Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

Twenty-five years ago “Jurassic Park” charmed us with a sense of wonderment about our world, its mysterious history and tantalizing future, while also reminding us about the unbound limits of mankind’s capacity for avarice and power-mongering. It made our hearts swell, but also left us feeling quite small.

Now here is “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” the sequel to the reboot, and the middle of a second planned trilogy. Not a one has lived up to the majesty of the original, though the previous one, starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, brought a welcome sense of humor and adventure to the proceedings.

It was fun, but forgettable -- quite literally. All I recalled was Pratt smirking and Howard incredulously clip-clopping around in high heels during the action scenes. I had to refresh myself on the plot of “Jurassic World” in preparation for the follow-up.

It’s equally forgettable, but not as much fun.

As you may (or not) recall, the theme park featuring genetically resurrected dinosaurs had been running for years after the initial disaster, until more disaster came and the entire island of Isla Nubla, off the coast of Costa Rica, was abandoned. The fearsome reptiles were contained, or so everyone thought. But now the dormant volcano is about to blow and result in a second extinction of the dinosaurs.

Despite the number of people that have been chomped, eviscerated or swallowed whole by dinos, a worldwide animal rights movement wants to save them. Leading the cause is Claire Dearing (Howard), the corporate suit who ran the old park but found her soul, due in part to a romance with Owen Grady (Pratt). He’s a dinosaur behaviorist who had formed a connection with the velociraptors, especially one named Blue.

Rushing in to save the day is Sir Lockwood (James Cromwell), a super-rich old guy who supposedly was the partner of the Richard Attenborough character from the first movie. He wants to scoop up the dinos and take them to a new island where they can live in peace, without tourists gawking or scientists prodding.

(How we got through four other films without ever hearing about Lockwood, I’ll leave up to the vagaries of script men Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The latter directed the last film, but turns over the chair to J. A. Bayona.)

Lockwood’s right-hand man, the soft-voiced Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), recruits Claire and Owen to return to the island to help round up and protect the creatures. But we only have to take one look at the guy leading the security force, Ken Wheatley, played by ol’ “Buffalo Bill” himself, Ted Levine, to know something’s up.

Justice Smith plays Franklin, an excitable young computer scientist, while Daniella Pineda is Zia, a puckish “paleoveterinarian” who somehow is a dinosaur doctor without ever having actually seen one. Jurassic alums BD Wong and Jeff Goldblum turn up for cameos.

Isabella Sermon plays Maisie, the prerequisite little kid who screams their head off while being chased by a raptor. I rather liked Toby Jones, wearing an elaborate blond wig and an even more elaborate drawling accent, as a broker to international a-holes who want a piece of the dinosaur pie to themselves.

The movie gives Pratt surprisingly little to do; Claire is in the driver’s seat for most of the movie, except when they need the man to show up and start flinging testosterone around.

There are some decent action scenes, including a race against a wave of lava in one of those transparent rolling globe/vehicle things, which has a wet conclusion; and an extended chase with an “Indoraptor,” the latest/greatest new-and-improved deadly dinosaur strain.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” will make gobs of money, and we’ll get a sixth movie whether we want it or not, proving that not just fictional scientists are obsessed with cloning.

Review: "Hearts Beat Loud"

“Hearts Beat Loud” is a very different take on the familiar “putting together a band” movie. This band consists of just a middle-aged father and his teen daughter, the latter of whom has such disregard for their musical abilities that she insists, “We’re not a band” -- which becomes the group’s name.

And while there are the usual tantalizing dreams of cutting an album, topping the charts, going on tour, etc., we know pretty much from the get-go that this is not really in the cards.

This is not a film about finding fame, but learning to embrace the life you have.

Director Brett Haley, who co-wrote the script with Marc Basch, made the wonderful and (alas) little-scene drama, “The Hero,” last year. Both that film and this one have sadness and regret at their core, but also a strong sense of love and even a smidgen of hope. And they boast not a little humor, with “Hearts” being closer in form to an overt comedy.

It’s probably the best film role that Nick Offerman has had. A TV comedy king (“Parks and Recreation”), he’s been very busy with small supporting parts in mostly smaller movies (including “The Hero.”) Here he gets a chance to play the lead, in a meaty role as a guy going through life with a smirk on his face, but only to hide his pain and disappointment.

Frank Fisher had it all: he was young and in a hot band with a tremendously talented lead singer, who also became his wife and bore them a daughter, Sam (the absolutely radiant Kiersey Clemons). When his wife was killed in an accident, Frank came off the road and opened up Red Hook Records, a dive-ish shop in Brooklyn catering exclusively in LPs.

