DNA-OK: “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Hustle”

JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION

Is it just me, or am I sensing an almost gleeful derision in the hateful reviews for Jurassic World Dominion? Some of the pithier sentiments amassed on Rotten Tomatoes, where the film is currently sitting with a truly Rotten 30-percent “freshness” rating, include descriptions of the movie as “chaotic and inconsequential” and “the equivalent of [director] Colin Trevorrow banging pots and pans for two-and-a-half hours,” with one critic calling this action adventure “the anti-Top Gun: Maverick.” Well, okay, sure – Maverick is about human beings, kind of, while the Jurassic series has really only showcased animatronic and CGI monsters as they chase and munch on human-shaped cartoon characters.

But what, exactly, were these reviewers expecting from the fifth sequel in a franchise that hasn’t been truly great since 1993? Personally, I was just praying that it wouldn’t suck, and guess what: It doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. This follow-up does boast many sucky elements: a few laughably ridiculous resurrections and last-second rescues; an almost complete lack (probably an inevitable one) of genuine awe; Chris Pratt’s velociraptor-training methods, again, essentially boiling down to “Talk to the hand.” Yet while Dominion is by no means terrific, it’s hardly the exhausting, unsatisfying exercise in Spielberg-ian ring-kissing that Trevorrow’s first Jurassic World was, and while the film can’t claim the visual beauty of J.A. Bayona’s 2018 Fallen Kingdom, there’s at least more going on this time, and a heftier supply of appealing performers. It isn’t much of a compliment, but I’d go so far as to say that this admittedly overlong, overstuffed outing is the most enjoyable Jurassic flick since Jurassic Park – and for my money, it provided about the same amount of dopey retro fun as the Tom Cruise smash that most reviewers are turning cartwheels over. At least in this one, we know where they bad guys come from.

That, of course, would be Isla Nublar, the remote island that housed this series’ genetically engineered dinosaurs 29 years ago, and that was eradicated by an active volcano four years ago. Now, dozens of formerly extinct species are freely roaming the planet – causing occasional damage and killing about as many people per year as dogs, but otherwise coexisting with us in relative harmony. One of their chief locales, and the designated safe space for the Earth’s largest predators, is a “dinosaur sanctuary” in the mountains of Italy, where Biosyn Genetics is purportedly researching these creatures’ DNA for medical advances, solutions to world hunger … . You know, all those corporate endeavors that make Big Pharma and Big Tech totally trustworthy institutions. Biosyn’s CEO is Lewis Dodgon – the character made a brief appearance in Jurassic Park – and the movie doesn’t even bother to pretend that he’s on the level, given portrayer Campbell Scott’s creepy flash-smile and odd vocal inflections, to say nothing of his resemblance to a genetic blend of Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Musk. Nothing villainous there.

Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, and Laura Dern in Jurassic World Dominion

Dodgon’s bifurcated plan for global dominion leads us to Dominion‘s bifurcated collection of heroes. Naturally, the bad doctor is interested in cloning. So his minions wind up at the hidden cottage of Jurassic World protagonists Owen Grandy and Claire Dearing (Pratt and Bruce Dallas Howard), who are attempting to hide both a baby raptor, the miracle offspring of a literal single parent, and the dino-friendly couple’s surrogate daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the miracle clone of her deceased mother. Multi-tasker that he is, however, Dodgon is also interested in controlling the world’s food supply, which he’s preparing to do through oversize locusts designed to decimate the crops of farmers who don’t invest in Biosyn seed. (There are a bunch of nonsensical narrative whoppers in Trevorrow’s and Emily Carmichael’s screenplay, but this one might take the cake.) The discovery of this nefarious plot is what, after 29 years, reunites us with Laura Dern’s paleobotanist Ellie Satler, as well as a pair of her Jurassic Park cohorts who actually have appeared in a sequel or two: Sam Neill’s paleontologist Alan Grant, Ellie’s former beau, and Jeff Goldblum’s “chaostician” Ian Malcolm, everyone’s favorite leather-jacketed motormouth. Eventually, they’re all hopping on planes abroad, where Dodgon is sure to be angry … though perhaps not as pissed off as his Italian cadre of genetically modified beasts.

