Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Let me get the hottest take you’ll read in this review out of the way upfront: 1997’s The Lost World is the best film in the Jurassic Park franchise. As a technical achievement & a special effects showcase, there’s no topping the original Jurassic Park film from 1993, but The Lost World has a much more exciting, bonkers energy to it as a mean, over-the-top novelty in a way that’s always stuck with me. I prefer Spielberg when he embraces the B-movie spirit of his genre films, which are essentially $100+mil versions of Roger Corman’s schtick, instead of trying to “elevate” them into respectable material. The jump scares, suburban-invasion monster attacks, and raptor-kicking gymnastics of The Lost World strike the perfect B-movie tone needed to bring the Jurassic Park franchise into what it always pretends to be but rarely is: a series of creature features about the horrors of dinosaurs invading the modern world. I wasn’t much impressed by Colin Trevorrow’s recent soft-reboot to the franchise, Jurassic World (outside Bryce Dallas Howard’s laughably awful performance therein), but its own horror-centric sequel attempts the same B-movie revitalization that The Lost World brought to its predecessor in a way I can’t help but appreciate. Fallen Kingdom is dumber, meaner, and more over-the-top than the first Jurassic World, but it leans so heavily into the franchise’s modern world dino-horror tendencies that it feels like a remarkable improvement anyway. The only problem is that its characters & dialogue aren’t anywhere near as interesting as its big picture ideas.

Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard return as the world’s blandest romantic duo, this time with Howard’s absurdly inhuman performance zapped of its eccentricities so that she’s just as uninteresting as Pratt (although she is introduced in an audience-trolling shot that starts with her infamous high heel running shoes). They team up to rescue the world’s remaining dinosaurs from the island where the previous film was staged, as it is under the threat of a very active volcano. Unbeknownst to them, the privatized military they’re helping “rescue” these endangered dinos are actually villainous capitalists who are tasked with abducting the poor beasts only to sell them as organic weapons on the black market. This sets up a political dichotomy between bleeding-heart animal rights activists dedicated to “Save Our Dinos” and capitalist meanies who only want to ravage the earth for “easy” profit (there’s got to be a better way to make money than herding and capturing dinosaurs). The movie uses that political divide to shoehorn in some painfully unfunny anti-Trump humor with throwaway lines about “nasty women,” CNN scrolls joking about the president’s science denial, and a villainous turn from Toby Jones as a dino auctioneer with a grotesque orange-hair combover. The political humor is too vague & out-of-place to mean much of anything, except that the movie is going to age about as well as a canned fart. Likewise, the volcanic dino rescue is an over-labored setup for the movie’s much more interesting second half, even if its lava explosion action sequence does generate some memorable imagery. Fallen Kingdom opens with a punishing tedium not seen in this franchise since the doldrums of Jurassic Park III, so it’s downright miraculous that the film turns itself around enough to thrive as an over-the-top novelty horror in its second half.

All credit to Fallen Kingdom‘s back-half turnaround as a passably decent horror film goes to director J.A. Bayona (hot off the heels of his undervalued fantasy drama A Monster Calls). Outside a few moments of dino-melting volcanic mayhem in the opening stretch, Bayona treats Fallen Kingdom’s first hour as a necessary evil to bring the movie (and the dinos) to where he truly wants to go: a haunted mansion. Bayona comes alive in the film’s second half, where a dinosaur auction goes inevitably wrong and a small crew of unlikely caricatures are locked in a dark Gothic manor with loose, prehistoric monsters. The better half of Fallen Kingdom is a haunted house horror movie with dinosaurs instead of ghosts, the most exciting the franchise has seen since the suburban invasion themes of The Lost World. The way Bayona plays with odd imagery, like dino shadows being cast by lightning flashes or an encroaching claw reaching to rip a child out of the safety of their bed, is some surreal horror nonsense I can’t help but appreciate for its B-movie flavored audacity. The problem is that the movie tries way too hard to justify the indulgence in its over-labored setup (the same way Rampage over-explained a “plausible” reason for its own monster mayhem earlier this year, when it should have stuck to the simplicity of its video game source material). The script also could have used a few joke punch-ups from writers who are, you know, actually funny. Neither of these issues are necessarily Bayona’s fault, though, and the director makes the best of the material he can when he’s actually let loose to play around with the film’s Gothic horror hook (recalling an absurd revision of his much better-written haunted house film The Orphanage).

The best chance Fallen Kingdom had to be its ideal self was if it were never attached to the Jurassic Park franchise at all. It opens performing the labor of tying its haunted dino house conceit into the mess leftover from the first Jurassic World movie and “closes” by setting up a clear path for the next installment. This post-MCU dedication to franchise filmmaking is a massive burden on the movie’s shoulders, barely leaving any room for its central hook to fully deliver the goods, all for the sake of cross-film storytelling logic. Maybe this burden wouldn’t be as noticeable if the characters were more engaging or the humor successfully landed (that’s generally how it works in the MCU, anyway). As is, Fallen Kingdom barely squeaks by as an enjoyable big-budget Roger Corman descendant, when it should have been the second-best film in the franchise (after The Lost World, naturally). It’s doubtful we’ll ever get another haunted house dino horror film again, so this one’s novelty deserves to be cherished, but it’s also a shame that the opportunity was buried under so much debt to a franchise that doesn’t deserve the effort.

–Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

Son of Kong (1933)

Most discussions of cheap cash-in horror sequels are framed as if they were a phenomenon born of 70s & 80s slashers that have carried over to the modern day. The truth is that it’s a time-honored tradition almost as old as horror cinema itself. For a classic example of the shameless cash-in horror sequel, 1933’s Son of Kong serves as a fascinating specimen. Rushed to market just nine months after the 1933 creature feature classic King Kong, Son of Kong is a massive, kaiju-scale step down from masterful to cute. At a mere 70 minutes, this incredibly thin sequel aims for a lighter, more comedic tone than its predecessor to cover up the fact that it couldn’t match that picture’s scale of production. Grand sequences of stop motion spectacle depicting tribal warfare & a dinosaur stampede were cut for time & budget, leaving the film hanging without a third act. The titular monster was also a goofy echo of the original film’s infamous ape, offering audiences a cutesy, infantile version of a creature they once feared (like, less than a year earlier). Baby Kong’s adorability is almost irresistible as a novelty, though, and the film that contains him is likewise charming in its own limited, misshapen way. Like most modern horror sequels, its genuine thrills are cheap echoes of its predecessor’s former glories, but there’s something amusingly absurd about the lengths it goes to keep an already concluded story alive & open to profit.

The disappointing thing about Son of Kong is that, on a script level, it has a decent foundation for an interesting King Kong sequel. A month after the city-destroying tragedy of the previous film, Kong capturer/promotor Carl Denham is left in unfathomable debt & legal trouble for the damages caused by his now-dead super ape. It’s the logical fallout of an illogical conflict, one the movie talks itself out of as it constructs a reason for Denham to return to Skull Island to meet Kong’s orphaned baby. Exhausted by his status as a public pariah and fearful of rumored criminal indictments, Denham again sails on an explorer’s mission that leads him back to Skull Island in search of legendary (and nonexistent) treasure. There, he’s met with the consequences of his greedy transgressions in the first film: a mutinous crew that refuses to return to the dangerous island, native tribes that embargo the entrance of white colonists because of his theft, and most notably Kong’s helpless baby ape who can barely fight off the island’s other monsters as a goofball orphan with no parental projection. Denham bonds with this pitiful, adorable creature (as well as a female musician he picked up along the journey), feeling immense guilt for the harm he inadvertently caused it. The trouble is that the return of his presence on the island is still unwelcome and puts Baby Kong in just as much danger as his dead ape father.

Although the reduced shooting schedule & budget wiped out her planned third act spectacle, screenwriter Ruth Rose did a commendable job of both keeping the mood light and upping the active involvement of the female co-lead, dampening the original film’s damsel in distress dramatic impulses. The jokes are plentiful and often surprisingly funny, especially in a pure anti-comedy sequence where a musical band of trained monkeys perform for unenthused bar patrons for a relative eternity. Other deadpan reactions like “My father is dead.” “What a tough break,” and a stammering “Well, uh, captain, uh . . . about that mutiny,” also play surprisingly well as the movie often finds genuine humor without delivering outright jokes. Still, it’s difficult to determine exactly how humorous Baby Kong is intended to appear, as many of his action sequences are repeats of the exact stop-motion dino fights that served as genuine special effects spectacle in the first film. Son of Kong is essentially the opening, island-set half of King Kong without the third-act payoff of the city-destroying conclusion, except now everything is twice as goofy & half as visually impressive. The sequel unfortunately also echoed the racist impulses of the first, even adding to its depictions of native savages & undertones of interracial romance paranoia by introducing the character Charlie the Chinese Cook. As amusing as the film can be at any given moment, its faults are both plentiful and glaring.

Cheap sequels have long relied on audiences’ contentment (and even enthusiasm) for reliving former pleasures on a smaller scale and with a goofier flavor. Yes, the creature battles in King Kong are more technically impressive and lead to a more spectacular end, but Son of Kong still features a sequence where a giant ape fights a giant bear in an all-out brawl. Take your entertainment where you can get it. It also helps that the film is at times genuinely humorous in a way that suggests its overall camp value may be somewhat intentional (for those willing to be a little forgiving). It’s difficult to imagine looking at Baby Kong’s exaggerated, googly-eyed mug and suppose the filmmakers were looking to deliver a serious-serious masterpiece, even if is ultimate trajectory is dramatic. Comparing Son of Kong to the original King Kong does it no favors, but it still has an interesting enough premise for a sequel to a film that obviously didn’t need one. In this way, it persists as a mildly delightfully oddity, which has been more than enough to justify fandoms of other cheap, rushed horror sequels released in the decades since. At the very least, I’d like to submit the film’s musical monkeys scene as a genius stroke of proto-Tim & Eric anti-humor, a 90 second stretch of pure cinema bliss that more than justifies the rest of the film’s existence:

-Brandon Ledet

Magic in the Mirror (1996), Prehysteria! (1993), and the Half-Hearted Spectacle of the Moonbeam Fantasy Picture

While discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy picture Magic in the Mirror, a recurring theme in our conversation was the film’s blatant frugality. Magic in the Mirror was a kind of recycled production made from the scraps of a never-completed project titled Mirrorworld. In its same year of release, notoriously frugal producer Charles Band managed to squeeze a direct to video sequel from its leftovers, titled Fowl Play. Boomer noted in our initial conversation that part of Magic in the Mirror’s charm was that its rushed, amateur quality makes it feel as if anyone could have made it, including the audience at home. That charm extends to Charles Bands’ Full Moon Entertainment brand at large, which has a subpar batting average of great-to-terrible releases, but is admirable in its financial scrappiness and ability to stay afloat in an ever-shrinking indie movie market. Full Moon was likely at its height as a force in indie film production in the home movie market era of the early to mid-90s, which emboldened Band to extend his brand into several sublabels. This included both two softcore pornography branches and a children’s entertainment wing: Moonbeam Entertainment, which produced Magic in the Mirror. Full Moon features have always felt a little like children’s movies that happened to depict R-rated sex & gore, so in a way a Moonbeam Entertainment children’s fantasy wing was a totally natural progression for Band. The cheap, amateur delights of Magic in the Mirror seem to be typical of the sub-brand’s offerings, even if some of its earlier projects were better funded and of a higher profile. For instance, the premiere Moonbeam Entertainment release, Prehysteria!, should theoretically be of an entirely different class than Magic in the Mirror, but is more or less mired in the same concerns of amateurish craft & militant frugality. It’s the Charles Band way.

