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Review: Jurassic World (2) Fallen Kingdom

*** WARNING! SPOILERS! ***

Written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow and directed by J.A. Bayona, “Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel to the 2015 smash hit reboot of the “Jurassic Park” franchise that Steven Spielberg began back in 1993. I saw this film over it’s opening weekend but I’ve been letting the movie brew in my headspace for the last week because it was such a mixed bag. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more Frankenstein-like film before to be honest. The direction, visuals, special effects, and suspense of the film were all impressive- but the writing, character choices, and plot of the film were completely off the rails! It felt as if there were two or three very separated and distinct flavors of attitude controlling this bucking beast of a sequel and no one knew how to handle it- with no cooperation across the disparate groups whatsoever. The film didn’t know what kind of story it wanted to tell.

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First of all, I feel that you should be warned going into this film- there is nowhere near as much Jeff Goldblum as this movie needs, or to the extent that the marketing implied there might be. If you’ve seen the trailers, that’s essentially his whole performance. However, as welcoming as a Goldblum addition is to any film- this use of the character of Ian Malcolm directly collides with the ideology (and thus the main driving force of the plot) of the main characters Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s this exact fulcrum that the film has issues with. Are the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar myth made reality, conjured from wonder and awe? Or are they vicious monsters that mindlessly consume and terrorize? Should the humans save the ill-fated creatures from Isla Nublar’s awakened volcano? Or should we let Nature take it’s course and re-extinct these de-extinct animals? Goldblum’s Malcolm restates his thesis from the first film and of it’s sequel “The Lost World” in which he argues against saving the dinosaurs. After which we cut directly to Claire’s new job running an indie-sized organization to “save the dinosaurs!” A drastic evolution from the first film where the character viewed the lab grown creatures as assets, something from which to gain profit. Here she’s a fully fledged animal rights activist. Quite the leap. We’re then informed of John Hammond’s original financial partner (Who we’ve never heard of until now, the fifth movie) for the first park in Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who’s in need of a well informed crew to make a last ditch effort to salvage his old friend’s creations.

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Beyond the philosophical and moral whiplash, the characters make stupid, convenient, and foolish choices throughout the film. Granted, the franchise has been built on the ill-fated decisions of humanity before- but they were never this outlandishly dumb about it. From the military minded Wheatley (Ted Levine AKA Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the lambs”) unclasping the Indo-Raptor cage purely to add another dino tooth to his collection, to the enormously lazy writing choice that the young Maisie (Isabella Sermon) commits to in the final scene- the writing is clunky and unfocused. The script tries to obtain specific outcomes for further franchise building- but in doing so it wastes the opportunities that the current story could have created. There are ways to get the outcome that the ending of “Fallen Kingdom” sets up- but the way they got there was painfully stupid. I won’t spoil the exact ending, but trust me, it’s bad. It’s also a weak excuse to pin the fallout of this film on a young girl when there are so many other ways they could have played it. An immediate easy fix would be to let Mills (Rafe Spall), Lockwood’s assistant with ulterior motives, make that major dooming choice as he’s dying to spite the main characters instead of just using his death as a visual callback to a death in “The Lost World”.

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That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some value to it. The imagery and direction, along with the mood, sense of suspense, and entertaining set-pieces all combine to smooth out the film and lessen the extent of mistakes that engulfed the rest of the story. The way Bayona uses scale, lighting, and framing all collectively raise the content above the level of quality expected with these movies by now (excluding the original- obviously). In fact the second half of the film taking place inside a giant mansion was a fun diversion and there were some good ideas that they could have expanded on. An illegal dinosaur auction has its merits in theory, but the film took a cartoonish mind of villainy at this point. One shot even has Mills face being lit up by a computer screen as counters and bars load while numbers skyrocket- a necessary shot to remember that the villains are greedy and evil. There was a few good half baked ideas in this script, and it might have turned out great eventually, but there just wasn’t enough to get a score better than “Passable” from me honestly. I was entertained with this film, but the more I think about it, the less I appreciate it retroactively.

Final Score: 11 Jurassic species and a few half-baked ideas

 

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film set in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city in the not so distant future, where a virus known as ‘Dog Flu‘ has devastated the pet populace and threatens to transfer to humans soon. In the face of this threat Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares an emergency order, exile all dogs to trash island. He begins with the public exile of his young nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). Six months later the decrepit isle is populated by every dog from Megasaki City and we focus on five particular pooches looking for food amongst the scraps, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). After a quick scrap over the available morsels with another gang of roving dogs they spot an incoming small plane that’s about to crash land. After they drag Atari from the wreckage and dub him, the little pilot, they figure out that he’s looking for his lost dog, Spots.

