Movie Review ~ West Side Story (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 Oscar-winning musical explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Álvarez, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Mike Faist, Ana Isabelle, Jamila Velazquez, Paloma Garcia Lee, Maddie Ziegler, Talia Ryder, Ben Cook, Kevin Csolak, Annelise Cepero, Kyle Allen, Kyle Coffman, Kellie Drobnick, Brittany Pollack, Yurel Echezarreta, Curtiss Cook, Jamie Harris

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Much like movie fans are oft-asked what their favorite movie is, musical theater aficionados get put in the difficult position of having to select their most beloved work from the stage and let me tell you…it does get hard to choose at times.  Any number of landmark pieces can be put into the top slots but in all fairness to the modern greats like Hamilton, RENT, HAiR, and yes, even London invasions like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, there’s nothing quite like what I feel are the crown jewels: 1959’s Gypsy and 1957’s West Side Story.  It’s no coincidence that both share several of the same creative minds, both were directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and had lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.  It’s the music that sets them apart, though, and while Jule Styne’s tunes for Gypsy have stood the test of time, it’s impossible to imagine a world without the gorgeous West Side Story compositions from Leonard Bernstein.

The 1961 film version of West Side Story was a boffo hit, nominated for a mother-lovin’ load of Oscars (11) and winning 10, including Best Picture.  While it hasn’t aged the best in certain areas (some of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brown face), much of the movie remains a high-water mark in movie musical history for many film and musical fans alike.  Though it was itself a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the streets of what was then considered a gritty take on New York, sequences and images from the movie have been lifted in whole or in part for other projects over the years.  Revivals have even borrowed some elements but from what everyone reports, the magic of that original production (which actually lost the Best Musical Tony Award to The Music Man, another finely crafted work) has never been matched. 

Leave it to what many consider the best director working today to give modern audiences, really a new generation, their own version of West Side Story that isn’t a remake and isn’t a revisionist take on what has come before.  Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg has long wanted to direct a musical and the dream is fulfilled for him and us with this absolutely glorious re-interpretation of West Side Story that breathes new life into a show that’s well over 60 years old.  With a new script from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner (Lincoln) that fleshes out characters that once were barely one dimensional, the film is deeper, more dangerous, and therefore more courageous in its risks and greater in its ultimate reward for the viewer.

I must admit I was more than a little dubious when I heard Spielberg and Kushner were taking this on as a project, for a few reasons.  Why, of all the films to remake, would Spielberg (JAWS) want to go down this route and take Kushner along for the ride?  I’m to the point where I think the best case for a remake is only where the original was left lacking in major areas and therefore a fresh set of eyes/ears/hands could function as a way to fix it.  Admittedly the ’61 film lived in a kind of patina of my memory and I didn’t want anyone (even one of my favorite directors) to mess around with it. So…perhaps I was being a bit precious with it. Then again, it’s West Side freaking Story!

Why did I ever doubt that Spielberg had this type of movie in him?  From the moment (the very moment) the movie begins, with that shiver-inducing whistle, I felt something release inside me and I knew instantly this West Side Story was something special.  Kushner’s script doesn’t just improve upon the original screenplay, it enhances it to the point where it could function wonderfully independent of the songs that have had their Bernstein orchestrations masterfully retained.  Yet musically it remains tied intrinsically as a star-crossed tale of two sweethearts from opposite sides that meet by chance, fall in love by fate, and are united by the power of those that oppose their union.

In the Upper West Side of New York (given even more clever specificity by Spielberg, Kushner, and production designer Adam Stockhausen, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the Jets and the Sharks are gangs of hothead teenagers in a constant battle for ownership of their neighborhood.  The white American Jets don’t like the Puerto Ricans Sharks moving in with their families and taking over the shops that once belonged to theirs.  Systemic racism, likely passed down by their parents and reinforced by daily life, have developed the boys from both sides into hard-nosed youths forced to take on problems that far exceed their age.  According to Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, First Man), most of them will end up dead or in prison…but if this is the neighborhood where they will spend their days, both gangs want to be in control.

Reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) has seen the worst of himself and vowed not to follow that path. Working for Valentina (Rita Moreno, Rio 2, an Oscar-winner for the first movie now playing a role created by Kushner, replacing the former one known as Doc), his focus is to get good, make right, and leave his former life behind.  Easier said that done.  When he’s convinced to join his friend and current Jet leader Riff (Mike Faist) at a mixer with a promised heavy Shark presence, he can’t know he’s about to meet a force that will change his life in unexpected ways. 

Maria (Rachel Zegler, making one of the more impressive debuts in memory) is a recent arrival to America, living with her brother Bernardo (David Álvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose, the role for which Moreno won her Oscar), a seamstress.  She’s tagging along to the dance with her date, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), but locks eyes with Tony in one of the musical’s more famous moments and what Spielberg turns into a real stunner.  That electricity the two feel seems to crackle right off the screen, making it easier for us to understand what’s happening for the soon-to-be-couple.  Of course, a boy from the Jets loving a girl from the Sharks is not acceptable and the consequences for such a choice extend far beyond the simple street brawls the teens have been used to.

Those that know the show won’t have to worry about their songs being messed around with too much.  Only several have been altered in any major way and I think the effect is more positive than blasphemous.  I won’t spoil it for you but one of the most famous numbers in the show, always a huge dance performance, has been given to a totally different character with their own agenda and it works so well because Kushner and Spielberg have done their work setting it up before we get there.  America, Gee, Officer Krupke, I Feel Pretty, etc, all are performed beautifully by a cast that vibrates with energy and freedom of spirit, and it doesn’t hurt they are easy on the eyes as well. 

Having seen the film often and even taken in the controversial Broadway revival back in 2020 (which, side note, I thought was incredible and should have re-opened in NYC so more people could have experienced its risk-taking changes), I was still an emotional wreck not just at the end but throughout the film.  Even knowing what will transpire I remained on the edge of my seat at all times, and I can’t remember the last time that happened while watching West Side Story.  What Spielberg and this extraordinary company of actors, musicians, and technicians have done is one for the record books.  I’m excited to see this one again with a larger audience to hear how it goes over and I have a feeling it could be a solid winner when awards are handed out – possibly even snagging the most Oscar nominations of the year.  How wonderful would it be for Moreno and the film to again take Best Picture.  And you know what?  They’d both deserve it.

The Silver Bullet ~ West Side Story (2021) 

Directed by Academy Award® winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tony Kushner,
“West Side Story” tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City.

Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. 

Release Date:  December 10, 2021 

Thoughts: While Oscar night was abuzz with much anticipation over who would win, when the news leaked the teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated remake of the 10-time Oscar-winning musical West Side Story would premiere sometime during the ceremony, movie fans and Broadway nerds alike were dancing on their respective fire escapes. Delayed a full year due to the pandemic and the director’s desire for audiences to experience the film in a theater, up until our first look the jury was still out as to how much the world needed a remake of what many considered a treasured classic. True, looking back at the 1962 film there were some odds and ends that don’t sit quite right when viewed through a lens of racially sensitive casting and a number of the leading actors were dubbed when they began to sing. Still, it’s hard to argue that the legendary dances and indelible images were burnt into many cinema-lovers memories.
While a radically revisionist Broadway revival that barely got a chance to open before the health crisis shuttered theaters is likely to return sometime in 2021 (I was lucky enough to see it and it was goosebump-stunning excellent), Spielberg’s version appears to keep to the original and I think that’s wise. With just a little tease of singing (from Rita Moreno, an Oscar-winner for playing Anita in the original film, an executive producer of this version and appearing in a newly created role by screenwriter Tony Kushner), it’s a mostly visual preview and it achieves exactly what it should in the short span of a preview. If anything, I’m fairly certain it was able to create the kind of excitement that shows audiences who loved the movie that this isn’t straying far while at the same time hinting at a more visceral take on the musical update of Romeo and Juliet. I know I’m more comfortable with it all after seeing this…are you?

