Oscar Nominations are in!

My Dad and I do this little game every year, a sort of “side pot” before the Oscar nominations are announced. We gather our Intel and try to guess what the nominations will be for the ‘major’ categories. This year, I guessed more correct than he did, so there’s a small victory for me. Continue reading

Contact: First Contact

I have a soft spot in my heart for the film Contact.

I can’t exactly tell you why, I just took a fast liking to it and enjoy watching it when it  presents itself. I first saw it when I was 14, with my mother. I remember the opening BOOMS of the “signal” out in space, and was instantly hooked. The idea of seeing a movie exploring not just aliens but the idea of contacting them, of a more practical look at the effect of such contact, was exciting to me. Continue reading

FORTY-NINE, 2.0

The popcorn was almost gone from Michael’s bucket, and the previews hadn’t even started. Why the hell did he buy it so early? He loved popcorn almost as much as he loved the previews, why didn’t he just wait?

Twenty minutes prior to the movie you buy the popcorn, that was his tradition. Seven minutes out, you go to the bathroom and get that out of your system. Once the previews start, at that timing, you shouldn’t have to leave your seat again until after the credits roll.

As he got older, Michael recognized that he had to pee more often, so he only brought a small bottle of water with him, nothing fancy. no more sodas, no more coffees. Just water to go with the popcorn. The popcorn received two pumps of butter and three sprinkles of salt.

He sat at the end of the middle row, or as close as he could get. Being on the end served two purposes. First, in the event that he did have to pee, he wouldn’t have to climb over anyone. Second, in an emergency he could leave in a hurry and hopefully lead the way for all others to follow.  Michael didn’t consider himself a hero, but dammit he knew this theater front and back, no one should have to suffer.

But now, as he sifted his fingers through the bottom of the bucket, something was off. He’d forgotten to eat breakfast, and in his hunger he’d eaten the popcorn too quickly. He also forgot to sprinkle it with salt.

He looked at his watch: nine minutes until the previews started, which meant at least fifteen until the movie began. Enough time to buy more popcorn AND pee? He’d have to risk it. He couldn’t stand watching without popcorn, couldn’t fathom the idea of leaving to pee during the movie.

Not THIS movie.

It was the last of a trilogy, one he’d been dying to see since he was four years old. This long for a third movie, thirty years, but dammit it would be worth it. So he stood, made sure his coat guarded his seat (as well as the stranger to his left, who gave him an odd look of “yeah of course, bro”) and went out to go to the bathroom.

Fudge, the concessions line was long. He checked his watch again, calculating, slowing his walk while he did the math. Standing in line would take at least twelve minutes, given that each person would take two minutes and there were six-seven people per line. The bathroom would take two minutes as well, but as he thought this an earlier showing of the movie was just getting out.

Risk a longer bathroom wait, plus possible spoilers?

Hell no.

He moved to the shortest concessions line, dumping the rest of the popcorn in his mouth while he waited. He felt a bump at his back, some idiots elbow, no doubt. Michael ignored it, checked for more kernels — and felt a bump again. One more, he’d allow, and then —

A third bump.

He turned, fuming, already feeling his bladder fill and wondering what point in the movie he’d miss — then he saw her face, the girl behind him with the loose elbows, phone to her ear, brushing the blond hair from her face as she cringed. “So sorry,” she said.

He just nodded to her, offered her his remaining popcorn kernels. She took them without hesitation. “Thanks, dude!”

Michael was about to speak but the guy behind the girl caught his attention, the line was moving forward. Michael turned, but after stepping forward he shifted and looked back at the girl on the phone who was no longer on the phone. “What are you here to see?”

The girl shook her head, hanging up the phone, “Nothing, I just dig the popcorn. Two pumps butter, three sprinkles of salt, and a day’s worth of goodness.”

Michael smiled at her.

She smiled back.

Michael missed the movie that afternoon.

“Jurassic World” Write-Up

I haven’t written a movie review in a while, so excuse any rusty elements. SPOILERS below, for the most part.

jurassicW

Jurassic World had much potential to be a much more entertaining and celebratory movie than it actually is: It has a franchise behind it; state-of-the-art CGI effects at full disposal – sparing no expense; producers like Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall guiding the ship; and Chris Pratt leading pack of velociraptors through a jungle. Okay, maybe that last point is one that makes you say, ‘huh’? And you’d be right with that response.

The movie opens on an egg cracking as a baby dinosaur pops through the shell. A new breed, a new world. We then meet two of our main characters, a pair of kids named “Older Creepy Teen” (Zach) and “Hey, I Kinda Know Things” (Gray)” They’re taking a vacation to their aunt’s place of business while their parents just continue to work their day jobs and apparently get their divorce off the ground. But that’s not really stated or addressed, nor does it matter.

