Friday, May 29, 2015

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Welcome once again to FlashBack Friday! Today I'm reviewing The Lost World, the next film in the popular dinosaur series. After the amazing experience of the first movie, the world couldn't wait to see those fantastic creatures on the big screen again, including the director. Steven Spielberg was always interested in returning to this world, and was finally able to convince Michael Crichton to complete a sequel to his best-selling novel, Jurassic Park. Of course, if you've read that book you know there are few similarities between the screen and the page... but more on that later. Back in 1997 I was ten years old, and was granted permission by my parents to see this movie when it came out in theaters. I couldn't wait for the day my family took us to see it. I even wrote about my excitement to see The Lost World in my journal, and remember being pretty satisfied with what I saw at the time. Since then, however, it's kind of fallen out of favor with the general public, and I think I only saw this movie once or twice since my theatrical experience. As a result of my relative unfamiliarity with this film, I was probably more interested in returning to this one than any other in the series. Beware of SPOILERS beyond this point...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


If you've been following my posts since the end of last year, you'll probably be pretty surprised by my star rating for Tomorrowland, considering that it was featured on my ten most anticipated films of the year. In that brief entry, I surmised that based on the talent involved and the amount of information on the story we were given (or lack thereof), it could either be a massive success or a major disappointment. Honestly, we went into our showing with pretty moderate expectations, but hoping that the lackluster critical reception would prove unwarranted once we'd had a chance to see it for ourselves. I had a lot of faith in director Brad Bird, who was responsible for some of the best animated films ever made (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Iron Giant) as well as 2011's surprise hit, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. He was even courted for the job of directing this year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which he turned down due to the already daunting workload of Tomorrowland. After seeing this film, however, I'm actually relieved he decided to let J.J. Abrams take over my most beloved franchise.

Tomorrowland begins with a flash-back, told intermittently by Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) tells of the connection each of our protagonists have with the titular futuristic city. As a child, Frank was an aspiring inventor when the World's Fair came to New York in 1964, and with the help of his new friend, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), he is able to prove that his jet-pack does indeed work. Then from Casey's perspective, we hear how her father is being laid off as the NASA launch site in Cape Canaveral where he works is being decommissioned. She sneaks onto the site every evening and disables the machines that are supposed to be dismantling the launch pad. However, she eventually gets caught in the act and is arrested for a day until her disappointed father posts her bail. Along with her personal effects, Casey is surprised to see a mysterious pin that magically transports her to Tomorrowland, a utopian city where peace and creativity abound. The promise of a home in this fantastic place is enough to capture Casey's undying interest in returning there at any cost. But after a few near-death encounters with humanoid robots (yes, you read that right), Casey is eventually united with a middle-aged and gruff hermit, Frank. At first he is anything but cooperative with her plan to return to Tomorrowland, until Casey's presence seems to cause his calculations of earth's certain doom to flicker, implying that with her help, our planet may have hope of survival after all...

That description might make this movie sound kind of interesting, and I would have to agree. This plot summary was more or less what I was expecting based on what I saw in the trailer, and I thought it was an intriguing set-up to a much larger story. Unfortunately, this set-up takes over an hour to accomplish, with bizarre and unnecessary diversions and elaborations that do nothing but extend the running length of this film. There are very few surprises in the first half of this movie (or really, throughout the entire movie), and the few moments of excitement we do get are numbed by the whiplash-inducing manner in which they're introduced. While it may be an easy target, given the amount of flack he's taken since his controversial series finale of TV's Lost, I'm going to blame most of the flaws I'm about to discuss on the screenplay by Damon Lindelof. While I kind of enjoyed Prometheus for what it was and tolerated parts of Cowboys & Aliens, I really haven't enjoyed much of Lindelof's work since he finished Lost. Of course, I did really enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, though what I liked about it can probably be attributed more to J.J. Abrams than him.

Never is the writing more cringe-worthy than during the dialogue scenes, of which there are WAY too many! I don't know about you, but I've never heard an eight year-old boy speak to his sixteen year-old sister like a couple of grizzled adults sharing their distaste for the current woes of society. On a side note, why the heck is an eight year-old boy sharing a room with his sixteen year-old sister...? That house looks pretty big... but I digress. The point is, all of the characters seem to speak with the same voice, which is not only unrealistic, but incredibly monotonous for a movie audience. We want to see different types of people play off of each other, debate, quip, etc. Even Clooney plays a one-note sidekick that I never really warmed up to. As an audience, we want to see fun interactions with likeable people, not the cardboard cut-outs we're getting here. We never get to enjoy the characters or the story or even the location, however, as all Lindelof seems to care about is that his theme is driven home over, and over, and over, and over...