I can’t pretend to know the difference in budget between Magic in the Mirror and Prehysteria! (Magic in the Mirror is our first Movie of the Month selection without a corresponding Wikipedia page), but it’s easy to tell from context clues which was the more prestigious Moonbeam Entertainment release. The very first production of the Moonbeam sub-brand, Prehsyteria! is both the more prestigious and the more successful picture. Prehysteria! was directed by Charles Band and his father Albert Band (who also helmed my beloved Ghoulies II) themselves, while Magic in the Mirror was left in the hands of small time Full Moon player Ted Nicolaou (who, to be fair, also directed one of Full Moon’s best offerings in TerrorVision). Magic in the Mirror was sparse with special effects, leaving most of its visual spectacle to the over the top costuming of its killer duck-people and fairy queen. By contrast, Prehysteria! is practically a special effects showcase (by Charles Band standards, anyway). Its miniature dinosaur creations are achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and animatronic puppetry, which is seemingly where all the film’s effort & financing was sunk. Charles Band’s dream for Moonbeam was to create a sublabel of children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard edge” and it’s something he intended to achieve on the back of Prehysteria!’s success. The gamble paid off (for a while), resulting in two direct-to-video sequels and keeping Moonbeam afloat for half a decade. It’s an effort that required the same frugality that resulted in Magic in the Mirror, though. Band pushed the allure of owning VHS copies of the film by including a behind-the-scenes “Moonbeam VideoZone” featurette after the credits. That featurette reveals that the reason the film required co-directors was so that two units could shoot separate scenes simultaneously, wasting no production time. It was rushed to market in 1993 in the first place to ween off the anticipation for Spielberg’s dino spectacle in Jurassic Park. Artistically, it didn’t have much on it its mind beyond getting dinos on the screen in front of kids as quickly as possible because of that deadline. Prehysteria! may have been more of a top priority for Charles Band in building the Moonbeam brand than scraping together Mirrorworld’s leftovers into an afterthought feature in Magic in the Mirror, but the two films share his remarkably frugal thumbprint all the same.

In the tradition of the drive-in exploitation era, most Charles Band productions don’t feel the need to accomplish much beyond selling the premise of what’s on the poster. Magic in the Mirror promises a magical land of evil duck-people on the opposite side of a child’s mirror and once it gets there the film is content to remain inert. Prehysteria! is much the same in its own promise of a miniature Jurassic Park. The special effects behind the tiny dinos on the poster receive most of the film’s care and attention. The dinosaurs are given pop star names (Elvis, Madonna, Hammer, Paula) and are featured dancing to rock n’ roll. Although they could conceivably fuck you up even at the size of toy chihuahuas, they’re instead made to be as cuddly as Gizmo. They’re undeniably cute and that’s all most children are likely to care about when watching the film. Charles Band knows this and makes no effort to fill out the world around them. The kids onscreen who adopt the dinos (including The Last Action Hero’s Austin O’Brien among them) are bratty siblings with an archeologist dad. The dino eggs wind up in their possession because of an unintended cooler-swap, which angers the colonizing asshole (Stephen Lee doing his best Wayne Knight) who cruelly stole them from South American tribesmen. The villain wants “his” dinos backs. The kids want to hide them from the rest of the world. This conflict is established early in the first act and doesn’t change much form there, leaving everything outside how cute the dinos are in a state of stasis. The villain gets in exactly one campily amusing line: “I’m getting prehysterical over here!” The children, for their part, are only interesting in how queasy their relationship with their father’s sexuality can feel at times; they openly mention his desperate horniness as a single man, complete with his potential girlfriends for his affections and, worst yet, refer to him as “daddy” in prepubescent squeaks. Terrifying. Charles Band may not have invested as much characterization into the children as he puts into the dinos, but his inability to grasp the difference between a childlike & an adult tone occasionally makes for an interesting moment, if not only for the cringe factor.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Prehyteria! from the majority of the Moonbeam Entertainment output, it’s that it appears to have been an intensely personal project for Charles Band. He not only chose this film to launch Full Moon’s child-friendly sublabel and co-directed it with his own father, but the movie also reflects the one subject that could be said to be an auteurist preoccupation for the VHS era schlockmeister: miniature bullshit. From Puppet Master to Dollman to Demonic Toys to Evil Bong and beyond, Charles Band has basically built a career around stop motion and puppetry visualizations of (often evil) tiny beings in action. Prehysteria! isn’t one of the more exceptional specimens in that catalog in terms of filmmaking craft, but it is interesting to see his usual fixations filtered through a children’s entertainment lens (as opposed to his R-rated horror productions that just feel like children’s films). It’s the distilled ideal of a Moonbeam Entertainment production it that way. Still, for all the film’s special care and attention from the top man in the company, Prehysteira! largely feels on par with the half-assed, good-enough-to-print spectacle of Magic in the Mirror. Oddly, Magic in the Mirror feels like a more special picture than Prehysteria! because of that lack of attention. The animation & puppetry behind the dinos in Prehysteria! are impressive, but they raise questions in contrast to the rest of the picture on why none of that energy was matched elsewhere. Magic in the Mirror’s own scrappiness is noticably thorough by contrast. Its humanoid duck costumes are obviously handmade & amateurish, but there’s a sinister quality to their design anyway and the rest of the film matches that off-putting, off-brand, off energy in a way that feels more consistent than Prehysteria!’s super cute dinos dancing in a charisma void. Prehysteria! is the higher profile picture that’s likely to be more fondly remembered (i.e. remembered at all), but Magic in the Mirror is a much more honest, ugly picture of what Moonbeam’s commitment to frugality truly looked like. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bizarrely fascinating.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play.

