Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


From the frying pan into the proverbial fire.

(2018) Adventure (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, James Cromwell, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Isabella Sermon, Robert Emms, Peter Jason, John Schwab, Sam Redford, Charlie Rawes, Patrick Crowley, Alex Dower, Honey Holmes, Neil Bishop, Philippa Thomas. Directed by J.A. Bayona

 

In the fifth movie of the franchise overall and the second in the Jurassic World trilogy, I think it’s safe to say that most film audiences have gotten over the wonder and awe of seeing realistic-looking dinosaurs in the movies. It is therefore incumbent upon the filmmakers a good story to surround the cinematic lizards with.

Isla Nublar, where the doomed theme park once stood, is in danger but not from dinos; no, it’s the impending volcanic apocalypse that is putting every dinosaur on the island at risk. Congress is debating whether or not to save the resurrected critters; Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) in the worst utilization of Jeff Goldblum in a film ever, argues against it. He wins.

Former publicist and current activist Claire Dearing (Howard) wants to save the dinosaurs she once sold as entertainment and also ran in terror from. She is approached by Benjamin Lockwood (Cromwell), the former partner of the late John Hammond, to rescue the creatures on the down/low. To do it, she’ll need the services of ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Pratt), the velociraptor whisperer who is busy building himself a shack on the beach. And of course, despite his reluctance, he agrees to go. But that’s only the beginning. There’s a conspiracy of Lockwood’s assistant (Spall) to auction off the creatures to billionaire industrialists which might just be the worst idea ever, as later events will confirm.

This feels less like a movie and more of a pastiche of bits and pieces from previous films in the franchise. There are some political barbs (one of the baddies calls one of the heroes “A nasty woman”) and some food for thought – do we have the right to destroy a species, even one we created? Do we have the right to exploit animals? Does our treatment of the natural world determine our fitness to survive? All very important questions and really worth tackling in a much less lighthearted manner.

This might be the most disappointing entry in the Jurassic franchise, even exceeding the two sequels of Jurassic Park. Sure, the visuals are as you’d expect top of the line, and there are some thrilling sequences but nearly half of the movie takes place inside a house which really take the bigger dinosaurs literally out of the picture and the big reveal near the end of the movie shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Hopefully the next installment of the franchise will wrap up this trilogy with a bang instead of a whimper.

REASONS TO SEE: The tone is a little darker than previous JP/JW films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés sink this ship.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The T-Rex in both of the Jurassic World movies is the same one that appeared in the Jurassic Park films, according to screenwriter Colin Trevorrow.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Method of Murder

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

(1982) Science Fiction (Universal) Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert Macnaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Erika Eleniak, David O’Dell, Richard Swingler, Frank Toth, Robert Barton, Michael Darrell, David Berkson, David Carlberg, Milt Kogan, Alexander Lampone, Rhoda Makoff. Directed by Steven Spielberg

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Some movies become ingrained in us, a part of our childhoods – or a reminder of it. Few films fulfill that function as this one, which many consider to be Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus. While as a movie critic I would tend to say that this wasn’t the best film he ever made, it might well be the most perfect family film ever made. You be the judge.

An alien scientific expedition collecting botanical specimens in Northern California are interrupted by the appearance of government agents; they flee in their spaceship. In the chaos, one of their members is left behind. The extra-terrestrial – E.T. – finds a hiding place in a shed in a suburban yard.

One of the residents of the house, Elliott (Thomas) discovers the alien. He forms a bond with the creature that is both emotional and psychic – they feel what the other is feeling. Eventually he lets in his five-year-old sister Gertie (Barrymore) and older brother Michael (Macnaughton) in on his secret. His mother (Wallace), recently separated from their dad, is left blissfully ignorant.

Eventually it turns out that E.T. is getting seriously ill – and so is Elliott. E.T., knowing that he’ll die if he doesn’t get home, constructs a make-shift communications device that will allow him to “phone home” using a Speak N Spell, a foil-covered umbrella and other household items (the device, constructed by science educator Henry Feinberg, supposedly worked). When E.T. and Elliott become close to death, the government agents finally appear, led by a man with an impressive key ring (Coyote). However, when it appears that E.T. has expired, it turns out that love is a wonderful thing that can make miracles happen.