Seventeen years later, Sam is about to go off to UCLA to study medicine. The store is foundering, as Frank still loves music but is profoundly indifferent to people who want to buy music.

In the opening scene, be blows off a customer, preferring to listen to Jeff Tweedy on his headphones, refusing to put out his cigarette and generally annoying the guy enough he buys the record he had been looking at on Amazon, then taunts Frank, showing him the phone with the transaction. Frank probably deserved it.

What’s worse, Frank has come to realize that Sam sees him as deeply uncool. In fact, as she confides to Rose (Sasha Lane), a quirky artist’s assistant with whom she begins the bloom of first love, she chose a school in Los Angeles primarily to get away from home.

They’ve always dabbled in playing music together, he on guitar and she on keyboards, though these days Frank has to needle Sam to get her nose out of the books long enough to share their semi-regular “jam sesh.” One night, Sam pulls out a hook she’s been noodling with, Frank lays a guitar track on top of it, she sings a few lines and before you know it, they’ve got a song.

Frank is thrilled at this chance to make music and spend time with his daughter. He puts the song on Spotify and is astonished when it makes an indie playlist and gets lots of airtime. A record label guy stops by the store to chat him up. Soon his head is filled: maybe Sam could take a gap year while they go on tour and become rock gods?

Toni Collette is Leslie, Frank’s landlord, who’s also a friend and, he hopes, maybe something more. She cherishes the friendship but is wary about the more. Ted Danson plays Dave, silver of hair and tongue, who runs the neighborhood bar, dispensing “the good stuff” to favored patrons along with sage counsel. “We don’t always get to do what we love, Frankie, so we’ve got to love what we do.”

The music, by Keegan DeWitt, has a slightly dreamy quality, pulsating beats that build upon themselves as plaintive, almost whispered vocals crescendo into cascading emotional peaks and valleys. Clemons is a gifted singer; Offerman is not, though his vocals in a couple of songs have a genuine, rough poignancy.

“Hearts Beat Loud” is a portrait of a father and daughter coming together while at cross ends. Frank knows what he loves, but it’s remained elusive his whole life. Sam is smart enough to know she can’t live her dad’s dream for him, yet isn’t ready to walk out of his life just yet. Together, the music they make isn’t the means to stardom, but the ends of fortifying their bond.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Libeled Lady" (1936)

A classic screwball comedy featuring a rare love quadrangle, "Libeled Lady" isn't so much about newspapers as presenting a fast-paced, amusing farce for Depression-era audiences.

I sought out this film thinking it was set against the backdrop of frenetic newsrooms a la "His Girl Friday." But the truth is the journalism angle is just a jumping-off point for a whole lot of verbal sparring and pitching of woo. Still, I didn't come away disappointed.

It was the fifth of 14 screen pairings between Myrna Loy and William Powell, most famously for the "Thin Man" films. It was also Powell's second appearance with Jean Harlow, who was his real-life lady love at the time. The following year was a tragic one for the couple, as Harlow died unexpectedly at just 26, while Powell was diagnosed with cancer which, along with his grief for Harlow, resulted in a one-year absence from filmmaking.

His and costar Spencer Tracy's characters quite literally swap wives during the movie, and something like that occurred behind the scenes, too. Harlow wanted to play Powell's romantic counterpart so she could canoodle onscreen with her beau. But the studio, eager for another popular Powell/Loy match, overruled Harlow and stuck her with Tracy who, if rumors are true, was romancing Loy throughout the shoot.

Coupled with the serpentine plot of "Libeled Lady," you practically need a navigation table to plot all the real and fictional love lines.

If there was a sure-fire formula to please Depression audiences, it was movies about rich people falling in and out of love. Loy plays the titular character, Connie Allenbury, international playgirl daughter of tycoon James Allenbury (Walter Connolly). The story opens with The New York Evening Star, edited by Warren Haggerty (Tracy), accidentally running an item accusing Connie of being a husband-stealer.

They retract the story immediately but a few errant newspapers make it to the street, leading Connie to launch a vindictive $5 million slam-dunk libel lawsuit that will surely doom the rag and leave its 500 employees jobless. Among them Warren, who puts off his marriage to Gladys Benton (Harlow) to deal with the blowback. This is not the first time Warren has run from the altar, placing the paper above romance, and Gladys has had her fill.

If you're thinking this is one of those quintessential tales where newspapermen and -women courageously fight for truth and justice -- that's some other movie. Here Warren and his crew immediately launch a scheme to entrap Connie in an actual affair with a married man, splash it across the front page and make her drop the suit.

(That wouldn't actually change the fact the Star libeled Connie, but the rat-a-tat-tat screenplay -- by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer -- never thinks more than a step or two ahead.)

Warren enlists Bill Chandler (Powell), a ladies' man who used to work for him, to pull off the ruse. To make it legal, Bill gets a quickie marriage to Gladys, much to the latter's consternation, and they set themselves up in the honeymoon suite of a swank hotel. Soon enough, Gladys realizes that Bill is much more charming and attentive than Warren, and thinks about trading in her wayward fiance for her fake husband.

For his part, Bill extracts a contract for $50,000 -- almost $900k in today's dollars -- to save Warren's neck. Did I mention that most of the characters in this story are thoroughly unlikable? Strangely enough, between the foursome's plotting, back-stabbing and pettiness, it's actually Old Man Allenbury who comes off looking the most pure-hearted of the lot.

At first, Connie is thoroughly resistant to Bill's charm, as they sail on the Queen Anne from London to New York. She sees him as just another upjumped suitor looking for a payday from a famously rich family. Bill later tries to ingratiate himself with her father by studying up on his favorite pastime, angling for trout, leading to some amusing physical comedy at a stream.

After a late-night swim and some sharing of personal stories, Connie does fall for Bill, and vice-versa. He tries to convince her to drop the lawsuit without having to resort to Warren's plan to humiliate her. Meanwhile, Gladys' (repeatedly foiled) plan to barge in as the scorned wife takes on all-too-real note as she finds herself genuinely jealous.

Both Tracy Powell cut sharp figures in the double-breasted suits popular in 1930s big cities. Neither actor is what you'd call classically handsome, with Powell coming across as a weak-chinned dandy and Tracy as a striving peasant type.

For that matter, I admit I've never grasped the physical appeal of Harlow or Loy, the blonde and brunette yin and yang of the movie, with the former as the cheap, pushy broad and the latter playing the snooty heiress. Both had bob haircuts and those ferociously plucked eyebrows of the era that rendered them looking perpetually astonished.

(I freely admit I prefer the more hirsute screen damsels of the '40s. Thank God for Rita Hayworth's girly hair flips and Lauren Bacall's brooding brows.)

Directed by journeyman Jack Conway, who made pictures from the 1910s to the late '40s, "Libeled Lady" is a straightforward comedy that isn't about anything or than having a little fun. It's a refreshing piece of pure entertainment from a time when people very much needed such things.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Video review: "Pacific Rim Uprising"

“Pacific Rim” was one of the best science fiction/action movies of the past decade, a rousing war between giant human-controlled robots and invading alien behemoths, but its unnecessary sequel is a pale shadow. It expels stars Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi (except for a cameo by the latter), the screenwriting team and director Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”).

It’s rarely a good thing when a movie swaps out its entire creative team and most of the cast, and my fears were well-founded.

It’s still a decent popcorn movie, with TV veteran Steven S. DeKnight (“Daredevil”) taking over as director and also co-writing the script (along with Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin). John Boyega of “Star Wars” fame assumes the lead role as the son of Idris Elba’s commanding Stacker Pentecost, playing wayward Jake.

As the film opens, it’s 10 years after the menacing kaiju monsters were defeated and the portal into their world sealed. For some reason, the world has continued to build jaeger robots and train humans to pilot them. There seems little strategic value in this, other than preparing for a movie sequel.

Jake, who’s been spending his time scrounging and partying, gets recruited back into the jaeger program, where he butts heads with old adversary, straitlaced Nate (Scott Eastwood). Much macho strutting ensues. Tagging along is Amara (Cailee), a teen rascal who’s been building her own (smaller) jaegers out of scrap parts.

The dweeby scientist duo of Newton and Hermann is back (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), pretty much the only returning cast members with significant parts. Tian Jing plays the CEO of an evil jaeger-building corporation that wants to help save the word, and lighten its pocketbook.

The beast-vs.-mech throwdowns are still a lot of fun, though I was disappointed the jaegers have gotten a lot smoother and more civilized since last time. I liked when they were clanky and slow, looking like something people had built. There are more group battles but less gore, which is good and bad, respectively, at least if you’re a fan of this stuff.

I don’t know why they made “Pacific Rim Uprising.” The last movie tied things up in a nice bow, and this sequel just unravels the knot for no good reason. It’s entertaining, but forgettable.