The point is, the kids arrive at Jurassic World, formerly Isla Nublar, which keen fans and observers will remember as the original island for Jurassic Park as created by John Hammond back in the day. Their aunt is Claire, and she’s a corporate boss for the park, trying to drive profits and give sponsors a reason to invest in the park, because dinosaurs just aren’t enough. Turns out, her latest bit of meddling in science, the creation of a new hybrid dinosaur she’s calling Indominus Rex, is about to be the cause of much more than corporate interest.

And she’s too busy to lead her nephews around, so she hands them wristbands with all-access, and leaves her British assistant to watch over the kids, an assistant who is so tied up on her phone that I can’t remember her name (it’s Vivian, thanks internet). While the kids ignore her and break off on their own (which is much easier to do on an island full of dinosaurs than going AWOL would be at Universal Studios), Owen (Chris Pratt) is over here training raptors. He respects them and wants them to be friendly, collaborative hunters, like bloodhounds. His boss(?) Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) has other ideas and wants to weaponize the raptors, but Owen ain’t having that, no sir!

To kick off the breakdown of the park, the Indominus Rex escapes her pen using trickery and camouflage (a trait that is never referenced again), eats a bunch of people, and makes her way south to the main part of the park. While doing so, she releases other dinos from their pens, including pterodactyls who then re-enact a scene from The Birds and pluck innocent bystanders from the ground.

I’ve already given away too much, thus the spoiler headline, and I’m pretty bad at summarizing a flick without spoiling it. But, at the same time, I wanted to layout what this movie has so I could talk about what worked, what didn’t work, and what might’ve been.

What Works:

The raptors are badass, and Owen’s training and utilization of them is actually pretty interesting. I felt sorry for them, fearful of them, and rooting for them. The gamut of emotions you can feel for creatures who aren’t really there. Owen is also a character that’s easy to root for, through most of the action scenes, and that made up for his weaker character moments (some of them below).

The dangerous moments between dinosaurs and humans are actually tense and the threats translate well from characters on screen to us in the audience. When the pterodactyls are plucking people left and right, we’re right in the middle of the action — one of the few times this technique of handheld camera works just right in the film.

I really enjoyed the call-backs to the original Jurassic Park. The kids at one moment make it back to the lobby of the original park, you know, the one that held the final showdown of the T-Rex and the Raptors from the first film? There are older vehicles that are tuned references to the power and impact of the original’s T-Rex are brought up again and again…

Which becomes one of the problems.

What didn’t work:

The constant reminder of how great the original Jurassic Park is as a film brings up a sharp contrast to this current movie, in terms of everything from character development to world-building, to cinematography and the dinosaurs themselves. A lot of attention has been brought up about JW with regard to the CGI dinosaurs, what you can have them do, etc. But there was not one moment in JW in which I felt the dinosaurs were textured, living things that the actors dealt with on a daily basis. Contrast that with JP, which combined puppetry, robotics, and CGI, and the difference is too evident.

Likewise, the music and magic of JW just doesn’t exist. The music swells (several times, a few too many) on the island’s approach, as we see large dinosaurs, etc., but there aren’t any moments where we feel a chill that this is a new world, a thrilling world unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Indeed, even the characters and park visitors don’t appear that impressed by dinosaurs any more, which is extra hard to believe because DINOSAURS.

No, this Jurassic World theme park just feels a bit dead, under-utilized and over sponsored. Even the filming of it feels lifeless.

What Might’ve Been:

Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is a mess, and not in the “character building, start from the bottom” way. First, let’s talk about the heels. I read a recent feature on a website claiming “the real reason she ran around in heels” and the answer was Bryce saying she looked at the terrain and didn’t want to run around in bare feet. I’ve read other pieces saying that her running in heels makes logistical sense since she’s more of a business woman, and why would she be carrying around or seen in boots? But she goes out to paddocks and pens for much of the first act, and to visit Owen at his motorcycle, essentially “out of the office”, quite a bit. What’s so hard about giving her boots, especially on an island such as this?

In one scene, Claire and Owen stand at the top of a cliff overlooking a waterfall. She wants to find her nephews, Owen tells her she’s unprepared — “you’re wearing all white, heels” etc. So what does she do? She unwraps her white jacket and re-ties it at her waist, unleashing her purple tank top below. Now, I suppose it was meant to show how down and dirty she’d be willing to get to find the kids, but bear in mind the way this is filmed: From a medium close-up. That’s right, as the woman is readjusting her clothes the camera remains on her from the waist up, giving us a pretty good shot as she throws back her shoulders and puffs out her chest. This is just…an odd choice. It’s a prime opportunity for a hero shot, a full-bodied wide angle on Howard as she stands in front of Pratt, ready to take on the elements. But that shot doesn’t happen.

