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Jurassic World Jumps The Shark

More than 25 years ago, the cinema was irrevocably changed as technology was able to bring to the big screen, in startling photo-realism, creatures that had up until then, only been done with small clay models in stop motion, or normal-sized animals superimposed to look more monstrous. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) allowed film maker Stephen Spielberg to bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park and Hollywood has never been the same since. In fact, the film was so groundbreaking it set the standard for special effects that has only been increased in the interim years and it spawned several sequels, including this weekend’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Unfortunately, for its pedigree, Fallen Kingdom suffers by comparison.

The film stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles from the first Jurassic World. Howard is the daughter of film maker Ron Howard who once starred in the 70’s TV series Happy Days, which was an immensely popular series. The show enjoyed its success until season 5 when a character performed a stunt on the show that was so unbelievable it coined the term “Jumped The Shark” to describe a show that goes so far that it exceeds the limits of believability. That family legacy continues here as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom jumps the shark.

Howard and Pratt are tapped to return to Isla Nublar to save the dinosaurs that have been permitted to live on the island after the events in Jurassic World. It seems that the island has a volcano that has become active and threatens to kill all life on the island. It also seems that Pratt’s personal pet raptor, “Blue,” is of particular interest in the survival effort, which is why they need Pratt’s help. Unfortunately, the rescue is not as altruistic as Howard and Pratt are led to believe and dangerous situations ensue.

Where the movie jumps the shark is that aside from the above synopsis there is no real plot to the movie, which means it devolves into nothing more than a series of action sequences loosely tied together by a common narrative. In order to create stimulating visuals, the film makers put characters in increasingly unbelievable situations and have them make decisions that no normal human being would make. It also creates a back story to explain the current situation that runs contrary to established story line from the previous films.

Howard’s Clair, so strong a character in the previous film, is reduced to bit character status in this sequel, not giving her room to grow or any opportunity to show her acting range. She is simply window dressing in this film. Even Pratt’s Owen is left flat as he gallops from scene to scene reacting to the impossible plot points with nothing more than a smirk and a shrug. Jeff Goldblum reprises his character Malcom from the first trilogy, but only inasmuch as he appears to testify before congress so the film can moralize on science run amuck.

The story also introduces a new character, Maisie Lockwood, but then doesn’t do anything with her, other than to put her in danger and in need of rescuing on several occasions, despite having potentially the greatest plot thread of the whole film. One possible explanation is that she is setting up the third film in this second franchise. Unfortunately, if other people agree with this assessment of the movie, it may not spawn a third installment.

The special effects, revolutionary in the first Jurassic Park, are run of the mill here, offering no awe inspiring graphics or breakthrough visuals. In fact, some sequences seem rushed, the overlays are obvious and the physics are problematic. It is as if the producers didn’t bother to research how hot lava really is.

Of course, the movie has to introduce a new variation of a big bad dinosaur as every other film in the franchise has done, but this big bad monster is a bit of a retread and does not engender any real sense of malice or threat beyond that of “Oh My God, It’s a Dinosaur!”

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a poor addition to the Jurassic Park franchise and is unworthy of the name. Even the most ardent dinosaur fans could skip this film and not really miss anything. The producers, in an effort to capitalize on the franchise while feeding a frenzy of mindless action, have taken the story into unbelievable plot points much like Happy Days did in season 5 where Fonzie Jumped the Shark.

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Thanos Is A Good Guy

The latest big bad on the big screen has to be Thanos, the purple giant of the MCU playing havoc with Earth’s mightiest heroes in this week’s Avengers: Infinity War. The character comes directly from the comic books where he has been a villain for most of Marvel’s cadre of heroes since his inception in February 1973 in Iron Man #55. Thanos’ biography in the comics is varied and random, owing to the fact that he has been written by several writers over the years; each adding to the back story as needed by the story they were writing at the time. Invariably, he is depicted as having little regard for any life other than his own and willing to kill anyone or anything to achieve his goals. This attitude is most commonly characterized as pathologically evil—a label not entirely unearned, but actually not as accurate as one might think. When looking at the MCU version of Thanos within the scope of RPG morality, many would assign the chaotic evil alignment to him, but actually, Thanos falls more accurately in the alignment of extreme Chaotic Good.

