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: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

6 05 2017

The summer season means sequelitis with few exceptions. One of these outliers, to an extent, is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It appears that after the surprising smash success of his series opener, Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Marvel decided to loosen his leash to continue pushing his aesthetic. Though the enormous potential of the irreverent “Guardians” series seems self-evident from our vantage point in the era of “Deadpool,” it was far from a sure thing when the studio greenlit the film in the heat of “The Avengers” universe-building craze. “Kick-Ass” hardly served as a reliable indicator that audiences were ready to follow the superhero genre into a parodic cycle.

From the outset, Gunn shows that he was far from operating at full throttle in the first film – and that he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. The way he stages the opening battle sequence is pure subversive brilliance. Some mysterious octopus-like space creature drops out of the sky and onto a landing pad where Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and the Guardians are waiting for it. We have no idea what it is or why it poses a threat, in typical Marvel fashion. Gunn capitalizes on that unfamiliarity, staging the fight out of focus in the background while an adorable Baby Groot dances to an Electric Light Orchestra jam in front of our eyes. He knows people operate on sensation and feeling more than linear plot development, and he crafts an ideal anti-action scene.

So it’s a little disappointing when, by the end, Gunn still has to direct in lockstep with the Marvel mold. We’ve still got to have the obligatory third act “blow everything up for 20 minutes” portion of the screenplay, unfortunately. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at least imbues an otherwise mindless spectacle with deeper stakes. Every aspect of the film harkens back to its central themes of family, from the gold-hued eugenicist Sovereigns to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). And, of course, there’s the match made in intertextual heaven: Star-Lord reuniting with his long-lost father, Kurt Russell’s Ego.

It’s too bad that anything relating to blood dynamics sounds like the notes from a family psychologist’s notepad. The dialogue sounds far too on-the-nose for a film so fluent in 13-year-old boy humor. (That’s not to knock the jokes, which would have gone over gangbusters with me 10 years ago. Some still do, to my reluctant chagrin.) But thankfully, Gunn still give us plenty of the franchise’s ragtag family, the Guardians themselves, rocking out to another awesome mixtape. B





REVIEW: Passengers

20 12 2016

Franchise action flicks catch a lot of flak – rightfully – for existing as little more than an excuse for merchandising. But maybe the problem doesn’t stop there. Is it possible that our star vehicles have similarly been co-opted to serve as personal branding for actors?

There is a very plausible scenario in which a year from today, I will remember little of what happened between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s characters in “Passengers.” I’ll probably never forget how angry I felt watching them play into the flaws of the script – more on that in a bit. What I am most likely to remember, however, is their late-night talk show appearances and lab-created viral video moments. The film itself feels like an afterthought amidst the millions upon millions of media impressions the duo generated on a month-long press tour.

The ancillary content for “Passengers” further cements the personas of both actors: Lawrence the raucous and relatable girl next door, Pratt the goofy but lovable working man. But the film itself cuts against the grain for each of them, making everything feel entirely disingenuous. This does not constitute much of a problem for Chris Pratt, who gets to play the tortured center of a deep space morality play. The prematurely awakened space passenger Jim Preston represents Pratt’s first chance to really display his dramatic chops, and director Morten Tyldum spotlights them by … focusing heavily on his puppy dog eyes whenever he’s grappling with a deep emotion or question. Whomp!

Lawrence, on the other hand, plays totally against type for both her on- and off-screen feminism. As Aurora Lane, the object of Jim’s gaze and manipulation, she gives herself over to being little more than a sex object ready to please on cue as well as a backstage figure to male heroism in the face of danger. This is Katniss Everdeen and Joy Mangano! This is the actress who dared to call out Hollywood’s sexist payment practices! What’s going on with this retrograde role choice?

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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: Delivery Man

1 03 2015

A headline on The Onion anticipating the release of “The Internship” says everything that needs to be said about the present state of Vince Vaughn’s career: “‘The Internship’ Poised To Be Biggest Comedy Of 2005.”

Ever since that comedy went supernova in the summer of 2005, Vaughn has been spinning his wheels playing the same tall, loud-mouthed, fast-talking brash character.  “Delivery Man,” where he plays a man vacillating between whether or not to reveal his identity to the 533 children his sperm fathered, is no different from any other Vaughn film of the past 8 years.

