At the movies: Sometimes, you just go to the movies to see dinosaurs fight each other (the Godzilla Principle). I think dinosaur fans deserve better than Jurassic World, though. I mean, I don't begrudge it its unambitious role as a popcorn blockbuster, but it has real tonal problems. There are two deaths in particular, deaths of animals/characters who don't deserve it, that are extended interminably, either for pity or (objectionably) for laughs, and those really pulled me out of the experience. And I'm not sure I ever forgave it those trespasses. But globally, I think the problem is that it's not enough of anything. It's too camp to be good drama. Too serious to be real camp or comedy. It wants to be a kids' adventure, but turns into bloody carnage. It keeps pulling the audience this way and that, and it's not a smooth ride. I mean, if you're going to be ridiculous, and the ending most certainly is, you realy gotta go for it. See Mad Max for a good example. And the Mad Max comparison is a fruitful one, because the same way that film featured a number of strong female roles, it's never a good thing to be a woman in Jurassic World. Are we supposed to want Chris "can do no wrong, but not allowed to be as funny here as he was in Guardians" Pratt get together with Bryce Dallas Howard's thoroughly unpleasant character? I can't even recommend the special effects because by now, I'd expect more photorealism than a Walking with Dinosaurs program. This is no Dawn of the Planets of the Apes; you never forget it's all CG. It's not all bad, mind you. Corporatization is all over current science-fiction narratives, and the film uses that to good effect. I don't have anything bad to say about the performances, only the script, and the Park's owner is particularly interesting. The comedy in the control room is essentially the film I wanted to see all the way through. And it does a much better job of justifying its climax than the original film's cheap deus ex machina. Speaking of Jurassic Park, this isn't just a sequel, it's almost fetishistic in its need to refer back to it, to the point where I almost regretted not watching it again before seeing World. Ultimately, it gave me the same feeling as Jurassic Park - entertaining enough while sitting in the theater, but as soon as I walked out into the sunlight, it all evaporated as we got down to poking holes into it.
DVDs: I'm a fan of the UK's dinosaur-fighting show Primeval, even if it was never perfect. Canada's 13-episode-and-no-more spin-off, Primeval New World, brings more of the same, except it needs to make a lot of the same points in the first half, and obviously asks you bond with an entirely new cast. Connor Temple does show up in a couple of episodes to give New World a send-off, so to speak, but therein lies the show's principle flaw. He tells the lead Evan Cross (played by Eureka's Niall Matter, and yes, there's an awesome Eureka guest-star later on) he needs to put all the creatures back where they came from, and from then on Evan is obsessed with doing so. But a minute of conversation is hardly a motivation! It feels like a shortcut to get the show in gear. While the episodes are similar to the UK production, with creatures of the week etc., its larger plots and relationships don't copy the original. The liaison with the Canadian government is an interesting type, somewhere between Fox Mulder and Chuck, and everyone, including Cross, seems to be keeping secrets. The show manages to resolved most of its plot threads before the end, though it ends on a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger. Not too frustrating, but not a good thing. Overall, I warmed to the new cast fairly quickly, and enjoyed it for its own sake and for its beautiful Vancouver locations. The DVD includes a dozen short behind-the-scenes featurettes. And here ends Dinosaur Week...
I don't think Tony Jaa will ever equal to success and quality of Ong-Bak and The Protector, but it's fun to see him try. The Protector 2 means to do so. Jaa is back as the elephant protector, and you'd think the bad guys would have learned by now not to steal his elephant. They do, ridiculous mayhem ensues. If there's a problem here, it's that this was meant to be Thailand's first 3D movie, so of course it's full of junk flying unconvincingly at the screen. That also meant a lot of it had to be shot in front of green screens, and if you know Jaa's group for anything, it's the "done for real" nature of the stunts and fights. Having some fakery of this type hurts the film. I also think it's a question of diminishing returns. The first action sequence lasts a worthy 20 minutes. There are some great fights after that. But when your finale involves the RZA as the big bad... I'm afraid he's no Madame Rose. Still a fairly entertaining action flick - there are things here I've never seen elsewhere, and that's usually my measuring stick for these things - but a little too in love with its 3D gimmick, and with a political subplot I could easily have done without. The DVD includes a half-hour of interviews and 10 minutes of behind the scenes footage.