The film was a sensation when it was released in my senior year at Loyola Marymount, and would briefly become the all-time box office champion until Spielberg himself surpassed the mark with Jurassic Park nearly a decade later. It remains a favorite among families and is one of the all time home video best-sellers.

Part of what is marvelous about E.T. is how believable the kid actors are. In an era when cutesie kids were the norm rather than the exception, Thomas, Macnaughton and Barrymore were exceptional here. They acted like real kids and never seemed to be “forcing it,” never even seem to be acting. In a movie where no adult face other than the mom’s is seen until nearly an hour in, you need to have good juvenile actors for it to work for all audiences and fortunately for Spielberg, he got three good ones (both Thomas and Barrymore went on to exceptional careers, Barrymore in particular). Coyote has to convey both menace and elicit sympathy and he does so. Despite the scariness of the government agents, there really is no villain here – a nice message.

Of course, the real star here is E.T. himself, a creation of Italian sculptor Carlo Rambaldi. While primitive by today’s standards, E.T. lived and breathed for the children of the era and while today the technology is a bit dated and the look of E.T. less than scintillating, for its time though the movie looked amazing.

Like many Spielberg movies, there is a definite suburban feel to it. Spielberg was one of the first directors to make his films in a suburban setting (the original Poltergeist which was filmed concurrently with Spielberg acting only in a producer’s role was the flip side of E.T. – whereas E.T. was a suburban fairy tale, Poltergeist was a suburban nightmare) and remains one of the best for conjuring a suburban vibe. That works as a double-edged sword here; the movie has a kind of safe feel to it that kids from poorer environments might regard with a puzzled expression, and the cast is as lily-white as can be. The only (illegal) alien here is E.T. himself. I imagine Donald Trump would want him deported.

E.T. is a part of our cultural landscape – lines like ”E.T. phone home” and the image of kids on bicycles flying in front of the moon are familiar to nearly everybody in the Western world as is John Williams’ iconic score. There aren’t many movies that can be said to be beloved but this is certainly one of them. Likely everyone reading this has this movie wrapped up in childhood memories – if not their own then in the memories of their own children growing up. E.T. is one of a select few that can say that.

WHY RENT THIS: An iconic film that recalls childhood. Charming and heartfelt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit dated and a little bit suburban.
FAMILY VALUES: Some peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The doctors and nurses who work on E.T. are actual emergency room personnel. They were told to work on the puppet as if it were an actual patient so that their dialogue would seem authentic.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set video diaries, a featurette about the 2002 cast reunion, two featurettes on the iconic John Williams score, a Special Olympics TV PSA, and several photo galleries – all on the Blu-Ray edition. The Blu-Ray has the original theatrical version; the 2002 Anniversary edition has a digitally enhanced version of the film which got jeers from audiences and critics alike for the additional CGI which frankly was distracting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $792.9M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Kensho at the Bedfellow

Top Spin


Eye on the prize.

Eye on the prize.

(2014) Sports Documentary (First Run) Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Michael Landers, Michael Hsing, Joan Landers, Massimo Constantino, Brenda Young, Jonathan Bricklin, Stefan Feth, Barney Reed, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Michael Croitoros, Sean O’Neill, Jun Gao, Dory Gheorge, Stan Landers, Xinhua Jiang, Linda Liu, Erica Wu. Directed by Sara Newens and Mina T. Son

Florida Film Festival 2015

Back in the day, my family used to have a ping pong table in our Southern California backyard, a table my father, who tended towards formality in such things, insisted on calling “table tennis.” He taught me how to play and after a bit of a learning curve, I got to be okay at it. In fact, I remember enjoying the fast-paced play although when we moved from that home the table did not move with us and I stopped playing.

I cannot even fathom the dedication and perseverance displayed by three young American Olympic hopefuls – Ariel Hsing (a national champion), her friend and rival Lily Zhang and young Michael Landers. All three are making their bids to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and are training like fiends, in addition to completing their schoolwork and getting ready for college.

Most of us probably don’t have much regard for table tennis but it is an Olympic sport for a reason. The ball moves nearly as fast as the eye can see; the players have lightning quick reactions and must have nimble footwork, agility and arm strength to return volleys at sufficient speed to compete at the highest levels.

It is also a sport that America doesn’t dominate; in fact, we are ranked only 45th in the world. As you can guess, the Chinese tend to produce the best players. Landers in fact skipped his last semester of high school (taking correspondence courses online in order to graduate) so that he can train in China where he discovers he is nowhere near the level that the focused and disciplined Chinese athletes are, although he tries gamely.