-Brandon Ledet

Power Rangers (2017)

I cried during a Power Rangers movie. I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or embarrassed by, but it’s true regardless. The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Their gradually-earned cohesion as a team of superheroes who sport what look like full-body bike helmets & drive robo-dinos through the streets of their home town looks an awful lot like nearly every generic action thriller released in the wake of the ongoing MCU & Transformers franchises, but it means so much more here than it does in the similar, but lesser work of its contemporaries. Just thinking about the film’s, “Together we are more” tagline gets me a little emotional. The only way you can earn that kind of genuine outsiders-vs.-the-world pathos is by investing real time & genuine effort in character work before your teen heroes suit up & kick alien ass, which is exactly what makes Power Rangers such an overwhelming success.

Now that I’ve gotten that confession about my idiotic blubbering out of the way, it’s time to admit that this is still a deeply silly film adapted from even sillier source material. It takes a long while before the audience gets to see fully-costumed Power Rangers battling their sworn enemy Rita Repulsa and her rock monster army of “puddies,” but the film announces the silliness at its core right out the gate. The very first scene in Power Rangers involves a prank that escalates to one teen jerking off a bull and another crashing into several cop cars. Off-handed references to cramming crayons into assholes & masturbating in the shower similarly cut through the heavy-handed teen drama, despite its team-building training montages and its campfire confessions about what’s been getting the poor lot down. From there, Power Rangers embarks on a daring journey of cobbling together several genre-disparate films from cinema past: The Breakfast Club (where a group of alienated teens on weekend detention struggle to relate to peers outside their respective social circles), Explorers (where kids stumble into an out-of-this-world adventure after discovering a real-life space ship), Chronicle (I have no idea what that one’s about; it just sounds right), and so on. Just about the only movie Power Rangers doesn’t resemble in some way is the 1995 feature Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which arrived during a very specific era of ooze-obsessed children’s media. Instead of that film’s purple slime, you have to settle for a little post-Dark Knight grim & grime, but the 2017 version does find its fair share of heightened camp within its few recognizable actors: Elizabeth Banks as a drag routine version of Suicide Squad‘s The Enchantress, Bill Hader as a pot-bellied robot named Alpha 5, and Bryan Cranston as an all-knowing, floating alien head named Zordon (not to be confused with Zardoz), who more than vaguely resembles the Engineer aliens from Prometheus. And by the time the whole thing reveals itself to be a feature-length ad for Krispy Kreme donuts, the emotional resonance of its character-driven build-up is an absurd thing to have to reconcile with its campier tendencies.

The machinations necessary to set the cookie cutter plot in motion aren’t all that interesting to recount. Five teens gather at an operational gold mine for various personal reasons, discover color-coded Infinity Stones/Coins, board a buried space ship, and wind up staging a battle against a 65 million year old mummified alien and her gigantic, liquid gold prometheus. It’s all simple enough. Much like how Lucas Black spent the entirety of Tokyo Drift searching inside himself for the ability to drive sideways, these teens come together to look inside themselves for the ability to “morph” into their inner Power Rangers & form Voltron to defeat the evil, donut-eating space alien. If I were a little more academic and a lot more frivolous I’m sure I could mount an argument about how the team of horny teens’ initial failure to morph is metaphorically related to their frustrated inability to achieve orgasm. This subtext almost becomes explicit in a transition where the Yellow Ranger’s campfire confession of her closeted queer identity is immediately followed by Rita Repulsa appearing under her sheets and roughing her up in her bedroom. The truth is, however, that the gang’s transformation into an ancient, transferable line of intergalactic superheroes isn’t nearly as well thought-out or thematically rich as the various revelations of their troubled home lives, nor does it need to be. Beating up giant golden monsters in dinosaur-shaped mech suits is rad enough on its own not to require any such justification. This is a superhero origin story about a group of teens saving the world by learning to perform a communal, pro wrestling-style suplex on a giant space alien baddy. How much more plot do you really need?

I’m of two minds about the 2017 Power Rangers movie. On the one hand, I was totally on the hook for its emotional character work where isolated teens console each other with lines like, “You did an awful thing. That does not make you an awful person,” and discover a newfound sense of community among themselves. At the same time, I was tickled stupid by its robo-dino battles, donut-flavored ad placement, thrash metal Tai Chi, and self-deflating meta humor, like when Hader’s pudgy robot declares, “Different colors, different kids, different color kids!” Overall, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. In the long run, it’ll likely lead to nothing more than a handful of forgettable, diminishing returns sequels. I still bought right into what it was selling, though, just like I greedily ate up every other recent reboot of similar bullshit media I loved as a kid: Ghostbusters, GoosebumpsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Maybe that makes me a sucker & a rube, but this rube had a good laugh and a good cry at a kids’ movie this past weekend, which is more than anyone should have been able to ask for out of a property this old & this inane.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lost World (1925)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

King Kong is often thought of as the first major special effects spectacle of early cinema. More specifically, if you ask someone to picture stop motion animated dinosaurs battling in an ancient film it’s highly likely King Kong would be the first image to come to mind. However, the very first movie to employ stop motion models as its main form of special effects outdates Kong by eight years. The Lost World might be a little more artistically muted than the art deco heights reached in King Kong, but the two films are thematically similar & The Lost World beat Kong to the punch in bringing dinosaurs (and humanoid apes, for that matter) to the big screen in what was at the time a majestic display. The same way the blend of CGI & animatronics floored audiences with “realistic” dinos in Jurassic Park‘s 1994 release, the stop motion dinosaurs of 1925’s The Lost World were an unfathomable achievement at its time. When the source material’s author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle screened test footage for the press (at a magician’s conference of all places) The New York Times even excitedly reported “(Conan Doyle’s) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily life like. If fakes, they were masterpieces.” Imagine writing that “if fakes” qualifier in earnest & how quickly that writer’s head would have exploded if they got a glimpse of Spielberg’s work 70 years later.

