‘Sputnik’ Review: Spunky and smart creature feature makes for a tantalizing feature debut

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

I bet I can tell what’s going through your mind as you take in the poster for the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Sputnik,” with all its space-aesthetic-meets-ominous-silhouetted-alien glory:

This looks familiar.

Don’t we already know exactly what we’re getting with this? 

What’s to stop me from just rewatching “Life” or “Underwater” or “Cloverfield” or “Alien,” the mother of all space-stalker tales?

I get it. I really do get it. They’re all valid impressions, and the same ones I had too! Which makes me happy to report that “Sputnik,” a tantalizing feature debut from Russian filmmaker Egor Abramenko, is at the very least more ambitious than its minimalist one-sheet would suggest. It would be futile to predict the pivots “Sputnik” takes over nearly two hours, and even if it doesn’t fully balance the thematic weight it sets on the scales for itself, there’s certainly more than enough here to prevent calling it yet another mere “Alien” clone.

Opening where most space-faring spookfests end – on descent back to terra firma – two Soviet cosmonauts in a cramped tin can are singing songs and ruminating on where they’ll go upon their return when (right on cue) there’s a bang from outside. And, wait…was that a tentacle that just flashed by the window? Perhaps these adventurers won’t make it home after all.

Continue reading →

‘Underwater’ Review: So-so aquatic disaster flick is a true January doldrums release

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

 

The lights start their ominous flickering early in “Underwater,” and – as suggested by the movie’s 90-minute runtime – the bursting walls of a claustrophobic ocean-drilling facility follows shortly after, sending Kristen Stewart scurrying for her life through flooded corridors in horrifically dark ocean depths just as we’ve settled into our seats.

There’s no mistaking the caliber of B-movie rush that director William Eubank’s aquatic disaster-sci-fi-horror-drama (got all that?) is shooting for, and in certain moments the director of 2014’s “The Signal” even finds them—frantic brushes with shadowed deep-sea monsters are balanced by excessively melodramatic attempts to make characters feel like more than the tropes that they are, all in the name of cinema that seeks to be more viscerally enthralling than thematically engaging.

You’ll know exactly what you’re getting into if you buy a ticket to “Underwater,” to the point where you can make a game out of it. Bring along your Bingo cards filled with the requisite clichés; the movie is sure to hit most of them! Foreboding mechanical creaks and organic groans haunting our protagonists; an iron-voiced captain/commander who won’t survive, but won’t go down without a fight; the fleeting moments of wonder at how exorbitantly huge the movie is willing to all-too-briefly go in its climax, as if suddenly thinking itself unworthy of such immense, Lovecraftian scale. “Underwater” is the kind of movie that wouldn’t have made sense coming out anytime other than mid-January—we’ve seen all the major Oscar contenders by this point, but I suppose it’s nice to have something new to take in while getting through this dead zone and to the actual ceremony. Continue reading →

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Review: The phantom finale

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Force ghosts, parental legacies, devotion to prophecy—“Star Wars” has always been a story influenced by specters of the past. It’s also true in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the historic franchise’s ninth episodic entry – and, if the marketing is to be believed, the surefire finale to the Skywalker saga (anyone ready to take bets on that?) – that revisits old locales, revives long-thought-dead space dictators and echoes the conservative approach to character-building that was tossed out with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in the early moments of “The Last Jedi.” There’s no extinction in the galaxy far, far away, apparently; only hibernation. (It’s quite literally stated in the very first words of Episode IX’s crawl.)

But “Rise of Skywalker” – a triumphant finale, so long as you’re content with emotional complacency, raw visual bombast and general lack of ambition – is also stalled by specters of the future, and an unshakeable feeling that the movie is doing little more than rocketing toward inevitable showdowns you could predict from several parsecs away, as if rushing to get the fall’s most anticipated film over with. Continue reading →

Review: Blumhouse thriller ‘Don’t Let Go’ never goes all-in on its fantastical premise

“Don’t Let Go,” a supernatural crime drama arriving in the dog days of summer from writer-director Jacob Estes and Blumhouse, is just strange and unusual enough to belong in the production company’s stable of strange and unusual movies, though also enough of a conceptual bait-and-switch that it stands out among the much zanier “Happy Death Days,” “The Purges” and “Paranormal Activitys” of the world.

The story juggles multiple timelines, puncturing the fabric of logic when Jack (the reliable David Oyelowo), a cop mourning the sudden murder of his niece – along with his brother and sister-in-law – suddenly receives a phone call with her on the other end and seemingly from before the crime, ostensibly setting up a trippy mind-bender of a movie.

But Estes here is interested mostly in humanity—not genre. The high-brow is just a different, if not unearned, guidepost to a formulaic cops-n’-robbers story, with shades of domestic drama barely potent enough to keep the world from operating outside a palette full of gritty greys. Continue reading →

Getting way too hype for the Oscar possibilities that await Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”…in 2021

We need to talk about the Oscars. No, not this year’s awards that will be presented in a few days’ time, the culmination of several months’ worth of head-scratching decisions, logistical retreadings and general affirmation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are at a crossroads. That discourse has been beaten with the proverbial golden statuette through many an op-ed, Twitter thread and blog post.