Sure, I got a few laughs out of the endeavor.  Vince Vaughn is a gifted comedian, and he can usually provide some funny moments so long as the script isn’t a total nightmare (cough, “The Watch“).  But it’s an effort of increasing futility for him to hope lightning strikes the same place twice while he does the “Wedding Crashers” schtick yet again.  He misses the chance to delve deeper into the drama of “Delivery Man,” which could have been a fertile ground for an interesting character study.

Vaughn has not even managed to do anything subversive with his iconic persona.  Save a bit part in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” all he’s done since 2005 are broad comedies cast from the same mold.  At least Owen Wilson has expanded his repertoire, continuing to collaborate with Wes Anderson (with whom he shared an Oscar nomination for “The Royal Tenenbaums“) as well as working with Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Wilson has had projects like “Hall Pass” too, but at least he’s making an effort to diversify.

And the fact that he’s eclipsed in “Delivery Man” by rising comedic star Chris Pratt marks the surest sign that Vaughn’s allure is fading fast.  Pratt plays a bozo on “Parks and Recreation,” but he’s also put in surprising turns in “Moneyball” and “Zero Dark Thirty” that may have led to his casting in a very different role for Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Vaughn is surrounded by examples of how to branch out, yet he remains defiantly himself.

So get ready to toss his next film in the pile of the forgettable with “Delivery Man.”  And “The Internship.”  And “The Dilemma.”  And “Couples Retreat.”  And “The Break-Up.”  Banality loves company.  C2stars





REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

3 08 2014

When I sat down and thought about it, most of the praises I could lavish on James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” are really backhanded compliments that slap the Marvel universe in the process.

For example, I don’t really think Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust really deserve a great deal of lauding for creating a film that can stand on its own with a self-contained narrative.  The majority of movies already just do that anyways.  Those movies also just have well-developed characters with internal lives given as an assumption, not as a point of commendation.

But if you want to grade James Gunn’s take on a lesser-known Marvel property against their hopelessly generic and shamelessly commercial films of better known characters like Captain America, it’s going to look like a masterstroke.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” has two attributes that probably make executives at Marvel cower in fear: a unique creative vision and a good sense of humor.  It’s a playful film that often feels like fan fiction uncovered from a child of the ’80s raised on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg.

To achieve this adolescent fantasy of a film, Gunn assembles a very game group that becomes akin to Marvel’s version of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”  The film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as he’d have you call him), a profit-motivated intergalactic thief who might be the most morally ambiguous blockbuster hero since Jack Sparrow.  On an average commission to retrieve an orb, Quill gets pulled into a gigantic power struggle that endangers both he and his precious Walkman.

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REVIEW: The Lego Movie

31 07 2014

Back in 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” gave audiences a pulse-pounding conclusions as it showed SEAL Team 6’s bold mission to kill Osama bin Laden in stunning detail.  Yet even as gripping as that was, I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when I saw who they cast as the finger behind the trigger: Chris Pratt, who I knew and loved as Andy Dwyer (and his FBI alter ego Burt Macklin) on the TV comedy “Parks & Recreation.”

Well, as it turns out, Kathryn Bigelow was as right about Pratt as an action star as she was about Jeremy Renner as a fine dramatic actor.  And now it’s Pratt who’s laughing all the way to the bank.  “The Lego Movie” proves that Pratt doesn’t even have to be present in the flesh to lead a movie towards some very fun adventure.

Pratt is like the world’s oldest 7-year-old, a lovable, innocent kid that you can’t help but root for because he reminds you of all the naive optimism of a simpler state of mind.  When his plastic Lego teddy bear of a character, Emmet Brickowoski, chants the film’s theme “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s hard not to smile a little bit.  He’s not just singing from a place of pure naïveté like Selena Gomez on “Barney,” but also from a position of contagious optimism that makes Emmet quite irresistible.

Thankfully, the writing/directing dynamic duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (they who blessed us with the gift of “21 Jump Street“) matches Pratt’s enthusiasm throughout “The Lego Movie.”  They bring a boundless imagination to the project, resembling the kind of creativity that Legos themselves spark in children all over the world.  What they ultimately construct is wild, wacky, and quite inspired. Read the rest of this entry »