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.

Richard Jewell


Richard Jewell (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Richard Jewell is an easy target: he is fat, a bit weird at times, and he still lives with his mother despite being fully grown and financially independent. And so when he, while working as a security guard, finds a bomb and alerts the proper authorities during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, his status of being a hero is short-lived. Jewell is falsely accused and vilified as a hero bomber, especially given his questionable track record, like pulling over drivers from the road even though it goes beyond his role as campus security and breaking into students’ dormitories for drinking and threatening them should they fail to comply.

The beauty of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is that it is a condemnation of the FBI, the media, and, perhaps most importantly, power worship. The mess—the tragedy—that is Jewell’s character assassination results not because of one factor but a network of conflicting aims and motivations. The FBI feels pressure from the nation to capture the bomber. Since they have no strong lead, they latch onto the lowest hanging fruit and construct a story from there. (It didn’t help that an FBI agent was assigned to work at the event but failed to detect that there was something wrong until it was too late.) Speaking of stories, the media is always hungry for the next big one, the story that will sell the most papers, get the most viewers, generate the most gossip and speculation.

And speaking of viewers, in a way, Jewell wishes to be viewed or seen, be regarded as important for performing a job the best he can. His goal is to become a cop someday. It sure beats being seen as just another dumb, oily-faced fat guy who delivers mail in the office. Jewell is a type of man who puts law enforcement on such a high pedestal that when he himself becomes the prime target of investigation, he gives off the impression that he does not understand the severity of what he is being accused of and what will happen to him should the FBI get their way of arresting and convicting the wrong man. He wants to help them when he should be helping himself.

This is the central drama of Eastwood’s story. It is told in a compelling way. The events presented—nearly every single one told with clarity and precision—incite frustration and anger but it is not without amusing human moments, like Jewell’s relationship with his Snickers-loving friend and lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell—brilliant as usual). Even before Jewell is accused of a crime he did not commit, we come to understand how his job and personal histories, on top of his physicality and personality quirks, can be used to weaponize, to create a monster out of someone who simply wishes to do the right thing.

The film is supported by strong performers, particularly by Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Kathy Bates as Barbara Jewell, the silently suffering mother. There are heartbreaking moments of the son and his mother just sitting in the apartment in loud silence as the buzzing of the rabid media can be heard from outside. We feel their thoughts racing, their helplessness, the tension in their bodies. How can they possibly win against the U.S. government and the media machine? Who can they trust when even Richard’s friends and colleagues agree to wear a wire so that the FBI can listen in on their private conversations? When will it all be over?

I wished the picture had fewer “Hollywood” moments. For instance, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a highly driven journalist (translation: bitch—which I thought was heavy-handed and at times inappropriate) who works for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, somehow having broken into Bryant’s vehicle despite the car being surrounded by reporters and cameramen. Or when characters, who are supposedly intelligent, do basic investigation so late in the film, such as covering the distance and noting how long it takes to walk from where the bomb was left to the payphone that actual perpetrator used to call 911. Or when a character, who has a big role in amplifying the false accusation, cries during a moving speech. These, and others like it, ring false in movie that is absolutely worth seeing.

We Summon the Darkness


We Summon the Darkness (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The stupidity and lack of attention to detail in “We Summon the Darkness” are on full display in one scene. If you have eyes, it is impossible to overlook. In the kitchen, members of a religious cult attempt to smoke out their victims who are hiding in the pantry where light can be seen from under the door. Inside the pantry, we see a young man with a deep cut on his arm bleeding to death while leaning against the door in order to prevent cultists from getting in. A pool of blood collects where he sits. Back to the kitchen: no blood—not even a hint of it—is seeping through from the other side. Not a figure or a shadow can be seen desperately moving about. Eventually the frightened hunted use rags to seal the crevice. Still, light from under the door flows uninterrupted. It is clear that this sequence needed to be reshot and yet director Marc Meyers submitted a work so substandard, it is actually insulting. I’ve seen student films with significantly less budget that are executed and put together better than this scene.