Speaking of wide, master shots…where are they?? Almost every early scene with characters talking or walking into a new location begins with a close up and moves to some mid-medium shots of the characters involved. Where’s the sense of space, of geography, of location? When Zach, the older kid, is leering at a girl off-screen, we get to see her reaction — but they’re never in the same shot. When Hoskins argues with Owen over a potential field test of the raptors, they’re talking in front of a fence or a pen of some kind, but we really don’t get a sense of how they’re moving within the facility.

Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the wide shots that really lend us a sense of space and location, or even danger, and give a film of this size an actual scope that makes sense, rather than a shot construction that’s built for indie films. Take for instance another scene in which Owen has to distract the raptors long enough for an injured guard to leave the pen. We see Owen close up, then a close up of the raptor faces, then a medium close up of them all together (see photo below) but never a wide or even overhead shot that reveals the size of the pen, how close or far they really are from one another. I’m all for a long lens to put us “in the moment,” especially in the pterodactyl scene, but at the same time, again, for a film of this scope where the size of our predators is a factor, I think it’d be quite obvious to stand back and watch the action unfold. There’s a limit the amount of forcefulness a movie can push on an audience before it gets overwhelming.

(For reference, watch the T-Rex scene in Jurassic Park, or the scene in which Dr. Grant walks to the raptor paddock. Starts wide, then push in, then go wide again. Save the intimate raptor attack for later, use sparingly, etc.)

Jurassic Park Raptor Paddock

Jurassic Park Raptor Paddock

Speaking of forcefulness: the kids, the kids, the kids. Okay, let’s look at the setup: The parents of the kids are apparently going through a divorce, but this was discussed or referenced so quickly that I had no idea it was happening. The opening of the movie, after the egg cracks, is in a suburban neighborhood covered in winter snow, and then parents sending their kids off at the airport. The parents make two more appearances, one at the end for reuniting (spoiler, heh) and one in the middle when Mom calls Aunt Claire to scold her for not only ignoring her kids, but also for choosing work over family in general. Yikes.

The theme of keeping the family together is so forceful I thought we were going to end up in a story from the mind of a troubled child caught in a Hallmark film. Look, I’m all for character backstory and kids going through “a time”, but there are ways to be subtle with this. Take a look at the previous entries in the Jurassic franchise: JP I – Hammond’s grandkids arrive on the island, no mention of parents or status of family. JP II – Ian Malcolm’s kid sneaks onto the island, and becomes sucked into the danger by accident, but is there to spend more time with her dad. JP III – The kid and his dad(?) accidentally land on the island, but get a signal out for help.

And in JW – The kids are going on vacation to the island, and their Aunt happens to be the woman in charge. It makes sense that kids would want to take a vacation to the island, but why do they have to be relatives to the Woman in Charge? Why is this important? To teach her a lesson about family and not to be such a work-a-colic? Feh.

Jurassic-Park-3D-2

The best utilization of children in Jurassic Park series is in the first one, and you wanna know why? Because the parents aren’t there. There’s no cutting back to the parents in the States, or even phone calls home. Once the characters get to the island…we’re ON the ISLAND. (There’s where the magic comes from, too.) The weaker bits in Jurassic World are cutting away to the parents, and even starting with the kids at home in the middle of winter. Keep the action on the island, get right to it. You could cut the entire first scene with the parents at home, and at the airport, and still get across the kids are having family troubles at home and just here for a vacation. Better yet, have them already traveling with Claire’s negligent assistant. Given what happens to her, a little more build-up for her character would be a good thing.

And speaking of characters who meet their demise, who is the villain? Hoskins can be seen as the villain since he encourages field testing the raptors, but he doesn’t really succeed, and I think there’s a secret military campaign he’s running with scientist B.D. Wong? I can’t really put it together from memory at this point, suffice it to say I’m not sure he deserved a punch in the face before his brutal death, or if that was just there to make the audience feel better about Owen and put a human face as a villain. At least in JP – I the human villain ACTIVELY did something to deserve his end (Nedry, and the shaving cream). Hoskins just talks, a lot, but doesn’t act on his words, as far as I remember (shows how little his subplot mattered).

I don’t hate the movie, will likely see it again in some capacity, if only for another book at what works and what doesn’t, or perhaps to uncover an underlying message among it all. But it’s certainly not the best or second-best of the franchise.