That brings me to what was perhaps the most annoying thing about Tomorrowland.  This isn't a story about getting to a magical place where some fantastic adventure is going to happen. On the contrary, we spend about twenty minutes (maybe thirty, if you include flash-back scenes) in the location after which this movie was named. Despite being a PG movie, it's actually pretty violent and almost entirely devoid of fun, adventure, and humor; opting instead for nauseatingly repetitive preaching about how humans are bringing the apocalypse upon themselves. I went into this movie hoping for a fun escape with perhaps a few clever injections of social commentary that would demonstrate the theme they're attempting to get across. Instead, they prefer to just shove their political message down your throat, which always takes me right out of the movie, even if I do agree with the message. Why did they have to make everything so thuddingly obvious? Are they hoping to convert a bunch of kids to their point of view by making sure no part of their agenda goes unnoticed? Regardless of their intention, the result was a clunky, uninteresting message-movie that even felt like propaganda at times.

Anyway, I could go on forever about how much I hate it when screenwriters hijack a Hollywood film to push their political agenda (see my review of Snitch for more ranting about that), but instead let's focus on the actual movie we're given. Overall, there are a lot of aspects that actually work here. For example, I quite enjoyed the score by Michael Giacchino (Super 8, The Incredibles, Star Trek, etc.), and only wish it could have been paired with a more worthy film. It has that same childlike wonder that he brought to Super 8, and parts of it feel like it could be playing at Disneyland and no one would be any the wiser. The visuals are also quite well done, with the imagination of a futuristic city on full display whenever we're there. It's got an interesting blend of old-school depictions of advanced technology with a modern gloss that ends up working pretty well.

It's difficult to judge the actors' performances, given the crappy dialogue they were given to work with, but I feel like they all pretty much came to play. Britt Robertson showed her ability to carry a film, despite how underwritten her character actually was. It can be hard to separate her from past performances (like this scene from Dan in Real Life, for example), but I found myself liking her character for the most part. I've already complained a little bit about Clooney's unlikability (at least when his character is first introduced), but perhaps the weirdest part of this film is his unrequited love with an android named Athena, played by 12 year-old Raffey Cassidy. She does a fine job in the film, and despite her youth, she may deliver the best performance in the film... but it's definitely weird to see a 53 year-old Clooney cradling a little girl and more-or-less declaring his love for her. Obviously it's not meant to be taken as creepy as it can come across, but they probably should have never taken the script there in the first place.

In conclusion, Tomorrowland is one of the most disappointing films for me in recent memory, primarily because of the level of talent involved. I trusted pretty much everyone in this cast and crew, yet they gave us something completely unsatisfying and even boring at times. Brad Bird is better than that, and given the amount of money Disney invested in this movie, I thought for sure they'd know better than to try to give us something this unentertaining. There were moments when I actually considered just getting up and leaving the theater rather than continue to sit through it, which hardly ever happens. The first real misfire of the 2015 movie year (that I've seen so far, anyway), Tomorrowland gets a regretful two stars.

TOMORROWLAND is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language

** What did you think of Tomorrowland? Were you pleasantly surprised or did you waste your money? Let me know in the comments, and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **

Friday, May 22, 2015

Jurassic Park

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday! There haven't been a ton of theatrical releases I've wanted to cover lately (despite being the beginning of summer movie season), so I thought I'd revisit an old favorite in anticipation for this summer's Jurassic World. To give a little background about my history with this series, I saw each of them as soon as I possibly could and enjoyed all of them to some degree. For Jurassic Park, that meant I had to wait until it came out on VHS so that my parents could cover my six year-old eyes whenever there was something a little too scary or violent happening on screen. I remember getting Jurassic Park merchandise and counting down the days until I could see the movie for myself. Needless to say, I absolutely LOVED this film even at my young age, and re-watched that tape until I had almost every line of dialogue memorized. I'll get into my thoughts on the sequels over the next couple of weeks, but surprisingly over the last six or seven years I probably only saw this movie once. I didn't own the DVD or Blu Ray at that time, so it wasn't really convenient to view it even if I wanted to (which I'm sure I did at some point). Thankfully, a couple of years back Universal Studios had the brilliant idea to re-release Jurassic Park in 3D, which I just couldn't resist, despite my general dislike for the gimmicky format. Throughout this review I'll share some of my thoughts from that viewing as well, but I was still pretty excited about watching this again at home (having finally bought the Blu Ray set). Everyone knows this movie by now, so beware of SPOILERS from this point forward if you somehow haven't seen Jurassic Park.

