The Trip to Spain

Rob Brydon [Rob] and Steve Coogan [Steve] in Michael Winterbottom’s THE TRIP TO SPAIN. Photo courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
During last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, one of the most enjoyable movies was The Trip to Spain. It  won me over simply for the two actor’s dueling impressions of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and of course Michael Caine. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s midlife crises, mansplaining, trip—while damn hilarious—is darker than their previous films. It’s a neurotic treat for the insecure fools in all of us.

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Five Classic Horror Movies from the Zealot

Sure, you could watch a classic horror movie this like Halloween, Psycho, or The Thing, but why not try some offbeat chillers to give you the holiday shivers? Here are 5 flicks guaranteed to raise the goosebumps.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

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This film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of a scientist’s experiments with mind and body transformations via a laboratory potion was castigated and an embarrassing flop on it’s initial release.
Many thought Spencer Tracy’s two character performance was hammy and hamfisted. He even thought it would ruin his career! It’s time for a rewrite. Let’s start with the production. It got the full luxe MGM treatment.There’s nothing like fog-blanketed Victorian London to set a moody tone and here you get those eerie cobblestoned passageways with a murderous cloaked madman flitting about the barred parks and side streets like a superhuman acrobat. Chillingly beautiful. And then the cast: Tracy brings a nuanced interpretation to the halved protagonist, more psychological than Freddie Kruger scary. Stevenson’s idea of Everyman being a receptacle of Good and Evil is ratcheted up another Freudian notch. The Evil is our id, sexual repression leads to beastly carnality. The good doctor is torn between his virginal fiance, Lana Turner as a dewey Victorian Barbie doll, and the lustier bad girl, Ingrid Bergman as a hotly-totsy barmaid garbling a dubious Cockney accent. Each woman toys with his inner urges (given how stunningly beautiful they’re filmed by lensman Joseph Ruttenberg, is it any wonder?) and each summons up that creepy ol’ Mr. Hyde in some disturbing shock moments. But if there’s one reason to see how legendary director Victor Fleming spins the yarn, it’s in the Jekyll-to-Hyde mutation sequences. The images that are careening thru Jekyll’s brain are so bizarro you wonder “How did this get past the Hayes office??” Need I say more than Tracy flogging two horses with a whip, one white, one black, who morph into galloping naked Turner and Bergman? If that doesn’t get you to watch this underrated classic I don’t know what will.

Cat People (1942)

cat-people-10-leopardCat People (1942) The best horror film of the ’40s. Kent Smith is a draughtsman who meets cute and weds a mysterious Serbian fashion designer, the kittenish Simone Simon. Things turn eerie when she tells him they can’t consummate the marriage because she’s cursed by an Old World spell wherein she’ll turn into a deadly panther if they do! Sounds hokey but it’s got scenes of real shock and terror that have been ripped off for decades. A masterly use of atmosphere, sound effects, and inky dark shadows to make you squirm.

Bedlam (1946)

29-bedlam-400What if you’re committed to an mental asylum and you keep insisting you’re sane…but no one believes you? That scary old premise is given a good turn in this literate and moody horror drama. Anna Lee is the crusading do-gooder who wants to reform the inhuman conditions of Bedlam, the infamous 18th century London madhouse. But the cruel director of the joint, lispy Boris Karloff, catches wind of her scheme and has her thrown in with all the ‘loonies’ through some political sleight of hand. How she plots to keep her wits about her and escape the spooky place is satisfying fun. And if the actress sounds familiar it’s because she went on to become the kindly matriarch Lila Quartermaine 35 years later on the soap “General Hospital”.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

creature-black-lagoonYes, it’s just a stuntman in a rubber lizard suit, but this atmospheric frightfest has more to offer than it’s (well-deserved) shocks. A team of paleontologists take a tramp steamer deep into the Amazon jungle searching for the remains of prehistoric ‘gill man’ and surprise, he still around to wreak havoc on their mission. Take it all at kitschy face value or look closer and see the real ‘creature’ here is the male ego of the two lead scientists (Richard Carlson, Richard Denning) who vie for the attention of their female cohort (Julie Adams). It’s monster as symbolic sexual frustration. When the big reptile ogles her in a famous underwater pas de deux, the chills are sexy AND spine tingling. 

