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Movie Review: The Captain

(This film is Not Rated)

When I was younger, we were often taught that what a person wore, signified who they were. A person in a Police Officer’s uniform was someone you could trust to protect you, or someone in a fancy business suit was a wealthy entrepreneur. Of course, in the last few decades, we’ve seen more and more instances of how appearances (and reputations) can be deceiving.

With his latest film The Captain, writer/director Robert Schwentke has chosen to look into the perceptions of humanity and appearances, all based around actual events that occurred in the waning days of the Second World War.

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As the film begins, we find a German soldier named Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), deserting his post. As he runs across the barren countryside, he soon stumbles upon an abandoned vehicle, which contains a Nazi officer’s uniform inside.

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Max Hubacher as Willi Herold

Willi puts it on, and soon encounters a number of other German soldiers, who upon seeing the uniform of a superior officer, quickly offer their services to him. He soon spins a tale that he has been sent to the front lines under direct orders from Der Fuehrer, and the men are quick to believe his story and follow him.

Their journey eventually leads them to a camp that houses a number of German deserters, and the start of a reign of terror that would lead to Herold being dubbed, “The Executioner of Emsland.”

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To many of us in this country who have seen historical events portrayed on the big-screen, our perceptions of the Germans during World War II have largely been shaped by stories either involving American soldiers (Saving Private Ryan), or those dealing with the Holocaust (Schindler’s List, The Pianist).  The Captain manages to stray from the path of ‘the familiar,’ holding only on Herold and the German men he encounters. The only traces we get of any ‘foreigners’ to this world, are in the form of several (enemy) planes flying overhead.

While the film is based on actual events, Schwentke makes a bold move, by not giving his subject an elaborate backstory. At first, one can see that Herold’s wearing of the uniform gives him easy access to hot meals and warm beds. However, as he gathers more men, his actions become more enigmatic. This open interpretation allows the audience to draw their own conclusions to a number of the snap decisions he makes, and will probably make for some interesting discussions after the film ends.

When it comes to the enigmatic Herold, Max Hubacher does a decent job in his characterization of the historical figure. One can at times see his fear of being found out, and at other times, he creates a steely gaze that makes one question just what is going on behind those eyes.

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L to R: Freytag (Milan Peschel), Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), Kipinski (Frederick Lau)

Of the men that Herold commands, two that stand out are Freytag (Milan Peschel), and Kipinski (Frederick Lau). Freytag is Herold’s most loyal soldier, but also one of his more restrained confidantes. In contrast, Kipinski seems to revel in any chance to cause trouble, oftentimes becoming the loose cannon in the group. In several instances, it is how these men react to Herold’s commands, that adds some extra tension to some of the film’s more haunting scenes.

The Captain is also an intriguing look at how easily some people will compromise their morality. This is best shown when Herold begins giving orders to deal with the deserters at the camp he and his men arrive at. One can see the camp’s officers growing upset at their command being usurped, but given Herold’s uniform and proclamation that he is in the good graces of Der Fuehrer, many of them are quick to go along with his orders.

Where the film falters a little for me, is in the rather loose, pseudo-documentary style that Schwentke chooses to use. Some scenes seem to drag on a little too long, and there are a few instances that feel like someone may have spliced in film from another reel altogether.

There also is the use of a synthesized score in places, intermingled with traditional German music. Several of the synthesized pieces seem like odd choices given some of the scenes they are used in, though for much of the film, it is the general ambiance of the bleak scenes and music of the era that pull us into the film’s world.

Overall, it is rare to find a film about Germany that does what The Captain does. While Robert Schwentke’s historically-based film may have it’s flaws, the thought-provoking look at perceptions and power that it gives us, makes it an intriguing film to experience.

Final Grade: B

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Movie Musings: Remembering “American Graffiti,” 45 years later

For a young George Lucas in the early 1970’s, things were looking pretty rough.

At the University of Southern California, he had gained notoriety for daring to be different, and winning numerous accolades for his dystopian short film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. However, his attempts to build his film career were met with much resistance.

The translation of his short-subject into the feature-length THX-1138, was reviled by a number of critics, let alone the studio (Warner Brothers) that distributed it. The studio also showed it’s power over Lucas, when they edited the film against his wishes, sowing the seeds for his distrust in the Hollywood studio system.

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George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Following THX, George’s friend Francis Ford Coppola felt that he should try to make something he dubbed, “warm and fuzzy.”

