Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Project 365: Movies 135 - 141

135 / 365: Jurassic World (2015)
© Universal Pictures

There are 20 minutes total of this epic fourth-quel that truly warrants a response of childlike glee and wonder. First, the moment young Gray (Ty Simpkins) pushes through the crowd excitedly as he and his bummer older brother, Zach (Nick Robinson) enter Jurassic World for the first time, Gray's face beaming, ignoring the littered product placement and only noticing the grand scope of inconceivable beauty. Their hotel balcony doors sweep open to reveal the crackling energy of honest-to-golly dinosaurs, and the people who love them below—all of this through the eyes of a genuinely gobsmacked child. Second, the spectacularly intense, CGI-glittered climax—a clusterf*ck of gargantuan, Dinosaur battling proportions that made even the most critical, finger-wagging among us pee a little in our seats from awe.

The stark difference between these moments and the intense, gripping memory of the original film is this: Jurassic World is a movie where the optimism of childhood is validated; Jurassic Park is a movie where the skepticism of adulthood is obliterated. While the former is satisfying, there is nothing more cathartic than experiencing the latter. It is why Jurassic Park, all the way back in 1993, will remain one of the greatest films of all time. It is pure magic. Replicating it on any scale will only come off as fruitlessly desperate, regardless of how close the movie comes.

Sadly, aside from the aforementioned 20 minutes, Jurassic World doesn't even come close. In this story that takes place 20 years after the events of Park, the theme park has opened and new exhibits need to be opened every few years to keep people interested. A confounding notion, but whatever. The lab geeks pool together some spliced genes, and viola! New dinosaur of mysterious makeup, the Indominus Rex, comes into being. With 21K+ people visiting the island, it's only a matter of time before this creature breaks free and starts gobbling people up. World recycles tropes from the first three films, but not the ones that it should. Lost children that need to be rescued, Dino vs. Vehicle battles, snarky control room technicians (Jake Johnson almost stole the movie from the Raptors), all of these are melded into the film to remind us that we're in the right place, but it was all for naught. Because of how the film's most important characters are written, this movie becomes an embarrassing, sci-fi version of Romancing the Stone, but with slightly more reptiles.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, a stereotype of the modern woman, written with such heavy-handed sexism that her workaholic, heartless demeanor is quite literally berated and ridiculed by every other character in the film. Only women who hate children, animals, men, and fun could ever rise to such a prominent position like Operations Manager of a Dinosaur theme park, right? But don't worry, all she needs is the love of a good, down-to-earth man (this is where ex-Navy Seal/raptor trainer Owen, played by Chris Pratt, comes in) and a reminder that children are our future, and that cold heart will melt into a puddle of motherly warmth, promising career be damned. Add in Claire's sister (Judy Greer) calling to give her the "When you have children" vs "If you have children" lecture, and it's just the icing on the sexist cake. The biggest issue here isn't even that they wrote a character like Claire—it's that they didn't realize they didn't even need to. The story doesn't need it at all. She could have been Laura Dern-level capable, overseen all of Jurassic World, and still given her little munchkin nephew a hug without grimacing. No one would have questioned her authority. But instead, she was a soulless hag devoid of passion or curiosity, until Pratt loosens her up, of course. Offensive and distracting, it can't be ignored.

It's unfortunate, too, because there was so much fun to be had here. And I enjoyed a lot of it, despite the issues. Chris Pratt was delightful, as usual, and watching the Raptor sequences were mini-highlights. There were human and dinosaur villains alike, which is a necessary part of this franchise, and it all played out pretty on point, even when I longed for more puppetry, less VFX. The music theme sting popped in at just the right moments, and when we stumbled upon the sky-high, ivy-laden doors of the old deserted park site, I felt a tear momentarily well up. Too bad that high didn't last.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

136 / 365: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
© Warner Bros.

I've gotten into more than enough fights with people, coming to this film's defense as a "feel good" movie. Sure, an young orphan gets his eyes burned out of his head, but only one. That's not a bad ratio, considering how many kids are in this. In all seriousness though, there is magic in this movie. Danny Boyle is up there in my top five directors ever, and it's because all of his movies possess this quality, no matter the grittiness or gravitas. He creates stories about unspectacular people experiencing spectacular things.

