Sunday, June 28, 2015

Testament of Youth

I am such a hopeless sucker for these types of movies. They are certainly something the British know how to make all too well. Sweeping historical epics full of turmoil, tragedy and romance. Testament of Youth is certainly one that fits in well among them. It's a curious one too, as it is part coming of age tale, part war film and part romance. But it all works very well together, based on the 1933 memoir by Vera Brittan. 

As the film opens, we are introduced to Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander), an intelligent and headstrong girl nearing adulthood. Her parents (played by Emily Watson and Dominic West) are only concerned that she find a suitable husband to settle down with, but Vera is clearly not interested and is far more interested in her writing and trying to get into Oxford. She is horrified when she returns home one day to find her father has purchased a piano for her, feeling he got it for her to play to impress potential suitors. She tells her parents she never intends to marry just as her brother Edward's school chum Roland Leighton (played by Kit Harington), arrives to visit Edward on holiday along with another of Edward's friends, Victor Richardson (played by Colin Morgan). Edward (played by Taron Egerton) and Vera are very close siblings and it's not long until she is friends with the other two boys as well. As the boys depart to head back to school, Vera writes to Edward and asks about Roland. Roland writes back directly and a romance between the two begins. They spend a holiday together in London, with Vera's aunt as chaperone but they continually try to dodge her. 

Returning home on holiday, Edward talks to their father and is able to convince him to allow Vera to take the Oxford entrance exam. To everyone's surprise, including Vera, she got in. The following fall, she begins studying at Oxford. But there is trouble brewing and before long, World War I has broken out and Edward, Victor and Roland are off to war. Initially, Vera remains at school, but no longer able to bear being there and feeling she needs to do her part, Vera volunteers as a nurse tending to the wounded, first in the UK and then later she moves closer to the front lines in France, where she encounters first hand the true horrors of war.

This film offers a very unique perspective of World War I, from the eyes not of someone on the front lines, but someone all the same irrevocably changed by the events of it. The film really is told from Vera Brittan's perspective and much of the weight of the film falls on Alicia Vikander, who carries the film well. Her path does cross with her beloved "three musketeers" as she referred to them throughout her time as a nurse, but we see very little of the front line only what Vera is imaging as she reads correspondence from one of the boys. 

As for the three boys, they are all wonderfully well played, each endearing themselves to the audience in their own ways in the limited amount of time we have to get to know them prior to the war breaking out. The one that made the film for me was Taron Egerton as Vera's brother Edward. He did a great job in the role and he and Alicia did a great job of showing the close bond the two siblings shared. Kit Harrington finally gets a chance to step outside the shadow of his Game of Thrones role, Jon Snow, and shows a bit more range as an actor here as the romantic lead of sorts. Roland is a bit of a kindred spirit to Vera in a lot ways, often to her surprise, as he supports both her suffrage efforts as well as sharing a desire to write. Colin Morgan is saddled with the role of the bit of the third wheel of the quartet, but in a way that makes his character more memorable. It's pretty clear his character, Victor, fancies Vera too, but makes up a girlfriend so he won't have to bear Vera's pity. 

The film is directed by James Kent, who captures the era with a bit of a lighter touch, keeping much of the action in a bit of a soft focus. It's the same sort of technique Merchant Ivory used to use and it's gives the film a classical sensibility that falls in line with those films. He also manages to do a good job presenting the horrors of war Vera faced, perhaps most memorably the scene when Vera comes out of one of the hospital huts to find soldiers being laid out on stretchers outside as there are no more beds and then the camera cranes up over the hut and you see just rows and rows of wounded soldiers on stretchers filling the frame. It's an awe inspiring shot and one that deeply moved me. The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi does a good job of condensing Brittain's memoir down to a cohesive film that clocks in at a little over two hours and they keep everything moving at a nice, brisk pace. 

Overall, Testament of Youth is a film that I personally was excited to see when I first saw the trailer for it, both for the cast and for the subject matter (I'm both an anglophile and a history nut, so I had plenty to look forward to) and the movie certainly did not disappoint. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you read this and are intrigued, I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you have blockbuster fatigue and are craving something with a little more depth.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jaws: The Revenge

"And what shark wouldn't want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?" -Roger Ebert.

Oh, Jaws: The Revenge, where to start? The third sequel to one of the best adventure movies ever made as well as the movie to invent the Summer movie season. This film is legendary in it's own right but unfortunately it's for being an absolute train wreck. Since I was obsessed with the Jaws films as a kid, I loved this one as well. Now I look back on it and can only wonder, "What the hell was I thinking?" I should also preface this by saying this is a spoiler filled review because there is just too much awfulness to throw shade at to not do that. So, be warned if you want to be surprised by the amazing awfulness. 

Anyway, the film opens once again on Amity Island and it's the Christmas season no less. We once again re-join the Brody family, or at least younger son Sean (played by Mitchell Anderson) and the recently widowed Ellen (played again by Lorraine Gary). Sean is working as a police deputy, following in his father's footsteps. One night he is told he needs to go out to the harbor on the Police boat and clear some debris from a channel marker. He does and as he tries to get the debris free, a shark pops up and attacks him. It's a pretty harrowing scene to be fair and made all the more horrific by the fact that his screams for help are drowned out by carol singers. 

Older brother Michael (played by Lance Guest), now working as a Marine Biologist, returns home with his wife Carla (played by Karen Young) and daughter Thea (played by Judith Barsi) to an understandably distraught Ellen. Michael suggests that Ellen come down to the Bahamas, where he is currently working and stay with them for a bit. She accepts, but it also becomes clear the Ellen is more in need of some serious psychotherapy. She begs Michael to quit his job and stay away from the water. She is convinced that sharks are after her and her family. She also states that Martin died of a heart attack from the fear of sharks (Um...what? At last count, he was 2-0 with sharks. If anything he should've been a bit cocky about it). Furthermore, if you're convinced sharks are trying to kill you, you just move inland, preferably somewhere in the midwest. "Ha, ha. I'm no where near the sea. Game on shark!" Ellen then blows a raspberry in the general direction of the east coast. But alas, if she did that, there would be no movie. Which would've probably been a good thing, but then Michael Caine shows up as local pilot, Hoagie. He is certainly one of the few bright spots of the movie, even if he has made no secret that he did it for the money and what was essentially a paid vacation to the Bahamas. 

Ellen arrives in the Bahamas and begins a bit of a courtship with Hoagie. It's all charming and fun and occasionally punctuated with dream sequences of Ellen being attacked by a shark, which is annoying because dream sequences are always annoying. Meanwhile, Michael and his research partner Jake (played by Mario Van Peebles, rocking the most ridiculous Caribbean accent ever), discover that a Great White shark is stalking the waters around the Bahamas. Of course, it's the same shark having made it's way from New England to the Bahamas in record time. It keeps stalking Michael whenever he goes diving and at one point attacks their research barge, chewing up part of the dock while everyone looks on. It's all very strange and ridiculous, especially considering Michael keeps going into the water even though he knows the shark is after him. But that is just one of the many logic errors with this film. There are a few more sequences with the shark, looking faker than usual by the way, but they are few and far between as the filmmakers seem more focused on Ellen, her burgeoning relationship with Hoagie and her relationship with Michael, Carla and Thea. And that would be fine, but that's not the movie we signed on for. This is Jaws 4, not How Ellen Brody Got Her Groove Back. It doesn't help that it's all boring at best and ripping off scenes from the original Jaws at worst (Michael and Thea do a repeat of the silently mimicking each other at the dinner table routine that Martin and Sean did in the original film). 

The film finally picks up steam again at the end as the shark tries to nab little Thea off a Banana boat ride but instead nabs the woman behind her (it helps that the woman puts her leg in the sharks mouth and grabs on to it). Realizing that the shark is just going to keep coming, Ellen decides to steal Michael's boat, drive it out to the middle of the sea and offer herself as a sacrifice, I guess. The movie never makes it clear. Michael, Jake and Hoagie discover what she is doing and go after her in Hoagie's plane. This leads to my absolute favorite moment in the entire film. They find Ellen and the boat, stopped in the middle of the ocean and decide to crash the plane and swim over to the boat. Michael and Jake get out of the sinking plane and swim across to the boat without a problem. Hoagie then get's out and the shark surfaces and attacks. Hoagie's reaction is to say, "Oh shit." The tone though is not one of terror or fear but rather mild annoyance, like he just spilled a drink or something. I can't help but laugh hysterically every time I see it. He then proceeds to evade the shark, somehow as the movie doesn't elaborate, and climb aboard the boat. Even more impressive is the fact that his shirt is completely dry. 

From here, there are two versions of the movie and one is decidedly better than the other although neither would be considered great. Michael and Jake put together a device to feed to the shark that will electrocute the hell out of it with a receiver being controlled by them on the deck. Whatever, it's movie science. Anyway, in the process of feeding said device to the shark, Jake is grabbed from his perch on the boat's bowsprit, breaking off part of it as well. Jake is pulled under by the shark to the horror of everyone on board. Michael, now properly pissed, uses the receiver to repeatedly shock the shark, which begins to roar and rise out of the water as Ellen drives the boat directly towards the shark, while having flashbacks to scenes she wasn't present for of Sean getting killed and Martin killing the shark in the first film which makes no sense at all. 

Here is the point where the two endings diverge. In the original theatrical (and broadcast T.V version), the shark is impaled by the broken bowsprit, falls into the ocean and tears the boat apart in the process. In the video version, the shark is still impaled but them suddenly explodes for absolutely no reason. We then cut to Ellen, Michael, Hoagie and surprise a surviving Jake floating in a tank at Universal Studios. It's supposed to be the ocean I guess, but the waves lapping against the painted background horizon tell another story. It really is just the pits. 

The original theatrical ending was the better one because it was at least original, if nonsensical, and Jake wasn't miraculously resurrected either. Either way you slice it though, the ending is beyond ridiculous. Sharks don't roar, as I made clear in my Jaws 3 review and they can't stand on their tail on the surface of the water to get impaled by a passing ship. I thought it was a cool ending when I was ten years old and then I learned about physics. Now it's just funny in it's complete ridiculousness. Who thought this was a plausible ending? I just don't understand it. 

But then again, that's the charm of movies like this. You watch them with a group of friends and you make fun of it the whole way through. This is why we had MST3K (oh my god, I would pay money to see Mike and the Bots go at it with this one) and now have Rifftrax. Between the absurdity of the plot and the perfectly misguided performance of Michael Caine (who clearly is fully aware of he is in a crap movie), almost makes it worth watching. Do it with friends, encourage copious riffing and you'll have fun with it. Then afterwards, really test their endurance and put on Dragonball Evolution

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jaws 3-D

There is something that is just laughably bad about Jaws 3-D. I mean, just look at the GIF above. This is from the climax of the film and is not altered in any way. This is what passed for special effects in the movie as the shark charges the glass window of the control room of the Undersea Kingdom attraction at Sea World in Florida. It's actually Sea World too, not some fictional movie facsimile. They looked at the script and had no problem with their park being portrayed as irresponsible, reckless and greedy (umm...wait, nevermind). Yes, the plot of this movie concerns a man-eating monster causing havoc at a theme park. Consider it a prototype for Jurassic Park. A very over the top and at times very dull prototype. 

With this entry, the action moves away from Amity Island completely, catching up with a now adult Mike Brody (played by Dennis Quaid) working at Sea World in Florida with his Marine Biologist girlfriend Kay (played by Bess Armstrong). He is working as an Engineer and is the man responsible for the park's new Undersea Kingdom attraction that is having it's grand opening. The attraction is a large group of underwater tunnels allowing people to walk around and experience undersea life. The park's owner, Calvin Bouchard (played by Louis Gossett Jr), is understandably nervous and wants the launch to go off without a hitch. Also hanging around is famed nature photographer Phillip Fitzroyce (played by Simon MacCorkindale), who is there to photograph the new park. 

Mike's brother Sean (played by John Putch) has also just arrived for a visit while on break from college. While on a night out with his brother and girlfriend, Sean has a meet cute with a one of the park's water skiers, Kelly (played by Lea Thompson). But not all is well as the park has a couple of unexpected intruders into the lagoon that houses the massive Undersea Kingdom attraction, a large 35 foot Great White Shark and her baby. It's not long before one of the park technicians becomes shark chow, leading our two affable heroes to search the Lagoon for him and in the process discover the baby Great White. They manage capture the shark and try to maintain the shark in captivity. Calvin gets greedy though and insists the shark be put on display before it's ready, leading to the death of the baby shark. With her baby missing, Mama shark rampages throughout the lagoon, damaging and causing the underwater kingdom to flood, going after water skiers and assorted other disappointingly tame escapades. The film picks up towards the end with some exciting shark action, including a character getting swallowed whole and then getting crushed and lodged in the sharks mouth, which we see from the inside and is easily the niftiest part of the movie. 

The problem with Jaws 3 is that it's actually kind of boring. Not as boring as the fourth movie was at times, but there are long stretches of film where not much is happening and all the action feels like we're just watching promotional footage for Sea World (oh wait, now I get it.). On top of this, there are a ton of gimmicky shots that were shot solely to highlight the 3-D effects. Without said effect, it just seems weird especially since the camera seems to hold on these shots for longer than it should. The film was directed by Joe Alves and we can easily see why he has not directed another film since.

Somehow Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong and Lea Thompson got out of this with their careers intact and to be fair all three give perfectly fine performances. Quaid in particular does well as the grown up Mike Brody, giving a nice, chilled performance and showing off his natural charisma, except of course for when his character has his epic meltdown while running around the park, trying to warn everyone to get out of the water. That scene alone is worth watching the movie for. Louis Gossett Jr is less fortunate, giving an over the top and animated performance that while not particularly great is at least entertaining, with some of the best line readings of bad dialogue ever. You partner this with Bess Armstrong's over-articulated speech to Gossett about what is going on and you have some unintentional camp hilarity. 

I never saw the film in 3-D so I can't comment on how it looked in that format, but in 2-D it looks pretty awful. Some of this may have to do with how they converted the film to a 2-D format, but at the same time I can't imagine that shot of the shark charging the control booth (see above) ever looked good. I can't look at that without busting a gut laughing. It's so wonderfully unintentionally funny. It also doesn't seemed too concerned with actual shark facts, considering the shark in this film actually growls and swims backwards, two things real sharks can't do. I don't think they're really all that maternal either.

Overall, Jaws 3-D is unfortunately low on the thrills but does have it's share of campy moments to make it a movie that is so bad it's good. It's worth checking out only if you're a fan of the series or a fan of hilariously bad movies. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Jaws 2

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... 

I've always had a soft spot for Jaws 2. I know in a lot of ways it just copies the first movie, but at the same time there are sequences in this film that freaked me out way more as a kid than the first film did. I have to respect a sequel that manages to do that. At least I got a sense they tried with this one. The same can not be said for the two films that followed.  

We return to Amity Island and it's been roughly four years since the first film. Brody is still the Chief of Police and his wife Ellen has a job working at the local tourism board. As the film opens, a new hotel and resort is having their grand opening. But out there in the ocean, another shark is waiting. After two divers go missing followed by the tragic deaths of a water skier and the person driving the boat, Brody begins to suspect that Amity may have another shark problem. Of course, we the viewers know this for sure because we see the attacks happen. 

Of course, the town officials don't believe Brody and think he's panicking. To be fair, he is acting a bit erratic from their point of view and displaying some signs of PTSD from his last shark run in and finds his job as Chief of Police in jeopardy. Meanwhile, a group of local teens including Brody's sons Michael and Sean, are taking off in their sailboats for a picnic at a secluded beach. Of course, they fall directly in the sights of the shark. When Brody finds out his sons are out there, he follows in hot pursuit, setting the stage for another intense confrontation between Brody and killer shark. 

Jaws 2 is a reasonably worthy follow up to the classic original film. It's a bit more of a mixed bag than the first film, with the land based scenes dragging a bit or being shameless repeats of scenes in the original. But at the same time, it still knows how to bring the thrills when the action moves out to sea, especially in the second half of the film, with the teens being terrorized by the shark. In fact, the second film contains a couple scenes that unnerved me more than anything in the first one, so on the shark attack level it upped the ante in creating memorable nightmare inspiring scenes.

Spielberg turned down the opportunity to return to direct the sequel as he was still busy shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which also explains Richard Dreyfuss' absence as well. This left the success of the sequel squarely on the shoulders of Roy Scheider. While it's no secret that he participated in the sequel solely to finish out a contract he had with Universal Pictures, he gives a decent performance as Brody and anchors the film nicely. Lorraine Gary does well as Brody's wife and is given a bit more to do this time around, which helps. The film also has found a nice group of kids to play the sailboating teens, most of them likable enough that you feel bad when they start becoming shark chow.

Jaws 2 had a troubled production that almost equaled the original film, with director John Hancock starting production but getting fired after a few weeks when Universal was unhappy with the tone of the production, citing it was too dark and depressing. He was ultimately replaced by Jeannot Szwarc, who brought in the first film's screenwriter Carl Gottleib to overhaul the script. The end result was a film that more tonally matched the original film. Also returning for the second and final time was John Williams, who contributed an all new score to the film that in some ways is even superior to the score for the original film.  

Overall, while Jaws 2 isn't as strong a film as the first one it did at least give a good try at being a decent film on it's own. Given what came after this, I'm not sure the same can be said for the other sequels. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015


"You're gonna need a bigger boat." 

I remember as a young boy being sat down by my Dad and him telling me I needed to see the movie Jaws. I watched the film from beginning to end, completely enraptured by it and setting off a life long love of the film. I had a copy of the film taped off cable TV that I damn near wore out. I then bought the 20th anniversary VHS copy, presented to me for the first time in widescreen. I knew the film so well at that point I could immediately tell what I had previously been missing from every shot. Once it came out on DVD I picked that up, as well as the Special Edition DVD as that had the full uncut behind the scenes documentary from the film's Laserdisc (the original DVD had a severely cut down version). Once the Blu-Ray came out, I picked that up too (and it was worth it too. They really cleaned it up and the film looks brand new!). I've seen it at least a couple hundred times and it remains one of my all time favorite films. 

The film takes place on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts named Amity Island. We open on a small group of friends partying on the beach. A young man goes off to flirt with a girl named Chrissie (played by Susan Backlinie). Chrissie runs off and the young man follows. Chrissie announces she's going skinny dipping and runs into the surf. The young man, who has had a couple too many beers, passes out on the beach. Before long, Chrissie is violently attacked by something under the water and pulled under. It's a harrowing scene that had an entire generation thinking twice about getting in a pool, let alone the ocean.

The following morning, we are introduced to the new Chief of Police, Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider). He has only had the post for a few months now, having moved from New York City with his wife Ellen (played by Lorraine Gary) and two sons. Brody is called in to help search for the missing girl, Chrissie, and it's not long before the find her few remains washed ashore with the tide. Initially told by the Medical Examiner that she was the victim of a shark attack, Brody leaps into action to try and close the beaches when he is stopped by the Mayor (played by Murray Hamilton) and the Medical Examiner who on second thought thinks it may have just been a tragic boating accident. Brody is unconvinced but goes along with their wishes. This proves to mistake when a second victim, a young boy, is taken by the shark right in front of Brody. It's a bloody scene that remains as horrifying today as it was 40 years ago.