I'd been told Jean-Claude Van Damme's directorial debut, The Quest, was way too much like Bloodsport. I see what they mean, but it's also completely different. Like a lot of JCVD films, it's about underground fighting; he plays to his strengths. But it's really more of a prequel to the whole Kumite business (under a different name) and takes place in the pulpy, slightly fantastical 1920s. Unlike Bloodsport, it's looks glossy and expensive, with amazing locations and lustrous cinematography. JC has a team around him, including a roguish post-Bond Roger Moore who's having a lot of fun here. The secret international championship features lots of different fighting styles, and there's an attempt to make the Mongolian fighter as cool and evil a presence as Bolo Yeung was in Bloodsport. I'm sorry, that can't, and doesn't, happen. What the movie DOESN'T have is coherent direction. The frame tale becomes a different frame tale when we get back to it (very very weird), JCVD is much too fond of hacky slow-mo to showcase his fighters' moves, the music is just one note away from Javert's theme in Les Mis, and we're never given a justification for JC's big move in the climax. Watchable and expensive-looking, but extremely flawed.
Our belated viewing tribute to Christopher Lee was his first Dracula film, now known as Horror of Dracula. This Hammer Horror classic from 1958 also stars Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Michael Gough as Arthur Holmwood (so Dr. Who and Alfred Pennyworth vs. Saruman), and is fairly faithful to the novel, in an expedient kind of way (just 82 minutes). It shows its age, I think, with its Technicolor castle and mannered period acting, but it still works quite well. The pacing is relatively brisk for the time, the gore is minimal but doesn't skimp when it's time for Dracula to exit stage left, and the characters are interesting to watch, even Gerda, whose mistakes make everything happen. I liked everyone in this, pretty much, especially Cushing as the intellectual action hero. Gough plays Holmwood with a bemused smile that lends him a certain ambiguity. I would certainly have liked to see more of Dracula in this, however. You perk up whenever he's on screen, but as the "monster", he's not allowed to remain there for very long. I'm convinced he's one of the greatest celluloid Draculas of all time; I just need a little more to prove it to myself. What's your favorite of Lee's nocturnal outings? I might get right on that.
And now a sizable dent in my i-MUST-CheckMovies 2015 Project, with not one, but two movies on the list of universally seen/liked from iCheckMovies.com. The first of these is The Lives of Others, the German entry in the 2007 Academy Awards that won the Oscar (and so, according to my own private rules, the real Film of the Year because I liked it better than the regular category winner that year, The Departed, a silly copy of the superior Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs). It's about a Stasi agent in 1984, spying on an playwright and his actress girlfriend, and for some reason getting so absorbed in their lives, he starts to protect them even when they show signs of dissident behavior. A lot of people have wondered if the switch is believable from such a strict dogmatist, but I saw it immediately. On the one hand, he is a purist who sees all the corruption of the system he prizes, and the corrupt officials are who he's really working against. On the other, his life lacks humor and human contact, and he finds in art, and in living vicariously through artists, some solace. The human drama is subtle and riveting, but on the way, the film also has something to say about how one lives life in a culture of hyper-surveillance (they work in the theater, and there is theatricality to a life known to be observed), which also says something about our culture today, even of the surveillance isn't always the State's (though it can be). And historically, this is also a fascinating document about a very real police state, and the fear it practiced on its citizens. Quite excellent.
Richard Curtis' Love Actually had also passed me by over the years, and I certainly commend its ambition. It's one of those films with multiple intertwining stories, like Crash, Magnolia or Babel, but the subject here is love. Some have it, some want it, some are getting it, some losing it. Family, friendship, romance, empty adulation. All sorts. Curtis has assembled an improbably stellar cast (some would only become prominent stars later, I suppose) and is telling, what, 8 stories? Most of which could have been their own film. So yes, the film has scope. More poignant than funny, I did laugh in several places, but I also wanted more of the stories I found most engaging. There were so many, sometimes one was left idling for so long you wondered where it went. If I must name my favorites, I'll go with Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister of Britain in love with an assistant - it's the UK's own The American President. I'd also mention Liam Neeson as a father helping his young son catch the love of his life's eye. And you know, I could watch Bill Nighy or Emma Thompson do things all day long. The movie has me regretting every thread I'm NOT mentioning, so I suppose that's an endorsement. There are worse things than being left hungry for more.