This led to George looking back on his teen years in the early 1960’s. He had been enthralled by cars at that time, and when he later learned how cars figured into ‘the mating rituals of teenagers’ in those days, he decided to make his film about the ‘cruising culture’ in Northern California.

At first, Lucas shied away from writing the story himself. He attempted to have his friends Bill Hyuck and Gloria Katz write it, but they were busy with a personal project of their own. Once he had secured financing, he recruited another friend to write it.

Unfortunately, the script that was turned in went against what Lucas wanted. In the end, George was forced to write it himself.

After being rejected by a number of studios, Lucas did another rewrite, and got some interest from Universal Studios. Once the deal was made, Lucas called on Bill and Gloria (who had finished their personal project by this time), to do some additional rewrites.

The studio also requested Lucas get ‘a name’ to associate with the film. Given that he was going to not be casting any big-name actors, George asked his friend Coppola to sign on as a producer.

This worked to his advantage, as The Godfather had become a hit, and the studio could use the pull of Coppola’s name in the film’s advertising.

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Daring to be Different

Throughout his filmmaking career, George Lucas has often had a very maverick sense of filmmaking. From his days at USC Film School to his production of THX-1138, his sensibilities were often seen as ‘out there’ by a number of people.

Even with something as simple as rock and roll and vehicular nostalgia for the early 60’s, George’s production of Graffiti would be very unconventional.

One would assume that a 1960’s era film about teenagers would be more akin to the beach movies of yesteryear. However, George had more in mind than just another Frankie-and-Annette ripoff.

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L to R: Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) John Milner (Paul Le Mat), Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard)

His film would be more in the vein of a documentary, as if George and his film crew just decided to follow these kids into the hot August night, and see what they got themselves into.

The production was also open to interpretation by the actors. The script was largely seen as an outline, and Lucas would often give his actors free rein to change a line or two, or just improvise.

Some of the actors admitted they were surprised at times, when George would keep filming some scenes over and over again. This led to some of the actors either flubbing lines, or doing unexpected things. Those ended up seeming more ‘natural,’ and oftentimes ended up in the final cut.

There was also the intertwining of four different storylines throughout the film. At the time, the studio said audiences would be confused by this, and that you could only tell one story. Naturally, Lucas’ documentary-style ideas quashed this thinking, and he did it his way.

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Music and Sound

Most notable about the film, is it’s wall-to-wall music soundtrack. A majority of the film’s $750,000 budget went to securing the rights to the 41 original songs that were woven throughout the film.

What some who saw the film never realize, is the ‘”world-izing” the sound team did to the music tracks.

Some of the music sounds like it’s coming from the car speakers, while other times, the music can be altered slightly to draw you into a particularly emotional scene.

Because of the budget constraints, this left little money for any orchestral music. To solve this dilemma, sound effects were layered in to help keep some non-musical scenes from just going silent.

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The Ending Explains the Film

One wouldn’t think of it today, but the film’s ending at the time was considered somewhat controversial.

As Curt’s plane takes wing for the east coast, we see the yearbook pictures of the four guys…and find that not everything ended up happily for them all.

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The studio and several of George’s friends felt this ‘destroyed’ the film, but George claimed it ‘put the whole thing in perspective.’

Graffiti was George’s anthropological ode to “a simpler time.” In his mind, that hot August night in 1962 that these kids shared in, was probably one of the last major nights of their lives, before the rest of the decade overtook them.

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Surprise Hit

Even with a number of successful test-screenings, the head of the studio informed George that the film was a wreck, and some wondered if they should just edit the film and air it as a TV-movie-of-the-week.

The studio was also unsure about the title. The word “graffiti” wasn’t widely-known, and some people felt that the public would think it was “a film about feet.”

It looked like another strike in Lucas’ film career, until Francis Coppola defended his friend, and claimed he was willing to purchase the film back from Universal.

The studio finally relented, and on August 3rd, 1973, American Graffiti was released, and became one of the year’s most profitable films.

It’s overall theatrical gross of $115 million, made it one of the most profitable films at the time given it’s very low production budget.

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The Thematics of George Lucas

If you watch enough films by a director, you soon start to notice patterns in what they make.

Many probably didn’t see it at the time, but if one looks at Lucas’ filmography these days, the themes begin to show up:

Man’s relationship to technologyThis theme manifests itself in several forms. The most obvious is the cruising culture of the film, where we see the kids in it socialize through the late-night driving around their hometown.

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Wolfman Jack as himself.

It’s also notable in relation to all the kids listening to radio DJ Wolfman Jack. The majority of the film’s teens have never met Wolfman, and yet they are totally enthralled by his antics, connecting with a person who is little more than a disembodied voice coming in through their car radios.

EscapeIn the film, Dreyfuss’ character named Curt, returns with Ron Howard’s character to their hometown after a year in college, but is having second-thoughts about going back.

For Curt, the night becomes one where he reminisces about the past, is enticed by a blonde in a white T-Bird, and questions whether he should stay in his hometown.

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker advice, Curt finds his words-of-wisdom from Wolfman Jack himself.

In the end, Curt heads back to college, and eventually moves to Canada, where he becomes a writer.

The theme of ‘escape’ is prevalent in almost all of Lucas’ films.

  • In THX-1138, THX stops taking hs medications, has his eyes opened, and escapes from the film’s underground totalitarian society, into the world above.
  • The first films of Lucas’ Star Wars trilogies, have this play out with both Luke and Anakin Skywalker. They long to escape their environments on Tatooine, and in both cases, a sage-like figure helps them take their first steps (much like Curt after his talk with Wolfman Jack in Graffiti).

Graffiti is also the only film Lucas has done, that almost seems to sidestep the notion of politics (which figure into THX’s totalitarian society, and the Empire’s iron grip over the galaxy in Star Wars).

The closest we get to any form of political mention, happens when Curt is cruising with some girls in their car. One of them happens to be an ex-girlfriend, who tells them about Curt’s dream to one day become a Presidential aide, and shake hands with John F Kennedy.

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The Legacy of Graffiti

Next to his film-series Star Wars, American Graffiti is probably Lucas’s second most well-known film.

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Lucas outside of Mel’s Drive-In on Van Ness Blvd, in San Francisco, CA.

Over the years, many have associated the Mel’s Drive-In chain of restaurants with the film, given it’s prominence as the local hang-out for the film’s teenage crowd. Some even say the film saved the chain from going out of business (sadly, the one at Van Ness Blvd in the film was razed many years ago).

Mel’s also would be featured prominently for several decades in a few of Universal Studios’ theme parks, as both a sit-down restaurant and gift shop.

One of the most notable vehicles in the film, was John Milner’s yellow deuce coupe, which became the film’s unofficial symbol. Some people have often tried to replicate the iconic vehicle, even down to giving their vehicle Milner’s THX-138 license plate (a nod to Lucas’ first film).

Lucas’ hometown of Modesto, California (where he did his cruising before heading off to film school), also immortalized the director and his film.

Along a section of the town’s busy thoroughfares, is George Lucas Plaza. There you’ll find a sculpture of a young teen couple, sitting on the fender of a vintage car.

Since 1998, the town has held an annual American Graffiti Festival, where one can see countless vintage vehicles cruise up-and-down it’s streets. The festival got a huge surprise for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2013, when Lucas accepted their invitation to be the parade’s Grand Marshal.

One thing some don’t know, is that in 1979, Lucas produced a sequel called More American Graffiti.

It was set during the middle of the 60’s, and would have shown what happened to some of the characters from the first film.

However, it became another unnecessary sequel, not even coming close to the first film’s budget (and tone), and left a trail of bad reviews in it’s wake.

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In Conclusion

For some directors, there often comes a film that is seen as insight into who they are. Steven Spielberg did this with E.T., Tim Burton with Edward Scissorhands, and with Lucas, American Graffiti captured a bit of who he was in it’s storytelling, showing who Lucas was with some of it’s characters, and who he had become with it’s pseudo-documentary-style.

It’s far from a perfect film, but it definitely marks an important step in his career. While THX showed his concern over the United States heading towards (or already being in!) an Orwellian dystopia, Graffiti allowed him to try and develop characterization, and show a world both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

It would prove to be a valuable learning tool, when he would get down to working on his film about fast spaceships and laser-swords, a few years later.

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Blu-Ray Review: Gravity Falls – The Complete Series

(DVD MSRP: $59.97; Blu-Ray MSRP: $99.99)

When it comes to Disney’s animated television series Gravity Falls, I didn’t start watching until it was halfway through it’s second season. This proved to be perfect timing, as each episode quickly made me eager for more, and soon put me on track to watch the final episodes with the rest of the series’ super-fans online.

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For their summer vacation, twin siblings Dipper and Mable Pines are sent to the remote town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. There, they are put in the care of their Great-Uncle (aka “Grunkle”) Stan Pines, who runs a seedy tourist-trap called The Mystery Shack.

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L to R: Soos (Alex Hirsch), Dipper Pines, (Jason Ritter), Stan Pines (Alex Hirsch), Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal), Wendy Corduroy (Linda Cardellini)

Shortly after the twins’ arrival, Dipper finds a hidden journal that details how the little town has a number of secrets. Pretty soon, the Pines family and their friends end up encountering a number of strange and frightening entities, that will make this a summer they will never forget.

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Some say that at 40 episodes long, Gravity Falls ended too soon. I beg to differ, as I find it’s short two-season lifespan gives us one of the most intriguing and entertaining animated series ever made. Plus, the ending was approved by it’s creator Alex Hirsch, allowing the series to conclude on it’s own terms, and not become the victim of another studio-approved cancellation (like a lot of other animated shows out there).

Unlike most animated series that struggle at first to figure out ‘what’ they are supposed to be, Falls seemed to know what it was from the very first episode. The general idea was a show that combined the relatable/emotional character antics of The Simpsons, with the mysterious atmosphere of Twin Peaks. Hirsch had always been big into mysteries and conspiracy theories growing up, and with this show, he managed to make thousands of people just as crazy as him, as they attempted to decipher the clues hidden in each episode.

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One of the messages/clues at the end of a Season 2 episode.

The show became one of Disney’s most popular series on their cable channels, and spawned a number of product tie-ins over the years. However, for many of the die-hard fans, there was one thing they wanted above all else: an official release of all of the show’s episodes on DVD.

Unfortunately, even with a massive social media campaign, it seemed there was noone at the Walt Disney Studios who felt putting out such a thing would be worth it. Imagine the surprise of many fans, when it was revealed that there WAS a company who did see it as a worthwhile endeavor. This was Shout Factory, a media company that often puts out a number of music and home video-related products.

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In this era of streaming media, boxsets regarding an animated show’s seasons are pretty rare to find. At most, the studios will just give you the show’s episodes, and that’s it. Fortunately for us, Shout Factory has often been willing to go the extra nine yards with their fan-pleasing products, and they’ve embellished this set with a number of special features!

A highlight for me, is that each of the show’s forty episodes has it’s own audio commentary track. Hirsch is present in all of them, along with an assorted mix of the cast and crew. I’m always up for hearing creators talk about the process of making things, and the behind-the-scenes dialogue was right up my alley. Back when I collected season releases of The Simpson on DVD, the commentary tracks were the big reason I made those purchases, and it was this component that led me to purchase this set.

There are also two interview segments made exclusively for this release.

The biggest one is a multi-part documentary titled, One Crazy Summer. The 105-minute special shows Hirsch and a number of the cast and crew talking about their work on the show, interspersed with video of him going through an old storage locker, where he stored a number of the show’s production materials. We get to see snippets of abandoned story concepts, and plenty of other goodies that will make you want to hit pause over-and-over again.

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Concept art for the show’s Mystery Shack location.

What some people don’t realize, is that just like Dipper and Mabel Pines, Alex Hirsch is also a twin. In The Hirsch Twins, Alex and his twin-sister Ariel sit down for a little chat about growing up together. There’s plenty of childhood pictures, and some great stories about how Alex took their personalities and interests, and intertwined them into the show’s main characters.

The set also touts a deleted scenes feature, but I was a little disappointed regarding their format. Instead of almost-finished animation, what we have are season 2 story meetings, with Hirsch narrating over rough storyboards. While it is a nice look into the show’s production process, I think it would have been better if the deleted scenes could have been included with their corresponding episodes. It would give viewers the chance to compare/contrast them with the final scenes the showrunners used.

There’s also the inclusion of a number of animated promotional materials, as well as smaller interview segments that aired on the Disney cable channels.

Shout even goes the extra mile in the packaging for the 3-disc set.

The DVD/Blu-Ray cases resemble the show’s journals (of which there were three!), and when the discs are watched, the main menu shows the opened pages of the journals.

Plus, the fun doesn’t stop there.

Just because the show is over, doesn’t mean the mysteries are too. There are a number of secret codes seen on parts of the special features disc, using the special alphabet the show created. Once deciphered, they will lead the viewer to find ‘easter eggs’ hidden within the menu pages.

I will admit that even with all the material mentioned above, I was surprised that the show’s original unaired pilot episode wasn’t included. While it is a little similar to the show’s first official episode, I felt it would have been a nice way to help show the evolution of Gravity Falls (like on the early Simpsons boxsetswhere they’d show clips from the character’s first appearances on The Tracy Ullman Show).