In role playing games, there are nine alignments; three variations of each of the two principle categories of good and evil and a neutral alignment smack-dab in the middle. The sub categories are lawful, neutral and chaotic, making the alignments chaotic good, neutral good, lawful good, lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic neutral and true neutral. Lawful characters act within the confines of established law and societal morality. They do good or evil according the laws under which they operate. Chaotic characters have no regard for the laws of civilization, nor any societal morals or imperatives. Chaotic evil is characterized by a complete disregard for any life and a willingness to kill anyone who would get in the way of whatever goal the character has set. They are only concerned with achieving the goals. While this description fits the Thanos of the comics, the version brought to the big screen differs in one key aspect. For chaotic evil to apply, the goals must be evil or entirely selfish in nature. The big difference between Chaotic Evil and Chaotic good is the motive for the goals. Both alignments have no compunction about killing or destroying, rather they differ on the reason why.

In the film Infinity War, the character is portrayed by actor Josh Brolin, albeit with a CGI facelift and body shape. Through a very nuanced performance, Brolin brings a deeper thread to the Titan’s back story and actually creates a sympathy for his situation. The writers gave Thanos a motive for his nefarious goal of instantaneously wiping out half of the universe’s population with a snap of his infinity-gauntleted fingers. Thanos was raised on Titan, a paradise of peace and prosperity for generations until greed and excess threatened to destroy the planet if things didn’t change. Thanos warned his people that overpopulation and over consumption would destroy them if they didn’t reduce their population by half. They ignored him and continued until his predictions came true. Driven by this tragedy, Thanos then went out with his forces and began culling the population of the universe whether or not they wanted or needed his help. Of course, he met much resistance to his efforts and that is when he realized he needed the infinity gauntlet to achieve his goals of mercifully putting the races out of their misery. His underlings, on the other hand, are more in line with lawful evil as they act out his orders for their own selfish reasons, while spouting Thanos’ desire for mercy.

That need for mercy is how Thanos falls into the alignment of chaotic good. He thinks he is performing an act of mercy for the greater good as he sees it. No one ever said “good” was a universal concept, especially when considering a chaotic alignment. In his perception, he is saving the universe from itself and anything he does to that end is justified, including sending mercenaries to take the stones and kill anyone who would stop them. It is for this reason that he is chaotic good and not chaotic evil.

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Infinity War Has No End

The summer 2018 movie season has just launched what will be the reigning king of the annual box office with Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. This much anticipated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ties all of the previous MCU films together in a tight package that spans galaxies and offers parts for almost every super hero and supporting character in the franchise. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that almost every preceding film has set up the events in this movie. With all of that setup and with all the money Disney/Marvel has spent building up the hype, this movie is poised to be the biggest blockbuster or the biggest failure in the studio’s history. And for all that, the answer to the question of success or failure is not revealed in this movie, as Avengers: Infinity War is simply a setup for the next Avenger’s movie to be released in summer 2019.

When the greater MCU was announced after the successes of Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, there was a lot of talk about how the Avengers’ ensemble films would play out. Kevin Feige said early on that the Avengers would end up in the Infinity War and that the story would span two movies. Some fans were pumped by the news, while others expressed disappointment. Marvel responded to the fan’s outcry by saying that there would not be an Avengers: Infinity War part 2 and changed the working title to Untitled Avengers Movie.

This was a lie.

There HAS to be an Avenger Infinity War part 2 if for no other reason than Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t finish the story at all. In fact, it just stops in the middle of the climax with no resolution to the dramatic events unfolding during the climax. Whatever they do entitle the film, it is going to be Infinity War part 2.

Part 1 offers fans all the excitement the hype promises by tying the dangling threads of previous films such as Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther into a complicated but easy to follow story that carries the MCU heroes battling the minions of Thanos on Earth, on Titan, and in a place called Nowhere among others. The film reveals the location of the final Infinity Stone, known as the Soul Stone and demonstrates what the stones do individually and together. We even see the return of characters believed long dead.

The recurring theme of sacrifice carries throughout the film as most of the heroes offer to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In fact, it has been a foregone conclusion that one of the primary heroes will not survive the Infinity War and much discussion has been devoted to guessing which one will make that ultimate sacrifice. Rest assured no one will guess correctly.

