Friday, June 22, 2018

'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom': Let Them Have It

What could be more fun than a dinosaur ER?
At this point in the seemingly never-ending Jurassic film franchise, it can safely be said that humans are idiots and they should just let the dinosaurs have the planet. After all, they had it for a lot longer than we have, and if it wasn't for a big dumb meteor it's likely they'd still be around. And if we had any doubts about who deserves this planet, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom peppers the film with plenty more reasons to take the dinosaurs' side.

Three years after the disaster at Jurassic World--which itself is reason number one to let humanity die; those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it (in a series of big budget sequels)--the dinosaurs that have been left to live amongst the ruins of the park on Isla Nubar are threatened with extinction when a dormant volcano on the island starts to erupt.

Former footwear-challenged Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now heads up the Dinosaur Protection group who are working hard to convince the government to take action and rescue the endangered creatures. But the government chooses to do nothing. (Reason number two: a spineless congress).

Enter the reclusive, elderly billionaire Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to the rescue. A former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Sir Ben believes the dinosaurs deserve to live, and has built them a secluded sanctuary island. He just needs Claire's help to capture the smartest dino, a raptor known as Blue. Of course Claire needs someone else's help with that, roping in "animal behaviorist," and Blue's trainer, ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).

Sir Ben, who is on his last legs, has entrusted his executor Eli (Rafe Spall) to head up the rescue, and through a smile filled with supernaturally white teeth, Eli convinces Claire he loves those dinos as much as she does. (Has she learned nothing about trusting things with big white teeth?)

The scenes on the island are the only point where we get to see the dinosaurs living their lives and doing their own thing, and that's a joy that the first Jurassic Park  exploited full well, before it turned to destruction. Fallen Kingdom gives us about five minutes of that before all hell breaks loose, and the dinosaurs are running for their lives from the volcano and some pretty nasty mercenaries--headed by a sadistic Ted "Jame Gumb" Levin--brought along to aid in their capture.

At this point the film sets the tone for the rest to come, as we witness the sad plaintive wail of a brachiosaurus who is left to die as the island is quickly engulfed by lava and ash. As my eyes began to well up with tears, I began to hate Fallen Kingdom.

It gets worse from there. For the remainder of the film, many of the dinosaurs are relegated to cages, drugged up, tortured, or on the verge of death. Fun! The villains are revealed, and they're one-dimensional one-percenters, who only see the money-making possibilities of dinosaur propagation. While the inevitable use of a mutated dino as a military weapon gets the most play, we never really know what the rest of the bad guys want them for. Big game hunting?  Exotic menus? Weird sex games? Whatever it may be, it just proves that the obscenely rich are the worst, (and reason number three that humanity should die off.)

The film is big and loud (so, so loud), but at the same time it feels claustrophobic, with some of the dinosaurs charging around a spooky old mansion like errant toys in a dollhouse whose floors somehow don't collapse under their weight. There's a lot of screaming and running, much coming from Sir Ben's precocious granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon). Oakland actress and comedian Daniella Pineda has a few good one liners as dinosaur vet Zia Rodriguez. But the bottom line is a movie like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom should be fun, not a depressing slog that makes you question humanity. I mean, if you've got Jeff Goldblum in your Jurassic movie and you only give him four minutes of screen time? A decision like that is proof enough we humans deserve to die off.

Friday, June 15, 2018

'Tag', A Bad Bromance

You mean to tell me, we're in our FORTIES?
The creators of Tag really want us to know their film is based on a true story, mentioning that fact in the trailer, the poster, and the film's opening credits. And in the broadest sense, it is. (The true story actually involves a larger, older, and whiter group of men.)

I'm not sure if knowing there actually are middle-aged men out there playing Tag makes the movie's concept seem less or more stupid, but that's one of Tag's problems. It wants to recognize the sheer bizarreness of grown men playing Tag, while also couching it in some cloying messages about friendship and the death of youth.

Hoagie (Ed Helms) is the self-proclaimed leader of the man-boys. After learning their friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is getting married, without inviting any of the Tag clan to the wedding, Hoagie sees it as the perfect opportunity to finally corner and tag the elusive and never-tagged Jerry, and ropes in businessman Bob (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker and perpetually stoned Chili (Jake Johnson), and the reliably deadpan Sable (Hannibal Buress).

The continuous game started when they were in junior high, and has a few rules. It only takes place during the month of May; there's no safe spaces, so you just might get tagged at funeral; whoever is tagged at the end of that month is "It" for the rest of the year; and no girls. That last rule is why Hoagie's ultra-competitive wife Anna (a manic Isla Fisher) can never actually play, although she's ruthless in helping and rooting for her husband.

We also learn amendments can be added to the rules, which is how the gang eventually gets themselves invited to the rehearsal dinner for Jerry and his future wife, Susan (Leslie Bibb): no tagging during the dinner, ceremony, or reception.

That still leaves plenty of opportunities to tag Jerry, and the means he goes through to avoid it are the film's better moments. Jeremy Renner may not have actually played Jason Bourne in 2012's The Bourne Legacy, but he's basically playing him here, setting up elaborate ruses, fighting off stealth attacks, and roping in utility players to act as decoys. These moments, in all their slo-mo glory, are not the least bit realistic, and in real life would likely result in, hospitalization, paralysis, or death. But Jerry's almost supernatural abilities can be fun to watch.

Also fun is some of the more relaxed banter between the guys, particularly between Hannibal Buress and whomever he may be speaking to at any given moment (and often, it's just to himself). But it's not enough. Most of the film is the equivalent of running in circles, which is the epitome of predictable. And an attempt to turn earnest near the end doesn't have the effect it should since up to that point the gag has been never knowing if anything is truth, or just an elaborate means to avoid getting tagged. Tag may be based on true story, but it fails to get real.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean's H8?

I'm just as stunned as you, ladies.

I usually write my reviews the week I see a film, posting on the day of release. I'm old school like that. I miss the days when you had to wait for Friday's morning paper to see if the new summer movie was worth seeing or not.

But these days, it's all about the "hot take," getting reviews out there as soon as possible. Despite that, I try to avoid reading most reviews before I've gotten a chance to write my own. As a result, when I'm done writing mine it sometimes comes as a big surprise to see that my opinion does not jibe with the majority's.

Last week I was felled by illness for a few days, unable to even look at a computer screen without being overcome with dizziness and nausea, so I wasn't able to finish my review of Ocean's 8 before my self-imposed Friday deadline. Because of that, I went ahead and checked out Rotten Tomatoes this weekend, only to find the film has a tepid ripe tomato rating. This was shocking to me because, and I'll put it bluntly, I fucking loved Ocean's 8.

It seems the general opinion is that it's good, as good as the Ocean's films that preceded it, but somehow it should have been better. That it's not enough to fill a sequel with a great female cast, a solid screenplay, and every trope that befits a good heist picture. There should've been more.

I can easily say I enjoyed Ocean's 8 as much as I did Ocean's 11, definitely more than Ocean's 12, and probably more than Ocean's 13, which I saw but have completely forgotten. It's not just a retread with a female cast, but cleverly creates a central heist that not only couldn't be pulled off by men, but is actually centered on women's frustrations, desires, and obsessions.

Along with the the fancy dresses and pretty jewels, there's a healthy dose of vengeful female rage, via Sandra Bullock's Debbie Ocean. There's also a starlet (Anne Hathaway) who is both vapidly vain and racked with debilitating insecurities; a Betsey Johnson-esque designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who fears she may have aged herself out of the industry with her latest dated collection; not to mention the presence of Rihanna herself, someone who embodies frustration, desire, and obsession. (Surely I'm not the only woman who feels that way about her?)

I'll say it again: Ocean's 8 is as good as the first Ocean's film, and better than its previous sequels. It's brisk and clever, has the twists we've come to expect from the series, ripples with wit, and is filled with excellent performances. And I don't get why, just because it's got a female cast, it has to be more than that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

'Hereditary' Chillness

Boo!...I mean, can I kiss you goodnight?

When we think about the things that really and truly scare us, it is rarely the monster-under-the-bed, serial killers, or alien invasions. It's more often things like suddenly losing your family; the inability to protect the vulnerable people you love; and maybe, losing your mind.

Hereditary is a horror movie that definitely recognizes the potential horrors of family life, and is at its best when it focuses on that.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist and mother of two who has just lost her own mother after an extended illness. Annie has mixed feelings about this death, as her mother was a secretive and often difficult woman.

Her family, husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolf), and pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are also dealing with this loss in their own way. Peter and Steve take it in stride, perhaps recognizing it as a relief, while daughter Charlie is sadder. She and her grandmother were close, and it's clear Charlie was her favorite child, as odd as she is. Or perhaps because of that oddness.

A palpable level of gloom surrounds the family, due in part to their home, a beautiful but dark craftsman house in the middle of some wintery woods. Annie's artwork centers on detailed dioramas depicting pivotal moments in her life, and the camera often tricks the eye into seeing their home as one of Annie's dioramas. It's a creepy and great effect.

Also lending itself to the creep meter is Annie's realization that her mother had a secret life that may have been downright evil, and the mental illness that runs in Annie's family may not have skipped over her like she thought.

When a second, devastating loss hits the family, it pushes Annie to seek solace in an unconventional way, with the help of a fellow grief recovery group member (Anne Dowd), while also causing some of her long held resentments to rise the surface, fracturing the family.

Toni Collette's Annie goes through almost as many personality changes as her United States of Tara character. She's at times charmingly bewildered by the possible supernatural events that surround her, heartbreaking when she's trying to wrestle with her grief, and utterly terrifying when it appears her mind may be cracking.

At times Alex Wolf's performance as teenage Peter is woefully overshadowed by Collette, but he eventually gets some pretty intense moments of his own. Sadly, Gabriel Byrne is completely underutilized in an underwritten role.

Hereditary is definitely creepy,  and it allows its utterly shocking tragedy to permeate everything that follows. For the majority of the film, we never really know where its going, and ambiguity lends to the terror. But then it decides to stop the ambiguity, landing with a very heavy thud on one side, favoring the kinds of things that ultimately don't keep us up at night.