Friday, March 31, 2017

Worth Mentioning - DoYouThinkHeSaurus?

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Aquatic thrills and dinosaurs in the modern world.


For some members of my generation, the Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park had a similar effect on them to the effect George Lucas's Star Wars had on legions of young viewers back in 1977. The release of this film was a major event for us youngsters. Children tend to be fascinated by dinosaurs, I certainly was, and here they were, being brought to the big screen with the most impressive special effects of the day, newfangled animatronics and CGI rather than the old school methods of stop-motion and suitmation.

The special effects of Jurassic Park were a stunning accomplishment for the time and they still hold up. The CGI still looks better than the CGI in some movies that are made now, and the animatronics are downright awesome.

Many viewers who were blown away by the film in the early '90s remain enamored with it to this day. I still enjoy it and respect it, it's a great movie, but for me it's one where the rewatchability has nearly run dry. That's a fact I was surprised to realize when attending a screening of its 3-D 20th anniversary re-release in 2013. A film that had captivated and inspired awe in me as a child was now causing me to fall asleep in my theatre seat.

I think Jurassic Park doesn't work for me as well today because so much of it depends on that sense of wonder I felt while watching it more than twenty years ago. It's a sense of wonder the viewer is supposed to share with the characters, and that feeling is meant to carry you through the entire first hour of the movie, up until the point when the action starts. But I've seen this movie so many times that the wonder has worn away, so now that first hour has become something I have to endure before it gets to the big moments.

The eponymous Jurassic Park is located on Isla Nublar, 120 miles west of Costa Rica. A wealthy man named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), CEO of a company called InGen, has populated this island with dinosaurs, brought back in the modern age through DNA harvested from the bellies of prehistoric mosquitoes that were preserved in amber. That's  fossilized tree sap. Any gaps in the DNA sequences were filled with DNA from frogs, and there you go. Fifteen species of dinosaurs, living and breathing in the 1990s, genetically engineered so that they're all female. They don't want breeding in the wild in Jurassic Park, dinosaurs will only be made in the labs. That's the idea, anyway.


Hammond intends to open this island up to the public as an amusement park, but he has run into trouble. These dinosaurs are vicious creatures, and a park employee was recently killed by a Velociraptor. Even though I was dinosaur enthusiast as a kid, I had never heard of a Velociraptor before seeing this movie. After seeing this movie, I never forgot them.

The employee's family is suing InGen for $20 million and the investors are threatening to pull out, so Hammond is hoping that being endorsed by high-profile scientific experts might smooth things over. The experts he invites are paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and "chaos theory"-espousing mathematician Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum). Co-workers Grant and Sattler are hesitant to venture off this island at first, not knowing what Hammond has going on there, but he convinces them by promising to fund the next three years of their fossil digs. Hammond has a lot of money, and as he'll constantly remind people, he "spares no expense" to make sure the things he wants done are done.

Upon their arrival on Isla Nublar, the experts are shocked to see dinosaurs roaming around. This is when that sense of wonder is supposed to kick in. After being filled in on how this is all possible, none of them are especially keen on the idea of dinosaurs existing in modern times, and while expressing his opinion Malcolm delivers one of the all-time great lines, saying the InGen scientists were "so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

Then it's time for the experts to be sent out through the park on the tour that visitors would go on, with automated Jeeps taking them past the various dinosaur enclosures. On this tour, they are accompanied by Martin Ferrero as Gennaro, a lawyer representing Hammond's investors who has given Hammond 48 hours to impress him with the concept of Jurassic Park, and Hammond's young grandchildren - Joseph Mazzello as Tim and Ariana Richards as Lex. They're visiting their grandfather while their parents go through a divorce, and Richards had some experience with giant, prehistoric man-eaters before this film. She was in Tremors three years earlier.

The dinosaurs are a no-show on the first half of the tour, which is another thing that makes the first hour of the movie feel like it takes a while to get through. The group does get a close encounter with a very ill Triceratops when they dare to ditch the Jeeps, and Sattler joins the island doctor in trying to figure out what the problem is.

As the Jeeps head back toward the garage, a severe storm hits the island. And that's when disaster strikes, thanks to traitor computer tech Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight). Feeling underpaid, Nedry has made a deal with a rival company to steal DNA samples of all fifteen dinosaur species. For this, he'll be paid $1.5 million. To steal the samples and make it across the island to the boat that's supposed to take him to the mainland (along with most of the other employees - this is a big budget blockbuster, but it still cuts the character count down to the bare minimum), Nedry shuts off the security system, kills the power in select areas, and cuts the lines of communication. Nedry will get his comeuppance, but on his way to it he causes hell for everyone else on the island.

One area in which the power went off is the T. Rex pen. The Jeeps come to a stop right outside the 10,000 volt electric fence which is no longer electrified. 64 minutes into the film's 126 minute running time, the T. Rex busts through its fence and attacks the Jeeps. This is the sort of thing I can still get a lot of entertainment from watching.

