Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jurassic World

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Now, read on.

It's been 22 years since the original incident at Jurassic Park. This distinction is important, because Jurassic World  is a sequel to Jurassic Park, and not a continuation of the other two sequels. No references are made to Isla Sorna, the Los Angeles incident, or a Spinosaur. Thank goodness. Jurassic World builds upon the same idea of Jurassic Park, but with the assumption that John Hammond, founder of the original park, didn't dream big enough. The problem is, no matter how impossibly fascinating the re-existent dinosaurs are, the public always needs something new to keep their interest going. No matter how wonderful the spectacle, eventually people will yawn and say "oh, more monsters."

Jurassic World has introduced all the classic dinosaurs that we know from the first movie, including a few others, but the sponsors and owner want something even bigger and more terrifying than anything we've seen before. Thanks to ambitious scientists and genetic splicing, the Indominus Rex is created. Can anyone else hear Ian Malcom's warnings right about now?

     "The lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, staggers me... Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun...Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should!"

And for this lack of humility and responsibility, Jurassic World is about to pay dearly.

In the absence of Dr. Ian Malcolm's cocky but sound wisdom insisting that "life will not be contained, life breaks free...It expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously", Jurassic World has Owen Grady-- a less eloquent but equally reverent voice of reason amidst the dreamers and executives. Owen respectfully treats the dinosaurs as animals capable of attachment, bonding, training, and harmonious coexistence, while Claire repeatedly refers to them as "assets." Owen's careful attitude has made him the alpha male among a pack of velociraptors, but at no point does Owen forget that these raptors are still highly intelligent, and cunningly lethal. When Owen is introduced to the Indominus Rex, an animal created and matured in absolute isolation and composed of multiple creature DNA's, he is immediately opposed and fearful. He cares about the animals, and somewhat alludes to the injustice of making wonders of nature a mere feature of an exotic zoo, yet his priorities are in order: people come first.

Claire, on the other hand, is not so very unlike Jurassic Park's original founder John Hammond. She is convinced that they retain sovereign power over the dinosaurs, and is unfazed by the idea of future consequences. The main difference however, is that while Hammond was enraptured by his creations, Claire is cold, unimpressed, and driven by the bottom line. While the new owner, Mr. Masrani, stands in awe of the Indominus Rex, Claire sees the beast as nothing more than a thrilling asset, with no regard for its self-awareness and intelligence. She mentions, with veiled hints of disdain, how workers threatened to quit if she couldn't guarantee their safety, further revealing her detached nature. That is not to indicate that she's downright sour, just rigid. Eventually of course, Owen is right and Claire has to loosen up (but never without her high heels) if she wants to save her nephews.

The main conflict for Jurassic World must naturally be that the Indominus Rex escapes containment, posing a threat to hundreds of guests and workers, and most especially to Zach and Gray. But just as the laws of movies dictate that dangerous creatures must escape confinement, the laws also dictate that any minors in danger of said beast must be above-average intelligence, as such beasts spare smart children. Stupid adults are a different matter. But back to the point, Zach and Gray might make a few foolish choices to drive the plot, but are otherwise resourceful, quick-thinkers, and remarkably calm in most situations.

For the most part, the villains of Jurassic World are the Indominus Rex, the insatiable hunger for scientific breakthrough, and the illusion of power. Elsewhere however are a few minor conflicts that I will call "sequel bait." The sequel bait features Dr. Henry Wu getting into some shady business with ultra-lame bad guy Hoskins (think Nedry from Jurassic Park), who just hangs out waiting for an opportunity to seize power and run away with Jurassic World's lab results to make dinosaurs into weapons. Without giving too much away, enough happens in Jurassic World that at least part of this scheme may be underway, though it's uncertain. Hence, sequel bait.

SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph only.
I'd like to take a moment to talk about the Indominus Rex. In case you missed the warning, this paragraph does contain moderate spoilers. The Indominus is a genetically spliced creation made up in parts of T-Rex, raptor, cuttlefish, and snake. Jurassic Park portrayed the T-Rex as territorial and instinctual, and the raptors as more cunning and vicious. This movie's T-Rex and raptors retain these features, but with the added bonus that the raptors are capable of a mild degree of training and bonding. It's important to make this distinction because the Indominus is the ultimate incarnate of all these traits, in the worst ways. While the formerly terrifying T-Rex and raptors have been reduced to park attractions to be gawked at in their habitats, the Indominus is alive with an evil, dominant bloodlust. Even Owen Grady, who is otherwise respectful of animal rights, immediately recognizes the creature's violent nature, and advocates for the Indominus' termination, saying "that's no dinosaur." Throughout the movie, the Indominus delivers one surprise after another, using its considerable skills (sometimes with the assistance of other wildlife) to reign supreme over Isla Nublar.

Jurassic World, while not directed by Spielberg, is the perfect summer movie with a whole lot of Spielberg touches: kids in peril, a roguish hero, larger than life adventures, beautiful music, and a cast of quirky supporting characters who keep the comedy going. Cinematically, Jurassic World capitalizes on all the best features of Jurassic Park without going too crazy on special effects. The dinosaurs are blended seamlessly into the world, so that even the audience feels just as at ease with the animals as the onscreen tourists do.

This world feels familiar but new, and beautiful but dangerous. Jurassic World proves again that life will not be contained, and that power is only an illusion. The mighty T-Rex has been reduced to a gory feature of a theme park, the terror of the deep mosasaurus is an overblown sort of Shamu show, and even the terrifying raptors have been conditioned and molded for man's purposes. Eventually, the Indominus Rex is not the only creature to crash through the barriers and remind the people of how very volatile and limited their power is. Where the franchise goes from here is anyone's guess, but it is clear that man has a few more lessons to learn about respecting nature before the park is closed for good. And that's just fine with me if they continue to uphold this level of quality. This return to my favorite childhood movie was worthy, reverent, and a whole lot of fun.

Monday, November 16, 2015


     Interstellar could have been the most compelling and highest quality reality-based sci-fi movie of the decade. Outer space as a setting has featured in every movie genre, from comedy to thriller, yet it has been a while since space featured in a hardcore drama. Interstellar has some intense moments and sci-fi peril, but it's not an adventure flick or an action movie. It has some lofty concepts in terms of relativity and black holes, but it's not fantasy. Every now and then the movie floats towards one of these genres and touches them briefly, and then bounces gently away back into what I would classify as survivor drama. In many ways, Interstellar is a classic man vs. nature movie, except that nature is the vast and unknowable universe; dangerous, beautiful, haunting, and seemingly infinite. 

     Despite the breath-taking special effects, unorthodox Zimmer score, and solid acting from the cast, what really stands out from the positive side of things, is the emotional heaviness that Interstellar portrays from it's earth-based beginning, to its semi-hopeful end. Cooper's painful parting from his family is magnified when a few hours on his mission equates a few decades for his family back on earth. One of the most powerful scenes portrays Cooper watching all the messages that his son has sent over the years, with Cooper unable to celebrate the birth of his own grandson, unable to comfort his family at the passing of his own father, unable to grieve over the death of his grandson, unable to tell his son not to give up, and unable to reach back and tell him that he's still out there. In a few emotionally charged and masterfully directed scenes, Coop's son tells twenty three years worth of story. One message from Coop's daughter Murph that bitterly states "I'm now the same age you were when you left," gives the hard reality that time is passing, and Coop is outside of it.

     Elsewhere, Interstellar offers a bleak look at the cruel unhinging power of solitude, and the ethical grey areas that men are willing to tread in the name of the greater good. At one affecting moment in the movie when Coop and Brand return to the ship a few hours after they left, their crew mate Romily solemnly states "I've been waiting for twenty three years." During this time, he didn't dare go into cryosleep for too long, for fear of missing important transmissions. He simply stayed awake, alone for all that time. Romily has greyed and aged visibly, is clearly somber, but otherwise stable. Dr. Mann however, a scientist who has been alone on a frigid planet for 35 years (many of which have been in cryosleep), has not fared so well. While still lucid and as intelligent as ever, the years of solitude have skewed Mann's ethical boundaries, and he is now willing to do anything at all to rescue himself and get off the planet that has been his prison. Yet it becomes clear that it doesn't take decades of solitude to skew ethics when Dr. Brand Sr. admits to a serious deception that he allowed his own daughter to invest her life in, all for the greater good.

