BARE BONES: SUPER 8 (2011)

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SUPER 8 (2011)

Super 8 is J.J. Abrams’ homage to the 80s coming of age genre flicks like E.T., Stand By Me and The Monster Squad. While it is an entertaining homage, it isn’t an overwhelming one. Like all copies, there is something lacking in Super 8 that keeps it from joining the ranks of the original films it so lovingly tries to recreate. The film takes place in 1979 with young wannabe filmmaker Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Preston (Zach Mills), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Cary (Ryan Lee) and Alice (Elle Fanning) making a super 8 movie near a set of railroad tracks. They witness the crash of a mysterious train and soon find that it unleashed an extraterrestrial creature into their midst, one whom the government had imprisoned and wants back. The military now hunts the creature throughout their town, while the alien being is trying to find a way home…all with Joe and his friends caught in the middle.

Technically, Super 8 is an extremely well made movie as Abrams is one of the best technical directors out there. His script also has all the traditions and tropes present for this type of movie. The FX are state of the art, though FX do not a classic make. Sadly, Super 8 is not a classic, though it wants to be. The main characters are likable and have some emotional depth, while the military bad guys are appropriately slimy. They are proper representations of the types of characters we’ve seen before in those 80s classics, but none of them are particularly strong, or really stand out to any degree on their own. They serve their purpose in the story, but they are not memorable like E.T.’s Elliot or even Goonies’ Chunk. The alien creature is nicely designed, but ultimately just another generic monster. It’s never given a personality. The story of a group of young wannabe filmmakers coming up against an escaped extraterrestrial creature is functional enough, but we’ve seen it all before…the misunderstood creature, the bad guy military officer, the cop’s kid…and while that’s on purpose, it still feels more like an imitation than a recreation. Super 8 does entertain, but it doesn’t have the charm or that something special that made the films it honors the classics they are. This actually comes as a surprise as Abrams’ Star Trek reboot had all those things right. The characters  were familiar, yet new, the story and feel were both classic Trek and yet refreshingly up to date. So why he didn’t accomplish the same here, is a bit of a mystery.

It’s still recommended as an entertaining popcorn flick, especially if you are a fan of the type of movies it evokes. It’s just sadly not as special as those films which it respectfully pays homage to. It’s heart is in the right place, it just needed a bit more of a soul. The solid cast also includes Kyle Chandler (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) as Joe’s Deputy Sheriff father and Noah Emmerich as the military bad guy Colonel Nelec.

 

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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REVIEW: JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

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JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

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The latest installment of the franchise takes place three years after the disastrous opening of Jurassic World. A volcano on Isla Nublar has become dangerously active and the U.S. government declines to save the animals still there. John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) asks Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to join a rescue mission to save the dinosaurs from the doomed island and to convince her ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to join them. Once on the island Claire, Owen and their team are betrayed and they discover that this “rescue mission” has a far more sinister purpose.

Fallen Kingdom is directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish filmmaker behind the atmospheric and spooky haunted house flick The Orphanage and the bittersweet fantasy A Monster Calls. His script is by previous installment director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connor, who co-wrote the last one, as well. The result is a more Gothic feel to the proceedings, especially when the location switches to Lockwood’s old mansion with genetics lab and creature holding cells in the basement a la Dr. Frankenstein. From here It becomes a tale of man’s greed and trying to play god…again. The Indominous Rex taught these greedy corporate types nothing and now we have the genetically created dino-soldier the Indoraptor to serve as our predator of choice for this flick. After the escape from the burning island…which is a very entertaining set-piece in itself, the flick becomes more of a James Bond movie with dinosaurs. The second third finds Claire and Owen sneaking around the castle-like mansion with Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), trying to find a way to stop the sale of and genetic tampering with the last survivors of Isla Nublar. It’s not quite as fun as the last flick, but at least they are trying to take the series in a new direction and we actually get off the island. The last act has the skilled director Bayona going back to his haunted house roots with a cat and mouse chase through the dark and cavernous mansion between our heroes and the Indoraptor, with a very exciting and very Gothic rooftop finale. Overall it is an entertaining flick, though a bit darker, a bit more violent and somewhat less fun than Jurassic World.

The cast is fine, even if the bad guys are complete two-dimensional stereotypes. Pratt and Howard still have that chemistry as Owen and Claire and having them broken-up gives us a chance to experience their combative banter and then having them fall for each other all over again. Young Isabella Sermon is endearing as Maisie, Lockwood’s young granddaughter with some secrets of her own. Rafe Spall, Ted Levine and Toby Jones are the trio of bad guys as Lockwood’s conniving assistant, a soldier for hire and a black market dinosaur dealer respectively. While the characters are familiar and stale, the actors give it their best. Cromwell is charming as the elder Lockwood, who is having his dream corrupted right out from under him. Rounding out the main characters are Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda playing Claire’s IT tech Franklin and dinosaur veterinarian Zia, respectively and they are fun characters well portrayed. We also get a nice cameo with Jeff Goldblum reprising his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm and B.D. Wong returns as slimy Dr. Wu. A good cast though some characters are better written than others.

