Jurassic World



Why even bother with a review? ‘Jurassic World’ has already set a record for the biggest domestic opening weekend of all time. All the same, something should be said about the film’s atrociousness. With a franchise built on best-selling novels, three earlier films (the first two of which were directed by Steven Spielberg), and theme-park attractions, how could the end product reach such unacceptably low levels? Never again will this happen. ‘Jurassic World’ will be presented as a success story in future Marketing lecture modules. It won’t, however, be included in the Film Studies curriculum other than as a footnote to demonstrate how a film could assail all senses, including common.

The brain-dead plot involves the escape of a new and dangerous breed of genetically cloned dinosaurs on an island designed as a dinosaur theme park. The director is Colin Trevorrow whose previous lone feature was a small indie called ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ from 2012. It was modest but sweet, heartfelt, and filled with Spielbergian influences. So, I guess it is no surprise that Trevorrow was approached to take the reins on ‘Jurassic World’, but it was an offer he should have refused. The leap from his independent film project to this gargantuan-scaled blockbuster is just too much, and Trevorrow struggles mightily with this blundering edition of the franchise that was put in motion 22 years ago.

I like both ‘Jurassic Park’, and ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’. Spielberg was able to blend (what was back then) state-of-the-art special effects with memorable characters and a cautionary tale about humans trying to play God. The dinosaurs were incredible and the filmmaking visceral. He is the executive producer for ‘Jurassic World’, and the film has a number of Spielbergian nods – my favorite being an enormous amphibious creature devouring a great white shark: in other words, ‘Jaws’ was so 40 years ago and this is what a contemporary summer blockbuster looks like today. I recently revisited ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ and although that movie is 18 years old, it is a much better looking picture than ‘Jurassic World’ is. This is a problem.

Apparently, a $150million budget doesn’t buy you a coherent screenplay. How did these actors repeat their goofy lines with a straight face? The shameless product placement on display would make Michael Bay blush – Mercedes Benz, Coca Cola, Triumph Motorcycles, Samsung, Brookstone, Starbucks, and Margaritaville to name a few. I was unclear about the conflicting coalitions. At one point, our film’s hero joins forces with a nutcase who wants to militarize the dinosaurs and use them in America’s foreign wars.

Chris Pratt plays a dinosaur expert and Bryce Dallas Howard is the corporate puppet whose character is borderline offensive. I’m not sure I understand why her character was so exorbitantly dolled-up. Or why just because she is a successful businesswoman, her vocabulary would only be limited to sales performance metrics. Or why she couldn’t crack a joke if her life depended on it. And the movie’s stupidity can be summed in a single image of her outrunning a T-Rex in high heels. Over cement. Through mud. The heel didn’t break. Oh, more product placement! Pratt’s natural charm and charisma cannot elevate such clumsy material – the filmmakers have succeeded in taking the biggest movie star working today and making him boring. The picture wallows in clichés with its odd-couple pairing – he trains raptors, she runs and screams.

When the classic John Williams theme is revealed, it is for the moment in which we are first taken into the theme park. Not when we first see any dinosaurs. There is about 40 minutes of exposition and setup. The genetically engineered dinosaur doesn’t appear until about the halfway mark. Trevorrow is trying to follow Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ template (if you recall, we didn’t see the shark until very late in the picture), but what he doesn’t have are interesting three-dimensional characters, or a plot that generates suspense or tension. The chase scenes aren’t nearly as exciting as they should be – just when you think the movie is going to pick up in terms of action, the narrative machinery kicks in trying to juggle many of its unnecessary subplots, most of which aren’t seen through to any kind of resolution.

What is the lesson here? When all you care about is money, awful things happen. Why after three disastrous encounters between humans and dinosaurs would this park be recreated 22 years later? The answer, I guess, can be found on the top line of their income statement. The filmmakers should have taken their own advice. Their motivations for building a bigger and louder sequel are box office returns and the end result is as chaotic as the reptile dysfunction it depicts.

Note: I saw ‘Jurassic World’ in IMAX 3-D. The movie was converted into 3-D post-production and adds nothing to the experience. Personally, I would have preferred 0-D. QED.

Love & Mercy



‘Love & Mercy’ is not only one of the best films of 2015, but it is as good a musical biopic as I have ever seen. This is a movie that hits all the right notes, foregoing genre clichés for something more introspective and interesting. It reveals the gloom hidden within the most luminous of Beach Boys songs.

In ‘Love & Mercy’, we witness the anguish at the center of the Beach Boys. That center belongs to Brian Wilson. The first image we see in the movie is of his ear, and it is clear right from the start that we are going to be inside his head and hear the world passing through this ears.

This intelligent, compassionate film marks the directorial debut of Bill Pohlad whose filmmaking sensibilities breathe new life into a genre known for conventional modes of storytelling. Credit the terrific nonlinear screenplay penned by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner.

The two actors who play Wilson at different life stages are Paul Dano (1965 – 1968) and John Cusack (1980s) and both give the best performances of their careers – mostly restrained and subtle but electric and expressive when the moments call for it.

It is Cusack’s Wilson that we first meet – his shoulders slouched, his speech unhurried – when he visits a Cadillac dealership. There, he meets a saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) who he takes an instant liking to. Wilson is shopping with an enigmatic therapist and legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

How did this man before us, deftly embodied by Cusack, eventuate from Dano’s Wilson? This cryptogram is deciphered enticingly, as the picture seamlessly and fluidly shifts between these two time periods.

Around the apex of Beach Boys monomania, Wilson has a panic attack on an airplane, and withdraws from a demanding touring schedule to write new material. The result: the 1966 album ‘Pet Sounds’ which was Wilson’s solo record in all but name and considered one of the greatest albums of that era (for the record, it ranks among my all-time favorite albums – puns always intended).

Most films of this sort would demonstrate a fall from fame related to substance abuse that the artist would have to overcome before a moment of triumph during a live performance. They would try really hard to recreate the period details and the live concert settings. ‘Love & Mercy’ goes into stranger and deeper places than movies of its kind would ever dare to. It is also more interested in process and artistic methodology. We spend a lot of time with Wilson in the studio experimenting with the knobs and buttons on a music console to get that distinctive sound for the ‘Pet Sounds’. These scenes demonstrate how Wilson’s innovative drive helped him create a work of art without giving into the pressures from record labels. And it also showcases Pohlad’s directorial chops – he makes the creation of a familiar record as exciting as hearing it for the first time. Pohlad may be sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, but he is an accomplished producer: ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘The Tree of Life’, ‘Fair Game’, ‘The Runaways’, ‘Wild’. With such a varied filmography, ‘Love & Mercy’ demonstrates he has learned very well from some first-rate filmmakers how to orchestrate diverse styles and approaches.

I haven’t been big on Dano in the past but his work here is gently infallible and we see how he eventually becomes the whispery and defenseless Wilson inhabited by Cusack. Cusack and Banks are fantastic together. Any other picture would have smothered Ledbetter with the Good Samaritan character type and she is all the more believable as Wilson’s liberator because Banks doesn’t play her that way.

Wilson had an appallingly abusive father (Bill Camp) who was the Beach Boys’ manager until he was replaced by Landy. Wilson conforms to a lot of Landy’s apocryphal methods because he is viewed as a father figure. Landy was just as abusive – he was just able to conceal it in the guise of therapy .A curiosity: I’m failing to recall scenes between Landy and Wilson from the 1960s. I suppose it isn’t all that important – the movie isn’t interested in making any Freudian assertions of Wilson’s trauma.

The best biopics are the ones that do not chart the entire course of the subject’s life but provide a window sufficient enough for the viewer to understand why the story was worth telling. By focusing on these two stages (and ignoring the events of the intervening years), we get an exquisitely moving, and unforgettably complex portrait. And, of course, they pave the way for the stage that 72-year-old Wilson will be occupying as he tours the US and the UK over the next 4 months. This is a picture that mirrors the artistry of its subject. You won’t see a better biopic this year. QED

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

me and earl


With a title as Sundancy as ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, it is no surprise the film was the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m sure this will be labeled as ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ for the Criterion crowd (there are some Wes Anderson influences and more than a couple references to Werner Herzog).

The terrific screenplay (by Jesse Andrews adapting his own novel), assured direction from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (his second feature), outstanding cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung, the perfect musical score by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly, and uniformly excellent performances make ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ a wonderfully energetic teen weepie – one that avoids most of the clichés of this genre while infusing the remaining ones with warmth and humor.

Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward high school senior who tells us this story with sharp perspicacity. His only friend is a kid named Earl (RJ Cyler), who he refers to as more of a coworker given that they work on elaborate parodies of classic films together. Greg’s eccentric father (Nick Offerman) is a humanities professor who appears to spend all his time working on a unique culinary creation – he introduced Greg to Werner Herzog at a young age, the auteur that sparked his passion for cinema. And so, here are some example of the films Greg and Earl make: ‘A Clockwork Orange’ becomes a ‘A Sock Work Orange’, Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’ becomes ‘Breathe Less’ and they are packaged into fake Criterion covers. It’s a perfectly suitable hobby for someone who wants to fortify himself from the social scene, which is exactly what Greg and Earl do – they spend their lunch break in their history teacher’s (John Bernthal) office.