The action keeps coming at a steady pace from that point on, whether we're following Alan and the kids across the dinosaur-filled island after the Jeeps are destroyed and they're separated from Malcolm, or we're watching the endeavor to get the security system back up and running, or feeling schadenfreude over what happens to Nedry. Dinosaurs stampede, some spit venom, herbivores are marveled at, and the rampaging T. Rex is a constant threat. Then we find out the Velociraptors have gotten out of their enclosure. And those things are some nasty, deadly, relentlessly bloodthirsty creatures.

Spielberg wrings every bit of suspense and excitement he can out of every scenario, even the moment when the power is being turned back on. Because of course, at the same moment electricity is about to go surging through the island again, characters who are out of the loop are in the middle of climbing over an electric fence.

A character who plays an integral role in getting the power back on is Nedry's fellow computer tech Ray Arnold, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor the world was just starting to take real notice of at this time. He definitely made an impression on me when I saw this movie, this frazzled guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth who says "Hold on to your butts" before he reboots the computer system. I thought this actor was really cool, and Jackson has gone on to confirm his coolness many times in the years since.

The first hour of Jurassic Park has gotten tough for me to sit through, but like I said, this is still a great movie that's packed with iconic moments, memorable lines, and great special effects. It may not hold much wonder for me anymore and I might not feel like watching it very often, but there is no denying that it made an impact when it was released, and I was part of the generation that most strongly felt that impact.


If you look over the early career of director Stephen Sommers, Deep Rising comes off as being an unexpected twist. It was the fourth movie Sommers directed, and before this he had made a PG "save the high school movie", a Huck Finn movie (he also wrote a separate Huck Finn film), and a live action version of The Jungle Book. All films geared toward children. Then he makes an R rated creature feature.

So despised by late critic Roger Ebert that he featured his review of the film in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, Deep Rising stars Treat Williams as John Finnegan, unscrupulous boat captain who will, with the help of his crew members Joey Pantucci (Kevin J. O'Connor) and Leila (Una Damon), take anybody anywhere in the South China Sea for any reason. His motto is, "If the cash is there, we do not care." So when a shady group hires Finnegan to take them out to a certain spot, he takes them there and keeps going even when he realizes they're carrying torpedoes.

The destination turns out to be a casino ship, which Finnegan's passengers intended to rob and sink. There's money there, but there are hardly any passengers left when the criminals board the ship - they've almost all been devoured by a giant, tentacled beast that has risen from the depths of the sea, where it has been living hidden in an underwater mountain range.

That beast is still around, and it's still hungry. The bulk of the film then consists of Finnegan, his crew, the criminals, and the few people left on the ship - including thief Trillian St. James (GoldenEye Bond girl Famke Janssen) trying their best to escape the grasp of the monster's tentacles. Most of them fail.

I'm not crazy about Deep Rising, but it's certain not a film that I think is deserving of being singled out as something terrible. It's just a goofy monster movie, out to deliver some fun mayhem, thrills, and bloodshed. The film's greatest asset is its cast, from Williams and Janssen to the hero and heroine to Anthony Heald as the casino ship's owner and Wes Studi, Jason Flemyng, Cliff Curtis, Clifton Powell, Trevor Goddard, and Djimon Hounsou as the criminals. It's an impressive bunch that Sommers managed to get for this nonsense.

A box office disappointment when it was released, Deep Rising has gone on to become a cult favorite, and I would assume that O'Connor's Joey Pantucci is a beloved character among the movie's fans. For me, he's one of the elements that has held me back from really embracing the film, because I have always found him to be annoying. The movie's sense of humor, as displayed most strongly through this character, just isn't very appealing to me.

Seeing this cast battle a monster? That's appealing.


Sometimes the concept of a certain movie can seem so intriguingly unique that after hearing just the basic idea your mind starts reeling with excitement over its potential and with wonder as you ponder what the filmmaker might do with that idea. And sometimes when you see the finished movie you find that the filmmaker really didn't do all that much with it.

Director Douglas Schulze's The Dark Below has had me on the hook ever since I first heard about it a year and a half ago, as I fascinated by the thought of a film being set almost entirely on and beneath the surface of a frozen lake as a woman struggles to survive in the cold water, a killer waiting above her. It sounded like the film would be a cat and mouse game between the woman and the killer as she tries to escape the situation, a scenario that would play out with almost no dialogue. How could Schulze build a feature film from this idea, how would he make it last for more than an hour? What sort of things would the woman be doing to try to survive? I had no idea, but I trusted Schulze to make it interesting.

When I finally got a chance to watch The Dark Below, it quickly became clear that the main way Schulze managed to get the movie to feature length was through an excessive use of slow motion. The movie begins by dropping us right into the action - the first thing we see is the woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) being attacked by the killer (David G.B. Brown). She is incapacitated, he puts her in a wetsuit, drags her down to the lake, chops a hole in the frozen surface, and drops her into the water. That sounds like it should happen pretty quickly, doesn't it? It doesn't happen quickly. Thanks to slow motion, that sequence takes up more than 10 minutes.