Now that it's confirmed there is a shark and with a bounty offered by the boy's mother, every fisherman in the New England area descends on the island to try and catch the shark. The island's own shark hunter, Quint (played by Robert Shaw), offers to catch it and kill it as well, for a far heftier sum that the boy's mother is offering. Also showing up is Marine Biologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss), to help Brody figure out what they are dealing with. It's not long before the hunters return with a large tiger shark but both Quint, watching the circus and laughing from his boat, and Matt examining the shark are unconvinced it's the right shark. Their fears are confirmed when a third victim is killed during the Fourth of July celebrations. Fed up with the bureaucracy, Brody demands the Mayor allow him to hire Quint to kill the shark. From there, Brody, Quint and Hooper depart in Quint's boat for a final showdown with the shark.

Jaws had a famously troubled shoot where everything that could go wrong seemed to but yet, by some miracle, the film became stronger because of it. Most of the production problems had to do with the fact that the mechanical sharks didn't work when introduced to the brutal and unforgiving sea water. This forced director Steven Spielberg to think on his feet and improvise ways of not showing the shark but still let the audience know where it is. This in turn actually made the film scarier, as the audience was left to imagine what was going on under the water. If things had gone to plan and Spielberg was able to show the shark as much as he initially wanted to would the film be as effective and as fondly remembered? 

Of course, a lot of the credit also goes to John Williams who created such a visceral and iconic score for the film. I'm not sure of another two notes that when played together are quite as iconic as the beginning of the Jaws theme. Spielberg is quite right when he said the score really helped save the film. While that's not entirely true, it is still a big part of why the film remains so effective. 

Credit also has to go to the three main actors as well. Robert Shaw manages to create such a memorable character as alpha male Quint who runs a strict ship and as time goes on reveals he may be a bit deranged as well. Richard Dreyfuss does well as Matt Hooper, who carries a certain level of entitlement that carries over from his upper class upbringing, but also has a lot of charm and charisma as well. Hooper and Quint butting heads throughout the second half of the film provides some much needed humor that nicely offsets the growing tension of the film. But it's Roy Scheider's performance as Brody that is the most deceptively successful. Brody, despite his background as the town's sheriff, is the ultimate everyman character and Scheider portrays this perfectly. The film flips his character in the second half. On land, he had a certain level of control but when he goes out to sea with Quint and Hooper, he is completely out of his element and everything about Scheider's performance captures that perfectly. This makes it the perfect character for the audience to relate to because we know we'd be just as clueless in that environment.  

The film also does a fantastic job adapting the novel it's based on by Peter Benchley and in fact improves upon it. The original novel, while following the same basic plot as the original, is a far more unpleasant experience. Nearly all of the characters are unlikable and it has several extraneous plot lines, such as Ellen Brody having an affair with Hooper and the ending is nowhere near as memorable either. It's a rare example, but I freely admit the movie is way better than the book.

Over the past 40 years, the legacy of Jaws has only grown. It spawned three sequels that perfectly illustrate the law of diminishing returns, but yet none have tarnished the reputation of the original film. The film also went on to have a distinct impact on a generation of filmmakers that followed, in particular Bryan Singer who named his production company "Bad Hat Harry" after a throwaway line in this movie. Writer/Director Kevin Smith is another huge fan of the film and memorably paid tribute to the film in his film Chasing Amy, with a scene where two characters compare scars they received while making love, referencing the famous scar comparison scene in Jaws.

It's impressive to think that a film like Jaws, which basically invented the summer blockbuster, continues to endure as a shining example of what that type of film can do. Before that, the summer movie season wasn't well regarded as a good time to release films. But the gangbusters admissions it accrued during it's release changed everything. Now, every summer Hollywood trots out it's biggest blockbuster movies, each one trying to outdo the last but yet the original still stands tall among them almost timeless.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jurassic World

It has been 22 years since the first Jurassic Park film graced the silver screens and subsequently became a runaway worldwide phenomenon. For the first time since, the film series returns to the original island, Isla Nublar, where a dinosaur themed park has been safely operating for the last ten years.  

The film opens with two brothers, Zach (played by Nick Robinson) and Gray (played by Ty Simpkins) are being dropped off at the airport by their parents. They're heading to Jurassic World to spend time with their Aunt Claire (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who works there. To their disappointment, upon arriving they are put into the care of her assistant Zara (played by Katie McGrath) as Claire is swamped with work keeping the place running, dealing with the incoming new president of InGen (the company that owns Jurassic World) Simon Misrani (played by Irrfan Khan) and getting ready to unveil a new attraction. The new attraction is a genetic hybrid dinosaur called the Indominus Rex. Misrani is clearly impressed with the outcome, but suggests that Raptor trainer Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) check out the new dinosaur's enclosure. 

It quickly turns out that the Indominus Rex is quite intelligent and creates a ruse to make everyone think it climbed out of it's enclosure and when they go in to investigate discover it is still inside with them, hiding in the think tree growth. Of course, one of them panics and opens the big door to the enclosure to get out and before they can get it closed again, the Indominus has broken free and is making a beeline straight for the park. Once Claire realizes this, she grabs Owen and the two have to try to find her nephews before the I-Rex does. Meanwhile, the Park becomes chaos as the I-Rex wrecks havoc. 