You know when a movie tries so hard to hide its twist that it becomes glaringly obvious what that is mere ten minutes into the picture? Such is the case here. If you have an IQ above 50, it will come to no surprise that Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth) have a strong connection to the recent killings being covered on the news. Screenwriter Alan Trezza puts all his chips on this so-called left turn that the exposition ends up dragging on for nearly half the picture. It is brazen. But it is also interminable. These young women have nothing interesting to do or say—nor do their prey: three friends, formerly in a band together, attending a heavy metal concert (Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, Austin Swift). Set in 1988, exchanges lean on naming heavy metal bands. If I wanted a list, I’d go on Wikipedia.

And so slashing and killings begin. With the exception of one kill involving fire, the rest is standard violence and gore. Even during its darkly comic moments, I never cracked a single smile or smirk. I did, however, catch my eyes rolling twice or thrice. I asked, “Why are these characters making the worst decisions?” and “Why do they trip so often?” about five times. Each. Its faux edge can be recognized by even the most near-sighted. There is nothing surprising or creative in terms of chases and (finally) going for the jugular. Naturally, a gun must be employed and—surprise, surprise—characters claw and scratch at one another as it is thrown across the room. At this point, there is about thirty minutes yet to be endured.

The material wishes to comment upon religious zealotry. Here, the villains—followers of God—are convinced they must kill and make it look as though satanic cults are responsible. By instilling fear, amplified by the media, the unconverted will feel the need to follow God. (The story takes place in rural Indiana.) On paper, it may sound appealing, but I didn’t find this satiric angle to be fresh in terms of execution. I think it is because the filmmakers fail to balance horror, thriller, and dark comedy so that the elements work in synergy. This is a classic example of how hard it really is to make an effective satire. Sure, there is a message—an obvious one but it’s there. But does it provide insight? The answer is no. Yes, there is a difference.

Performances are all right. Of note, however, are Daddario, who takes on a role that’s different for her, and Johnson, who possesses an interesting face and a gentleness that makes you want to get to know what his character is all about. I liked that Daddario’s Alexis is so over-the-top while Johnson’s Mark is more relaxed. Yet both are equal in energy. I felt as though their take on their characters are just right for the material. But the rest of the work is a miscalculation, a drivel, a death march to the finish line.

Fantasy Island


Fantasy Island (2020)
★ / ★★★★

The premise of “Fantasy Island” promises limitless imagination: the tropical paradise possessing the ability to grant its guests’ deepest desires. It is even capable of bringing the dead back to life. But the movie is dull, repetitive, devoid of original ideas and so it relies on familiar tropes to create a semblance of suspense, and it feels closer to three hours than two. In the middle of it, I questioned whether the screenwriters (Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow [who directs]) actually intended to make a good film. Clearly, there is more to making a movie work than simply slapping together a hodgepodge of ideas. The end result is convoluted dross.

There are a handful of familiar faces, from Michael Peña as the enigmatic keeper of the island, Maggie Q as a guest who wishes to get back together with an old flame, to Michael Rooker as a ragged onlooker who appears to know precisely what’s going on in the island. These three have appeared in better movies and delivered much stronger performances. Neither hyperbolic nor downplayed acting could save a screenplay that is dead on arrival.

Perhaps the most curious performers are Lucy Hale as a young woman who wishes to enact revenge on a high school bully and Portia Doubleday as the reformed tormentor. Hale’s Melanie is now the pretty girl and Doubleday’s Sloane is married but unhappy. Throughout their time on the island, their dynamics shift. There is potential in their storyline. But the movie is filled with so many characters—less interesting ones—that the duo never gets the arc they deserve. And so when the would-be surprising final act comes around, we meet it with a shrug rather than a heartfelt desire to know the specifics.

One important trait the picture lacks is intrigue. Nearly halfway through, we are taken to a place that explains the island’s source of power. This is simply the setup but the script treats it as the punchline. It is an alarming “So what?” moment. We wait and wait for an answer but it never comes. This lackadaisical and half-hearted approach bleeds into the guests’ fantasy. We learn about their wishes but the writers fail to turn information into genuine humanity. Why tell this story when we couldn’t care less for the VIPs running around the island? It should have been an easy task because, whether we care to admit or not, every one of us has something we wish to change about our pasts.

