I’m Thinking of Ending Things


I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be remembered as a minor work of writer-director Charlie Kaufman. It is composed of elements that could make a great film—a statement—about life, death, aging, and the sweet moments in between, but these components are not put together in a way that inspires immediate recognition of precise thought, feeling, or past experience without wringing out the brain for possible meanings. To say that the picture is weird is inaccurate; it isn’t—at least not really. I’ve seen far stranger movies—Guy Maddin’s works like “The Saddest Music in the World” and “Brand Upon the Brain!” quickly come to mind. As the movie goes on, it unravels into a tangent rather than providing a strong closure for its thesis.

The most fun I’ve had while sitting through the film is coming up with ideas in regards to what’s really going on just underneath its typical setup: a woman (we are introduced to her as “Lucy” but she is later called “Louisa” and a few other names), played by Jessie Buckley, travels with Jake (Jesse Plemons) to the country so she can meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). They’ve been dating for six weeks. Or is it seven? Lucy is unsure.

Via narration, we learn that Lucy feels as though the relationship is not going anywhere and is considering breaking it off. Right from the get-go, there is something strange. It appears—rather it feels—as though Jake can read Lucy’s mind. Is this actually the case or is he simply intuitive? We spend twenty minutes in the car as the couple discuss science, novels, poetry, and movies. Is it possible viewers are meant to feel trapped with these characters? In a Kaufman picture, anything is possible.

The farmhouse sequences are thoroughly engaging, from the tour of the barn with the symbolic sheep and the story about pigs being eaten alive to really bizarre and erratic behavior by Jake’s parents. It brings to mind haunted house movies and supernatural novels in how the writer-director plays with time and makes observations about memories, impressions, and forgotten details—ghosts that linger—not just Lucy’s, or possibly Jake’s, but our own. At some point, I wondered if the story is an echo: Lucy and Jake repeating the same day over and over again until either a wrong is set right or light is shed upon ignorance. It also made me consider how I process time, where I am in my life, what I’ve experienced and have yet to experience. Clearly, there is poetry to these scenes.

I also found the events inside the house to be riotously funny at times, from the image of a dog drying itself as if stuck in a time loop and Collette’s scene-stealing laughter turning into desperate wailing within a span of five seconds to morbid possibilities of what the basement contains to Thewlis’ interpretation of dementia. This is peculiarity done right. We are challenged with what to do with the images we are provided. I found humor. Some, I imagine, may find horror. Or sadness. It shows the helplessness and frailty that comes with old age.

Far less effective is when Lucy and Jake are back in the car. This is when the film starts to get repetitive. On the surface, it is different from the previous car sequence. They are traveling in near total darkness. There is a snowstorm outside. Lucy’s patience is wearing thin because Jake seems unable to take a hint that she just wants to get home. He suggests they stop by for ice cream. Is this supposed to be a portrait of mid- to late-stage marriage? The pacing slows as more ideas are thrown around… only this time there is minimal tension due to familiarity.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the novel by Iain Reid, offers plenty of foreplay but no powerful punchline. The latter half is so desultory (“experimental” or “unconventional,” if one were to be kind) that at some point, we sit through an interpretive dance and a musical number—right after another. Although I recognize what it is trying say with these overt performances, they remain just that—performances—instead of Kaufman putting what he has to impart into context (loneliness, regret, longings, imaginings). It’s unfortunate because the picture ends with humanity but decorations around it distract from the wrinkles that actually matter.

2012


2012 (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Although a portrait of the end of times, disaster flick “2012” is meant to be fun and entertaining. But what results is a work that is over reliant on CGI, coupled with wafer-thin characters with nothing of interest to say or do other than flail around when the occasion calls for it, to the point where it is impossible to believe—let alone emotionally connect—in whatever is unfolding on screen. The movie boasts a budget of 200 million dollars, but it proves unable to buy deep imagination, genuine excitement, and a wellspring of creativity. All it manages to offer is empty spectacle: giant crevices dividing grocery stores in half, massive tidal waves engulfing the Himalayas, state-of-the-art ships capable of housing a hundred thousand individuals. What makes the movie special?

The screenplay by Roland Emmerich (who directs) and Harald Kloser is not without potential. It requires sitting down, thinking about, and discussing which elements are worth delving into and which aspects should be excised altogether. An example: The material wishes to make a statement about how we as a society can so easily turn against one another in life-or-death situations. But notice the work’s failure in showing specific examples that make a lasting impression. In a movie with a running time of nearly a hundred and sixty minutes, it is not asking a lot to show regular folks fighting for resources. The camera is almost always on the powerful, the rich, and the brains working for the government. Worse, like clockwork, these people have the tendency to deliver tedious speeches about survival, heroism, and importance of coming together. It lacks a dramatic anchor.