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This little film was a joy to watch. I already have a proclivity towards stop-motion animation, so the film had already piqued my interest- but I really did enjoy the story of “Isle of Dogs” as well. At the heart of the film the story is about friendship and doing the right thing, but there were darker shades of conspiracy and a more realized threat for all of the four-legged companions than I was expecting. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but the film was more clever than I had expected and that was a nice surprise. The stellar voice cast cannot be ignored either as each dog had a major name behind their voice and their stylized performances, written for each celebrity, fit their larger than life personas which only added depth to their characterization. There’s also the visual treat of the film as a whole, the blocking and movement was tight and tactile while maintaining Anderson’s well worn Symmetry (with a capital S!) in all frames. This film might fall more on the niche side of his works than say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but it won me over and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection once the physical copy is released.

 

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Now, to discuss the elephant in the room; the fact that Wes Anderson made a creative choice to have all human characters speak in their native tongues and deciding against subtitles. There are also translations through interpreters at events or machines that perform the same function. The untranslated Japanese speakers didn’t bother me in this film’s context, it felt more like a quirky choice that was an example of the difficulties with translation as a whole as used in the dogs versus humans, but yes this was clearly made for an English speaking audience. Personally, I’m of the mind that ‘cultural appropriation’ and those who like to throw the term about wildly, aren’t nearly as bad or mean-spirited as people might immediately assume. Obviously context matters here, ‘blackface‘ for example was not okay and we all understand that. However, today’s outrage culture seems poised to sniff out any little tidbit of possible offense and use it to lambaste those who might simply be fascinated by other cultures and their traditions. Just so long as the Japanese voice actors’ speech wasn’t derogatory or insensitive to the culture, which after doing some mild research- it seems to be a fairly innocent tactic, the filmmaker seemed invested in playing with a motif of Japanese culture while also attempting to do so respectfully.

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I just don’t understand the effort that goes into being that upset consistently. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about this here as this is just a review for “Isle of Dogs”, but its relevant to the film. Injustice is important to seek and stamp out in society if possible, but if you’re so narrowly focused that you’re actively protesting a Wes Anderson film- well, there are more productive ways you could be helping society as it relates to injustice. As an example, I don’t get that incensed when I see a white person wearing dreads, however, I am upset by government agencies destroying the environment and further ruining the last patches of land and water left to our Native American peoples. Anyway, that’s the end of my miniature lecture.

Final Score: 5 guide dogs and 1 determined boy

*Below are two articles that further discuss the translations, and lack thereof in “Isle of Dogs”, and I encourage you to give them a read if you’re invested in the topic.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan

https://slate.com/culture/2018/04/what-its-like-to-watchisle-of-dogsas-a-japanese-speaker.html

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Review: Thor Ragnarok

*There are some mild spoilers in this review, but nothing too revealing*

Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost and directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor Ragnarok” is the third installment in the “Thor” franchise and easily one of the finest additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coming hot off the heels of Waititi’s last film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Ragnarok retains several actors from the kiwi adventure-comedy. Sam Neill shows up in a play on Asgard portraying Odin in a fun cameo while Waititi’s longtime collaborator Rima Te Wiata plays the role of the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) security guard on the trash planet of Sakaar. This is a Thor film that sheds the weight of past films while embracing the greater cosmic scale that earlier films like “Doctor Strange” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” had already accelerated. But how did we get to this place? Let’s rewind a second and take a look at the franchise as a whole.

The first two “Thor” films, while having their fair share of fans and being generally well received, aren’t always near the top of the average moviegoers personal favorites of the MCU thus far. I believe one of the main reasons that’s led to this film being such a drastic departure from Thor’s past films was that Marvel Studios now has the confidence to embrace the more obscure aspects of their material after the successes of “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and it’s sequel. Marvel seems to know the conversation surrounding their brand of movies and taken some criticisms to heart. The studio now seems to embrace the expectations that their logo inspires as they’ve turned the tables on the audience by playing against these expectations. Which only reinforces my opinion that if you’re going to go make a sci-fi fantasy film, just go for it. Be unique, go for the weird and the unknown and see what works and what doesn’t. As it turns out, throwing the incredible Hulk into the far reaches of outer-space to fight aliens in a gladiator arena, while also having Thor attempting to stop the mythical end of Asgard called ‘Ragnarok’, is a pretty damn good idea.