If the point of the feature is to exercise special and visual effects, it fails on that level too. Black water coming out of people’s eyes, a burned figure popping out of unlikely places, people falling off a cliff and splattering on the rocks below, even simple gunshots to the head look cheap and unconvincing. Aerial shots of the island look great… but it is so sunny, bright, and postcard-looking that we are forced to wonder which images are CGI and which are real (if any). From a visual perspective, the work never becomes an enveloping experience. It does not help that each fantasy appears to be set on a different part of the globe.

“Fantasy Island” made me wish I were sitting through a better movie. One that offers deep imagination, varying levels of mystery and terror, and characters worth following and rooting for. Notice its level of ordinariness, its lack of flavor. Fantasies and nightmares never break from being told in a linear fashion. Really think about it: When you dream, it is rarely this way. Images are never this tame, storylines are never this boring. When our mind works things out, sometimes it is nonsensical. This picture cannot help but to explain, especially when antagonists reveal their motivations. This movie is not about anything. It exists simply to rake in the cash by capitalizing on the Blumhouse brand—which is depressing.

Project Power


Project Power (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

“Project Power” is “X-Men”-lite without the interesting mythology and biting social commentary. Written by Mattson Tomlin, it appears to be content in just being an action flick with some sci-fi leanings and a few corny jokes peppered along the way. While there is nothing with such an approach, there is a nagging problem: The elements it does offer seem to function at only half potential. What results is a watchable but entirely unmemorable project that by the end imaginative viewers are forced to consider possibilities had more creative, ambitious, and experienced filmmakers were at the helm. The premise is so fun, it can ignite a film franchise or television series.

The secret project involves a pill that grants superhuman powers for five minutes. In mere six weeks, this drug has completely overtaken New Orleans—so much so that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) have had much trouble taking down criminals who have access to it. The catch: the person who consumes the pill has no idea what type of power he or she will exhibit. And because the drug is unstable, some who take it will explode. This role of chance is a masterstroke and it is a shame the screenplay fails to capitalize on it.

At least the three central protagonists have personality. While Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn up the charm to expected levels—the former having been the original test subject of the project who is now on a mission to rescue his daughter (Kyanna Simone Simpson) from the villainous Dr. Gardner and the latter an NOPD cop who chooses to consume the drug in order to even out the playing field when dealing with beefed up baddies—it is Dominique Fishback who shines as Robin, a drug dealer who aspires to become a rap artist. I enjoyed moments when the picture simply sits back and allows Robin to spit out killer rhymes. It’s clear that Robin has the talent for it and so we wonder how her future might be like should she take the opportunity to leave drug dealing behind, graduate high school, and focus at who and what’s important in her life.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the picture is its aversion to human drama. For instance, Robin’s mother suffers from diabetes and so money is always an issue because they have no health insurance. But what about the emotional, psychological, and physical toll of a family dealing with this chronic illness? Another example: We never get to see Frank (Gordon-Levitt) interact with his fellow cops in the force. We get one exchange between Frank and his captain (Courtney B. Vance), but the setup and twist are entirely expected. Meanwhile, Art (Foxx) is reduced to having flashbacks of his daughter being taken from him. Clearly, more attention is put into how to make special and visual effects look cool.

Having said that, I enjoyed the CGI for the most part. The more ostentatious ones, like when a man’s entire body is ablaze and everything he touches is reduced to cinders, are certainly eye-catching, but those that impressed me most are a bit more restrained. A standout includes Frank facing off with a man with elastic limbs and they are required to battle it out in a tight space. Due to the enemy’s bizarre (and amusing) ability in addition to having such a limited room to move around, we are that much more drawn into the action. I wished, however, that the leader of the project, Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker), who works for private defense contractor Teleois, had been given more things to do outside of looking menacing and giving orders. Therein is a classic case of henchmen outshining their superior.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Project Power” delivers C+ entertainment when it is apparent the template is capable of delivering at higher levels. One angle worth exploring: Teleois targets residents of New Orleans, in which the black population is close to 60% according to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, as test subjects for the Power drug before it goes national. There are overwhelming evidence throughout history that people of color were more often used as guinea pigs since black and brown lives were considered to be more dispensable than whites lives (Tuskegee experiments, Guatemalan syphilis experiments, Project 4.1, among others). So why not acknowledge and shape a universe based upon this fact (or other well-documented, real-life issues or events) so the story commands real punch behind it? Why not strive for more?