Our anchor, I guess, is a work-obsessed author named Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) whose most recent novel tells the story of how humans deal with the apocalypse. His work was panned by critics for being too naive and optimistic. Jackson must now face a real-life apocalypse. If you think his naïveté and optimism are bound to be challenged by a dead screenplay, think again. Naturally, the way he perceives the world is solidified. The writers have failed to ask themselves how drama can be mined from a character whose ideals are not challenged.

You know it’s coming: Jackson is divorced, but he still loves his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two young children (Liam James, Morgan Lilly); he would do anything to make sure they survive. Despite the Jackson character being provided a lengthy (and boring) exposition, Cusack is given nothing substantive to work with. This character’s trajectory is predictable from the beginning all the way up to the moment when the two former spouses lock eyes and fall in love again. And can you believe it? This is not the only romantic angle proposed by the script. The other one, between a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the president’s daughter (Thandie Newton), is so undercooked that had it been removed completely, it wouldn’t impact the story in any way.

Back to what most viewers likely signed up for: the special and visual effects. Sure, they look expensive at first glance but look closer: when performers are placed amidst the destruction, there is a glaring disconnect because it is obvious they’re acting in front of a blue or green screen. Consider the scene where Jackson must escape Los Angeles with his family on a limo. Homes, small businesses, landmarks, and gargantuan skyscrapers collapse all around, the score is booming, and there is deafening yells and screams. It drags for so long that near fatalities are reduced to running gags eventually. Suspense and tension devolve into physical comedy. Control—of effects, of timing, of editing—could have turned the sequence around. It were as if everyone in charge of helming the picture fell asleep at the wheel. It’s depressing.

Although science is thrown out the window, I enjoyed how the filmmakers find the time to explain how solar flares (releasing particles called “neutrinos”) lead to the destabilization of the earth’s mantle. Yes, it’s ridiculous. That’s not a question. But I think those who have little or no knowledge of geology and physics can follow the movie’s logic because the animation is presented in a clear and precise manner. This short segment reminded of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” specifically the computer model that showed how water moved from one compartment to another which led to the sinking of the purportedly unsinkable ship.

I Know What You Did Last Summer


I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
★★ / ★★★★

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a parade of beautiful actors looking tormented in a wan, straightforward slasher flick. There is not one surprising element here worthy of strong recommendation. It begins with a moral conundrum: While on their way home from the beach, four friends (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr.) accidentally hit a pedestrian on the highway. Do they take responsibility and call the police or do they get rid of the body? There is no movie in the former choice and so once all is said and done, the story jumps a year later when Julie (Hewitt), now a failing freshman in university, receives an ominous note suggesting someone had seen them commit murder. Sure enough, Julie’s friends are killed one by one eventually—by order of importance: predictable, tedious. These scenes are not especially creative, memorable, or gruesome. I felt no glee from the filmmakers in wanting to entertain us. At least one or two chases are extended enough to create minimal tension. The work is based upon Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name, but we learn nothing about the four friends other than their superficial traits: Julie feels the most guilt, Helen and her vanity, Barry the tough guy, and Ray the bore (we learn the least about him—an obvious red herring). Why should we care about these people? It is not enough that a man (or woman) in a rain slicker with a hook wishes to kill them. And, just like forgettable horror pictures, it has the nerve to set up a sequel with—you guessed it—a lame jump scare. Directed by Jim Gillespie. Screenplay by Kevin Williamson.

Edge of Seventeen


Edge of Seventeen (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Edge of Seventeen” continues where standard coming-out-of-the-closet comedy-dramas usually end which makes this picture, written by Todd Stephens and directed by David Moreton, an instant standout in the sub-genre. Too many LGBTQIA+ movies, especially those designed for mainstream consumption, are forgettable precisely because they end up following the same parabola while reaching alarmingly familiar conclusions. It is rare when a film like “Edge of Seventeen” comes along for it has courage to tell you that coming out to your family and friends does not magically turn your life around. It provides the possibility that things can get messier and more complicated—which is okay because adapting to change takes time. It is more interested in presenting reality than providing a false sense of security.

The story revolves around Eric (Chris Stafford), a soon-to-be senior in high school who gets a summer job at a theme park in food service. There, he meets Rod (Andersen Gabrych), an Ohio State University student who seems genuinely interested in getting to know Eric. Although the screenplay underscores the attraction felt by the two men, this is no ordinary romance. The feelings are real, but the writing proves sharp in that for there to be convincing drama, the two must be separated. Otherwise, the story becomes about the couple rather than Eric who struggles with self-acceptance. The presence of the Rod character is solely meant to jolt Eric’s latent homosexuality. It is beautifully done, quite elegant and unexpected. And it is right.

