Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Ocean's 8"


Years and years ago, there were Dollar Tuesdays, when every movie cost just a dollar for admission, any show, any time, all day. Back then, you'd hear people say things like:

"Is it any good?"

"Sure, especially if you go on Tuesday."

Here we are decades later and we've got the 21st century, technologically enhanced version of Dollar Tuesdays called Moviepass*, which looks like it might end up being as much a fleeting phenomenon as Dollar Tuesdays themselves were. (First, they became $2 Tuesdays, and then, as the economy improved and the threat of staying home and watching VHS tapes began to wane, they disappeared forever.)

And the question that comes up regarding Ocean's 8, a sort of reboot of the Ocean's Eleven movies with a predominately female cast of crooks, is: "Is it any good?"

The answer to which is, "Sure, with Moviepass."  I, on the other hand, paid full price, out of pocket to see Ocean's 8 and found it a perfectly entertaining, acceptable, frequently funny, often meandering, tremendously overlong movie that kind of moves along in fits and starts, layering in one new plot point onto another like a giant, fluffy dessert that looks like it might fall in on itself at any moment.  I was amused.

If I had seen it essentially for free, I'd probably be overjoyed at the outcome, because Ocean's 8 is more than passable entertainment, and when you get it for free, what is there to complain about?

Now, having seen one, two or all three of the previous, male-dominated Ocean's movies, what lingered in my mind was: absolutely nothing. One of them, I think, took place in Las Vegas, and all of them involved a lot of merry criminals who were breezy and funny and looked very, very well dressed.

When I watch the news and see people taken in for big, brazen crimes like this, they generally look angry, confrontational and not at all like the people you'd like to see at a swanky party. But the Ocean's movies are heist movies, and heist movies are usually better if we feel the heist is being done for thrills rather than with criminal intent.  I mean, these people are committing major, international crimes; they're not nice people, but we've got to believe they are.

This time around, the heist begins with Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, whose brother was Danny, the "Ocean" in the original title. The criminal inclination runs in the family, it seems, and Debbie has been spending five years in prison thinking about the next job she's going to pull just as soon as she gets out.

And snap-bam, here we are. No parole officer hearings, no worries about where to live or how to survive, just right back into a life of crime, and doing it with a smile on her face the entire time. Bullock remains an engaging and winning film presence, so she can get us past the disbelief. She hooks up with an old friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), whose criminal enterprise has diminished to watering down vodka in a nightclub.

It's not too long before Debbie reveals her master plan: to steal a $150 million necklace during the Met Gala. It'll be around the neck of a glamorous movie star named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), with the down-on-her-luck celebrity designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) in on the job. So are Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Akwafina in decidedly underwritten roles that exist primarily to have people to take on different positions in the elaborate heist.

The film is divided roughly into four parts, each of which plays to varying success: The setup and building the team is substantially less interesting than it's been in earlier movies; the planning and tech rehearsal are amusing and suspenseful; the heist itself proves a little more complicated than expected (some of the key information on who moves where and does what has been withheld from us, and having the audience fully aware of every detail has long been key to enjoying a heist picture); and the final investigation builds on a needless and extraneous story that involves a fellow criminal Debbie used to love.

For all the talk about female empowerment and women playing strong roles in films, it's curious that Ocean's 8 was written and directed by men, and features a handsome, ultra-masculine man at its core who the women, for a long period of the film, need to talk about. Sociologically speaking, Ocean's 8 leaves you wondering why they couldn't trust the women to be as smart as they are, or they just thought that no one can believe that a woman's ultimate goal can't be to attract the attention of a man. That kind of casual sexism left me with some weird thoughts about what Ocean's 8 wanted to accomplish.

But all that stuff aside, the question is: Does it work? And the answer is, yes. The acting is at times iffy, the story is iffy, the plot requires not mere suspension of disbelief but putting it into your smartphone, turning it all off and ignoring it for a couple of hours.  You don't want little nagging thoughts gnawing at your head as the heist gets underway, since some of it requires such astonishing coincidences to pull off, that ... well, wait, see what I mean?  Put that disbelief away for a couple of hours.  Ocean's 8 won't work any other way.

Let it happen, succumb to the geniality of it all, and it's a fun, diverting little film, cleverly made, totally enjoyable, and often so ludicrously plotted that there's just no way that one person could end up over there at just the right time-- wait, see what I mean?  Forget about it.