At this point in time it’s understandable to be more than a little jaded about the visual accomplishments of The Lost World. Show this film to a young child following a screening of something loud, shiny, and new like Captain America: Civil War & they’re going to struggle caring or paying much attention. It probably doesn’t help that the film takes its audience’s jaw-dropped awe for granted either. Its razor-thin narrative strands a hunter, a professor, a journalist, a beautiful woman, and other assorted crew (including, in true 1920s fashion, a deeply uncomfortable blackface character named Zambo) in a modern prehistoric world hidden away somewhere along the “fifty thousand miles of unexplored waterways”in South America. Among a wealth of living, breathing dinosaurs & missing-link type primates, the in-peril crew alternates from being mystified by the old world wonders laid before them & fighting for their lives due to immediate concerns presented by the terrain. It’s a story that’s been adapted & co-opted countless times since 1925 (even with the added bonus of removing the colonialism-minded racism). Even its way of starting with more “harmless” breeds of dinos like the brontosaurus & working its way up to tn he gigantic T. Rex’s & Allosauruses of the (lost) world is a structure that’s been mimicked to death.

I’ll admit that it takes a certain joy in silent era hokeyness to enjoy this movie’s charms at face value in a modern context. I delight in the fact that the stop motion teradons look exactly like Pterri on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Simple characterizations like Professor Challenger challenging the public to confirm his discovery amuse me (when they’re not tied to racial caricature, at least). Likes like “What are you thinking of, Paula- in this lost world of ours?” are a pure pleasure for me instead of groan-inducers. I’m also a huge sucker for stop motion animation in general, so the mix of handmade sets & real animal footage (sloths, jaguars, bear cubs, etc.) with claymation dinos is my idea of cinematic heaven. For some people this movie’s artificial dino safari will play as dull as the special effects “spectacle” of the exhaustively soulless Bwana Devil, but this is totally my happy place.

Where that for-fans-only attitude might shift is in the film’s final ten minute stretch, where it makes the same genre leap as King Kong & Spielberg’s unfairly maligned camp delight The Lost World (1997): bringing the dinos to the modern world. A brontosaurus is set loose on the streets of London, feeling like the stop motion beginnings of the kaiju genre & transcending what you might expect from a 1920s fantasy horror about a dino exploration mission. I feel like anyone with a deep affection for stop motion animation should watch this film either way; they’ll find so many handmade treasures big & small in its early special effects landmarks. If that kind of old world pleasure sounds quaint or too outdated for you, however, I urge you to at least watch the film’s concluding minutes of brontosaurus-run-wild mayhem. There’s something anachronistically bizarre & over-the-top in that segment that feels very much inline with the modern blockbuster landscape & I think a lot of people would get a kick out of its movie magic lunacy.

-Brandon Ledet

Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

One year after the release of Jurassic Park, a baby-faced Paul Walker & a teenage Denise Richards starred in a sci-fi horror rom-com about a remote-controlled animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tammy and the T-Rex is a work of inane beauty, a straight-to-VHS gem for schlock junkies & 90s culture fetishists to drool over. It’s technically, objectively, and even sometimes morally a horrendous film with no redeeming value as a work of art. On the other hand, it’s far more fun than it has any right to be, especially when its Looney Tunes logic takes over & the film accepts itself as the dumb, rudderless trash that it is.

Denise Richards plays a teenager cheerleader in the middle of a violent (especially for high school) love triangle. At one end, you have the brutish punk ex-boyfriend (complete with leather jacket & convertible) who refuses to let go of a dead relationship. At the other end stands a naive virgin of a goofball jock (played by future Fast & Furious star Paul Walker) who’s willing to risk life & limb to get under Richards’ cheerleader uniform. The brawls between the suitors are quite vicious. They kick each other in the head, orchestrate drive-by baseball bat beatings, take vice grips on each other’s genitals (“What we have here is an old-fashioned testicular stand-off”), and just generally aim to maim & kill. This escalates to Walker’s empty-headed jock being thrown into a lion & jaguar exhibit at the city zoo, a trauma that leaves him comatose, then “dead”, and then, once interfered with by an over-acted Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist archetype . . . transplanted into the “mind” of an animatronic T-Rex.

Of course, Tammy and the T-Rex really kicks into high gear once the dinosaur hijinks ensue. Continuing the surprise viciousness of the first act’s boyfights, the animatronic dino actually murders people. He crushes heads, flattens bodies out into bloody Bugs Bunny pancakes, tears teens open with his gigantic talons, etc. It’s treated as a lighthearted rampage, but it’s pretty brutal. The killings are fun & all, but what really makes Tammy and the T-Rex special are the dino jock’s more human activities. Watching his little dino arms lovingly stroke the cheek of his lifeless human body & operate a payphone is genuinely belly-laugh hilarious, as is the scene where he attends his own funeral, crying gigantic dino tears & the one where he proves who he truly is to his cheerleader girlfriend by playing charades & eating flowers. The best part is that the cheerleader decides to stick with her dino beau, riding him like a horse & helping him pick out potential new bodies in a morbid bit of window shopping at the morgue. Even when the dino jock is (spoiler alert) cruelly gunned down by the police, his cheerleader sweetheart keeps their love alive by storing his brain in a jar & feeding him strip teases & whiskey as sustenance.