The Conqueror Worm (1968)

witchfinder-general-18On the surface this looks like another one of those overought ’60s Edgar Allen Poe pictures where Vincent Price hammed it up amongst the pits and the pendulums. But look again, it’s a thoughtful meditation on pervasive corruption in religion and government. Here he’s Matthew Hopkins–a character loosely base on fact—a lawyer in 17th century England who’s a self appointed witch-hunter,  going from village to village executing anyone being suspected of witchcraft or satanism. For the right price. Bleak and unflinching, there are some gruesome scenes of torture and violence so be prepared. But Price is the very picture of smug malevolence in the name of religion, (he considered it his best performance), a baddie with haunting echoes of current events . . . Ted Cruz ring a bell? So it’s worth the time if you can stomach the horror.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

Streaming on Netflix: Miss Lovely’s director Ashim Ahluwalia

0a5a0-miss_lovely_06Director, Ashim Ahluwalia—whose first feature film, Miss Lovely, currently streaming on Netflix—is not your typical Bollywood director.  I interviewed Ahluwalia last year and he was not what I expected, as I anticipated meeting the next big blockbuster Bollywood director.  He’s a down-to-earth guy, well-informed and totally aware of his field, and passionate about making movies that matter.  I approached the topic of Indian cinema (a subject new to me) in hopes of broadening my knowledge. After speaking with Ahluwalia, I walked away feeling much enlightened on the business of Indian cinema, in particular the emergence of C-grade movies. My fears were confirmed that it’s hard everywhere for filmmakers who don’t want to just make films that are “instantaneously gratifying.” But—be it Hollywood or Bollywood—it’s good to know that there are directors out there like Ahluwalia who are committed to making movies that matter.

West:  As I started doing my background research on this new “Bollywood” director, Ashim Ahluwalia, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is not a Bollywood director, but rather a director who happens to be Indian, and a fine director of world cinema.

Ahluwalia: Thank you.

West:  You studied [film] here in the USA at Bard. How has studying in the USA informed or created conflict for you in making films in India?

Ahluwalia: Bard was a huge eye-opener for me. It’s a freaky school, even by American standards, and even by American narrative industry cinema. It comes from a very ’60s experimental film tradition, and the way they look at cinema is very different. So, as I was growing up, I was exposed mainly to Hollywood and Bollywood stuff. When I went to Bard, I was exposed to a lot of experimental stuff, world cinema, and a lot Asian cinema, which I had never seen.  And also a lot of Indian films from the ’50s and ’60s, which I had also never seen. So, it was suddenly a complete new world.  One of the things I took away from Bard was the fact that film is a language. It’s not something that you just take as [a] given. I think that that’s something that we don’t see so much of now. Because people sort of accept the genre that they work in, and there’s no questions about the language and the things that you can do with form. I think when you talk about contemporary Korean and Japanese cinema—they’re still doing that form. Popular film, studio films, will do some weird stuff, and you say “Wow, how do they get away with that?” I’m kind of fascinated and amazed by that way of making film. You know, necessarily flagging it off and making an art house film, which for me is as boring as doing a commercial film, but really this new way of thinking about cinema, like, collapsing into itself. I think Miss Lovely is a perfect example of me being very unencumbered in the Indian industry setup, That’s very satisfying, because that means there’s something new to do with film. You’re not retroactively trying to do something that’s already been done twenty years ago. So, that’s where I’m coming from. Bard got me really thinking about form and language and what you can really do with it, and slipping things [in]. How porn is so close to experimental film, and how horror is sometimes so close to sex. These lines that people keep very far apart from each other, but if you slip over them, things really happen that are interesting.

West: But within the film [Miss Lovely], they’re making movies that are marrying horror and soft porn.