     For a movie that truly excels in its special effects, dramatic tension, ambitious musical score, and fairly solid acting throughout, Interstellar's final moments hit a brick wall at maximum speed. Throughout Interstellar, I kept thinking of the 1997 movie Contact, and the similarities between the two movies. Contact copped out at the end with the character returning, but no one believing her. Interstellar goes a few steps further, in the complete wrong direction, by turning love into a scientific force and creating a circular concept of time that raises more questions than it answers. Then the story steps back into its place, and tries to conclude satisfactorily. This attempt is not entirely unsuccessful, but feels somewhat empty due to the strange events leading up to it. Ultimately there is at least conclusion and a spark of hope, even if it does seem a bit cold. While the human race will go on, the final images of the movie deliver one last crushed hope to reinforce the cost of survival.

     Interstellar has exceptionally strong things going for it, but when you start introducing an existential construction that allows the manipulation of time as concurrent rather than chronological events, there are going to be great big plot holes harpooned in the story. The would-be satisfying ending felt somehow cheapened and hijacked by the preceding ten minutes. Unfortunately, those few minutes are the most enduring memory of what would have been one of the best sci-fi dramas of the decade.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

AT LAST!! I'm catching up my summer movies!!

It's only November, so that's not that bad right?

Okay it is. Especially when it comes to the summer movie season. But I'm doing my best to catch up, and in my defense I have several drafts of movie reviews that I just haven't gotten around to finishing, but they're coming eventually. Maybe. I concede that it depends on when my next stroke of inspiration happens to hit.

So anyway, The Avengers: Age of Ultron reunites our favorite team of heroes for another round of world-saving against an all-new foe named... Ultron! Ultron is not your typical Marvel foe, because he is, in fact, one of Tony Stark's own creations gone grievously wrong. Ultron was created to be an artificial intelligence that would protect the planet from the desolation that the malevolent universe will inevitably wreak upon Earth. The problem is, Ultron is a little too artificially intelligent, and within a few minutes of his being, determines that humankind is the real threat to Earth, and must therefore be decimated. Soon, like a deep dark clone of Tony Stark himself, Ultron is strutting his way to total annihilation of the human race, delivering off-handed zingers as he goes.

True to his character, Iron Ego (Tony Stark) isn't quick to repent of creating Ultron. Though in his defense, he did have a devastating nightmarish scenario planted in his brain by Wanda (aka, Scarlet Witch). But even after realizing that the woman somehow got inside his head (which must have been an interesting change for Stark, whose women are usually inside anywhere but his head), he's still convinced that he saw a vision, not an illusion. This is one way in which Stark and Ultron are too similar-- neither one will be easily swayed from believing in their relative superiority. Stark creates a god in his own image, and then refuses to see his own reflection in the creation. As a result, the team's trust in one another, common purpose, and united power begin to dissolve.

The idea of artificial intelligence is one of the most terrifying concepts that humankind has ever conceived. Movies such as I, Robot and Oblivion have explored this same notion and the devastating consequences should such an advent ever occur. Smarter minds than mine agree. As a villain, Ultron should have been absolutely terrifying. James Spader's voice talents certainly give the audience a sense of danger, especially when compared to the even and calm voice of Jarvis. Ultron's control of the internet and electronic-laced world adequately give the feeling of no escape. And yet, something about Ultron simply did not inspire a proper amount of fear and loathing. After consideration and discussion, I think that the failing here was that Ultron was too much like Stark, ergo too much like a human. His sarcasm, poetic and dark dialogue, body language, and expressions seem to give Ultron a soul. It's a warped soul, but a soul nevertheless. This is a distinct difference from the cold, sterile intelligence of say, VIKI from I, Robot. Therefore, Ultron seems like he would be more at home in Star Wars, where droids with personalities are normal.