Tammy and the T-Rex is a goofy mess, but it’s an enjoyable mess. Directed by Stewart Raffill, the buffoon behind Mac & Me and The Ice Pirates, the film has a decent schlock pedigree despite having essentially no traction as a cult classic. It can waver a bit in the details, especially in the depiction of the cheerleader’s gay bestie, who alternates from delightfully sassy to homophobic parody from scene to scene. For the most part, though, it’s a delightfully eccentric slice of forgotten schlock. If nothing else, Denise Richards’ wardrobe is 90s fashion-blogging Tumblr ready & the idea of a “party animal” teen dinosaur is goofy enough to carry the film on its own. There are surely some cult followings that have been built on less.

-Brandon Ledet

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

EPSON MFP image

twostar

Pixar released two feature films this year: one that made me question my typical lukewarm attitude toward their output & one that confirmed my usual indifference. Inside Out was a remarkable example of effective world-building, establishing a clear, concise visualization of the abstract concept of emotion & inner conflict. It wasn’t a particularly great looking movie, but it was so committed to its high-concept premise that the flat, simplified look of its CG animation didn’t matter all that much. The Good Dinosaur, on the other hand, goes skimpy on both visual intensity and narrative & world-building. It’s not much of a surprise given the film’s years-in-the-making troubled production, but The Good Dinosaur is frustrating as a finished product, as so much of the film is hopelessly bland, but there are flashes of brilliance trapped in the muck begging to be employed in a much better film.

The most glaring shortcoming in The Good Dinosaur is in its cutesy character designed. The film’s backgrounds are hyper-realistic , an incredible feat in CG animation. Its campfires, running water, and swaying tree branches are all so tangibly real-looking that they seem like nature photography. Even small, unimportant-to-the-plot creatures like bugs, birds, and lizards are visually well-defined, fitting in remarkably well with the background work. That’s why it’s such a shame that the dinosaurs themselves, the stars of the show, are such vague, babyish cartoon nothings. I get that it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to have hyper-realistic dinosaurs running the show & scaring the crap out of children, but surely there was a better compromise to be had between the two extremes than what was delivered.

That said, it’s not just that the dinosaurs look vague & uninteresting. It’s also that their personalities are generically human in a too-predictable, clichéd way. The couple of times in the film where dinosaurs act like wild creatures instead of civilized people are genuinely entertaining, but they’re few & far between. The film’s Dinosaurs Are People Too approach to storytelling honestly isn’t worth much more than an eyeroll or two. Its depictions of dinosaur farmers & dinosaur cowboys are exhaustingly hokey to me, barely a step above the polar bear political lobbyist Rob Schneider voices in the dire-looking Norm of the North trailers. This isn’t helped at all by the detail that human beings are feral “critters” in this dino world, a corny bit of Now That’s What I Call Irony emptiness. There are a couple dinosaurs-acting-like-dinosaurs moments in the film. A couple vicious carnivores have their time to shine & there’s a particularly . . . trippy scene where the two main characters get intoxicated from a stockpile of fermented fruit (a scene that reminds me of the documentary Animals Are People Too, funnily enough), but most of their behavior is so human that they might as well have had desk jobs  in the 2010s instead of farm work 65 million years ago.

The Good Dinosaur gives off the distinct feeling of being a Pixar knockoff instead of the real deal, the same way Don Bluth productions used to feel like leftover Disney scraps a couple decades ago. The problem is that The Good Dinosaur is less Land Before Time (which told a human story, but still echoed believable dinosaur behavior) and more Rock-a-Doodle (which thought that a rooster Elvis was a kooky enough idea to carry an entire feature). The film isn’t a total shitpile. I kind of appreciated its Gravity-style plot structure where the central dinosaur is just beaten to shit by life & has to navigate a relentless gauntlet of problem solving. There are also some tear-jerking moments dealing with loss, mourning, and learning to let go, as well as a worthwhile overall message of “Sometimes you gotta get through your fear to see the beauty on the other side” that all could’ve belonged in a much better film. Unfortunately none of these moments amount to much more than  3 or 4 quick run-ins with intimidating antagonists & some familial tragedy borrowed wholesale from The Lion King.

The Good Dinosaur is ultimately of no consequence, a feature film not worth the emotional weight of its most admirable moments. It goes without saying that if you’re only going to see one Pixar movie this year you should make it Inside Out. I could probably go a step further, though, to say that if you’re going to watch two Pixar films this year, you should maybe consider watching Inside Out twice.

-Brandon Ledet

Swampchat: The Campy Spectacle of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Laughable Awfulness in Jurassic World (2015)

EPSON MFP image

Sometimes it takes more than one of us to tackle a film. Those are the times when we need a Swampchat.

Brandon: Reading over your review of Jurassic World was a refreshing experience. When I left the theater I felt an intense love-hate combo that had me a little more lukewarm on the film than you were, but I gotta say your enthusiasm is a little infectious after-the-fact. It’s good to take a step back and remember that “The predictable plot and characters aren’t the main selling point for this movie. It’s all about the dinosaurs!” The over-the-top dino action was certainly what got my butt in the seat, and the movie did deliver on that front, but I gotta admit that butt was squirming at the dialogue once it got there. As you alluded to in your review, the character Claire, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, was particularly groan-worthy on this front, serving as the “ball-busting” ice queen career woman stereotype no one was eager to see return to the big screen (hopefully no one, anyway).

As much as I enjoyed your enthusiasm for the movie’s dino action, I think you could’ve been even harder on Bryce Dallas Howard’s role in the film. I’m not going to mince words here. I honestly believe she might have been the most poorly conceived/written/acted/employed character I’ve ever seen in a movie this expensive. She was beyond awful. Just horrendous. But, once you accept how atrocious Claire is the whole thing becomes a fairly hilarious joke. For me that turning point came very early in the film, on an orgasmic helicopter ride (you have to see it to believe it) and lasted all the way throughout, or at least until she was making eye contact with a garden snake like she was gazing into a mirror. I’ve rarely been this simultaneously infuriated & tickled by a single performance before. It’s one for the camp record books.

Britnee, did you manage to find any humor in Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance or was the sexist implications of how she was written sour your reaction to her completely? Am I also being too hard on the actress or did was she really that inhuman in the role? I feel like I saw more human behavior from ScarJo in Under the Skin, but a lot of that could potentially be blamed on the script . . .

Britnee: I think I would have to watch the film again to see anything other than disappointment and annoyance with Claire’s character. We are usually on the same page when it comes to finding the camp value in crappy movie characters/actors, so I’ll give Campy Claire another shot. What was more disappointing than her character was the theater audience’s reaction to her sexist traits. When she was running in heels or trying to act tough and pretty for Owen, everyone belted out laughs. Someone even said “What an idiot!” There was one part in the film that sort of sums up Claire’s role in Jurassic World. She’s sitting in the driver’s seat (or passengers seat) of a truck while her nephews are in the back, and she attempts to calm them down by offering her protection. They immediately point to Owen and say something like “Um, can we go with him?”

Basically, Claire was useless and only in this film to be a joke and a pretty face. This is the only other film I’ve seen with Bryce Dallas Howard other than Lady in the Water, which is one of my favorite films. Her role in that film didn’t require great acting at all, so I’m not really sure if she’s a good actress or not. As for you’re harsh words about Dallas and Claire, they were 100% justifiable considering that the acting was crap and the role was the worst.

Brandon, do you think that all of the film’s dinosaur goodness makes up for Claire’s flaws? What was your favorite dino moment?

Brandon: I left the theater feeling very strangely conflicted on this one. Your initial review made it sound like the dino action overwhelmed a lot of the more unsavory elements for you & I’m totally there with a lot of the scenes. The trained raptors, the Pterosaurs swarm, and the climactic battle between (vague spoiler?) the old guard & the newest attraction were all fist-pump worthy elements that had me excited like the tiniest of children. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film as a whole was just grossly off to the point where it could’ve been renamed Jurassic Park IV: A Woman’s Place Is Sidelined In The Van With The Kids or JP 4: Quiet Everyone, A White Man Is Talking. In the end I was half enthusiastic & half turned off. It was a strange sensation. To be fair to Bryce Dallas Howard, she was far from the only problem the movie had souring its more universally-enjoyable dino action, but she does serve as a convenient (and often hilarious) example of what the film gets wrong.

I think part of the reason I had fun with how awful Claire is in the film is because I had to. It was like a strange defense mechanism, as if my brain couldn’t handle something so egregiously wrong mucking up the pleasure I was getting from the trained raptor army & terrorized Jimmy Buffets of the film. Bryce Dallas Howard’s cold, implausible, entirely inhuman performance certainly helped things there, since it was easy to accept the idea of abandoning any non-camp enjoyment I could pull from her presence very early in the proceedings.

Britnee, one of the things I found most interesting in your review is the idea that Claire was especially regressive when viewed in contrast with Laura Dern’s turn as Ellie Sattler in the first Jurassic Park film, released more than two decades ago. However, there are some similarities between her character & the similarly career driven, baby hatin’ Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill in that film. Do you think that if Claire were less of a casual observer & more of an active participant like Dr. Grant, she would’ve been more of a palatable character? Or does gender-swapping those character traits pretty much guarantee the laughably bad performance that was delivered?

Britnee: Now that you mention it, there are a good bit of similarities between Claire and Dr. Grant. The idea of this most likely accidental gender swap sheds a new light on Claire’s character. Her attitude wasn’t the main thing holding her back from being a likeable character; it was her lack of participation in the nitty gritty of the film. She actually did have one big heroic moment, but unfortunately, it was overshadowed by her negative aspects. When the Indominus rex makes her way near the park entrance, Claire comes up with the brilliant idea of releasing the T-rex, and she even runs to the gate (in those damn heels) to release the dino. Why couldn’t she have had more parts like that? Now don’t get me wrong, she was very intelligent in many parts of the film, much like Dr. Grant, but she just wasn’t very physically active. I think that Owen is actually a big part of this problem. His manly man character was very oppressive and prevented Claire from doing much of anything. Claire and Owen should’ve been a team like Ellie and Dr. Grant, but the filmmakers seemed too focused on making Owen this macho breakout star instead of making Owen and Claire a dynamic duo.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Owen? Why, especially in this day and age, do you think Jurassic World was so backwards when compared to Jurassic Park? Were the writers purposeful with this mistake or were they just a bunch of doofuses?

Brandon: I’m going to have to side with The Doofus Theory in regards to how this film got so mucked up. This is a major studio project that, although helmed by a director whose first film, Safety Not Guaranteed, had a strong cinematic voice, was most certainly made by committee. The fact that there are four credited screenwriters alone is not a good sign. If director Colin Trevorrow were paired with a single writer, maybe two, there could’ve been a much stronger vision shining through here. Instead, you can just feel the studio’s influence seeping through every frame to the point where producers & screen testers should’ve been given written by credits as well, at least for the sake of transparency. In the scramble to reboot a once mighty, now extinct franchise, Jurassic World makes constant homage to its 1993 ancestor, casually tossing out sly callbacks to all sorts of aspects from the original Jurassic Park with wild abandon. Some of these callbacks worked extremely well, especially when they culminate with the two films’ central monsters battling it out at the climax. However, the purposelessness of the exercise sometimes comes back to bite the movie on its tail, like when Dr. Grant’s child-hatin’ coldness (but not his heroic sense of adventure) get reassigned to a female character without any thought given to what that crucial change implicates.

