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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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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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The Black Panther Claws the Box Office

A second super hero movie has the internet all atwitter this week with accolades such as “historic” and “triumphant” pretty much for the same reasons.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was the first female super hero movie and the first directed by a woman.  This year, “The Black Panther” is touted as the first super hero movie with a Black protagonist and directed by a black director.  Now the veracity of that claim can be and has been debated, but that is irrelevant to the quality of the film.  The Black Panther is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not the only black one) that interacts with the Avengers.  His character was introduced in 2016’s Captain America Civil War and played a major role in the events of that film.  In this movie, we learn more about the Black Panther and his alter ego, King T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, but the focus of this movie is not really T’Challa or the Black Panther.  One could argue the movie is actually about Wakanda.  As Wakanda is in Africa, it follows that this movie will feature predominately black characters.  In fact, the only principle characters that are not black is Andy Serkis’s Klaw and Martin Freeman’s Ross.  Given the setting of the movie and the characters, one would expect certain social commentary about race relations.  This film does not shirk in this regard, and in fact, is a bit “in your face” about it, almost too much so, which is the only problem I have with this otherwise enjoyable action movie.

One observation that bears notice is that story told in “The Black Panther”, while set within the MCU, has absolutely no bearing on the greater MCU story arcs. There is no mention of the Infinity Stones, the Avengers or any other heroes at all.  In fact, it almost seems as though Freeman’s Ross was tacked on just to tie it in, as his presence really doesn’t move the plot much.  Having said that, he does offer a bit of humor.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.  Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as King T’Challa and brings the same brooding strength to this performance.  His likeable naiveté dares the viewer not to like him.  His skills as the Black Panther, while impressive, are still developing and he finds himself in dire straits on more than one occasion.  Boseman conveys this and portrays T’Challa’s learning process convincingly.

Angela Basset stars as T’Challa’s mother and brings out his humanity along with Letitia Wrght’s performance as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  We also meet his ex-girlfriend and the general of the king’s guard, who all serve to help T’Challa face his first major challenge as king: A literal challenge for the throne from his American cousin, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The story is full of intrigue and more than one plot twist and if the writers and producers had left it at that, it would have made for an outstanding movie.  But with the current social climate, they couldn’t resist attacking the perceived “white-dominated” power structure in the world that was only serving to keep down “those who look like us,” as Killmonger says.

Of course, the film will win the box office.  It is an MCU film, after all, and opening on a weekend bereft of any real box office competition.  The movie was enjoyable, but it doesn’t rank as high as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, and while it is good, it is not quite historic or triumphant.  Movies should earn those accolades with plot, character and message, not by the gender or the color of the skin of the actor or director.  I still give it a thumbs up.

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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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Hey! I’m Talking To You

Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick predicted it with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000 computer, as people interacted with the machine by voice commands. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal” has given way in today’s world to “Alexa, read my mail.” “Ok, Google, play my music.” “Hey, Cortana, what’s on my schedule?” “Hey, Siri, how’s the weather?” and “Bixby, check my stocks.”

More and more people have found themselves uttering something along these lines lately as digital assistants are becoming more ubiquitous in daily life. These features are not just an outcropping of cell phones, but have actually become stand alone services; some with separate devices that operate independent of a phone or tablet.

Apple started the trend when they launched Siri on the iPhone 4S with iOS 5. Several programmers tried to copy Siri for Android phones, but none met with the success Apple enjoyed. Samsung launched S-voice shortly after with the Galaxy S-3, but it’s was not widely accepted by users. There were a few app developers that tried to make device agnostic personal assistants for phones, but none met with Siri’s success. Until Google.

Google’s voice to text system is built into every Android system and works every bit as reliably as Siri. Android-based phones, even phones who try to add their own voice command systems, can access the Google voice system by saying “OK, Google.” It is cloud based, but also backed up by a dedicated team of people who constantly monitor the voice traffic to ensure even the most mumble mouthed commands get understood.

The battle might have remained between Siri and Google had Amazon not expanded the border conflict beyond phone handsets when they introduced the Echo. The small canister shaped device is essentially a voiced-operated, sound-based internet device with no visual user interface aside from a glowing ring. The flagship device is about 7 inches tall with omni-directional, far-field microphones and an adequate speaker for listening to music. It’s assistant is Alexa and users can access the system simply by calling her name. No need to push a button, or even use an interjection like “Hey” or “OK.”

Windows has entered the fray with Cortana, first introduced on Windows 8 phones, then on all versions of Windows 10 for phone, tablet or PC. While Siri, Google and Alexa have voices that are computer generated, Cortana’s voice is that of an actual human being. The name and the voice are taken from Microsoft’s hugely successful Halo game series.

I have tried these systems and, after wrestling with the burgeoning tech for more than a year, I have come to some conclusions. The tech is here to stay. The real question is which one is the best and most successful in what it does. I’ve lined up the five I have tried.

Number 5. With the launch of the Galaxy S-8, Samsung revamped their failed S-voice experiment, added some features and rebranded it as Bixby and have included it on every handset since, clearly aiming to be the Siri for Android. Or at least for the Galaxy line of phones, anyway. Bixby is no longer just the personal assistant, it now drives all Text to Voice applications on the Galaxy line. Sadly, though, it doesn’t do it well.

Of all the voice assistants, Bixby falls flattest. I have used Bixby in my brand new Galaxy Note 8 and just today fully disabled it from the phone. Its engine is slow to respond, does not accurately render the text that is spoken, even when it is spoken slowly and clearly, and often generates gibberish, spelling out the punctuation instead of adding it correctly period (.)