Dr. Alan Grant is a world-renowned paleontologist, working in Montana and digging up dinosaur bones with his partner, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler. After a tragic accident mars the outlook of several key investors, billionaire John Hammond recruits the two scientists to sign off on a new amusement park he's been secretly developing on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Grant and Sattler are hesitant until Hammond offers to fully fund their dig for the next three years. They are joined on the island with mathematician and chaos theorist, Ian Malcolm, as well as a sniveling lawyer named Donald Gennaro. After an awe-inspiring encounter with a resurrected Brachiosaurus, Hammond takes the group back to the visitor's center to explain how this miracle has been accomplished. Using fossilized mosquitoes extracted from Amber, the genetic engineers reconstructed the prehistoric animals' DNA strands (with an assist from present day amphibians to complete the code) while making them all female to ensure population control. Though undoubtedly revolutionary, their methods have raised some red flags to the group of visiting scientists, who see this flippant use of genetic technology as a crime against nature. This reluctance is later validated when a disgruntled IT worker disables the security systems in certain areas of the park in an effort to extract frozen embryos and sell them to a competing company. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is therefore able to escape from his paddock and kills Gennaro while pushing the others off a cliff. While Malcolm is later rescued by Dr. Sattler, Dr. Grant along with Hammond's two grandchildren must navigate their way back to the visitor's center across the unsecured landscape. After taking a calculated risk that involves shutting off all power to the park, the Velociraptors have also escaped from them holding pen and are terrorizing the survivors in the visitor's center. Thankfully, the T-Rex appears at the last moment to save the day, killing the murderous bipeds before they can make a meal out of our protagonists. The movie ends as the scientists agree not to endorse the park as they fly off into the sunset.

That's pretty much the entire plot of the film, so if you haven't seen it then I apologize... it must suck to have never seen this awesome movie. So many memories rushed back from the instant the Universal logo came on the screen with jungle animal noises in the background to set the mood. I'm sure I said this in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Spielberg has an uncanny knack for immersing an audience into a story instantly and almost effortlessly. During the initial raptor attack that sets our story in motion, we don't get to see the terrifying creature responsible for the carnage, but for a fleeting glimpse of its menacing eye through a slit in its cage. What really frightens the viewer isn't what it looks like, but rather the sounds it makes. The sound design of this movie was incredible, and definitely worthy of the Oscars it was awarded back in 1994. Using a combination of a variety of animals (dolphins, geese, walruses, etc.) they've created one of the most spine-tingling noises in all of movie history. This won't be the last time I bring up the sound design, but this creepy opening does a terrific job of setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Then we're introduced to our main characters. As a kid I was a big fan of Alan Grant, and I totally understand why. The guy is kind of a gruff, Indiana Jones-ish dinosaur expert (though not nearly the action hero Indy is) who always seems to know what to do in any given situation. We find out a few things about his character up front - he doesn't like kids, he's in a serious relationship with his partner, Ellie Sattler, and he has a slightly fearful respect for the long extinct creature they have just unearthed (the Velociraptor itself). What I love about this cast is that none of them were household names at the time of Jurassic Park's release. That allowed them all to completely disappear in their roles, and the naturalistic manner in which they deliver lines (particularly the fantastic Jeff Goldblum) makes it hard to believe that they aren't improvising them on the spot. I've seen some criticism for the characters being a little flat in this movie, which I can't necessarily deny. We do get some character motivations for each of them, and moments where each person is important. However, apart from Dr. Grant and John Hammond, none of the characters are really that well explored. If the movie weren't as entertaining as it is, this might be a bigger problem for me. As it is, though, I don't really notice the lack of character development until long after the experience of seeing dinosaurs brought back to life is over.

As we journey to the park, the music composed by Steven Spielberg's almost constant collaborator, John Williams, really takes center stage as we see some beautiful landscapes of Isla Nublar (or Hawaii, which I believe is where this was shot). His sweeping theme begins as the island first comes into view and really hits its stride when the Brachiosaurus fills up the screen. It's an instantly memorable piece of music that is probably one of Williams's best, in my opinion. Not only is the thematic music great, but Williams also does some of his scariest music since Jaws whenever the raptors are involved in a scene. Still, seeing this scene on a big screen back in 2013 (I did not mean for that to rhyme as much as it did) was awe-inspiring to the point that I may have actually shed a tear. Sam Neill and Laura Dern sell this scene so well that I actually believe that these scientists are seeing the personification of their life's work before their eyes, and it's beautifully done. It's easily the most inspiring scene of the film and one of the most memorable moments in movie history.

