Tag: sam neill

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.

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?

Evil Angels

Evil Angels (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Lindy (Meryl Streep) and Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill), along with their three children, two boys and a baby girl, decide to visit the outback and camp at Ayers Rock overnight. While enjoying a barbecue, Lindy thinks it does no harm to leave her nine-week-old daughter in their tent while the infant sleeps. When Lindy returns to the barbecue area, only a couple of feet away, they hear a baby-like noise. When the mother checks on her child, she discovers a dingo rummaging about the tent. It runs away, but the baby is nowhere to be found. What is found are blood stains all over sleeping bags. The baby is eventually found dead and the Chamberlains are thrown into a media frenzy with claims of Lindy murdering her child and Michael being an accessory.

“Evil Angels,” also known as “A Cry in the Dark,” is based on a true story supporting the idea that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Although the film follows a familiar set-up involving a tragedy, the gathering of evidence, and the eventual courtroom interrogation, it remains a highly engaging experience because the answers and emotions that the screenplay chooses to tackle are consistently given enough shades of doubt that we want to arrive at our own conclusions. Many viewers, including myself, may be aware of the court rulings and what has come to light but having knowledge about it does not lessen the experience—a testament to the skill and thought behind Robert Caswell and Fred Schepisi’s writing.

The manipulation of the media becomes a character in the film. Naturally, the media will want to cover and report what has transpired in Ayers Rock to the Australian public. But there comes a time when we wonder at which point the reporters and journalists have crossed the line. The editing is swift and to the point, so insidious and numbing that it is almost like watching a bacteriophage invading a healthy cell to make more copies of itself. The more word-of-mouth is expressed, the more ridiculous theories are created. Since ordinary people react so strongly, in one instance folks claiming that “the dingo is innocent” with an underlying emphasis on an animal’s life having more value than a person’s, the people responsible of what is shown on television and radio stations, magazines, and newspapers want to give them more. It then becomes about economy rather than searching for the truth and doing what’s right for the people who happened to have this tragedy inflicted upon them.

More interesting is the fact that Lindy and Michael are very open in sharing what they think happened prior to the disappearance of their newborn. Being a part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and faith being an important part of the couple’s identity, it seems as though they consider it their role to express their grief as a chance to help others. I do not agree with the way they deal with their situation, but the filmmakers work to make us want to understand and feel compassion for the Chamberlains even though we might deal with the same problem in a different manner.

Streep showcases her range by embodying a scalding frostiness during her character’s interviews, which fuels the public’s opinion of Lindy being a CHB, and warmth as well as sense of humor when she’s solely with family and friends. Neill is not as versatile, sometimes hitting false notes when expressing grief, but he holds his own against Streep especially during the scene when his wife, very pregnant, is roasting while Michael is freezing and wishes to turn the air conditioner off. Their argument may appear to be about the air conditioner but I reckon it’s about how angry and frustrated they are for being scrutinized in everything they do. I wish there had been more scenes like that because it serves as a reminder that the film, directed by Fred Schepisi and based on the novel by John Bryson, is a human story first and an infamous case second.

In the Mouth of Madness

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator who bears a slight resemblance to hard-boiled detectives in noir pictures, has a reputation of having the best nose for sniffing out a con. This captures the attention of Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), publisher of a highly popular book series, and John is hired to look into the sudden disappearance of their most valuable horror author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).

His last published novel, “The Hobb’s End Horror,” has incited very strange behavior from its readers, from random acts of extreme violence to self-mutilation. John, a man of total practicality, deduces such incidences as a form of mass hysteria. But that was before he stepped in a town called Hobb’s End, eerily similar to Cane’s novel.

Although the individual early scenes of “In the Mouth of Madness,” written by Michael De Luca, are relatively well-written, they failed to leave a lasting impression on me. I think the problem is that there are too many discussions about fiction versus non-fiction and fantasy versus reality that the material ends up unhinged from its basic horror elements. Philosophy, in the beginning, overshadows the terrible thing that is unfolding in front of—or within—everybody.

When characters declare “No, this is reality!” with so much passion, it often feels misplaced. The constant hyperboles make an otherwise compelling material into a joke. Since the happenings surrounding the so-called mass hysteria are already exaggerated, the actors having to scream and overact feel phony and unnecessary.

However, the picture’s strength lies in the latter half: the scenes that take place in and around Hobb’s End. The image of a boy, suddenly turning into an old man, riding a bicycle in the middle of the night on the freeway while Linda (Julie Carmen) and John search for elusive town gave me chills. When Linda is forced to interact with the old man, equipped with a voice of a little boy, I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare so twisted, I was reminded of horror movies’ sheer power, sans blood, screaming, and torture, to invoke such a visceral reaction.

