REVIEW: “Jurassic World”

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When will they ever learn? Sure, the idea of mixing living, breathing dinosaurs with a theme park sounds like a lucrative can’t-miss idea. But three movies have proven that it leads to nothing but disaster (and a boatload of box office cash). The Jurassic Park franchise has laid dormant for 14 years so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that this sequel and reboot driven movie era would usher in a new installment. What made it an easier decision was the fact that all three of the previous movies did extremely well at the box office. So Universal Studios greenlights a $150 million budget and the result is “Jurassic World” – a poster child for safe, crowd pleasing, summer popcorn flicks.

“Jurassic World” recycles several things from the first film except this time things are a little cheesier, motivations are a little goofier, and many of the people are a little dumber. But that doesn’t mean the film is short on big cool dinosaur moments. There were times when I literally laughed and shook my head at the corny dialogue or stereotypical character. At the same time there were several scenes where I found myself absolutely thrilled at the action or the spectacle on the screen. It’s a conflicting mixture of good and bad which makes my final thoughts on the film hard to nail down.

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Chris Pratt is everywhere these days and in “Jurassic World” he stays within his ‘likable, everyday guy’ comfort zone. He plays a velociraptor trainer named Owen working in the Jurassic World theme park. He’s joined by a plump cast featuring Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire, the park’s director of operations, her two nephews (and obligatory kids) Zach and Grey, B.D. Wong as the park’s chief scientist responsible for creating the dinos, Irrfan Lhan as Simon, the owner and bankroller of the park, Vincent D’Onofrio as the sleazy, shady Hoskins, Omar Sy as Owen’s buddy and fellow trainer Barry, and a host of others.

Basically the story places all if these characters on the island park each with their own little threads of story. For example Claire has agreed to keep her nephews for the week even though she is too busy at the park to entertain them. The boys have the baggage of a possible divorce between their parents back home. Claire had a brief ‘thing’ with Owen in the past but that’s long gone. Now he is butting heads with Hoskins who wants to use Owen’s velociraptors for nefarious purposes. Simon has noble intentions but his demands for bigger attractions open the door for his aggressive science team to do some pretty questionable experiments. And on and on and on. Rarely do any of these subplots leave an impression, but they set the table for the movie’s main attractions – big dinosaurs.

One thing “Jurassic World” does well is presentation. Visually the world we see is vast and filled with impressive creatures and cool landscapes. The dinosaurs themselves look great. Their movements and the way they blend into the world almost allows the audience to completely forget the heavy CGI behind it. I was also impressed by the design and feel of the park. The rides, exhibits, and attractions were well thought out and genuinely believable taking elements from everything from Sea World to Disneyland. Overall the film is just as visually strong as you would expect, and those going for the wild dino-carnage will not be disappointed.

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But I can’t say the same if you’re going into “Jurassic World” hoping for an engaging story. At its very base level the story gets by, but there are plenty of other things that simply don’t work. Again, the characters are pretty one-dimensional, stereotypical, and forgettable. We aren’t given anyone to latch onto. Some are just flat-out bad. D’Onofrio’s Hoskins may be the prime example. The performance isn’t great but the way he is written is even worse. Then there are turns in the story that are too stupid to let slide. I won’t spoil anything but certain evil plans we see are beyond preposterous. Then throw in some incredibly cheesy dialogue and scenes which actually had me laughing and shaking my head in the theater.

So storytelling isn’t the strong point of “Jurassic World”. In fact, the writing keeps it from being the intelligent, engaging film that it could be. But at the same time I actually found myself entertained in the way that big budget summer popcorn flicks sometimes manage to pull off. The visual spectacle, the dinosaur fights, the theme park environment all work to immerse you in a really cool setting. It’s just too bad the underwhelming story, narrative hiccups, and bland characters drag it down to passable but ultimately forgettable levels.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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I don’t know if anyone expected Marvel’s cinematic universe to be the humongous global success that it has become. The comic book giant’s first wave of films brought most of its heavy hitters to the big screen and millions of people to the theaters to watch them. Most critics have responded positively to these films while also showing signs of growing weary of them. But Marvel has started their second wave of movies which will feature some of their more obscure characters. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is one such film and I truly felt Marvel was overreaching. But an over $90 million opening weekend proved me wrong. But as the Transformers franchise has proven, a big box office take doesn’t always represent the quality of the movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a very different installment into Marvel’s movie world. It stands apart in a variety of ways including its tone, its setting, and the characters it brings to the table. It’s overall different feel may have been one of the things that has attracted audiences to it. That being said, it won’t take you long to recognize some pretty familiar plot points wrapped in the film’s shiny, CGI-heavy packaging.

At its core “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a story that you’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfits must overcome their criminal pasts and personal animosities and join together to quell a cosmic threat. It’s that basic and you can see many of the plot angles coming a mile away. But for me a familiar story can be overcome if its centered around good characters. As luck would have it, good characters are one of the film’s greater strengths.

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Chris Pratt continues to deservedly catch people’s attention. Here he buffs up but maintains that lovable goofiness that seems inherent in every character he portrays. He plays a petty space pirate named Peter Quill, a.k.a.Star-Lord. After swiping a mysterious orb, he finds himself being pursued by the henchman of an alien fanatic known as Ronan (Lee Pace). Ronan has made a deal with the ominous Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb in exchange for power to destroy a rival planet.

Peter gets in way over his head and as his circumstances worsen he finds himself joined by a raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana,), and a revenge-fueled warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista). The dysfunctional team begin working together each for their own personal reasons, but as you can probably guess, a proper bond begins to form between them as things move along.

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For me the characters are what anchors this film. Each are unique in their own way and each contribute to the undeniable personality of the movie. There are times when the script does them no favors. There are some corny lines and there are times when the jokes fall flat or feel forced. But there are other times where the chemistry between the characters and between the performers just clicks. These are the moments when the jokes work and the camaraderie is entertaining. I also loved the 70s and 80s culture references sprinkled throughout the film. I did find myself wanting more in terms of backstory from the group (aside from Peter). I also thought Ronan, while extremely cool, was an incredibly bland villain who won’t be remembered past the end credits. But ultimately I liked the characters and am interested enough to see them together again (something that is certain to happen).

The effects and makeup are genuinely good particularly with Rocket and Groot as well as the host of alien side characters three of which are played by Djimon Houndou, Karen Gillan, and one of my favorite character actors Michael Rooker. I do wish Marvel would shake up their standard formula for big action endings. It seems that every film ends with a huge 20 minute CGI blowout that leans more on chaos than coherency. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the ending of “Guardians” doesn’t work. It just felt a bit generic and almost what I’m starting to expect out of every Marvel movie.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” marks Marvel’s first real foray into their rich cosmic universe. It is in the same universe as the other Marvel pictures yet it feels strikingly different. That is part of the charm the movie possesses. It aims to be unique and features characters that I’m not that familiar with. But how that unfamiliarity influenced my response to the movie compared to other Marvel films is hard to figure out. In fact my response to the film as a whole may seem confusing. There are some glaring flaws and shortcomings but at the same time I was entertained enough through the film’s 2 hours. In that respect “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a success. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it just barely missed true greatness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Lego Movie”

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Let me start off by saying Everything is Awesome! My wife and kids are awesome. My mom’s spaghetti and meatballs are awesome. Paris, France is awesome. A ballpark hotdog is awesome. And guess what else, “The Lego Movie” is pretty awesome! Yes even a picky old fogey like me, who finds it hard to find a satisfying animated picture, loved this crazy film based on (of all things) toy building blocks. Who says you can’t make a great movie out of almost anything?

“The Lego Movie” comes from the multifarious minds of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. A Lego movie in some form has been in the works at Warner Brothers since 2008. In 2011 Lord and Miller were brought on board to both write and direct the project. The two had previously worked on the brain-dead “21 Jump Street” and the fairly fun “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”. But “The Lego Movie” reveals a sharp and clever wit that stays consistent throughout the entire film. So many animated movies start promising but loses their focus in a deluge of schizophrenic slapstick or dumbed down humor (I’m looking at you “Wreck-It Ralph”). That’s never the case with this film. It occasional gets close but ultimately the same charm and humor runs consistently through the movie.

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The story centers around a very average construction worker named Emmet Brickowski (voiced wonderfully by Chris Pratt). He is an ordinary by-the-book guy who has no interesting or unique qualities at all. He lives in a Lego city named Bricksburg where everyone follows the same routine, everyone watches the same TV show (think Benny Hill), and everyone sings what must be the national anthem “Everything is Awesome”. Emmet is a lonely fellow but he is too busy following the instructions on how to live to even notice.

But one afternoon by sheer chance he stumbles upon a mysterious object called the Piece of Resistance and an even more mysterious woman named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks). Eventually he learns that the Piece is the key to stopping the dastardly Lord Business (Will Ferrell) who is actually a wealthy businessman and tyrannical President of Bricksburg. His ultimate goal – world domination by squashing the independent creativity of the people and maintaining the world in his image alone (oh yes, the evil capitalist corporation jab). Emmet discovers that he may be the fulfillment of a prophecy which states that one known as the “Special” would use the Piece to thwart Business’ plans. In other words, Emmet’s undistinguished life could be changed forever.

Emmet’s adventure takes him to a number of far away lands. It also introduces him to an number of different people voiced by a host of Hollywood names. There is a policeman with Multiple Personality Disorder (Liam Neeson). There is a blind wizard who first tells of the prophecy (Morgan Freeman). There is the one and only Batman who also happens to be a Master Builder (Will Arnett). There is such a fun assortment of other characters voiced by the likes of Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Shaquille O’neal, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, etc. etc. etc.

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But what separates this from the usual, run-of-the-mill animated feature? I get back to the goofy yet sharp wit of the script and the consistency it maintains from start to finish. I also think it does a marvelous job of straddling the line of comedy aimed at adults and comedy aimed at children. I laughed just as much as my two kids. In fact, we watched it in a packed theater where the boisterous laughs of children were rivaled by the laughs of their parents. That’s not an easy feat for a filmmaker to accomplish. And then there is the entire look of the film. Everything is Lego from the opening and closing credits to the vast colorful landscapes. The motions make you think Lego and even the action sequences stay within the crazy building block bounds. I loved the visual flare.

There are a few things in “The Lego Movie” that I could nitpick, but honestly those minor gripes did nothing to dampen my overall experience. For me this was a rare animated treat but more than that it was a rare modern comedy that actually delivered the goods. Great voice acting, sharp writing, and a wonderful story all the way down to its core. With the bazillions of dollars this movie is making, a sequel is all but guaranteed. I only hope it’s as funny and infectious as this first one because this is a hard act to follow.

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REVIEW: “Her”

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In the not too distant future of Spike Jonze’s “Her” technology has made major leaps, fashion senses have eroded, and Hollywood’s cynical views of relationships have remained the same. Loaded with ambition and lauded by many as the best movie of 2013, “Her” incorporates a familiar science-fiction concept into what is more or less a love story and relational study. But it’s far from conventional or cliché. That said, it isn’t a film free of problems which (for me) ultimately keep it from being the modern day masterpiece that some are touting it as.

The story revolves around Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a nerdy introvert who works as a letter writer for people who have a hard time sharing their feeling. Theodore is a lonely soul. He’s currently involved in divorce proceedings from his first wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and he hasn’t been able to get out of his ever-present state of melancholy. He has practically no social life and outside of his longtime friend Aimee (Amy Adams), there is no significant person in his life.

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Theodore’s life takes a strange and unexpected turn when he purchases a new operating system for his computer. But this is no Windows XP. It is an adaptive artificial intelligence that evolves and takes on its own personality. The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) goes by the name Samantha and soon develops a very personal and intimate relationship with Theodore. Samantha begins to fill the lonely void in Theodore’s life while he becomes her window to a new and exciting world. But the reality that she is an operating system causes him to wrestle with the legitimacy of their relationship.

The science-fiction mainly serves as a subtle backdrop with the exception of the familiar idea of computers becoming sentient. But Jonze deserves credit. He’s really doing a lot more here than first looks might reveal. He takes an interesting look at our infatuation with our gadgets and where that could perceivably lead us in the future. There is also a strong focus on communication or lack thereof. The film shows us several relationships that struggle due to the poor abilities to communicate. And speaking of struggles, prepare for a lot of them. In Jonze’s gloomy view of love, nearly every relationship struggles and has a rare hope for survival.

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On the other hand, it’s the rich and unbridled conversations between Theodore and Samantha that causes their relationship to flourish. There are so many scenes of them just talking about simple things that may seem inconsequential but that are vital to making a relationship work. Phoenix is amazing and completely wraps himself up in his character. He displays an enormous range of feelings with such realistic fervor. And Johansson shows why voice work is deserving of more attention than it’s given. Her voice is sultry and sexy but it’s also warm and vulnerable. These two show a deep and growing attraction, yet even here we see Jonze use a little bait and switch.

But while I really appreciate Jonze’s originality and I love being challenged by deeper thought-provoking approaches, there were a handful of things that kept me from fully embracing this as a great film. First there is the movie’s glacial pacing specifically in the second half. The aforementioned conversations between Theodore and Samantha are good at first, but they reach a point where they no longer move the story along. The countless closeup shots of Phoenix laying on a pillow talking to Samantha well after their love has been established grew a bit tiresome. This only slowed things down for a movie that already had a calculated and deliberate pace.

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The film also contains some unneeded scenes that added little to the movie. Olivia Wilde pops up as Theodore’s blind date. While her presence had a purpose, she was a very flimsy, throwaway character. There is also a weird scene where Samantha calls on a surrogate to serve as her physical body in order to be intimate with Theodore. It’s an intentionally uncomfortable scene laced with a touch of dark humor. But as it plays out things get sloppy especially with the surrogate character herself. And then there are these occasional odd tone-shattering attempts at humor. One involves a lewd act with a dead cat’s tail and the other features a cartoony video game character who suddenly spews a river of obscenities. This silly juvenile humor came across as cheap and both scenes felt completely out of place.

I wish I could toss aside those complaints because “Her” does many things right. It asks some great questions and it certainly allows for a variety of interpretations. For example take the ending. Depending on your interpretation it could be a very light and hopeful ending or a very dark and depressing one. I liked that. I love the work we get from Phoenix and Johansson and Rooney Mara’s character added a deeper emotional twist that I really responded to. But the film’s cynicism, the constant lingering of the second half, and some questionable script choices hurt my experience. It’s one of the few movies that captivated me yet had me checking my watch before it was done. Ultimately that’s a disappointing combination that pushed me away a bit.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“Zero Dark Thirty” – 4.5 STARS

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Kathryn Bigelow may be the boldest and gutsiest director in the business. One things for certain, she’s not scared to jump head first into a part of the film industry sandbox normally dominated by male directors. I think that’s the main reason I like her so much. Bigelow doesn’t allow others to define what type of director she is or what type of movies she’s going to make. She makes the movies she wants to make and lately they just happen to be gritty and realistic military pictures. But what’s really cool is that she does it better than almost anyone else. She doesn’t bow to gender trends, political positions, or industry traditions. She tells powerful and mesmerizing stories and does it her own way.

Bigelow’s latest film is “Zero Dark Thirty” and it didn’t take long for the cries of controversy to begin. This is also a movie that’s received a lot of praise even garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But Bigelow herself received what I think is the biggest snub of the Oscars when she was passed over for a best director nomination. This has brought speculations of gender bias from some while others believe it’s Academy backlash for what they perceive as bad politics from Bigelow. I don’t know about any of that but it’s an inexplicable snub. Bigelow has crafted a dense and thrilling film that surpasses her previous movie, the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is an edge-of-your-seat procedural that follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This isn’t a paper-thin conventional Hollywood action picture. This movie follows the CIA’s taxing search through evidence, information, and leads in order to find the terrorist mastermind. It’s an arduous and toll-taking mission that weeds through enhanced interrogations, misdirections, and loss of life. Bigelow manages to condense this decade’s worth of investigation into a gripping and concise 2 1/2 hours. She stops at critical points during the manhunt, some where we made important progress and others that were disastrous.

Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal and, as with “The Hurt Locker”, they aren’t out to make political points or deliver a heavy-handed statement. Regardless of the “pro-torture” accusations from the left and the “inaccuracy” claims from the right, Bigelow and Boal throw out a lot of information and allow the audience to sort through it, process it, and come up with our own conclusions. I like that. Unlike so many Hollywood productions of this kind, I wasn’t beaten over the head with a political slant. Instead I was allowed to view the events through my eyes and interpret them accordingly. That’s one of the reasons there has been such a range of reactions and I think it’s a sign of brilliant filmmaking.

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Before I move on let me address the “pro-torture” debate that surrounds this film. I think “pro-torture” is a self-serving term that doesn’t do the film justice. Yes the movie shows several scenes of enhanced interrogations and it does say bits of important information were gathered through them. But it also shows the heavy personal and emotional toll it takes and it asks the question ‘Was it worth it?’ Bigelow doesn’t gloss over the harsh and disturbing nature of the torture and it’s impossible to view those scenes in a “pro-torture” light. On the flipside, just when you’re questioning the at-all-cost approach to the search for Bin Laden, Bigelow injects a scene of savage terrorist violence that reminds you of the barbarism at the heart of the enemy. These scenes, along with the brief but sobering opening featuring 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks, really hit home with me and reminded me of the ruthless reality of terrorism. But I had to decide if the ends justified the means and the film makes that decision a challenge.

2012 has been the year of ensemble casts and “Zero Dark Thirty” may have the best of them. It’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of actors that I love. It all starts with Jessica Chastain. She plays Maya, a brash and determined CIA operative whose entire career has been devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. Early on she is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she grows tired of the political wrangling and red tape. She may at times look like a supermodel but she’s really a firebrand who will stir things up to get results. Maya is devoted to her mission and at times she seems like the only one interested in succeeding. But as the movie progresses we see the physical and emotional toll the manhunt is taking on her. Chastain is simply phenomenal. There’s not one disingenuous moment in her entire performance and while 2011 was a great year for her, this was superstar making work.

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And speaking more of that ensemble cast, there are several other standout supporting performances. Jason Clarke is fantastic as a tough and slightly unhinged CIA interrogator. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Maya’s CIA boss in Pakistan. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are perfect as members of the Navy SEAL team tasked with pulling off the final mission. I loved Edgar Ramirez as a skilled CIA ground operative. The great Mark Strong plays a CIA head caught in the middle of Washington politics and the mission at hand. James Gandolfini is a lot of fun as a heftier Leon Panetta. I also enjoyed Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s co-worker who starts as a rival but ends up a good friend. This is just an enormously strong cast from top to bottom.

Everyone knows how “Zero Dark Thirty” ends but that doesn’t keep it from being an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story starts with the frustration of bad leads and dead ends but the intensity is ratcheted up to crazy levels once the first big break comes through. I was absorbed in what I was seeing. And then there is the finale, possibly the best 20 minutes of military action ever put on screen. Bigelow never Hollywoodizes the sequence. She makes it as grounded in reality as possible. But when it comes down to it Kathryn Bigelow likes to make movies about people. This is a movie about women and men who sacrificed their skills, their lives, and some may argue their humanity to accomplish a greater good. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of asking tough questions or of challenging popular sentiments. It’s also a movie made with impeccable filmmaking  style and skill which all comes back to Bigelow. So Academy, you’ve got explaining to do!