The secondary villains to this installment are the Maximoff twins Wanda and Petrie. Petrie....? No wait, Pietro. These twins are supposedly the victims of human experimentation, which gives them formidable powers. But really, all we needed was that one moment in the first ten minutes where Wanda messes with Stark's head. It sets up the rest of the plot, and then they really have no point other than to be excuses to use special effects. After the initial thought is planted in Stark's mind, the twins serve no purpose. One of them is disposed of later on in a contrived scene written entirely for the purpose of getting rid of the character. The character's insignificance to the larger story is confirmed not only by the character's death, but also by how unaffected the audience is by the person's demise.

While Age of Ultron was a greatly enjoyable summer blockbuster type flick with some interesting character twists (and a few missteps), I've often said that great villains make great stories, and this story lacks a great villain. Unfortunately, it tries to compensate by taking the road that too many sequels have tread: over-crowding the cast. In Age of Ultron, not only are we dealing with all of the Avengers from the first film, but we also have characters from the stand-alone films featuring in brief but significant ways (Sam Wilson aka Falcon, Peggy Carter, Rhodie, Heimdall). Add to that the Maximoff twins, Ultron and a smattering of minor bad guys, a new superhero, and Hawkeye's family, and the audience has too much to keep up with. By the end of the movie, a new team has assembled, but as the viewer, I don't want to see the new team-- I want the original band back together.

As most Marvel movies are, Age of Ultron is entertaining, funny, often over-the-top, and be-speckled with endearing character moments. The main team of Avengers are distinct and relatable in some way or another, and most viewers have their favorites, which makes these movies just fun. Age of Ultron operates on the assumption that the audience will have seen every Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man movie, so it's not a movie for a newcomer to the Marvel universe, but is certainly an entertaining addition to the already existing library of movies. The movie has its flaws, is cliche in many ways, and would not serve as a good template for sequels, as it doesn't reach the same heights as its predecessor, but that doesn't mean that it's a bad movie. It's simply not a great movie. It's just fun.

Too much to keep up with

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Imitation Game

     Alan Turing is obsessive compulsive, unapproachable, haughty, and the genius that England needs to win the war. With his brilliant mind, he will design a machine that will decode Enigma, and allow English intelligence to intercept German messages. But in order to do this, he must not only learn to cooperate with people whom he esteems to be so decidedly inferior, but he must hide a fact about himself that could cost him everything. 

     The Imitation Game is a thoroughly well-made movie, excellently capturing the social, governmental, and technological confinements of the era. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing with indisputable perfection and maddening precision. His emotional detachment from humans in general is simultaneously entertaining and frustrating as he struggles to communicate, refuses social interaction unless absolutely necessary, and staunchly insists on being irritatingly literal. All of this creates a character who seems very real and defined, but these same characteristics make him exceptionally difficult to identify with as the protagonist of the story. Throughout, as Turing's colleagues sigh or rage in frustration, I more frequently found myself on their side, than on the side of Turing.

     The film-makers try to offset Turing's lack of likability and complete social awkwardness by surrounding him with more attractive and socially savvy people, particularly within the most prominent supporting cast. For the most part, this works onscreen. However, a little bit of background reading on my part revealed that relatives of the real-life Turing described the real Joan Clarke, portrayed by Kiera Knightley, as being exceptionally plain. It may be one of the few times ever that a more plain and homely actress could actually play a notable role (other than "ugly soccer mom", "evil stepsister", etc.), but it goes to Kiera Knightley. I personally think that was probably a sorely missed opportunity for talented ladies like Sally Hawkins or Ruth Wilson. Even a frumped up Kiera Knightley fails to come off as the type of woman who would marry a gay man because she might not get a better offer.

     While The Imitation Game executes some elements excellently, it fell disappointingly short in other areas. By the time the movie was over, I was left wanting more emotionally and dramatically. Towards the end of the movie, more attention is drawn to Turing's persecution as a homosexual, which is an important fact about Turing's life, but it seemed to steer the story off-point somehow. Personally, I felt that juxtaposing Turing's later struggles with the victories and defeats of breaking the enigma code detracted from both sides. Furthermore, the movie missed significant dramatic opportunities. For example, the ethical dilemma of only picking the most important messages to relay, and therefore allowing some to live and others to die, is given one semi-emotional scene and the narration "We played God." The ending title cards briefly mention that the work of the team was not declassified until recent years, leaving all the members of the team to hide their most important work in the years after the war. This same aspect might have been an excellent opportunity onscreen, but once again, glossed over.

