Sunday, June 21, 2015

Travel back in time – to 1993 – with Jurassic World

Any movie fan worth his weight has certainly seen Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking dinosaur movie Jurassic Park. You may have seen it on the big screen when it was released in 1993, or a few years ago when it was re-released in 3D, or on video or television. Even if you haven't seen you're probably familiar with it.

The story concerned a rich old coot who bought and island in the middle of the Pacific, set up a lab facility and began engineering dinosaurs from preserved DNA in the hopes of one day opening the island as a theme park for dino-crazy tourists. Except, it was the dinosaurs that were crazy and dangerous because the cloning process also included the DNA from other species to fill in the blanks. Many people die and the hope to bring visitors to the island seems to die as well. Two sequels followed, but they are inconsequential to the new film Jurassic World.

It's twenty-two years later and the late John Hammond's dream did indeed come true as the island is now home to the Jurassic World theme park with a Main Street promenade (complete with Starbucks, Margaritaville and other major retailers) and thousands of visitors enjoying relaxing trips down a primordial river surrounded by docile, plant-eating dinosaurs, and exciting tours among larger and faster creatures in gyroscopic orbs.

Of course, dinosaurs are still being manufactured (courtesy of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie) and designed from scratch to be bigger and scarier, something to give even the adults nightmares. The island's newest creation is called the Indominus rex, smaller than a T rex but much more frightening because it's smarter and can camouflage itself visually and from heat detecting sensors (courtesy of the designer DNA). It also hunts for sport. What could possibly go wrong? If you've seen Jurassic Park, you'll have a pretty good idea.

It seems that everyone who has seen Jurassic World so far, and with earning almost a billion dollars worldwide in two weeks time, many have, is proclaiming this one of the greatest summer action movies ever made. Except it isn't. It's fun and entertaining and the CGI dinosaurs are as realistic looking as ever, but I've already seen this movie. In 1993! The story is virtually the same right down to the two brothers (replacing the brother and sister from the original) sent to the island to hang out with their aunt (replacing the grandfather) while their parents are going through a divorce. The brothers even get trapped in a gyro orb, coming face to face with the I rex in a scene that apes the Jeep scene of the original with the siblings and the T rex.

We have a new character in Chris Pratt's Owen, but he seems to be a bit of Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum rolled into one as he comments that building dinosaurs and keeping them in captivity is not a good idea. The one new twist to the story is Owen's ability to train the original film's stealth killing machines, the Raptors. He is their Alpha, and he can actually take them on a hunt as if they were a pack of bloodhounds. The only problem is they're just as intelligent as the I rex, so together they could spell real trouble. Pratt, however, demonstrates that his on-screen charm and charisma was no fluke in Guardians of the Galaxy.

While, to me, Jurassic World is a tad too derivative of the original, there are some bits and pieces here and there that are interesting and disturbing. The massive aquarium housing an aquatic beastie was pretty cool, and the little nod to Spielberg as it munches on a Great White was amusing. Not so amusing, however, was the film's one needlessly horrific death of a peripheral character that makes one wonder exactly what that character did to deserve such an awful demise. It really puts a pall over the film because it's so out of place.

There's also been a lot of yammering about the sexism on display in the way the film treats Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire, the aunt who is in charge of keeping Jurassic World financially viable. It started with a tweet from filmmaker Joss Whedon (who, himself had been accused of sexism after the way Black Widow was handled in Avengers: Age of Ultron) who questioned why Claire had to be the damsel in distress. He only saw one scene out of context, and then apologized, but the issue has remained and it's a silly one. People complain about how she dressed while running through the jungle. Umm, she was working when all hell broke loose, so she would naturally be dressed business professional and wearing heels. It's as simple as that. She really didn't have time to change while being chased around the island by things that want to eat her. Claire is actually a strong female character with a high position within the company, and the skills plus a good head on her shoulders to get herself and her nephews out of danger. And she basically saves Owen and the kids (again) in the film's last act. Take that as you will.

When Jurassic Park came out, people were awed by the amazing computer generated effects combined with actual mechanical creatures that were on the screen because we had never seen anything like that before. The wow factor, at this point, is not there because we can see pretty much anything any special effects artist can imagine these days, so a few CGI dinosaurs are no big deal. The effects are still nothing to sneeze at and are quite realistic, so the film certainly succeeds in that department. I just wish someone had spent a little more time developing a new story that didn't feel like it needed to rely on the original so much. If you just want a big, summer popcorn movie, however, Jurassic World is worth the trip, even if it does give you a sense of deja vu.