As that barrage of characters and intentions hopefully suggests, there’s a lot going on in Dominion, almost none of which is believable – and I’m not even referring to the initial plot setup that Mr. DNA recounted back when the animated imp was pronouncing “dinosaur” with four syllables. But if you’re looking for realism and coherence from a movie in which prehistoric monsters are freely traversing 2022 Earth, or one in which Chris Pratt casually sneaks up on one of those creatures and snaps its neck, there might be something medically wrong with you. Jurassic World Dominion is utterly ludicrous – and gloriously so. Barring one single-shot bit in which Claire is slo-o-o-wly pursued before she ducks into a pond, the dinosaurs here aren’t remotely scary, and excepting the brief, lovely image of a brontosaurus being gently lured away from a Sierra Nevada work site, there’s no real majesty, either. For its central premise, Jurassic World implied that living dinosaurs were something to be amused by and subsequently forgotten for the price of an amusement-park ticket – and if you see Dominion on an IMAX screen, we’re not far off from that actually being the case. Still, if this series has clearly evolved away from the terror and wonder that Spielberg conjured in ’93, it has at least managed, more or less, to provide decent entertainment. On numerous occasions in Trevorrow’s latest, it’s more than decent.

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World Dominion

It feels nearly certain that most everyone’s favorite segment will be the mid-film one in which, for reasons not worth explaining, our younger heroes find themselves outrunning and outwitting dinosaurs in Malta. A Bond/Bourne-style detour heavily promoted in the trailers, this sharply edited sequence finds room for an exotic villainess, a black-market dino-operation, velociraptors who track their targets through laser-pen tagging, a motorcyclist navigating narrow European alleyways, and the film-stealing involvement of DeWanda Wise’s sardonic cargo-plane pilot Kayla Watts, and it’s an absolute hoot. (Given the joyous, over-the-top silliness of it all, I wouldn’t have been surprised had Tom Cruise himself shown up – not as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but as Ethan “M:I” Hunt.) Yet there are diversions aplenty in this thing: the expository, cannily crafted newsfeed footage of humans and dinosuars attempting to cohabitate; the swarms of mutant locusts making gorgeous black swirls in the sky and attacking Ellie and Alan in a glass-enclosed lab; a battle royale between two – no, make that three – apex predators in which anyone shorter than 20 feet is superfluous; Golbum’s Ian receiving the side-eye by a woman who can’t believe a 69-year-old would still keep his shirt unbuttoned to the navel.

Ah, Goldblum. His readings have only gotten loopier and more singular with age – only Christopher Walken currently bests him in those departments – and his presence is key to why Dominion works so well so often: Its cast is dynamite. Most of it anyway, as Howard is still stuck with a desperately uninteresting character, and Pratt’s Owen is still Star-Lord Peter Quinn with all the good jokes surgically removed. But even though their roles were cookie-cutter and hardly worth their talents back in the day, it’s still a moderate kick to see Neill, looking enviably ageless, banter again with Dern, who somehow relocates both the gee-whiz enthusiasm and moral certitude she gave this pre-franchise in her 20s… and she can still shriek like mad. The typically excellent B.D. Wong is back, which is wonderful; newcomers Scott, Mamoudou Athie, Justice Smith, and the tremendous Wise are aboard, which is wonderful, too. Meanwhile, the grandest acting surprise/pleasure may be the one we get from Sermon, whose pre-teen clone Maisie from Fallen Kingdom I had completely forgotten about until I witnessed the young actor’s hushed, guarded, fiercely focused portrayal of an understandably petulant teen; someone needs to get started on a Stranger Thing-y vehicle for her and Millie Bobby Brown stat. Collectively, we may have lost the ability to be properly wowed by the blockbuster astonishments of the Jurassic series, but performance gifts of Sermon’s kind will never fail to take my breath away.