This story follows the unbelievable life of Jamal, who finds himself competing on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," making it further than anyone has made it before. The film unfolds as Jamal (Dev Patel), thought to be a cheater, is intercepted mid-show and interrogated by the Police Inspector (Irrfan Khan). How he knew the answers creates the road map to his life's defining events, which he recounts in detail, from his childhood in the slums of Bombay with his older brother, Salim, to his eventual search for the love of his life in modern Mumbai.

A major complaint I've heard from people about this movie is just how convenient it all seems. How convenient it is that Jamal's asked the questions he's asked, and they just happen to be in chronological order, illustrating the most defining moments of his past. And all I can say in response to that is: Yeah. That's sort of the point of the movie, isn't it? The idea that his future is written, his fate is sealed, and everything that has ever happened to him has led up to this. one. moment. Isn't that a beautifully thing, a film without any irony? It is touching and it is spectacular, and Danny Boyle constructs a story rich with music, danger, laughter, joy, and sadness. Tragic and hopeful, exactly what it aimed to be. The three actors who play Jamal are honest, as are the young talents who play tortured Salim and the pessimistic Latika. They do justice to the material.

The construction of each piece is flawless. The editing is sharp and creative, highlighting the fantasy of the film but never forgetting the importance of the story. It doesn't shy away from the difficult things. The cinematography, the writing, the music, every component is near perfect. It also ends with my favorite closing credits sequence, one that I've watched more times than the actual movie. Slumdog won the Best Picture Oscar in 2008, sure, but it's the music and the signature song, "Jai Ho" that sticks with me each and every time I see it. This Bollywood dance sequence is a representation of how the entire movie makes me feel: Pure happiness.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

137 / 365: Sharknado (2013, TV Movie)
© Syfy

Likely the most inconceivably bad movie that stars more than one person you've actually heard of. A hurricane off the coast of Los Angeles pushes all of the sharks in the Pacific Ocean inland, and as the waters rise in the streets, the sharks take to the streets and attack! Oh, and as the winds pick the water up in a flurry, they take a bunch of sharks with them, dropping them like hungry daggers from the sky. Bar owner and all around good-guy, Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering), senses the dangers as a giant storm approaches, and with this group of bar friends/co-workers, who witness the first wave of shark attacks, sets out towards Beverly Hills, then the Valley, to rescue his family without getting EATEN BY SHARKS!

Okay, so this might be the greatest intro summary I've ever written for a movie. It may even be the best idea for a flick, period, even beating out my own B-movie idea, Zombie Shark (you guys! it's a shark that gets bitten by a zombie—like in Zombie—but then it turns into a zombie. ZOMBIE SHARK.) Anyway, while this concept is in and of itself a golden ticket to Brilliant Town, it could not be more of a crappy execution than if I'd shot it myself in my own backyard. It is unspeakably terrible. Sure, the effects are stupid and look laughably fake, but that's all part of the fun. No, the bad part is that it's edited so badly, so blindly, that there are long moments of awkward silence that are never cut away from. There are back-to-back shots where it is pouring (digital) rain, and then 2 seconds later, it is clear skies, no clouds, all sunshine, but oh yeah, there is still a tornado of sharks raining down. From what cloud? Oh no, there isn't one.

I found myself asking How? and Why? over and over again. That was my rookie mistake. Because when you're watching a movie that is this caliber of bad, asking any question at all is stupid. It's a waste of breath, because there are no answers to your questions. Why are the sharks raining down from a clear sky? Because the script says so, that's why. Don't be dumb.

Ian Ziering wielding a chainsaw, slicing flying sharks up in mid-flight should have been more Ash from Army of Darkness than Schwarzenegger in Hercules in New York, but it wasn't. That being said, it was clearly enough to remind all of us how amazing Ziering was in the first place, and garner two sequels. So really, what the hell do I know?

Rating: no-stars / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No
Bad Movie Rating: ★★★★

138 / 365: San Andreas (2015)
© Warner Bros.

San Andreas is an unexpected public service announcement. While you might anticipate spending the entire movie thinking "Oh it wouldn't happen like that", what you really end up thinking is "If it did happen, what would I do?" Well, I'd be a frickin' earthquake survivalist rock star, is what I'd do! Watching people scramble around during a mega-disaster only Hollywood could conjure up teaches us all more lessons than any book ever could. Step One: Watch out for falling rocks. Step Two: Always go to higher ground. And Step Three: Have a Fire & Rescue mountain of a man for a father. Luckily, the heroes of San Andreas knew exactly what to do, and it made this movie delightful to watch.

