Review: “Jurassic World”

Jurassic World

There is a limited number of films in existence capable of captivating an entire audience and imprinting the moment on each person’s psyche. Movies like “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future,” and, of course, “Jurassic Park” come to mind.

So when a new installment of these franchises is announced, there are two competing thoughts that race into one’s head: 1) This is amazing news! and 2) They are definitely going to ruin a film that I love.

In the case of “Jurassic World,” the filmmakers decided it best to go with a popular note among studio executives: make it the same, but different. Instead of bringing back Sam Neil and his trademark hat and neck scarf, director Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and writing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver basically rehash the original film’s premise, this time with a park that has been successfully running for 2 decades rather than a small dress rehearsal with scientists.

With the incident from the 1993 film in the past, Jurassic World has opened to major success with innovation and popularity that John Hammond could have only dreamed possible. It’s amazing to look back on the original park and see just how much the technology has changed in 22 years. Instead of Jeep Wranglers driving on designated tracks, the park is now equipped with a monorail and has a ride where you can drive alongside herds of dinosaurs inside of a protected sphere. But enough about how cool the park would be to visit, let’s get back to the story.

Serving as the director of the park, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is desperate to find a new attraction that will help the park maintain its booming business. As she says in the film, people are no longer excited by the idea of merely bringing dinosaurs back to life (an interesting moment of self-observation for the series). It falls to Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) and his team to create a new dinosaur with more teeth that is a hybrid of several species. Enter the Indominus Rex, a 50-ft killer with a long list of spoilerific upgrades not to be shared in this review.

The other characters of note in the film are the male protagonist Owen (Chris Pratt), a Navy vet who is responsible for training the velociraptors and two brothers (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) who are visiting the park for the first time to see their aunt Claire, who runs the place.

There are often many moral and philosophical questions pondered in the Jurassic Park films, as well as Michael Crichton’s books. In the original, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) was the voice of reason who states “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could (create dinosaurs) that they didn’t stop to ask if they should.” This time around a similar conversation takes place between Dr. Wu and the new owner of the park, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), where the film discusses the implications and dangers of creating new monsters.

While covering many of the same topics touched on previous films helps the new one find its place in the series, what matters for “Jurassic World” is whether or not it holds its own as a summer blockbuster. In this regard, it’s a success.

Let’s not confuse success with being perfect, though. Many of the characterizations, including Claire and Owen’s dynamic together, are very archaic. There are a few ideas in the film that are a reach (Yes, even for a movie about dinosaurs) and not all of them pay off. Without spoiling too much, one character thinks it’s plausible to turn raptors into drones for the military. Spend more than five seconds thinking about that plan and see how good it still sounds.

Probably the biggest complaint that will be filed against “Jurassic World” is that it isn’t as good as Spielberg’s original film. Is that fair? No. Is it true? Yes.

Like many Indiana Jones fans would probably say: maybe an exciting new installment of your favorite franchise doesn’t have to be perfect. It just can’t be about aliens or feature Shia LaBeouf. On that note, “Jurassic World” is a clear winner.

Though it has a few stumbling moments here and there, “Jurassic World” is a worthy successor of the franchise.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Tomorrowland”

Tomorrowland

“What if there was a place…where nothing was impossible?”

After he fails to impress the judges of the World’s Fair with his homemade jetpack, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is befriended by a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a strange pin that leads him to a mysterious futuristic world with robots and other contraptions he could only dream of inventing.

Decades later, Casey (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), struggles to find her place in a world that seems determined to brace for the apocalypse rather than trying to prevent it. After being arrested for trespassing on government property, Casey discovers a Tomorrowland pin of her own when she reclaims her belongings in the police station. Upon touching it, she receives visions of a fantastic world of imagination and sets out to find more information on the strange land. This eventually leads her to an old Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has been excommunicated from Tomorrowland and is every bit as cynical as Casey is optimistic.

If that seems like a really long buildup for a plot, you should try spending 45 minutes in a theater waiting for the pieces to connect.