Juancho Hernangómez and Adam Sandler in Hustle

HUSTLE

When the participation of Ben Foster is your biggest gripe about a movie, it’s probably a pretty fantastic movie. And director Jeremiah Zagar’s basketball dramedy Hustle – newly streaming on Netflix – is just that: a pretty fantastic version of the sort of inspirational, triumph-of-the-underdog sports flick we’ve seen countless times before, produced and performed with enough authenticity and zeal to keep it legitimately riveting, and even surprising. As Adam Sandler plays its lead (and, not for nothing, is outstanding in the film), Zagar’s genre offering is probably a by-product of the comedian’s long, lucrative contract with the streaming service, and I thank the gods that Hustle didn’t come to fruition years before it actually did. Arriving now, it’s Foster in the tiresome, clichéd role of the grouchy bureaucrat who refuses to recognize an upstart’s potential greatness. In the past, this noxious part might’ve been handed to David Spade, or Kevin James … or, God help us, Rob Schneider.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. On second thought, please don’t stop me, because you have heard this one. Hustle casts Sandler as Stanley Sugarman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who dreams of being a coach and, following the death of his longtime mentor (played by movie-mentor extraordinaire Robert Duvall), can only achieve that goal by first finding a rookie who can achieve superstardom. He accidentally finds one in Bo Cruz (the Utah Jazz’s Juancho Hernangómez in his acting debut), a Spanish tyro with insane skills on the court and a hot temper – plus, unfortunately, a criminal record in his native country. Foster’s 76ers co-owner says no. Sugarman says yes. (In this unconventionally, blessedly profane sports movie, it’s closer to “F— yes.”) And so begins the process of securing Bo a place in the NBA, as well as an unapologetically formulaic narrative involving family loyalties, cruel rivals, financial hardships, speedily edited game play, and training montages – lots of training montages. At one point, a training montage runs so long that even the characters participating in the montage have to take a break.

Juancho Hernangómez and Adam Sandler in Hustle

So yeah: In some version or another, we’ve all seen this before. But I, for one, can’t recall the last time I saw it with this much honesty, subtle humor, and emotional candor – and in large part, that’s because of Zagar’s star. To my enormous delight and relief, Sandler in his mid-50s feels like a complete rebuff to the Sandler of his 20s and 30s; whereas Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison and company refused to ever grow up, the man now appears to not only accept middle age, but luxuriate in it, at least based on his self-effacing gags. (Beyond the frequent references to his weight gain and dietary restrictions, the comic slays with a too-accurate observation: “Men in their 50s don’t have dreams; they have nightmares and eczema.”) Despite the negative tenor of many, many past reviews, I do think Sandler is capable of being a first-rate actor, as he’s proven even in films I don’t care for, such as Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems. Excepting his work in 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Abridged), though, I may never have warmed to him as wholly as I did in Hustle. It’s not just that his every moment feels lived-in and true, or that he has such easy, relaxed chemistry with Queen Latifah as Sugarman’s requisite long-suffering-yet-supportive wife and Heidi Gardner as his requisite alienated-yet-adoring daughter. It’s that even Sandler’s apparently contractually obligated screaming is presented with in-character simplicity and lack of affectation. For once, the actor’s shouting seems as organic as his silences, and what results is frankly devastating – Sandler’s finest screen portrayal to date.

But Hustle seems like a project in which everyone was inspired to step up his or her figurative or literal game, and barring Foster (who, expert character actor that he is, at least adds some flavor to a blandly offensive role), everyone succeeds. I’m hardly someone who would recognize the plethora of real-life NBA figures who pop up in either small fictional roles or cameos as themselves, but none of them appeared distractingly uncomfortable – and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, who plays the film’s token loathsome adversary, is really quite good. The recruiting scenes are handled with speed and lead to occasionally laughs (the Dallas Mavericks’ Bohan Marjanović nails his bit as a Serbian sensation who claims to be 22); the inherent sentiment in Taylor Materne’s and Will Fetters’ screenplay comes off as richly earned; the ending is partly precisely what you expect and partly a huge veer from the expected. And through it all, and matching Sandler beat for beat, is Hernangómez, whose abilities on the court are jaw-dropping, and whose naturalistic, funny, intensely touching performance might be even more so. I’m sure the Utah Jazz wouldn’t dream of letting him go right now, but upon seeing Hustle on the first of what will no doubt be several viewings, I kept thinking that the NBA’s loss would most assuredly be Hollywood’s gain.

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