Then the movie pumps on the breaks as we get a classroom-style exposition scene where "Mr. DNA" delivers the best pronunciation of the word "dinosaur" I've ever heard. While this is an informative scene, it may be a little distracting in retrospect. Regardless, it's over pretty quick and the movie transitions into the most intellectually stimulating conversation of the film. Ian Malcolm, though perhaps not the most reliable source for ethical boundaries, calls out the geneticists at InGen for their questionable experiments, even equating it to the "rape of the natural world." It's a pretty fascinating debate, exploring the nature of mankind's reach exceeding his grasp and the moral dilemma that comes with scientific advancement. In fact, this scene is so electric for me that it's a little disappointing that we never get this level of sophistication again. There are so many exciting, edge-of-your-seat moments in this film that I wouldn't have minded a few more intellectual debates between the differing viewpoints of our scientists.

Having said that, nothing compares with the AWESOME scene we're about to get when Dennis Nedry shuts off the electric fence containing the park's most formidable attraction, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Every moment of this scene is utterly iconic, from the rumbling footsteps causing ripples in the water cups on the dashboard, to the gradual reveal of the T-Rex swallowing a goat whole after its dismembered leg crashes to the glass roof of the tour vehicle below. It was incredibly ballsy of Spielberg to play this entire scene without music, but I can't imagine it any other way. The tension is palpable as the T-Rex bites through its wire cage and slowly bears down on the helpless humans before it. It even has a scene that my parents wouldn't let me watch as a child, where the T-Rex bites into a toilet-sitting Gennaro and thrashes the lawyer back and forth like a rag doll. But going back to my deconstruction of the sound-effects, I remember my seat rumbling from the sheer force of the T-Rex's roar, which was unlike anything I'd ever heard. They accomplished this iconic sound by combining a baby elephant, a tiger, and a crocodile, which produced perhaps the most unsettling monster roar in movie history. I really can't give enough praise to these sound designers for their fantastic work.

One thing that has become a bit of a problem for me, however, is the logic and continuity of each scene. There are times when car doors become open and closed between shots, only to have Timmy attract the T-Rex's attention by closing it again in the next shot. The geography of the scene is also confusing, as there appears to be a massive cliff where no such drop existed when the T-Rex emerged minutes before. These types of continuity errors are probably only going to bother you if you've seen this movie a hundred times like I have, but I do wish Spielberg had tightened it up just a little bit. Later on, a T-Rex is going to magically appear in the visitor's center without any explanation as to how it got in there. Still, the sight of the creature roaring in the lobby with the sign "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" floating to the floor is so cool that I wouldn't want to risk losing it by changing the scene. This movie is certainly good enough to forgive a few flaws here and there. Just try not to look for them and you probably won't even notice.

A lot happens in the film's ending, but it happens so fast that it wouldn't be worth walking through it one scene at a time. There are several lines that I love to quote as often as possible, such as "clever girl..." and "hold onto your butts!" Some other highlights include the excruciatingly tense kitchen scene where the raptors are weaving through the isles, closing in on the two terrified kids. The fact that the raptors figured out how to open doors was so simple yet incredibly scary, and its struggle to break into the computer lab with Dr. Grant pushing on the other side is pretty gripping... except when you realize that Timmy is just standing there watching his sister work the 90's era computer instead of, I don't know, making himself useful to the life or death situation they're in! Ellie can't get the gun because she's pushing (rather ineffectively, I might add) on the door with Dr. Grant, and Timmy could easily pick it up and hand it to them. It's a little infuriating, but the subsequent scene where the raptor shows off its leaping ability by nearly biting off Lex's leg is so cool I can forgive that plot hiccup.

The movie ends a little abruptly for my taste, but I definitely didn't need a protracted 15 minute diversion to finish the story off like the next film is going to give us. Ultimately, despite the little flaws I can find here and there, Jurassic Park is one of Spielberg's best films and has so many iconic moments that I can't imagine anybody not liking it. It may not be as intellectual as I would have liked, but if you want more of that then I suggest picking up Michael Crichton's novel, which is excellent though quite different from the film adaptation. This movie is as much a part of my childhood as any Indiana Jones film, and I'm sure I can attribute much of my childhood love of dinosaurs to this movie's incredible depiction of them. I have a feeling this level of quality won't be matched in any of the subsequent films (though I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Jurassic World), but I am sparing no expense on this film with my rating. Four stars!