“Tomorrowland” is the latest attempt by Disney to monetize every aspect of their existing properties. Much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Haunted Mansion,” this film is intended to expand the Disney empire while also (hopefully) putting together an interesting film.

Dialing down the cynicism for a moment, “Tomorrowland” has some very interesting things to say about the world we live in today. We are a culture engrossed in chaos and violence on the news and dystopian futures in our entertainment (“The Walking Dead” and “The Hunger Games” come to mind). Every day there is a new story to outrage over, a new product or company to blacklist, new laws or guidelines enacted that stomp out creativity or free speech and so on.

What the film continually asks of the audience is “What happened to our vision of the future as a beacon of hope, light, and imagination?”

As great as these ideas are, director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof still have to mold them into a cohesive plot that is entertaining and makes for a good film. That’s where the trouble starts.

It is well known around the film community that Lindelof has a reputation as a writer that dreams up big ideas that he can’t necessarily deliver on. The two best examples of this are the TV show “Lost” and “Prometheus.” While not all of Tomorrowland’s faults can be placed on Lindelof (Bird also handled the script), it’s important to point out the pattern.

The biggest issue with the film, aside from the writing, is pacing/editing. As previously stated, it takes 45 minutes for the film to address what the story is about. Until that point, the story is mainly several scenes of Casey tripping over objects while “walking” through Tomorrowland or Athena telling Casey that she’s important in the most cryptic way possible.

After all the time the movie spends setting up the plot, the payoff is extremely underwhelming. Tomorrowland itself looks like a leftover “Divergent” set and the villain (Hugh Laurie) who has been set up to be a very bad guy (his robot army kills several people early on) ends up being a pretty reasonable character who has the best monologue in the film. Not to mention that the “chosen one” is barely of use in the climax.

“Tomorrowland” is what happens when a creative team comes up with about 60% of a full story, realizes it can’t finish it in the remaining time, and hopes the audience won’t notice the corners that were cut.

There are pieces of a great family adventure film scattered throughout “Tomorrowland,” but the final product looks more like a first draft than a film Disney would bank $190 million on. Not even the Tim Allen-esque performance of Clooney will help the film earn back its big budget.

All in all, “Tomorrowland” is a missed opportunity that may be best enjoyed on Redbox or when it inevitably pops up on ABC Family.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

Back to the Basics

The Apartment

Two weeks ago, I wrote that I wanted to resurrect this blog and start writing again. Two…weeks. Oops.

With that acknowledged, I wanted to spend today reminiscing some of my favorite films. Any time you are disappointed with the current state of film or feel that there’s nothing of value playing in your local theater, recounting the movies that made you fall in love with the medium can be a breath of fresh air. And since you don’t need yet another negative review of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” let me share with you a few of my favorites.

On the Waterfront

Though Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” scene is often the one remembered from this 1954 film, there are a multitude of strong performances. Karl Malden as Father Barry and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly are two of the best characters from classic Hollywood. Though awards aren’t everything, the film basically took home all of the Oscars with achievements in writing, directing, cinematography, and five(!) acting nominations on top of a Best Picture win.

Saving Private Ryan

A completely different kind of film, Steven Spielberg’s WWII tale is one of the best war films ever shone on the silver screen. Like most films of its kind, there are a slew of top-notch actors peppered throughout the film (Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Nathan Fillion, Bryan Cranston, to name a few) in addition to the main cast. The opening scene on Omaha Beach is considered by many to be the most accurate portrayal of war in film and the filming techniques that Spielberg uses are perfect. The whole film is shot beautifully and it succeeds by being both entertaining and hauntingly real.

L.A. Confidential

A year before “Saving Private Ryan” was robbed of Best Picture by “Shakespeare in Love”, another great film was ignored in favor of a romantic tale (“Titanic”). “L.A. Confidential” is the story of 3 very different 1950’s detectives who are all caught up in the same case from different angles. The movie may sound pretty standard at first, but throw in Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and the setting of Los Angeles and you’ve got cinematic magic.

