Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dino-Snore: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Proves the Franchise Should Go Extinct

Well the good news is that “Jurassic Park III” is no longer the worst movie in the franchise. I actually like the third “Jurassic Park.” The latest entry in the “Jurassic Park” series (the fifth overall and second in the “Jurassic World” spin-off; confused yet?) is so utterly ridiculous you can’t help but laugh out of spite. Sure it’s not the first entry to introduce crazy ideas (communicating with raptors, training raptors, etc) but this new film is such a far cry from what made “Jurassic Park” such a phenomenal and believable sci-fi thriller. Nothing in “Fallen Kingdom” makes even a remote lick of sense. The story, which is all over the place, goes completely off the rails and introduces completely bonkers plot elements in a franchise filled with enough bonkers plot elements. I could somewhat buy training raptors; I will, however, not buy the loony bin that is this franchise’s latest excuse for a sequel.

Jurassic World” had the benefit of being about a dinosaur park that actually opened to the public. It worked in a cheesy “Jaws III” disaster flick sort of way. “Fallen Kingdom” is a disaster of a whole other level. You’ll remember Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) the perky, uptight park operator from the last film who rekindled her relationship with hunky raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt). Well now they’re estranged again and she’s an animal rights activist who sees the dinosaurs –who killed all the guests who died on her watch—as precious, endangered misunderstood creatures. So a rich guy in a suit gives her money to travel back to the island with Owen to rescue the man-eating monsters from the active volcano that threatens to wipe out all the remaining dinosaurs on the abandoned island. How could anything go wrong with that plan?

Since the trailers basically give away a majority of what goes on in the film, it’s no secret that some dinosaurs may or may not find their way to a place that isn’t Isla Nublar. “The Lost World” did it. A T-rex stomping around San Diego was ludicrous in 1997 so the writers had to up the ante in 2018 obviously. Even Steven Spielberg had a hard time really selling that plot point but he made it work well enough. It’s obvious now that writers Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow are responsible for the crazy stuff in “Jurassic World” while Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa added a touch of class and humanity to the previous entry. Only Connelly and Trevorrow are credited this time. New to the franchise director J.A. Bayona is a good filmmaker. See “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible” if you don’t believe me. He offers some fine and weird directorial flourishes and there are some decent set pieces here but there’s not much any filmmaker could do with such a bizarre plot that desecrates everything that was simple and streamlined about Spielberg’s 1993 classic.

“Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” is an unfortunate downgrade for this popular franchise. Everything that made the last film at least fun and charming, like the park itself, are now gone. There’s a serious dearth of interesting characters (Pratt and Dallas Howard are fine but everyone else is forgettable). The filmmakers make too many of the same bad decisions that plagued the other Jurassic Park sequels (like more dinosaurs=good and unnecessarily dark moments). And the ending is literally eye-roll inducing. Despite this, I do believe we’re in another golden age of blockbuster filmmaking. The Marvel films and other big budget franchises have proven that just because you have a big budget and a strong fan base doesn’t mean you can’t make a smart piece of pop culture entertainment. This isn't it. Though I'd take dinosaurs over fighting robots any day of the week. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Eight is Enough: The Con is On for the Ladies in “Ocean’s Eight”

Even women can be cool and smooth criminals if they want to be. And in “Ocean’s Eight” they are. In this latest franchise “reboot,” though it’s more of a spin-off, we learn that steely cool con-man Danny Ocean is dead and that con-men run in the family. His sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) is just being released from a five year prison sentence and has her sights on a prize: The Met Gala. She gets her equally cool gal pal Lou (Cate Blanchett in the “secondhand man” role carved out by Brad Pitt except she isn’t eating something in literally every scene) and a team of women together to rob the expensive jewels off the neck of famous actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, doing her best diva impression). The entire film is basically following these women as they concoct a completely crazy and unbelievable set of circumstances that will lead to them walking away with millions of dollars worth of priceless jewels. And it is fascinating to watch.

The Ocean’s films have always been about fun. At least the first one was. Watching these guys pull of such crazy cons and a seemingly impossible heist was part of the charm. Steven Soderbergh’s sequels, however, took all the fun out and made things overly complicated and overstuffed with extra characters no on cared about. A reserved cast of eight con women is much more digestible. This time Gary Ross takes the reigns from Soderbergh (who’s still a producer) and injects a tad more diversity to the proceedings. Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch’s script is tight and exciting.

The story is so fun to watch unfold that for the entire film I forgot that there really wasn’t much conflict. In the original film, Danny wants to rob a specific guy, here these ladies just want the money; or at least that what it seems. There is a whole subplot about the reason Debbie was sent to prison after all. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t moments of suspense and tension. One sequence in which Mindy Kaling’s character is close to being caught is squirm-worthy. Speaking of which, every character gets their moment to shine. Helena Bonham Carter easily slips into the roll of a crazy, overwhelmed fashion designer. Sarah Paulson is a suburban mom but hasn’t quite left a life of crime. Rihanna is the genius computer hacker and Awkwafina is the fantastic pickpocket. And some other familiar faces show up as well.

“Ocean’s Eight” is a great success for anyone who thought the previous entries began to lose their sense of fun and focus. Sure this isn’t a perfect film; sometimes things fall a little too neatly into place but you can’t fault the ensemble's strong presence and their likable characterizations. There have been countless heist films and this is just another one that happens to get more right than wrong. Can’t wait for number Nine.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Head of the Family: The Bonkers “Hereditary” is a Disturbing Portrait of Familial Distress

Rosemary’s Baby. The Exorcist. The Shining. The Conjuring. Hereditary. You see where I’m going with this? Supernatural horror fans will absolutely delight in the mounting dread that is the new indie creep fest known as “Hereditary.” The film is all at once utterly realistic and borderline ridiculous - sometimes at the same time - as it follows the downward spiral of a seemingly average American family. “Hereditary” slowly builds with realistic, emotional drama with punctuated moments of pure shock that make the moments of horror all the more impactful. The film is a searing tragedy about the horrors of loss and grief and morphs into horror of a different nature. It’s destined to be a modern genre classic.

The film begins with the death of a family matriarch; she was estranged from her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), her son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her grandkids Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie, who works as a miniature artist, making the creepiest dollhouses known to man, doesn’t seem to be too upset by the loss of her mom and the film takes its time letting you in on the dynamics of the family. Peter is your typical movie teenage boy; he spends his time with friends and getting high. The youngest, Charlie is an odd little child. Too odd. Annie insists that Charlie was the only one her mother Ellen latched onto for reasons seemingly unknown. With Ellen gone, it’s not long before weird things begin to happen. Eventually the rug is pulled out from under us and the characters.

Boy oh boy do things happen. And why would I spoil them for you? A proper analysis of the film isn’t possible without getting into specific plot elements so I’ll just focus on the more generic positives the film offers. And that would be: Toni. Collette. She’s simply sensational here, going through a full range of emotions and being someone we easily identify with. She’s the heart and soul of the film and she’s Oscar-worthy. There’s a moment during an awkward family dinner that is a standout moment; it’s her Oscar nomination reel. The other performances are all top notch, especially a scene-stealing Anne Dowd (when doesn’t she steal every frame of every thing she’s in?).

First time feature director and writer Ari Aster works wonders building almost unbearable dread. When THAT THING happens, without warning, I was altogether numbed, shocked, and drawn in further. His script is as twisted as it is twisty. You’ll never be able to see where exactly the film’s headed. The shocking imagery he presents us is, in word, unforgettable. “Hereditary” is filled with the sights and sounds nightmares are made of including pristine camerawork and a fantastic, dread-inducing store from Colin Stetson.

“Hereditary” might be called “boring” or “slow” by some. In fact, those are the words I’d use to describe “The Witch.” This film is not dissimilar to that other slow burn of a film except the modern setting and story here are way more relatable and emotionally engaging. And more happens. The film feels more satisfying and unsettling and will certainly be worthy of repeat viewings; I can’t wait to see what this filmmaker does next. “Hereditary” will creep up on you and then creep you out.  GRADE: A