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Screenshot from the Season 1 episode, The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Even though it doesn’t give us everything with it’s special features, Gravity Falls: The Complete Series is still one of the most compelling boxsets for an animated series I’ve seen in a long time, and another home run release from the people at Shout Factory!

If you’re a fan of the show, it is highly-recommended that you pick up a copy. If you’re curious as to what the show is about, and got a jones for behind-the-scenes material, you’ll probably find it to be just as entertaining as I did.

Game Review: Jurassic World Evolution

(Available on: PC, Playstation 4, and XBox One. MSRP: $59.99-Standard Edition, $64.99-Deluxe Edition)

Like many a movie-going youngster 25 years ago, I was enthralled by what Steven Spielberg had shown us on the big-screen with Jurassic Park.

However, while I had plenty of merchandise from the film (and it’s sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park), I never had any of the video game tie-ins at the time.

It wasn’t until 2003, that I ended up finding a Jurassic game tied into the film series, that pushed my buttons: Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis.

This game wasn’t about fighting off dinosaurs, but about doing what John Hammond attempted to do: build a dinosaur theme park! Sadly, when I sold my Playstation 2, so too went Genesis.

Then in 2012, the company Ludia made Jurassic Park Builder, an app-based game that also gave the player control over designing their own theme park. Sadly, it’s pay-to-play nature of obtaining some of the rarer dinosaurs quickly turned me away.

Like many others, I wondered if we could ever get a game that did what Project Genesis had done. And then, in 2017, Frontier Developments announced Jurassic World Evolution. I was all-in for this game from the second the first test images hit the internet, and eagerly awaited my chance to get a copy.

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Under the guidance of the InGen Corporation, Evolution assigns you to develop the Los Cinco Muertes (aka “The Five Deaths”) island chain, into a series of 5-star resorts.

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The game follows the same basic principles as Rollercoaster Tycoon (which was also developed by Frontier), where you have to build attractions, and keep guests happy (and safe) enough to plunk down their hard-earned cash. Of course, taking care of rollercoasters will probably seem easier than dealing with living creatures.

With Evolution, you’ll have to keep your dinos well-fed, prevent them from contracting and spreading diseases, and keep them comfortable enough not to rampage out of their enclosures. Plus, given the location of your parks, your guests may also encounter natural disasters like tropical storms, and even tornadoes.

As you develop each island, you will also be working with three divisions that help with the park’s operations: science, entertainment, and security. Your goal is to appease all three of these divisions, accept various contracts and assignments they propose, and keep them happy. This can lead to little dividends, and even special game unlocks. However, if it seems you are favoring one division over another, the others may resort to sabotage (such as opening all the security gates on the dinosaur enclosures!).

Along with in-game characters, there are also some audio appearances by the likes of Jeff Goldblum (Ian Malcolm), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), and B.D. Wong (Dr Henry Wu).

Continuity-wise, if one tries to line up the game to being within the Jurassic World film series continuity, it gets a little complicated. On one hand, there are a series of assignments that line up with Dr Wu creating the Indominus Rex, yet Claire’s verbal warnings fit more with her characterization seen in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

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Visually, the game holds up very well. The environments from a distance almost look photo-real, and one can definitely see the care and detail put into rendering the dinosaurs.

What may wear down on the game player pretty quickly, is the constant need to keep going around the islands, ‘putting out fires’ when you’re alerted to something that needs your attention.

There also is a limit as to how much space on the islands you can develop. I’m assuming this was done as a challenge factor for game play, but one would expect a company like InGen would want to maximize profits, and give a developer total control to maximize an island’s full profit potential.

A positive while playing the game, is that unlike the app-based Jurassic Park Builder, one only needs to work on developing the parks, to gain access to the dinosaur genomes.  It’s nice to know that the more you play the game, the more chances you gain to fill in the blank spaces in your game’s genome library.

Speaking of genomes, the more genetic information you unlock for a dinosaur, the greater your chances are to alter their genetics. You can make them more aggressive, more resilient to disease, even change the color of their skin.

Frontier has also made it so that not all dinosaurs are created equal. Each species has it’s own specific needs, some good and some bad. Building properly-sized enclosures and keeping their comfort levels high is something you’ll have to constantly struggle with: the comfort of these prehistoric creatures, over the chance to make a few extra bucks.

While the game does give you the ability to access genetic hybrids like the Indominus Rex or the Indoraptor, it doesn’t allow the player to create their own affronts to nature. Given the ability to partake in ‘mad science’ in the most recent Jurassic films, this might be something the company could consider for future updates (word is, the game will be ‘plussed’ with updates as time goes by).