The Apartment

Taking it back to 1960 for what I often refer to as my favorite movie, “The Apartment” is a Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon plays a young employee at an insurance company who tries to climb the corporate ladder by allowing his superiors to use his conveniently located apartment for their extramarital affairs. Things turn for the worse, however, when he discovers that the elevator girl he’s in love with is one of his bosses’ mistresses. The chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine is fantastic, the characters moving, and the film is wonderfully shot in black and white. The Apartment is one of the best comedies ever written and was an instant favorite the minute I watched it.

Though this isn’t an exhaustive list of my favorite films, they are a few that have been imprinted on my mind in recent years. Film is something that is immeasurably personal and everyone has their own tastes and preferences. Soon I will be getting back to reviews, but today I just want to enjoy some personal favorites. I would also be interested in hearing about your own favorite films in the comments below.

Happy viewing.

Review: “John Wick”

John Wick

Sometimes a simple story is all you need for a great action movie.

Flying into the weekend box office heavily under the radar, “John Wick” is about a retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) who comes back to his violent lifestyle after a mob boss’ son (Alfie Allen) steals the last bit of his humanity.

After an illness claims the life of his wife, John Wick tries to reclaim his place in the world, but it turns out that things may not be that easy. When unfortunate circumstances bring an old business associate (Michael Nyqvist) back into John’s life, he is forced to pick up his guns once more to exact revenge.

Long gone from his days as a Hollywood star, Reeves is looking for a bit of a comeback. Fortunately it appears that “John Wick” could be his first money-making film since 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It turns out that finding his way back to a hit only required hooking up with his former stunt double.

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have been in the film stuntman business since the early 90’s. Stahelski was even Reeves’ stunt double in films like “Point Break” and “The Matrix.” So what happens when you put two stunt coordinators behind the camera? You get some of the best action sequences in recent memory. Working with Reeves a plethora of stuntmen, they construct some bone-crunching fight scenes that actually obey real world laws. Each time Wick takes on some bad guys in a shootout, he actually reloads his weapons at the appropriate time and it often takes more than one bullet to confirm a kill. While things like that may not mean much for some people, it’s nearly a groundbreaking achievement for the action genre.

Despite some great fight sequences, the film is still written by Derek Kolstad. If you don’t know who that is, his only other film credits are 2 straight-to-DVD action movies starring Dolph Lundgren. As you can expect, a lot of the dialogue is mediocre and there are a few spots in the story that could have been handled much better. That being said, the stylish direction, well-choreographed fights, and the film’s star mostly make up for the script’s shortcomings.

Though most revenge tales are played with a heavy dose of gritty realism, “John Wick” is more of an oddball film that plays up awkward silences and character clichés. The light humor the film carries with it almost relegates the story to some kind of graphic novel. As such, the film stands out as something more unique than your average tale of revenge.

If for nothing else, “John Wick” plays for excellent Friday night entertainment. With a better script it might have been one of the year’s best films. People keep asking if Keanu Reeves is back. Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy

With only a couple of quality films under its belt, Summer 2014 was looking like a major bust for the film industry. Things started well with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” recently breathed a little life into the box office. Just as it looked like the summer might end with a whimper, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is here to revolutionize the superhero genre.

After he is beamed aboard a spaceship as a child, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is raised by smugglers and scavengers. During the course of a big score, a bounty is put on his head that draws the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). After a series of events lands them in jail, they come across Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who is on a vengeful path to kill Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As it so happens, Ronan is also after an artifact that is possessed by Quill, who also goes by Star Lord.

Thus the Guardians of the Galaxy come together as assassins, thieves, and…tree things to fight Ronan and save the planet he intends to destroy.

The concept of the film is a pretty tall order as it has traces of “Star Wars” but carries the attitude of a Saturday morning cartoon. Fortunately, James Gunn is at the helm and he understands the material perfectly. His direction is fun, though fairly by-the-numbers, and makes the film reach its full potential. The previous Marvel films have all favored a lighter tone mixed with their heroes, but this latest film has perfected the formula and delivered the most entertaining film of the summer.