Another insight the writing provides is that there is a crucial difference between coming out and accepting one’s sexuality. Coming out can be easy, for some. But looking inside—really checking in, asking questions, and being honest—that’s far more challenging. It poses the question: How can one so easily accept being different—being gay—when society trains you to believe that being different, odd, strange—queer—is inferior to being “normal”? How can you fit in when the standard—the expectation—is heterosexuality and heteronormativity? I loved how this film is about ideas first rather than comic strip situations that characters find themselves in then having them react.

Notice how the film takes the time to show conversations—no score or soundtrack playing in the background—that look, sound, and feel real. Standouts are exchanges between Eric and his mother (Stephanie McVay): how he shares with her a song he’s been working on, what she thinks about it, and if she regrets dropping out of college (she studied music) in order to start a family. We also spend ample of time with Eric and his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes), who is obviously attracted to him. We see them being called names at school, at parties, and other social gatherings. And we also see why. They don’t dress or act or try to force themselves to get along with their peers. We get a sense that they’re outcasts even before they’re called freaks. Naturally, this friendship is tested when Maggie learns about Eric’s secret. I appreciated how it goes in unexpected and occasionally painful directions. I appreciated its honesty in suggesting that sometimes even the strongest friendships are unable to weather certain storms.

“Edge of Seventeen” is not for viewers who are 1) looking to feel good about themselves and 2) unwilling to go delve deeply in what the filmmakers are actually communicating about the realities of being gay and coming out. The story, like life, is left in an open-ended manner. It trusts us to evaluate where Eric’s relationships might end up based on the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout our time with them. Ultimately, I found optimism in Eric’s story even though it is more bitter than sweet. Eric is only seventeen. He has so much more to experience. Why box him into a defined ending just so we can feel good? The astute and penetrating filmmakers really thought about what they wished to accomplish—and it shows.

How to Build a Girl


How to Build a Girl (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another comedy with a terrific premise—a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to become a writer is hired as a rock critic—but just about every time the film appears ready to take off, the screenplay falters, crashes, and gets mired in repetitive exposition. What results is a death march to the finish line: the main character is flavorless; her journey, while eventful, is without soul, and the lessons she learns about herself and adults around her are common sense for smart, well-grounded teenagers—someone she is already supposed to be. I didn’t believe a single second of this movie; I found it no better than a trip to the dentist.

The film is based upon the novel of the same name by Caitlin Moran. It is a shock that she penned the screenplay because we are not given strong reasons why Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein, sporting an awful British accent) is a protagonist worth following. The intention, I think, is to tell a story of a person who feels ready to take on the world but is limited because of her age, lack of experience, and that she comes from a humble background. In order to compensate for the elements she lacks, she feels the need constantly underscore her talent for words. That’s a workable template, but it isn’t compelling when details and realism are lacking.

In the final scene, Johanna turns to the target audience—young women—and essentially reminds them that her journey is meant to provide female empowerment. Because she is able to claim a happy ending, so can those who are watching. While I support the idea of stories imbuing power to young girls, I couldn’t but help feel confused because Johanna’s struggles are not specifically tethered to her gender. In fact, her endeavors relate to nearly everything about her except her sex. There’s a glaring disconnect.

Perhaps we are meant to notice the fact that Johanna is the only female writer hired at D&ME (say that three times as quickly as you can), a London-based paper specializing in covering the latest music bands and trends. But no drama is excavated upon her hiring. The men look at her not because she’s a woman but because she is young and naive. Johanna is a music writer who can quote “Ulysses” from memory and yet she hasn’t even listened to The Rolling Stones. Of course she’s going to be considered as a joke. Who can take you seriously in a specific field when you do not possess the most basic knowledge required of that field? It’s not about gender.

Instead of focusing on the drama between Johanna and her colleagues, plenty of attention is placed on how much money she has begun to make. Apparently, it’s a lot, despite working for the magazine for only a few weeks, because she is able to dissolve her family’s debt. She even buys them a new van at some point. Obviously, this is a fantasy. And so the screenplay is required to make a story realistic through other means. Otherwise, we as viewers do not connect with the material in ways that we can or should.

“How to Build a Girl,” directed by Cody Giedroyc, is a frustration nearly every step of the way. Johanna is surrounded by personalities more interesting than her. Examples: her father (Paddy Considine) who still clings onto his dream of becoming a big rockstar someday, her gay brother (Laurie Kynaston) who just so happens to be her best friend, and musician John Kite (Alfie Allen) whose songs possess a sadness and yearning to them. These three make Johanna more interesting because despite her superficial quirks and occasional obnoxious personality, she is flavorless, flat as tap water. Why see this when Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is in existence? The filmmakers fail to provide a compelling answer.

Vincent N Roxxy


Vincent N Roxxy (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

The dramatic thriller “Vincent N Roxxy,” based on the screenplay and directed by Gary Michael Schultz, showcases a terrific cast that can embody any emotion required to create a convincing reality of simmering violence waiting to reach a boiling point. But those expecting a standard thriller with a typical parabola to make the story digestible will surely be disappointed. Instead of painting violence as beautiful thing, as often seen in mainstream projects, here is a film that showcases violence as ugly, brutal, and heartbreaking. There were instances when I found myself wishing to look away from the images on screen.