Evolution’s $60 retail price is a little steep, though if you’ve had an urge to play God and build your own theme park like me, your ability to have so many dinosaurs at your fingertips may make the price-point easy to forgive. Evolution is also offered in a $65 Deluxe Edition, which gives you access to five more dinosaurs not available with the standard release.

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Overall, Jurassic World Evolution has been pretty enjoyable for me. For the last two weeks, I’ve been using almost every waking moment to keep fine-tuning my parks. Even with the constant headaches of dinosaurs breaking out of enclosures and tornadoes ripping through the grounds, it still keeps me coming back for more.

Like a number of it’s fans I’ve seen online, I too am hoping Frontier Developments’ future updates fine-tune the game. Along with some added items related to the original 1993 film, I’d be interested to see the additions of an aviary, or water-based dinosaurs such as Jurassic World’s Mosasaur.

Audio Commentary Commentation: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’

I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.

At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.

The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the FutureRoger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.

When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.

Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!

The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.

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Historical Ties to the Past

Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.

His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.

Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:

Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.

Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.

When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.

It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’

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A Question (mark) about the title

To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.

Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.

Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?

Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.

Peter SeamanThat was the most-asked question in our press interview.

Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.

Peter SeamanMade ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”

Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.

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Missed Humor

Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.

In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:

Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.

And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”

So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”

We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”

While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.

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Stop the Film!

When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.

Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.

One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:

Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-

Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’

Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.

Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”

It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.

This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.

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Three Films in One

Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.

Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:

Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.

This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.

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The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.

Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.

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LJN toys image, showing a Judge Doom figure with a vulture accessory.

At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.

The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.

There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.

Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.

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Scene from a Roger Rabbit sequel pitch. In this scene, Roger is a toon-shaded, 3D model.

However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.

In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.

Movie Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)

25 years ago, Steven Spielberg ruled the summer box-office with Jurassic Park. The film not only wowed audiences around the world, but also signaled full-speed-ahead for the use of computer technology in feature films.

Since then, the film series has had two mediocre sequels, a nostalgic ‘reboot,’ and now, with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, an attempt to shake things up in a big way.

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Three years after the events in Jurassic World, the island’s long-dormant volcano, is about to erupt.

While debates rage about trying to save the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), are recruited as part of a secret operation to try and rescue as many of the dinos as possible. This order comes from John Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall).

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The rescue party encounters a Brachiosaurus.

While Claire and Owen are to assist with helping collect a number of dinosaur species, key among them is Blue, one of the velociraptors that Owen trained, and who exhibited some remarkable intelligence.

However, as the clock ticks down to the destruction of the island, things start to quickly spiral out of control.

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Much like how The Last Jedi looked to change the game with Star WarsFallen Kingdom is looking to rock some people out of their comfort zone as well.

Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow vacates the director’s chair (but has co-written the script along with Derek Connolly), and passes the torch onto director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, A Monster Calls).

The character depictions manage to be ‘passable’ for the most part. Pratt seems to have dialed up the ‘smugness’ in his depiction of Owen, and in the three years since the first film, Claire has gone from ‘proper businesswoman’ to a ‘dinosaur rights activist’ (shades of John Hammond in The Lost World?).

The two are joined by two conservationists that Claire knows, in the form of a no-nonsense paleo-vet named Zia (played by Daniella Pineda), and a tech-whiz by the name of Franklin (Justice Smith). Franklin ends up being the comic relief for much of the film, though his ‘city-boy-out-in-the-jungle’ act may grate on some who’ve seen it in a number of other films.

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Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon)

Like all Jurassic films, this one attempts to shoehorn in a child, in the form of Bruce Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon). The film tries to add an air of mystery surrounding her, though I think if you pay attention to several scenes, you might be a few steps ahead regarding what the resolution is.

Watching the film, you may be surprised how quickly the story moves through the island of Isla Nublar, almost like Bayona is excitedly wanting to get us to ‘the good stuff.’

Unfortunately, much of the film quickly starts to feel like it’s a little too overloaded with subplots. It wants to not only add more to Hammond’s backstory, but also try adding more to Owen and Blue’s history, let alone dabble a bit more with the ‘genetic tampering’ we were privy to in Jurassic World. Plus, don’t be surprised if you get some Lost World vibes from the film, regarding it’s sub-plot about mankind trying to once again control nature…and once again getting lectured on this topic by Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a very brief appearance).