It turns out that the kids are more or less no different than any kid their age, although Hsing pretty is one of those blessed individuals who seems to succeed at everything she does and makes it look effortless, although judging from how hard her father trains her that it is anything but. Her father Michael is ambitious and relentless; there might well be a little stage father in him but not only is she genuinely gifted but she is as ambitious and relentless as he; any dad worth his salt will move heaven and earth to give his little princess whatever she dreams and that’s what he’s doing and successfully I might add.

It might be said that the Hsing family fits the Asian-American stereotype as being driven for success and focused on it to the exclusion of all else, and maybe they do. However the Zhang family is a bit more laidback about it, although Lily is just as primed to make the Olympic team as her friend and rival is. While Ariel wins most of their head-to-head matches, the two are both high on the national rankings and their rivalry is both fierce and friendly. Watching them play each other is to see sports at its finest.

The qualifying process for the American Olympic team is a little bit unusual compared to other more familiar sports. The top finishers at the US Championships are sent to the North American Championships for a round robin tournament with the Canadian champions; the winners of the various divisions qualify in total; no Americans may qualify or only Americans might qualify. It all depends on how they do in the tournament. Waiting for them is the Canadian champion, Jun Gao who might be the best player not living in China.

I have to admit I wasn’t especially jazzed to see a documentary on young people playing ping pong when I originally heard the movie was playing at the Florida Film Festival but Da Queen was so I made sure we attended the sole screening at the Festival. I can’t say that the stories of these extraordinary kids really moved me to any extent; we’ve seen these kinds of documentaries before, either on ESPN or in theaters. Extraordinary kids pursuing a dream, be it in the arts, sports or in some other endeavor. While the directors give us a sense of the dedication of these three teens and in some cases of the isolation and loneliness that they endure, we don’t get a real sense of the pressures and social conflicts that come with pursuing that dream. I would have liked a little more in-depth examination of how the kids themselves felt at living an abnormal lifestyle compared to what their friends are doing.

The filmmakers take ping pong VERY seriously and you probably will too after seeing this. I will admit that I was not enthused about this film the way some of those in my circle of film buffs were; I was impressed with how the physics of the game were examined and displayed in super slow motion camera work which gives you a more graphic idea of the athleticism that is required to excel in competition table tennis, but quite frankly while I was rooting for the kids to succeed, it felt like I’d been through it all before.

I may have been a little too hard on this movie. I’m well-aware that those who saw it at the FFF came away impressed, more so than I. Maybe I was just in Festival exhaustion mode. In any case, while my interest wasn’t necessarily held, I suspect that most people will feel the opposite once they see it. It’s hard not to admire the filmmakers passion for the sport and the players; while their stories may not especially seem much different than other sports and other players, it is sufficiently inspiring that even non-players of the sport and non-buffs of film may find their interest piqued.

REASONS TO GO: Clear love for the game of ping-pong. Physics are breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very different from other prodigy docs. Not enough detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Newens and Son have received M.F.A. degrees in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Poltergeist (2015)

The Age of Adaline


Blake Lively is lovely.

Blake Lively is lovely.

(2015) Romantic Fantasy (Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Lynda Boyd, Hugh Ross (voice), Richard Harmon, Fulvio Cecere, Anjali Jay, Hiro Kanagawa, Peter J. Gray, Izabel Peace, Cate Richardson, Jane Craven, Noel Johansen, Aaron Craven, Primo Allon, Darren Dolynski, Alison Wandzura. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, you get to watch all your friends and family grow old and die as you remain young and vibrant. You also get to worry about secret government agents kidnapping you and turning you into a lab rat. After all, when you have eternal life everybody’s going to want what you’ve got. I would imagine that eternal life would be exceedingly lonely.

Adaline Bowman (Lively) doesn’t have to imagine; she knows. Born at the turn of the century in the San Francisco area. Widowed at 29 (in the early 1930s) with a daughter Flemming (Pearce – Age 5/Richardson – Age 20/Burstyn) to raise on her own, she is involved in a freak car accident during a freak snowfall in Northern California in which a freak lightning bolt hits her freakin’ car after she skids into a stream and dies of hypothermia or drowning, take your pick. All this freakishness serves to stop her from aging and she remains eternally 29.