The near-brilliant piece begins as a thriller and quickly detours into a sort of romantic side quest involving the titular characters. Roxxy (Zoë Kravitz) being hunted by thugs (led by Scott Mescudi, a performer to watch out for) and without any money, Vincent (Emile Hirsch) offers to help her to get back on her feet by allowing her to stay in his family’s farm (manned by Emory Cohen who plays Vincent’s brother). Notice how the technique behind the camera changes as it fluidly enters and exits two distinct genres.

For instance, when Roxxy and Vincent are sharing a meal in a diner, the camera is up close and personal, desperate to catch every emotion as the duo flirt and attempt to get to know one another better. The lighting is soft, there is music playing in the background, the scene is inviting, lovely. One wonders at the possibility of Hirsch and Kravitz starring in a mature romantic comedy about young people figuring out where to sail their lives. But when violence breaks their bubble, Kravitz’ and Hirsch’s faces turn hard, stern, shades of blues and grays dominate background, sounds of blows to the body are amplified because there is no soundtrack or score. It is unpredictable in that we do not know which type of scene we will encounter in the next five minutes—a rare treat nowadays.

I admired how it takes its time. In standard crime-thrillers, the pacing is usually hurried, the dialogue lightning fast, leaving little room to breathe in order to get our adrenaline going. But here, there are stretches of ennui—which will surely bore some of the audience—which fits the thesis of the story and its characters. The movie is about people who must suppress their anger—which comes from the environment, unmet expectations, the past they either ignore or try to run away from, the suspicions they have of one another as they head toward their futures. The third act impresses as its throws one curveball after another.

“Vincent N Roxxy” is sort of a love story, but it is a love story that is not necessarily romantic. For example, the script touches upon the love between brothers despite the fact that one chose to run away when their mother was ill while the other chose to stay. Although the moments of violence are shocking indeed, equally surprising are its moments of genuine sensitivity, how it gets us to empathize with and be sympathetic to our tragic protagonists.

Jurassic Park III


Jurassic Park III (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

Joe Johnston’s “Jurassic Park III” suffers from similar problems as Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” only it is even less ambitious. This time, the plot revolves around a straightforward rescue mission of a pre-teen (Trevor Morgan) whose parasail crashed in Isla Sorna, the island we came to know quite well in the predecessor, where bioengineering company InGen bred various creatures that roamed the planet during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Although exciting in parts, the picture is a product of diminishing returns: there is a lack of freshness in the majority of chases: setup, initial jolt, a whole lot of running, followed by last-minute saves. To claim there is minimal drama would be an understatement.

There are only two sequences worth sitting through: when we first come to meet a Spinosaurus and the Pteranodon attack amidst a heavy fog. With the former, the screenplay does a solid job in communicating that a Spinosaurus is equal to if not a greater threat than a Tyrannosaurus rex. Although silly, I was entertained by the duel between the two creatures especially because it gives us time to observe how they attempt to render their prey helpless. For instance, the T. rex. tries to overpower its enemy using its size and body weight. But when it comes to the Spinosaurus, it is more reliant upon its agility and jaws. Look how it twists its neck at every opportunity in order to get the upper hand. I got the impression, too, that perhaps it is more intelligent than the T. rex. (But we all know that when it comes to intelligence, Velociraptor is king.)

As for the Pteranodon scene, it is unlike any of the dinosaur attacks we’ve encountered throughout the “Park” series. While there is running, there is a whole lot more jumping and gliding. Aerial shots are terrific, especially when the Pteranodon, while grabbing hold of a human, is required to maneuver among cliffs and other obstacles. Its astounding speed in combination with the thick fog, there is tension that a character may be in real danger should we lose sight of him or her. Bonus points for injecting personalities to the infant Pteranodon, not just in the way they sound but also in terms of movement. Because they are not quite so adept in using their wings, they jump—adorable but also terrifying. I wish the picture consistently functioned on this high level of creativity.

Like “The Lost World,” when the action dies down, the work reverts to a state of comatose. The couple (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni) who hires Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) as a “tour guide” is not only boring but bad caricatures. I felt they were stripped right out of generic suspense-thrillers in which their offspring has been kidnapped and in dire need of rescue. Cue slight bickering for comedic effect. And, of course, they are required to get a little closer or learn to appreciate each other more before the end credits. All that’s missing is a renewal of their vows.