     All in all, The Imitation Game is an enjoyable movie, but failed to be the character movie that it so badly tried to be. The movie makes every attempt to make Turing sympathetic while staying true to his character, yet falls short when weighed next to, say, The King's Speech. It would, however, be unfair to leave this review on a negative note, when The Imitation Game succeeds on several other levels. The Imitation Game masterfully draws a technologically savvy audience into the frustration and incomprehensible limitations of archaic machinery, and for a fleeting moment, the audience shares the moment of costly victory when the machine finally works. While connectable character moments are not plentiful, you can't help but feel the weight when the team recognizes for the first time that they must allow an entire ship to be sunk, even though one of their team member's brothers is aboard.

The Imitation Game is certainly an entertaining and interesting movie, just missing something somewhere to bring it to greatness. Yet I can't quite put my finger on it.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

     When Katniss Everdeen sacrificially volunteered for the Hunger Games to save her sister, she could not possibly have foreseen how that simple move would escalate into a nation-wide revolution wherein she herself would become the symbol of rebellion against the oppression of the government. Yet by her will or not, Katniss is the Mockingjay-- the mascot of civil disobedience, and Katniss can finally see that this rebellion is so much larger than what was begun in the Hunger Games, seemingly so long ago.

     Where Mockingjay Part One picks up, Katniss and Finnick, two of the three escapees from the Quarter Quell, are both confined in a facility in District 13 to be treated for post-traumatic stress, and to be protected from the Capital. Katniss wakes up screaming from nightmares of the games, she continually finds herself calling for Peeta, and she finds little comfort in the presence of her mother, sister, or friend Gale. In a way, Mockingjay Part One is a movie all about Katniss's emotions. The movie vacillates from putting Katniss in one situation after another so she can react to it. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does make for rather slow story-telling for the first part of the movie.
Katniss has nightmares. She is upset.
Katniss sees her mom and sister. She is happy.
Katniss meets President Coin. She is mad because they didn't rescue Peeta.
Katniss goes to the ruins of District 12. She is upset.
Katniss sees Peeta on TV. She is upset.
And on it goes.

    Mockingjay Part One works mainly as rising action towards Part Two (which will probably already be released by the time I get this review written), which is fine, but means that Mockingjay Part One only works as part of the larger story, and doesn't stand on its own. Furthermore, because so much focus is placed on Katniss and how she feels, the movie's stellar supporting cast is largely glossed over. Thankfully, there is still enough Effie Trinket to bring some eye-rolling moments to the movie, but not nearly enough Haymitch Abernathy for comic levity. And there's just never enough of Plutarch Heavensbee, who is arguably one of the most interesting characters in the series, and ingeniously portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. To its credit however, the movie needed to introduce and establish new characters, such as President Alma Coin, or Cressida and her film team, so Mockingjay did have a careful line to walk to avoid overcrowding the cast and story, and it really succeeds for the most part. While I might have enjoyed a little more investment in some of the side characters (like Finnick Odair and his own issues with PTSD), it can't be denied that Mockingjay Part One stays unwaveringly on target, even if somewhat ploddingly.

     As previously stated, Mockingjay Part One is, as the title suggests, only part of a bigger story. Therefore, the movie is unquestioningly designed as an installment; a piece that is not meant to feel complete without its predecessors and subsequent Mockingjay Part Two. The ending of Part One certainly sets up what will no doubt be an action-packed and emotionally charged Part Two, which admittedly, I can't wait to see.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Star Wars: What Not to Do

Is there any franchise that has had such a diverse span of soaring success and painful failure as Star Wars?

And I don't mean movies with superfluous sequels, tacked on every few years to make a buck (ahem, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jaws... Land Before Time, I'm looking at you with no small amount of contempt. Die in your shame).