Jurassic World gave this series a bit of revived energy and while this installment is a bit less fun, it does take the series to some new places and Bayona gives it a darker and more Gothic tone, as well as, his trademark visual artistry. On the negative side, the whole predator du jour chasing our heroes is getting stale, as is genetically whipping up new creatures like ordering a pizza. The dinosaur auction was interesting, but one wonders where the authorities stand on black market dinosaur flea markets. Guess it’s too soon to approach that side of the story. It was fun to see Clair and Owen and company playing James Bond in this massive Victorian Mansion, as we also enjoyed the film leaving us at a point where we wonder if mankind’s meddling might get us slapped back to the stone age. Stay through the credits.

-MonsterZero NJ

  Rated 3 T-Rex

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REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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Simply put, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. The film does have a few flaws, but the last act is some of the best Star Wars you’ll see and some of the most exciting action in the saga’s illustrious 40 year history. It feels far more like a Star Wars film than J.J. Abrams’ weak and disappointing Force Awakens. Film is a prequel that tells the story of The Rebellion’s discovery that The Empire is building a super weapon that we fans will come to know and love as The Death Star. The film traces the efforts to get to a key scientist, Gaylen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is reluctantly working on the project and has warned them of it’s creation. They do this by tracking down and freeing his rebellious daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones) from an imperial prison and sending her on a mission with a rag tag group of rebels to find him and discover a weakness in this weapon of mass destruction. Circumstances then lead Jyn and company to go against rebel command orders and infiltrate an imperial outpost and steal the plans for this planet killer, all the while with the Death Star’s project director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in hot pursuit.

Flick is well directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) who brings far more of a Star Wars feel to this than the mediocre Force Awakens, even with it’s darker and edgier tone and new characters. The script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy creates a story about incidents mentioned briefly in a few of the previous flicks, yet integral to A New Hope’s classic climax ever occurring. The story also gives us the opportunity to revisit some familiar faces, such as Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), an incredible CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Stephen Stanton) and Darth Vader himself (James Earl Jones returns to voice while Spencer Wilding wears the suit), aside from creating a group of new and very endearing characters such as Jyn, rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), smart aleck robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and Hong Kong cinema legend Donnie Yen as blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who is like a Shaolin Monk who follows The Force. And it’s these endearing new faces that give Rogue One some nice emotional depth that the series hasn’t had in quite some time. The film also takes us to new places that actually look like alien worlds unlike Force Awakens’ dull settings and the action is fast and furious, especially in the amazing last act. If the film has any flaws, it’s that the first half sometimes appears a bit choppy and rushed as it races to the spectacular second half, but the climax is so exciting that you can forgive a slightly uneven start. And that’s what makes this work so well and where director Edwards really shines, is that he makes the last act so incredibly suspenseful, even though we know it’s outcome, as this is a set-up for the climax of Episode IV after all. But we like this motley band of rebels so much and the action presented so well, that we are on the edge of our seats rooting for them as they go up against incredible odds by entering a hornets nest to retrieve those now legendary Death Star plans. The film has one of the most effecting endings of any Star Wars film and leaves us at a point that will have fans in Force induced elation, while leaving not a dry eye in the theater. The SPFX representing this story are impeccable, in recreating ships and places both familiar and new and Michael Giacchino gives us an original score which still evokes a Star Wars film, even without the magnificent work of maestro John Williams.

Character-wise, the film is filled with endearing new additions to the series canon, with Felicity Jones carrying the film well on her petite shoulders as Jyn. She is a true heroine in the Star Wars mold, strong, rebellious and intelligent and Jones really makes her memorable and proves herself quite an action hero and a certified star. Diego Luna is likable as Captain Cassian Andor, rebel intelligence officer and the man sent to command this desperate mission. He isn’t quite as strong as his leading lady and does get overshadowed by she and some of the supporting cast, such as Donnie Yen, who is a delight as the scene stealing Chirrut Îmwe and his compatriot Baze Malbus, a mercenary played with charisma by Jiang Wang. Mendelsohn also makes a great bad guy and his leering menace makes him a good fit along with Vader and Tarkin, who he holds his own with. A strong villain always makes a flick like this work better and Krennic is a good villain. If any character is underdeveloped and weak it’s Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, a warrior and friend of Gaylen Erso, who has an air of nobility and mystery, but we never really get to know him very well before the character is left behind in the action. It’s a shame, as he was intriguing and Whitaker was good in a different role for the versatile actor. As for Mikkelsen, his Gaylen Erso has brief screen time, but the actor makes an impression as he always does…and let’s not forget the voice work of the talented Alan Tudyk as smart-ass droid K-2SO.