Ahluwalia: Exactly! I think for me—you know in India we have a tradition—I think you have that here too—a tradition of the straight up commercial film, and then there’s art house films, and then there’s a big gap in between. Right? I think that what happened is that when I went back [to India], I discovered the C-grade space: the sort of illegal sex film, which had bits of stock footage in it, and had weird mismatched narrative: where an actor suddenly disappears, and is then suddenly replaced by another actor. I think this was actually the missing link for me, between these two spaces. And so, as a first feature, it’s not only an interesting subject, but it’s also defining a space for me.

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West: How was Miss Lovely received in India?

Ahluwalia: It’s been received well. I didn’t even expect it to open theatrically—it opened in 400 cinemas in India. The distributor said, “We can do this.” I said, “Are you sure you want to do this because it’s a really challenging film.” It [Miss Lovely] is really frustrating, because it gives you all the clues of a traditional genre movie, a thriller, and then it doesn’t deliver. It delivers something else. And they were like, “No, we really want to do this.”  So, what they did is quite interesting. They released it as an art house movie in the cities, and kind of a sexy film in small towns.

West: How interesting.

Ahluwalia:  It was really interesting. It was really well received.  Actually the week we opened, we were the most popular film. Which makes no sense whatsoever. It could also have to do with the fact that it has all this sexual-titillating content in a country which is very conservative. But the reviews were great.

It was just staggering for me that people just got it. There were reviews from mainstream papers talking about how this film is all about its relationship to Bollywood, and its definition, vis-à-vis, having a dominant film industry that’s kind of a looming force that doesn’t let you make movies.

West:  So, this is an example of don’t underestimate your audience.

Ahluwalia:  Yeah! You know, I learn that every time. It’s so amazing. There will be the most intelligent cinephile who will be, like, “I don’t get it.” Then there will be some granny, “Oh, that was interesting how that happened.”  That makes me excited.  So, once you get into that whole thing that only the audience wants is a summer blockbuster, then it becomes difficult to make work.

West:  Do you think this creates more opportunities for other Indian filmmakers to make non-glittery [non-Bollywood] films?

Ahluwalia:  Yeah. It really helped that this film went to Cannes. Because, suddenly it was like, “Oh, there’s something worth looking at here [in India].”  And it was in Rotterdam and Toronto, which is rare for a first feature. Rotterdam is art house and quite rigorous and challenging. Toronto can be quite mainstream, but also very indie, so it has this weird mix. I think the fact that it had a kind of a stamp of approval that allowed for people to say, “Oh this isn’t a sleaze film.” [Otherwise,] I think that people would have just said, “Oh, this is a sleaze movie. Get rid of it.”

West:  The distributors, you mean?

Ahluwalia:  The distributors, everybody, would not have allowed for the film to circulate. It would have been killed as a weird oddity. And then maybe rediscovered some twenty years later.

West:  Are there other [Indian] directors who are making similar films or films about real people?

Ahluwalia:  There are, but not so formally radical. I think that the film allowed for non-histrionic acting; the film allowed for a weird space, where you have [a] mix of real people, documentary, and also a darker sort of film. Something that is radical with this film—in the Indian context—is how dark it is, and how it doesn’t ever fulfill that happy moment. Happiness with a tinge of sadness attached to it. I think that tone has never existed in Indian cinema. Because the characters are nuanced: the younger brother is submissive, yet he’s kind of conniving; and the older brother is horribly dominating, yet he’s kind of loyal. Things are not complete.

West:  They’re not cookie cutter characters.

Ahluwalia:  It doesn’t further along the Indian moral agenda: the family being a good thing. I think that can influence younger [Indian] filmmakers.  So, you see films with ambiguous characters, or more incomplete characters and more nuanced, and so, the realness from that aspect, not just the superficial realism from the handheld [documentary look].

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West:  You mentioned documentaries. I understand that Miss Lovely started out as a documentary that you turned into a narrative film. How has documentary influenced your style and experience?