The Pool


The Pool (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is curious that the situational horror “The Pool” opens by exercising its shoddy visual effects: a man (Theeradej Wongpuapan) at the bottom of a dried up swimming pool being hunted by a hungry crocodile. It is six meters deep; no ladder, no one else around to ask for help, no apparent means of escape. Nothing about the confrontation is believable, let alone terrifying, because it is obvious the actor is performing in front of a blue screen. But that’s what I enjoyed about it: It makes no pretense in regard to its limited budget. This first scene is a rebel yell that writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng plans to push his wild concept all the way through the finish line. However, it cannot be denied that the journey there is not always first-rate entertainment. Logic is thrown out the window one too many times in order to introduce more conflict rather than to amplify those already present, particularly when the man’s girlfriend (Ratnamon Ratchiratham) enters the equation. Tension could have been far more potent had this been a man versus nature story, not man and his girl. When not illogical, the screenplay goes for syrupy drama (cue the soap opera-like flashbacks), and eventually its anti-abortion stance gets in the way of straightforward storytelling. I felt that its edges are softened for the sake of stroking the more conservative viewers’ bubbles. The third act shows it is more than capable of treading darker territory and yet shies away last-minute. It chooses a happy ending over one that feels right for the material. By doing so, its power is lessened significantly.

Jeepers Creepers


Jeepers Creepers (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“You know the part in scary movies when somebody does something really stupid, and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

Although Trish (Gina Philips) warns her brother Darry (Justin Long) not to climb down the jutting pipe that is sitting a few feet away from the entrance of an abandoned church, he remains convinced he heard a voice down there. The person, or persons, may be in dire need of help. After all, while driving along the countryside highway just minutes earlier, Trish and Darry witnessed a man throwing what appears to be two bodies down the pipe—covered in white sheets with red stains on them—the very same man who terrorized them on the road with his souped up old truck sporting the license plate BEATNGU. Up until this point in the film, creature-feature “Jeepers Creepers,” written and directed by Victor Salva, is wonderful entertainment, expertly balancing tension and laughs as audiences are played like a piano.

However, it is let down somewhat by a soggy middle portion and an uninspired final act. The latter is especially problematic given that the more people there are on screen, the material tends to rely on the usual tropes involving cops, guns, and monsters. They shoot at the thing yet the abomination doesn’t even recoil. Naturally, cops have poor aim. And they gawk when action is required. The third act is an exercise of futility, of effects, and of tired clichés which accomplish nothing other than to sideline Philips and Long’s terrific chemistry as siblings who squabble and tease but their love for one another cannot be denied.

When stripped all the way down, an argument can be made that this is a story of a brother and sister who must face change when they least expect it. It is no accident they are university students on their way home over break. There are a few examples that denote change. There is talk about their mother being unhappy in her marriage. Trish and Darry take the long way home because Trish has just gotten out of a relationship. And soon the duo must graduate and take on the “real world.” It is no coincidence that the villain they face resurfaces every 23 years, to kill and feed. 23 is when young adults usually begin their lives and careers outside of university.

When the film focuses on Trish and Darry’s experiences out in that lonely country road, it works. Even a desperate visit to a diner has a darkly comic tinge to it. Clearly agitated and horrified, the locals simply stare at them rather than offering to help. Even the cops do not believe what Darry claims to have seen down that pipe. This supports the idea of the siblings having to face a challenge together, everyone else is decoration. But then the work begins to unspool.