While Jurassic World isn't perfect, it certainly is a big step up from Jurassic Park III and maybe even The Lost World. It certainly is impressive to see the Park fully realized to it's most potential, open with thousands of guests. It's not just a Park but a full on destination resort, with hotels and restaurants (including one titled Winston's, a nice tribute to the late Stan Winston, who designed the dinosaurs for the previous installments). It is brought to life nicely, from the corporate sponsored attractions (Verizon Wireless Presents the Indominus Rex! The Samsung Innovation Center!) to people walking around with various chintzy souvenirs you see at every theme park. The park has been open for ten years when the story takes place and they really portray well in depicting a world where seeing a living, breathing dinosaur is kind of old news. We see kids scrolling through their cell phones, uninterested in what is happening and it's such a great reflection of our time. It's a nice flip on the original film where everyone was blown away by the attractions of Jurassic Park. Of course, this passe attitude is directly what leads the scientists of Jurassic Park to create the I-Rex in the first place, create something scary, exciting and new to try and raise attendance. Needless to say, this strategy blows up in their faces and literally destroys the park. 

Direction this time is handled by Colin Trevorrow and I have to admit I'm a bit stunned that this is only his second film after the incredibly charming comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. He does a great job handing the scope and size of this film. I also have to give praise to Michael Giacchino, who took over scoring duties from John Williams. I've been a fan of his ever since I first heard his score for Super 8. He's the perfect successor to Williams and does a great job crafting his own themes for the film, using Williams' iconic music sparingly. 

The biggest complaint I have about the film is that plot wise, the film is a bit overstuffed. We have Claire, the workaholic career woman dealing with her two nephews and running the park. We have the I-Rex plot line. We have Owen and his raptors that he is training. And then we have Vic Hoskins (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), who is observing Owen and his Raptors and is convinced they could be used for Military purposes. This last plot line bugged me for a couple of reasons. 1. Aside from dogs, what other animals are used in Military operations? Especially super predators like Raptors that are barely trainable as it is (seriously, they are still very scary creatures in this one). and 2. It's just so cliche to have someone want to take something dangerously lethal and put it to military use. Didn't the Alien series beat this plot line to death already? They could've dropped it from the film and no one would've even noticed. Replace it with more scenes with Claire, Owen and the Kids. Build up some real character moments. Or hell, give the Park Tech Lowery (played by Jake Johnson) more scenes because he damn near stole every one he was in. Better yet, let's dig in to something barely touched on in the film about the ethics of genetic manipulation. We got one scene between Chief Geneticist Henry Wu (played by BD Wong) and Masrani but I feel like they only scratched the surface of it. I just wanted that scene to go on a little while longer.  

Still, the strengths of this movie outweighed the negatives big time. I enjoyed all the nods to the original Jurassic Park (we get to see the old Visitor's Center! I couldn't help but tear up during that scene and from the sniffles I heard behind me, I wasn't the only one.). By the time we get to the end (which I admit was seriously bad-ass. I won't spoil it, but oh my god I wanted to stand up and cheer and scream), I had tears welling up in my eyes and a big silly grin on my face. Yeah, I'm a fan of this series and I probably suspended my disbelief more than most. But, I went in expecting a big cool monster movie and I got exactly what I expected. Seriously, do not go into this movie expecting it to be Jurassic Park. It isn't and it never was going to be. It's a movie unto itself. It follows on from the other three films and is content to just be a big ol' monster movie and fits into that mold nicely. If you have your expectations in check, you're gonna have a good time.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic Park III

There are two groups of Jurassic Park fans, those that liked Jurassic Park III and those that did not. It was a polarizing film upon release and it's easy to see why. Plagued by production problems from the start and filming starting without a completed script, it's a miracle we got a film at all. While I am a member of the former group, even I will admit that the third film has it flaws. 

The film opens once again on Isla Sorna, which we are reminded is considered quarantined after the events of the second film. Moving along the coast is a small motorboat that belongs to a para-sailing company imaginatively titled Dino-Soar that offers parasailing tours of the coast of Isla Sorna where guests can try and catch a glimpse of the islands prehistoric residents. Their current clients are a young boy Eric Kirby (played by Trevor Morgan) and his mom's boyfriend, Ben (played by Mark Harelik). Before long, something goes wrong and the two men piloting the boat disappear after the boat goes through a fog bank (it's heavily implied they were carted off by Pteranodons) and the two of them have to disconnect from the boat and left sailing towards the island. 

We then cut to Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill), who is continuing to try and find funding for his digs for fossils but to his dismay all anyone wants to ask him about is Jurassic Park. Upon returning to his latest dig site, he meets up with his young protege Billy (played by Alessandro Nivola). They are quickly joined by Paul and Amanda Kirby (played by William H. Macy and Tea Leoni). They feed Alan and Billy a bunch of lies about being rich thrill seekers and upon promising to fund their dig for several years convince Alan and Billy to join them in flying over Isla Sorna. While we're on the subject, why the lies? Alan is a decent man, wouldn't the truth be better and more likely to result in Alan joining the rescue party? This is just the first of many indicators that script could've used some work. It's only after the plane has crashed on the island and the group is stranded that the truth comes out. Paul is the owner of a tile and bathroom fixtures store and the whole thing was a ruse to rescue their son.  So, once again the film becomes about a group of stranded individuals trying to get off an island while avoiding getting eaten by dinosaurs. 