Friday, March 20, 2015

More action and twists make
Insurgent better than Divergent

I'm coming late, but not too late, to the Divergent series having only seen the first film in preparation for the press screening earlier in the week. The plot of the first film basically tells us that a post-something future which has ruined the world sees its surviving humans divided into factions which are supposed to help society rebuild with everyone in their proper place.

The factions all have names like Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful and welcoming), Erudite (intelligent), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). In a bit of plotting that's not quite explained, every citizen is tested to see which faction suits them best, but at a certain point during their teenage years there is a choosing ceremony where they get to decide which faction they want to belong to. Once you choose, you can never go back and if you don't fit in you become "factionless." Some people test with traits belonging to more than one faction, the Divergent, and they are seen as a great threat to society.

The new film Insurgent (or The Divergent Series: Insurgent … the title is presented on screen both ways) picks up some time after the events of the conclusion of Divergent with Tris (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller) and Dauntless leader Four (Theo James) hiding out with the Amitys until they can gather the rest of the Dauntless together and try to fight Jeanine (Kate Winslet) after she secretly starts a war with the Abnegations, fearing they are trying to take over rule from the Erudite.

Of course, there are many monkey-wrenches thrown into the plan when Four's mother, whom he believed was dead, shows up and offers to join him in the fight with her Factionless tribe. There's also a mysterious box which Jeanine has possession of, found buried in the family home of Tris, that only a 100% Divergent has the ability to open. One guess on who Jeanine needs. But is what she thinks is in the box going to help her cause or destroy everything she believes? (If you've read the books, you probably already know the answer to that question … and there is at least one more book/movie in the series).

I found Divergent to be an overly long origin story that had too many unanswered questions about this world, this society and who/why people are divided and why they can choose to go against their inborn faction. The sequel does amp up the action quite a bit, gives us some answers as to who came up with the factions idea, but has discarded the whole choosing thing as Tris, Four and their group have pretty much sent their society into a tizzy. There is action, betrayals and unlikely heroes by the time the second chapter ends, and of course it lays the groundwork for the next film (and hopefully they won't feel the need to divide it into two movies).

Woodley, James, Elgort, Teller and Winslet have all settled into their roles, but it's nice to see a little bit of shading as some of them begin to rethink what they're doing. Some flip, some don't and those make for some nice surprises. New additions to the cast include Octavia Spencer, who is woefully under-used as the Amity leader, and Naomi Watts, also under-used but will perhaps have a larger role in the next film. Bad guys Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer also return.

Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reins from Neil Burger and he gives the film a bit of a different look, from the sunny outdoors of the Amity village to the cold, sleek lab where Jeanine uses a host of Divergents to try to open that box (which looks almost like a large version of the cube from Hellraiser). The film also features quite a bit of off-screen violence (people clearly being shot in the head by Tris, Four and others) but very little blood. The special effects are also amped up quite a bit, especially as Tris is hooked to Jeanine's machine. The film is also presented in 3D this time around which makes the environment feel bigger but rarely does anything leap off the screen at you.

Divergent was a bit over-long at two-hours-twenty-minutes, but Insurgent is a little leaner with a two-hour run time that doesn't seem to lag a bit. With the story now past the Tris origin story, it becomes more engaging, interesting and surprising. I even found myself getting a little teary-eyed at the end as I started to relate the Divergents to those in our society today that are seen as different and scary for no real reason. This social commentary does add another layer to the story and I'm now curious to see how it all ends.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Will Smith keeps a heist plot
in Focus

Heist movies are sometimes difficult things to pull off. Some are successful (like Ocean's Eleven) and some are not (like Ocean's Twelve). Some are very dramatic, some have humorous undertones. The new heist movie Focus falls in the latter category, and adds a bit of romance into the mix.

Will Smith stars as Nicky, a seasoned con man who runs a team of master pickpockets who target large events like conventions and sporting events. One night in a restaurant, Nicky is approached by the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie) to help get her out of a situation … pretend to be her date. Turns out Jess is also a pickpocket, a rather amateur one at that, who is called out by Nicky for her technique. Realizing he's a master, she begs him to mentor her in the fine art of theft.

