JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

June 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.

J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.

We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.

Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.

watch the trailer:

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GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

watch the trailer:

 


JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

June 21, 2015

jurassic world Greetings again from the darkness. I’m guessing that most anyone who enjoys movies and is at least 30 years old, has vivid recollections of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park from1993 (based on the Michael Crichton novel). The iconic theme from John Williams, that initial awe-inspiring look at the dinosaurs grazing in the valley, the reminder that “objects are closer than they appear” in side mirrors, and the late Sir Richard Attenborough stating that he “spared no expense” in creating the park … all merged to became part of an incredibly moving and huge new movie theatre experience.  This latest (and fourth in the franchise) offers us “big”, but very little “new”, and unfortunately nothing very “moving” in its presentation.

Set two decades after the tragic and messy park trial run of that original movie, we find Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help) managing the financially-challenged theme park owned by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi). Chris Pratt is training Velociraptors, while BD Wong is cooking up hybrid and genetically modified monsters such as Indominus Rex – designed to excite the audiences who have become bored with an old-fashioned T-Rex.

Even though this is technically a sequel, there are numerous similarities to the original film, and a fun parlor game consists of spotting all the homage’s and tributes sprinkled throughout. Two of my favorites are the “Winston’s” shop in the park, and the ViewMaster shot early on. These two are tips of the cap to Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen … two giants in the world of special effects.

In what has become the Hollywood “go to” for evil-doers, the secret plan to militarize the dinosaurs is being carried out by Vincent D’Onofrio. Of course, this clashes with Pratt’s ideal life for “his” trainees. The mandatory kids-in-peril are played by Ty Simpkins (Insidious) and Nick Robinson. Much has been made of the absurdity of Ms. Howard’s numerous scenes of sprinting in high heels, and I found her overall demeanor to be every bit as exaggerated and unbelievable as her actions in heels. Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl) and Omar Sy (so wonderful in The Intouchables) were the most “real” characters, though neither was given much to do.

Much of what is written here is “in comparison” to the original. While this may not be fair, it is inescapable when dealing with such a respected and iconic film. Youngsters unfamiliar with the original film, are likely to find this one exciting – even terrifying at times – and that’s an important distinction to make. The Mosasaurus alone is worth the price of admission … and good for a few nightmares!  And who among us wouldn’t pay up for a Baby Triceratops ride in the Petting Zoo?

For the Jurassic Park stalwarts, the inconsistent (sometimes great, sometimes fake-looking) CGI will be as tough to overlook as Ms. Howard’s cartoon character. And yes, composer Michael Giacchino is new to the Jurassic series, and he is wise enough to work in the terrific and familiar John Williams theme in more than one scene.  However, none of the downsides will keep the true fans away, and there is an entire generation of kids who should have the chance to marvel at lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow (previously known for his work on the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed).

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE HELP

August 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the controversial best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It was controversial because it is the story of Jim Crow-era maids written by a white woman. Yes, the book is actually the fictionalized story of a white woman getting black maids to discuss their lives as maids for white folks. Rather than get into some politically correct dissertation on the book, movie or story, I will only comment on the film itself … this very entertaining movie that also manages to deliver a timeless message.  I would call it this year’s The Blind Side, only I like this one more.

 Let me first start by saying that this movie is incredibly well acted. It is quite rare to have so many developed characters in one movie. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while others draw our ire each time their face appears or their mouth opens to speak. The script and these fine actresses utilize humor to point out the shameful behavior of those who saw themselves as superior. The humor doesn’t soften the ignorance or abuse, but it does make the film infinitely more watchable and entertaining. Please know this is not a documentary.

Ms. Stockett’s novel has a very loyal following in addition to the naysayers. A two hour film must, of course, take short cuts and trim story lines. Still the key elements are present. Based in Jackson, Mississippi during Governor Ross Barnett’s term, we see the social shark, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), in her full glory of ignorance, entitlement and superiority. We see her minions and followers emulating her moves while trying to gain her approval.

 The story takes off when Skeeter (Emma Stone) graduates from Ole Miss, returns home and takes a job at the local newspaper. Possessing observation skills and humanity that her lifelong friends can’t comprehend, Skeeter desperately wants to tell a story from the perspective of the maids. As expected, the maids are hesitant, but Aibileen (Viola Davis) finally relents. The stories begin to flow and soon the robust Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins in. Others soon follow their lead and Skeeter’s education goes to an entirely new level.

 That’s really all of the story I care to discuss. The brilliance of this one is actually in the details … individual scenes and moments of acting genius by most of the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Jessica Chastain plays Celia, the “white trash” outcast who so desperately wants to be allowed back into the girls’ club. Ms. Chastain was seen a few weeks ago in the fabulous Tree of Life in quite a different role … I would venture to say no actress will have two roles of such variance this year. Also, Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother, and Sissy Spacek is Hilly’s mother who gets tossed aside before she is ready to go! The great Cicely Tyson makes a brief appearance as Constantine, Skeeter’s childhood maid who was done so wrong after 29 years of service. Mary Steenburgen has a couple of scenes as a big NYC book publisher.

 As I said, this is pure acting heaven, but I must single out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Viola is so powerful at the beginning and end of the film, and Ms. Spencer is a force of nature during the middle. This movie is really their story and these two ladies make it fascinating, painful and a joy to behold. They both deserve recognition at Oscar time.