Ray (The Rock) is an ex-military, chopper pilot now flying and running missions for LA Fire & Rescue. When a massive earthquake takes place at the Hoover Dam, he gets called away, much to the dismay of his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who is heading up to San Francisco to start college. Instead, she gets a lift from her mother, Emma's (Carla Gugino) wealthy new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). That's when all hell breaks loose. The earthquake at the Dam, predicted by Cal Tech geologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), is just the beginning. The entire San Andreas fault is about to go off, the epicenter of which will devastate the city of San Francisco. Which is, of course, exactly where Blake finds herself, and it's up to Ray and Emma to put aside their differences and go to her rescue.

One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is a female character who is wholly capable, smart, and resilient... because she learned it from her father (or brother, or boyfriend, or any man.) Can't she just be all those things on her own? Not in Hollywood, apparently. Regardless, Daddario is spectacular in this. She's never annoying, she's never trite, but she's still vulnerable, scared, and realistically navigating a crappy situation. Despite all that, she perseveres. I loved her portion of the story. Considering all of the action was taking place within the SF city limits, there was a lot for her (and her unlikely traveling companions) to overcome. Ray and Emma, on the other hand, ran into a lot of conveniences. I didn't have a hard time looking past all of those things, since the primary goal was to get them to San Francisco, but it got a little too hard to believe at times—and this coming from someone who fully accepted the 9.6 earthquake rolling through the state! But stumbling upon an unused rescue boat with the keys under the metaphorical mat just in time to careen over a rising tsunami? Riiiiiight.

We don't get a lot of honest-to-god disaster movies anymore, the kind that were so prevalent in the late 90's, and this was a throwback to that. It was the right amount of smart paired with the right amount of stupid. If every summer blockbuster could deliver on that balanced formula, I'd never have a bad time at the movies. It was everything I expected, and even delivered on a little more, especially related to Daddario. She's the rock star. Even Paul Giamatti pulled out some epic, 'Mr. Andrews from Titanic'-esque lines that gave me goosebumps. Everyone else was just earthquake fodder, as far as I was concerned.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

139 / 365: The Goonies (1985)
© Warner Bros.

When I was in college, I worked for seven months as an intern in Richard Donner's office. During my first few weeks, I learned that when I left, I could ask Mr. Donner to sign whatever I wanted, on whatever I wanted. Without hesitation, I picked this Goonies poster, and he jokingly scrawled on it, "Thanks for helping my career. Maybe next time we'll pay you - HA!" It is one of my prized possessions.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the now classic, childhood favorite. The Goonies may well be the quintessential action/adventure movie of all time, one that elicits the exact joy, fear, and excitement of being a kid. With their homes on the brink of foreclosure, a ramshackle group of friends discover an old treasure map in one of their attics. Hoping to come upon enough money to save their families, they venture off to find the secret of One-Eyed Willy's lost pirate treasure. Brothers Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) head up the group, and what starts out as a fun adventure becomes a matter of life and death when they run into the Fratellis, a family of dangerous, greedy criminals (Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, and Anne Ramsey). Now they must find a way to escape by following the map through boobie-trap infested caves, whether they want to or not.

The combination of this group of misfit kids and their villainous foes is what makes this movie so memorable. It doesn't even matter that the effects still hold up after three decades, the working traps and moving sets igniting awe in kid and adult alike—though that doesn't hurt. The wide-eyed hopefulness of the kids, who are provided a wonderful script by Chris Columbus (director of Home Alone, don't forget! He's a kid movie wizard!) show how talented these little actors are. The tension of their scenes are only intensified by the adults, especially the nightmare-inducing Anne Ramsey as the Fratelli matriarch. I remember experiencing this journey right alongside these guys, just as terrified as them, but determined to make it to the end. Because it would all be worth it. There really is nothing like seeing that pirate ship for the first time. If you're lucky enough to watch this movie with the full cast commentary (released 14 years ago!), they even talk about this moment. What it was like to turn around and—*gasp*.... a real life pirate ship. Yup. It felt like that for all of us.

One of the best movies to come out of the 80's, and a defining moment of my childhood movie-watching experience.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

140 / 365: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
© Warner Bros.