Still, the film isn't all bad. It has more than it's fair share of cracking action sequences with both the Spinosaurus (our new main dinosaur baddie) attacking the crashed airplane, it's fight with the Tyrannosaurus Rex and our group's run in with the Pterodactyls as being the big stand outs of the film. It does fall apart a bit at the end though as there is a climactic showdown between the humans and the Spinosaurus that is certainly thrilling, but after they get away from that the group is conveniently rescued by the Marines and the movie just ends with a shrug.  

The film's direction is taken over by Joe Johnston this time around and does a fairly good job of keeping the film's brisk pace moving along. The writing this time though is a bit all over the place, with more emphasis being placed on the action sequences than on the characters, which isn't surprising considering the film's brief ninety minute running time. Sam Neill does a good job reprising his role as Alan Grant from the first film and is certainly the best character in the film. Both Paul and Amanda are fairly thinly drawn characters and any good will the audience has towards them are due to the actors performance. Beyond that, the only other character that is well drawn at all is Erik, who managed to survive eight weeks on his own on the island (the boyfriend didn't fare as well, as his remains are found by our intrepid rescue party. Amanda gets over the loss in record time though).  

The effects work this time is much more slapdash, most likely another casualty of the troubled production. Among the worst offenders are the shoddy green screen work, the over-reliance on CGI imagery and a rather unconvincing Spinosaurus animatronic. It is disappointing that a film series known for it's groundbreaking effects work took a step backwards. 

I have mixed feelings about Jurassic Park III. On one hand, I can appreciate it for the brisk ninety minute thrill ride that it is. But on the other, I can't help but think that if they had just taken a little more time and thought things out a little better it could have been a much, much better film.   

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

"Ooh...Ahh...that's how it always starts. But later there's running...and screaming."

If there is a list out there of impossible tasks, I have to imagine crafting a sequel to a blockbuster on the level of Jurassic Park has to rank on the upper portion of said list. Still, Steven Spielberg and crew returned four years later and gave it a solid go. Was it as good as the first? No, of course not but then again I'm not sure a sequel could ever match the first film. Still, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a solid effort of a film with some breathtaking action sequences of it's own. 

It's four years later when Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) is summoned by an ailing John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) to visit him at his home. There it is revealed that there was a second island, Isla Sorna, where the dinosaurs that populated Jurassic Park were created and bred. Hammond reveals that the dinosaurs on the island have flourished since being left to die after both islands were evacuated after the events of the first film. He also reveals that the people who have taken control of his company from him want to pillage the island's resources and open a new park to get the company out of Chapter 11. To try and counter this, Hammond wants Malcolm to head up a new team to go to the island and document the dinosaurs in their natural habitat. He's a curious choice from Hammond's perspective since he hated Malcolm so much in the first film. So, this choice came about in one of two ways. 1. His opinion of Malcolm softened over the years after he realized Malcolm was right all along about not being able to contain life and was trying to warn him or 2. Picked the person with dinosaur experience that he would be least sad to see get eaten. Malcolm initially turns him down but changes his mind when he finds out his girlfriend, paleontologist Sarah Harding (played by Julianne Moore), is already on the island. 

Malcolm then meets the remaining members of the research team, tech expert Eddie Carr (played by Richard Schiff) and photographer Nick Van Owen (played by Vince Vaughn). We also meet Malcolm's daughter, Kelly (played by Vanessa Lee Chester). Upset that her father is ditching her with a babysitter (after already apparently being dumped with Malcolm by her mother), Kelly decides to stow away on the research trailer and tag along on the expedition as well (because we need a kid character in these films apparently). Soon enough, the research team arrives at Isla Sorna with their massive Research Trailer and SUVs in tow. Not long after Malcolm and company arrive do they manage to locate Sarah (and a family of Stegosauruses) in a sequence that only marginally manages to recapture some of the magic of the first film. 

Also arriving at the same time is another, larger team from Hammond's company captained by company exec Peter Ludlow (played by Arliss Howard) to capture as many of the island dinosaurs as possible to populate a new Jurassic Park. The team is made of a group of big game hunters led by Roland Tembo (played by Pete Postlethwaite) and assorted grunts that are basically cannon fodder for the assured forthcoming dinosaur mayhem. The team is reasonably successful in capturing and caging up several dinosaurs and are celebrating their good fortune when Malcolm, Nick, Eddie and Sarah come across their camp and see what they are up to. This leads Nick and Sarah to do a couple bone headed things, release all the caged dinosaurs who rampage through the camp and destroy all the company's equipment and second take an injured infant T Rex back to the research trailer to get patched up. This leads the infant's infuriated parents right to the trailer. The two parents are reunited with their infant and then proceed to attack the trailer and try to push it off a cliff. This is easily one of the most intense sequences in the series as Nick, Sarah and Malcolm are trapped in the trailer as it is slowly pushed over the cliff. The tension continues to ratchet up and up until it's almost unbearable including a memorable sequence where all that's between Sarah and a long plunge is a cracking piece of glass that she can only watch as it slowly cracks underneath her, hoping Malcolm and Nick can get to her before it shatters. 