There are so many fantastic details to the film. At times, it is like watching a classic car show … the late 50’s and early 60’s models are works of art. The wardrobe, hair and make-up are perfect in setting up the class differentials. The TV and radio segments provide context and timing with the deaths of Medger Evers and JFK. Even the books on Skeeter’s shelf make a statement: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Native Son, and Gone With the Wind.

This story takes place 50 years ago and director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of bringing Stockett’s novel to the big screen. Mr. Taylor is a longtime friend of Ms. Stockett’s and was quite fortunate to get the directing rights. He doesn’t disappoint. Sure the story is a bit glossy at times … it is geared towards the masses. If you are looking for more depth, there are numerous documentaries and books available on the Civil Rights movement. If you are seeking a very entertaining movie that uses humor to tell a story and send a message, then this one’s for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the book OR you enjoyed The Blind Side OR you want to see quality entertainment presented with humor and a message.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth history lesson OR you are the type that worships all things politically correct.

watch the trailer:


50/50

August 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The great Richard Pryor had a portion of his act dedicated to having a heart attack, based on his real life experience. I guess if he can generate laughter from a coronary, there is no reason writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) can’t treat Cancer as Comedy. There is little doubt that the subject matter of this film will limit its audience, but for those brave souls who give it a shot, I believe you will find it funny, touching and insightful.

The film introduces us to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a very nice, very normal, very low-key guy who works at a radio station as a writer … a very conscientious radio writer. Adam experiences a nagging pain in his back, which is unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. After a few tests, the emotionless doctor informs him that he has a rare spinal cancer … also very unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. From this point forward, the film borders on brilliance at times.

 Adam’s girlfriend is played by Bryce Dallas Howard; his mother by Angelica Huston; and his best friend by Seth Rogen. Each reacts in different ways to Adam’s diagnosis, but what’s really interesting is not just how these people react, but also how Adam reacts. He moves forward in his meticulous manner, but all the while we know the emotions are brewing. We see this in his sessions with his therapist-in-training played by Anna Kendrick.

Seth Rogen’s character is basically a carbon copy of his act in 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. He spews profane one-liners faster than our ears can process. Usually I find myself quite put off by anything Rogen is involved with, but his character here provides the far-fetched balance that this story requires.  Despite the aggressive front, Rogen’s character is a true friend with a heart … and one who doesn’t hesitate to share his medicinal marijuana.

 So while Rogen’s character generates much of the laughter, the real treasure of this film is in the subtleties of each character in certain moments … and each character has their moment. Many will compare this to Adam Sandler‘s film Funny People, which also starred Seth Rogen. But this movie has infinitely more depth and substance than that one offered, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a significantly better actor than Sandler.

My warning: brace yourself. The theatre was filled with tears and sniffles, with significant laugh out loud moments mixed in. This is an emotional, self-reflective film that will confound you as you inexplicably laugh while listening to cancer talk.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a totally different take the devastating effects of cancer … on health, emotions, relationships, etc – all done in a very personal, believable style.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t get your head around the idea of Cancer as Comedy

watch the trailer:


HEREAFTER (2010)

October 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. One of the advantages to not being dependent upon movie reviews for food and shelter is that there is no concern for a superstar holding a grudge against me and my opinions. Make no mistake, director Clint Eastwood is a Hollywood powerhouse and also one of the most consistently fine filmmakers working today. Still, no one bats a thousand … this is a miss, with barely a swing.

The film follows three basic stories. The first revolves around George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who seemingly has true psychic abilities. The problem is that George does not wish to have anything to do with his “powers”. The second involves twin brother, Marcus and Jason, who live with their druggie mom. Things change quickly when Jason is hit and killed by a truck and Marcus is taken away while his mom rehabs. The third story has Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) as an investigative reporter who gets caught in a tsunami while vacationing and has a “near death experience”.

I will not go into detail for any of the three stories other than to say Jay Mohr plays Damon’s money-grubbing brother who wants to take his talent to the big time; the sadness of the surviving twin is tough to take at times as he searches for a connection to his dead brother; and lastly, Marie’s near-death brings her closer to life than she ever was before.

What is most surprising, given the pedigree of Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Last King of Scotland) is that this movie and each of these stories are, for lack of a better word, quite boring. We really get little insight into any of the characters – other than the overall sadness each shows regularly. The sub-story with the most interest involves a brief encounter with a secret research clinic sporting a Nobel Prize winner. The clinic evidently has much research and data on this topic.

As you have already guessed, these three stories intersect near the film’s end. This is a ploy that is all too common in Hollywood these days. I won’t give away how it all comes together, but it bordered on eye-rolling. The film does not depend upon the viewer’s beliefs or understanding, though I personally believe some people do have a heightened sense of awareness and connection. That’s not really what it’s about. It’s more about sadness, loneliness and the need for personal connection while alive.

As usual, Mr. Eastwood has put together a terrific score. And I will gladly admit that the first 7-10 minutes of the film, including the tsunami were captivating … and I loved the connection with Charles Dickens. That’s the best I can offer for the film, and here’s hoping Eastwood’s biopic on J Edgar Hoover brings significantly more interest and entertainment value.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you somehow enjoy watching sad, miserable people talk to other sad, miserable people OR you want to see a really cool CGI tsunami on screen.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you aren’t the president of the Clint Eastwood Fan Club OR you find connections between the present and afterlife to be full- baked baloney.