the wealthy and powerful, with the military and the police?

The staggering amounts of money and the accompanying, unprecedented conformism today squeeze the life out of the great majority of Hollywood’s products. It stands to reason that the superficial, complacent writer or director or producer who follows the path of least resistance is unlikely to generate much in the way of genuine and prolonged laughter. With careers, entire studios and hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) at stake, why should anyone expect much liveliness or spontaneity from this quarter?

Two new alleged comedies, Entourage and Spy, are proof—for anyone who needs it—that filmmakers who take for granted the present unreal American political situation and that society’s widely discredited institutions are incapable of getting (and do not deserve) more than a polite chuckle now and then from us.

The first-named movie preoccupies itself with the backward and self-absorbed Hollywood universe and the second with the Central Intelligence Agency, one of the most murderous and criminal enterprises on the planet. Neither Doug Ellin (Entourage) nor Paul Feig (Spy) thinks to questions his respective milieu or social setting. While writer-directors in their right mind could make—and a few have made—scathing satires about the cult of celebrity, what filmmaker with any serious thoughts in his or her head would embark on a comedy about the blood-soaked CIA?



Based on the long-running HBO television series (2004-11), Entourage revolves around film superstar Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his immediate entourage, played by Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon and Jerry Ferrara, all loyal buddies hailing from Queens, New York, now “living the life” in Los Angeles.

That “life” consists of non-stop parties and non-stop carrying on with an inexhaustible supply of bikini-clad women. The raunchy activities form the core of a threadbare plot. Vincent’s former agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), a man with extreme anger management issues and who now runs a film studio, wants Vincent to star in a movie. The actor agrees on condition that he direct the project.

Complications arise when the movie’s financial backer, a Texas investor (Billy Bob Thornton), and his ineffectual son (Haley Joel Osment) weigh in when approached by Gold for additional funds, threatening the careers of Gold, Vincent and his parasitical cohorts, one of whom is now a tequila mogul.

The movie is studded with meaningless cameo performances (the cinematic equivalent of name-dropping) by, among others, billionaire Warren Buffett, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, Jessica Alba, Gary Busey, New England Patriots Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Kelsey Grammer, Armie Hammer, Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews, Liam Neeson, Ed O’Neill, David Spade, Andrew Dice Clay, David Arquette, Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson and the movie’s co-producer, actor Mark Wahlberg, to name a few.

According to the movie’s production notes, the filmmakers spent two nights with 26 SWAT Team members for the filming of Vincent’s directorial debut—a movie within the movie.


Ellin’s Entourage is vulgar and appallingly unfunny. It does show something of the entertainment industry, but not in the form of a critique or satire. It is an homage to a self-absorbed and cultureless crowd, whose empty lives represent something of their own punishment.

Lest we be thought to exaggerate, the opening paragraphs of the production notes for Entourage provide something of the tone and attitude of the film: “Ever cruise Sunset Boulevard in a stretch limousine, and then hit the red carpet at a star-studded movie premiere? Stop by an impromptu party on the beach in Malibu, where the sun always shines and the cocktails flow? Score the best table at the hottest restaurant in town, no reservation required? And all the while, everywhere you go, gorgeous starlets wave as you pass by.

“It’s everybody’s fantasy to live the Hollywood dream, but Vince, Eric, Drama, Turtle and Ari Gold really do, and they make it all look so easy. Boy, do the boys of ‘Entourage’ know how to do it up and do it right, how to dream large—and live larger. …”

Doug Ellin took on the job of bringing this “enviable lifestyle of access and excess to the big screen.” Unhappily, Ellin does not give the impression of having a single important thought. The same production notes cite his apparently boastful comment that his new film is “Entourage [the television series] on steroids.” He further explains that the “goal of Entourage is and has always been wish fulfillment, the ultimate fantasy. No matter where you are in the world, say you’re sitting somewhere in the freezing cold, you can go to the theater and look at what’s happening on the screen and say, ‘Wow, I really want to go there.’ It’s good friends living the good life, and there’s nothing better than that.”

This is pretty miserable, encouraging those “unfortunate” enough not to have access to Malibu, red carpets or starlets to live vicariously through the antics of these nonentities, and generally promoting the worst sort of celebrity worship.



Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a desk-bound CIA analyst, is the technological eyes and ears of suave field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Fine is on a mission to Bulgaria in search of a nuclear bomb in the hands of a Bulgarian master criminal and his daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). When it appears that Fine has been bumped off, Susan convinces her boss (Allison Janney) to allow her to leave the confines of headquarters (bat-infested at the moment) and embark on the glamorous and exciting life of secret spydom.

Like mild-mannered Clark Kent’s transformation into Superman, the timid agent becomes an unstoppable super snoop. And despite continually crossing swords with rogue CIA agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), Susan saves Paris from terrorists, and the world from the Bulgarian mafia.

Although it boasts a number of talented performers, Spy is essentially a potty-mouthed and sophomoric work, whose frenzied “action” attempts to cover up a one-note plot. And what would a pro-CIA movie be without an anti-Russian theme (disguised here as anti-Bulgarian) and a vague endorsement of the “global war on terror”?