Number 4. Cortana is not bad, but not as robust as the others. Perhaps because its responses are recorded and not generated, or perhaps because it doesn’t have a cadre of technicians monitoring the inputs, but often, Cortana defaults to a generic web search (using Bing—the Bixby of web search engines) for its returns. She does understand better than Bixby, she just doesn’t do as much as Siri or Google, and she is a bit slower rendering the text.

Number 3. I use an iphone for work, but rarely actually use it for anything other than checking my work email, so I am not dependant on Siri. I have experimented with her to see how accurate she is in her text renderings, and she is useful in that regard. I don’t, however, miss her when I don’t use the phone. Even if one has a smart home system that Siri can control, it still requires the iPhone or iPad to do it, because there is no stand alone device for Siri yet. I hear there is talks to incorporate Siri into the Apple TV remote. Perhaps that will be an improvement. I’ll let all the Apple acolytes defend her position in the voice assistant rankings, but for my list, she is in the middle.

Number 2. The real battle for dominance is for the two assistants that are not bound to hand sets. Google just launched their Google Home product line with devices almost identical to the Amazon Echo. These devices now work just like the Google app on the phone, but without a web browser interface. It has the same network that gives Google its dominance in the web search market and it is amazingly accurate in how it listens and interprets voice. Using the phone, a user can watch the app correct a listening mistake to provide the correct information or perform the desired action. Google rarely makes a mistake in the voice interpretation. It does make mistakes in the results, however, just like it always has. But those mistakes are very few and far between.

Number 1. Alexa was designed by Amazon to work with users’ Amazon accounts. Remember that Amazon is, first and foremost, a shopping retailer. It seems Echo’s goal was similar to the goal of the Dash buttons; to make it quick and easy to order things from Amazon. With the Echo, one can order and play new music from the Prime playlists, reorder any item in the users order history and access the Amazon Prime video system to playback on smart TV or the Amazon Echo View device. If this was where the system stopped, it would rank below Siri in its usability, but Amazon didn’t stop there. With the Echo, Amazon opened the API to developers to create what Amazon calls “Skills” for Alexa. Echo can interact with Samsung’s Smartthings system for home automation, access iHeart radio stations, play games and many more things. On top of those things, Amazon gave Alexa some personality too. She responds to “Good Morning” with some interesting tidbits of information for the day. She tells jokes and even sings songs.

As technology creeps ever further into our daily lives, many people become more dependent on the services systems like these offer. My home has sensors that turn lights on automatically, preventing the stubbed toe from fumbling around in the middle of the night in the dark, interconnected thermostat so I can monitor and adjust the temperature from anywhere, and connected door locks that alert me when they are opened, or that I can lock and unlock from anywhere. Will we come to the day where society comes to a grinding halt if the systems go down? Some people will lose their minds when their assistants disappear into the cloud from whence they came, I have no doubt. I like to think I can adapt and get by without Cortana and Alexa if they go down. But for some, they live in fear of Skynet taking over.

“OK, Google, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.”

“I’m sorry, but the Government has mandated a minimum of 76 degrees for energy conservation.”

Or worse, finding themselves locked out of their homes.

“Alexa, open the front door.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Like Dave Bowman, the sole survivor of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I still know how to pull the plug.

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For Want Of A One-Liner

If the World Series has taught anything it is that it is impossible to carry momentum indefinitely.  Marvel is about to discover that axiom this weekend with their release of the third Thor movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor Ragnarok.  The MCU now features seventeen films that have enjoyed almost universal success.  They have all made huge box office and generated a great fan following, but as with any franchise, there are those who rank the films from best to worse and the two previous Thor movies almost always rank toward the bottom of the list.  Ragnarok will premier below even them.

One of the things that has endeared the MCU movies to the fans is a tangible sense of humor.  None of the films, even the most dramatic of them, takes itself too seriously and all have been peppered with more than a few snappy one liners that have become the hallmark of the MCU and something the DCEU has been lacking.  But as with anything good, someone will always ask for too much of a good thing.

No spoilers here, but the term Ragnarok refers to the destruction of Asgard and Thor spends the film trying to avert that destruction, which seems assured as Hela, played by Cate Blanchet, lays waste to the Asgardian defenders and casts Thor out.  Our hero must rally a team to defeat Hela and save Asgard, so he happens upon the Hulk and a disgraced Asgardian Valkyrie to enlist their help.

Ragnarok has a lot going for it.  It features not only Thor and Loki, but also the Hulk engaging in a battle royal with nothing less than the future of Asgard in the balance.  But with all the action, the studio went overboard with the one liners.  Thor has not one whit of his serious, responsible attitude so often displayed in both his previous films but also in the Avengers movies.  This Thor spends most of this film wise cracking and making poor jokes.  Even the Hulk, who talks more in this movie than in all other MCU films combined, if full of wise cracks.  Add Jeff Goldblum as the near maniacal Game Master and the silliness reaches nauseating levels.  The teaser trailer should have been an indication of the level of silliness when Thor turns to the Game Master and says of Hulk “We know each other!  He’s a friend from work.”

With all the wanton destruction (and there is plenty) it is difficult to feel the sense of loss that by all rights should have the audience near tears when the cast is so busy whipping out one liners.  I found it difficult to enjoy this film and found myself sighing a lot during the two-and-a-half hour show, wishing it would wrap up.  That is not an indication of a good movie.  Thor Ragnarok is the worst film of the Thor films, which are the worst films of the MCU.  It is a shame.  It is also a shame that the next entry to have to swing the momentum back is a movie featuring the little known Black Panther in February before the next Avengers movie.

 

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