REVIEW: “Jurassic World: Dominion” (2022)

Hot on the heels of the mega-hit “Top Gun: Maverick”, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is the next big blockbuster on the 2022 summer movie calendar. It’s predecessor, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was a monumental disappointment, lacking the awe and wonder that made even the lesser Jurassic installments entertaining. And its story devolved into something too absurd, even for a movie based on a modern day dinosaur amusement park.

Still, “Fallen Kingdom” earned well over $1 billion at the box office and a sequel was all but assured. Enter “Dominion” which takes place four years after the events of the previous film. To “Fallen Kingdom’s” credit, it did leave the series in an interesting place. If you remember, dinosaurs were suddenly loose across our country. The fabulous Jeff Goldblum pops up in a cameo (reprising his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm) and tells a U.S. Senate committee that we have entered a neo-Jurassic Age where humans and dinos must co-exist.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

That leads to “Dominion”, an ambitious movie that attempts to bring together the old and the new. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return from the “Jurassic World” movies while Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum are reunited from the “Jurassic Park” films. It’s a cool idea and there are moments of nostalgic glee even for a lukewarm Jurassic fan like me. But “Dominion” is a weird movie that struggles to find a rhythm. There’s entertainment to be found, but you have to wade through some messy parts to find it.

With so many characters, director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow backs himself into a corner. He has to introduce each in a way that gives them stakes in the story. He has to develop them so that they have purpose beyond just refilling their character’s shoes. So we get the film’s first half that is literally and figuratively all over the map. It does set the table for its better second half, but getting there is a bit of a chore.

The most disappointing thing is how “Dominion” never really lives up to its promise. Ian Malcolm’s words in the “Fallen Kingdom” cameo made it sound like “Dominion” was going to give us mankind and dinosaurs fighting to co-exist. Instead the bulk of the movie once again moves to a fairly confined space and again features an overambitious (and in this case utterly mad) scientist who never questions what he’s doing. It fits with original writer Michael Crichton’s sharp critique of genetic tinkering. But it doesn’t expand on Crichton’s idea in the way it advertised.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The movie sets its two batches of character on different paths before inevitably bringing them together in the final third. Everyone’s favorite (and I’m quite sure only) Velociraptor trainer Owen (Pratt) and former Jurassic World park manager Claire (Howard) are living a secluded life high up in the the mountains. They have adopted young Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the world’s first successful human clone (I had completely forgotten her angle). But when a group of baddies kidnap Maisie, Owen and Claire set out to find her.

Meanwhile, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Dern) is secretly studying a destructive swarm of giant prehistoric locusts. She traces their origin to an evil corporation called BioSyn that is headed by the slimy Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). Ellie wants to link Dodgson to the swarm and convinces her old colleague, paleontologist Alan Grant to help. And it just so happens Ellie has an inside man – mathematician and smooth-talker extraordinaire, Ian Malcolm (Goldblum).

As things play out we do get a cool action sequence in Malta (although the story surrounding it is pretty absurd). That’s where we’re introduced to a new character, Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise). She’s a pilot-for-hire who out-of-the-blue decides to help Owen and Claire. Kayla adds a little toughness to the story but not much else.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

All roads eventually lead to the BioSyn laboratories and dinosaur reserve where the movie finally picks up a little steam. There, Ellie, Alan, and Ian are reunited and do a little super-sleuthing. That also happens to be where Maisie is being held. You can probably already see how all of the character pieces start coming together. The final act plays much more like a traditional Jurassic Park movie, with our heroes caught in a madman’s domain where dinosaurs are roaming free. Here we get some genuinely fun moments and it’s where the characters feel most like themselves.

Again, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is messy and it takes forever to get its footing. And I can’t help but be disappointed by it shortchanging the who “coexisting” angle. And there are logic questions galore. For example, I’m still trying to figure how the dinosaurs multiplied to such vast numbers and spread all over the globe in only four years. But “Dominion” is a pretty dramatic step up from “Fallen Kingdom”. There is a big variety of dinosaurs for old and new for fans. And we get plenty of scene-stealing lines from the terrific Jeff Goldblum (he’s also part of the funniest laugh-out-loud joke I’ve seen in a movie this year). But these things can’t fully cover the film’s numerous shortcomings. I can appreciate the ambition, but this is a case where Trevorrow and company bit off more than they could chew. “Jurassic World: Dominion” opens today (June 10th) exclusively in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Jackass Forever” (2022)

I wasn’t planning on seeing “Jackass Forever”, the fourth film based on the once weirdly popular MTV reality show. The proudly dimwitted franchise’s crude and over-the-top antics earned it a pretty vocal legion of fans. Though admittedly amusing at times, the “Jackass” schtick ran its course with me a long time ago. Yet here sits “Jackass Forever”, a revival of the series that hasn’t been on the big screen since 2010. And that it sits at almost 90% on Rotten Tomatoes is more bewildering than the movie’s existence after over a decade away. That’s why I decided to see it.

Created by Jeff Tremaine, Spike Jonze, and Johnny Knoxville, the “Jackass” television series ran on MTV from 2000 to 2003 before blossoming into its own film franchise. Routinely crossing the bounds of taste and decency became equally if not more important to the showrunners than good comedy. And you could argue that that trend continues in “Jackass Forever” which isn’t as much of a movie as it is a collection of stunts, gags, and pranks pulled between friends.

Some have tried assigning deeper themes to the film (masculinity, the rituals of male bonding, etc.). But “Jackass Forever” is really just more of the same – grown men doing stupid stuff for the camera to shock their audience and test the MPAA’s limits. The big difference here is the guys have gotten older and it seems they can now get away with pretty much anything.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Knoxville and company bring back some of the old stunts from their past shows and add a few new ones in that same vein. Stuff like getting bucked to the moon by a bull. Blowing up portable toilets. Or shooting themselves out of a cannon. The hidden camera pranks have always been my favorite bits. Unfortunately there aren’t many to be found in “Jackass Forever”. That’s because so much time is spent punching each other in the privates, shooting paintballs at each other in the privates, electrocuting their privates, putting honey bees all over their privates, putting costumes on their privates, luring a vulture to peck their privates, and so on.

Maybe I’m expecting a too much from a stunt-based reality television show brought to the big screen. Then again, maybe I’m not. Maybe it’s not a stretch to want a glorified sketch show to go for more than cheap lowbrow material. Yet it keeps going back to it, which will probably satisfy the hardcore fans, but it ultimately becomes an endurance tests for those of us lacking the nostalgic attachment to this nutty franchise.

“Jackass Forever” seems to operate under the banner “the trashier the better”. It seems more interested in pushing the envelope with full frontal male nudity, bodily fluids, and constant butt shots rather than pushing itself to be funnier, crazier, and more spontaneous. Shock and gross-outs take precedent over anything creative or original. It’s just exhausting. I suppose there is something to say for a bunch of long-time friends having fun doing their own thing. I just don’t remember their “thing” being this unbearable. “Jackass Forever” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Justice League: War” (2014)

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In 2013, “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” ended with the revelation (sorta) of a new alternative DC timeline. This cracked the door to the DC Animated Movie Universe, a shared-world series of feature-length films taking place within the new timeline. The first to fully explore this new space was “Justice League: War”, an action-fueled animated movie that essentially tells the story of the formation of this world’s Justice League.

“Justice League: War” is an adaptation of the 2011 “Justice League: Origin” comic book storyline from writer Geoff John’s and penciller Jim Lee. It told the rebooted origin story of the Justice League of America following the events of “Flashpoint” which reset the entire DC Universe. In the same way, “War” sets out to define this new world while also introducing the major players in DC’s superhero catalogue. Much like “The Flashpoint Paradox”, this is a tall order that proves to be a little more than an under 80-minute movie can cover. But “War” manages the wealth of material in a surprisingly fun and agile way.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

The story begins with Batman (Jason O’Mara) looking into a series of abductions around Gotham City. During his investigation he crosses paths with a wisecracking Hal Jordan aka Green Lantern (Justin Kirk). The two don’t necessarily hit it off but join up to fight a Parademon who leads them into into the sewer where the creature activates a mysterious device called a Mother Box. Unsure of what they’re dealing with, Batman and Green Lantern head to Metropolis to seek the help of a powerful meta-human named (you guessed it) Superman (Alan Tudyk). After a not-so-friendly first encounter, the three join forces to fight the waves of Parademons overtaking the city.

Elsewhere another Mother Box is being studied at S.T.A.R. Labs in Central City by scientist Silas Stone (Rocky Stone). This introduces both Cyborg (Shemar Moore) and Flash (Christopher Gorham) into the story. In Washington DC, Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), serving as a political envoy, arrives to meet with the President of the United States but is greeted by a sea of protesters. Meanwhile a young delinquent foster child Billy Batson (Zach Callison) witnesses a Parademon and transforms into the mythical powerhouse Shazam (Sean Astin). These burgeoning superheroes from dramatically different backgrounds will have to come together once the threat behind the Parademons, Darkseid (Steve Blum) reveals himself.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Heath Corson zip through the story with an action-packed pacing that can be both exhilarating and a bit numbing. The big set pieces are well choreographed and nicely animated but eat up so much of the running time, especially in the last 20 minutes or so. And as with many of these films, the action ends up taking precedent over any emotional stakes. The character models are top-notch – a nice combination of classic style and the newer look inspired by Jim Lee’s “Origin” design. The voice work is mostly good especially from O’Mara, Moore, and Gorham (not so good from Astin). But the biggest surprise is the humor. Corson’s script has some unexpectedly well-timed jabs and witty one-liners that land well and aren’t overpowering.

But not everything lands as well. Wonder Woman shines in the action sequences but her cringe-worthy introduction is tough to watch. The movie goes for some wacky fish-out-of-water vibe that makes her more oafish that heroic. Thankfully Oliva and Corson steer away from that in the later scenes. And I can’t help but wish the story took a more intimate look at its characters. As it is, only Cyborg’s story is given a personal touch; Batson/Shazam to a degree. Still, “Justice League: War” is a fun early entry into the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as a pretty interesting introduction to a world with lots of potential. It’s available to stream on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Jolt” (2021)

You can make a convincing case that Kate Beckinsale is an underrated actress who too often flies under audience’s radars. She also has a remarkable range. One minute she’s starring in a period comedy based on a 1794 Jane Austen novel and the next she’s leading a vampire coven as they shoot through packs of ravenous enemy werewolves. She brings her sharp wit and knack for action to her new film “Jolt”, a kinetic jaunt from Amazon Studios with some clear franchise ambitions.

The film is directed by Tanya Wexler (“Buffaloed”) from a script written by Scott Wascha. Both approach the story from just the right angle and never try to make “Jolt” more than what it’s meant to be – a crazy and at times deliciously over-the-top action flick with attitude and humor to spare. And while this first film doesn’t exactly scream “franchise”, I had a good enough time with “Jolt” that I would happily jump back into this world again.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Beckinsale is in cracking form playing Lindy, a woman with serious anger management issues. A brief narrated prologue gives us a little backstory. From an early age she had a “condition” that would hurl her into a violent uncontrollable rage whenever people do bad things. Over the years it grew harder to control these impulses, and the lack of love at home made her angrier and more volatile. Lindy was eventually diagnosed with Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Her teen years were spent as a lab rat until she was old enough for the military, but that too proved to be a disaster. So just when she thought she would end up in a cell for the rest of her life, a harsh but surprisingly successful treatment came her way.

Now an adult, Lindy gets by thanks to Dr. Ivan Munchin (Stanley Tucci), a psychiatrist whose “cutting-edge avant-garde treatment” helps her keep her condition under control (sorta). She wears a vest of sorts that jolts her body with electricity whenever she pushes a button that she keeps in her hand. Whenever she feels that fiery impulse…bzzzz…impulse gone. But as her body grows more tolerant, Dr. Munchin remains nervous about upping the voltage. He’s certain that the only real way to overcome her condition is by mentally facing her demons. And finally engaging in some normal social functions would hurt.

Lindy decides to give social interaction a try by going on a blind date with a genteel accountant named Justin (Jai Courtney). She tries to run away at first but is ultimately taken in by his nerdy charm. He seems like the perfect guy and a chance for Lindy to get a taste of a normal life. But remember, this isn’t a romcom or a Hallmark Channel original. Lindy’s dream of normalcy is shattered when she learns that Justin has been murdered. Understandably fearing the worse, Dr. Munchin tells her to let it go, but she’ll have none of that. So against her doctor’s recommendations, Lindy sets out to find who killed Justin and make them pay. “I hurt people. Might as well put it to good use.”

As Lindy sets out on her quest for revenge she crosses paths with a number of baddies and one particularly powerful businessman/crime boss played by a surly David Bradley. She also has the police hot on her trail led by a sympathetic and slightly smitten Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and his cranky yet dogged partner Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox). Through it all Wexler shows off her eye for action, letting loose with several high-energy fight scenes and one especially cool car chase. And while the movie gets a little action-heavy in the second half, it never loses its self-awareness and sharp sense of humor.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There are so many ways that “Jolt” could have flown off the rails, but Wexler’s smart and confident direction keeps it on track. It turns out to be a delightfully weird and consistently entertaining romp. That’s not to say there aren’t a few hiccups. While Bradley has the cold smugness of a good villain, his character doesn’t have much depth. I never had a good grasp of who he was or the outfit he ran. And there are parts of the story just don’t click. Take when Lindy enters a police department full of detectives, hidden only by a pair of sunglasses, and marches right into the evidence room without an ounce of resistance. And there’s a final act twist that leads to a fun moment yet isn’t the least bit plausible.

But you can’t really get caught up in plausibility with a movie about a woman running around in an electrified vest shocking herself to keep her anger in check. You just go with it and have a good time. There’s just so much here to like starting with Beckinsale’s magnetic presence. Full of attitude, snark, and a snappy comedic timing, the 47-year-old actress gives the movie a charge and carries it through. I’m not sure where the series goes from here, but I’m certainly onboard for another ride. “Jolt” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Jungle Cruise” (2021)

When it comes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the only thing bigger than his beefy biceps may be his larger-than-life personality. The convivial main event wrestler turned box office movie star has an enormous presence and an infectious charm that has made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood. It just so happens that one of the few people who can match those qualities on screen is also his co-star in the upcoming big-budget blockbuster “Jungle Cruise”.

Emily Blunt doesn’t self-promote quite like Johnson (few do), but she has the same sparkling charisma and effervescent allure as her brawny screenmate. And while she’s easily the better dramatic actor of the two, Blunt also has a sharp wit and a playful energy that easily matches the high-profile Johnson. That’s part of what makes “Jungle Cruise” such an exciting summer movie experience. It features two inherently lovable talents bouncing off each other like an old-school screwball duo. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have Disney bankrolling it to the tune of $200 million.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

I doubt this will be the only place you read this, but this newest theme park ride inspired movie from the House of Mouse plays very much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “The African Queen”. And if you look closer you can even see traces of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Tomb Raider”. From the very start it’s clear what “Jungle Cruise” aspires to be and a ton of money has been poured into the big action set pieces and digital effects. But what keeps it alive is the cracking chemistry between its two wonderful leads.

Blunt plays the adventurous and slightly neurotic Dr. Lily Houghton, a botanist and all-around go-getter. In the film’s frisky opening few minutes we get a good dose of her resourcefulness and resolve as she butts heads with the backwards patriarchy of 1916 England. Lily believes she has discovered the location of the mystical Tree of Life, a find that could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. But it’s dismissed as nothing more than myth and superstition by the stuffy all-male science society in London who refuse to back her expedition. Undeterred, Lily ‘borrows’ a certain artifact from the society’s archives and heads to South America with her cowardly but ever-loyal brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).

Lily’s map points to the heart of the Amazon jungle as the location of the Tree of Life. But there’s one pretty big problem – she doesn’t have a boat. Enter Johnson who plays Frank Wolff, the captain of a beat-up riverboat he affectionately calls La Quila. Frank’s gig of taking gullible tourists on shoddy jungle cruises isn’t enough to pay off his debt to a crotchety port manager played by Paul Giamatti. So he jumps at the chance to take Lily and MacGregor up the river for a handsome fee.

As you can probably guess, their journey is filled with plenty of danger – wild animals, violent rapids, unwelcoming natives. What you probably wouldn’t guess is that the biggest danger they face is a hilariously deranged German blu-blood in a submarine named Prince Joachim (a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons). He too believes in the Tree of Life and will do anything to find it before Lily, even if it means resurrecting a pack of creepy cursed conquistadors led by the always enjoyable but woefully underused Édgar Ramírez.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Jungle Cruise” is directed by frequent Liam Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra who sets out to create a fun old-fashioned adventure with an equal amount of swashbuckling and slapstick. The script (from the trio of Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) is silly and light-hearted, reminiscent of the late-1960’s pulp you would find at a Saturday afternoon matinee. You see it most in the film’s first (and best) half, and that throwback vibe kept a smile on my face. In the second half the story commits to unpacking its mythology which frankly isn’t all that interesting. And there are a couple of weirdly out-of-tune scenes that feel like they belong in an entirely different movie. But those things turn out to be small issues because the filmmakers never lose sight of their biggest strengths – Johnson and Blunt.

Of course this is a major Disney blockbuster meaning that we also get action and visual effects aplenty. There is a ton of CGI; a bit too much in a few scenes. But the bulk of the film looks tremendous and the jungle settings are both beautiful and foreboding. But regardless of the high-dollar paint and polish, it always comes back to Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Of course they nail the comedy just as you would expect (I laughed a lot). But the surprise comes in the amount of warmth and sincerity they generate between them. They somehow manage to make this boisterous over-the-top adventure feel unexpectedly intimate. “Jungle Cruise opens this Friday (July 30th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” (2013)

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The DC Animated Movie Universe kicked of with “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox”, a precursor of sorts to the sixteen-film shared world series that ran from 2013 to 2020. The movie is an adaptation of the 2011 comic book crossover event “Flashpoint” from writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert. “Flashpoint” dramatically altered the DC Comics landscape leading to an aggressive reboot of the entire DC Universe. This film (directed by Jay Oliva) doesn’t feel as weighty as Johns and Kubert’s work, but it is faithful to the source material which is both a strength and a weakness.

“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” is refreshing in the sense that it isn’t another Superman or Batman story. Don’t get me wrong, I love those superheroes and both have roles to play in this film (more so with Batman). But as the title suggests, Barry Allen aka The Flash (voiced by Justin Chambers) takes center stage. I’ve always liked The flash and I remember how much I enjoyed reading the 2011 “Flashpoint” event with him as the central character. Similarly it’s nice see Barry Allen leading a DC animated film, especially one this ambitious.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“The Flashpoint Paradox” opens with a fairly inconsequential prologue. Barry Allen is at the Central City Cemetery visiting his mother’s grave when he is alerted to a break-in at the Flash Museum. He arrives to find a host of familiar rogues led by none other than his archenemy Eobard Thawne aka Professor Zoom aka Reverse-Flash (he’s voiced by C. Thomas Howell). With the help of his fellow Justice Leaguers, Flash intervenes and thwarts their plan to blow up the city.

The next day Barry wakes up at his work desk to find the entire world has been turned upside down. It starts with the discovery that his mother is alive and his wife is married to someone else. There is no Justice League and a bloody feud between the Atlanteans led by Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and the Amazons led by Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) has the world teetering on the brink of war. To find out what has happened Barry seeks out Batman. But in this world young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley and a boozing grief-stricken Thomas Wayne (Kevin McKidd) dons the cape and the cowl.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“Flashpoint Paradox” is filled with these types of character variations – Cyborg (voiced by Michael B. Jordan) is a government liaison working directly with the president of the United States, Lois Lane is an embedded reporter turned resistance fighter deep behind the New Themyscira border, and so on. In keeping with the comic series Oliva and writer Jim Krieg pour on the characters, but in the movie’s cramped 80-minute running time there are simply too many to adequately cover. Several amount to nothing more than cameos while others only seem to be there to be killed off in some shocking fashion. Those familiar with the source material know this isn’t the filmmaker’s intent, yet it’s an unfortunate result of the movie’s hurried effort to cover all its ground.

It’s a little unfair to compare “The Flashpoint Paradox” to the comic series considering they’re two completely different forms of media with their owns sets of strengths and limitations. But it’s hard to avoid doing so when the movie sticks this close to its inspiration. The animation is solid and the voice acting is even better. And as someone who read and followed  “Flashpoint”, I can’t help but appreciate the film’s loyalty. It’s the kind of thing that will certainly win over ardent DC fans, but as a standalone movie it feels rushed and it can’t quite capture the significance and importance that made the 2011 event such a game-changer.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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