Ahluwalia:  Well, because pornography is illegal—just to put it in context—any kind of pornographic material is illegal; it will get you a minimum of three years in jail. It’s non-bailable.  So when you think about these movies, they’re not B-movies, which want to be real movies; they’re C-grade movies that are made for the excuse for these sex bits to be illegally interspersed. They get interspersed at the cinema level, and not through the censors. So these reels, in the ‘80s, used to be delivered on bicycle at night and get spliced into these movies. So you’d have a movie, which people would be waiting for the sex bit to appear.  I was fascinated by this. I spent a year and a half with these people. By the end, nobody wanted to be in the documentary. They were, like, “Why would I tell you on camera what I told you last night while [we] were drunk?”  Then, I realized how naïve I was. I guess, in a way, how westernized I was by not understanding that these people would hang out with me, but they would never let me make this documentary. Years later, what I did was take all the people and their stories—which were all real—and kind of patch them together and make the script of Miss Lovely. So there are elements of that documentary that worked back into the film. The movies that the two brothers make [in the film] are real C-grade movies. They’re not re-enacted. All that stuff and the sex bits were brought back into the film. So, it allowed room for my earlier life as an experimental filmmaker, using stock footage, reused footage, stuff that in a mainstream film, you’d never get away with.

West:  So, you learned a lot in the process of making the film.

Ahluwalia:  I’ve become, sort of weirdly, the archaeologist of this stuff and now, unfortunately, I have to say, I’m fucking tired of it—talking about C-grade films. Two years ago, nobody talked about this stuff. Before this film was made, this didn’t exist. It was kind of a vague subculture. This film comes out, and I thought that people in India were going to freak-out, because it’s quite wild, not just formally, but the sex stuff, and the way women are shown. Because women in Indian films are very submissive, or they’re vamps, and they die at the end. The funny thing is that it’s gone the other way. People are non-neurotically talking about subculture. Which is great, because it opened up this huge conversation. Everybody is writing a paper on C-grade cinema; everyone is doing a coffee-table book. It’s gone the other way a bit. And I’m kind of done. But I did it accidently, because I actually restored these films; I had to find them on film. I went into basements to find them, digging up movie negatives, getting them restored. As a result there’s a kind of a resurgence of interest. And now French DVD labels want to put out a series of Indian sex films.

West:  While watching Miss Lovely, it made me curious to see these [C-grade films]. The more [Miss Lovely] is shown, the more you’re going to entice people’s curiosity. I guess it’s really good timing, huh? Maybe two years ago you couldn’t have gotten it played?

Ahluwalia:  It could be.  It took me years to get this film financed, three to four years to make it. Then it went to Cannes in 2012, but then it didn’t get released [in] India until two months ago, when it was released in 400 cinemas. It was stuck in the censors for a year in India.  Now it’s being released in the States two years later. So it’s got this very weird, very slow movement, which is very unlike the normal path of a film. Usually, it’s at a festival; then two months later it opens, then DVD, VOD. [Miss Lovely] is so weird, because it has different lives and different ways of being perceived in different cultures. In India, the distributors put it out as an indie art house movie in the cities, and then as a sex film in small towns. So, I have the good fortune of my first feature [film] being in Cannes and in the sleaziest, fleapit cinemas in North India, in the middle of nowhere, which is bizarre. It’s just crazy!

West:  You said somewhere that you want to continue to make films that upset, bother, and leave the viewer thinking, why the hell did I watch that?, and then find themselves still thinking about it a week later.  As you continue to experience some success, is this something that you can maintain?

Ahluwalia:  I would love to do that. I would be disappointed if I made a film that was instantaneously gratifying, and then two weeks later there’s another [hit] movie, and then mine is gone from the public consciousness. I’d feel a bit sad, a bit depressed. I’d feel like an addict. I would need to make another one immediately to get a response; but then [when] I’m not getting a response, and I’m getting great box office, it becomes instant gratification and then instant forgetting.

West:  Yeah, an explosion comes instantly, and then is gone instantly. A film is good when it leaves you with some questions, something a little ambiguous, you can come back to it over and over again. Unfortunately, that kind of film doesn’t make billions of dollars.