He does, reluctantly at first, but her skills win him over, the team pulls off a million dollar day at a vaguely Super Bowl-ish event, and he sends Jess on her way with no explanation, breaking her heart in the process. Three years later, Nicky is working a new job in Brazil and it just so happens Jess is there too, now the girlfriend of his new mark. But is she really, or is she working a game too? And just who is playing whom?

Focus, thankfully, is a fun heist movie with beautiful leads pulling off impossible crimes, and no one really gets hurt (well, not until the last third of the movie). Smith is back in fine form, turning on the charm and looking great at 45 (trivia: Smith is now older than Uncle Phil was at the start of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). After a series of much too serious films which culminated in the bomb that was After Earth, Smith is actually having fun again as the romantic lead who can talk a good game.

Margot Robbie, who made a big splash in The Wolf of Wall Street (and who will play DC Comics villain Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad alongside Jared Leto as The Joker), should become a huge star after this movie. First of all, she's simply gorgeous (I have a little gay crush on her now). But besides her beauty, the girl can act! There is a pretty funny scene with Nicky trying to teach Jess how to be alluring, but she can never get the look on her face right. She shows her confidence and excitement during the pick-pocketing, and she is incredibly vulnerable when Nicky forces her to potentially gamble away all of the money they just took in. Robbie truly sells that Jess feels completely betrayed with such honesty you just want to jump into the movie and give her a big hug.

The film is filled out with some great character actors in key roles including Adrian Martinez as Nicky's closest friend Farhad, Brennan Brown as Horst (who really runs Nicky's game but disappears midway through the movie) and Gerald McRaney as Owens, the chief of security for Nicky's mark in Brazil (played by Rodrigo Santoro). The movie, however, belongs to Smith and Robbie who have a great scene with B.D. Wong at the aforementioned Super Bowl-ish game that is the highlight of the movie.

While the movie is great fun overall, it does suffer from a bit of disjointedness and has just a few plot holes. First and foremost, the first "meet cute" between Nicky and Jess. Was it a coincidence that two pickpockets just happened to cross paths in that restaurant, or was Nicky actually watching Jess from afar? Who knows. And in the second half of the movie, did Jess know Nicky was going to be in Brazil three years later, and was she really there just to steal a $200,00 watch or to play Nicky? Never explained. Too many of these coincidences can sink a movie, but the stars are just so engaging that you accept it all and go along for the ride.

Besides the star power, the film looks gorgeous, particularly in the first part of the film with some of the most beautiful lighting I've seen on film in a while. The look of the film also changes from that dark, but lush winter in New York lighting to harsh, bright Brazilian sunlight in the last part of the film but it all serves a purpose. The film also has one of the best soundtracks of recent memory, using the music to set the mood. Focus may not be the best heist movie ever made, especially with the major plot holes, but the twists and turns, the constant guessing of who is playing whom, the music and the great performances of Smith and Robbie make it a worthwhile getaway from our wintry weather.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Selma' is the most important movie of the year

Usually when a message movie like Selma is released during the holiday season, the first thing I think of is "shameless Oscar grab." But Selma is definitely anything but a brazen attempt by a filmmaker to win an award. Selma truly is the most important movie you will see this year.

If you don't already know the story of Selma, the film focuses on one moment of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized African Americans to peacefully protest for their rights in the deep south. A time when blacks could not easily register to vote, or were forced to sit in special sections of restaurants (if they were allowed in at all), drink from separate water fountains, sit in the back of the bus...

While King is the leader and the face of the movement, the film wisely focuses on the movement rather than making King the central star of the film. King, his wife Coretta, and everyone else who was a part of the movement are integral to the film. The story does take some brief looks into the Kings' personal lives, with the alleged indiscretions of King being used against him by the FBI to destroy not only the movement but his family.

But the story here is about the Civil Rights Movement and the people who were affected by the racial discrimination of the time, and how they joined together to affect change in the country. It wasn't easy but they made it happen and this is a very important lesson that people today need to see, in the same way that the LGBT community needs to take lessons from the movie Milk.