The scene is effective because the filmmakers are able to find a synergy between the odd but horrifying images, the unsettling playfulness of sound and silence, and our jaded expectations, at the same time subverting them in such a way that the product, the scare, does not feel cheap. Afterwards, I found it so difficult to dispel the images from my head. It certainly is something that I would not want to think about when I’m driving at night and there are not a lot of other cars on the road.

Hobb’s End feels like it came right out of a Stephen King novel. There is definitely something sinister brewing just below the placid and unpopulated streets. A group of kids chasing a dog with intent to harm it stands out. So does a hotel painting that seems to change each time an observer turns his back from it.

Directed by John Carpenter, “In the Mouth of Madness,” though repetitive at times, manages to keep me guessing. While some would criticize it for its cheap-looking special effects and make-up, I counter that its ability to incite horror has endured. Most horror films like to use comedy as a presage to horror. In here, with just the right dosages, the opposite is observed even with a bloody eye.

In Her Skin

In Her Skin (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Rachel Barber (Kate Bell) was a young woman who had a lot of promise: she was a talented dancer, had an effervescent personality, had a lot of friends, and her family (Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto) loved her. On the other hand, Caroline Reed (Ruth Bradley) felt abandoned by her family (Sam Neill, Rebecca Gibney) which resulted to her eventual self-loathing and crippling depression. Caroline babysat Rachel and her sisters back when they used to be neighbors. Out of jealousy, Caroline lured Rachel to her apartment with a promise in making a quick buck. When she had the opportunity, Caroline came from behind and choked Rachel until she could no longer breathe. Realizing that it was unlike their daughter to not call when she was expected, the Barber household went to the police but their missing person claim was assumed to be just another runaway case. Based on a true story, “In Her Skin,” also known as “I Am You,” wasn’t as strongly executed as it should have been so even though it was based on a true story, I kept wondering, “So what?” The acting, at least in the beginning, felt like it was taken off a bad Lifetime movie. Pearce and Otto either overacted or underacted which was, at times, accidentally comedic. However, the film came into focus and slowly gained dramatic gravity when we were given the chance to observe how disturbed Caroline really was. She craved attention from her father but he didn’t have the heart to admit to himself that he didn’t like spending time with her daughter because she was clingy and highly dependent. He resulted to classic avoidance instead of sitting down with her and talking about their issues which led Caroline into believing that her mother was the reason for all the tension in the family. At work, Caroline was unstable and prone to fits. Her friends used her as a means of convenience. No one respected her on a deep level so she learned to become more comfortable in her fantasy world. She admitted that she wasn’t happy because she was fat and ugly. Perhaps. But I reckon the problem was the fact that she equated happiness with everything having to be perfect. Written and directed by Simone North, I liked that the film tried to make sense, from the perspective of a murderer, of something that was inherently senseless. Yes, it showcased Caroline as annoying, detestable, and hopeless but she wasn’t one-dimensional. Bradley did a good job. I felt her characters’ sadness when she was alone in her room desperately wishing for a better life and her temporary happiness when she earned her father’s approval. The murder scene was raw. It wasn’t meant to be titillating. It was meant to be ugly and it was. “In Her Skin” could inspire audiences to turn the movie off or walk away because of the first few scenes’ unnecessary melodrama. But I say give it a chance. It had an interesting take on being both about a loss of a child and attempting to understand the horror, and ultimately sad reality, of mental illness.

The Vow

The Vow (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A truck smashed into a couple’s car while on their way home from a romantic night out. Leo (Channing Tatum) suffered a few injuries, but Paige (Rachel McAdams) had severe brain hemorrhaging so the doctors thought it would be wise to keep her in a coma until her brain had a bit of time to recover. When Paige woke up, she had no memory of Leo, including getting married to him and moving to the city to pursue her career as an artist. She remembered being in law school, being engaged to a man named Jeremy (Scott Speedman), and living a completely different lifestyle prior to the accident. Inspired by a true story, “The Vow,” based on the screenplay by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, offered several good scenes because it was able to capitalize on the chemistry between Tatum and McAdams, but certain plot mechanisms were so obviously designed to make us feel sorry for the couple and angry toward everyone else. Take Rita (Jessica Lange) and Bill (Sam Neill), Paige’s parents, as an example. We were given background information that Paige hadn’t spoken or seen them in years for reasons yet unknown to us. When the parents arrived at the hospital, it was difficult to get to know their characters, as if the material wasn’t at all willing to give them a chance. They were so serious, tight-lipped, and stern. Every time they opened their mouths, it was about chastising Leo for not calling and letting them know that their daughter had been involved in a terrible accident and attempting to get their daughter to live away from her husband. Because that scene–and others of its type–was so manipulative, it was difficult not to consider more realistic reactions. While the parents would still probably be angry with Leo for not being informed, wouldn’t they also have felt some sort of relief knowing that Paige was still alive? Since the parents were pigeonholed as villains for the majority of the time, the script lost the necessary complexities in the human drama: the disapproving parents seizing a new chance to lead a new life with their wayward daughter at the cost of Leo and Paige’s marriage and Paige’s personal struggle to put together the pieces of a life she had great trouble remembering. If the relationships had been messier, like life, it could have been much more compelling. However, the film was not without moments of truth. This may sound kinky but I found the scene where Leo passed gas in the car and Paige, to my horror, actually pulled up her window so she could bask in the stink. While most people would consider such a thing as downright disgusting, I found it romantic because it felt real. It may not have been subtle but it was an effective symbol of complete acceptance. If your partner is willing to sit with you during the good, the bad, and the unsavory vapors, I say your partner is a keeper. And why shouldn’t there be more unpleasant scenes like that portrayed in serious romantic dramas? I’d rather watch a well-placed fart scene than a series of monotonous seriousness where I find myself sitting passively, desperately waiting to be surprised. “The Vow,” directed by Michael Sucsy, was at times too constrained by what people come to expect from a romantic drama, punctuated by bright moments when it seemed free to do whatever felt right for the material. Because of the push and pull, the film was uneven but it was far from a mess.

Event Horizon

Event Horizon (1997)
★ / ★★★★

A spaceship designed by a scientist named Dr. William Wier (Sam Neill) reappeared near Neptune after disappearing for seven years. The scientist boarded a rescue ship with its crew of specialists (Joely Richardson, Kathleen Quinlan, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Perwee) which was led by the domineering Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). When the eight finally boarded the mysterious Event Horizon, the original crew was nowhere to be found. However, their advanced instruments detected a life form supposedly located all over the ship. What I first noticed about the movie was its great visuals. Unfortunately, it had nothing else to offer. The movie succumbed to typicalities such as the rescuers being targeted one by one as if they were stuck in a bad slasher film. I think the picture was more interested in generating scares than taking advantage of its creepy setting and the science that is currently out of our reach. It was a crucial problem because I noticed that the majority of the time, the characters were haunted by hallunications. For smart and supposedly well-trained people, I found it hard to believe that they could not detach themselves from the idea that the loved ones they left on Earth were actually on the ship or that someone from their past had come back for revenge. What I expected for the movie to focus on was the possible gateway to another dimension. Space is limitless and thefore open to many kinds of interpretation. I thought it was a wasted opportunity that the writer, Philip Eisner, took the obvious path–a formula that consisted of nothing but blood and violence. Everything was spoon-fed for us and that was one of its biggest crimes. I knew exactly when something would pop out or when someone would die. It was not a fun experience because I felt like it didn’t even try to do something creative. Toward the end, it was plagued with cheesy one-liners and the filmmakers failed to wrap up the story in a respectable way. It seemed like they knew that they made a disappointing movie and just tossed it aside. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, “Event Horizon” is a science fiction film that might have been exposed to a black hole because all of the potentially wondorous elements had been sucked out of it. It didn’t have the bravado to challenge us, to ask questions about its characters and their mission and, most importantly, it didn’t make us think about how we would cope if we were given the same situation because it failed to pause from all the senseless action.


Daybreakers (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

It was year 2019 and vampires have taken over the world while humans were forced to hide because the creatures of the night hunted and used them for blood. Now faced with a shortage of blood because there were more vampires than humans, a hematologist (Ethan Hawke), a vampire who also sympathized with humans, aimed to create a blood substitute that could solve vampires’ problems. However, the leader (Sam Neill) of the company in which the hematologist worked for and the hematologist’s brother (Michael Dorman) himself had other plans. This movie had an interesting take on vampire movies because, like “28 Days Later” in terms of zombies, it related vampirism to a disease because it talked about having a cure. That scientific angle fascinated me, even though not 100% of it made sense in the end, and appreciated that it tried to do something new with the genre. Hawke did a great job as a man who, ten years being a vampire, hated what he had become because he did not want to become a vampire in the first place. I enjoyed his interactions with Claudia Karvan, as a human who led a resistance against vampires, and Willem Dafoe, as a vampire who accidentally turned human. The action sequences where exciting, thrilling and sometimes startling because it went in directions I did not expect. I just wished that the picture had a stronger last twenty minutes. It felt anticlimactic instead of urgent (especially if the fate of the planet boiled down to one showdown) and the abrupt ending left much to be desired. I was not quite certain whether it was setting itself up for a sequel or we were supposed to be hopeful for what would happen next. The ending needed a defined tone but it did not have a chance to reach a certain point because the filmmakers did not allow it to simmer. “Daybreakers,” written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, caught my attention and managed to keep it because it had grand and creative ideas about vampirism. It had its weak moments such as introducing a politician who was not explored in any way but it also had strong moments showing how far vampires would go to get food. Perhaps it took itself too seriously at times (it certainly would have benefited if it had taken some pages energy-wise from “Zombieland”) but I could not help but admire how dedicated it was with its new concepts.