So no, we’re not talking about the 2019 Academy Awards. Nor the 2020 ceremony. If you’ll indulge me, let’s skip ahead to early 2021, where – pending the existence of the human race – it feels increasingly likely that the revival of a certain sci-fi/fantasy property is poised to have the genre’s biggest night at the Oscars since the finale to Peter Jackson’s standard-bearing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2004. Continue reading →

Review: Cinema’s iconic alien hunter deserves better. Maybe that means putting him to rest.

Something was always going to give.

The space-time continuum splintered when it was announced, seemingly a decade ago, that Shane Black would helm the next installment of the unquenchable “Predator” franchise.

On one hand, you have a nostalgia-fueled auteur responsible for two of the smarter comedy-mysteries of the 2000s. On the other, he’s taking on a sci-fi property in freefall correlating with an insistence to stay bound by shackles of self-seriousness. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Last Jedi’ is an epic in the best and worst of ways

The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.

While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.

In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.

Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. Continue reading →

Review: In gorgeous ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ a new standard for sequels is set

There’s something that feels ironically punctual when experiencing “Blade Runner 2049,” 35 years after the debut of the iconic and innovative original continues to influence pop culture in ways we’ve become accustomed to by now.

Maybe it’s the fact that the long-gestating sequel was always waiting, in spirit, for Denis Villeneuve, like he was some long-awaited prophet whose destiny it was to accomplish the impossible on multiple levels (and accomplish, he has).

It could just be that we’re a little over a year away from when the events of Ridley Scott’s film take place – a bleak, dystopian take on impoverished 2019 Los Angeles that in many ways mirrors the personality some parts of the country have taken on: Desolate and deadly. Continue reading →

Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

rogue-one-at-ats

The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016

Jurassic World is one attraction to avoid at all costs

Nostalgia is a commodity being fully exploited by Hollwood in 2015, with modern installments to such classic franchises like Star Wars, Terminator, Mad Max and, of course, Jurassic Park being released.

A smart film producer knows that while nostalgia can bring in the big bucks just with a title and release date, it must be delicately utilized to prevent going so far as making an original look bad.

Simply put, director Colin Trevorrow and his staff of writers fail on all fronts when it comes to being delicate with the throwbacks in Jurassic World. They bombard you with them, and thus take two steps back while they believe they’re leaping forward as they sacrifice the process of trying to make something refreshing but familiar for the sake of mind-numbing spectacle that really isn’t that spectacular.

Oh, to to be sure, the throwbacks are there. John Williams’ epic score, implemented at the most inopportune times. The old red, black and yellow logo of Dr. Hammond’s original dream, seemingly forced in. Even some fan favorite dinos make an appearance, but they just don’t feel like an old friend we so desperately want to embrace. Such is the way of the modern blockbuster, which is exactly what Jurassic World aspired to be, I suppose.

Don't pretend like you don't know what happens next.

Don’t pretend like you don’t know what happens next.

But Jurassic Park was a blockbuster, too. One of the most successful in history, in fact. And it wasn’t all just scary dinosaurs; it was the memorable characters, the eloquent script, the believable scenarios and character motives and imaginative direction.

Those are vital components of every movie, and Jurassic World doesn’t deliver on a single one, save for the a few – yes, just a few – cool action set pieces involving the prehistoric threats.

Instead, those things are all made expendable, in hopes that the audience doesn’t notice. Except it’s pretty hard not to. Everyone’s here for the dinos, and while the CGI creations (*sigh*, we’ll get to those in a minute) are cool and popcorn fare-y, we get impatient waiting for them to finally come on board and take over.

Yes, there are humans storylines too, there has to be. Claire is the big bosslady running things at Jurassic World, trying to get potential investors/sponsors to come on board with a new attraction while “supervising” her visiting nephews, Gray and Zach.

She’s also one of the most static, dull, painfully stock characters to grace the big screen this year, and probably in recent memory. She’s unbelievably stereotyped, the very definition of a trope, one caught in a world where character development just doesn’t exist. She gets her small, tiny, minuscule moment at film’s end, but otherwise she just doesn’t offer anything new as the preoccupied aunt caught up in the madness. It doesn’t help that Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help, The Village, Spider-Man 3) plays her like a zombie. C’mon, open those eyes a little!

Haven't we seen your character in, like, any other movie, ever?

Haven’t we seen your character in, like, any other movie, ever?

Unfortunately, the film’s other characters aren’t much better. The nephews are an obvious attempt at a conduit for the audience to connect and sympathize with, in the same way that we fell in love with Jurassic Park’s bickering siblings Lex and Tim Murphy as they hid from velociraptors in the kitchen, climbed over electric fences, shuddered in terror in the Jeep. You just don’t care for Gray and Zach, no matter how hard you try. They’re just more stock characters – in the form of immature teenage brothers who are nothing alike yet must bond in the face of death – that we’ve come to know for years.

And everyone else…my goodness. How spent over two hours longing for the humble charisma of Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, the lovable skepticism of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, the gentle egotism of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond.

Thank God for Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Parks and Rec), playing the snarky dinosaur supervisor Owen. Can we get that man in Indiana Jones’ fedora already? He embodies what little charm and belief Jurassic World holds for the audience, and even then – even then – he is static. Never-changing. Stock. At least he has a knack for making two or three of his one-liners bearable. Other than that, his personality – the one we saw on display in last year’s smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy – feels restrained.

Characters are born from script, and the writers certainly didn’t do them any favors. It’s so much a disservice to the franchise, how unoriginal these characters are, that you almost have to cringe when the end credits read “Based on characters by Michael Crichton”, the novelist who wrote the original Jurassic Park. This isn’t what you had in mind, Michael, that much is true.

Welcome to a world without cinematic rules.

Welcome to a world without cinematic rules.

The script isn’t jumbled, it’s just guilty of committing a great number of cinema’s cardinals sins. It’s predictable, utterly predictable, like a skeleton of an idea from film school. Characters never learn from their actions. It chooses to inexplicably venture into other genres just for the hell of it. It embarrasses itself so many times throughout the film when it tries to be something it knows it isn’t…moments of just sheer incredulity and awkwardness, almost like it’s trying to parody itself. It’s more frustrating than standing in the longest lines at Jurassic World would be.

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE HUMANS! We all came for the dinosaurs! The mayhem and madness! The wizardry of modern special effects!

Of course, the movie for the most part delivers on that front. There’s tension… the dinosaurs look pretty.

What, you were expecting more? Aren’t ALL man-eating monsters scary to you?

The fact of the matter is, the film even manages to stumble with most of its big action set-pieces. They feel rushed and stuffed with illogical choices and almost constantly recycled choreography, which characters making stupid decisions and certain scenes you are literally almost expected to already imagine in your head as you sit down in the theater. Things finally get good at the end when the pterodactyls wreak havoc on the park, while the film’s big baddie – the Indominus Rex – is basically a 50 foot tall serial killer with scales and a tail.

Owen trains his pets.

Owen trains his pets.

Dare I say it, I missed the animatronics of yestercentury; the more practical effects of Jurassic Park, as compared to the requisite green screens and “ultrarealistic” majesty of modern CGI made for creatures that were hard to really feel awed by. And just imagine how tough it is for the actors, who have to pretend to be terrified while staring at…nothing at all.

The writers obviously felt they had a hill to climb as far as making a refreshing, new beast. Which is why, I guess, they chose to give the damn thing the ability to camouflage. “Nobody is impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” Claire says early in the movie. Apparently not. Whatever inhabits Jurassic World feels incredibly far from the dinos that gave us nightmares in Jurassic Park.

Over 1,000 words of my thoughts on Jurassic World and I didn’t even get to the worst part.

Overload.

Of.

Product.

Placement.

Seriously, it’s embarrassing for Universal. You don’t even have to look for it. In one scene all you need to do is listen. It’s so unbearably bad that the movie resembles the Super Bowl: any and every scene with dinos are the entertainment (ostensibly) while the parts in between where characters drive product placement, hide in product placement, make fun of the movie’s own damn product placement is the commercials in between that you just want to get through to get back to the action. It’s horrid. Nothing less.

I could go on and on about how Jurassic World fails to live up to the expectations set by even today’s most overdone summer blockbusters. I could talk about its blatant-at-times sexism – including one seemingly never-ending exchange between Owen and Claire that is almost straight out of a ‘’60s workplace. I could talk about the downright laughable attempts at humanity and intimacy between characters and dinosaurs, with absolutely zero chemistry between pretty much anyone. I could talk more about the throwbacks, some of which could literally be shot-for-shot remakes from Jurassic Park, but I fear it would just make me change my mind about that original film and its artistry. But there is no redemption for Jurassic World.

Its cinematic morals are long extinct.

 

In a Nutshell

There was a single, dominating (Indominus?) thought I had as the final battle in Jurassic World played out before me, to the swell of an ominous chorus that belongs in something like Lord of the Rings, no less: this isn’t Jurassic Park. This isn’t at all what made Spielberg’s classic so fantastic, so intimate, an inspiration for countless future sci-fi franchises. Rather, it is a project so devoid of passion, direction and charm that itt almost falls into Transformers territory.

This isn’t Jurassic Park. But I suppose we were warned – it’s right in the title: Jurassic WORLD. And it isn’t a world I intend on returning to.

2.5 / 10

 

Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril

Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

2015

 

 

 David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.