I'm going to quote every critic ever, because there isn't another way to say it: this is as close to a live-action "Looney Tunes" cartoon as cinema may ever get. Which I guess is good, since it was exactly what director Joe Dante hoped to do. But it is banana-grams, you guys, and if you're like me and realize 5 minutes in that you've never actually seen it, you're in for an unbelievable and possibly too-weird ride.

Gremlins 2, I've come to realize from the company of friends I keep, is in many ways the pinnacle of nostalgia. For those in my age group, the summer of 1990 was the first summer most of us actively remember. We remember the things we loved, the movies we saw, and the places we went. Maybe even the people we were with. For those people—young, impressionable, and excited about everything new—a movie about sociopathic, monstrous devil-rats wrecking cartoon havoc in an 80's era mall/office building might very well be the best movies have ever or will ever get. But I didn't see this movie when I was five; I saw it when I was twenty-nine, and I shook my head in dismay just as many times as I laughed. Even my laughter edged on complacent ridicule.

I admit the brilliance of Gremlins 2 is that it is far more self-aware than the original. The original, in my opinion, is painful to endure. Innocent people facing damaging foes, not scary enough to be horror, not funny enough to be comedy... but most of the people in the sequel? They're not so innocent. In fact, they may well deserve everything they have coming to them. And that is where the comedy can break through. The incorporation of the genetic experimentation lab, run by Christopher Lee, is what sets this film apart. Devious Gremlins are spliced with other genomes, creating Brainiac Gremlin, Sexy Gremlin, and oh my god, Spider Gremlin and Bat Gremlin and Electric Gremlin! Joe Dante knew exactly what he was doing, and instead of telling a story where his protagonists had to defeat the terrors that shouldn't eat after midnight, he made his Gremlins the stars. They were unique, with their own personalities, and even though we were forced to watch our beloved Gizmo get tortured for two hours, he was no longer the only creature we'd grown to know.

Having said that, the fact that this is a comedy didn't make me love it. I enjoyed myself, as I watched it with a group of friends much more familiar with it than I, but the nostalgia of it was lost on me. I can acknowledge how that would affect my opinion. It doesn't bring me the joy it brings my friends, but then I remember that one person's nostalgia can't be transferred to anyone else. It's special and unique, and should be treasured. Just like I wouldn't expect everyone to feel about Shirley Temple the way that I do. But hey, it shows you where my priorities were in the late 80's... and they weren't with the Gremlins.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: No

141 / 365: Spy (2015)
© 20th Century Fox

Spy isn't the female Mr. Bean the ridiculous trailer more or less suggested. She's not inept. She's not bumbling. She's a damn good spy. OK, she might be a bit of those things, but she's mostly the latter. Empowering without preaching, allowing star Melissa McCarthy to be the butt of the right kind of jokes. The kind of jokes that are superficial about women, about fat people, about foreigners, etc., but she embraces them, remolds them, and skewers everyone else with smarter, more caustic barbs of her own.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst top of her class at the Academy, but now the invisible smarts behind one of the agency's top performing agents, devilishly handsome Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When all the identities of the active agents are exposed during the search for a portable nuclear bomb, Cooper volunteers her services to find the whereabouts of arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and the bomb in question. An unlikely spy, she's bound to get by unnoticed, unless of course rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) gets in her way.

Many of the early jokes rely heavily on McCarthy's appearance and the assumption that she's a lonely, uneducated cat lady of sorts. They feel overplayed when they're true, but the golden moments come when they're not. Everyone is blind to Susan's true capabilities, even Susan herself. The level of comedy increased ten-fold when Susan stopped being a doormat and started being, essentially, a combination of both female leads from The Heat. This happens about halfway through the movie, and listening to Melissa McCarthy rip Rose Byrne a new asshole gave me some of the best laughs I've had all year. Maybe I can only attribute that to the fact it was unexpected, but whatever it may be, give me these jokes over any of the ones from Pitch Perfect 2, all day every day.

The film gets admittedly loopy towards the end, when McCarthy is forced to compete with admittedly sub-par characters for screen time and laughs. Leveraging Nancy (Miranda Hart), Susan's CIA basement friend, for comedy purposes was a clearly unfunny, misguided choice. Statham, though delightful in this role, struggles a bit with his tired jokes during the film's climax, jokes told just one too many times to land the dismount properly. Despite the comedy casualties lying around her, McCarthy comes out unscathed. She carries this movie on her own. She has Sandra Bullock-level star power, and it's wonderful seeing her in the spotlight for once.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

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