Whether or not another franchise can compete with the iconic status of The Empire Strikes Back and the woeful agony of The Attack of the Clones all under the same name is hard to say, but one thing is certain as regards the next installment of Star Wars: they have everything to gain, and far less to lose thanks to the low bar set by the most recent three movies.

With the internet abuzz about the upcoming Episode VII The Force Awakens, my Yahoo news featuring a daily article countdown to the movie's release, and very few plot leaks escaping to the cyber-world of nerddom, my sci-fi loving side waits with anticipation. My critical side stalwartly refuses to have expectations.

Respectfully, I must acknowledge that pre-production has already made some wise steps that spark some hope for the future of one of sci-fi's most recognizable pieces. For example, Lawrence Kasdan is back on the screenplay team. For those of you who don't care what that means, Kasdan penned The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Wyatt Earp. Aka, good movies. NOT to his credit are any Star Wars attempts from the early millennium years. GOLD STAR! Furthermore, controversial as the choice may be, J.J. Abrams as the director will at least put some finesse back into the general cinematography.

But anyway now that I've laid my groundwork, let's get to one of my famous lists! What follows is a cautionary post that simultaneously warns Star Wars about the pitfalls found by so many other prequels and sequels, and reminds those movies that their sins have not been forgotten. Readers, I present:

Star Wars: What Not to Do 
Brought to you by: the failures of others

1. Don't over-villainize

Spider-Man 3 ended its otherwise semi-respectable reign with a colossal fiasco of a finale, featuring: 

And still featuring the whispers of this guy: 

The name of the movie was Spider-Man 3, not The League of Baddies. 

2. Don't over-plot
X-Men 3: The Last Stand is the unfortunate exhibit of over-plotting. There was simply too much going on at once, with no real focus-- it was just all over the map. Mutant cure is causing an uproar, Dark Phoenix has emerged out of the presumed dead Jean Grey, mutant rights are under attack from the government, Magneto is rallying an army of rogue mutants to bring genocide upon the non-mutants of the country. Amid all this there's Rogue's teen angst over Bobby and Kitty's relationship, Logan's angst over Jean's mental state, and a randomly introduced character named Warren ("Angel") who appears about three times and serves no real purpose due to lack of character development. 

3.  Don't add women, just for the sake of adding women. 

#1 Offender: Tauriel in The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies
The book "The Hobbit" did not feature any women, therefore the presence of Tauriel serves to "fix" that. Add to this that her purpose is merely to defy orders, create soapy drama, and fall in love with a short guy who plays with a rock, her existence is pointless and rather insulting. 

#2 Offender: Natasha Romanov in Iron Man 2
Natasha Romanov's entire purpose in Iron Man 2 was to do exactly what she's doing in the above picture. Up until this moment, her only purpose is to have curves and great hair. When Natasha reappears for The Avengers, she gets it right by having a duty-driven sense of purpose, a little bit of heart, and a fair amount of intelligence. But here, no real purpose unless you count sliding down a hallway, which I don't. 

4. Don't try too hard when reviving classic characters

The fact that original actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fischer are all slated for some sort of return to the new movies is both exciting and concerning. Exciting because it's the characters we know and love. Concerning because they've all aged a good bit and...well.... this has been attempted before, and the result was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  

Doesn't have quite the same appeal does it? 

5. Don't use CGI to detract from bad acting and poor story-lines. We'll still notice. 

Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III
Transformers (all of them)
G.I. Joe
Jurassic Park 3
The Matrix (all of them)

6. Don't waste a good villain

A pawn the whole time.

Killed too early. 

7. Don't kill off main characters just because you can

When writers ran out of ideas, they decided to kill Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations in what is arguably the most anti-climatic death of a major character in sci-fi history. 
     I'm a little nervous about the original Star Wars characters for this reason. So don't kill off anyone important without a really good reason for doing so, and a proper sendoff. 

8. Don't bring back dead characters and think no one will notice. 
X-Men: Days of Future Past. You can't pretend the past didn't happen. 

And most importantly of all....

9. Don't fail to acknowledge when it's time to quit. 
Don't ruin a good thing by overdoing it. Let a good thing have it's heyday, and then let it rest in peace.