By this point, the awe of seeing a dinosaur has worn off, and Bayona tries (commendably) to give us a few notable moments, but none of them come close to those ingrained in our minds from the 1993 film. Where he does succeed, is in elevating the tension with several darkened scenes. After awhile, the audience may find themselves keeping track of the flashes of light in some scenes. This is usually the key for something to sneak closer to us, depending on the number of light flashes.

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Director J.A. Bayona, inspecting one of his actors.

Speaking of ‘flashes,’ that seems to be what may stand out the most regarding the film. There are little ‘flashes’ of memorable moments that will probably stick with the viewer, but in regards to embracing the film as a whole, it feels like that may be a tall order to fill.

Even so, I couldn’t help but sense that Bayona’s fandom of Steven Spielberg, is inscribed all over Fallen Kingdom. I noted not only a number of scenes feeling “Spielbergian” regarding their use of lighting and reflections, but also a number of touchstones related to the 1993 film (and possibly it’s sequels from 1997 and 2001?).

In the end, Fallen Kingdom attempts to steer us in a new direction regarding a world in which dinosaurs and man exist…one that may surely divide fans of the Jurassic franchise, on just which direction the series should head towards.

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Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: Following in the foosteps of Colin Trevorrow, director J.A. Bayona attempts to steer Fallen Kingdom in a new direction. The film’s attempts to shake up what we’ve come to expect, ends up getting a bit unwieldly, as it strives to balance a number of subplots over the course of it’s 2-hour run-time. The attempts to awe the audience, pale in comparison to a number of moments where the director manages to build tension with some well-paced scenes, relying a bit on the ‘Spielberg playbook.’ )

 

Retro Recaps: Dinosaurs (Season 4, Episode 2) – Earl, Don’t Be a Hero

A television sitcom, about a family of dinosaurs

That was the idea that Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets) pitched for a TV series in the late 80’s. Some thought he was nuts at first, but eventually, the show got a green-light from ABC Television, and Dinosaurs was born.

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From 1991-1994, the show chronicled the lives of the Sinclair family, who lived in Pangaea. Unlike traiditional interpretations of the massive creatures, the show (with the help of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) would see dinosaurs living in a suburban environment, often delving into problems that modern humans could relate to.

One of the main members of the show was Earl Sinclair. A dopey father-figure, this megalosaurus would attempt to provide for his family, often having his ego get in the way, and quite often, end up being berated by his youngest child, Baby Sinclair.

Some of the time, Earl strove to be a good father figure, and in the second episode of the show’s fourth season, he got an unlikely assist in trying to earn his toddler’s respect.

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Earl returns home with exciting news: he’s been promoted to Toxic Waste Supervisor at the WESAYSO Corporation!

Unfortunately, his teenage kids Robbie and Charlene show little interest in his promotion. Earl attempts to get some sympathy from Baby Sinclair, but all the little guy wants to do is watch Captain Action Figure and his Paramilitary Pals, claiming the (well-marketed) captain is his hero.

“And what does he got that I don’t?” asks Earl.

“A TV Show!” retorts the baby.

The next day Earl gets to work as the new Toxic Waste Supervisor…by dumping a number of the WESAYSO Corporation’s toxic waste into a public lake!

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Earl also discusses with his co-worker Roy, how he’s created an ostentatious hat to make the baby realize how important the new job is.

“I don’t know pally-boy,” says Roy, “Seems to me, the love and respect of your child is cheapened somehow, if it’s based entirely upon the hat.”

Thinking Roy has a point, Earl tosses the hat into the lake.

“But, who am I to say?” rethinks Roy. “I don’t have any children.”

This causes Earl to dive into the (now-toxic) lake to retrieve the hat. However, once he comes out, he’s glowing green! the color fades away, but when Earl stretches towards the sky, he suddenly starts flying!

Once he comes back down to Earth, Roy tells Earl that the toxic waste must have given him superpowers. They check for additional powers, and find that Earl also has heat vision, and can guess someone’s weight!

Roy tells Earl that he should use his powers to become a superhero, and Earl becomes ecstatic, figuring that the baby will really like him now that he has superpowers. However, Roy explains that Earl can’t do that. Like a good superhero, he has to protect his secret identity, for the safety and well-being of his family.

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Earl then adopts the moniker of Captain Impressive, and with a snazzy superhero suit, Earl flies all over Pangaea, foiling bank robberies, redirecting comets, and much more!

Pretty soon, the Sinclair family is enthralled by the superhero’s exploits that they see on TV news. One of the bigger upsides for Earl, is the baby now likes Captain Impressive more than Captain Action Figure.