As you might expect, The Dark Below is a short movie. Just over 75 minutes, and that's counting 5 and a half minutes of end credits. I wouldn't have thought that a movie that has the credits rolling in under 70 minutes could so thoroughly wear out its welcome, but this one had me tired of watching it within 10. This probably would have benefited from being a short, because I doubt there is more than 35 minutes of content packed into those 70 minutes.

As for the struggle for survival that I was so interested in seeing, it's barely a struggle at all. The woman's time in the water primarily consists of her just floating there while she has flashbacks to the events that led up to her being put in this predicament. These flashbacks show us who the killer is and why he has chosen to kill the woman, and they're presented to us with almost no sound aside from the score by David Bateman and Eric Correa. The characters mostly communicate through looks, but sometimes they do talk to each other, we just don't hear it. So that's how The Dark Below gets by with having just one line of dialogue; by drowning out all the other lines. Among the people we don't get to hear speak is Veronica Cartwright of Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers '78, playing the woman's mom.

The frozen lake part of the film is a disappointment, but there are actually some good, involving parts to the flashback story. It would have been a more typical film, but it might have been a more enjoyable viewing experience if Schulze had given us the story (which he wrote with Jonathan D'Ambrosio) in a more linear fashion, and let us get to know the characters better by allowing us to hear their conversations. That version of The Dark Below might have even been able to sustain its feature length running time.

There are some great ideas at the core of The Dark Below, but the movie falls far short of its potential. The way Schulze brought the ideas to the screen did not work for me. It's really only worth seeking out if you want to watch 70 minutes of not much happening in quiet slow motion. Maybe if you watch it at 2x speed...

The review of The Dark Below originally appeared on


Long before The Asylum came along with their mockbusters, we had Roger Corman beating Jurassic Park to the big screen by four weeks with his film Carnosaur, which shares the idea of genetic experiments bringing dinosaurs back in the modern age. And that's about all the two films share.

Carnosaur is based on a 1984 novel by Harry Adam Knight (a.k.a. John Brosnan), although writer/director Adam Simon and the low budget ensured that not many of the novel's ideas made it into the film. Although I haven't read the novel, from what I gather the main thing that links Carnosaur the book and Carnosaur the movie is the concept of a scientist reviving dinosaurs by manipulating chicken DNA. The scientist here is Dr. Jane Tiptree, played by Diane Ladd - mother of Jurassic Park actress Laura Dern.

When a dinosaur (a Deinonychus, if you know what this is... I didn't) hatches from a chicken egg and proceeds to murder and mutilate people around a small desert community, we know Tiptree is one responsible for these deadly shenanigans, and we soon learn that her mad plans go far beyond simply replacing chickens with prehistoric creatures. These eggs have a horrifying effect on the people who consume them. Men who eat the eggs become ill, while women who eat them become pregnant. With dinosaurs. And when these baby dinos are ready to be born, they come tearing through the stomach of their surrogate mother. Tiptree's plan is to wipe out the human race and give the planet back to the dinosaurs.

Thwarting this plan falls on the shoulders of a guy called Doc (Raphael Sbarge), who makes a living guarding excavation equipment and gets involved with an environmental activist who chains herself to the equipment - The In Crowd's Jennifer Runyon as Ann Thrush.

Dinosaurs rampaging through the desert is a fine concept, and Tiptree's plan is a terrific B-movie mad scientist plot, even if the way the contaminated eggs and their effects is very dark, disturbing, and disgusting. More troubling than I really want a movie about rampaging dinosaurs to be. The real problem I find with this movie, though, is that Simon somehow managed to bring these ideas to the screen in an exceptionally dull manner.

Carnosaur was a movie that came along in my formative years, arriving at a time when something like this was a big deal, a must see release. Because of that, and the fact that it has spawned a franchise, it's a movie that I have come back to many times over the last couple decades, despite the fact that I've never liked it all that much. I'm never particularly engaged by what's going on in the movie, and I find its style, tone, and pace to be off-putting.

There is a certain type of movie watcher who will somehow become a fan of movies they don't like, and I am that sort of movie watcher. I will always cheer for Carnosaur, even if I don't enjoy sitting through it all that much.

Knight / Brosnan's novel sounds like it could have made for a more entertaining movie. It's set in England, where the investigation of deadly animal attacks leads a reporter to discover that the deaths were caused by escaped dinosaurs from a wealthy man's private zoo. The man sees World War III approaching and wants to give the planet back to the dinosaurs in the aftermath. All of the dinosaurs are eventually released into the English countryside to wreak havoc... I don't see anything about contaminated chicken eggs or human/dino pregnancies in there, just some good ol' dinosaur mayhem.

Thankfully, straightforward dinosaur mayhem is exactly what the Carnosaur sequels deliver.

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