Watching Selma, it's frightening how the story absolutely resonates today. There's that old saying that if we don't remember our history, we're doomed to repeat it and judging by the way the Supreme Court dismantled the very act this film depicts people of all races and religions fighting for – The Voting Rights Act – we are headed back to a time where white people seem to think it's okay to discriminate against black people.

King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, but where is our King today? Where is our Harvey Milk? There are plenty of organizations like the HRC putting out press releases condemning the kind of discrimination that is currently being implemented against blacks, gays and anyone else who isn't a white Christian, but where are the movements, the peaceful protests, the public faces to get on TV and speak for the masses? A person speaking directly to the public can get much more done than a press release. Until we see those faces leading the charge, we will continue to slip back in time.

Director Ava DuVernay has done a magnificent job bringing this moment in history to life without being cloying or overly reverent. She lets us see the strife within King's camp, the rifts that began to form when he suddenly canceled the second march to Montgomery (thinking it was a trap when the police stepped aside to allow them to pass) after the disastrous end to the first march. If you aren't horrified and moved to tears by the violence inflicted upon the marchers as they peacefully walk across a bridge then you need help.

David Oyelowo is perfect as King, showing us both the personal and public sides of the man, and delivering his speeches (or variations of the speeches as the filmmakers were not grated the rights to use the actual speeches) with the power that truly moved people to act. Carmen Ejogo is stunning as Coretta, a doppelganger of the real Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson pulls off a credible LBJ (even in the face of much criticism that his portrayal is inaccurate, a move some think is simply a way to discredit the entire movie). Everyone in the cast, from Common to Lorraine Toussaint, is excellent and though much has been made of Oprah Winfrey's role in the film as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who is constantly being denied the right to even register to vote by any means necessary, she's only in a few brief scenes.

The film closes out with the moving song "Glory" (which just won a Golden Globe) by Common and John Legend, and it is a very powerful accompaniment to the film. We should be seeing an Oscar coming its way as well.

If you've been hemming and hawing about sitting through a true-life historical film, put those doubts aside and head to your local cinema to see Selma. You'll be moved, you'll be entertained, but most of all, you will learn something that you can actually apply to your life and the lives of others today.

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2014

Happy New Year! As we prepare to begin a new year of movie-going, it's time to take a look back on some of the better films of 2014. This is a list of the films I enjoyed, not necessarily a Top Ten Best Films of 2014 list (some of the prestige films like Selma didn't open in Baltimore until after the new year). For this list, I chose the ten films of 2014 that entertained me the most.

Big Hero 6 – Disney hit one out of the park in the animation department, something usually reserved for their sibling company Pixar. But this tale of teenaged superheroes scored major points for introducing the world to Baymax, a medical droid who becomes pivotal in saving the world (or at least the fictional city of San Fransokyo) from destruction, and for injecting real heart-tugging emotion into the story. When children and adults are sniffling and wiping away tears, you know the filmmakers have done their job.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes was better than it had any right to be, and with its combination of popcorn entertainment and amazing CGI characters and performances, a sequel was inevitable. Dawn, which takes place ten years after Rise, takes the performance capture and CGI to whole new levels (Andy Serkis really should be considered for an Oscar nomination as the ape Caesar) and takes the story to another, more thoughtful level as well. The film really sets out to make you think about our society and the directions we could go if we're not careful, and that's something you don't usually get from a summer SPFX blockbuster. It loses a few points for some of the much too stereotypical human characters, but overall it really whets your appetite for the next chapter.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – This is the film X-Men fans have been waiting for, the one that merges the key players from the original trilogy with the new cast from the most recent film. X-Men: First Class was a triumph in the way it showed us the younger versions of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto and other future X-Men and how the plot tied into the history of 1962. The new film also plays with the past, present and future using Hugh Jackman's Wolverine as the connective tissue, and even when it gets a little goofy towards the end, it's still hugely entertaining and shows that there's still plenty of life left in the franchise (unlike Sony's Spider-Man).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The first Captain America film was a real gamble, setting the main part of the story in the 1940s and bringing Cap to the present right at the very end. The new film was also interesting in that, while it has a modern setting, the tone is very 1970s political thriller like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. To strengthen this narrative, Marvel even went so far as to cast Condor star Robert Redford in a pivotal role as a top dog at S.H.I.E.L.D. The film even touched on a government's over-reach into personal privacy, something that Cap is against, and will continue to resonate through to the next Avengers and third Captain America movie. It was all brilliantly realized and a little CGI-heavy at the end, but still one of the best of the Marvel superhero flicks to date.

Into the Woods – Disney took a bold step in making a film based on fairy tales … but this isn't your traditional Disney fairy tale movie. Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical finally made it to the big screen, and for an adaptation it really works. The actors acquit themselves well handling Sondheim's complicated lyrics, and director Rob Marshall works his magic as the film goes from the bright, color tales that we (think we) know to a much darker place where "happily ever after" really is just a fairy tale. It's definitely not for little kids, and a downer of an ending may color how you feel about the film as a whole, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyCaptain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel film of the year … until this one came out a few months later. Marvel gambled hard on bringing a little-known cast of comic book characters to the big screen, but with director James Gunn's obvious affection for the material and a star-making performance from Chris Pratt, the gamble paid off. It was also one of the few summer blockbusters that wasn't a sequel or reboot, and proved that if the studios can produce a great movie that can make people talk, they can have a hit with original material. The film was great fun with a great 1980s mix tape soundtrack and some eye-popping visual effects and makeup. Definitely one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Edge of Tomorrow – I'm still baffled as to why this tanked at the box office, but it's obvious the studio had no idea how to market the movie, changing the title from the source material's All You Need Is Kill to a more generic Edge of Tomorrow, and they still don't know how to promote it on home video, hiding the title in the smallest font possible and using the film's tagline "Live. Die. Repeat." as the title. The film is a clever Groundhog Day story of a man who has to re-live the same day over and over again in order to fight an alien invasion of earth. Terrific performances from Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt (who is getting notice for her Into the Woods role), some amazing action scenes and an ending that will keep you guessing should have had people lined up to see this. They didn't, and they missed one of the most exciting films of the year.

PridePride tells the story of a group of gay men and lesbians who started a group to help support British miners during a strike which shut down the country under Thatcher's rule in the early 1980s. Picking a small mining town to deliver their donation, they faced some resistance but were also welcomed by many in the town. The situation is one of those things that can only happen in the movies, but this is a true story! The film doesn't hold back in showing the fight for gay rights of the time (and touches on the beginnings of the AIDS crisis), both in London and in the small town, but it's ultimately an uplifting, emotional, funny, triumphant story that never becomes sugar-coated. There are also some great performances from Imelda Staunton, Ben Schnetzer and Jessica Gunning, all worthy of awards consideration. The only misstep now is the US home video packaging that has completed erased any mention of the gays. For a movie about acceptance, it's shameful that Sony felt they had to whitewash the video package to sell a few more copies (although it would be fun to sit with some unsuspecting viewer in the Bible Belt while the story unfolds).

Birdman – This is one of those movies that just puts your jaw on the floor for the entire running time. Michael Keaton stars as a washed-up actor, who once played the superhero Birdman (wink, wink), trying to get his star to rise once again by mounting a Broadway play … something he's never done before. As the production and his psyche spiral out of control, we're taken on the ride in what appears to be one continuous shot (even though it takes place over the course of several days). With ironic performances from Keaton and Edward Norton, and wonderful support from Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifiniakis and Andrea Riseborough, Birdman is one of those films that just stays with you long after you've left the theater. A definite Oscar contender for Best Picture, Birdman could be this year's Gravity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – When this finally came out in March, we had already endured two months of lackluster films like The Legend of Hercules, At Middleton, That Awkward Moment and The Monuments Men, so Wes Anderson's twisted tale of romance and (possible) murder was a welcome respite from the winter dreck. I'm not even a fan of Anderson's films and I found this to be utterly charming from beginning to end, with Anderson's whimsical visuals firmly grounded by a bravura performance from Ralph Fiennes as the hotel bellman who keeps things running while attending to his own needs. The film becomes a caper when a painting goes missing, and then a jail-break movie, almost veering into Pink Panther-like slapstick before settling back at the hotel and a poignant ending. Incredibly enjoyable from beginning to end, and definitely a contender for Oscar gold.

If you missed any of these movies in theaters, you can still find Into the Woods and Big Hero 6 on the big screen. The rest are currently available on home video. Do check them out!