A few flaws early on in the pacing and flow of the film aside, this is simply one of the best of the Star Wars films. True it’s not technically part of the main series, but it’s a spin-off that carries the best of what this series is so beloved for. It has noble heroes, spectacular action, vile villains and a wonderful sense of nostalgia that The Force Awaken’s just didn’t have. It has a strong Star Wars feel, despite a darken and edgier tone and a last act that is simply some of the best action and suspense this series has yet to offer. It gives us some great new characters, while presenting the return of some classic characters, both expected and not. We are treated to a story that sets a major part of Episode IV in motion and leaves us at a truly euphoric moment in Star Wars history, even after giving us a sequence that will leave nary a dry eye in the house. One of the best films of 2016 and one of the best films of the entire Star Wars series.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Death Stars.

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REVIEW: JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

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JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

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Jurassic World is by far the best of the sequels to Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book and wisely ignores the previous two films, being a direct sequel to the first movie. The story takes place about 20 years after the Jurassic Park disaster with Isla Nublar now having been reopened as a fully functional theme park with genetically recreated dinosaurs on display for thousands of visitors. There is a new owner, Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and a new manager of operations, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Now that dinosaurs are a common sights at the park, though, Masrani and his investors have sanctioned geneticist Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) to create genetic crossbreeds to keep attendance up. One of those creations is the Indominus Rex, a hybrid between a T-Rex and another species that is obvious, but, I won’t spoil. She is fierce and fiercely intelligent and makes an escape initiating a killing spree of man and beast alike as she heads toward a full-to-capacity park. Now Claire must team with ex-Navy man and raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) to find the monster and rescue her nephews Gray and Zach (Ty Insidious Simpkins and Nick Robinson) who are visiting and have become trapped in the creature’s kill zone.

Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow takes over the reigns this time, armed with a script from himself and co-writers Derek Connor, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa. The result is a fun popcorn flick, but, one that could have had a bit more intensity and excitement considering how much action there is. The film is enjoyable and sets up some fun action set-pieces but, it isn’t till the last act when Indominus Rex reaches the park and has a free-for-all with a squad of trained raptors and a very familiar face that it really delivered the thrills that should have started when the vicious lady escapes her pen. Treverrow has certainly delivered a technically sound and fast moving movie but, some of the action scenes feel a bit by-the-numbers for this series and the Indominus Rex is never quite as frightening as she should be. Treverrow needs to remember that this is the fourth time around and we basically have seen it all before. Much like with Jurassic World’s customers, this has all become very familiar. Dinosaurs loose in park, people running and screaming, yadda yadda yadda…been there done that. It’s well-orchestrated but, Treverrow really doesn’t shake things up too much outside the Jurassic Park movie formula to really glue us to our seats. I had a good time but, the wow factor has definitely been deluded. Maybe it’s not all he and his co-writers fault, but, the Indominus Rex and Pratt’s squad of trained raptors aren’t quite enough to make it totally fresh and make us feel like we did when Spielberg first revealed his critters 22 years ago. It’s the lack of wonder that really holds this back from being on more equal footing with the first film. Technically the film looks great with strong production design, great SPFX and a bunch of fun easter eggs for fans of the original. Michael Giacchino takes over on scoring duties but, incorporates elements of John Williams’ original score and John Schwartzman gives the film a nice look as cinematographer.

As for our players, the large cast do very well in helping the story along. Sure most of the characters are clichés but, they work within the context of an old-style monster movie, which this is at heart. Howard is a solid heroine as the rigid, work-obsessed Claire who learns to loosen up and care more about those around her…as she is being chased by an enormous genetically created monster. Pratt is full of charm as the tough but, kind Owen who has a crush on Claire and continually tries to melt the ice queen’s heart. He is a solid action hero, yet has a sense of humor about him and does remind me a bit of Harrison Ford, so, rumors he may be the new Indy don’t sound hard to believe. Khan plays Masrani like Attenborough did Hammond. A entrepreneur with a heart and he is likable. Vincent D’Onofrio is the genetics company InGen’s security head, Hoskins, who has is own agenda concerning the island’s inhabitants. He’s a pro and makes a good human bad guy as does Wong’s pompous and untrustworthy geneticist. Simpkins and Robinson are likable as Gray and Zach, Claire’s troublesome nephews. The two avoid annoying movie kid syndrome and that makes them OK with me. The cast of multiple CGI critters are, obviously, still the reason we see these movies and the raptors especially have some personality as do some of the new faces like the massive Mosasaurus.