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Since we’re playing in the sandbox of gods and kings, mythology and science fiction, it makes sense to acknowledge just how silly all of this really is. Taika Waititi never discredits the past or tosses around cruel or barbed comedy though- it’s all in good fun and is a refreshing change of pace for the franchise. In fact this year’s three releases from Marvel have been increasingly better at pairing comedy with their films. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, “Spider-man Homecoming”, and this film all deftly weave comedy into their storylines without sacrificing quality or softening the threat of the villains of each story. I think it’s immensely important that neither James Gunn nor Taiki Waititi lost their comedic voices while engaging in the Marvel movie machine, Jon Watts might have also kept his comedic touches intact with the newest iteration of “Spider-Man” but I’m less familiar with his work. Though I’d be remiss not to mention the comedy gold in this film that is Korg, an alien gladiator made of rocks who also happens to be trapped on Sakaar-and portrayed by the director himself. If you’ve seen “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” imagine Ricky Baker as an alien rock gladiator- but with manners, and there you have it.

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So, there are essentially two things that made this film work as well as it did for me, the performances and the visuals. In various films throughout history there have been scene stealing actors or characters that charm us, fill our lungs with laughter, or terrify our very hearts-but this film is loaded those moments. There wasn’t a single character that overshadowed the rest of the cast. Each seemed to have something to contribute to the story or to keep the pace swiftly bouncing along with a joke or an escalation of violence that underlined the characters’ need to keep moving in the right direction. Taika Waititi has said that one of his chief intentions with the property was to make Thor the most interesting character in his own movie. This is something he succeeds in doing by stripping the character down, removing his hammer, forcing a new look upon the character, and dropping him in new environments with an earned confidence. The additions of Doctor Strange and Bruce Banner’s Hulk also have merit as they remain consistent while moving the various characters forward in development. Strange immediately whisks Loki away after the brothers arrive on Earth looking for Odin-a sign that he’s been studying and honing his craft of Sorcerer Supreme since his film’s end. Just as the Hulk has become a fully formed character after staying in his green form for two years while fighting, and winning, battles on Sakaar. New additions to the franchise weren’t ignored or phoned in either as Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie has a fully formed story arc that builds on Asgard’s past and towards it’s future. Cate Blanchett’s Hela was a fun creation of dangerous and menacing, though while there was some chewing some of the scenery at times, she remained a threat and clearly had fun on the production. Even Karl Urban’s Skurge, mostly a comedic relief character, has a complete arc across the film. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a joy to watch though, perfectly becoming an amalgamation of the audience’s perception of Goldblum, a playful nod to his own film past, while also becoming the character as opposed to the character becoming a riff on Goldblum’s own tendencies. Idris Elba also returned as Heimdall, everyone’s favorite all seeing Asgardian. This time around he’s been an outcast of Loki’s rule on Asgard and leads a secret resistance against Hela’s invasion while sporting a costume fit for Aragorn’s Strider from “Fellowship of the Ring”.

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Which brings me to the visuals. Personally, I loved the blending of the science fiction and fantasy locales and vistas of the film. I never thought there would be a day when I would see the Incredible Hulk suplex-ing an undying giant wolf on the rainbow bridge of Asgard. That is something that’s outright amazing to me, and maybe that won’t do it for everyone, but I loved it nontheless. Everything from the barrage of colors on Sakaar to the fiery lava fields of Muspelheim from the opening scene to the vibrant earthy tones of Asgard were a dazzling visual feast. I also really loved the way Valkyrie’s backstory was shot with the Pegasus riding female warriors launching an attack against Hela years prior. It reminded me of the painting scene in Wonder Woman, but with more slow paced action taking place onscreen. Skurge also received this perspective while leaping from a spaceship into a crowd of undead Asgardians and wielding two AK-47s. The film as a whole was a joy to watch from beginning to end. This is the third film of Taika Waititi’s that I’ve seen and I will most assuredly be seeking out all that remains as soon as possible. This film was quite and enjoyable time and I highly recommend it. Though, if you’re not on the Marvel Studios bandwagon by now this one probably won’t sway you.

Final Score: Four Asgardian Gods and a Hulk

 

 

 

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Review: Independence Day Resurgence or “We’re gonna need a bigger planet”

The sequel to 1996’s biggest blockbuster has arrived. The question at hand is, ‘yeah, but is it any good?’ That answer takes a bit of unraveling. The first “Independence Day” is a fun and cheesy sci-fi romp that doesn’t necessarily age well, but it knew what it was, namely brash and bold in its own certainty of itself. This film doesn’t quite hold to that charming confidence, but it does have some aspects that really do shine through.

This film starts off slow. Slow compared to the first film that is. I didn’t have that immediate sensation of dread like the first film with the alien spaceships invading right off the bat. Be that as it may it kind of makes sense now that this film’s universe has been dramatically altered from our own with the advancements that the alien technology has brought. Which while this is actually a pretty fun idea, it does separate the audience from the immersion that the first one had just by the very nature of the fact that aliens were invading our planet, this version of earth is very similar to ours, its just not quite ours. However once the invasion begins the film doesn’t really drop its pace which is both welcome and necessary in this sort of movie.

Lets get the easy stuff out of the way now. Jeff Goldblum is great here and is one of the best parts of the film, in fact he and the other returning characters from the first film help to instill that 90’s sense of fun that you’ve been looking for. Throughout the runtime Jeff Goldblum is having a great time and getting even weirder with his character, he’s a joy to watch onscreen again. However, the rest of the cast has some issues. Jesse Usher in particular was simply a poor shoe-in to replace the void left by Will Smith’s captain Steven Hiller. We all knew we’d feel the loss of his presence in the sequel, but when the character that is supposedly his son happens to not only be uncharismatic but also noticeably bad at acting, we notice that lack of charisma that much more. His lines aren’t exactly Oscar worthy to begin with but he doesn’t do much with what he’s given. Liam Hemsworth is serviceable here and does a fine job with his material but never really becomes a fan favorite, he’s just there to fly ships and shoot aliens, and he does a pretty good job at it. Judd Hirsch on the other hand.. he probably should have just been a cameo at best, his arc was the least essential by far and just distracted from the rest of the film. I have to take the time to mention Deobia Oparei’s character here, he’s an African warlord that hunted down aliens after a ship landed in central Africa during the first film. He’s got a little bit of that 90’s inspired characterization of what an African warlord would look like and act like, it wasn’t too overdone, but almost. Anyways, his inclusion was honestly pretty cool, his backstory of hunting down aliens and killing them with dual machetes would be one intense story, fan fiction anyone?

Then there’s Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner. Bill Pullman has an interesting arc here, but it never quite reaches the heights that you want it to. There is no fist pumping moment of rousing integrity and grit here.When the first film had that unbeatable speech it would assuredly be hard to top, but how they handled a certain moment in this film speaks to the unique issue that this film has. Bill Pullman’s former president Whitmore has a scene in a hangar where he begins to give a speech meant to inspire, and at first it does, but all of a sudden, it just ends. Wait.. why? His best line is also undercut by the sense that the film doesn’t know what to do with itself. Pullman’s Whitmore meets a giant alien face to face and proclaims “On behalf of the people of Earth, happy Fourth of July!” That line should have been exciting and quotable until the end of time, but the way the film handled it leaves the audience with a whimper when it should have easily been a bang!

This is a film where some actors and ideas are meshed within the world that the first film inhabited while the rest of the film and actors are in this new world where blockbusters are now grim and dour. Long gone are the quips of the past or that sense of fun. In fact Brent Spiner’s character, Dr. Brakish Okun, is the one that embodies the spirit of the first film the most! He was just a side character we all thought died in the first film, but he really nails the inherent cheese and knowing charm that is missed in the rest of this film. This is captured perfectly after he wakes from his twenty year coma and finds out we have integrated the alien technology and giddily exclaims, “We have alien guns now?!” with wide eyes and accompanying grin. The film would have benefited greatly by including more of that.

 

The things I enjoyed most in this film where some of the world building that came with the advancement of time and technology. The giant mothership clasping to Earth’s side like an enormous tic was just the right amount of ridiculous “The Ship is landing in the Atlantic ocean!” “Which part?” “All of it!” That, that’s just great, exactly the right amount of cheese for me personally. They also give a reason as to why the aliens are invading and the scale of their galactic threat. I personally quite enjoyed that there were reasons behind the alien’s actions now, I don’t believe the first film touched on that and I approve. There’s also a lot more alien action in this one, you see them up close and they have more of a physical threat in this installment. My absolute favorite moment of the entire film however was a quick nod to the White House moment from the first film. Of course they rebuilt the capitol building, and as soon as I saw it I expected something. Just know that it pays off in a short comedic beat. More charm like that and the film could have been much greater.

 

The film ends with a pretty direct tie in to another sequel and at this point I would see it. This installment didn’t do enough to tarnish the franchise for me and it got enough right that I found myself enjoying more than not. They just need to connect with the spirit of the original more than copycatting the more current blockbuster tropes.

Final Score: 3/5