“Guardians” is one of the, if not THE, best casted superhero films of all time. From Pratt and the rest of the heroes to Pace’s Ronan and even the superb choice of Michael Rooker as Yondu, the smuggler who raised Quill. This film started with a leg up because each character has the right person playing them.

While it certainly delivers on the laughs, a superhero space film without good special effects and action sequences would be a waste of time. Luckily, there’s nothing to worry about on those fronts. Though “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” might have the film beat on fight scenes, there are more than enough fisticuffs and explosions to suit your summer blockbuster needs.

The plot alone is compelling enough to warrant the ticket price, but it’s the characters that make the film worth remembering. The opening scene of the film establishes its heart by showing us Quill’s life on earth before he is abducted. That heart continues throughout the film with the relationship between the characters and their backstories. Even Drax the Destroyer is an endearing character and Bautista plays him with the perfect amount of rage and humor. One of the best relationships of the film is between Rocket and Groot, the group’s least human characters. Rocket is a raccoon who can fight as well as talk after some nasty lab experiments and Groot is essentially a talking tree (granted he only says “I am Groot”) that can beat the sap out of some bad guys. Their Han Solo/Chewbacca relationship is one of the films more heartwarming qualities.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was such a weird concept that it was either going to bust or be the biggest hit of the summer. I’m glad to report that the latter is, in fact, true.

Grade: A+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Hercules”

HERCULES

How many movies about Hercules does it take for us to see the character truly brought to life in a good story? Apparently more than two.

In January of this year, “The Legend of Hercules” brought us the hero in the form of “Twilight” actor Kellan Lutz. Strangely enough the film was received with thunderous boos as it earned a Rotten Tomatoes score of 3% (yes, out of 100).

The second, and hopefully last of 2014, film about the super-powered demigod is the self-titled “Hercules” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. With Brett Ratner at the helm, this outing seemed eager to entertain while never taking itself too seriously.

After enduring the trials that make him a legendary figure, Hercules becomes the leader of a small group of mercenaries who rid kingdoms of unwanted visitors or sway a conflict in favor of the highest bidder. Among his crew are Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) and others.

When Lord Cotys (John Hurt) hires the warriors to train his army and rid the land of an evil warlord, the group sees it as a chance for one big payday before heading off into retirement. As this scenario naturally goes in Hollywood, the plan doesn’t go as smoothly as they hoped.

Playing the title hero with the absurd charm of someone in a chewing gum commercial, Dwayne Johnson is clearly trying to have fun with a role that is tailor made for him. For a character known for his athleticism and strength, the majority of Johnson’s action scenes are simply him trying to push an object over or nonchalantly swatting at bad guys like one might wave off a fly at a 4th of July picnic. I feel pretty confident in saying that 71-year-old Ian McShane has more interesting stunt choreography in the film.

Though Johnson tries to make him endearing, Hercules is one of the most boring characters in a film filled with boring characters. The only three characters worth noting are Amphiaraus, Autolycus and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). Autolycus is a mercenary of the more cold-blooded variety and Sewell gives him the funny, cynical personality that many of his characters have shared. This is my first exposure to Aksel Hennie, but the Norwegian actor made a character that has almost no audible dialogue interesting solely through body language.

The film is clearly intended for an audience in the 12-18 age range as it glosses over the majority of its violence and waters down any heavy themes that would have made it interesting. One of the writers has actually made a living writing for direct-to-video sequels for the majority of the animated Disney franchises (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

The script for “Hercules” is also a mess as it changes character motivations on a dime, has several unanswered holes in the story, and includes too many convenient coincidences to hold water.

Brett Ratner and company tried to deliver a fun blockbuster loosely based on the mythology of Hercules, however, what we have instead is a pretty shoddy film that is only mildly entertaining. It may be good enough to keep your attention for 98 minutes, but anyone seeking a quality film to hold them over until “Guardians of the Galaxy” will probably wish they had just held onto their money.

Grade: C

Happy viewing.