The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

Movie Review ~ The BFG

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.

Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.

In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.

All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.

Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park)  but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.

The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.

I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.

Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.

The Silver Bullet ~ The BFG

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Synopsis: The imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.

Release Date:  July 1, 2016

Thoughts: The works of Roald Dahl have found their way to the screen over the years, from a 70s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and Tim Burton’s unwise remake thirty years later) to a splendid retelling of The Witches. Dahl even wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice, one of James Bond flicks that took major flights of fancy.  Now comes The BFG, Dahl’s celebrated tale of an orphan girl and the Giant she befriends.  The Disney production reunites E.T.’s director (Steven Spielberg, JAWS) and writer (the late Melissa Mathison) so you know it will have its heart in the right place. This nice teaser trailer creates some interest…but I’ll be interested to see the blending of live-action and CGI that will bring Dahl’s novel to life.

Movie Review ~ Jurassic World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. After 10 years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitor’s interest, which backfires horribly.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Chris Pratt, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Katie McGrath, Lauren Lapkus, Andy Buckley

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The original tagline for Jurassic Park was “An adventure 65 million years in the making” and I can summarize my thoughts on Jurassic World with something quite similar: An adventure 65 million and 22 years in the making. After wading through two lesser-than sequels that were equal parts boring and silly, audiences finally are getting the sequel we’ve deserved for the last two decades. It’s not as ground breaking or awe-inspiring as the first film but it comes pretty darn close by going back to where it all started and creating a rarity in filmmaking these days…excitement.

Largely ignoring the events that transpired in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World feels like the direct sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film and mores the better because of it. Now the film is free from having to explain away “Site B” and the lame San Diego-set finale of the first sequel. From its opening title shot of hatching eggs leading into a clever nod to an iconic image from the original, the movie earns its stripes by introducing us to actual characters this time around, rather than walking meals on wheels destined to become dino chew toys.

Brothers Gray (Ty Simpkins, Insidious) and Zach (Nick Robinson) are leaving their wintery Wisconsin homestead for the warm weather and excitement of the Jurassic World theme park. Gray is a big dinosaur buff but it helps that their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is head of operations at the dino-themed world of wonder. There’s some thin subplot with the boys and their bickering parents but the film largely forgets about it and so should you.

Claire doesn’t have much time to spend with them because she’s in the midst of securing sponsors for the park’s newest attraction, a genetic hybrid dinosaur cooked up in the lab (governed by B.D. Wong, the only returning character that isn’t from the prehistoric era) as a way to renew interest in the park. You see, the public is bored with dinosaurs now that they are so easily accessible so the park has to reinvent itself every few years to stay financially stable. There’s a heavy amount of product placement in the film but unlike other summer blockbusters the products featured here are there for a purpose, showcasing the rampant consumerism and sponsorship in marketing today.

Fears about the safety of the containment facility of the new species means that Claire has to call on rugged Owen for assistance. Played by Chris Pratt, Owen is a retired army man that has a bond with the four raptors he’s been training and doesn’t have time or interest in the financial stakes of the park. When the clever dinosaur manages to escape (in the first of several gruesome and gruesomely thrilling sequences), Owen and Claire work together to take down the beast on the loose before she makes it to the main section of the park where 20,000 tourists are enjoying fun in the sun.

Admittedly, the media hype surrounding the film has spoiled more than a few of the surprises the theme park has cooked up in the past two decades. From a gigantic water-based dinosaur to the pterodactyls housed in a mountain aviary, there isn’t much the film hasn’t outright shown or hinted at in the ads leading up to the release. But fear not, more than a little of the fun of the film is seeing how it all comes together…and don’t forget this is the island where the original took place so keep your eyes out for well-placed mementos of the past. The finale may borrow a bit from 2014’s Godzilla but I found it to be an adrenaline-fueled reward for those of us that have waited so long for the sequel.