Greg is persuaded by his mother (Connie Britton) to befriend a sweet-natured but unpopular girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. And so this beautiful friendship begins, which the film’s subtitling of events labels as “the doomed friendship”. Just when we’re starting to think that this may play out like a variation of ‘The Fault In Our Stars’, Greg is there to remind us that this is not a touching, romantic story. This relationship unfolds in ways you would not expect.

The very best pictures of this genre feature the confident storytelling and outstanding performances that we get here but what really distinguishes ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is how exceptionally well made it is. Chung’s low-angle shots, tracking shots, long takes, stop frame interregnums, and use of foreground and background compositions are a just a few examples of the visual intricacies employed. There is a pivotal moment between Greg and Rachel framed with her in the foreground and he in the background rather than the shot/countershot we would typically expect and Chung’s approach amplifies the emotional intensity. Eno’s and Muhly’s score is devastatingly effective; they discard the all-too-familiar sweeping strings for something more powerful – their score is a big reason the final act is such a punch to the gut.

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ may transition from madcap comedy to tearjerker drama a little too abruptly but I believe this shift is inherent of the film’s design. This story is told from Greg’s perspective and the film’s light tone is maintained for as long as Greg remains in denial. Yes, this is movie is about that doomed friendship between Greg and Rachel. But, it’s also about the artistic temperament. Greg’s fake movies are intentionally horrible mainly because he didn’t have that powerful immediate human experience to share. Until now. Great art springs from adversity and he now has the stage to say something deeply personal.

Most importantly, it all feels organic. Films of this sort are far too obvious in manipulating our emotions. Greg, Earl, and Rachel look, feel, and speak like teenagers. We hear the ums and ahs. They sometimes say the wrong things and appear incoherent. You can’t smell the screenplay workshopping. We feel their frustrations because we were once as confused as they were. Even the quirkiest characters register as real people. It’s clear that Andrews and Gomez-Rejon love these characters. We enjoy spending time in their company, and we care for them deeply. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is no disease-of-the-week flick pick. It is clever, honest, and artfully assembled. The tears it leaves you in feel earned. QED.




In ‘Tomorrowland’, a young girl, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and a bitter, grizzled man, Frank Walker (George Clooney), use a magical pin to transport themselves to a futuristic utopia to make things right back on Earth before it is too late. Brad Bird’s high-powered new film, a well-polished live-action spectacle from Disney, is a jollification of inspiration, idealism, and elation.

It isn’t supposed to be this way. I have been known to embrace movies that swing for the fence. Mr. Bird, whose previous directorial efforts include ‘Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol’, ‘The Iron Giant’, ‘The Incredibles’, and ‘Ratatouille’ (which ranks alongside ‘Whiplash’ as one of the greatest pictures ever made about the pursuit of artistic greatness) hasn’t made a run-of-the-mill Disney family adventure. ‘Tomorrowland’ tries to be “about something” – it is ambitious and has some truly visionary moments but it comes off as an ‘Atlas Shrugged’-lite spluttering misfire.

What is at stake here? Aside from a literal ticking clock, I’m not sure it is ever clear. There is some narrative intrigue early on – that is to say I liked ‘Tomorrowland’ until the characters arrive at Tomorrowland. The film establishes the Casey-Frank storyline, and how they are intertwined with each other, very well and their banter is always fun to listen to. I liked the ideas behind this movie and the positive message but none of it manifests in a compelling way. Once the characters get to Tomorrowland, Mr. Bird wants to dazzle us with eye-popping visuals but also wants to lecture us on how we are own worst enemy.

For a film that advocates inventiveness and creativity, ‘Tomorrowland’ gets in its own way. The colorful widescreen compositions showcase some PG-rated action, most of it overwrought, little of it exciting. Its idea of the future is incomplete – it presents to us a prototype that fails to detail how the various moving pieces would function together and instead just asks us to believe that they will. We have to believe that the most gifted of us will conjure up a plan to eliminate the problems of this planet.

There is also an icky subplot involving a robot in little girl form that connects Casey with Frank. When Frank was a little boy, he had a crush on her, and that feeling appears to still be there. As a grown-up, he still pines for this person who clearly isn’t a little girl but looks like one, and there are moments of affection between the two, which made me feel uncomfortable. I should note that the young actress playing this robot is Raffey Cassidy – she has a very charismatic and commanding screen presence and as far as the performances go, she is the standout here.

Even though ‘Tomorrowland’ appears to be about Walt Disney’s higher principles, I was relieved to discover it wasn’t just a $190million ad for Disney (though there is a giant Coke ad in the mid-section). ‘Tomorrowland’ is released right between ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, and ‘San Andreas’, two movies that conceive this world as an irreparable mess. I admired how hopeful this movie was. But good intentions alone do not make a good movie. QED