Earl also hasn’t bathed since he fell into the toxic lake, and even though his wife questions his peculiar odor, Roy cautions him that a shower will surely wash away the chemicals that give him his powers.

Unfortunately, Earl’s boss Mr Richfield sees him use his heat vision during lunch, and calls Earl into his office. Richfield manages to trick Earl into revealing his superhero identity, and praises his superpowers.

“They could be very useful to a sinister, multi-national conglomerate such as this,” notes Richfield.

Earl claims that he won’t use his powers to help evil, but Richfield claims that he has no choice…because he’s contractually obligated to do so! Apparently, in the WESAYSO contract Earl signed long ago, if a dinosaur who works for the company ever obtains superpowers, they must use those powers for whatever the company wants! Richfield still allows Earl to stop crime and all, but only once he has completed his obligations to the company…such as opening WESAYSO shopping centers, and advertising WESAYSO brand products.

This shift in his agenda causes the majority of the Sinclair family to consider Captain Impressive as ‘a sell-out,’ but the baby is still impressed by the superhero.

This blind hero-worship comes into play when Richfield tells Earl, that the company has plans for a TV show called The Captain Impressive Action Fun Hour. Earl is at first excited, feeling he can teach kids plenty of important life-lessons, but his boss quickly tells him that the show is only to get the kids to convince their parents to buy over-priced (and often unsafe) merchandise! Some examples include a Captain Impressive doll that has a knife inside it, pajamas made out of newspaper, and even a trachea plug!

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Earl attempts to use sound logic against big-business, but Richfield orders him to get to the TV station. Once there, Earl finds that the show is actually just an hour-long program on a home-shopping channel.

As the program goes on, Earl is surprised when Baby Sinclair calls, wanting to purchase a Captain Impressive trachea plug! When Earl hears the baby say he wants to buy the item because it has his face on it, Early finally has enough, and takes off his mask (shocking his family at home)!

Earl attempts to talk to the viewers about WESAYSO’s money-grubbing ways, but he is shoved aside, and relieved of his Captain Impressive costume.

Returning home, Earl finally showers, and washes off the toxic waste, nullifying his powers and superhero career.

He also gives the baby one of the Captain Impressive dolls (minus the dangerous knife inside it). However, the baby claims that he doesn’t like Captain Impressive anymore, since he’s got no superpowers.

“Well I’ll let you know a little secret,” says Earl. “If you take off the cape, and the mask and the funny costume, sometimes you fine a real hero underneath.”

“Looks like you,” says baby, looking at the costume-less figure.

“That’s the point,” continues Earl.” You see, Daddy’s are heroes too, and Mommies. We may not have heat vision, but we go to back-breaking, mind-numbing jobs so you can grow up comfortably and, have some nice things in your life. It may not be flashy, but it’s real.”

When the baby just demands Earl ‘guess his weight,’ he walks away, feeling like he’s wasted his time.

However, a few moments later, he hears the baby, and sees him playing with the action figure!

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“I’m Captain Daddy,” proclaims the baby. “Going to work…a mind-numbing job! Honey, I’m home!”

As the baby laughs, Early smiles, happy that he did get through to his son.

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And that was Earl, Don’t Be A Hero.

When it comes to some shows, it feels like the topic of superheroes eventually comes up, and Dinosaurs got to check that off their bingo card.

There also is some fun comedy with the Captain Action Figure TV show in the beginning, where the show tries to convince the kids at home, to guilt-trip their parents into buying merchandise.

This episode also shows how Earl is definitely not a perfect character, but still has some positive attributes (given the appropriate script). He quickly accepts that he has to do his job and dump toxic waste in a public lake, but also shows that he doesn’t wish to lead his young son astray with the wrong life-lessons (even if the baby can be annoying at times).

The show also seems to have some fun with the secret identity bit. Given that Captain Impressive and Earl have the same body-type, the family never puts two-and-two together, until he removes his mask.

There actually is a fun little bit of trivia regarding the action figure of Captain Impressive. It’s sculpt may not look like the Earl we know, but once upon a time, it was the original design for him. However, they found the original design looked a little too ‘stern.’ The features were softened, and Earl became more of the dopey Dad we see in the show.

For me, the highlight of the episode is it’s ending, where Earl tells the baby how parents are often the ‘unsung heroes’ of their families. Almost every episode of Dinosaurs usually has an interesting message to take away, and I found this was one that I feel is rarely ever touched upon.

While probably not one of the series’ best episodes, I did like what it did with it’s themes of being a parent, as well as trying to be a responsible superhero, in the face of the evils of the world (like greedy corporations).