Richard Branson

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.

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Film Review- ‘Aloha’ (***)

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ALOHA
Brian (Bradley Cooper) and Allison (Emma Stone) survey a Hawaiian Christmas lawn.

 

Aloha  *** (out of 5)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, Danielle Rose Russel, Jaeden Lieberher, and Bill Murray

Written and directed by: Cameron Crowe

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

A common thread running through the films of Cameron Crowe is the flawed hero.  Whether it’s Lloyd Dobler awkwardly pursuing his future plans, Jerry Maguire fumbling through his professional and love life, or Drew Baylor contemplating life and death, we know what to expect from a Crowe lead.  We can only speculate as to whether this reflects his own personality and challenges, or is simply derivative of where his mind goes to find a story.  Unsurprisingly, Aloha has much of the same DNA as his other films, flawed hero and all.  It’s because of that DNA that we recognize where Crowe wants to go with this latest entry.  I accept and applaud Aloha in spite of continued problems with character development and focus from the director, and love the handful of scenes in which the film works.  It is a film whose characters resemble the ‘realness’ we love about other Crowe movies, but places them in odd, unclear situations at times, without allowing them to breathe.  Amidst problems involving the studio and leaked emails, the supposed trouble surrounding Aloha leads me to believe that Crowe had something, but may have lost most of it in the shuffle.

Bradley Cooper and his baby blues star as Brian Gilcrest, a “contractor” for the military.  I have no idea what that means, and the film only shows him as a “contractor” for a brief time.  What we do know is that people make fun of him for flubbing a past assignment in Afghanistan, and that he sustained a lasting injury as a result.  He’s managed to get a second chance “contracting” under the watchful gaze of Carson Welch (Murray), one of the world’s wealthiest men.  Welch has a penchant for aerospace engineering, too.  Think Richard Branson without the music, or Elon Musk with less philanthropy, then insert everything we expect from a Bill Murray performance.

This new “contracting” gig is in Hawaii, of all places.  For 99% of us that means absolute joy, but for Brian, this is a painful homecoming of sorts.  His escort en route to the local Air Force Base is John “Woody” Woodside (Krasinski), a hot-shot pilot that just happens to be married to his former love Tracy (the always radiant Rachel McAdams).  Awkward!  She doesn’t know he’s coming, so when he arrives, the jolt of emotion is enough to throw her out of whack.  We’re sure this is bound to cause issues because 1) Rachel McAdams was cast for a reason, and 2) she’s so flustered upon first seeing him that she ends up extending a dinner invite.

We also see that the Air Force has assigned an escort to Brian in the form of pilot Allison Ng (Stone).  Allison is an energetic, no-nonsense woman whose presence seems to encourage the positive side of Brian’s otherwise cynical personality to emerge.  Being a ‘quarter Hawaiian’, she’s also in tune with the history of the islands, and what natives consider to be spiritual.  That’s a big help for Brian’s first “mission” in his new job. He is to get “Bumpy” Kanahele (playing himself), a native considered the heir to the throne of the lost Hawaiian crown, to ‘bless’ the site of a new base for a joint Air Force/civilian project.  This project will launch satellites above Hawaiian airspace, a delicate subject considering how sacred these skies are to native islanders.  These scenes with Bumpy’s clan are much of the film’s heart, and reveal both Brian and Allison’s true natures and ideals, not just as officers filling a post.

What follows for the remainder of the film’s story cannot be easily summed, for it is a wee bit rushed and at times hard to follow.  Brian must deal with his conflicting feelings for Tracy and Allison, try to mend his reputation, stay true to the promises he made to “Bumpy”, perform in his new job (whatever it is that he actually does), and come to terms with the conflict inherent in each.  Aloha loses points here in this second act by rushing to the conclusion, in spite of strong singular moments.  It does seem odd, though, coming from a director known for letting moments ‘breathe’, that his latest film seems hurried.  So odd, in fact, that I wonder if it was really a choice he was had to make.

It does appear as if the theatrical version of Aloha is an abridged version of the film, made to satisfy the corporate souls that financed the film instead Crowe’s devoted, established audience.  Much has been made about former Sony president Amy Pascal’s disdain for the film, as witnessed in the leaked emails back in 2014, but after seeing the film, I’m unsure which party is at fault.  After all, the romance between Allison and Brian simply feels rushed, not forced.  The plot appears incomprehensible at times, but how much of that is a studio trimming?  If it sounds like I’m making excuses for Crowe, well, I am.  Other than the manically unfocused Elizabethtown, I’ve known nothing but positive experiences with his films.  His characters are almost always interesting, and they are in Aloha too- it just doesn’t appear they were allowed to ‘breathe’.  I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the studio meddled with the final product.

The film has also come under some heavy fire for casting Stone, a Caucasian, in a role for someone described as part Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry.  In most cases, I fully understand complaints of whitewashing, and sympathize with how damaging that can be to a population.  Aloha seems different, however.  The film doesn’t ignore the traditions of the native people, and in fact, seems to wholly embrace them as the most honorable of all involved.  I already mentioned Bumpy Kanahele’s role, one I feel is important in pointing out what I feel is not exploitative on Crowe’s part.  He has since apologized for the casting decision, but does he need to?  The problem with crying ‘whitewashing’ in this case is that the accusers assume they know what an individual of Chinese, Hawaiian, and white heritage should look like, and then they place that assumption on the role.  I’m happy to hear the other side of the argument, but knowing a bit about Cameron Crowe, and knowing that he based the character on a real-life person he knew seems to speak against the uproar in this case.

The final word on Aloha is, well, incomplete.  If any film in the past five years deserves a director’s cut, I’d vote for this one.  The performances are quite strong, the emotion is real and deserved, and as usual, the music of a Crowe film stands out.  It simply doesn’t play like a full idea realized on-screen.  Cameron Crowe still delivers a modicum of sensible adult interaction, romance, and humor that is accessible for everyone from teenagers to seniors.  I don’t mean that to say Aloha is ‘gentle and pleasant’, but like most of his films, it connects with the audience.  His characters have emotions that run deep, and they often wear them on their sleeves.  We root for his flawed heroes, and for the well-rounded characters that usually litter the screen around them.  I liked this film for its’ warmth, its’ honesty, and for some unexpected character moments that are just out-of-bounds enough to keep the film from being predictable.  That being said, let’s hope for an “Untitled” version of this, to fully grasp what Crowe wanted to say.  It’ll complete you.