Tag: joe johnston

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.

Captain America: The First Avenger


Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.

Jumanji


Jumanji (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

The constantly bullied Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) was the son of an emotionally distant factory owner (Jonathan Hyde) who stumbled upon a magical board game called Jumanji. After a row with his father about being sent to boarding school, he rolled the dice and he was sucked into the game and lived in the jungle for 26 years. The new residents (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) of the former Parrish mansion then found the game and started playing, all the while unaware of the dangerous situations of which they were about to face. With the help of Alan and his crush (now 26 years older played by Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt), the four had to finish the game in order restore peace in their town. “Jumanji” was one of those films I watched so many times when I was a kid because I couldn’t get enough of its manic energy and wondrous sense of adventure. It had emotional resonance for me because the heart of the picture was the bond between the father and the son and at the time my dad was in America while my mom, brother and I were in the Philippines. Every time I saw the movie, I thought about my dad and how much I missed him. I identified with Dunst’s character–how imaginative she was and how she had to take care of her brother. I guess it helped that Pierce looked somewhat like my brother with his curly hair and wisecracks. One of the elements I found to be most effective in the film was its increasing amount of danger every time a character rolled the dice. The board game started off with giant African bats and only became more impressive from there. I found my eyes being fixated on the screen in suspense just in case something would suddenly pop out from nowhere. To balance the excitement and suspense, the picture also had a great sense of humor. I loved the small details like a rhinoceros being barely able to keep up during the stampede, Hyde also playing the villainous Van Pelt whose goal was to kill Alan (talk about father-son issues), all the looting that happened in stores when the town was in absolute chaos, and even the dated CGI (those creepy monkeys!) was all part of the fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but it didn’t dumb down the material for its audiences so it became a solid popcorn entertainment. The film could have been stronger if it had more scenes between Alan when he was a kid and his father. There was a real pain and sadness in their strained relationship. The revelations that happened much later would have been more moving and bittersweet. For a movie being older than 15 years, “Jumanji,” based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Joe Johnston, is still fresh and better than most kid-friendly adventure movies out there today.

The Wolfman


The Wolfman (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Set in a Victorian-era Great Britain, “The Wolfman” told Lawrence Talbot’s (Benicio Del Toro) horrific transformation and the bloody mayhem he caused after surviving a werewolf attack. Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins also star as Lawrence’s delicate sister-in-law and mysterious father. I think this movie would have benefited greatly if it had a shorter running time. Even though the middle portion had a number of exciting scenes with bucketloads of blood and body parts flying around, it lagged because the character development felt forced. It was almost as if the movie was following a pattern of one werewolf attack after fifteen to twenty minutes of dull conversations. The acting also could have used a bit more consistency: I felt like Blunt was stuck in a sappy romantic period piece, Hopkins doing another rendition of his character in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Del Toro was left in the middle of it all and sometimes looking confused. As for the werewolf hunter played buy Hugo Weaving, I found it difficult to root for him (or were we even supposed to?) because he lacked charm and power. He was just desperate and angry throughout the entire film and I needed to see another dimension. Moreover, I found the flashback scenes to be completely unnecessary (and irksome). Instead of cutting those out and leaving the audiences to interpret what they think happened in the past (the character did a lot of talking so the pieces were certainly there), everything was spelled out so the picture lacked a much-needed subtlety. However, there were a few stand-out scenes that I thought had real sense of dread: when Del Toro rushed into the fog to rescue a gypsy kid from the werewolf and all we could see were rocks and fog, the scene in the asylum where doctors from all over gathered to witness a “cured” man who “thought’ he was a werewolf, and the scene where Del Toro first transformed into a monster. Like most horror movies, even though this picture delivered the gore and the violence, it lacked focus because the writing was not strong enough. There was a lack of a natural flow from one scene to the next so the film at times felt disjointed and I was left to evaluate where we were in the story instead of focusing on what was happening on screen at the time. “The Wolfman,” directed by Joe Johnston, was a nice attempt at a solid horror film about cursed humans who were slaves to the full moon but it ultimately came up short. It’s not a bad DVD rental but I wouldn’t rush to see it in theaters.