It is so disappointing because there are a few characters worth getting to know. First, there is the technology-averse Dr. Alan Grant. Neill infuses him with big personality, but the screenplay by Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor fails to get him to say anything remotely new or interesting. Laura Dern, as Dr. Ellie Sattler, makes a quick appearance but she, too, is not used in a way that elevates the material. An argument can be made that the best scene involves no dinosaur at all, just Alan and Ellie—former colleagues and former lovers—spending time with one another, looking in each other’s eyes, talking about science. So why aren’t these two in the middle of this film?

Another potentially curious character is Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivola), Dr. Grant’s graduate assistant. Instead of functioning as an awkward appendage for the majority of the picture, why not write this character, for instance, into Dr. Grant’s likeness? Never mind the surprising moments of blind heroism; that’s an easy similarity. But actually write a character with whom we feel to be Dr. Grant’s equal—but young, ambitious, and especially driven. As we observed in “Jurassic Park,” the Dr. Grant character becomes a more curious specimen to study the more often he is surrounded by minds and personalities that challenge him. So why not apply a similar approach to this project?

The answer to both questions is that it requires more effort to create memorable characters that feels exactly right for the story being told, not to mention the themes being tackled, compared to creating superficial and expected thrills. Laziness is what prevents “Jurassic Park III” from truly taking off. There is nothing wrong with a standard rescue mission plot. But the details must be specific and emotions behind them must ring true when the occasion calls for it. Otherwise, it is just another romp in the forest with CGI dinosaurs—watchable but not impressive.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park


The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t take much brain power to imagine Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” stripped off its sense of wonder because the product is “The Lost World,” a sequel so constantly on autopilot that not even one of the best characters in the predecessor, chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), is able to outshine its generic screenplay and execution. Notice that when the noise and movement die down and characters are required to speak and connect with one another, boredom numbs the mind. At least it is proud to be a mindless monster movie, I guess.

If one signed up for action, the picture does not disappoint—to a degree. There are two highlights. The first is the Tyrannosaurus rex attack of a trailer that contains an infant T. rex. Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), a behavioral paleontologist who just so happens to be Dr. Malcolm’s girlfriend, intends to treat the infant’s broken leg. For some reason, it does not occur to her, despite being a professional who studies behavior, that the animal wailing about may attract its parents. Two angry T. rex attacking a trailer, the shelter of those whom the dinosaurs believe to have kidnapped their offspring, is worthy of the attacks found in first film. There is a defined setup, special and visual effects are employed to service and enhance the storytelling, and it forces viewers to undergo a rollercoaster of emotions. Just when you think it is over, it is far from it. I always love it when a character falls on glass… and then it starts to crack. Cue instructions being yelled at the screen.

Another terrific scene involves a desperate sprint through a field of long grass… which is also a Velociraptor nest. It works because this sequence is not always in-your-face violence and horror. Because it is near impossible to see what’s around the characters, it is more suspenseful compared to the garden variety shocks. I enjoyed how at times all that is required to show is a long, muscular tail grabbing its prey. Whack! Accompanying screams for help and squelching noises are enough to paint a vivid picture in minds. This sequel needed more of this.

There are some concepts worthy of exploration in “The Lost World” which is based on the novel by Michael Crichton and written for the screen by David Koepp. A few examples: how large, private companies exercise their power—even going as far as to squash the reputation of dissenters—to ensure prevention of a single cent being taken off their profits; how we, as a species, sometimes tend to exercise cruelty and dominion over creatures that we fear or do not yet understand; and how we can set aside our differences to attain a common goal.

The last bit is especially critical to dig into because there are two groups that have been sent to Isla Sorna: Dr. Hammond’s (Richard Attenborough) team composed of our protagonists who respect nature (Goldblum, Moore, Vince Vaughn, Richard Schiff) and InGen’s team, a bioengineering company formerly led by Dr. Hammond and has since been under the leadership of Dr. Hammond’s nephew, Ludlow (Arliss Howard), made up of men with big guns and latest technology. For some reason, the work fails to mine the drama between these factions. When they finally cross paths, their differences are dropped at a… drop of a hat and they travel together with minimal tension. The stench of laziness emanating from the screenplay cannot be ignored.

This is a shame because one of the members of the InGen team is worthy of getting to know. Roland, played by Pete Postlethwaite, is a hunter who chose to be there not for the money or fame but for the thrill of hunting the apex predator. Postlethwaite injects the character with enigma, charm, and specific perspective of seeing the world. His Roland is no ordinary stern villain. Observing the way he approaches problems, he is pragmatic, methodical, extremely focused. Roland could have been a terrific foil for Dr. Malcolm. And yet the material simply brushes aside this potential source of conflict. Yes, for another tired chase scene.