This was a fun movie and certainly better than Lost World or Part 3. Trevorrow and his writers don’t stray very far from the JP formula and that keeps this from having the sense of WOW or wonder that it needs to really crank it up to 11. The action is plentiful but, doesn’t really start to impress till the last act when our villainous hybrid is finally tracked down and the really intense action begins. The Indominous Rex could have had more impact and character, but, is far more sufficient a bad guy than the bland Spinosaurus we got last time. Overall, though, it is a fun monster movie with top notch SPFX and still entertained very well despite being the fourth in a series that has yet to really expand it’s boundaries. Recommended as a good popcorn flick and a treat for JP fans who were disappointed by the last two visits.

-MonsterZero NJ

  3 and 1/2 T-Rex

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REVIEW: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

I really enjoyed Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, it was an inventive way to reboot the series by going back to the very beginning and re-inventing it from there. It was well acted, solidly directed and gave the series a good start with plenty of material to be covered before the films even progressed to what we saw in the original classics. The movie was a critical and box-office success and thus the series is being continued.

The sequel picks up 10 years after the virus, that began in Rise, has decimated a massive amount of the human population. The apes, led by Caesar, (Andy Serkis) have started a community deep in the California wilderness where they are living a relatively peaceful existence and have seen no humans for years… until now. A small band of humans led by a man named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) happens upon the apes territory and after an accidental wounding of one of the apes, are sent fleeing. The apes follow them back to San Francisco where they find a human colony still exists and one that is well armed. Caesar goes there with an army as a warning to the humans to stay away from the apes’ home. But, Malcolm begs Caesar to allow the humans to work at dam nearby their village, to restore electricity to the human colony which is running out of fuel. Caesar agrees in an effort to promote peace but, as Malcolm and the ape leader form a fragile alliance, fear on the human side and hatred on the other side in the form of an ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell), threaten to not only end that peace but, elicit all out war.

Sequel is this time directed by Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves who does a great job of creating a film that is it’s own movie yet, still fits in with the previous chapter. Reeves gives the film some very strong dramatic weight while not skimping on the action or suspense and it has a really effective look of a world where nature has grown over cities formally populated by people. The script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver takes it’s time to establish the characters, especially all the new human ones, and where the world stands at this time. It also achieves this as the story moves forward and thus we get the information we need as part of that story and the film never needs to stop for exposition. A lot is achieved in it’s 130 minute running time and the film has a brisk pace and yet, covers all the ground it needs to. The action, when it comes, is exciting and very well staged and carries a lot of impact’ as well as, an epic scale. The gunfire, chases and explosions also serve the story and is never overindulgent for the sake of satisfying the Summer movie crowd. This is an intelligently written movie that also vastly entertains and should satisfy both the popcorn movie audience and those looking for a little more substance in their movie. The SPFX are flawless, for the most part and the film is wrapped in a very effective score by Michael Giacchino that evoked some of the music from the classic Apes series of the 70s. In fact the film’s story has some nice echoes of those classic 70s flicks too that will be obvious, but not obtrusive, to fans of the original series.

Also serving the story and supporting Reeves excellent direction is a great cast. Serkis’ motion capture acting for Caesar is fantastic and he gives the simian star a very emotionally expressive face and body language that really creates a three dimensional character from the CGI. The same goes for most of the ape performance actors with Kebbell’s Koba  also being strongly portrayed. Clarke makes a noble character in his Malcolm. He really wants what’s best for everyone and his pain when conflict arises seems genuine and it is understandable that he and Caesar would bond. Gary Oldman is strong as the head of the human colony, a man named Dreyfus. His leader wants what’s best for his people even if it brings war but, he is never portrayed as a villain. It’s about the survival of the human race and Oldman conveys that the man’s harsh decisions are not from hate as much as simply willing to take what his people need to live. Keri Russell plays a former CDC nurse and part of Malcolm’s team who  is a sympathetic and strong woman and one who has her inner pain too. She gives the character a nice dimensionality despite not really being all that major a part when all is said and done. The rest of the supporting cast are equally good and really add the final piece to making this a smart and highly enjoyable film.

So, a first rate sequel to a first rate reboot and a really enjoyable and entertaining movie. The script is intelligent yet, still weaves in plenty of action and it’s all brought together by a really well done directing job from Matt Reeves. When all is said and done, probably the best movie I have seen so far this summer.

3 and 1/2 Caesars.

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