JURASSIC PARK is rated PG-13 for intense science fiction terror

** What did you think of Jurassic Park? Have you revisited it lately? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

It's finally here! I've been waiting for this movie ever since the first trailer debuted about seven months ago... okay, actually I've been waiting for this movie ever since 2012's The Avengers ended. After three years of build-up and solo films to heighten our expectations, it's hard to imagine any film living up to so much hype. If you've read my top ten most anticipated films of the year, you'll see only one film higher on the list than Avengers: Age of Ultron, so suffice it to say that my own expectations were incredibly high. I even sat for a good 10+ hours with some great friends of ours watching all of the Phase 2 movies leading up to it, which was both helpful and potentially detrimental to my initial viewing experience. I'll get into more of that later, but first let me get into a spoiler-free summary of the plot.

After the events of the Chitauri invasion of New York (not to mention the stand-alone movies in-between), the Avengers are well-known and feared by all who are associated with Hydra. Baron von Strucker, one of the last Hydra leaders, is hiding out in the fictitious European nation of Sokovia while attempting to create "miracles" out of two local volunteers - Pietro (aka "Quicksilver", who has super-speed) and Wanda Maximoff (aka "Scarlet Witch", who can project energy and cause mental interference). The Baron has been using the cosmic staff wielded by Loki during the Chirauri invasion to create these super-powered beings, and the Avengers are there to reclaim the relic. However, the operation isn't without its hiccups, and Tony Stark is subjected to a horrific vision, courtesy of the Scarlet Witch, in which he is to blame for the deaths of all mankind. With this fear firmly in place and using the newly discovered properties of the staff, Stark wishes to fulfill his ultimate goal of creating an artificial intelligence to serve as a global protector... a project known as "Ultron".

This film kicks off with one of the best action scenes in the MCU, involving every one of the Avengers in battle before a line of dialogue is spoken. It's a stark difference from the slow build of the first Avengers film, where half of the movie's run time was devoted to assembling the team that would eventually thwart the alien invasion. Here, the film wastes no time in getting us re-acclimated with our heroes as each one gets a stand-out moment during their assault on Hydra's last remaining fortress. Just like in the first film, there is no shortage of jokes in Age of Ultron, but with an added dose of darkness to the proceedings it feels slightly less skewed for humor than last time.

Tension runs high throughout this movie, and my first watching was spent in fear for every Avenger's life. That fear is never greater than when Ultron first makes his appearance in a great scene that was heavily featured in the trailers. He starts out as a broken-down, slightly confused, and delicately homicidal pragmatist, spouting off poetic philosophies on the numerous failings of the super-team he seeks to destroy. James Spader is hypnotic as the voice of Ultron, and the motion capture performance also adds a bit of flavor that would surely be lost without his unique touch. A funhouse mirror-image of his maker, Tony Stark, Ultron seeks the same aims as the playboy billionaire... just from a different approach. His humor seems adopted from Downey's playbook as well, with sarcastic remarks about revealing his entire plan to the team rather than putting the plan in action. He's an oddly sympathetic character as well, possessing a strange loneliness that became somewhat poignant to me following the film's climax.

If there's one thing this film had in excess, it was characters. With an already bursting supply of talent from the first Avengers movie, there were moments that felt a bit bloated with returning cast members from previous Marvel movies. Don't get me wrong, I loved seeing some familiar faces again, but they didn't really serve a purpose in this story. To get all of my complaints about the film out of the way now, I also have to say that the score by Brian Tyler was completely unmemorable and would have been utterly bland were it not for Danny Elfman swooping in to save the day. Thanks to his last minute rewrites, we got back the iconic Avengers theme from the first movie that I've really grown to love, and which were the best parts of the score for Age of Ultron as well. Then again, I tend to think of Brian Tyler as a hack in general, and really didn't like his generic scores for Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World (the funeral scene notwithstanding).

There is so much going on in this film that I felt I had to see it twice last weekend to absorb as much as I could, but there's still probably more to pick up from it. As such, I won't be able to talk about all the things I really liked (Robert Downey, Jr.'s awesome performance, the introduction of Scarlett Witch, Vision being so freaking cool!), but suffice it to say that everyone who's even remotely interested in these Marvel movies NEEDS to see Avengers: Age of Ultron! It's one of the most fun experiences I've had in a movie theater in years, and it's easily one of the top 3 best movies of the MCU. I don't understand the Rotten Tomatoes score being so low (75%? Seriously?), but I give this movie a very solid four stars. I don't know how Marvel is going to top themselves after this, but I can't wait to find out!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments