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: “Mood Indigo”

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Filmmaker Michel Gondry has had his hands in all sorts of projects. He’s made music videos, short films, documentaries, and even television commercials. He has also made a handful of feature films of which I have seen two – the visually striking and potent “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the painfully unwatchable “The Green Hornet”. His most recent film “Mood Indigo” falls somewhere in between the two.

I was really excited for “Mood Indigo” not so much because of Gondry but because of its cast which features some of France’s most recognized performers. Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, and Omar Sy bring a huge spark to this strange romance fantasy, but they can only do so much. Gondry goes all-in creating his surreal Dali-esque dreamworld. He bombards us with it and within the narrow bounds of a two hour movie it’s just too much.

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The film is based on “Froth on the Daydream”, a 1947 novel by Boris Vian. It tells the story of a wealthy and happy man named Colin (Duris). He loves his life. He loves the food and company of his cook Nicolas (Sy). He has a wonderful and trustworthy best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). Gondry shows us Colin’s life through a wild assortment of off-the-wall but playful imagery and gadgetry. This is important because it is truly intended to be a visual representation of Colin’s state of mind. The visuals grow more whimsical and colorful when he meets and falls in love with Chloé (Tautou). The two hit it off and in no time are married.

Colin and Chloé’s relationship drive the remainder of the film both visually and narratively. The two are madly in love and Gondry visualizes it in a number of vibrantly wacky and bizarre ways. But that changes when Chloé is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Not only does the story take on a more depressing tone, by the visuals go from bright and playful to dreary and bleak. It’s a direct reflection of Colin’s mood and state of mind as his life literally decays right before our eyes. It’s a fascinating stylistic approach that shows Gondry’s insanely cool creative side.

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At the same time it is Gondry’s wild surreal world that is the movie’s biggest flaw. While the craziness does a great job of interpreting feelings it also goes overboard and becomes an annoyance. Gondry never pulls back and he sometimes smothers his story with his relentless imagery. Quite frankly some of it made no sense and came across as indulgent. I appreciate the film telling a good story in a very unorthodox way, but I often found myself distracted from the main story and at times uninterested in what Gondry was doing. Too much is too much.

Gondry’s stylistic excesses hurt the film but they don’t hurt the performances. Duris and Tautou have always been able to act with charisma and charm and it’s no different here. Both gracefully move from jaunty and merry to downcast and broken. But I had the most fun watching Omar Sy. He may be the most unique character in the film and Sy gives one of the best supporting performances of 2014. These three are joys to watch and they are the film’s most appealing components. As with the moving and poignant story, their performances sometimes get overshadowed by Gondry’s relentless visual wackiness. That’s unfortunate because ultimately that is what keeps “Mood Indigo” from being as good as it could have been.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“The Intouchables” – 4.5 STARS

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Rarely does a movie blatantly push all of my buttons yet completely win me over. That’s the case with the French drama The Intouchables. This is an irreverent and unashamed movie that aims to be a crowd pleaser and boy was it. It was a huge box office smash after its November 2011 release in France and eventually opened in the United States in 2012. But some critics have dismissed the film for its pandering to audiences and many critics who gave it positive reviews still spoke against its aim at broad appeal. But it doesn’t stop there. In absurd attempts to malign the film some critics have even deemed the movie to be racist and utterly offensive. Well this may not be the most well written quick response to these objections but I’ll say it anyway – Give me a break!

I have absolutely no problem with a movie aiming to be a crowd pleaser if it’s a good movie. The Intouchables is a very good movie and it works because of a smart and often times hilarious script and two fantastic lead performances. While it certainly goes for the feel-good emotion it also makes no apologies for its brash and playful handling of subjects that are often treated gingerly. For me that wasn’t a point of criticism. Instead it was fresh and new and one of the film’s several strong points. And the racism accusations defy reason. I’m not going to start breaking down plot points that prove the absurdity of the argument but let’s just say the film never promotes or depicts anything that led me to believe it was the slightest bit racist.

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Now to the story – Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano both wrote and directed this story of a wealthy quadriplegic man named Philippe (François Cluzet) and his new caregiver Driss (Omar Sy). The film starts with the two men speeding down a Paris street in Philippe’s Maserati. It’s obvious to us that the two have developed a bond and a friendship. From there the movie tells us their story through a one long flashback which begins with Philippe’s search for a new caregiver. A line of applicants sit in his lavish Paris mansion and among them is Driss. The other applicants are well dressed and educated in home care but all lack experience and some are just buffoons. Driss on the other hand is only there to get a signature to show he applied for the job and therefore qualify for a benefit. Fed up with waiting he barges in and gives a pretty brash “interview”.

Eventually Philippe hires him against the wishes of his staff. They find Driss to be loud and obnoxious but Philippe is looking for someone who doesn’t pity him and makes him feel alive. That’s the bond that fuels their relationship. The bulk of the film focuses on these two men and their improbable friendship. Both have their own set of issues and both find a release in the other. This is what I really responded to and not once did I find their relationship disingenuous or fabricated. I loved their playful banter and I appreciated how Philippe’s handicap was never used as a melodramatic pawn to anchor the narrative. Instead the film attempts to make him a real person to us. Yes he’s sympathetic but we also see him as experiencing life with the help of Driss.

The bigger reasons all this works are the two lead performances. Cluzet and Sy are brilliant and watching them play off each other is great entertainment. I found both performances to be full of sincerity and perfectly suited for the material. I had seen Cluzet in a handful of other French films including the more recent “Little White Lies” so his strong work here didn’t surprise me. But I was surprised at just how good Sy is. It’s really a big performance but it works very well. And I was blown away by his comedic timing, something that seems completely natural to him.

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This leads me to another of The Intouchables strong points – the script. Nakache and Toledano put together a fantastic story that’s a great mix of heartwarming drama and hysterical comedy. For me it was the comedy that shined the brightest. Cluzet and Sy were great but a key reason for that was the well written screenplay. I loved the steady flow of humor and I have to say I haven’t laughed this much at a movie in a long time. But even the dramatic moments were strong and I was just as invested in them as anything else. They’re thoughtful and well conceived and aside from the occasional scene of contrived sentimentality it all comes together perfectly, just as you would hope it would.

There are several other things that I really loved about the film from the supporting work of Audrey Flouret and Anne Le Ny to the the beautiful piano driven score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. But I think you get the point. Suffice it to say The Intouchables was a fantastic experience from its brilliant opening to its satisfying final scene. It’s an example of smart and capable filmmaking that can make you laugh as well as tug at your heartstrings. Yes it’s sometimes a bit showy and yes it sometimes plays to the masses, but I could care less. As long as it’s a good film I’m fine with it. And for me The Intouchables is a great film and one of 2012’s very best. I can’t wait for the opportunity to see it again.

Check out my review of another solid French drama, “Girl on the Bridge“.