I liked the look of The Creeper (Jonathan Breck), with its dark and leathery skin, sharp and stained teeth, its intimidating stature. Although it’s quite tall, it moves like a dancer. It makes sense that it is fit considering it is a hunter. Less intriguing is its apparent lack of weakness. It gets shot (pistols, shotgun). It is run over by a vehicle more than three times. It seems invincible, unstoppable. Eventually it lays dying in the middle of the highway but there is no drama because we know all too well it will get up again.

The idea of an insurmountable enemy can work, especially when it is supposed to symbolize or function as metaphor for something else, but it requires a sharp and deeply intelligent writing. However, since the screenplay is only interested in superficial thrills starting with the middle potion, the monster that won’t die feels more like a caricature rather than a truly formidable force. Notice how we tend to learn about it through secondhand tales rather than simply showing us.

Jaws


Jaws (1975)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Many of today’s horror movies, especially those with bloated budgets, have proven one too many times that there is nothing particularly scary about people being killed on screen. They may be gruesome, ugly, bloody, or especially violent—perhaps all of the above—but real scares, those that crawl their way into the mind and attach themselves there, are often confused with evanescent jolts or shocks. They can learn a thing or ten from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” based upon Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel (who also penned the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb), not because it is the granddaddy of summer blockbusters nor due to its reputation as being one of the all-time scariest movies. The reason is far simpler: It is pure craft from top to bottom.

When we finally lay our eyes on that great white shark, we do not see a mechanical, malfunction-prone prop. We see a living, breathing, eating machine—teeth the size of shot glasses—a real threat to those living and vacationing on Amity Island during the Fourth of July weekend. On the surface, the shark “appears” (we do not actually see its full body until late in the picture) every fifteen to twenty minutes to eat—or try to eat—people. But really look at what’s happening. These suspenseful and thrilling expository sequences are designed so that Spielberg can feed us information about the twenty-five foot, three ton creature.

For instance, the first scene involving a teenage girl who goes skinny dipping at night tells us the creature’s level of stealth. Although it is quiet out there in the ocean—minimal wind, no boat or planes passing by, and the girl herself isn’t even madly splashing about—she is not able to detect the shark coming… until its jaws are latched onto her leg and she is being dragged to and fro. Another example: the scene involving two fishermen at the jetty who think they can catch the shark nilly-willy. This sequence is meant to show the shark’s sheer power. I can go on. Later, we are forced to appreciate the shark’s intelligence. Then much later, its tricky instinct. We learn why it is an apex predator. Then it gets real scary: The second half combines all of its traits (supported by John Williams’ unforgettable score), and we watch spellbound.

There is another monster in the film—human greed. Despite pieces of human body parts being washed ashore, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) insists that the beaches remain open. He pretends to care about the local business owners and yet he is often surrounded by men in suits, men in power, men who have a stake on the local economy, perhaps men also elected in local office. Our hero is Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a recent transplant from New York City who wishes to do the right thing for his new community. Not only does he need to face bureaucracy, he must also wrestle against ignorance.

Scheider is wonderful in the role. His interpretation of Brody reeks of goodness at first glance, and he is a good person, but the character’s more complex layers are revealed during quiet moments with his family (sometimes with a drink in hand), when he listens closely to the expert opinion of enthusiastic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss—terrific), when he looks at the cantankerous shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw—a scene-stealer) and try to make sense why the man in front of him is the way he is. This trio of vastly different personalities and temperaments is great entertainment—take away the shark and there is comedy a-brewing.

“Jaws” is the kind of work that one can visit every year and it never gets old. It is timeless precisely because it gets the island setting right, from the streets where vehicles are mere inches from one another… yet there remains a positive feeling in the air, inside establishments where people can be heard talking over one another (notice how some lines of dialogue do not have anything to do with the plot), down to how it is really like simply sunbathing at the beach—the gleeful screaming of children, adults gossiping and cackling, sloshing of the water, revving of motorboats, when the wind picks up just a little. “Jaws” is entertainment of the highest order not just because elements that make up a genre movie are present; it actively works to transport us into a time and place as if we live there.