It's a fun movie. Especially if you see it on a Moviepass. Ocean's 8 may, indeed, be the ultimate Moviepass movie; how can you be too critical about something you didn't even pay to see?

The good news is, it's much better than that. But increasingly, the scariest part is, maybe it didn't even have to be.


* The popularity of Moviepass, incidentally, leaves me thinking that no matter the financial state of the company behind it, it demonstrates an underlying fear among exhibitors and studios of streaming services -- even while studios double-down their bets on streaming, they've got a problem of simultaneously urging people to stay home to watch digital content while needing people to go to theaters. Moviepass plays an important role in this, and probably sooner rather than later, we'll mostly go to movies with these subscription models, just as most people go to the opera or their local symphonies with season tickets. Moviepass as a brand will likely die off quickly; the company behind it can't sustain its questionable business model, but movie theater owners are looking eager to fill this void. And all of that calls into question whether the era of $70 million comedies like this one will be able to last much longer. It's an interesting quandary the entertainment industry has found itself in, and one entirely of its own making.

Viewed July 10, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Three Identical Strangers"


Here is a story filled with dark and tragic family secrets, a story that begins in happiness and ends in tragedy, a story about the terrible and twisted things human beings do to each other, and the most remarkable thing about this story is: it's all true.

The happy part begins in 1980, when Bobby Shafran walks onto a college campus to the strangest welcome anyone's ever known. Everyone he sees is a stranger, but they all act like they know him. It doesn't take long before the mystery is solved -- and an even bigger mystery begins. Bobby, now in his late 50s, recounts how another student looked at him, asked if he was adopted, and put him on the phone with Eddy Galland, who turned out to be his long-lost identical twin brother.

Their wild story made the newspaper, and when David Kellman read it, there was another revelation: the twins were triplets, and had been separated at birth. Jane Pauley and Phil Donahue and everyone who was anyone wanted to talk with them. The triplets became celebrities. As soon as they saw each other, they loved each other. They compared notes about their lives, and discovered there were remarkable similarities.

They were as overjoyed as 19-year-old boys could be. Their parents -- an affluent professional couple, a middle-class couple, and a working-class couple, each of whom also had an adopted daughter -- were happy, too. But they were suspicious. They paid a visit to the adoption agency that had given them the boys. The people there, who specialized in placing Jewish babies, seemed less than eager to reveal too much.

Then things got really weird. That's also where Three Identical Strangers moves from being a standard talking-head documentary to being an exciting, confounding, sometimes downright shocking blend of quasi-sensational re-enactments and puzzling, unexpected revelation.

As Bobby says to begin, it's a story you'd never believe if it were recounted to you by someone you knew. British filmmaker Tim Wardle could never have even proposed the concept as a piece of fiction; it would be entirely too outlandish, except that it's true. And what it reveals about humanity is many-layered, disturbing and sometimes even unexpectedly profound.

Three Identical Strangers is at once a comedy, a thriller, a horror movie and a stirring drama, which is quite a feat for what on the surface appears to be a straightforward documentary. Other than some simply produced (and at one point rather pointedly melodramatic) dramatic re-enactments, it's a blend of talking heads and period home movies, helped immeasurably by the film's setting in early 1980s Long Island, just as Americans were growing more and more obsessed with documenting their lives.

Impressively, the film barely hints at its deeper secrets, and even if you go into it as I did with a little foreknowledge that something grim is at its core, it's easy to be swept away by the pure joy of the first third of the story -- as Bobby, Eddy and David discover each other, and take advantage of becoming momentary celebrities, Three Identical Strangers would be satisfying as a recollection of a minor footnote in pop-culture history.

Then comes the first bombshell, as the boys and their parents learn that so many of the things that seem impossible in their story might not be as impossible as they imagined. Yet, even knowing what they know, the boys plow forward with their notoriety, at one point opening a restaurant called Triplets that becomes a minor Greenwich Village hotspot.

And even while the filmmakers are still exploring all of the unbelievable implications of the first shocking revelation, here's the second big plot twist, another one that would be almost eye-rolling in its drama if Three Identical Strangers were fiction. But it's not.

What happens in the final third of the story brings deeper nuance to everything that has come before, and opens up a broader line of questioning for director Wardle and his associates.  The question of nature versus nurture has been an inherent part of the story from the start  -- did Eddy, Bobby and David grow up with differences and similarities despite or because of their varied upbringings, and what does that say about the way anyone's environment affects his or her development? That's the question every TV talk-show host wanted to know from the moment the news broke of the triplets' strange story.

But Wardle waits until just the right moment to bring in this second shocker, which along with a late-in-the-story introduction of some new characters (anyone who has read Agatha Christie knows the importance of that kind of a trick in a mystery), leaves the audience reeling.  There aren't many documentaries that can elicit a communal gasp from the audience the way this one did when I saw it: The revelations are that extraordinary.

Three Identical Strangers has a little bit of a harder time knowing how to wrap it all up (also not uncommon to twisty mysteries), and if its denouement feels a little uncertain, maybe it's because nearly 30 years after the events of its story, there's still no satisfying conclusion -- too much about its story remains unresolved in ways that are themselves more than a little mysterious and troubling.

At a brisk 96 minutes, it would have been easy for Wardle to succumb to the temptation of turning this into a 10-hour miniseries for digital television or a multi-episode podcast, but he keeps the story compact, taut and mesmerizing. It's a rare documentary that can rival Hollywood entertainment, but Three Identical Strangers does exactly that.

Viewed July 8, 2018 -- Laemmle Town Center 5


Saturday, July 7, 2018

"Sorry to Bother You"


Maybe the problem with things, one of the characters in Sorry to Bother You says toward the end of its wild, weird story, is that when a problem is so big it doesn't have a solution, people respond by getting used to it.

It's a sobering moment in a film that is mostly drunk on its own possibility, and it says as much about the world we live in as it does about the world in which it takes place, a world that looks a lot like our own but with some minor variations that first appear on the edges of the frame before they start to take over.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green, who in the opening scene worries aloud to his girlfriend that maybe his life hasn't amounted to much. She's an artist named Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson), which means she gets to express herself, something Cash can't do at all -- he can't even afford to put a gallon of gas in his beat-up car. He winds up taking a job at a telemarketing company, where one of his co-workers (Danny Glover) reveals the secret of success: a "white voice." Turns out, that's something Cash can do well ... eerily well. He starts out selling encyclopedias, but before long he has his eye set on becoming a "Power Caller," one of the elite who make a fortune selling -- well, hm, no one knows exactly what.

But lurking everywhere are advertisements for the ubiquitous Worry Free company, which has taken over just about every aspect of life. It's the TV we watch, it's the way we live, it's the stuff we buy, and it's always looking for new workers. The head of Worry Free is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who combines capitalism and self-help in a way that appeals to the downwardly mobile, which in the world of Sorry to Bother You is just about everyone.

Some of Cash's co-workers want to organize a union (this might be the first movie in a few decades to name-check Norma Rae), while Detroit is part of a militant group called Left Eye that opposes Worry Free, and just about the time it's finally dawning on the audience that Sorry to Bother You is not merely a satire about working life, the movie takes a sharp turn into completely uncharted territory.

Well, maybe not completely uncharted, because there are echoes of the paranoid thrillers that were in vogue the last time America had a seriously hard time trusting its government to do the right thing, which makes Sorry to Bother You a real surprise in the way it shines a spotlight on subjects like our willingness to trust just a few companies with almost everything we have, own and do; and the way we'll settle for the illusion of protest rather than the real thing.

There's a lot more going on in Sorry to Bother You: race relations, media saturation, the politicization of technology and music, our fascination with the material -- keeping up with it all can be exhausting. Writer-director Boots Riley, who's also a hip-hop musician, wants to get it all out there, which is the core frustration of his frequently striking, often flat-out hilarious, movie, which might have benefitted from cutting out a few key scenes that on their own are worthwhile but diminish the movie's overall effectiveness and dull what should be a razor-sharp sense of satire.

At times, too, Sorry to Bother You also feels just a little too close to last year's Get Out both in tone and in some major plot points, particularly the way both movies use a whacked-out videotape playing in the basement of a mansion to present the bizarre, broader conspiracies at their core.  (If you thought the one in Get Out was weird, wait until you see this one.)

And yet, there is so much that is good about Sorry to Bother You, so much that will appeal to fans of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, and it's combined with such a streak of good humor and charm, that it's easier to gloss over the faults than to let them linger.

At one point, Cash finds himself trapped and looking out on a scene of violent overthrow that's so damned weird -- and also manages to make sense in the context of the film (though it would seem ludicrous if I tried to explain it now) -- that Sorry to Bother You seems something of a miracle. What it presents on screen is so outrageous, and so far from the film's benign opening scene, that when you think about how much audacity it took Riley and his performers to pull it all off, it's a little mind-blowing.

Viewed July 7, 2018 -- ArcLight Hollywood


"Won't You Be My Neighbor?"


As much as anyone, I suppose I'm something of an expert on Mister Rogers, not be virtue of having children but of having been one at just the time when Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was at the height of its popularity and influence.

It's a funny thing, because both as a pre-schooler watching the show and as a middle-aged adult watching the new documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, it seems impossible to place Mister Rogers in time.  He is ageless both as a character and as a concept, and his gentle tones and simple pace make it as likely his shows were produced yesterday as 50 years ago, and his messages seem as uncannily simple and unnervingly topical today as they did back then.

Mister Rogers helped children wonder why the world was difficult, and to marvel at its complexity and beauty, even while recognizing that it wasn't always easy to get through each and every day.  Even for a 3-year-old, Fred Rogers innately understood, some days just suck. So do some people. And it is okay not to like them.

Funny thing about Mister Rogers: In his own way, he told it exactly as it was, and one of the more surprising revelations in Won't You Be My Neighbor is that one of the key reasons both the show and the man endure wasn't because of his intrinsic kindness or fabled exhortation that "you are special," but because of anger.

"What do you do with the mad that you feel?" was the question a little boy asked Fred Rogers early on, and became the centerpiece of Rogers' Congressional testimony that helped save the Public Broadcasting System, which President Richard M. Nixon had wanted to eliminate.

What, indeed, did people in mid- to late-1960s do with the mad they felt, with the anger that fumed and seethed, with the fear and distrust that seemed to be everywhere, the senseless murders and the horrible never-ending wars?  Mister Rogers didn't try to answer the questions of the day -- he went straight for the questions of the heart, and it turned out a lot of young children were confused by the world around them.  Mister Rogers helped set them right.

How he did that is not an easy thing to explain, but Won't You Be My Neighbor? makes a valiant effort. This small-but-potent documentary digs in deeper than expected into Fred Rogers, touching on everything from his own unhappy childhood to his perfectionist ways.  It proceeds from the assumption that Fred Rogers was a real man -- not merely a celebrity who had a public persona, but a man with the rare ability to define and project who he was at heart and communicate it through the medium of television.

Throughout a bevy of talking-head interviews and a wonderful range of clips that range from the 1950s to the early 2000s, it becomes clear that the man who smiled at children and asked them questions with no easy answers, who taught them how to be kind even while allowing them anger and dissatisfaction, was exactly who he appeared to be, a man who believed in the goodness of people.

The interviews are insightful and marvelous, the insight into the series is a delight, but the real reason to see Won't You Be My Neighbor even if you didn't grow up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood comes a little more than halfway through the film, when the story of Fred Rogers, after a remarkable television career that cemented him as an American icon, moves in an unexpected direction.

A middle-aged man who has worked at the same job for most of his life, Rogers finds himself in a shockingly familiar dilemma: He wants to do something different, but fears he doesn't have the skills to do anything other than what he's always done.  He stopped producing Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and started producing a series for adults called Old Friends ... New Friends, and it failed.  He went back to the Neighborhood, and there's a sense that he was frustrated by his detour. His wife, Joanne, the most insightful of the warm and interesting interview subjects, shares a letter Fred Rogers wrote to himself, expressing deep doubts about his abilities, fear of the future.

What's that? Mister Rogers, afraid? Mister Rogers, unsure? Mister Rogers having an existential crisis? But it happened, and more than once it seems -- the sort of detail that makes Won't You Be My Neighbor feel braver, less cautious than mere hagiography.

This isn't a gossipy film. It genuinely wants to explore the phenomenon of Fred Rogers, and provides honest and penetrating efforts to look at the man himself, and consider why he seemed to know so much about what kids want, how they feel -- the answer might seem like a "spoiler alert," though it's not: Fred Rogers had an unusual ability to recall his very own childhood, his personal fears and sadnesses, and to know that what he felt was not out of the ordinary for any young child.

What Won't You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville, in turn, understands is that viewers of the film by and large will remember their own interactions with Mister Rogers through the TV set; they remember the deep feelings that Mister Rogers tapped -- feelings of being odd, being lonely, being dumb, being scared, being creative, being different. The documentary does a masterful job at simultaneously evoking the feelings through clips and, through great commentary, examining why Rogers was so successful at addressing them.