Chris Pratt’s Owen has a very similar problem. Like the Indominous rex, he’s a creature of design, a classic movie hero seemingly grown in a lab solely to look handsome, squint purposefully, and crack wise. Like the reckless scientists in the film, the studio that created Owen were only trying to entertain the crowds looking for some dino action. They never once considered how dangerous their creation could be, how grotesque it would feel to watch a modern blockbuster in which every woman & POC character in charge would be proven weak & ineffective in contrast to the white man who swoops in to straighten everyone out. Even Chris Pratt’s bountiful charm can’t overcome an obstacle that treacherous & Owen’s flippant The-White-Man’s-In-Charge-Now attitude frequently comes off just as poorly as Claire’s Coldblooded-Damsel-In-Distress routine. Knowing that the effects these characters have on the film were likely a result of too many cooks spoiling the stew does little to help me forgive them for souring an otherwise pretty fun monster movie with a bunch of great, politically blank dinosaur action.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I honestly believe the Rosetta’s Stone of enjoying this film without caveat is personal acceptance of Claire as a campy mess. The awful performance combined with the (perhaps unintentionally) regressive dialogue was consistently humorous to me in the theater and I’m totally okay with that. I don’t need a movie that’s drawing power is mostly dinosaurs eating folks to win me over on an emotional or intellectual level. There wasn’t really enough going on with the film’s characters to provide a worthwhile face-value reading anyway. Claire is 1000% more entertaining as a joke than she is as a sympathetic character. It’s almost all for the best that that effect was unintentional; I wouldn’t want to believe that a final product that egregious was delivered on purpose.

Britnee: I think that I took Jurassic World too seriously during my first viewing because I expected it to be an extension of Jurassic Park. Of course, it is an extension of Jurassic Park, but it’s not as
similar to the first film as I initially thought. The dinosaur stuff was pretty similar, but everything else was totally different in the worst way possible. Now, I’m starting to see the overwhelming amount
of camp contained in the film. Owen the Raptor Man speeding around a dinosaur theme park on a motorcycle, a high-fashion ice queen trekking through dangerous territory in heels, and Jimmy Buffet running away from a dinosaur attack with a margarita in each hand are definitely not elements that would be found in a serious film, so I’m looking forward to watching it a second time with a much different mindset.

-The Swampflix Crew

Jurassic World (2015)

EPSON MFP image
fourstar
After raking in a total of $524.4 million its opening weekend, Jurassic World broke box office records and took the world by storm. Everyone has seen it, wants to see it, and they just can’t stop talking about it. The hype is really similar to the release of Jurassic Park back in 1993. I was a wee one at the time, but I remember everyone going bananas over it because it was going to be the biggest dinosaur movie of all time. Prior to its release, most films about dinosaurs were just silly (Prehysteria!, The Land That Time Forgot, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, etc.). The excitement died down for the second film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and the third film, Jurassic Park III wasn’t as big of a hit either. I seriously thought that the third film was going to be the end of the Jurassic Park franchise because trilogies are the way to go nowadays. After hearing about the fourth installment, I spent a good amount of time searching for updates, watching the film’s trailers, and perusing down the toy aisles admiring the movie’s many action figures. I was more than ready to have this film blow my mind.

Dr. John Hammond’s dream of creating a dinosaur theme park finally comes true in Jurassic World, and it’s absolutely phenomenal. The attractions include a Tyrannosaurus rex feeding, a Mosasaurus feeding & splashdown, and a futuristic sphere that allows park goers to roll alongside a variety of herbivores. Even though Jurassic World is the king of all theme parks, its attendance rate begins to decline. In order to bring more people into the park, a group of geneticists create genetically modified female dinosaur called the Indominus rex. This dino-hybrid was beyond rad. She was really smart, terrifying, and a total killing machine. The CGI effects for this dino as well as all the others were some of the best that I’ve ever seen. There’s a great scene where a large amount of Pterosaurs break out of their aviary and attack the visitors (this is when Jimmy Buffet has his cameo), and the effects are gorgeous. It’s easily one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Prior to this chaos, the Indominus escapes from her caged environment (surprise, surprise), and she just starts killing everything in her sight. The film’s female lead, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the park’s operations manager, and her two distanced nephews are visiting her. The two boys end up venturing out too far at the same time the Indominus escapes. She panics and gets the assistance of the park’s raptor trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt), to locate her nephews. Pratt was great as Owen, the motorcycle-riding raptor man. I really loved how Owen was the Alpha of the raptor crew and had spiritual connection with them so much so that I had way too many crying moments for a movie about a dinosaur theme park.

While the film was an amazing action-packed thrill ride, it did have its share of flaws. The worst part of the film was the portrayal of the female lead, Claire. She’s a stereotypical ball-busting, cold-hearted career woman that’s clueless when it comes to taking care of kids. Well, because women can’t be career driven and compassionate at the same time. That would be crazy! I can’t help but compare Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) from Jurassic Park to Claire because the two were leading female actors in Jurassic Park movies, but the difference between the two is night and day. Sattler was intelligent, considerate, and a complete equal to the film’s male lead, Dr. Grant; however, in Jurassic World, Claire runs around in heels depending on the protection and guidance of Owen. What’s so sad about this is that there is a 22 year difference between the two films. I think at this point, everyone is tired of seeing stereotypical, unrealistic female characters in film, and it’s a shame that such an impactful and monumental movie failed to be forward-thinking.

Jurassic World is definitely worth seeing in theaters, and it’s definitely worth the couple of extra bucks for the 3-D experience. The predictable plot and characters aren’t the main selling point for this movie. It’s all about the dinosaurs! They’re the ones that steal the show and make the film’s 2 hour length seem like a few minutes.

-Britnee Lombas