If I’m going to knock the film for anything it’s the violence. Yeah yeah yeah, it’s a PG-13 movie and it’s not as gory as it could have been but it’s simply too frightening to take young children too. Many an unlucky soul is eaten and they don’t always go quietly so I’m urging parents to think twice before bringing their children along with them. The violence isn’t just to humans either and I was a little amazed at how visceral a reaction I had in several dino on dino battles.

I had heard some internet buzz that the CGI was poor in Jurassic World but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s some top-notch creations here and the effects team mixes computer animation and animatronic models with skill, once again blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. From a baby triceratops giving a ride to young children to the fearsome size of the genetically created Indominous Rex there are moments in Jurassic World where I was transported back in time to the first screening of Jurassic Park.

While I doubt any cast assembled could top the original, director Colin Trevorrow has cast the film with some unexpected choices. Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) is a nice, meaty slick of bo-hunk that comes across better in the finished film than he did in a frightfully bad clip released a few months back. I’ve always found Howard to be a bargain basement Jessica Chastain and it’s true her blunt ginger bob is the most severe thing about her, but she too makes for a good female protagonist even if she’s forced to do it in a cream ankle-length sheath dress and high heels. Claims that the film has a sexist tone aren’t totally unfounded, but it feels like it comes from an old-school battle of the sexes place rather than a misogynistic one (helps that the screenwriters are husband and wife).

Making a huge leap from his first film (Safety Not Guaranteed), sophomore director Trevorrow seemed like a random choice when it was announced he was sitting in the director’s chair but credit producer Steven Spielberg (JAWS) with knowing talent when he sees it. Trevorrow keeps things tight and exciting from beginning to end, never letting the audience get ahead of the film and treating them to a bundle of scares and adventure along the way.

I’d waited over a decade for another Jurassic Park movie and wasn’t the least bit disappointed in Jurassic World. It not only honored the film that started it all but made a comfortable place for itself on the shelf next to Spielberg’s history-making effort.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jurassic Park III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Alan Grant to go to Isla Sorna (the second InGen dinosaur lab.), resulting in an unexpected landing…and unexpected new inhabitants on the island.

Stars: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It took four years for Steven Spielberg to direct a sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park and with the problematic reception of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, the award-winning director was understandably cool to the thought about returning behind the camera for the third entry in 2011. Instead, Spielberg gave his old pal Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) the chance to direct and while the end result was a marked improvement over his lugubrious sequel, Jurassic Park III has its own set of problems to contend with.

Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil, The Vow, making a welcome return to the series) is facing budget cuts and a scientific community more interested in his adventures at Jurassic Park than the research he’s devoted his life too. When a wealthy couple want to hire him and his assistant (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) to guide them on a sight-seeing trip over Isla Sorna (Site B featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park), he reluctantly agrees as a way to make ends meet. Nevermind that series fans will know that Grant never set foot on Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park took place on Isla Nublar)…it’s a detail explained later but not very well. A crash landing is only the start to the bad luck Grant and company encounter as they try to survive an island with dinosaurs that have run amok and double-crossing members of their party.

At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) the film doesn’t take much time to breathe (or to think) and it’s probably best if you follow suit. Between some fairly terrible CGI dinosaurs and animatronic models that look like they were plucked out of your local science museum, the quality of the effects took a tumble here.  Odd colored dinosaurs look like they have graffiti on them and the raptors have mohawks…punk rock raptors? A big bad dino has a head that looks so fake you wonder if Johnston wasn’t making a spoof of the original film instead of a continuation of that story.

Performance-wise, only Neil (and a brief cameo from Laura Dern, The Master) have any real sense of urgency. Everyone else seems to be present to chew the scenery or be chewed on. Particularly bad is Téa Leoni who takes one too many pratfalls and apparently gets several haircuts during the 24 hours they are stranded on the island. Leoni also has an annoying way of running through the forest screaming and waving her arms and legs like she’s on fire, leading me to wonder if someone ever bothered to tell her she wasn’t in a comedy.

It’s not as boring as The Lost World; Jurassic Park but it’s far sillier. Depending on your mood, that could be either a good thing or a very bad thing. Watching it again recently I rolled my eyes a lot but didn’t have the outright disdain for it that I had when it was originally released. The script (with a contribution from Alexander Payne, Nebraska) feels like a tired third entry in a successful franchise, nothing more and nothing less. Its lackluster performance at the box office signaled the closing of this beleaguered park, a wise move if nothing of substance could be produced.

 

 

Down From the Shelf ~ The Lost World: Jurassic Park

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A research team is sent to the Jurassic Park Site B island to study the dinosaurs there while another team approaches with their own agenda.

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Arliss Howard, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, Richard Schiff

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I remember December 13, 1996 very well. I was in a theater at the Mall of America for the first showing of Tim Burton’s wack-a-doo sci-fi flick Mars Attacks! and was far more excited for the coming attractions that the feature presentation. You see, our local newspaper had let us know that the Mall of America would be one of a few theaters outfitted with a special “lighting surprise” that went along with the teaser trailer for director Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.

OK…before we move on, take a moment and look at the teaser trailer I included above. I’ll wait.

Did you watch it?

OK…now for some explanation.

The lights go down and the trailer begins – a fairly simple teaser over all but every time there was a lightening flash when the words Something Has Survived appeared on screen the specially installed high powered strobe lights in the theater would flash a blinding light so it felt like you were right in the middle of the action. True, the effect was fairly unique but it also showed how downright dingy the walls and ceiling of the theater were.

I tell you this story because the gimmicky nature of the preview of The Lost World: Jurassic Park wound up being the most interesting thing about the movie. Fanboys and fangirls around the world were pretty bummed out when the sequel to one of the biggest films of all times landed like a soggy thud on Memorial Day weekend. Oh the film made bank at the box office, no question, but it lacked the energy and awe of its predecessor and played like a quick cash grab.

It’s been several years since the disaster at the original Jurassic Park and the mystery around the island still remains. When a British family picnicking on an island not too far away has a close encounter with some tiny dinos and a second site of dino creationism is revealed, mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is called in by billionaire and Jurassic Park creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to…well…it’s never really clear why he eventually agrees to be dropped in the middle of the dinosaur action again. It’s not for any sense of loyalty, that’s for sure…in the years after the park failure Hammond’s company tarnished Malcolm’s professional reputation.

Accompanied by a team that includes Richard Schiff (Entourage) and Vince Vaughn (The Internship), Malcolm is reunited with his girlfriend Sarah (Julianne Moore, Still Alice, slumming it for a chance to work on a big budget project with a high powered director), a research conservationist sent ahead as bait for Malcolm to follow. There’s also a pitiful subplot introducing Malcolm’s child (Vanessa Lee Chester) who stows away to spend more time with daddy.

There are just so many things going on in the film that it’s hard to pick up any thread to follow. There are too many people as well, part of the beauty of the original film was that it was easy to track the half dozen characters that fought for survival…there’s hundreds of people in the sequel and the end result is that you don’t really care who gets chomped and who lives to tell the story.

While there are a few perilous edge of your seat sequences there are far too many more stretches where nothing of import happens. A reliance on extra screen time for the dinosaurs seems like a ploy to pad the story and don’t even get me started at the hare-brained finale through the streets of San Diego. The entire film reminded me of King Kong, a film that Spielberg would toy with remaking almost a decade later.

Everyone here looks exhausted (when you can see them at all, too much of the film takes place at night or deep in the jungle ) and Spielberg himself seems to have given up halfway through. Rushed into production and only loosely based on Michael Crichton’s sequel to his mega-selling novel (Spielberg was the one that goaded him into writing it), the film feels so very heavy and devoid of the magic that made Jurassic Park a landmark achievement.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Goonies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In order to save their home from foreclosure, a group of misfits set out to find a pirate’s ancient treasure.

Stars: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Martha Plimpton, Corey Feldman, Jeff Cohen, Kerri Green, Ke Huy Quan, Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano

Director: Richard Donner

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was still a tad too young to catch The Goonies during its first run in theaters during the summer of 1985 but boy do I wish I had.  Though I’ve seen it countless times since then on television, at sleepovers, and at any number of midnight screenings I would have loved to have been there on its June opening weekend.

Released in that magical early to mid-‘80s time when Steven Spielberg had his hand in everything, The Goonies is, like 1982’s Poltergeist, one of the few films that Spielberg either wrote or provided the storyline for and its themes of friendship, family, and love of home is classic Spielberg.  Focusing on a group of friends that hunt for a fabled pirate’s treasure as a way to help their families fight off land hungry developers, it may be turning 30 years old in 2015 but it’s held up remarkably well.

That’s partly due to the fact that the film isn’t a splashy effects driven kind of summer fare that were starting to become de rigueur in the ‘80s.  It’s filled with mostly practical effects as the gang of Goonies outwit escaped gangsters (the marvelously droll trio of Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, and Joe Pantoliano) and maneuver past a series of dangerous booby traps as they track down the hidden fortune.  Because it’s so centered on the friends themselves and not popular culture of the day, it works as both a time capsule of teen-friendly entertainment and a timeless exercise in big thinking adventure.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in two hours and watching it again recently I marveled at how fast it gets going.  Director Richard Donner (Ladyhawke) had a lot of plot points and characters to juggle and he manages (with the help of Chris Columbus’s slick script) to give each actor their own time to shine.  It helps that the young cast is quite engaging, and it was no shocker that most went on to successful careers as adults.  Sean Astin (Rudy) makes for a splendid every-boy kinda lead, young enough to not be a hormonal threat to tween girls and old enough for boys his same age to want to be like him.  Future Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) is his understanding older brother while Corey Feldman, Ke Huy Quan, and Jeff Cohen are his partners in goofball crime.  Martha Plimpton and Kerri Green prove themselves to be more than the token sassy girl/pretty girl (respectively) because Columbus treats them as equals to the boys.

If I’m being honest the movie starts to lose steam in the last fifteen minutes, right when it starts to really count.  I’ve been known to watch the first 90 minutes before either conking out or switching to a different channel because the dénouement and wrap-up have always felt like a let-down after all that had come before it.  Even so, the film is downright hilarious at times (mostly thanks to Cohen’s uproarious performance as a roly-poly mini used car salesman of a character) and still sucks me in to the Goonies adventure of a lifetime almost from the get-go.

Rumors abound that a long-awaited sequel (or stage musical!) are in the planning stages and I’d like to respectfully request that neither come to fruition.  I don’t think the film needed a sequel in the first place and if a second installment was ever in the works that should have been taken care of in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.  And a musical?  Yeesh…though a Ballad of One-Eyed Willie might become the new Defying Gravity if they play their cards right…

The Silver Bullet ~ Bridge of Spies

bridge_of_spies

Synopsis: An American lawyer is recruited by the CIA during the Cold War to help rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: Director Steven Spielberg (JAWS) has been pretty quiet lately. The last film he released was 2012’s lauded Lincoln but while he was attached to any number of rumored high-profile projects he’s making his return with this Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips, Cloud Atlas). Reteaming with Hanks for the fourth time, Spielberg seems like a good fit for this period piece that could be thinking man’s action film after a summer of brainless blockbusters. With a script from Joel and Ethan Cohen (Unbroken, Inside Llewyn Davis) and supporting cast that includes Alan Alda (Wanderlust), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Amy Ryan (Birdman), and Mark Rylance…expect this one to attract a lot of end of the year awards talk.