It's a deeply affecting film, one that stirs powerful emotions of childhood, and asks some hard questions (which it doesn't directly answer) about the banality of kids' TV programming, the intense consumerism foisted upon kids at an early age, and about violence and dissatisfaction with the world and how that's portrayed on TV -- how our kids are growing up hearing those messages.

So, maybe the ultimate point to Won't You Be My Neighbor? is that Mister Rogers never hurt anyone. His TV was about personal discovery and personal growth, it was about being a better person. And the second point the film makes, less directly but with no less power -- it's both satisfying and entirely appropriate to see the film become this -- is about what we've become today in a post-Rogers world.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't shy away from the right-wing conservative allegations that Mister Rogers' belief in the moral and emotional development of children has led, in their minds, at least, to a slacker millennial generation. For some, Rogers is a lightning rod, Exhibit A in their theory that young people have grown up without a backbone.

The irony to that argument is that it's the middle-aged TV commentators themselves -- the successful, allegedly well-adjusted ones -- who grew up at the height of Rogers, not the 20- and 30-somethings they are mocking. The arguments and attacks ring hollow here, but it's to the film's credit that they are presented.

His self-proclaimed mission was to  teach the world about the need for kindness, for inclusion, for tolerance, for love -- genuine, humanitarian love, for every single person. Increasing numbers of conservatives (and remember, Rogers was a Republican) have seized on a gross perversion of one of Rogers' most famous messages: "You are special." It never meant you're a delicate snowflake; it meant that Mister Rogers likes you  just the way you are, and exactly as you were made, with all of your gifts and your shortcomings. I like you because you are on this planet with me and we are all people.

It's so alarmingly simple a message -- espoused by a quiet, meek Republican -- that it sounds downright radical and vaguely leftist today. And though Won't You Be My Neighbor doesn't jump into the current political fracas in any direct way, it's hard not to walk away from this film wondering what Mister Rogers would have made of our sharply divided, eternally quarreling nation and the egomaniac who "leads" us.

It's impossible to sit through Won't You Be My Neighbor? and not wonder what Mister Rogers would be telling us to make of it all, dispensing advice for getting through this never-ending unhappiness and sense of unfairness.

Then again, if Mr. Rogers really were still around, we probably would never have gotten into this whole mess in the first place.

Arclight Sherman Oaks -- 2115

Viewed July 6, 2018

Sunday, June 24, 2018

"Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom"


If you make it to the very, very end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, you'll get to hear a wonderful new version of the still-wonderful, majestic John Williams theme from the original Jurassic Park.

Also, the visual effects in this film are undeniably excellent. They are very impressive.

Also, there is one fantastic shot of a dinosaur perched upon the roof of a Gothic mansion while a full moon emerges from behind storm clouds, which is probably the image that director J.A. Bayona hoped would most define his film. It's wrong to ascribe intent to a filmmaker unless he or she has made their intentions clear, but in this case I have to believe this mash-up of Jurassic Park and old Universal horror films like The Wolfman and Frankenstein is what Bayona was going for, because if it's not then I can't for the life of me figure out anything about the clumsily titled Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The problem is, the Universal-monsters-meets-dinosaurs bit doesn't work at all. I mean, at all. What is intended to be scary comes across as silly, what is meant as malevolent comes across as dumb, and what is meant to be thrilling comes across as overblown. Dinosaurs creeping through an old dark house might have been entertaining and exciting, but by the time we get there Bayona and co-screenwriter Colin Trevorrow have filled their movie with far, far too much extraneous material.

For instance, there's the reason the dinosaurs are in the old dark house in the first place: They're being sold at auction to an assemblage of high-priced warlords from around the world. The reason they're being sold at auction is that there is a new character named Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old man who, it turns out, was the never-before-mentioned partner of kindly billionaire John Hammond, who built the original Jurassic Park. Lockwood has a nefarious (is there any other kind) aide-de-camp who has been working toward pulling a handful of dinosaurs off of Isla Nublar, the island where humans keep building Jurassic theme parks and dinosaurs keep eating people.

Now, a volcano on Isla Nublar is about to blow up, and all the dinosaurs will die, which some people think is what should happen (they include Jeff Goldblum's chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, who appears for about three minutes in this movie to bookend the film with a laughably bad monologue). Because this is a movie taking place in a post-Trump world, there is also some ham-fisted discussion of God's will and science vs. religion, which is presented, of course, by politicians. And since dinosaurs (and Jurassic World) have become politicized, that leads to a save-the-dinosaurs group headed up by Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and some twenty-something hipsters.

Summoned to Lockwood's Northern California estate by his sinister aide Eli (Rafe Spall) and eerie housekeeper (Geraldine Chaplin, in a pointless extended cameo), Claire comes to believe that Lockwood is trying to get the dinosaurs off the exploding island so they can be saved.

Cue the mustache twirling ... for it turns out that Eli is in cahoots with an arms-dealer-slash-animal-trafficker who is able to pull together all the world's baddest, richest people with about 25 minutes' notice to have a big auction.

In the meantime, Claire manages to recruit dinosaur handler Owen (Chris Pratt) from his semi-retirement after the traumatic events of the last Jurassic World movie, and they head back to the island because Owen is the only one who can coax the velociraptor named Blue out of her hiding place.

Got that so far?

If you're sensing it's too much story, it is. But it's also told with leaps of logic that make absolutely no sense. One moment, we're told Blue is the key to creating a new kind of weaponized dinosaur, but minutes later that new creature is already fully grown, caged up and ready to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in a grand chamber underneath the Lockwood mansion.

That auction happens within days of getting the dinosaurs off Isla Nublar. Following an extended action scene in which Claire and one of her dinosaur activist friends have to hold their breath under water for what seems like six or seven minutes, Claire and Owen (and the hipster kids) make it onto the boat that's leaving Isla Nublar, which is 120 miles off the coast of Costa Rica.

Now, last I looked (which was about two minutes ago), Costa Rica is something like 3,000 nautical miles from Northern California, and a cargo ship racing at 22 knots could make it there in, oh, about a week. But somehow the trip in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom takes about a day, during which time the now-evil dinosaur geneticist (BD Wong) manages, apparently, to create a whole new species of dinosaur.

Everything about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom doesn't just strain credulity, it pushes, pushes, pushes at the borders of believability and then smashes right through with results that take the Jurassic World series into a direction that defies everything we've ever been told about the dinosaurs in these films. In the end (mild spoiler alert, if you're worried) some of the dinosaurs fall into the hands of war-mongerers from Russia and Indonesia, while others escape into the forests of Northern California and, in record time, make it to the suburbs of Los Angeles and even to Las Vegas.

But, hold on a second, weren't there really specific rules in the original films about how the dinosaurs were created so they would never be able to escape?  Do those contingency plans take hold? How is it that the world's news services are reporting 24 hours a day on the Isla Nublar "crisis," yet none are flying over the island when it finally blows up? Wouldn't they have noticed that a huge cargo ship is "kidnapping" some of the dinosaurs?  And when they arrive in California, wouldn't there be a little more, um, I dunno, awareness of dozens of massive trucks moving dinosaurs up the 101 freeway?

And what about that auction? How is it that the world's richest black-market villains know exactly what they'd do to incorporate dinosaurs into military plans? Wouldn't that require some sort of planning?

Then there's the bizarre revelation about Lockwood and his own DNA experimentations?  There's one plot twist that comes flying in from nowhere, and even the actors look confused about its sudden appearance, which is never discussed again.

This may all seem like carping for no good reason, but 25 years ago, the original Jurassic Park took all of its loopholes quite seriously, offering up science fiction that may have been outlandish but seemed, within the context of the movie, to be solid. No, we can't create dinosaurs, but if we could, Jurassic Park told us what might happen.

Now comes Jurassic World, which throws all that maybe-it-could-happen science out the window for some cheap political jabs, non-sensical plot holes, ludicrous plot twists, and a setting that neither makes any sense nor is exploited to its fullest possible effect.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is almost aggressively stupid, and borders on insulting to its audience, who has stuck with the Jurassic Park movies for a long time for one key reason: The first Steven Spielberg-directed film was a marvelous creation, so potent it built up good will that lasted through two pointless sequels and a reboot that managed to be both brainless and satisfying.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is only one of those things.

But it does have that music -- at least at the end.

Viewed June 23, 2018 -- Pacific Sherman Oaks 5


Friday, June 15, 2018

"Book Club"


Here is a set of easy-to-follow instructions for anyone who is thinking about seeing Book Club:

1) Turn on your TV
2) Navigate to the search feature of your service provider
3) Type in the words "The Golden Girls"
4) Find any episode of that series, which ran from 1985 to 1992
5) Press play

Book Club is, by and large, a big-screen adaptation of that much-loved TV series, only without its wit, intelligence and charm. Instead of four mature women sharing a home in Florida, Book Club offers four mature women sharing a living room for a few hours once a month, where they drink wine at an alarming, borderline-alcoholic rate and talk about anything other than the book they've been reading.

