REVIEW: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

1 07 2018

In 2016, a short film called “Sunspring” used AI technology to produce a script based on predictive text. The result is something borderline nonsensical, containing words and phrases but little in the way of logic or cohesion. Give the algorithm time, and it will probably catch up with what made it into the screenplay for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” (And I can imagine the computer is probably cheaper than Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow’s salary.)

All the outlines and contours of a studio action movie are present, yet the finer details requiring an artistic touch are not. Dialogue has no punch or flavor, usually just serving to advance plot and fill air before a big action moment. Trevorrow’s direction of the first film in this new series no doubt paid great reverence to maestro Steven Spielberg. J.A. Bayona, taking over the helm for the sequel, does not so much imitate the franchise’s originator as he forcefully repeats all his hallmarks ad nauseam. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is Spielbergian in the way that a luxury car commercial is a James Bond movie; it’s a distillation of filmmaking panache into a handful of easily recognizable clichés.

Acting feels like sleepwalking, particularly from leads Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. The surrogate parenting undertaken by the two characters in 2015’s “Jurassic World” means that their relationship was mostly mediated through those youngsters, neither of which appear in this sequel. When Claire and Owen (whose names I had to look up on IMDb in order to write this review) finally reunite, there’s not a drop of urgency or a whiff of stakes to the encounter. Try as they might, none of the countless new random supporting characters with scant development can ever ignite the spark between them on screen. Their Han-Leia style sexual tension sputters every time it starts.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” at least has decent spectacle to justify the film’s existence, the credit for which must go to the visual effects artists who continue to set new standards for realism with each new installment. Bayona makes good use of a different setting away from the island, a palatial estate where villainous Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) intends to auction off dinosaurs to the highest black market bidder. He gets one good bit of explanatory dialogue about how his plan actually serves the greater cause of species conservation, although it’s too bad it couldn’t have approximated more of the truly riveting ethical quandaries explored in last year’s poaching documentary “Trophy.”

The real problem, though, is that no one inside the mansion makes the film anything interesting to watch. It’s a $200 million advertisement for the theme park, bait for customers paying $15 for a ticket to eventually pay hundreds for an immersive brand experience. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” like many blockbusters of its ilk, are getting lazier and more brazen in touting how the movie is little more than a flashy centerpiece for a larger branding campaign. The result is that we are now living a truly confounding time where a film like this can open to a whopping $150 million … and somehow not even leave the smallest footprint on popular culture. C /

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REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Terminator Salvation

23 06 2015

To get one thing straight, I adore the James Cameron “Terminator” films.  I have written a full essay on Sarah Connor’s femininity for class (if you’re interested in reading it, leave your email in the comments) and will gladly stop on whatever cable channel happens to exhibit the morphing metal men on any given weekend afternoon.

Yet as different directors, writers, and creative teams have dragged out the franchise, the movies lose what makes them special.  Sure, the time travel proves fascinating, but the human characters grappling with fate, agency, and responsibility set the series apart.  Fixating on the minutiae of revisionist timelines does little to capture the appeal of the original two films; this proves the primary sin of McG’s “Terminator Salvation.”

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script toys around with two pivotal characters in the mythology of the series: resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) and his father from the future, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).  John must continue to wage the war against the sentient Skynet system that aims to destroy humanity, although he must also ensure that Reese survives until the point when he goes back in time to inseminate Sarah Connor.  The mysterious arrival of cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) in the presence of Reese throws a wrinkle in everything and essentially constitutes the entire conflict of “Terminator Salvation.”

If you think this sounds like a movie made for only the most hardcore fanboys, you are correct.  Seemingly, the only aim of “Terminator Salvation” is to add even more wrinkles and potential plot holes to the scrambled clock of the series’ narrative.  If Cameron’s films were mind-involving blockbusters, McG’s movie is just a head-scratcher that cannot even fall back on visuals or performances to save it.  Bale and Worthington, the films dueling leads, each turn in work about as dull as McG’s color palette of muted gray.  They grow the franchise longer, sure, but not deeper or better.  C2stars





REVIEW: Jurassic World

13 06 2015

“We want to be thrilled,” declares Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire to a set of interested investors at the beginning of “Jurassic World.”  One can easily imagine the very green director Colin Trevorrow, with only the indie charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed” under his belt, making the same kind of pitch to the corporate powers that be at Universal.