Jurassic Park


Jurassic Park (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” is one of the movies that inspired me to become a scientist. Most viewers tend to remember the picture for its more overt images: A Tyrannosaurus rex swallowing a goat whole, a herd of Gallimimus creating a stampede as one of them becomes prey, a Velociraptor learning how to open doors. But I remember it most for its informative and entertaining presentation—using animation—of how businessman John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and his scientific team manage to clone creatures from Jurassic and Cretaceous periods: extracting DNA from fossilized mosquitoes coupled with the staggering power of genetic manipulation. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, who co-writes with David Koepp, the film continues to stand the test of time because it is first and foremost about ideas. It just so happens to work in synergy among elements of high octane summer blockbuster entertainment.

Notice how the first half focuses on enveloping us with a sense of wonder rather than flooding our eyes with one-dimensional thrills, like chases or gore. When we see a dinosaur, yes, they are visually spectacular, but look at how the camera tends to fixate on the faces of our characters. No words are exchanged among them. Instead, we attempt to read what they are thinking and feeling by looking into their eyes. The experience of seeing live Brachiosaurus must mean differently for paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), even though they work together in the same archeological dig site, because we have met them earlier and got a sense of what’s important to them: as individuals, as a couple, and as scientists who must learn how to adapt to and utilize technology to further their careers. The screenplay is wonderfully efficient: it assumes we are intelligent and more than capable of wanting to get to know the colorful personalities on offer.

Speaking of personality, aside from Dr. Grant, chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is also invited by Hammond to take a tour of Isla Nublar. By the end of the tour, the businessman hopes to get their approval so the park can finally be open to the public. Naturally, things go horribly awry. In a sea of curious characters, with two adorable and energetic kids among them (Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello), Goldblum’s Malcolm manages to stand out in two ways: the character’s memorable lines which reflect what the audience might be thinking in terms of the danger of wanting to control what cannot be controlled (life, essentially) and the performer’s unpredictable (and joyous) line deliveries. Goldblum’s performance is as big as the dinosaurs. And he has the star presence to match.

The CGI dinosaurs are terrific for its time. Couple showing them in their natural habitats—walking in herds, eating leaves off trees, drinking from a lake—alongside John Williams’ musical score, the whole enchilada is magic. But I prose an alternative: the animatronic dinosaurs are more impressive and have aged better than the CGI dinosaurs. The sick Triceratops quickly comes to mind. One of the most unforgettable scenes involves Dr. Grant leaning his entire body against the Triceratops’ abdominal area as the creature breathes in and out. Who doesn’t want to do exactly that when coming across a massive and gentle dinosaur? Another: Dr. Sattler putting her whole arm in a pile of excrement in order to determine what, if any, the Triceratops has eaten that made it so ill. I wanted to put my arm in there, too. It made me imagine how it must be like to be that close to a hill of feces: the stench, the warmth, living things that may be feasting in there.

“Jurassic Park” is a movie remembered fondly for its action sequences—which are well-made and executed well, often propelled by a high level of craft and bravado. But it is also a movie that inspires us to consider what’s not on the screen. You are looking at the screen, but images and sounds emanating from it are so powerful, so inviting, we imagine being on that island and yearning to experience a once in a lifetime opportunity. It is for children, for the elderly, and everyone in between. Spielberg is able to tap on human curiosity through the guise of popcorn entertainment. Isn’t that one of the reasons why movies are made?

Howl


Howl (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

The British werewolf movie “Howl,” written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, entertains in bits and pieces because it manages to capture the vibe of a dark and stormy night while passengers are stuck in a train that’s surrounded by dense forest. It delivers a few good scares, particularly when the camera remains still as a towering werewolf with glowing eyes approaches its victim and goes for the kill. However, it fails in providing both a satisfying conclusion and one that fits the story it is telling. One gets the impression that the writers have forgotten what the story is actually about outside of the grisly werewolf attacks.

We meet a train guard named Joe (Ed Speleers) who receives news that he did not get promoted to supervisor. Right away this character triggers curiosity: Joe seems to be upset based on his behavior, but the performer’s eyes’ give the impression that the promotion isn’t right for Joe anyway, that Joe is capable of so much more than being a guard. This intrigued me because majority of horror pictures are often one note; certainly contrasting elements, especially in terms of characterization, are not usually encountered less than ten minutes into the story. It shows promise. Perhaps it is not just another werewolf film.

As Joe checks passengers’ tickets, we note of the various personalities. On this level, the work offers little to no surprises, from the obnoxious teenager on her cellphone (Rosie Day), the uptight professional who’s having a bad day (Shauna Macdonald), to the nice elderly couple (Duncan Preston, Ania Marson) who we already know will be in danger once passengers are required to run from the hairy predator.

Other standouts include ladies man Adrian (Elliot Cowan), who is a jerk at times, and Billy (Sam Gittins), the silent tough guy who, like Joe, is underestimated by people like Adrian who seem to have forgotten how it’s like to be young and just starting out. There are three or four characters worth rooting for because we come to have an appreciation of their respective backgrounds and therefore the stakes should they fail to make it through the night. I enjoyed that there are some humor to be had with the more pointed personalities.

Lyncanthrope attacks are violent and gory. Whether characters are running out in the open or stuck in a restroom stall, there is horror to be experienced. I think it is because the approach to the scares is malleable. For instance, when outside the train, low growls and rustling leaves can be heard from a few feet away. It is mostly silent. There is suspense because sequences are quite drawn out. It is uncommon for blood to be front and center. However, when inside the train, the strategy is nearly the opposite. Gore is by the bucketloads. Yelling and screaming pummel the eardrums. Emphasis is on the stature and power of the werewolf: claw marks on metallic surfaces, people are thrown across the room with seeming else, hitting the werewolf’s body with a weapon is a gamble. I felt as though director Paul Hyett is indeed a fan of other werewolf movies, and it is his goal to make a good one.

It is disappointing that “Howl” does not end in a way that makes sense for the material. Perhaps the writers are going for a bleak and haunting ending—but this does not match the underlying message, particularly when looking at our central protagonist. Consider: Joe is a young man who, because of his job, does not get a lot of respect. When getting their tickets checked, half the passengers do not even bother to look him in the eye, let alone thank him. But through the trial of facing the werewolves, it becomes clear that Joe is more than his job. There is promise that he can take on his career of interest and excel at it. Thus, an ending with a hopeful or optimistic tone might have been more appropriate. The ending we are provided is predictable and generic.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always


Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Eliza Hittman takes us on another painfully realistic journey—this time alongside a seventeen-year-old named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) who seeks to have an abortion. The story and subject are dealt without comedy or melodrama; like life, it just is. An argument can be made the work is simply meant to document. We take note of Autumn’s strained home life, how she is treated in school by her peers, how unhappy and angry she is, her complex relationship with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) who supports her decision to abort the fetus, and who the father might be. Most powerful are Autumn’s visits to two clinics: one in her hometown of rural Pennsylvania and the other in New York City. I admired that it shows stark differences between a clinic with intent to protect the fetus first and foremost and a clinic with a mission to respect what a woman chooses to do with her body. But that’s not all. We follow Autumn from the moment she enters the door, how she is greeted by the receptionist, while she waits in the waiting room, and the specific questions she is asked—or not asked—by a medical professional. From this angle, the differences between the clinics are more nuanced, thus requiring more attention (example: the former clinic often uses the word “baby” while the latter abstains). “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a terrific film because it underscores with utmost clarity what one can expect should a woman chooses to get an abortion. Although it is short in matching the best documentaries that deal with the same topic because it does not show the various instruments used during the procedure, it remains to be highly informative and riveting.

The Assistant


The Assistant (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

First one in, last one out. This has been the life of Jane since having taken on the assistant position just five weeks ago for one of the heads of a major film production company based in New York City. She is played with deep nuance by Julia Garner, capable of making us feel specific emotions, and to what degree, oftentimes without saying a word. When writer-director Kitty Green focuses on her subject’s face, especially during moments of great stress, the dramatic picture functions almost like a thriller in that we wish to scream for Jane—out of frustration, out of anger—to get the hell out while her humanity hasn’t yet been spirited away by a job that demands a person to look the other way for the sake of getting ahead.

The story unfolds over one work day. We observe Jane heading to and entering her place of work while it’s still dark outside. Much attention is paid on her usual menial tasks. There is no dialogue, just sounds of her footsteps, her breathing, files that must be organized, the printer vomiting out scripts, schedules, photographs. These are shot with great patience and a terrific eye for framing. Notice the minimal use of primary colors. The color gray and bluish-gray pervade the screen. The workplace feels like a cold storage for the dead or dying. We can almost hear a pin drop.

We study Jane’s face. Her work might be boring to us—and it might be boring to her as well considering her level of education and drive—but notice there is not a moment in which she fails to take every single chore seriously. The action around the character may be considered nondescript, but the character herself is never boring. Garner reminded me of a young Meryl Streep because it inspired me to consider if certain quirks possessed meaning not in terms of plot but in terms of character. It is without question she’s one to watch.

Once more people are in the building, we are tasked to observe the workplace environment. It is uncommon for people to look at each other in the eye—especially, for example, between a lowly assistant like Jane and a powerful executive in a suit. There is no laughter among co-workers despite their stations being only a few feet away. Not even a smile. Competition can be felt in the air. It’s the kind of workplace where people snicker and gossip when they notice you did something even remotely wrong. When there is laughter, it is the polite, professional laughter shared among people with power. Assistants are invisible… unless they are needed. Or had spoken or did something out of turn. I wondered if the writer-director, clearly confident with her material, intended for the viewers to ask, “Why are we like this to one another?”

This is a movie that shows more than tells. A typical moviegoer can dismiss it for not being exciting. And he or she would be right, if one only considered the surface. It is not for everyone, certainly not for impatient viewers, but it is for me. Some may claim that the picture only takes off the moment Jane decides to visit the head of Human Resources (Matthew Macfadyen) and report a possible inappropriate relationship. But I disagree.

I believe this is the climax of the picture, the scene that puts a face on her highly toxic work environment. It stands out because it is the first time that we get a chance to look at power not as an idea but as an ordinary man who silences legitimate concerns in order to maintain status quo, to protect those already in power, to keep the small powerless. This is a microcosm of modern America.

Random Acts of Violence


Random Acts of Violence (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an intriguing story buried in “Random Acts of Violence,” based on the graphic novel by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, but screenwriters Jay Baruchel (who directs) and Jesse Chabot seems to have injected more effort in delivering gruesome kills and how to make them as gory as possible instead of honing in on the protagonist’s childhood trauma and how that routed and elevated his career as a comic book artist. What results is a work that is frustrating to sit through because while it is able to reach a few inspired moments, particularly in delivering wicked images right before a murder, there is a glaring lack of compelling substance.

The comic book artist is named Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) and he is on a road trip with his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), publisher (Baruchel), and assistant (Niamh Wilson) from Toronto to New York City. Experiencing a drought of inspiration on how to end his long-running comic book series “Slasherman,” which is based on real-life murders on the I-90 from 1987 to 1991, he hopes that he can come up with something of value—a message or statement that his readers will find unforgettable—by the tour’s end. During their trip, however, bodies begin to pile up and the murders look eerily similar to killings illustrated on Todd’s R-rated comics. Clearly, this premise offers a wellspring of potential for further exploration. And playfulness.

But the final product leaves a lot to be desired. Notice the script’s lack of polish. For instance, when Todd and Kathy (Brewster) clash in regards to what they wish to accomplish using the Slasherman legend, there is a lack of conviction. The former leans on almost idolizing the figure. When challenged about what he wishes to communicate about his work’s level of violence, his reaction is to go on the defense. The latter, on the hand, strives to publish an independent work that focuses on the Slasherman’s victims. She feels that, in the comics, they are marginalized, treated as tools, then forgotten. When Todd and Kathy conflict, their disagreements lack maturity. The lines uttered come across whiny and amateurish—as if the duo hasn’t been in the business for years. This glaring lack of authenticity takes us out of the picture and so the drama is not believable. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the chemistry between Brewster and Williams, especially when they manage to hit the right notes of a scene.

The use of flashbacks becomes a distraction eventually. When adult Todd experiences extreme highs and lows of emotion, an image of young Todd (Isaiah Rockcliffe) bathed in reddish and purple colors is displayed on screen. It appears the boy is transfixed on something but we are not shown as to what until the end. These repetitive flashbacks hamper the momentum of increasing tension, especially when those whom Todd cares about find themselves in mortal danger. The better approach is to allow a scene play out in its entirety; giving the audience no moment of pause or breath. There is no suspense created when we are forced to stare at a child’s familiar expression during the middle of the action.

It fails to play upon a level of self-awareness that is innate in a plot like this. Although this might be an artistic choice, which I can accept, other elements alongside it—convincing character relationships, strong ear for dialogue, cogent statement(s) it wishes to get across about our relationship with violence, defined or blurred demarcation between fiction and real-life, an artist’s responsibility, if any, toward his work and his fans—do not function on a high enough level to create a substantive work worthy of examination and rumination. It seems content in introducing ideas and then disposing of them just as quickly or whenever convenient. I wished the screenplay had been given more time in the oven because it could have been a different beast entirely.

Furie


Furie (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Furie” attempts to generate superficial entertainment by throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. It wishes to tell a story surrounding a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter from organ traffickers while combining elements of martial arts, gangster picture, and family drama into the mix. It is an interesting experiment—colorful but isn’t always effective. The core is the bond between Hai (Veronica Neo), the mother, and Mai (Mai Cat Vi), the child, but notice how their interactions are almost always reductive and saccharine—the charade is borderline soap opera. I never believed that the ten-year-old was raised by a woman who hailed from a rough background in Saigon who then moved to a remote village to escape her sordid past. Mai is too sweet, innocent, and weak—embarrassed that her mother collects debt in order to provide for their two-person family. I felt as though the child is present only because the plot demands for someone important to be taken from our heroine which would then trigger action sequences. The choreography of martial arts scenes get the job done but when compared to the greats, it is nothing special. I felt the stunts liken that of a dance—there is a lightness to them—rather than a painful means to extract the necessary information in order for Hai to get that much closer to rescue Mai. Even the material’s approach in tackling the concept of extracting organs from children lacks viciousness. I sensed that perhaps the screenplay by Kay Nguyen is not interested in bathing in the underworld so long as the work is within five feet from it, just enough to detect its stench. This is a lazy approach; details define a story. A lack of daring prevents this film from becoming memorable entertainment. Directed by Le Van Kiet.