The book club in the title is merely a plot device that brings together a tough-as-nails businesswoman (Jane Fonda), a wisecracking judge (Candice Bergen), a sexually frustrated housewife (Mary Steenburgen), and a slightly daffy widow (Diane Keaton). Allegedly they've been doing this once a month for 30 years, but there's little sense these characters know each other; these actresses, who together have more than a dozen Oscars or nominations between them, seem barely interested in the film. Their performances, like the movie itself, are flat and monotone, disconnected from reality.

After Jane Fonda's character proposes they read Fifty Shades of Gray, which is the cleverest idea in the movie (and it's not all that clever), the four women go their separate ways and the movie tells their individual stories, occasionally bringing them together to comment on what they've been doing. But it's a flimsy excuse for an even flimsier plot, a story without any purpose at all except to let these once-great actresses occasionally make a wisecrack, talk about sex, or do something that is intended to make us guffaw at how inept they are living in the world around them.

There's a sort of sadness to Book Club, when you think about it: None of the women seems capable of living a fulfilling life, even though they're in their 60s, 70s and 80s; they haven't figured out what makes them happy, or how they can find satisfaction in any way that doesn't involve having a man in her life.

The situations they're put in all have to do with men. Diane Keaton's ditzy la-di-da character, the kind she's been playing for 40 years, has a painfully awkward "meet-cute" with a man on a plane (Andy Garcia); he turns out to be a pilot and she falls for him and spends time at his sprawling ranch while her daughters worry she's so old that she's going to trip and fall and hurt herself.

Jane Fonda's no-nonsense hotel owner is completely in control of her life, except that the guy (Don Johnson) she dumped 40 years ago before they got married is still following her around, and Fonda is flummoxed by all the attention he's lavishing on her.

Mary Steenburgen is married to Craig T. Nelson, who doesn't have sex with her anymore, so she goes to embarrassing lengths to find ways to arouse him, and their whole story is about unused penises and vaginas, because this is a movie in which the words "penis" and "vagina" can be uttered without feeling infantile, except that every time one of those words is mentioned it sounds infantile.

Candice Bergen is the judge, and she has let her body go because she doesn't have a man, and spends all day, whether in her chambers or at home, sorting through dating sites and going on random dates with men played in single-scene cameo appearances by Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn.

This almost completely charmless film flits back and forth between the four individual stories, but there's no connecting fiber, no sense that these people know and care about each other for any reason other than that the script requires it. This isn't like "The Golden Girls" or the Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin series "Grace and Frankie," where you get the feeling that these people really are friends who know what makes the other tick. In this movie, they're just stereotypes that keep running into each other now and then and having giggly talks about sex like they're doing a junior-high sleepover.

Did someone think Book Club was saying something meaningful about aging or romance or feminism? Did they think Book Club would help illuminate some aspect of the lives of people over 60? I have to imagine they thought they did, because they couldn't have thought it was funny.

That's not to say there aren't a few laughs in the movie -- the best moment is when Mary Steenburgen reveals how infrequently she and her husband have sex; the line about rabbits and Benadryl almost makes up for the rest of the movie. Almost.

But the way it's written, the way its acted and mostly the way its shot -- like a TV commercial for a blood-pressure medicine, or an HGTV series about decorating a house to look like a model home -- infuse it with a bland mediocrity. There's just nothing appealing about these women or their alleged predicaments: In the 21st century, couldn't there be a crisis faced by an older woman that doesn't involve finding a suitable man?

There are so few films, especially during the summer season, made for an adult audience that I want to praise Book Club at least on that level, but it's such a dull and lifeless film that it's impossible to do that; it's few good jokes aren't on their own worth the price of admission.

For incisive thoughts on aging and the difficulty of late-in-life romance, save yourself some money and watch a few episodes of "The Golden Girls." You'll gain way more insight into the issues faced by older women who are still active, vibrant and interesting, you'll get better storytelling, and you'll have way more fun.

Book Club can't even rise to the level of a bar that was set three decades ago. It's a painfully dull film, a series of vignettes that never lead anywhere, never explore the inner lives of its characters, and offers almost no insight into the struggles a 70-year-old woman faces in today's youth-obsessed world. All of that would be okay if only Book Club were funny.

But Book Club isn't funny. It's not, in the end, much of anything at all, except a reminder that there is no compelling reason ever to read Fifty Shades of Gray.