The movie is very entertaining and in many ways, quite satisfying. But I cannot say I left the theater satisfied. In fact, when the credits started rolling, no one clapped, which is testament to the complete lack of satisfaction this film provides with regard to the story at the film’s end. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is it good? Yes. But don’t go thinking you’re going to get the whole story. It isn’t finished yet. Do go see it, if for no other reason that to know what’s coming in the next Untitled Avengers movie. Of course, Marvel can pull a fast one and resolve all the issues that Infinity War creates in one of the other films in the pipeline like Ant Man and the Wasp or Captain Marvel.

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Play The Game

As a child of the 70’s and a teen of the 80’s, I find shows that delve into the pop culture of those decades particularly compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix series Stranger Things which featured so many Easter eggs of the 80’s it has become a cultural phenomenon for this decade. Easter eggs are small hidden references in media that harkens to another film, show or game. Cultural Easter eggs are also the point of Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, Ready, Player One, and viewers will spend much of the film trying to identify all of them. The movie is an adaptation of the novel by first-time author Ernest Cline, a self-described child of 80’s culture who takes the title from the experience of playing most 80’s video games. While most viewers will find satisfaction in this film looking for and identifying the parts of 80’s pop culture that are significant to them, the movie does work on its own merits as well, although it does have to overcome one or two challenges to do it.

The movie centers around a young man in a dystopian future where people escape the pain of daily life by plugging into a virtual reality world called the Oasis where people can become anyone they wish to be. Many people chose to become super heroes or characters from films and TV. The Oasis is so pervasive that its virtual economy drives the real world economy. The Oasis was designed and built by two men who have become legends to users and when they end their partnership, it creates ripples across the world. One of them dies and leaves his stake in the oasis to the person who can complete three puzzles in the Oasis to unlock Easter eggs and win the contest. Much like the sword in the stone, no one has proven worthy to win the challenge. Until now.

The Hero of the film is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival), portrayed by Tye Sheridan, a loner who competes in the contest as a loner without the benefit of a “pack.” He does, however, have other loners that have become friends while idolizing the mysterious player known only as Art3mis. Parzival and his friends soon realize that in order to beat the corporate team known as the IOI’s to the win the game, they must pool their knowledge. But even then, will it be enough?

The film is almost entirely CGI, since most of the engagement is in the Oasis, with the occasional back story being film with the real actors. One would think that with this technological advantage the 3-D version of the film would be spectacular. Unfortunately, it did not use the technology to its advantage and the 3-D was subpar, even though the imagery was very good. The textures were some of the best yet, especially the skin textures of the character’s avatars. It was difficult to distinguish between the CGI and the actual film sets in some scenes.

The acting was probably the biggest challenge the film facing it, as most of the cast are unknowns and their performance was rather stiff and stilted. Add the fact the CGI avatars suffer from the CGI inability to convey the subtleties and nuances of human expression and the performance suffers accordingly.

The story does fall into the standard quest formula with the requisite challenges the protagonist must overcome to reach his goal, but the characters do a good job of driving the story through the plot by being engaging and easy with which one can identify. The other challenge is that the film is long at two-and-a-half hours and drags at times. If the script had been tightened up, the film would have flowed much better.

Ready, Player One is a good movie to enjoy in the cinema, although not necessarily in 3-D. Spend the time watching for the Easter eggs that are individually significant, as there has to be at least one. Parzval drives a DeLorean that is a mash-up of Marty McFly’s time machine from Back to the Future, the Ghostbuster’s hearse and KITT from Knight Rider. The Iron Giant makes an appearance, as does King Kong, and MechaGodzilla. The reference to the 1980 film Excalibur was my personal favorite.

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Searching For Hope: The Last Jedi Answers

Questions answered and questions raised: That could be the subtitle of the latest in the Star Wars franchise hitting theaters this weekend. The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with the resistance evacuating their base and Rey finding Luke Skywalker and Fynn in a coma. That first of the third trilogy left a lot of plot threads hanging and a lot of questions unanswered. The Last Jedi follows suit, but does so in a much better fashion, with much better writing.

The First Order has the republic on the ropes, with the remnants of the imperial rebellion now calling themselves the resistance and scattered to the outer rim planets while the command core is trying to escape the First Order’s dreadnaught. The future looks bleak for our heroes as they fight to hold onto that one thing that they hold most dear: Hope. For some, that hope is embodied in the last Jedi Master who has been missing for many years, Luke Skywalker. For others, hope is in the form of the new cadre of heroes like Poe Dameron and Fynn Rider. Everyone will begin to lose hope as the First Order closes in.

While both this film and The Force Awakens are produced by J.J. Abrams, this one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, with George Lucas sharing the writing credit. Perhaps it was the new writer, perhaps it was a fresh vision, but The Last Jedi stands taller as a standalone story and less of a retread like its predecessor. The Force Awakens had too many similar elements with A New Hope and felt too familiar and predictable. The Last Jedi dares the viewer to try to predict the outcome as it offers multiple threads that twist and interweave with each other. Some may try to draw similarities with The Empire Strikes Back, and, superficially, there may be. It is the second act in a three act story, and as such, certain things typically happen with regard to the hero’s struggle. They happened in The Empire Strikes Back and they happen in The Last Jedi. It is how they happen that sets this story apart.

The characters actually relate with each other better in this story and act within the established motivations that Johnson established for them. The newer characters of Rey, Fynn and Kylo are now much more fully realized and relatable, making a connection with the viewer that they lacked in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi adds even more new characters, such as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Kellie Marie Tran as Rose, and each of them makes a lasting connection to the story and the viewer.

There is one thing about Abrams that even the most dedicated opponent cannot deride and that is his artistic visuals. If there was one thing that could be considered problematic, it would be that he relies too much on the visuals at the expense of story—a problem that plagued Abrams’ Star Trek. The Last Jedi doesn’t suffer for its visuals, indeed, they accentuate the story by how appropriate to the mood and setting they are. The sacrifice of the heavy cruiser is one of the most arresting visuals in the entire Star Wars franchise and drew a collective gasp from the audience.

The Last Jedi tells a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story and picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Some of the questions left hanging at the end of Force Awakens do get answered such as what happened to Ben Solo and why did Luke go into hiding. The question of exactly who Snoke is and where he came from is rendered moot. There is even an answer given as to who Rey’s parents are, but the answer is, of course, in question as even more questions come to the fore. Those questions will drive the discussion boards for the next two years.

The Last Jedi will win the box office for its opening weekend, and the Christmas season and probably for the year. Once word of how much better the writing is gets out, it will be heralded as one of the best of the franchise. It is much better than The Force Awakens, better than all three prequels combined and at least as good as The Empire Strikes Back, even if it does leave the viewer asking more questions.

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Wonder Woman Excels Despite the Hype

Many critics were anticipating a poor showing of the film Wonder Woman because it is helmed by a woman: Patty Jenkins. The thinking apparently that a woman cannot drive a major Hollywood Blockbuster. Many people are heralding the film much the same way Hillary was heralded as the first female presidential nominee. Some people complained when a movie theater held a woman-only screening of the film, which drew more criticism from the other side of the issue. Other hype surrounding the film was that this is the first superhero film starring a female superhero as its main protagonist. The simple fact is that there isn’t a better female superhero to launch the effort. It pays off as well because Wonder Woman is the best DC Superhero film to date. This, despite the fact that Zack Snyder had his fingerprints all over it.

Gal Gadot exudes both a strength and a softness at the same time which is perfect for the role of Diana, Princess of the Amazons. Despite having a female superhero and taking the few side shots at feminism during an historical depiction, the film does not follow in the footsteps of the CW’s Supergirl in trying to become an Anthem of the new feminism, which might upset the more militant feminists out there. Rather, the plot focuses on telling the story of Wonder Woman’s development and entry into the modern, human world. This serves to actually tell a compelling story without delving into social mores and issues that would otherwise be divisive and distract from the enjoyment of the film.

The story departs slightly from the comic book depiction of Diana on Paradise Island, as well as its introduction of Steve Trevor, the American fighter Ace who is rescued by Diana and ushers her into the real world. There is no invisible jet, no spinning into her costume, and—for the most part—no alter ego. She is introduced to the war brass as Diana Prince, her secret identity from the comic book and TV show, but for the bulk of the film, she is Wonder Woman, even though no one actually addresses her by that title. She is simply Diana.