Bonus features are rather nice. There’s a feature-length commentary audio track by DeKnight and a handful of deleted scenes with more commentary by the director. It also comes with 10 making-of documentary shorts, touching on various aspects of production, deeper dives into some of the supporting characters, and more.



Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: "Tag"

"Tag" is an amazing true story that got turned into a mediocre movie.

I think I'd rather have watched a documentary about the real group of 10 adult men who have spent decades playing a game of tag, which was chronicled in the Wall Street Journal in 2014. I imagine something like Michael Apted's "Up" series, in which he checks in with the same British folks every seven years. Instead we got a zany R-rated comedy with lots of f-words and pratfalls.

It's exactly what it sounds like: grown men sneaking up on each other, slapping a hand on the other to pass on the designation of who's "it." The idea is to never lose your sense of childhood by never ceasing to play. They limit the game to the month of May to keep things at least semi-sane.

"This game has given us a reason to stay in each other's lives," one says, summing up the theme beneath the mirth.

I really liked this cast: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jeremy Renner, Isla Fisher, Jake Johnson. In fact, I'm afraid this movie fails Gene Siskel's test of whether you'd rather just watch the actors having lunch with each other. Definitely if the menu was all spicy food.

Helms is Hoagie, a dentist and the dweeby heart and soul of the game, or at least he says so; Buress is Sable, who's supposed to be the nervous nelly of the bunch but is very laid-back about it; Johnson is Chilli, a scruffy sort who does little but play tag and smoke pot; and Hamm is Callahan, the CEO of an insurance company who was supposed to be interviewed by the Journal before the tag game intruded and took over the story.

The setup is that one of their number, Jerry (Renner), has never been tagged in 30 years. Now he's decided to retire from the game, so they have three days left to get him -- which also happens coincide with his wedding on the last day of May.

He's the Jason Bourne to their Keystone Kops, pulling out elite hand-to-hand combat skills and parkour-style jumps to avoid the tag. The movie makes a joke of this, going into slo-mo while Jerry narrates his own badass moves.

The director, TV guy Jeff Tomsic, and screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen struggle to find things for the characters to do other than just chase each other for a hundred minutes. So there's a lot of scenes of the guys just hanging out and cutting up, mugging for the camera and such.

The filmmakers also bring in all sorts of ill-fitting non-sequitars, like the hot girl (Rashida Jones) two of them used to be sweet on back in the day. She keeps flirting with them and then leaving abruptly; I'm not sure even she knows why she's in the movie.

The female characters in general do not fare well. Fisher plays Anna, Hoagie's wife, who acts as his wingman and coach. She's supercompetitive and screams a lot, and clearly is dying to play the game herself, and would probably be really good at it.

Annabelle Wallis is Rebecca, the Journal reporter who's following the boys around for their mission. She's often hanging around in the back of scenes, but on a number of occasions she just disappears entirely, as if she got tired of pretending to tag along. (It was also a male reporter who wrote the story in real life, so I was expecting some sort of romantic bloom to happen.)

Leslie Bibb plays Susan, Jerry's fiance, who's very toothy and effervescent. Super suspicious. Nora Dunn is Hoagie's mom, who keeps hitting on Chilli in a most creepy fashion.

There are a few decent laughs in the movie, just not enough to sustain any true humorous momentum. It's loud and talky and there's always something going on, so it's not exactly boring but not really engaging. Watching it is an exercise in just playing along.

Review: "The Incredibles 2"

“I don’t like the parts where they talk, talk, talk, but I do like the parts where they fight!”

That’s the review my 4-year-old gives of “Incredibles 2,” and I couldn’t put it any better myself. But I’ll try, given I’m supposed to be the professional at this.

These days it seems like any movie that makes half a buck gets a sequel, even when it’s totally unnecessary. (Oh hai, “Pacific Rim Uprising.” We weren’t talking about you, I swear.) But “The Incredibles,” the one Pixar animated film that seemed to beg for a follow-up, was left curiously lying fallow for nearly a decade-and-a-half

(And you're eyes aren't deceiving you; the first movie was "The" Incredibles, while the second drops the the. Fooled me at first, too.)

Writer/director Brad Bird was busy making the best of the “Mission: Impossible” movies and the well-meaning but disappointing passion project, “Tomorrowland.” So here was a chance to get back to his heyday.

Problem is, the Brad Bird of 2018 seems to have forgotten how to tell stories about a family of superheroes with the same aplomb. “The Incredibles” was terrific because the storytelling seemed so effortless. Characters were sharp-edged and vibrant. The plot unspooled without pretense or hurry, giving us zingy action scenes but also some hefty themes about how the world is a dangerous place.

“Incredibles 2” is certainly very entertaining, but it doesn’t have the polish or style of its predecessor. Dialogue scenes, as my almost-kindergartner acutely observed, go on waaaaayyy longer than they need to, and don’t further the characters or build the mood.

There’s also a weird sitcom-y feel to this. The Parr family often gets bogged down in minutia, like tackling speedster Dash’s (Huck Milner) “new math” homework, or which suit stretchy mom Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is wearing or when invisible daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) has her date with her dreamy classmate, Tony.

And someone’s always on baby-watching duty for little Jack Jack, the tantrum-prone tyke who showed all sorts of weird, crazy powers in the last movie, and tries a few more new ones on for size. Bird actually makes a joke of this, as the Parrs literally hand off the baby to each other in the middle of a fight, and supremely Eurotrash designer-to-the-supers Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself) even gets a spell watching over him.

This one picks up right where the last movie left off. Super-heroes were outlawed, at least publically, 15 years ago, but now Mr. Incredible, the strongman patriarch voiced by Craig T. Nelson, and his family are back in the limelight. This draws the attention of telecommunications tycoon Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who wants to make supers legal again, with the help of his inventor genius sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener).

Mr. Incredible’s smashy-smashy M.O. isn’t the most favorable for the P.R. push, so Elastigirl finds herself in the limelight while hubby is stuck at home -- a fancy new one, at that -- dealing with the kids. This gives us a chance to fully explore her capabilities in a way the last movie did not. She even gets her own personalized motorcycle that can separate into two piece to maximize her powers, which are given full display in a match against a runaway train.

The baddie is Screenslaver, a mysterious super-hater who uses television screens to hypnotize people into doing his bidding.

Too-cool Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back, still stuck in wingman mode -- how about he gets starring role in a short or something? There is also a gaggle of new, (mostly) younger hero wannabes who are inspired by Elastigirl to take a step forward. The most notable is Void (Sophia Bush), who can create interdimensional portals.

I enjoyed myself, but “Incredibles 2” just doesn’t have the verve and zip of the first one. For some strange reason, even though no time has passed between movies, Mr. Incredible is drawn to look much aged, with deep creases in his face and baggy eyes. It’s almost like watching a franchise get old before our eyes.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Video review: "Love, Simon"

We’re nearly halfway through 2018 now, and “Love, Simon” remains my favorite movie of the year. That might have seemed like a leap when the dramatic teen comedy came out in March, but with nearly half the year gone, it’s only cemented the film’s place in my estimation.

It’s the story of a high school senior, Simon Spier, played winningly by Nick Robinson. He’s a typical Centennial -- he lives in a fast-paced world where social experiences are shared as much digitally as in person. The only difference from a 1980s romcom by John Hughes is that Simon is gay.

This is not a movie where Simon struggles with his sexuality -- he knows who he is and is fine with it. But he’s wrestling with how to come out to his friends and family. Then a strange thing happens: somebody using the pseudonym “Blue” writes about his own anxiety about coming out on the school message board.

He and Simon strike up a correspondence, and their romance blooms from afar. He knows he’s in love, just not with whom. He imagines various boys he encounters as being Blue.

Trouble arises when Simon’s correspondence is stolen by a classmate, who blackmails Simon into assisting him with his own romantic pursuits. This means manipulating his trio of best friends, Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

Jennifer Garner plays Simon’s mom and Josh Duhamel is the dad, and both offer authentic, loving presences in the background. Tony Hale plays the well-meaning but inept vice principal, and Logan Miller is Martin, the oddly not totally hate-able jerk yanking Simon’s chain.

“Love, Simon” is a smart, funny movie that is also holds keen observations and insights about what it’s like to be a gay teen, or any kind of teen, stumbling around in love in 2018. 

Video extras are quite nice. They include a feature-length commentary track by director Greg Berlanti, producer Isaac Klausner and co-screenwriter Issac Aptaker, deleted scenes and a photo gallery from the set.

There are also five making-of documentary shorts: “The Adaptation,” which talks about turning the book by Becky Albertalli into a movie; “The Squad,” on the film’s casting process; “#FirstLoveStoryContest,” in which fans talk about their own first encounters with romance; “Dear Georgia” and “Dear Atlanta,” which focus on the filming locations and culture of Atlanta, where the book takes place and the film was shot.