Laura Dern

Film Review- ‘Jurassic World’ (**1/2)

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Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark's in the water. Mosasaurus is in the water.
Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Mosasaurus in the water.

Jurassic World  **1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, and Judy Greer

Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow (screenplay); Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (story); based on characters originally created by Michael Crichton

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow


Grabstalgia.  Oh, that’s just a new word I made up to describe what happens when a piece of art doesn’t have a single aim, aside from grabbing and plucking those nostalgic strings of your memory.  In 1993, Jurassic Park became an instant classic; not necessarily because of a riveting, life-altering plot, but rather because of the fresh, carefully crafted grand spectacle it provided.  Until then, we knew nothing of dinosaurs in our movies, save for poorly rendered versions showing at our local museum’s theater or stop-motion beasts from yesterday’s earnest puppeteers.  Now, we’ve seen everything.  Jurassic World knows that, and plunges forward into “bigger and badder is better” territory.  After all, the next logical step (because there is a pile of cash to collect from this franchise) was to create a grander spectacle, and constantly remind us why we loved the first film.  That’s a neat strategy for a cash grab, but let’s be clear: if you’re looking to recreate that feeling of sheer awe from the original, you likely won’t find it.  If you’re looking for a grounded film, you won’t come close to a glimpse.  If you simply want to be entertained without consequence in the presence of the theater’s industrial air conditioner, Jurassic World was made for you.

The film is aptly made, appropriately sequenced and rendered, and provides likable, if not typical leads.  The problem, it appears, is that none of Jurassic World‘s characters have seen, and thus none have learned, from the original.  For all of the wanton loss of life and destruction of property we witnessed in the film’s first three installments, John Hammond’s original vision has somehow been seen to fruition.  In fact, the park has been open for some time.  Where there are myopic billionaires like Hammond, I suppose there are giant piles of cash ready to dump on problems and pay off vast numbers of people.  Speaking of myopic billionaires, a new “Hammond” has taken ownership of the park, in the name of Simon Masrani (Khan).  He’s a cool customer, and a modern CEO at that.  He’s hired a young woman to run his park, a young, rogue-ish fellow to train his raptors, has younger techs in prominent positions, and even flies his own helicopter.  What a guy!  He’s Elon Musk without the social responsibility (I imagine the role was pitched that way).

Sure, like the other films, we hear talk of ‘cautions’ and ‘safeguards’ with the park.  We hear about backup systems, genetic inhibitors, and other devices ready to quell the monstrous reincarnations known as dinosaurs at bay.  Just typing that bothers me, though, as it should the collective of theoretical ‘Jurassic’ investors.  Trying to keep nature, especially extinct nature, from being itself just doesn’t fly.  It simply begs for a righteous smattering of Murphy’s Law, the natural sibling of Mother Nature.  By creating a new breed of dino, Masrani and his team of nearsighted nitwits have gone and taunted the both of them, and thus deserve a steaming heap of karma.  Dubbed Indominus Rex (a name even the script scoffs at), this beautiful and horrific creature has more teeth, just like the investors ordered.  It also hasn’t paid nature’s dues, the tried and true steps every living creature has gone through to earn their place on our planet.  Through no fault of its’ own, the “I. Rex” is sufficiently underdeveloped, and thus cannot behave predictably.  Can you imagine what happens next?

Amidst the ensuing chaos, the young woman named Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs this massive park must figure out how to contain the already deadly I. Rex and bring her two visiting, meandering nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) in from the park safely.  Luckily, she has Owen Grady at her disposal (Chris Pratt), and he trains velociraptors.  I’m quite serious.  His job, quite literally, is to form a bond with ancient killers in an attempt to; well, I can’t give it away, but you can easily figure it out.  So, the villains from the first film (raptors) are now our pals.  I hate to sound snarky, but let’s be real.  How many trainable reptiles can you name in today’s age?  What do you think the odds are of training one that went extinct and has a super tiny brain?  I suppose the plot needs this, or the finale wouldn’t come together, but come on.  This is only a simple step from the ‘laser raptors’ of Kung Fury.  At that point, what little science still remained from the genesis of Michael Crichton’s already far-fetched idea officially fades into the ether.

I find myself in a similar position to Clerks‘ resident gas station attendants/Star Wars skeptics.  Their perceptive concerns about innocent contractors caught in the crossfire may seem like a silly, irrelevant point to make about a sci-fi fantasy film, but it brings into focus the critical mass of characters and plot these films churn out.  If we hold comic films to a ‘death toll’ standard, chiding them for blase attitudes to human lives, shouldn’t we do the same for these Jurassic films?  Each subsequent sequel barely touches on the fallout of all previous entries.  Each film has bland characterizations of the individual in charge, as they create and spend, but never ask whether they should. A paraphrasing of Ian Malcolm’s line from the original has always been the right angle, but not a single person really listened to him, or reason.

That simple statement invites a litany of questions.  Who harbors responsibility for these animals and what comes of them?  For that matter, what became of the hundreds of dinosaurs from the first three films?  What has happened to Isla Sorna from The Lost World and Jurassic Park III?  How is the original visitor’s center from Jurassic Park still standing?  Does it serve a purpose to the plot other than to call attention to our strong nostalgic feelings for the original?  How can this park be sponsored by major companies, when they know full well the risk inherent in having their product connected to a possible catastrophe?  How can world governments not want to be involved in the safeguarding of this park?  How can a company like InGen still be in business?  Can someone blow the whistle there already and ‘Enron’ the bejesus out of them?  How unoriginal is it to have the archetypal “bad guy” be Vincent D’Onofrio?  Isn’t his presence enough to know he’s hiding something sinister?  By now, how are there not pteranodons and pterodactyls, last seen flying from Isla Sorna, not picking off swimmers on the Gulf Coast?

The unfortunate side effect of the glorious disease of nostalgia is the latitude we allow, thus the need for all of those questions of logic.  We hear John Williams’ Jurassic Park cues, and we forget that the film rushes head-long into a plot without catching us up to speed.  We see B.D. Wong reprising his role from the original, and we forgive his unabashedly broken moral compass.  We see set pieces from the original, and we forget to ask how these landmarks still stand.  We see a huge dino battle and ignore the convenient ease with which the mosasaurus picks off its prey.  Reading my words, you might imagine plenty of glorious movie visions, and there are; in fact, I’ll credit Jurassic World by proclaiming it as the most impressive of the monster movies in terms of sheer scale.  I simply find myself frustrated with a franchise that acts like its’ own antagonists, and continues to deliver the same “gather people up, run away from dinosaurs” story line.  Every person with power in these films is corrupt or blind, and by the time morality catches up to them, salvage is impossible.  Director Colin Trevorrow, for all his accomplishments with the brilliant indie Safety Not Guaranteed, spends so much time honoring the original in every way that he may have forgotten to make his own film.

Generally, I’m not a complete buffoon, devoid of appreciating escapist joy at the theater.  I can forgive honest films that simply mean to be aimless summer fun.  As a monster movie, the results of Jurassic World are most impressive.  I understand why it exists, and why most crowds are drawn to its’ promise of awe, but the reasons are disappointing and cynical to me, yet somehow acceptable to the masses.  Crowds might not have wanted a new Jurassic film, per se, but they sure want homages, repackagings, and familiar blockbusters.  They might not even notice what’s wrong with the narrative.  Like the film’s teenager Zach, our heads are probably too buried in our phones to bother noticing the transfer of our money into Universal’s coffers.  Jurassic World is not a bad film, but nor is it a good one.  It is not a loud, garish disaster, but neither is it an intelligent, thoughtful film.  It simply exists to remind us that we loved a movie 22 years ago.  That’s great and all, but we already paid for our movie ticket once in 1993 (if not two, three, and four times), bought a VHS copy, bought the DVD, bought the Blu-Ray, and paid again to see it in 3-D upon re-release in 2013.  I would never ask a Jurassic film to stop dreaming like a child it once was, but I do expect the story to grow up, and attempt to break a film barrier like its’ forefather.


Film Review- ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (**)

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The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.
The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.


“The Fault in Our Stars”  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, and Willem Dafoe

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (screenplay), based on the novel by John Green

Directed by: Josh Boone


When the credits rolled and the darkness lifted following “The Fault in Our Stars”, something fascinating took place.  The sound of hordes of tweeners sobbing created what I can only describe as a palpable, awkward tension in the room.  It was as if we’d all just witnessed cinematic history, or perhaps the ritual sacrifice of puppies.  Either hypothetical event would have been sufficient for the influx of tears, but neither took place.  This audience, the perfect prey for the predator that is this movie, was game.  Game for a soulless, Mola Ram-like filmmaker to forcibly remove the heart from every teenage girl and strum their chordae tendinae like a concert cellist.  Far be it from me to cheapen someone’s real emotion, oddly misplaced as it may be- but this is a film rank with the stench of insincerity, failing to capture our minds, as it is so clearly preoccupied with manipulating our hearts.

Extreme hyperbole aside, this wasn’t an entirely awful experience, so I’ll explain. Shailene Woodley of “Divergent” fame stars as Hazel, a young lady with terminal cancer and little in the way of positive life experiences.  Due to the relative success of an experimental drug, Hazel’s life has been extended, but as she puts it, she’s on borrowed time.  Her mother (Dern) nudges her into joining a support group, where she meets Isaac (Wolff) and Augustus, or Gus (Elgort).  Gus is a cancer patient in remission at this point, and is there to support his buddy Isaac.  Lo and behold, Gus takes a shine to Hazel, warts and all, and the two begin something akin to a relationship, centered around a fictional novel that she uses to make sense of her life.  Woodley and Elgort are fine if not awkward in their roles, in spite of a script that doesn’t play to the best of their abilities (see “The Descendants” for what Woodley is capable of).

Theirs is a different courtship- a pairing for the ages if you believe the hype, but is it?  We know she is doomed, and the film tells us as much.  There cannot be a happily ever after, nor can we have the typical meet-cute followed by a whirlwind romance.  Ergo, they fit the very definition of ‘star-crossed lovers’, which cinemagoers have seen countless times.  Is there anything unique about Hazel and Gus?  Sure, they have both been touched as youngsters by the cruelest of diseases, which should bring a gravity and suddenness to their romance.    Unfortunately, this script cheapens their relationship by creating a seemingly endless series of climactic, tear-jerking scenes that stand to simply leave one exhausted and confused.

A glaring example of said confusion is the film’s desire to show these late teens (he’s 18, she’s 17) as ‘adult’ figures, waxing poetic about the philosophy behind pain and death, attending community college and the like, but then treating their feelings as if they were children.  There is nothing more odd and off-putting in this film than the portrayal of a strong, mature connection between Hazel and Gus, then the perplexing decision to purposely, and without explanation, keep them away from each other at their most vulnerable moments.  One can understand overprotective parents (this film never makes it seem like that is the case) or a desire to ‘keep it in the family’.  It does seem clear, however, that both Hazel and Gus simply want to be with each other, and the film blatantly ignores both reason and explanation in this regard.  If, as a youngster I saw this film, I would understand that A) it is ok to run the gamut of adult emotions, ranging from love, intimacy, and death, but B) when the clock strikes midnight, my voice would be stifled, my desires ignored, my confidant kept away. Someone will likely tell me that the novel explains these oddities, and I will respond in kind by saying “that’s nice”.

Director Josh Boone’s film is at its’ strongest when the realities of cancer permeated the forced emotion.  Cold as that may sound, it’s true.  Watching these characters endure pain washes the sheen of ‘teenage wasteland’ from the film, even if but for a short while.  The unlucky couple’s brief moments of understanding about death and their illnesses also brought a needed poignancy to the film. Another scene consisting of a conversation about the parent’s plans after Hazel’s imminent death was particularly moving- I imagine such talks, while unpleasant, are necessary for both parties to accept the realities of life.

I’ve heard the hype behind this movie, and the completely unquotable quotables this offers (Okay, Okay is simply a lazier “You had me at hello”).  If this is the quintessential romance for the younger generation, then pardon me while I walk into traffic.  This film (I stress the term film to ensure I don’t invite the wrath of the novel’s legions), while competently shot, put together, and performed, seems to exist primarily as an excuse for the young adult crowd to cry in public amongst friends for two hours.  At best, it gives something of a voice to children with cancer, and could inspire to make the most of an awful situation.  At worst, it fails to reconcile the odd coupling of adult feelings with children’s lives, and inserts far too many climactic emotional scenes to the point of overkill- more than any film I can remember.  There is the possibility of something better here, like other, stronger films before it involving the same audience (“The Lovely Bones” comes to mind).   “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t a completely silly, manipulative experience, but it most certainly is on the verge.

*note- I don’t quite understand the film’s (and by proxy the novel’s) title.  In a literal sense, I assume that author John Green was attempting to draw a parallel between ‘our’ constellations and the emotions we pin to them versus the realities of life, but that may be a reach.  The film itself, despite frequent stellar imagery, did not appear to broach the subject either.  It is fitting, in a way.  The title, much like the content of the film, grasps at straws.