After that, the remaining members of both teams regroup and begrudgingly team up to try and find a way to collectively get off the island as quickly as possible. Of course, this leads to some friction as differing ideologies between the two groups, especially between animal loving Nick and big game hunter Roland as well as between Malcolm and Ludlow. These interactions help keep things mildly lively between dino attacks. 

Michael Crichton wrote the sequel novel to his Jurassic Park which Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp then...ignored. Seriously, aside from the general plot outlines the two are very, very different. Instead the two crafted a certainly entertaining film, with some priceless dialogue I might add, using only the vaguest framework of the source novel. Both the novel and the movie brought back Malcolm because everyone can agree he was Jurassic Park's MVP, taking a more central role this time around. Thankfully Goldblum is up to the task, being just as charming and eccentric as ever. It helps that he has some decent chemistry as Julianne Moore, who also acquits herself nicely. 

In the end, The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a curious entry in the series. It's certainly a relatively solid film and has some great action sequences but at the same time there are times when it feels like it's just going through the motions and that Spielberg's heart just wasn't in it like the first time (and years later he would admit as much), at least until we get to the third act T Rex rampage through San Diego and then the movie comes gleefully to life almost as if it were a separate film. There are also some questionable choices in the film as well, like Kelly (easily the most annoying character in the film) drop kicking a Raptor out a window or portraying Nick as a heroic character when most of his actions only lead to more people getting killed. 

Still, I can't help but admit I do enjoy this movie, flaws and all. It's not the first film but at the same time it doesn't try to be, which is probably the film's biggest strength. It's not as great as the original, but it's also not the train wreck some people make it out to be. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jurassic Park

There are few cinematic experiences that I can vividly recall even now, 22 years later. It was one that I looked forward to with fevered anticipation and even went so far as to more or less invite myself along to go see it with friends. I saw it on opening night with my friend Jessica, our friend Anne, and her parents at the Mall of America theatres. I was riveted to the screen for the entirety of the two hours of film. I couldn't help but love every minute. The film remains one of my all time favorites. 

The film, for the few of you have been living under a rock, takes place at a theme park populated by genetically engineered dinosaurs on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. A select few guests invited to preview the new park, in part to alleviate investor concerns about the safety of the Park. They include a Paleontologist Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill), a Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) and a Mathematician Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) to tour the establishment with their owner John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough). Also along for the ride is Hammond's slimey lawyer Gennarro (played by Martin Ferrero). Also along for the tour are Hammond's young grandchildren Lex (played by Ariana Richards) and Tim (played by Joseph Mazzello. 

Meanwhile, the park's computer technician, Dennis Nedry is plotting to steal dinosaur embryos for a rival company and has embedded a virus in the system to shut down the electric fences so he can make a break for the docks and get off the island with the embryos. Needless to say, because of this all hell breaks loose as the dinosaurs get loose and start eating the tourists. 

The film is directed perfectly by Steven Spielberg who finds a perfect balance between the magic and wonder of seeing actual, living breathing dinosaurs as well as the heartstopping thrills once everything goes to hell and the transition between the two sides are nearly seamless as it moves from one to the other. One moment we are utterly enchanted as Ellie and Alan look over a sick Triceratops and then a few moments later on the edge of our seats as we watch the T Rex make his grand entrance and begin attacking the tour vehicles that she has mistaken for a tasty snack.  Spielberg was also wise to keep the true villains of the film, the Velociraptors, hidden for the better part of the movie so that when they do finally appear, not unlike a certain moment in another Spielberg film, Jaws, it's all that much more shocking.

The film is based on the novel by Michael Crichton and the screenplay is written by Crichton and David Koepp. The film does a good job with condensing the book down to something that was manageable and able to be filmed in 1993. Also, much like he did with Jaws, Spielberg tweaked the characters to make them more likable, especially Hammond. I know some fans of the original novel were disappointed it wasn't a more literal adaptation, but some of the more memorable sequences would show up in the sequels, especially Jurassic Park III.

The casting is also damn near perfect with both Neill and Dern making likeable main heroes while Attenborough playing Hammond as a sweet natured, if dangerously naive businessman. But special notice has to be made to Jeff Goldblum who manages to steal every single scene he is in and make it look effortless. It probably helps that his character has damn near all the best lines of the film. 

I also have to give notice to John Williams' iconic score for the film. There are two things I think of when I hear the main theme. One is the movie, of course, but the second is Junior and Senior High School. I heard the main theme from this movie emanating from the band rooms with such regularity that it is ingrained in there as a bonafide public school memory. 

Overall, Jurassic Park remains one of the best cinema experiences I have ever had and it continues to hold up on the small screen as well for the countless times I've seen it on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray. I've seen it hundreds of times and it still holds the same magic, wonder and suspense for me, which is no easy task.