In a manner that recalls “22 Jump Street,” many lines at the opening of the film give a winking nod to the entire enterprise of jumpstarting a dormant franchise for a new audience.  In the 22 years the original “Jurassic Park” film hit the multiplex, a new style of action filmmaking has obliterated the level of craft in the genre.  These blockbusters – think Michael Bay and “Transformers” – operate under the philosophy of bigger, louder, harder, faster, stronger.

These films have become predictable, boring, and numbing.  We still marvel at the screen, sure, but we have come to expect the unexpected and see the extraordinary as ordinary.  “Jurassic World” invites that childlike sense of awe to rear its head once again after hibernating.  And in true Spielberg fashion, we receive the invitation quite literally through the perspective of a child.

The first time Trevorrow gives his audience a peek at the new Jurassic Park, now rebranded as Jurassic World, it comes as the young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes his way through the crowd to get to the front of a tramcar.  He sees the giant entry gates, and the score by Michael Giacchino swells to the tune John Williams made iconic years ago.  In the succession of shots that follows, we see the many amazing dinosaur attractions (along with a plethora of corporate sponsors) and know his wide-eyed wonder is not misplaced.

The visual effects from “Jurassic Park” were impressive at the time, yet they now look a little creaky and dated.  I cannot imagine what technological advances could improve the look of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic World,” which exhibit a breathtaking photorealism, though the CGI wizards will undeniably make me eat those words.

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REVIEW: 50/50

29 09 2011

The cinema of cancer is a curious thing.  The disease is usually a tack-on to the end of a movie, merely a plot device meant to make the audience appreciate the fragility and fleeting nature of life.  When the film is centered around it, the pathos is meant to unlock our most tucked-away, maudlin sentiments.

Cancer is less of a medical condition on screen than it is a transformative experience.  The victim is less of a human and more of a fighter or soldier, the underdog forced to do battle for their life.  Having known people who have been struck with this horrible disease – some emerging victorious, others not so fortunate – I can attest that they must indeed lace up their boxing gloves and pugnaciously duke it out.  But there’s more to the struggle than chemotherapy and radiation; there’s a desire for a Warren Harding-style return to normalcy as people insist on treating the patient as a different person living in a different world.

This is precisely where “50/50,” Jonathan Levine’s sophomore feature, excels.  Rather than hitting us with a tsunami of sadness, it takes us through all the emotions of living with and through cancer.  From Will Reiser’s moving script comes a story “inspired” (as the lawyers required it be advertised), by real experiences that is rooted in a startlingly authentic humanity.  His protagonist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, is never defined by his unpronounceable cancer; he is defined by his responses to a landscape that shifts much faster than he has anticipated.

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REVIEW: The Help

9 08 2011

Cynics would say a movie like “The Help” is just a slightly high-brow appeal to white paternalism and guilt, an ex post facto vindication of prevalent attitudes thanks to some mettlesome few (an appeal that “To Kill A Mockingbird” may or may not have ridden to classic status).  But I challenge the cynics to sit through the movie and not be moved.  Because whether it’s set in the past, present, or future, a movie about courage that is well-written, pristinely directed, and impressively acted can be nothing but moving and inspiring.

The movie is being released in a time frame in the cinematic calendar year usually reserved for light chick lit, and while “The Help” will definitely appeal to women, it’s hardly flippant or breezy.  The movie tackles prejudice, both beyond and within the realm of race, and other issues that still affect women to this day.  Director Tate Taylor, a childhood friend of author Kathryn Stockett, gives them the treatment they deserve while also retaining that page-turner bliss that comes only from reading a great novel, a rarity in adaptations nowadays.  He captures not just a moment in time but larger, universal truths about human reactions to injustice, be they from the side of they oppressed or the oppressors.

Had he not appreciated how each self-contained storyline affected the work as a whole, “The Help” would be a bloated, convoluted haul of a film.  Taylor flows seamlessly between the stories of Aibileen (Viola Davis) and her nearly surrogate mothering of young Mae Mobley while her real parents neglect her, Minnie (Octavia Spencer) and her new job cleaning and practically nannying the air-headed but goodhearted Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), Skeeter (Emma Stone) and her rebellious challenging of social and cultural norms for young white women, and Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the scared white woman pushing “separate but equal” nearly a decade after it was ruled unconstitutional.  With some help from a fabulous ensemble of dedicated actresses, all the stories feel complete by the end, and none shines excessively brighter than the others.

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