Viewed June 15, 2018 -- Pacific Sherman Oaks 5


Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Alex Strangelove"


Turns out John Hughes only made it look easy. Movies like Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink seem to follow a basic formula, but maybe it's one that only Hughes himself could concoct. Earlier this year, the sweet-but-bland Love Simon tried to emulate Hughes, and now comes Alex Strangelove, which goes so far as to call out Hughes' films by name.

Alex Strangelove comes much closer than Love Simon to getting it right, but there's something about the tone and pacing of this film -- which is playing in a few theaters while simultaneously debuting on Netflix -- that feels off, like a recipe that's tasty enough but hasn't been put together quite right.

Daniel Doheny plays high school student Alex Truelove, an overachieving, slightly neurotic geek who starts dating the new kid at school, Claire (her name's a direct reference to The Breakfast Club), played by Madeline Weinstein. In a gender role-reversal that probably never would have crossed Hughes' mind, Claire is putting pressure on Alex to have sex with her, and he's convinced himself that he really, really wants to -- so much so, he recruits his friend Dell (Daniel Zolghadri, the funniest thing about the film) to help him get a hotel room in Nyack, NY, where he and Claire can get it on.

There's a problem, though: Alex isn't all that interested in sex with Claire, and a good part of his anxiety comes from his attraction to Elliott (Antonio Marziale), an open, unashamed boy who graduated from high school a year ago and got thrown out of the house for being gay.

Alex spends most of the film worrying about having sex, and when he and Claire finally do the deed, the result only creates more uncertainty for Alex, who is having a hard time denying is attraction to Elliott.

Alex Strangelove has sex on the brain, which isn't a problem -- it's refreshing to see a film so unconcerned about upholding societal norms on what's acceptable for teenagers, and instead allows them to do things teenagers do. Experimenting with sex and coming out as gay are treated with impressive non-chalance: the movie is about sex, but in the context of making it seem like a normal, healthy part of growing up.

Maybe a little more troubling is the film's open attitude toward drugs and drinking; it makes a joke of both, and after a while these kids come across as borderline delinquents. There's a lot of drinking and drug use in Alex Strangelove, to the point that it's distracting. But, hey, I think back to being 17 and suppose that's having sex and getting drunk were on our minds back then, and it's something of a relief to know that in an era of trigger warnings and school shootings that some things don't change too much.

Daniel Doheny and Madeline Weinstein are cute together and have a believable chemistry, and Antionio Marziale has a curiously underwritten role as the chief rival love interest, as if writer director Craig Johnson (who made the woefully underrated The Skeleton Twins) struggled with making Alex-Claire or Alex-Elliott the most important relationship in the movie.

Alex Strangelove also suffers from abrupt tonal shifts that don't quite work: Claire's mother is sick with cancer, but her condition is merely a plot device and doesn't have emotional resonance; Elliott's tale of being kicked out of the house and moving in with a friend never goes anywhere; and there's a weird (and funny) strand of plot involving a hallucinogenic frog that one of Alex's friends buys on the dark web.

There's too much happening, and what might have seemed mildly zany in Hughes' hands (think of all the plot threads in Sixteen Candles) overwhelms Alex Strangelove.  It never quite settles on one approach, and the climactic prom dance feels underdone, as if by that time everyone involved with the film just wanted it to come to an end. What should feel like an emotional catharsis is instead merely sweet.

The movie ends with dozens of real-life video confessionals from high-school kids who have come out and are sharing their story, which is nice, but it would have been nicer if Alex himself had taken more of an emotional journey, had come to some realizations about himself and the way he loves.

Despite those criticisms, Alex Strangelove is worth seeing by people of all sexual orientations and by parents who won't get too alarmed by the casual ways it depicts sex, drugs and alcohol. It's got a more complex view of high schoolers than most comedies, and as a gay movie, it does something important: It takes Alex's attraction to Elliott mostly at face value, without getting preachy or solemn (something Love Simon had a hard time doing) -- when Alex finally tells Claire that he might be in love with someone else, it's the someone else that breaks her heart a bit, not the fact that the someone is a boy.

To that end, Alex Strangelove is progress, and a charming (if awkward) reminder during Gay Pride month that if we really want to see LGBTQ people depicted fairly on screen, we've got to move past being gay and toward being human. Despite its shortcomings, that's something Alex Strangelove accomplishes well.

Viewed June 9, 2018 -- Netflix