JURASSIC WORLD. As I'd been watching advertisements for it for more months than I care to remember, I figured Jurassic World would be a big deal; I had no reason to believe it would become the biggest deal of all time. By now we all know about the miles-wide swath of destruction it has wrought on box offices, having opened internationally to approximately $1 gazillion in receipts and making national news in the process. What some of us may not know yet is that it's actually a pretty good time at the movies.
The action follows two brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), on a trip to the now-ostensibly safe dinosaur amusement park of the title, where their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the director of operations. A going concern for a decade, Jurassic World is the pet project of kooky billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), who built on the ruins of the original park, apparently per the wishes of founder John Hammond. Although the park attracts tens of thousands of visitors daily, it struggles to grow and maintain profitability. Chasing the public's fickle, ever-shifting attention, Masrani has commissioned a genetically modified super-predator: Indominus rex. Ex-military uber-mensch Owen (Chris Pratt), hard at work training velociraptors, is troubled by this development, but come on, what could go wrong?
Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) and the abundant screenwriters (four are credited) refuse to burden the movie with plot, and I think it's a good play. We all know what we're getting into when we buy a ticket for a movie with "Jurassic" in the title, so it's right and satisfying that this one goes directly into monster mode. Masrani's test-tube baby quickly outsmarts its handlers and runs amok through the park; chaos ensues. This is well-trod territory, granted, and easily dismissed as derivative and exploitative. But in context it works surprisingly well, provided one can set aside everything but the desire to enjoy a blockbuster.
Jurassic World is pleasantly immersive, much like Jurassic Park (1993), due in no small part to Trevorrow's clear and present reverence for Steven Spielberg. The aesthetic of the movie pays tribute to the once and future king of the box office, lens flares and all, and the whole thing relies more on the effect of its own cinematic world than it does on story or character development. It's a risky move, and one we've seen fail more often than it succeeds. But Trevorrow possesses something of Spielberg's understanding of what makes a juggernaut like this succeed in terms of storytelling, so it can be as enjoyable for the audience as it is for its investors. He cultivates minor details: Zach's teen-aged fixation on every passing girl in the park; Gray's concern that their parents may be getting divorced; the tension inherent in their sibling relationship. And he draws out compelling, nuanced performances from his cast. Pratt is likable and funny, as we'd expect, but he brings a subtle gravity to the role that reinforces his recent A-list status. Vincent D'Onofrio, as a gung-ho corporate tool fixated on raising a dinosaur army, turns an easily dismissed part into something memorable.
This is all well and good, but Jurassic World is not without flaws. It gets a little ham-fisted with the corporate hubris, and making Howard go through the whole movie in heels and a skirt might actually work against what I'll assume is positive feminist intent. Add to this my continuing frustration that Hollywood doesn't seem to care to cultivate original ideas anymore, trading almost exclusively in tentpoles that will do nine figure business in the global marketplace, and one might think I'd hate this thing. As much as it represents what's wrong with biggest-budget movie making today, though, it gets the critical elements right. And really, the cumulative effect of the experience silences most of my criticisms as I consider them. This is a popcorn movie, after all, and it works as well as it does largely because it refuses to take itself too seriously. It embraces the escapism and cheap thrills of the classic monster movie model. So what if it hits some obvious notes, or doesn't deliver an important message? It's big, fun, well executed and undeniably watchable. Asking or expecting more of it would be pretentious. PG13. 124m.
LOVE & MERCY. Biopics are inherently problematic: Reanimating people with whom we are already well acquainted too often results in caricature or blatant mischaracterization. Maybe because the subject of this one, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, has always been a somewhat elusive figure, or because it takes a unique approach to the form, it succeeds where most fail.
Paul Dano plays Wilson in the mid-1960s, when he was coming into his own as a composer, transitioning out of ersatz surfer hit-making and into avant-garde pop invention. His burgeoning musical sensibilities throw him into conflict with his band, his former manager father and the ever-louder voices in his head. The movie shifts from this time period to the mid-1980s, with John Cusack playing Wilson as a man trapped in his own house and head, having fallen under the sway of whacked-out psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who keeps him over-medicated and living in fear. Wilson also develops a relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a pretty lady who sells Cadillacs.
Love & Mercy explores the permeable border between brilliance and madness, with the principal cast all giving remarkable performances. Dano and Cusack will likely get the lion's share of the notice but Banks brings a level of sensitivity and care to the role of Ledbetter that makes me consider her in a new light. PG13. 121m.
— John J. Bennett
DOPE. A high school nerd among Los Angeles tough guys heads out on an urban goose chase with his buddies in search of an uber-cool, life-changing party. R. 115m.
I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. Blythe Danner as a retired singer looking for her second act at karaoke and flirting with Sam Elliot. With Rhea Perlman. PG13. 92m.
INSIDE OUT. A little girl's emotions — colorful little people in her head — struggle as she navigates a move to a new city in this animated comedy voiced by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith. PG. 94m.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. A big, cacophonous superhero sequel with a stellar cast, Director Joss Whedon's trademark quippy writing and serious meditations on human nature. PG13. 141m.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3. A prequel to the creepiness with a girl beset by spirits and a psychic who comes to her aid. PG13. 114m.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Wildly intense action and chases do the original proud, plus an added heart and intelligence in the story and the well-crafted characters. With Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. R. 120m.
PITCH PERFECT 2. Nothing new in the world of singing underdog comedies, but it delivers the laughs and musical numbers. Elizabeth Banks directs and joins the onscreen fun with Anna Kendrick and John Michael Higgins. PG13. 115m.
SAN ANDREAS. A typical disaster-and-popcorn movie with all the clichés, but it works, thanks in no small part to the charm of star Dwayne Johnson. PG13. 114m.
SPY. A clever, big-budget take on the spy comedy buoyed by the charisma and timing of Melissa McCarthy as a CIA pencil pusher out in the field. R. 120m.
TOMORROWLAND. Disneyland with George Clooney — all your dreams come true. Young geniuses and an inventor travel through time in a sci-fi family adventure. PG. 130m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill