Sunday, September 30, 2018

Video review: "Leave No Trace"

The tiniest of indie films, “Leave No Trace” barely was released into theaters. I’m agnostic on the big/little movie split -- I’ve seen just as many low-budget films that were honkers as blockbusters. But this is one of those cases where I make an outright pitch for people to catch something on video that got past them at the cinema.

Ben Foster, one of the finest actors working in film today, plays Will, the father of Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), a girl in her early teen years. He doesn’t seem to have anything important in his life other than being a parent. He and Tom live in the dense woods outside Portland, Ore., existing somewhere in the netherworld between camping and homelessness.

This film is directed by Debra Granik, who made the excellent “Winter’s Bone” a few years back and co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini based on a book by Peter Rock. It’s a very still, quiet, observant film. There isn’t a whole lot of plot or dialogue. The movie simply observes its characters and presents them as authentic.

We’re never explicitly told what sent Will and Tom into hiding -- and that is the best word for what they’re doing. Breadcrumbs of hints are dropped suggesting perhaps he is an ex-soldier with PTSD. He receives medication from time to time that he turns around and sells to homeless veterans.

Without giving anything away, events transpire to draw the pair out of their secluded world and into a larger community. This is treated by Tom as an opportunity to grow and change, and by Will as a danger that will result in the loss of the only thing he truly treasures: his relationship with his daughter.

“Leave No Trace” has a quiet power. It’s a look at a very unique bond between two people that is threatened by their introduction into regular society.

Bonus features are decent. There are deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, a photo gallery of shooting locations and a making-of documentary.



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: "Night School"

I wasn't even going to bother to write up a review of "Night School." It's a complete waste of time of the people who made it and the people who are unlucky enough to watch it. I already invested over three hours into it, including driving to and from the theater, and figured why compound it with more wasted ticks of the clock?

But bad movies are part of the gig, so I'm going to at least dash out a few thoughts.

This film, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, is not to be confused with the excellent documentary set in Indianapolis from a couple of years ago. That's currently streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend you see it. It followed the journey of three Indianapolis adults attempting to obtain their GED high school equivalency degrees. It's a sobering and uplifting look at people trying to improve their lives despite massive roadblocks.

The new film is the cartoon version of that. Hart plays Teddy Walker, a 35-year-old high school dropout who is living above himself financially because he has a beautiful, successful fiance and feels the need to impress her. He drives a Porsche and lives in a swank apartment, but it barely getting by as the top salesman at a BBQ grill store. When the place blows up, he's out of work and without prospects.

In an absurd opening sequence, all the actors pushing 40 portray themselves as teenagers taking the SAT. Teddy finds himself unable to concentrate and blows off the test. The film doesn't seem to realize that you don't need to take the SAT in order to graduate from high school. Maybe he walked out of school, too, but the movie doesn't bother to show that.

Anyway, his best buddy says he'll hire him as a financial analyst at his firm if he gets his GED. So Teddy enrolls in the night program for adults at his old high school, where his nemesis is now the principal. Haddish plays the wise-cracking teacher who refuses to put up with Teddy's attitude and BSing.

The other students are the usual array of broad types. There's a snooty teen girl who got in trouble, a white doofus who can't work in the warehouse anymore because his back and knees are shot, a conspiracy-loving Muslim, etc. Mary Lynn Rajskub is the only one who makes any kind of impression as a harried mother who's very schizophrenic about how she feels about her role. She's the sort of woman who brings something to every church bake sale and then rolls her children into a lake.

You can pretty much guess the plot yourself. There will be capers, conflict, bonding, initial failure followed by inevitable success. The screenplay lists no less than six writers, including Hart, and I suspect there were many more adding to this mishmash gumbo. Director Malcolm D. Lee takes the approach of throwing everything up against a wall and seeing what sticks.

Not much does. "Night School" is a chronically unfunny movie. You know how in most comedies there are a few maudlin moments that you can't wait to be over? Here, I actually got more engaged by the sappy stuff than the attempts at comedy.

Hart has a built-in audience and Haddish is an emerging star, so I'm sure the movie will make bank. I like both of their screen presences, but this movie uses them poorly. "Night School" doesn't pass the old Gene Siskel test of whether you'd rather watch the cast having lunch and chatting than the movie they made.

Not only does it not get a passing grade, you actually feel dumber for having seen it.

Review: "Smallfoot"

Everybody’s a monster to somebody.

In this age of peak tribalism, people tend to cluster in like groups and don’t question the precepts of what they’re told. Especially for those whom life is good, it’s easy to stay in the bubble and enjoy. Everyone else is a potential enemy.

That’s the message of “Smallfoot,” a modestly entertaining animation flick that will certainly thrill wee ones more than adults. I found the themes heavy-handed and the pacing rather draggy.

I bet kids under age 10 will love it, though, and that’s who it’s aimed squarely at.

Channing Tatum, really reaching for the upper register of his voice, plays Migo, a young yeti -- as in bigfoot, sasquatch, etc. It turns out bigfoots (feet?) are real, and living in bliss at the top of a cloud-covered mountain the Himalayas. Daily life is a pleasant grind of chores, some of which make little sense, and good times.

Migo goes about 20 feet tall, has luminous ivory-colored fur, no nose and two horns on his head, one broken. He sort of resembles a distant cousin of Sully from the “Monsters Inc.” movies.

Migo’s dad, Dorgle, is the head gong-ringer, whose job is to be catapulted across the top of the village each daybreak and smash his head into the giant gong that beckons the emergence of the sun, which in their lore is a sun-snail traveling across the sky. (Sounds loopy, but it isn’t worse than some human mythology I’ve heard.)

Time has taken its toll: Dorgle is rather short for a yeti -- Danny DeVito does the voice; get it? -- but used to be taller than the towering Migo. Soon he will pass the mantle to his enthusiastic son.

The yetis have their laws written in stones, quite literally. Their leader is the Stonekeeper (Common), who wears tiles of stones formed into a robe, each one inscribed with a truth that goes unquestioned. The weight of the law is a real thing in this case. “It takes a strong backbone,” Stonekeeper says.

Chief among their laws is, “There is no such thing as a smallfoot,” which is their word for humans. You might think it odd that there is a law just to disprove a negative, and there are a few quiet naysayers amongst the yeti. Among them is Gwangi, the largest of their kinds voiced quite well by LeBron James, and secretly their leader is Meechee (Zendaya), the Stonekeeper’s daughter.

Migo meets up with a smallfoot but his claims are discredited and he is banished. In his exile he journeys to the human town below the mountain and bumps into Percy Patterson (James Corden), a schmaltzy British wildlife broadcaster. Think Steve Irwin, but less brave and more annoying.

His plan was to fake a yeti sighting to save his fading career. So when Migo carries him back to his village as proof, it’s a boon to them both.

I liked how screenwriters Clare Sera and Karey Kirkpatrick (the latter also directed) handle the language barrier. To the humans, yetis sound like roaring bear-lions; to the yetis, humans make squeaky mouse-talk.

There are several songs in “Smallfoot,” though I’d call this more a movie with musical interludes than a straight-up musical. By far the best is “Let It Lie,” with Common rapping out the hidden history of the yeti.

A middling bit of animation, “Smallfoot” is built for small children to love and parents to endure. Business proposal: movie theaters start featuring double bills in which grownups drop off their kids to see this in a supervised theater while they pop next door for something more to their tastes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: "Blaze"

“Blaze Foley was a genius and a beautiful loser.”
                       --Lucinda Williams

“Blaze” is a hazy, mournful elegy for a man many have called the greatest country music singer-songwriter nobody’s ever heard of.

He’s revered by folks in the industry, many of whom have covered his songs (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson) or wrote their own about him (Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt). Blaze died nearly 30 years ago, gunned down at age 40 while defending a friend. His few albums barely leave much of a recorded legacy, , including instances where the master tapes were stolen or disappeared.

This film is Ethan Hawke’s attempt to resurrect Blaze’s ghost and give us a haunting portrait of a legend that never was.

Hawke has quietly directed a few small films over the years. He co-wrote the script with Sybil Rosen, based on her memoir of her romance and doomed marriage with Blaze. Musician Ben Dickey, stepping in front of the camera for the first time, gives a memorable, aching performance as a man who, as a friend described, knew the value of being zero.

An enormous person, Blaze was physically arresting, hobbling on one leg shortened by infant polio, sporting a waist-long beard and festooned cowboy hat that hid most of his head, his coat and boots trimmed with duct tape -- partly to keep them together, partly as a poke at the urban cowboy trend of the time.

He was usually drunk when he performed, and also when he did not.

Alia Shawkat plays Sybil, and the movie is at its best in skimming through their relationship. The story jumps forward and back in time, like a family album that’s being flipped around by someone clutching at painful memories. For a time they lived in a ramshackle treehouse on a commune, he picking out songs on his guitar and she acting in the local playhouse.

Narratively, the movie is deliberately unfocused. It plays out with not one but two framing devices. In the first, Blaze delivers his final performance at a dive bar in Austin -- quite literally the “Outhouse” -- where he is recording an album using his last few dollars. In between songs he delivers a heartbreaking sermon-slash-confession to the spare, indifferent audience, with one interruption to throw down with a rude patron yammering on the phone.

In the other, two of his collaborators and best friends, Townes Van Zandt (an arresting Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton), are being interviewed by a radio DJ (Hawke himself, only heard and seen from behind). It’s ostensibly to promote a new album by Van Zandt -- a fellow traveler on the path of wastrel gypsy troubadours -- but they spend the whole time talking about Blaze, someone the DJ has never heard of.

Watching the movie is like walking through a waking dream. It’s an absolutely gorgeous-looking film (cinematography by Steve Cosens) that uses Blaze’s music as the quiet engine that powers the imagery, which is often a mix of montages with little narrative intent.

For example, a song will start with Blaze singing it at that dive bar, then switch to a vignette of Blaze and Sybil rambling around their shack decades earlier, and then the moment when he first wrote it.

Characters speak in lifelike, hard-to-understand dribbles of overlapping dialogue. Especially Dickey, whose deep-chested rumbles often seem like they barely pass through his mouth for refinement into coherent words. It’s an odd trend, this incomprehensible dialogue, undertaken by disparate filmmakers in recent years, and one best reconsidered.

“Blaze” is a very atypical biopic about a rather unusual figure. By any reasonable reckoning, Blaze Foley was a drunkard who failed at everything he tried. But he wrote a few songs that people still sing, and left an indelible portrait on those few fortunate enough to have known him. Some might call that very lucky indeed.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Day of the Jackal" (1973)

"The Day of the Jackal" was my father's favorite film. Or I should say it is his favorite film. I'm not sure what the proper term to use is when the person is no longer with us but the movie endures.

I'd like to think that love survives death, whether for another person or a work of art, so we'll choose the present tense.

The film has just been released in a gorgeous Blu-ray special edition out Sept. 25 that includes plenty of nifty bonus material.

I saw it with him first on HBO when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and my lifelong love of cinema was already in full bloom. I remember sitting together in our living room, him on his recliner in the corner and me lying on the ground directly in front of the TV with my head propped against a triangular pillow, my usual spot. Several other viewings took place together over the years.

He, and I, adore the absolute leanness of the narrative. Even at 142 minutes, there is not an ounce of fat in this spy thriller about a British assassin hired by French insurgents to kill President Charles de Gaulle in the summer of 1963. It's essentially a crime procedural, but instead of following the investigators as they look into a deed already committed, it's a parallel race as we track the titular killer striving to finish his contract while an international cadre of law enforcement types scrambles to prevent it.

Many movies would go on to copy this style, including 1993's "In the Line of Fire." Although there is a cast of hundreds, the story very much focuses on two figures just like the Clint Eastwood film, the assassin and the man leading the hunt. Though here there's no ongoing taunting between hero and villain as they engage in their intricate dance, only meeting at the very end.

Indeed, the film has such an incredible sense of verisimilitude, weaving actual events and locations in with fictional ones, that I had long assumed it was based on a genuine assassination attempt. In fact, the inspiration comes from the 1971 fictional novel by Frederick Forsyth, adapted for the screen by Kenneth Ross and directed by the great Fred Zinneman ("High Noon," "From Here to Eternity").

This is perhaps the signature role of Edward Fox's career, displaying an icy charm as the Jackal, aka Charles Calthrop, known as the best hit man in England, and perhaps the world. He's a chameleon-like figure, putting on and taking off identities like changes of his well-tailored suits. A compact man with a lean, boyish figure and feathered blond hair, the Jackal is as suave as anyone who's played James Bond.

The strength of "Jackal" is that we find ourselves rooting for the Jackal and his nemesis, Deputy Police Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michel Lonsdale). Like the Jackal, Lebel displays a single-minded commitment in his pursuit of his goal, literally sleeping in his office for weeks on end, assisted only by his loyal number two (Derek Jacobi).

Both men also have a tendency to be curt and impatient with those who stand in the way of his goals. The difference being that the Jackal simply kills anyone who opposes him, while Lebel hunkers down and burrows into the weak spots of the bureaucracy.

No doubt my dad's favorite moment of the film comes late when Lebel reveals the leak within the cabinet of French ministers who have been sworn to secrecy on the affair. One of them had been seduced by an insurgent spy, and Lebel plays a recording of her feeding information from his phone. Confessing his weakness, the guilty man leaves the meeting abruptly (and later commits suicide).

The ministers are pleased, having been generally dismissive of Lebel, seeing him as a low-level flunky -- not a government official but a gumshoe cop. As the meeting is breaking up, the haughty chief minister (Alan Badel) asks him how he knew which of their personal phone lines to tap. Not even bothering to look up from his papers, Lebel states that he couldn't know which of them was the source of the leak, so he tapped all of their phones.

Zinnemann holds this moment for the briefest of seconds, just long enough to register the shocked faces of the high and mighty. In our shared viewings, this was always followed by my father's high-pitched cackle of glee.

I won't bother with a detailed plot synopsis. Suffice it to say, members of the OAS -- a real splinter group of French military enraged by de Gaulle's decision to grant Algeria independence -- hire the Jackal after their own assassination attempts fail and they are forced into hiding in Rome.

He's a one-man show, doing all the planning and scouting personally. His only help is a weapons expert who creates the nifty collapsible rifle that can be disguised as a pair of crutches, and a pornographer who makes false ID's on the side. The latter tries to bribe the Jackal out of an extra £1,000, and finds himself stuffed into a locker for his trouble.

As he executes his intricate plan, the Jackal moves from England to Italy to France, swapping out vehicles and passports as needed. He even displays a pan-sexual mercenary attitude, seducing both a wealthy married woman (Delphine Seyrig) and a young gay businessman (Anton Rodgers) when he finds the need to hide out from the authorities. In the movie's historically accurate depiction of 1963, the only way authorities had to track tourists' movements was through hotel guest cards, picked up manually by motorcycle police.

"The Day of the Jackal" is not a character study, but the film does find ways to penetrate the interiors of its chief two characters. The Jackal's cover is blown early in the execution of the plan, yet he stubbornly continues with the attempt, even knowing he's a single man arrayed against thousands of Europe's best law enforcement officers.

Why? Partly it's personal arrogance, of course, but we also sense a large helping of professional ambition. In his initial meeting with the OAS leaders, the Jackal demanded a payment of $500,000 (just over $4 million in today's dollars) with the justification that whoever pulls off the job "can never work again." In other words, whether de Gaulle lives or dies the Jackal knows that his career as an international assassin is over -- and he's rather go out with a win.

Taut, supremely entertaining and with never a dull moment, "The Day of the Jackal" may not be one of my all-time favorite films. But I can't disagree with my dad -- it deserves its place as one of the best thriller ever made.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Video review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was the first bona fide flop for the storied sci-fi franchise. I’m not sure why. Although it certainly deserves a ranking toward the bottom of the Star Wars canon, it’s still a fun, action-filled entry with plenty of entertainment value.

My 7-year-old declared it the best Star Wars flick of all. That’s overstating the case, though I would put it at least above “Rogue One” and “The Last Jedi.”

Alden Ehrenreich takes over the role of intergalactic smuggler/smirker Han Solo from Harrison Ford, and it’s a pretty seamless handoff. Aside from being a head shorter, Ehrenreich’s Han has all the scruffy charisma we’re used to. This story looks at his formative years prior to meeting Luke, Leia and the gang.

Raised on the crime-ridden planet of Corellia, Han manages to escape the den of thieves where he was raised, though his lady love, Qui’ra (Emilia Clarke), is captured. He vows to become a great pilot, snag his own ship and return to rescue her.

Flash forward a few years, and things didn’t turn out that way. After washing out as a pilot in the Imperial academy and deserting as a foot soldier, he stumbles into Qi’ra to find out she isn’t in need of any rescuing at all. She’s become the right hand woman for Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a high-up in the criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn.

Han has fallen in with a group of bandits led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who takes him under his wing, shows him how to spin a laser blaster and a few things about double-crosses, too. Their assignment -- failure means death -- is to boost some raw hyperspace fuel from inside the Kessel nebula.

It’s volatile stuff, so if they don’t get it out fast enough, the whole plan goes explodey-splodey.

We also get to witness Han’s meeting up with Chewbacca, and his first encounter with self-pleased rogue Lando Calrissian, captain of the Millennium Falcon. He’s played with dizzying charm by Donald Glover, and if the Star Wars honchos don’t give him his own movie, they’re dumber than nerf herders.

Another fun addition is Lando’s navigation droid L3 (voice/motion by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is a distinct break from the polite/subservient model of C3PO and his ilk. Sassy and rebellious, she advocates for robots overthrowing their “organic overlords” and even hints at a possible romantic relationship with Lando.

I’m hoping more people will discover “Solo” on home video. It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars library, fleshing out the backstory of (arguably) its most popular character and giving us some thrills along the way.

Bonus features are very good. They include eight deleted or extended scenes, including one showing Han as an Imperial cadet; a roundtable with director Ron Howard and his cast; interviews with veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his co-writer, son Jonathan; and much more.

One especially neat bonus feature: “The Millennium Falcon: From Page to Park,” depicting the history of the famous spacecraft and its upcoming translation into a theme park ride.



Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: "The House with a Clock in Its Walls"

“The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a little bit of a lot of things -- none of which work all that well.

It’s a kids-do-magic fantasy adventure in the vein of Harry Potter; a redemptive tale about an orphan growing up fast; a comedic lark with over-the-top characters; a creature feature with plenty of colorful/gross critters; and a few other odd ends.

It’s a little funny, a little scary -- probably too frightening for small children, despite its PG rating -- a little magical, and a little dull at times.

This film is directed by Eli Roth, known for getting his start making the hardest of hardcore horror: “Hostel,” “Cabin Fever.” It’s pretty hilarious that he’s now doing a family-friendly scare romp. Eric Kripke provided the script.

Based on the classic novel by John Bellairs, unread by me, it stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, a 10-year-old who arrives in fictional New Zebedee, Mich., in 1955 after the death of his parents. He is to live with his uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black), the self-described “black swan” of the family. He wears an impressive pompadour, a fixed, unnerving smile and a kimono.

Owen moves into the home at 100 High St., a dilapidated old mansion filled with clocks, weird antiques, stained glass windows that tend to change shape, creepy mannequins and other essentials of any decent haunted house.

Another permanent fixture is Mrs. Zimmerman (no first name is every supplied), the haughty but likable next-door neighbor who apparently spends all her time at Jonathan’s place. She and Jonathan exchange a steady stream of insults like old marrieds, but insist their relationship is platonic.

It doesn’t take long for Owen to figure out that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are warlock and witch, respectively. He insists they teach him magic, too, and they resist for about five seconds before turning Dumbledore on them. Soon Owen is doing spells to spray the bully at school in the face with the water fountain. Good times.

The previous owner of the house was one Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a great magician and Jonathan’s former partner. (In the movie’s telling, many stage magicians are in fact real warlocks and witches who use the cover to pay their bills.) His craft turned decidedly dark after some horrible experiences in the war, and he died after attempting the foulest of spells.

Of course, in these types of movies, death is often just a temporary phase.

I liked Black as the monumentally self-pleased warlock, who has a surfeit of confidence and yet has no hesitation in dubbing Zimmerman a far superior magic user. The shtick got a little old after a while, though.

The movie follows Owen on his adventures at school for a time, especially his budding friendship with Tarby (Sunny Suljic), a popular jock temporarily laid up with a broken arm. But the relationship takes a turn for no good reason other than to service the plot.

There are some amusing and scary sequences that are memorable. I particularly liked a battle with enchanted Jack-o’-lanterns that gets satisfyingly gooey.

I can’t recommend this movie -- I didn’t even like it enough to bother writing out the whole title again. It’s too creepy for really small children, while those over age 10 will probably deem it kiddie fare. It’s not terrible, but it did not cast a spell on me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: "Lizzie"

Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are beautiful women with tired eyes. In “Lizzie,” their characters seem to be sleepwalking through life, addled and awry, as if dreamers hoping desperately to awake from a nightmare.

You may have heard that this is a movie about famed axe murderess Lizzie Borden. What you may not know (I didn’t) is that Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, returned to her hometown and lived out the rest of her days there. Think about that.

In this fictional (?) version of events, director Craig William Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass focus on the romantic relationship between Lizzie (Sevigny) and the family maid, Bridget Sullivan (Stewart). A 1984 novel had supposed a lesbian affair between the two and the discovery of the tryst as the trigger for the murders. (The film’s credits curiously do not attribute the book.)

Here Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is the true villain, a dictatorial patriarch who treats Lizzie and her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), as chattel, embarrassing old maids who continually defy and vex him. He also takes liberties with Bridget in her attic bedroom at night, as an Irish immigrant in 1892 Massachusetts was treated as little more than an indentured servant.

The first half of the movie plays out as a tortured romance, while the second half is a whodunit as we witness the consequences of the crime and flashbacks to the actual killings.

I found the scenes between the two actresses more interesting than the crime-and-punishment stuff. They resist the magnetic attraction toward each other, captives of their time and place that looked upon such love as blasphemy, not to mention the yawning class distinction between them.

It’s a compelling dance, as they struggle against their feelings and drown in the anxiety created by denying them.

The Bordens were not a happy clan. Wealthy but emotionally distant, Andrew had remarried a few years after his wife’s death. The daughters remained aloof to their stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie refuses to call her mother, though she sticks up for her stepdaughter against the worst of her husband’s cruelties.

To wit: At one point, Andrew is enraged after Lizzie steals and pawns some jewelry, and exacts his revenge by beheading all of her beloved pigeons, one by one. Then he orders Bridget to roast them up for dinner. It’s quote a gothic horror scene.

Once the elder Bordens are dead, the movie loses quite a bit of steam. I think it would have been more interesting to keep the matter of Lizzie’s guilt tucked away from this story, concentrating on why she might have been tempted to do such a thing, and how the case became one of America’s first murder media sensations.

Still, we must consider the movie made rather than the one we wish for.

“Lizzie” is at times compelling and other times listless, a look back at a grisly bit of history that has become a gag, and tries to flesh out the human lives involved. It may not be true, but this is as good an explanation as any for hacking people up with a hatchet.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Video review: "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the unavoidable sequel to 2015’s reboot of the genetically-recreated-dinosaurs monster mash, which made a gazillion dollars. So we’re back for another romp in the jungle, another super-duper special “boss” dinosaur and a whole lot of quips from star Chris Pratt and downer tut-tutting from other star Bryce Dallas Howard.

(Btw, isn’t it telling that in blockbuster movies featuring male and female leads, the guy is always the “fun” one?)

The setup here is that the dinos are still running rampant on the remote Isla Nublar, which originally was built as a massive amusement park. Believe it or not, an environmental movement has been launched saying they should be protected as an endangered species. Other more sensible folks simply worry about getting chomped.

Dino wrangler Owen Grady (Pratt) and operations manager Claire Dearing (Howard) are duped into helping some bad types retrieve the dinosaurs in hopes of preserving them. Instead, the plan is to auction them off as very toothy pets for the deplorable rich.

Of course, things go awry and the dinosaurs start munching on their would-be owners instead -- sort of a delish triumph for the 99%, if you think about it.

The twist is an Indoraptor, a genetically modified dinosaur that’s a mix between a velociraptor and the special boss dino from the last movie. Want to guess if the next “Jurassic World” flick will feature the spawn of this movie’s “special” dinosaur?

There are some exciting action scenes, but “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is a paint-by-numbers sequel without a lot of ambition or heart.

Bonus features are ample. The neatest feature is a series of video journals kept by Pratt during production, including one-on-ones with everyone from director J. A. Bayona to his own stunt double.

There’s also a conversation between cast and crew, a “JURASSIC Then and Now” looking at key moments in the film franchise and an “On the Set With Chris & Bryce” that explores their offscreen moments. Plus, 11 making-of documentary shorts.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: "A Simple Favor"

"A Simple Favor" is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. Sometimes it's better to to be mediocre and interesting than decently unoriginal.

At first I thought this was going to be a romcom. Anna Kendrick plays a mommy vlogger who becomes ensorceled with a beautiful, bitchy mother of one of her son's 1st grade classmates, played by Blake Lively. I figured it would be an odd couple romp as they bond while dealing with various man issues.

There is indeed bonding and romantic entanglements, but they're a sideshow to what is essentially a comedy whodunit.

Tonally, this is a brash outlier movie. Coming from director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "Spy), it appears at first blush to be a broad R-rated comedy with the ladies spouting a lot of filthy talk. I haven't read the book it's based on, though it's been compared to "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train" -- pretty much the polar opposite of funny.

But screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, adapting the novel by Darcey Bell, layers in plenty of laughs even as she introduces film noir elements as the two women trade roles as admirer and admired, pursuer and pursued. There are a couple of head-whipping plot twists, though they aren't hard to guess if you've been paying attention.

It starts out fun and flirty, then turns darker, and then darker still, though there are still laughs spliced in between the doom and gloom.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a widowed single mom to adorable Miles (Joshua Satine) who makes helpful videos aimed at other mothers. She's sort of a downmarket Martha Stewart, living in quaint (fictional) Warfield, Conn., a New York City exurb. The other moms of their class see her as this busy bee of energy, friendly to everyone but close to no one.

Then she meets the mom of Miles' pal Nicky (Ian Ho), the class troublemaker. Emily Nelson (Lively) is everything Stephanie is not -- tall, flawless, rich, self-confident, careerist and seemingly indifferent to the joys of motherhood. She wears swank suits with vest pocket chains, fedora hats, ladybug shoes and a permanent smirk.

After some play dates and lots of gin martinis, they're soon fast friends. Stephanie is deferential and apologetic, and Emily acts as her muse and mentor to live larger. Emily is like a caricature of feminism: controlling, manipulative, arrogant. We would hope Stephanie would be smart enough to see through her facade to the depth of her problems, but then we wouldn't have a movie.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Emily suddenly disappears after leaving Nicky with Stephanie. Her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), a once-promising writer, was away in London and wasn't aware she vamoosed. Her posh clothing designer boss (Rupert Friend) though she was on a business trip in Miami.

Soon the police are brought in, Stephanie's vlog becomes a hit when she starts doing updates on Emily's case in between making friendship bracelets, and the web of suspicions quickly spreads.

There was a point about two-thirds of the way through the movie where I was literally scratching my head, wondering what the heck was going on and where the film was heading. It felt schizophrenic and weird. But it was also on some level enervating to watch a movie that keeps throwing wild haymakers at you. Many of them don't land, but some do.

I can't exactly recommend "A Simple Favor." But it's a sporadically entertaining flick that has something to say about the state of the mommy wars.

Review: "The Predator"

More than 30 years ago we had “Predator,” followed by its sequel, “Predator 2,” then “Alien vs. Predator” and its sequel, then the 2010 reboot, “Predators,” and now its sorta-sequel, “The Predator.”

Forget about whether any of these movies have been any good since the first one -- hint: they haven’t -- could we at least get some more interesting titles? What’s next, “A Predator?” “La Predator?”

The new one is directed by Shane Black, a longtime screenwriter of action movies who segued to directing a few years back. (A lot of people liked his “The Nice Guys,” but I didn’t.) With this movie, Black -- who co-wrote the script with Fred Dekker -- has achieved a level of discombobulation heretofore unseen in theaters.

Good luck following this story. The movie plays out as a bunch of people shouting a bunch of gibberish at each other, followed by shootouts and disembowelings, which somehow leads to more gibberish.


It seems the alien hunters with faces like a Venus fly trap and Rastafarian dreds are returning to Earth for the umpteenth time. A nasty quasi-governmental agency known as Project Stargazer wants to get their hands on the predator tech, which as you’ll recall can do things like turn you invisible or shoot lasers from a nifty little shoulder launcher.

A special forces dude named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) helps capture a predator who has crash-landed in Mexico, yet for some reason this results in him being thrown into military prison by the Stargazer folks. But not before he ships the alien’s helmet and wrist controller to his P.O. Box in the States, which makes me think that when the post office worker tells me they may scan or inspect my packages that they’re just blowing a lot of smoke.

The tech ends up in the hands of his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autism spectrum but is also brilliant. Quinn breaks out of prison with the help of a bunch of other military castoffs. Soon it turns into a big chase-chase-chase movie with the Stargazer goons chasing Quinn who’s running but also chasing the predator who’s chasing his son.

This is a really terrible movie with a really good and interesting cast. In addition to Tremblay (“The Room”), Keegan-Michael Key plays Coyle, one of the military misfits helping Quinn. Olivia Munn is the brilliant scientist who also knows how to shoot any kind of gun. Thomas Jane is Baxley, an unlikable mook with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Sterling K. Brown plays the Stargazer chief, who dresses very casually for a mastermind. He and Quinn can’t seem to decide if they hate each other or want to share beers and Bromance.

I also thought Gary Busey had turned up as a goofy scientist, but it’s actually his son Jake. I said this can’t be, that’s Gary Busey’s kid, but turns out Jake is creeping up on 50, and doesn’t that make us all feel old.

“Predators” is a very poorly staged action film. It looks as if Black directed the movie while looking in a mirror over his shoulder.

There’s a lot of gory violence, with intestines galore. And alien dogs that turn nice if you shoot them in just the right spot. I also learned that you can kill a predator with a bullet to the face, but something like 20,000 shots don’t hit him in the head until the one that does.

If you like a heaping helping of stupidity along with eviscerations, then this is your flick. As for me, I’m holding out for “Six Degrees of Separated Predator Heads.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: "The Wife"

All married couples hold secrets -- sometimes between each other, sometimes together. Most are lies of omission: not telling a sister about what happened to the flood insurance money, or sparing your spouse’s feelings about the actual edibleness of their bunt cake.

The Castlemans have their own trove of secrets. But with them it seems their entire marriage is built on layer upon layer of secrets, like an onion that smells sweet but is foul inside.

Outwardly, they are bright, successful people reaping the benefits of a life of good work as they edge into their golden years, with accolades, prospering children and a first grandchild on the way. Joe (Jonathan Pryce) is forever announcing to anyone who cares to listen that his wife, Joan, is the love of his life -- his muse, his inspiration, his bedrock.

The interior of their relationship, though, is shot through with rot.

This is a career watershed for Glenn Close. As Joan, she plays a woman who has chosen to live a life of deception, which has with the passing of time become self-deceit. This is the story of her coming to the conclusion that she can no longer live a lie. It’s one of the finest performances of her storied career.

As the story opens, Joe has just been informed that he is to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. After an early disgrace at Yale -- he was sacked for sleeping with one of his students, which would be Joan -- he’s become a respected novelist with a bookshelf full of works that have been translated into innumerable languages.

The story follows them on their journey to Sweden to receive the award, which should be the apex of their marriage but in fact marks the point of its unraveling. Close and Pryce are so good together, with all the little quirks and understanding of each other’s idiosyncrasies that come from decades spent living together.

They play their roles for the public eye. Joe is the egotistical, philandering, fragile artist who must always be the center of attention. Joan is the long-suffering wife whose job is to support Joe in his and bear his many indiscretions. She was a promising writer herself in her youth, but tucked her ambitions away in the face of a male-dominated publishing world.

Close’s face is often set in a placid state of benevolence, with a little tightness at the corner of the mouth and eyes that lets us know it’s a mask -- one Joan is ready to let fall.

Their son, David (Max Irons), accompanies them on the trip and is witness to the growing storm. A budding writer himself, he resents that his father has never given him any sort of encouragement -- only critiques and dismissive praise.

Christian Slater plays Nathaniel Bone, a sniveling fellow shadowing the Castlemans because he wants to be anointed as Joe’s official biographer. He’s an endless parade of flattery and toadying, and yet it becomes clear the man is not a dolt.

Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd portray Joan and Joe as their younger selves. Joe was already married and had a daughter when they met as professor and student, but chucked it all away to dally with her. After he’s dismissed from teaching, the first draft of his debut novel, “The Walnut,” turns out poorly. Joan, who works as a secretary in a publishing house, offers to help get him noticed… and in other ways.

In a way, “The Wife” is a whodunit as well as a portrait of marriage. It soon becomes clear that their relationship is doomed, and the filmmakers -- director Björn Runge and screenwriter Jane Anderson, who adapted Meg Wolitzer’s novel -- tease us with drips of information about how it all went wrong.

I won’t give away the ending of this wonderful movie, other than to say it concludes with bitterness and regret but also a fair amount of joy and hope. Sometimes letting go of the past is the only way to open up new possibilities.

Review: "We the Animals"

Lyrical and evocative, “We the Animals” is a snapshot of childhood at the eye level of the kids going through it -- the simple joys, the incomprehensible tragedies, the mix of yearning and apprehension about growing up.

Much like “The Florida Project” from last year, this film keeps the focus squarely on the kids. In this case, it’s three brothers who are ages 10, 11 and 12. The youngest is Jonah (Evan Rosado), who’s the dreamer and the drawer of the group, and the clear stand-in for author Justin Torres, upon whose book director Jeremiah Zagar and his co-screenwriter, Dan Kitrosser, have based the film.

Zagar comes from a documentary background, and you can clearly see the influence in how his camera follows his subjects in an unobtrusive way. Set in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, it’s the story of a family from Puerto Rico that has settled somewhere in rural America.

The father, Paps (Raúl Castillo), works as the night watchman at a factory, while the Ma (Sheila Vand) is a worker on the third shift at yet another industrial site. This largely leaves the trio of brothers free during the daytime to roam the gorgeous countryside around their house, explore, tease and get into minor scrapes.

There’s not a whole lot of story or dialogue in “We the Animals.” Often several minutes will go by between spoken words. Rather, it’s the imagery and the music (by Nick Zammuto) that carry the cinematic experience.

Like a leaf falling into a river, we ride along with the boys’ story and get caught up in its eddies and currents.

Ma and Paps are outwardly loving but also get into arguments that sometimes turn violent. As the story opens, he leaves the family for a time after striking Ma. He tells the boys the dentist punched her to loosen up her wisdom teeth for extraction. The brothers are respectful enough of their father to accept this without believing it for even a minute.

(He never once raises his hand to them.)

Embarrassed by her bruises and emotionally wrecked, Ma stays in bed for days on end. Jonah and his brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) essentially become feral children, emptying out the kitchen of food before turning to shoplifting or purloining from a vegetable patch to fill their scant bellies.

Jonah wakes up in the wee hours to add to his rambling journal -- a collection of writings, drawings and other scribbles. He keeps these hidden from his brothers and parents, for reasons that remain unclear but are also completely understandable. Part of it is fear of having his innermost thoughts exposed, especially those related to changing bodies and sex.

But mostly, I think Jonah just wants to have a little piece of himself he can keep to himself.

These drawings are brought to life in animations that serve as the connective tissue of the movie, binding scenes and themes through wordless moving imagery.

At first the brothers are inseparable, but as time passes and troubles mount, Jonah finds himself as the one who stands apart. He’s estranged from his brothers’ desire to grow up as quickly as possible. He loves his mother and wants to protect her, understands his father’s anger without condoning it.

“We the Animals” is a lovely film about human ugliness and beauty, a coming-of-age story that tells how we can’t stay children forever, no matter how much we’d like to cling to that innocence.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Big Jake" (1971)

This is the second of my first-ever Reeling Backward "double feature," looking at a pair of back-to-back Westerns John Wayne made during his declining years. You can read the column on "Rio Lobo" by clicking here. The two films have been paired together in a nice Blu-ray release that's now available.

Thematically and stylistically, "Rio Lobo" and "Big Jake" share a lot of space. Wayne plays essentially the same role: a cussedly good-natured cowboy who's on the downside of his long run in the saddle, still throwing his weight around to protect his reputation but also do some good if he can.

He plays Jake McCandles, the estranged patriarch of a wealthy ranching family along the Texas-Mexico border in 1909. It's never explained why he's out riding the lonesome range with his dog, whom he addresses simply as "Dog," rather than overseeing the ranch with his wife, Martha (Maureen O'Hara, still a stunner at 51), his three sons and the grandson he's never met.

Based on his antagonistic interactions with Martha and the boys, and the classic John Wayne archetype, it's a combination of ill feelings and Jake's inbred desire to roam free and clear.

Shot in vivid widescreen Technicolor by director George Sherman, "Big Jake" nonetheless very much has a television feel to it, as did "Lobo." There's a spare economy of storytelling and characterizations, as if all that exists of these people and this land is bookended within the film's 109 minutes.

In a good movie, we should always feel as if the characters have wandered in from other things they were doing and places they were going, which they'll return to after the credits roll.

(Assuming they survive, this being a rootin', tootin', shootin' Western.)

Like "Lobo," Wayne provided another send-off to a director making his last feature film. Obviously Sherman doesn't have the reputation or gallery of awards of Howard Hawks, but the journeyman directed or produced a number of notable films from the 1930s through the '70s, including several with Wayne like "The Commancheros."

I remain flabbergasted how "Rio Lobo" received a "G" rating from the nascent MPAA. "Big Jake" contains about the same amount of violence and blood -- still very orange-y -- but lacks the semi-nudity and sexual innuendo. Yet it received the harsher "GP" rating (later changed to PG).

The story of "Big Jake" is quite simple: a group of bandits led by John Fain (well-creased frequent villain Richard Boone) rides up to the McCandles ranch one day, shoots a bunch of people dead and kidnaps Martha's grandson, "Little Jake," played by Wayne's real-life son, Ethan. In the process Little Jake's son, played by singer Bobby Vinton, is badly shot up, though his two younger brothers remained safe, away with the herd.

Fain's Gang leaves a note demanding $1 million in ransom in $20 bills, with the bearer to proceed along a trail on a map provided until they are met. Martha must decide between sending the U.S. Army or Texas Rangers to carry the ransom, but also sends word to Big Jake, who ends up taking on the assignment personally.

How anyone knew where to find him is left a mystery -- another example of the poor internal logic often associated with TV writing. The script was by the Fink screenwriting couple, Harry Julian and Rita M., best known for the "Have Gun -- Will Travel" Western series and the "Dirty Harry" movies.

Much is made in the movie of the split between the Old West and the more civilized East, with a long narrated intro contrasting the high society developments in New York or whatnot with the life on the still-young frontier remaining very much under the boot heel of hard men with guns.

The Rangers travel by automobile these days, and there's a big Keystone Cops-style scene where Fain's Gang shoots the clankety machines to pieces, leaving the lawmen stranded. They hadn't even thought to bring enough water to drink. Jake catches up with his train of spare horses, allowing his other two sons, who had gone with the Rangers, to join up.

The elder McCandles son, hothead James, is played by another of Wayne's real-life offspring, Patrick. The younger, cooler Michael, who favors a motorcycle until it's smashed up, is again played by Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert), who also appeared in "Rio Lobo."

James is constantly antagonizing Jake, calling him "Daddy" when he wants to annoy him, and repeatedly blaming him for running out on the family. Michael is more polite and obedient, though he occasionally pisses off the man he calls "Father," too. Jake lays down several rounds of smack on the both of them.

Also tagging along is Sam Sharpnose, an old Apache tracker played by Bruce Cabot (who looks about as Native American as me). There's a nice scene where the two old gunmen privately share their newfound affinity for Greener shotguns, as they've grown mostly blind at distance.

Other nods to modernity are the weapons used in the film. Jake relies on his scattergun and six-shooter, but Michael favors a bolt-action rifle with a scope, and has to duel with an adversary using a similar weapon. Michael also produces a pistol he calls a "1911," an early semiautomatic that is shown firing at high (nearly uncontrollable) speed. He later hands this over to James, who uses it to take out several bandits.

(The 1911 reference is confusing, as the famous M1911 wasn't issued until that year.  The Internet Movie Firearm Database lists the weapon used in the movie as a Walther P-38 dressed up to look like a Bergmann 1896.)

Fain's Gang is a colorful mix of crusty characters. Interestingly, the villains are actually introduced at the very start of the film, with each man getting a little mini-bio from the narrator, while Wayne doesn't even show up till the 20-minute mark.

The two gang members who make the biggest impressions are Harry Carey Jr. as Pop Dawson, the wily old coot of the bunch, and John Goodfellow (Greg Palmer), a grizzly mountain of a man who favors finishing off his victims with a machete, slashing them repeatedly with an orgiastic fervor we'd later see in the forthcoming slasher film genre.

I feel much about "Big Jake" as I do about "'Rio Lobo." Neither deserves a high place in the John Wayne canon, though they're decent, fast-paced Westerns with a lot of entertainment value.

I was surprised again how much Wayne smiles throughout the movie, despite playing a character whose orneriness is supposed to be his defining trait. The old cowboy actor couldn't hide his joy at doing what he did best.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Video review: "Hearts Beat Loud"

“Hearts Beat Loud” is a warm, sad, sweet hug of a movie. It’s got catchy music, genuine adult relationships and a wise heart.

Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons play father and daughter living in in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. He’s a mopey widower who runs a failing record shop and used to be in a band. She’s about to go off to college to become a doctor. They genuinely love each other, but they’re at that stage in life where their gravitational pulls are going in different directions.

Frank (Offerman) does insist that he and Sam (Clemons) still hold their semi-regular “jam sesh” where they punk around with their instruments. One evening it’s especially fruitful, their noodling condenses into an actual song, which Frank records and, on a whim, uploads to Spotify.

He’s astonished when the tune gets a lot of airtime. A record label guy even shows up at the shop talking about a contract and an LP. Soon Frank’s head is buzzing: maybe Sam can take a gap year while they go on the road, deepen their bond and let him live out his rock god dreams?

Ted Danson is Dave, the silver-tongued bartender who dispenses wisdom and spirits to favored friends. Toni Collette plays Leslie, the landlord for their shop, and also a very available lady Frank has his eyes on. Maybe all his hopes and dreams are suddenly coming to fruition?

Directed by Brett Haley (“The Hero”) from a screenplay he wrote along with Marc Basch, “Hearts Beat Loud” is poignant and heartfelt. It’s a movie about having dreams, but also knowing when it’s time to let go of them and form some new ones.

Information on bonus features was not available.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Video review: "Beast"

Most actors employ a lot of tricks, but I couldn’t spot any of Jessica Buckley’s in “Beast.” In this revelatory performance, she plays a severely oppressed young woman living under the thumb of family and community expectations who finds a way to break free through a romance with a local undesirable.

Moll lives on a lovely British island, working as a bus guide for tourists. Her older siblings are already married and started families, and it’s not hard to see that her mother (Geraldine James) views her as the disappointment of the family. As the story opens Moll is attending a birthday party, which turns out to be her own, but she’s treated morse as the servant than the guest of honor.

She has a chance encouter with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), an unnerving fellow who spends his days at odd jobs and poaching. They fall into an uneasy romance, which is bothersome to most everyone Moll knows, which is the main thrust of the appeal.

But when local girls start turning up strangled, Pascal becomes the chief suspect. Moll defends him but harbors her own doubts. Her mind starts to fracture, resulting in terrible visions in which she herself is a perpetrator.

It’s an audacious feature film debut for writer/director Michael Pearce, who along with Buckley draws an intimate, unsettling portrait of a young woman who’s been a target all her life. Finally given a chance to express herself, she finds that freedom can become its own prison.

Video extras are unfortunately rather modest. They consist of a gallery of photo stills from the production and a making-of documentary short.