At first this is just a cause of amusement; how is it possible that Adaline looks young enough to be her daughter’s sister? Then as her contemporaries grow into middle age and she doesn’t, the wrong word is whispered into the wrong ear. This being the McCarthy era, some firm men in dark suits come calling. Adaline manages to escape but realizes that she has to stay on the run for the rest of the life. Move constantly, then change identities once a decade or so.

Still, she can’t stay away from her beloved San Francisco, working as an archivist at the San Francisco Public Library at the tail end of her current incarnation as Jenny Larson. She has only one friend – a blind pianist (Boyd) who doesn’t realize the woman she believes to be middle aged is actually still in the full flower of her youth. Only her daughter Flemming, now in her 80s and considering a move to a retirement home, knows Adaline’s secret. Other than those two and a series of dogs, Adaline has formed no attachments to anyone; any attempt at love is eventually rebuffed although she came close during the 1960s.

However, on New Year’s Eve she meets Ellis (Huisman), a hunky dot com millionaire who loves books and is really, really into Adaline. At first she repulses all his attempts to flirt and to ask her out. When he plays a little dirty, threatening to revoke a donation to the library, she relents. Soon the two of them are sleeping together although she knows that in a short time she’ll be leaving but she is drawn to him like a moth to the flame. When he takes her up to Sonoma to meet his parents, he discovers that his dad (Ford) is 1960s jilted guy, who is now celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary to Ellis’ mom (Baker). Awk-ward.  Especially since he recognizes her.

So Adaline is ready to run again, but she is beginning to tire of the chase. All she wants to do is stay in one place, with one guy and Ellis looks to be that guy. But how can she stay with someone she is going to outlive…by a LOT? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all when you’re immortal?

The premise here is an interesting one but by and large it is wasted. Being an ageless immortal must have an upside as well as a downside but all we really see here is the down, and perhaps to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the movie centers on Adaline’s romantic history. We see none of what other things she does, what careers she undertakes, the things she witnesses. It is as if the filmmakers figure that the only thing that matters in a woman’s life is for her to fall in love. Kind of myopic and maybe borderline misogynistic when you think about it.

For that reason Adaline is written as a cold and distant woman, rarely speaking in a tone that isn’t devoid of warmth or possessed of any humanity whatsoever. Therefore the brunt of why this movie doesn’t work falls squarely on Blake Lively’s shoulders and the sad part is that it really isn’t her fault. She is given direction to be icy and unreachable – so she is that to the audience as well. Lively is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she has shown that she is capable of being a charismatic onscreen presence in other roles but because of the coldness that she is made to possess here, rather than generating audience sympathy for her plight she actually repels it.

There are other problems besides Lively, most of which I’ve already mentioned. There are a couple of plot lapses; for example, Adaline theoretically changes her identity every ten years and yet Ellis’ dad recognizes her and calls her Adaline. So she used her own name one decade just for kicks? Doesn’t seem to be in her character.

Fortunately, Ford is here to give a sympathetic performance that will remind you why he has been for 35 years one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Burstyn and Baker, both getting on in age, are both dependable actresses and they don’t disappoint here. Maybe the biggest star of the movie is San Francisco and Northern California. The beauty of the City and its environs takes center stage.

Still, this is merely marginally entertaining, a rote romantic fantasy that could have been so much better. We really don’t get any insight to who Adaline is and how her immortality affects her as a person, other than to put her on the perpetual lam. With longevity must come at least some sort of insight into the world but we get none here. There are a lot of reasons why immortality would suck, but hopefully one of them won’t be that we remain as shallow as a saucer. If I knew I was going to be eternally young but would neither grow nor learn well, I think I might turn down that particular gift. Yes, I think that I definitely would.

REASONS TO GO: Ford, Burstyn and Baker are solid. San Francisco utilized nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Lively is beautiful but ultimately empty here. Wasted opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and a suggestive comment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burstyn also played a daughter older than her parent in last year’s Interstellar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Gemma Bovery

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Doc Shaw, Lee Ross, Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims, Mustafa Harris, Deneen Tyler. Directed by Matt Reeves

As we can see by the events taking place on the Gaza Strip, two separate cultures in the same place have a difficult time coexisting. Each suspicious of the other, neither truly listening or trying to live in peace, there are always elements within that push for the complete annihilation of the other. Can you imagine how much worse it would be if the two cultures weren’t even the same species? Add into the mix that one of those cultures has been decimated by plague and war and blames the other for it and you have a powderkeg waiting to explode.

But that’s just the situation in Northern California. A ragtag human colony has gained a foothold in the ruined city of San Francisco. Led by Dreyfus (Oldman), his right hand man Malcolm (Clarke) sets into the Muir Woods of Marin County to see if they can reroute the power lines leading from a hydroelectric dam to go South instead of North and thus keep the power on in the human colony whose own generators are beginning to fail. However, his lone hydroelectric engineer Carver (Acevedo) runs into a pair of apes in the woods and shoots one of them, wounding him.

What Carver doesn’t know is that this is the colony of apes led by Caesar (Serkis), the genetically enhanced ape who has used the same drug that caused the end of mankind to enhance the intelligence of several of his fellow apes. They are beginning to learn to talk and have created a peaceful arboreal society in the woods. Caesar is none to pleased about it and orders the humans to go which they do posthaste.

Licking their wounds back at the colony, Dreyfus and Malcolm discuss the situation. They need that power. There are no other options. The apes however have followed the humans back home and Caesar, on horseback, informs the humans that they aren’t welcome in ape territory. They then return the backpack of Malcolm’s son Alexander (Smit-McPhee) who had dropped it in the chaos following their unexpected encounter.

Knowing that the survival of their colony depends on that power, Malcolm heads back to the woods accompanied by Carver, Malcolm’s girlfriend Ellie (Russell) who is a nurse, Alexander, Foster (Eyez) and Kemp (Murciano). Malcolm asks to speak to Caesar and plead the case of the humans. When Caesar agrees to let the humans do their human work, it arouses the ire of Koba (Kebbell), an ape who had spent much of the first part of his life in labs being experimented upon by human researchers. His hatred for humans is pathological and he means to wipe them out and remove their menace from the apes lives forever.

For his part, Carver hates the apes and blames them for the Simian flu (although the flu was created by human scientists) that wiped out the majority of the human race. He doesn’t trust the apes as far as he can throw them and as it turns out. Koba feels the same way about the humans  and as it turns out, they’re both right – Koba decides to see what the humans are up to in the city and discovers they have a large cache of guns and are testing them out. He thinks they’re planning an assault on the apes camp. Koba decides to enact a plan which is basically a “get them before they can get you” kind of thing and the fragile peace between the apes and humans are put in jeopardy and conflict between the two colonies becomes inevitable. Can either race survive a war?

This can be considered something of a parable, particularly in light of what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians although something tells me that it wasn’t initially meant that way. However, whether you choose to view the film that way or not, this is rip-roaring entertainment with maybe the best CGI for any film ever.

Let me explain that last sentence. The apes are motion capture with human actors supplying movement and voices. There are also other CGI animals including bears and horses. Every last one of these animals looks real and natural. Each of the characters have scars and faces that are recognizable. If you thought the make-up for the original Planet of the Apes franchise was groundbreaking, so too is the motion capture here. It’s bloody amazing.

Clarke, an Australian actor who has mostly done supporting roles in films like White House Down and Rabbit-Proof Fence, is likely best-known in the States for his work in the Showtime series Brotherhood. He proves himself a fairly able lead although whether or not that will translate into high profile roles in the future is somewhat ambiguous. He takes a backseat to Serkis whose powerful portrayal of Caesar reminds us that there is nobody better at motion capture in the business.

The eventual outcome of the story is pretty much a foregone conclusion which does make the movie a bit predictable. Some have groused that the Apes during the battle sequence seem to take to the guns a bit too easily but I disagree. They are far from expert marksmen and mostly shoot wildly when they shoot at all. When the clips are empty, they don’t know how to reload. Mostly, it is their sheer numbers and superior physical strength that makes them formidable.

At the end of the day, while the movie may not be perfect it is certainly one of the more entertaining summer movies of a disappointing season. It is likely to take its place as one of the biggest box office winners of the year, although it’s too early to tell if the numbers it got in its first week will be sustained until the beginning of August when Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to make a solid run. But until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend this as a good choice for a movie night out for just about anyone.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe some of the best CGI effects ever. Compelling story. Serkis does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense and occasionally brutal violence. A couple of instances of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reeves gave Keri Russell her first big break by casting her in the lead role of his TV show Felicity.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Kong

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snowpiercer