Ahluwalia:  The funny thing is, I get a lot of commercial offers to do commercial movies, like aSlum Dog Millionaire kind of thing. I am being offered those kinds of projects: “Can you do this [movie]; we’ll give you the writer, but it can’t be too art house.” And, I’m a bit, like—“fuck, man!” From a career point of view, it’s probably better; but it also means I’ll have a shorter life as a filmmaker, because in a couple [of] years, I’m going to be known as an old thing [making commercial movies]. So, you have to be careful about these things.

West:  Will we see more smaller, intimate, independent Indian films of the caliber of say, Iranian cinema, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, being made and exported to audiences abroad?

Ahluwalia: Yes, I think you will.  I think Iranian cinema is very developed, because it had the Farabi Cinema Foundation that put money into early films, [Abbas] Kiarostami for example, which then allowed for an [Asghar] Farhadi. There’s already a tradition of a delicate realism in Iran. India doesn’t have that, like America; India comes from a tradition of spectacle. You’re taking spectacle, and your working down to a smaller film.

West:  But, even in Hollywood, they’re able to turn out some great intimate films. I don’t know how things are in India about foreign cinema coming in.

Ahluwalia:  It [India] has a very strong, dominant culture of its own cinema. It’s also very star-driven. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. was making Michael Bay movies, and then one or two people make a small movie. That’s the scale. The films that are really big are the ones that bring in fifty or a hundred times their budget.  It’s really difficult, but I think its’ going to happen.

Indian cinema exceeds American cinema with double the number of films. Through the Internet, streaming video Indian cinema is available to Western audiences more than ever before. Ahluwalia is sadly correct in his charge that making smaller, more intimate, films is difficult, but as in the USA, it can be done. And Ahluwalia has indeed proven that it can and will continue to be possible in India, as well, to make films that matter.

—John David West

 

 

 

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Laura Mars1Director Irvin Kirshner did something pretty special with The Eyes of Laura Mars. He captured the visceral pulsating atmosphere of the dying days of that immoral Me Decade, the 1970’s, and the cultural nexus where all that grime, grit, glitter, and glamour was in full swing, the scary and wonderful New York City that President Ford had written off with a tart ‘drop dead’, but was still a thriving hothouse of creativity and social taboo busting. It’s all wrapped in a so-so thriller, but the plot, pure Hollywood twaddle,  is beside the point. It’s all about the visual milieu, the dirty streets, downtown discos, and pre-mall-ified SoHo. Faye Dunaway is a high fashion photographer who’s work is a mixture of style and violence, sex and danger. Gorgeous models are coldly impassive in tableaux vivant with guns, blood, fire, wrecked cars, and barking Dobermans. It’s Helmut Newton gone even more gonzo. But just like that she starts suffering from psychic spells where she’s seeing through the point of view of a crazed killer’s eyes. Everyone around her is getting bumped off. Dunaway pulls off the balance of strong career gal and vulnerable victim admirably, and she probably never looked better on film. Those cheekbones and stiletto heeled long legs were made to play a couture ice goddess. An earnest Tommy Lee Jones shows up as the hunky detective assigned to crack the implausible case and to save (and bed) Dunaway. If you don’t see the identity of the murderer coming from a mile away you’re more blind than Laura Mars. Just revel in the time capsule nature of the film and take yourself into that exciting pre-scrubbed-up Manhattan of yesterday where the dangerous mixed with the chic, and the result was decadently stimulating.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

Madding crowd 1The 1960’s It Girl, Julie Christie has a star turn in this very fine adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s proto-feminist 19th century novel. She’s a headstrong young woman who comes into a substantial inheritance, her wealthy uncle’s working farm. In good time she manages to beguile three different suitors all at once, making her the Goldilocks of the English countryside. One is too cold, the older and stuffy land baron next door (Peter Finch); one is too hot, the smoldering army sergeant (Terence Stamp) who, ahem, makes good use of his broadsword; and the last, the earthy farmhand (Alan Bates) may be just right. It’s all set in the achingly beautiful English countryside of Dorset and Wiltshire and the film feels as if it’s looking ahead to the style of the best ’70s cinema, it has a modern sensibility despite being a period costumer. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is a big plus too.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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The Celluloid Zealot: Blow Out (1981)

BlowOut3Blow Out remains a very fine political thriller that looks better and better with each passing year. Director Brian DePalma deftly weaves together a tight plot that references the Kennedy assassination, the Chappaquiddick scandal, and the Watergate coverup. John Travolta is a sound man for cheap grind house slasher pictures. One night he’s recording sound effects and witnesses a car careen off a bridge into a river. The two passengers are a governor making a bid for the White House, and his ‘date’, Nancy Allen. Travolta to the rescue; the politician dies and she lives. That’s just the beginning of the twisty plot as the two stars, both never better, find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy coverup because they’re The Couple Who Knew Too Much. DePalma has such a command of the whiz bang cinema toys of split screens, cross-cutting, sound effects, deep focus, etc, that each tense set piece will make you giddy. As a wry comment on the proceedings expert cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond bathes the whole production in inky blacks highlighted with reds, whites, and blues, an idea that sounds hokey but works in spades. Add Pino Dinaggio’s heartbreaking and lush score and you’ve got a winner all around. Excellent movie craft becomes high art.

—Ron Castillo
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You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

This Week on Netflix! Jurassic Park (1993)

JP posterJurassic Park, along with most of Steven Spielberg’s catalog at the time, was a staple of my childhood. It taught me what an adventure movie should be like in every measurable way. Some would blame Spielberg for ushering in the modern era of substance-devoid summer blockbusters, but that criticism seems unfair to me. He set the standard for character-driven action flicks, and despite what other filmmakers have done with the formula over the years, his legacy has held strong in both quality and quantity.

Spielberg’s movies, and Jurassic Park in particular, are adept at keeping not only the audience’s conscious gaze, but the tension-rich atmosphere from start to finish. An ominous note by the film’s composer, John Williams, sets the mood perfectly, as a ground crew works to safely introduce a velociraptor to its new enclosure. We’re also introduced to Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), two archaeologists who are asked by their dig’s main source of funding, John Hammond, to visit his new dinosaur park. Of course, they’re not told what is at the park. In this case, seeing is believing.

Once at the park, they meet up with Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald “The Blood-sucking Lawyer” Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and are asked to evaluate if it is safe for the general public. The sheer spectacle of living, breathing dinosaurs is short-lived, as the park soon loses power and its guests are left to fend for themselves. Velociraptor JPFear and survival instincts replace awe and wonderment, and the goal of everyone is to reunite and get off the island as soon as possible.

When you think of the Jurassic Park series, your brain might conjure up CG images of rampaging dinos, but in fact, a lot of the effects in the original movie are practical. Most of the velociraptors’ major scenes, for example, are just dudes in suits. There’s also a five-ton, fully anamatronic version of the T-Rex and a full-size triceratops puppet. Point being, you don’t see stuff like this anymore, and it’s incredible.

JP triceratopsAside from what Stan Winston’s team accomplished with the dinosaur puppets, there’s a constant theme of nature vs. technology, and it’s one that doesn’t get enough follow-through in the rest of the series (at least in my opinion). Once Jurassic World comes around, it’s pretty clear nobody cares about the dangers of playing God. I find that to be a flaw in the franchise, but you won’t find the same error in Jurassic Park. Ian Malcolm is a reminder that life will always “find a way,” and while I would think the scientists at the park would have realized the potential harm from dumping a bunch of foreign DNA into a jar and swishing it around, the “fool me once” idiom is in effect.

JP TrexGetting back to the atmosphere and tension, a lot of it is owed to the pacing of the film. There’s never a lull in suspense, which creates the kind of nervous nail-biting I’ve come to expect during a Spielberg story. Add to that several memorable characters, and the reasons for success become obvious. Imagine not having Jeff Goldblum’s brand of discomforting flirting with Dr. Sattler or Wayne Knight’s smarmy selfishness (perfected over the years with his Newman character on Seinfeld). Lots of the story beats wouldn’t work with lesser actors, and having quality in this department is something I also expect from Spielberg.

There are dinosaur movies, and then there is Jurassic Park. While not the first to feature the extinct giants on the big screen (neither is Caveman, but check it out anyway, it remains the definitive experience on the subject.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable