Omar Sy

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

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

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- ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (****)

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Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire
Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart 

Written by: Simon Kinberg (screenplay), Jane Goldman, Kinberg, & Matthew Vaughn (story); based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Directed by: Bryan Singer

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

The ‘X-Men’ films, in their own special way, are my cinematic ‘Tantalus’.  All of them have piqued my interest right up to the point of fully enjoying them.  As a result, I’ve been ‘tantalized’, hoping for a ‘X-Men’ romp that isn’t too drunk with continuity errors, bogged down with characters, or lacking a resounding emotional center.  Being of sound mind and body, I had a timely epiphany shortly before the showing for “X-Men: Days of Future Past”- if this were to fail in completely satisfying me, I would finally stop grasping for that cinematic fruit dangling above me.  Alas, this pairing of retro and future casts breaks through that frustrating creative logjam with this film.  “Days of Future Past” is an immensely enjoyable blockbuster- structured, paced, and edited brilliantly, with a knowing sense of itself and the saga before it.

In the not-too-distant future, the remaining X-Men face extinction battling shape-shifting ‘sentinel’ robots.  These are menacing, relentless creations that appear to be the demon spawn of the ‘Destroyer’ from “Thor” and a T-800 from the ‘Terminator’ saga.  Weary-looking but finally aligned, Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) discern that the only way to stop them is to break the rules and time travel back to the moment that inspired their creation.  If it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence’s massive popularity, I’d have bet the farm that the instigator would be someone other than the blue-skinned Mystique.  Lo and behold, she is- the film quickly reveals the murder of Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the scientist behind the sentinels, which sets a pathway for the eventual mutant eradication.  Dinklage is perfect for this role- a brilliant underdog of a man with a sinister chip on his shoulder.  It’s prescient that the name ‘Oppenheimer’ came up during the film, for that’s precisely the name I thought of when observing Trask.

Luckily for this rag-tag bunch of mutants, they actually have someone who can ‘phase’, or time travel, in Kitty Pryde (Page), and luckily she’s the one person they need that has survived the genocide.  I suppose we don’t really have a movie unless Kitty survives, or a new mutant shows up; it’s convenient to be sure.  This ‘phasing’ power she has can tear apart the brain- good thing they have a mutant available that can constantly repair himself  in Wolverine (Jackman).  All of this time travel business is done in the simplest, most logical of ways, which is the correct way to do it.  In no way should a Marvel superhero movie be tackling the sublime science behind portals and time-matter displacement, lest we remind ourselves that this is a movie about mutated humans.  We should allow ourselves to suspend disbelief for this film, for the errors in time-space logic don’t completely disband the thread they’ve created.  I am normally eager to pull the string on time travel logic, but I enjoyed this film so much that it barely bothered me.

Wolverine’s monumental task is to arrive in the early 70’s and get adversaries Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) to come together again, so that they might find the wayward Mystique and prevent her murderous ways.  Here the real fun begins.  Charles is drunk and lost, his school finished, and his powers subdued.  Magneto/Lensherr is in a concrete prison under the Pentagon.  Logan/Wolverine’s method of getting this to work may seem short, but I think it’s quite ingenious and sensible, showing that he’s not all brawn.  The film’s, and perhaps the entire saga’s best scene follows shortly thereafter involving new mission recruit Quicksilver.  To put it bluntly, the rival Quicksilver of Marvel’s “Age of Ultron” certainly has big shoes to fill.  The remainder of the film’s events are woven neatly between past and future events, culminating with an ending that is incredibly satisfying, especially for those of us who’ve invested so much in the saga.

In essence, “Days of Future Past” delivers what the previous films never quite executed- bringing a specific gravity to the screen, or providing an emotional pull appropriate enough for stories centered around themes of extreme prejudice.  I tired of hearing Magneto pontificate about some ‘war’ brewing in the first few films, only to see said ‘war’ last for twenty odd minutes on Alcatraz Island. Then, we were promised the ‘real’ story behind Wolverine’s past, only to see the film boggle our minds with retroactive continuity flubs and a milquetoast love story.  I actually came to appreciate “First Class” for the performances, but it isn’t a home run of a film.  For that matter, neither was “The Wolverine”, although it improved for me with a repeat viewing.  This film gets it right- the apocalyptic tone matches the depth of emotion portrayed.  The limitations of the original cast’s talents are bolstered by the likes of McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender.  Honestly, this film has the same expository language as the others, but the setting and consequences to make those lines mean something.  Each character’s arc means more with the stakes at hand and the urgency of the plot.  It also bears mentioning how visually striking the film is in both time periods, but at this point, shouldn’t that be the rule rather than the exception for this type of fare?

The draw of the X-Men seems to have always come from identifying with the outsider or loner culture, or perhaps the injustices of prejudice.  Maybe it has all been a result of the uber-popular Wolverine/Hugh Jackman pairing.  Whatever the case may be, nothing has been quite as satisfying as “Days of Future Past”.  I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film, which feels like a reward for having been put through the inadequacies of the others.  This film finally delivered on character arcs that began 14 years ago.  There exists a wonderful blend of talents, characters, and heaviness to this plot that’s overdue and welcome.  Despite the crowded cast listing this movie never feels crowded, no matter the wealth of powers on display and the quantity of personalities.  Even Wolverine seems more like a tertiary character here despite his importance to the plot.  Even the ending, which to some might appear as a slap in the face, is ingenious to me.  All possibilities for futures exist in this world, and we as an audience can run with that idea and not feel cheated. After all, that’s what comics do- reinvent themselves over time in interesting (sometimes not so interesting) ways.  I’m not sure I can blame a film series based on a comic for the same reason.  I applaud Bryan Singer for coming back to this franchise and sending it in an exciting, new direction.

*Note- You’ll want to stay through the end credits for this one.  Trust me- even if you don’t understand it, look it up somewhere on the interwebs and enjoy the thought of what’s coming.