Director Feig, who has already made one comedy that involves the inner workings of the police and FBI (The Heat) and another one of whose lead characters is a cop (Bridesmaids), centers his latest work on Murder, Inc., the CIA. One does not have the sense that Feig particularly intends to celebrate the intelligence services or the police, but rather that for a member of the insulated American upper middle class at this moment in history, these forces and agencies form part of the “normal” and unobjectionable fabric of life, both foreign and domestic.

Does it occur to Feig—or anyone involved in the making of Spy—that not everyone dotes on the forces of law and order nor finds their operations as endlessly fascinating as he apparently does? Presumably not.

Mad Max: Fury Road: A “feminist” demolition derby

By Kevin Martinez
15 June 2015

Directed by George Miller; written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris

Mad Max: Fury Road is the latest installment in Australian director George Miller’s Mad Max series, and the first one in almost 30 years. This reviewer has only seen Mad Max 2 (1981) starring Mel Gibson, which resembles a work of art in comparison to the new film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Every summer, audiences worldwide are subjected to the latest bombastic Hollywood fare and Fury Road is no exception. When reviewing these films it is all too easy to say the same things over and over again, but they are worth repeating. First, there is the stagnant material to deal with, usually a well established franchise that can guarantee the major studios easy money. In this case, a post-apocalyptic trilogy that resonated with audiences because of the oil shocks of the 1970s and fears of nuclear and ecological disaster.

Then there is the requisite and over-the-top computer-generated spectacle that takes the place of things like plot, believable characters and dialogue. And of course, there are sops to satisfy the more critically inclined audiences that are disturbingly satisfied with so little. In this case, a plot that “criticizes” patriarchy and supports a watered-down and harmless version of modern-day “feminism.” Needless to say, sequels are already in the works.

What little plot there is in Fury Road proceeds as follows: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a lone survivor from a nuclear holocaust that takes place before the film. He is captured by the chalk-covered War Boys who use him as a blood donor when they take him back to their leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules over a colony of mutants and subhumans called the Citadel. What little water and gasoline exists is hoarded over by Immortan Joe and his War Boys who engage in a death cult surrounding cars and guns. Women are kept solely for their milk or as “breeders,” i.e. sex slaves for Immortan Joe.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the only woman who for some reason is allowed equal status as the War Boys, drives a truck in search of gasoline for Immortan Joe. This in reality is a Trojan horse, with Joe’s five wives inside. Furiosa’s plan is to reach her childhood home which she believes still has water and civilization. The War Boys, with Max as a hood ornament, drive to capture Furiosa and the women. The rest of the film is essentially an hour-and-a-half car ride with circus performers trying to kill each other.

There are no real themes in Fury Road, or at least no themes that are seriously explored. This is the sort of movie that prevents or at least slows down thinking. One overwrought action scene leads to the next without allowing the audience any time to consider what just happened. It is a nasty and dehumanizing process. The rare moments when the on-screen characters are not shooting or stabbing one another we are subjected to dialogue like this:

Furiosa: You’re never gonna have a better chance.

Max: At what?

Furiosa: Redemption.

Or in another scene Max muses, “You know, hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

Perhaps the action and special effects should be commended, yet even here the film strains. The cinematography is straight out of a comic book, with all the characters and action neatly arranged in the frame to drown out any subtlety. The same can be said of the colors, which ironically beautify the wasteland, but the images themselves say nothing and pure action will only keep you on the edge of your seat if you actually care about the characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller in an interview explained what he thought the themes ofFury Road were, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that some part of me does feel more pessimistic than I did 30 years ago. But I also think that the behavior we see is the repetition of behavior that has gone back across every era of time. The dominant hierarchy. The rise of the tyrant who, in whatever form, controls all the resources. The citadel. The water. The gasoline from gas town. The ammunition from bullet town. He uses all the methods standardly [sic] used by tyrants to dominate his people. He gives them the idea that they can ride with him eternal on the highways in Valhalla. You go to any citadel in any part of the world and look at the history. They never knew each other and yet they have the same structure and architecture.”

This ahistorical and gloomy reading of the last three decades explains much of the weakness of Fury Road. Miller, and a whole generation of artists, have reacted to the global crisis of capitalism by arguing that things can give way to something even worse. Even after a nuclear war, class society with all its privations and hierarchies will continue since after all this is the essence of humanity.

To those who say this is a modern “Western” or even a “feminist” film, what sheer nonsense. Some have compared Fury Road to John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939), which would make sense if John Ford hated life and was into S&M bondage. As for the feminist arguments in support of the film … apparently if women do the majority of killing and maiming that makes it a feminist film, like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. The culture of death and sadism is never questioned, but is taken at face value.

Miller even asked playwright Eve Ensler to be a consultant on the film. She was in her own words, “blown away” by the script and said, “This movie takes those issues [rape and sexual violence] head-on. I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

It is a shame really. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are talented actors, and no small number of talented people had to have worked on this and yet what is the end result? Is this really the best Hollywood can come up with? Fury Road leads to nowhere.