The bulk of the movie’s humor comes from Diana’s innocent reactions to what passes for modern society during the Great War. Chris Pratt, no I mean Chris Evans, no, sorry, Chris Hemsworth…nope, that’s not it. Oh, right, Chris Pine, of Star Trek, plays Steve Trevor, the American spy working for British intelligence to stop a Nazi chemical doomsday weapon that threatens to derail an armistice to end the war. There is an instant spark with Diana when she pulls him from the ocean after his plane crashes. The chemistry is tangible and plays well on screen, making their dynamic all the more real in the film’s climax. Pine’s portrayal is fine, if a little anachronistic. He tends to exude a 21st century swagger that would not have been tolerated by the British hierarchy in 1918.

The only detractor for the film is in its producer’s vision. Warner Brothers chose Zach Snyder to helm the DC cinematic universe and Snyder’s vision of the heroes in that universe is a dark one. Many fanboys have filled blogs and discussion boards with posts suggesting that Snyder is trying to adapt the DC graphic novels Injustice: Gods Among Us into the movies. That idea gets a serious booster shot with the antagonist in Wonder Woman. Snyder has an artistic eye for cinematic visuals. There is no denying that. But with the muted color pallet he chose for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, it makes the viewing experience depressing. Snyder has a penchant for near monochromatic color filters as he displayed with his highly successful adaptation of the graphic novel 300. That pallet fits certain scenes, such as when Diana is first introduced to London (she says “it’s hideous”), but to make three films that way detracts from the viewing experience.

Despite Snyder’s limited vision, and the feminist hype, Wonder Woman is a great film and definitely worth the price of admission. Heck, skip the matinee and pay full price. It’s still worth it.

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Nothing to Fear with Alien: Covenant

The summer movie rush is upon us leading with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and promising a plethora of blockbusters to come. Last weekend’s big entry into the fray is Ridley Scott’s latest foray into one of the first movie franchises he started back in 1977. Alien: Covenant is Scott’s second film after James Cameron’s highly successful action adaptation of the title. Scott’s original Alien was a true horror film set in space, while Cameron’s sequels were a collection of action-packed battle royals. Scott wanted to put the horror back in the story when he released Prometheus in 2012 and its sequel Alien: Covenant
this summer. Unfortunately, neither Prometheus nor Covenant is particularly scary.

Prometheus was received with mix reviews in 2012, but is generally considered a pale reflection of the alien story. It attempts to fill in the back story of how the Xenomorph we’ve come to know and love got its start. It tells a bleak story about the dawn of humanity and the progenitor of both Humanity and the Xenomorph. Covenant continues that story while trying to get closer in tone and theme to the original 1977 Alien.

If nothing else, it succeeds in copying the feel and tone of the original. The ship design and visuals harken back to the first film and even the sound effects on the Covenant are eerily similar to those on the Nostromo.

The Covenant is a colony ship ferrying more than 2000 people and 1500 embryos to a new world more than 7 years away when the ship encounters a severe ion storm and is damaged. While repairing the ship, the crew detects a signal that shouldn’t be there and goes to investigate. Of course, they find trouble that puts the lives of the crew and colonists in jeopardy.

The plot is so familiar that it is easy to figure out who will die and who will live and the only surprise comes at who will go first. The hero of the film is unsurprisingly a woman named Daniels, played by current “it-girl” Katherine Waterston, who must overcome all odds to save as many as she can and defeat the xenomorphs.

While the film was entertaining and possessing a certain nostalgia for recalling the feel of the first film, it misses in originality and sadly lacks character development. Daniels doesn’t show any growth through the film. We don’t see the “Ripley” moment where she is forced to discover her unknown, never-before-seen inner warrior. The film’s antagonist, David, introduced in Prometheus and played again by Michael Fassbender, is similarly lacking development, though it is not Fassbender’s fault. His alter ego, Walter, shows great development. None of the other characters are there for any reason other than to be Xenomorph chow, which was disappointing because the story hinted at some much needed tension in those characters’ stories that was never realized.

There were one or two scenes where the suspense did build, but sadly, they resolved before hitting the crescendo of panic that a good horror film provides, and real suspense comes from not being able to see the ending; not knowing how the hero will resolve the conflict. This film telegraphed every turn by following the formula set forth by its predecessor. That, coupled with a disappointing ending and a predictable cliff-hanger leaves one bored and definitely not afraid. While it is better than Prometheus, it’s nowhere nearly as scary, suspenseful, or satisfying a film as the original. At best, it’s a “Meh.”

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