Thursday, June 21, 2018

The dinos return, but where's the fear?

The latest Jurassic movie falls short of giant-sized entertainment.

If there's any emotional heft in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it stems from the fate of the movie's genetically engineered dinosaurs. At this point in their big screen lives, these innocent creatures have come to represent a natural state that greedy humans have altered and abused. Some will get behind the wrath of the dinos, which is directed mostly at bad folks who want to profit from their revived existence (Gasp!) even turn them into the world's most deadly weapons. Had the picture been better, I might have joined them.

Director J.A. Bayona, known for his 2007 horror opus The Orphanage, limits his achievement by adhering to the required action formula. Here's a clue: The movie's dialogue relies heavily on the word "run." The fact that people need to tell one another to flee as massive thundering creatures approach at full speed stands as a greater indictment of human intelligence than anything else in this protracted stompfest.

Fallen Kingdom leans heavily on action while shortchanging build up, but I took the multiple instances in which Chris Pratt -- reprising his role as a kind of dino whisperer -- was slimed by various creatures as a welcome helping of self-mockery on the part of Bayona and his CGI crew. The movie could have used more such flippancy.

In the last Jurassic World film, Pratt teamed with Bryce Dallas Howard . The two reunite for an adventure in which a wealthy benefactor (James Cromwell) tries to save dinosaurs from imminent extinction by taking them off an island on which an active volcano is about to erupt.

Howard's Claire recruits a Pratt's Owen, who -- of course -- initially plays hard to get. He's busy building a cabin in the isolated woods and has had enough of dinosaurs. Still, he answers Claire's call.

Additions to the series include a nervous computer expert (Justice Smith) who provides some of the movie's many screams and a young woman (Daniella Pineda) who seems to function as a kind of punk veterinarian.

Of course, an evil military type also must crop up. Enter Ted Levine as Ken Wheatley, the brutally duplicitous organizer of the rescue mission. Keep your eye an assistant (Rafe Spall) to Cromwell's character, a guy who immediately becomes suspect by being too damn nice for his own good.

The movie divides its time between the island and the estate created by Cromwell's Benjamin Lockwood. Thanks to manipulations of plot that needn't be spelled out here, the dinos wind up on the estate, where they eventually race around, somewhat unexpectedly, indoors.

Lockwood's granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) joins in an effort to save the dinos from profiteers who eventually bring in an auctioneer (Toby Jones) to conduct the world's most malign rare species sale.

The dinosaurs have human allies, but the movie's heart belongs to Blue, a human-friendly velociraptor that was trained by Owen in the last movie. Unlike any of the human characters, Blue shows a degree of inner conflict: She must decide which humans to protect and which to turn into lunch.

The movie also includes a prologue and epilogue in which Jeff Goldblum, as a scientist testifying before a Senate Committee, condemns the hubris that was required to create these genetic marvels in the first place. He advises against rescuing the dinosaurs; for him, the pending volcanic eruption represents an opportunity for a reset.

Bayona can't entirely escape the trap of open-mouthed acting that often results from an extensive reliance on CGI: This involves asking actors to gawk at the special effects or scream with fear as the digitally created dinos bear their predatory teeth.

Braced by familiarity with this franchise, I seldom -- if ever -- shared the fear. We know the genre too well (and so does Bayona) to get beyond the rote deliverance of one action set piece after another as the movie stomps its way toward the ending that inevitably (and finally eerily) opens the door for the next chapter. I'm betting we'll see a lot more running, chomping and wholesale swallowing of those who trample ethical considerations in their relentless quest for profit.

What exactly these miscreants will do with all their money in a world they seem eager to destroy remains a mystery.

Summer of 1993

As even the world's hermits must know by now, summer is a time for big, splashy action when it comes to movies. If you're looking for an antidote, you may want to try director Carla Simon's debut movie Summer 1993. Working in autobiographical mode, Simon tells the story of six-year-old Frieda (Laia Artigas), a girl who faces a crisis when her mother dies of AIDS-related pneumonia. After her mother's death, Frieda is sent to live with her uncle (David Verdauger) and aunt (Bruna Cusi), a couple with a four-year-old daughter of their own. It's refreshing to see adults trying to deal responsibly with a troubled, obstinate child who often taxes their patience. The adults can't always hide their exasperation but they clearly have young Frieda's best interests at heart. Simon obtains entirely credible performances from the movie's children. Understandably unable to adjust to what has happened to her, Frieda is capable of flashes of cruelty. Simon deserves applause for not turning her movie into a weepy. Instead, she tells a quietly realized story about people who suddenly face a difficult situation that none of them chose. What they can choose is how they'll adapt to these circumstances. They do so with a level of humanity that's too little seen on screen.


If you know anything about Eastern Europe in the days following World War II, little about the mournful Hungarian movie 1945 will come as a shock. Shot in black-and-white, the movie charts what happens when a Jewish father and son (Ivan Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) show up in a Hungarian village where the property of pre-war Jews has been appropriated by members of the local populace. The theft of property and businesses -- in this case, the local pharmacy -- has been "legitimized" by paperwork and legalistic flimflam conducted at the behest of the town's opportunistic clerk (Peter Rudolf). Director Ferenc Torok's movie sometimes takes on the feel of a Western, as it focuses on a town that harbors dark secrets. The two Jewish men, who say little, become accusers simply by turning up. They're not really characters; they're stoic symbols of rebuke. These Jewish travelers claim to have brought a shipment of perfume for the town's pharmacy but clearly have something else in mind. The townsfolk -- particularly its clerk -- fear that the two strangers will try to reclaim what rightfully belonged to the town's Jewish population, wiped out during the Holocaust. Questions of complicity come into focus as the town prepares for a wedding. The clerk's son (Bence Tasnadi) is about to marry a woman who seems to be conspiring to grab some of the largess created by the sell-out of the town's Jews. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Gabor T. Szanto, Torok offers a somber primer on the complicitous betrayal of Jews in Hungry's rural villages, building toward the suicide of the town drunk (Jozsef Szarvas). Szarvas's character participated in the scheme to steal Jewish property and can't escape his feelings of guilt. Torok might have made room for a little more nuance as he observes the ways in which the town is rocked by exposure of the unacknowledged crimes that permeate all of its institutions, including the church. Driven by the agitation and anxiety of the town's populace, 1945 does, however, continue the exploration of an inexhaustible and inescapable subject: the human capacity for denial that threatens to devour historical truths that ultimately must be vomited up in painfully wrenching ways.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Looking for great comedy? 'Tag' isn't it

Grown men playing tag? They chase one another but have trouble catching laughs.

In 2013, The Wall Street Journal ran a diverting little article about a group of men from Spokane, Wash., who managed to stay in touch over decades by playing an annual, month-long game of tag.

Tag, a game that requires no equipment and which relies on speed and elusiveness, isn’t usually thought of as a competitive sport. But this group of long-time pals turned it into one — at least for four weeks a year. They drew up a contract specifying the rules of a game they played with stealth, subterfuge, cunning and an abiding commitment not to be the last man tagged, a status with which one of them had to live for an entire year before the game resumed.

Enter Hollywood and the idea that this amusing piffle of a story would make a good movie.

And it might have had director Jeff Tomsic displayed more interest in exploring the absurd side of male competitive drive, had he and his cohorts done a better job of getting the cast on the same page and had they not turned Tag into a movie that feels like a lukewarm bit of filler sandwiched between summer blockbusters.

The filmmakers seem to have made self-conscious attempts to alter the movie’s gender muscle flexing by having the wife (Isla Fisher) of one of the players (Ed Helms) accompany her husband as the game he plays the game. Moreover, the movie's Wall Street Journal reporter serves little purpose other than to make room for Annabelle Wallis, the actress who plays her.

Not that any of the male characters are particularly well-developed, either.

Helms portrays Hoagie, a man who suggests to another player -- a successful insurance company executive played by Jon Hamm -- that they team up to take down the reigning champion (Jeremy Renner). During the course of several decades, Renner's Jerry never has been tagged. As portrayed here, Jerry has ninja-like skills that are heightened by some quick editing, the sudden insertion of slo-mo trickery and an inexplicable ability to disappear.

Other players include a Denver-based stoner (Jake Johnson), a character who's introduced with a bong joke that would have seemed dated -- even had it turned up 50 years ago. Hannibal Buress signs on as a slightly nerdy gameplayer.

To keep the movie focused, the filmmakers assemble the players in Spokane, where Jerry is about to be married. Jerry hasn’t invited his buddies to the wedding because he knows they’ll show up anyway, using the nuptials as a long-awaited opportunity to bring down the champion.

Setting most of the movie in the players' hometown also gives the filmmakers an opportunity to throw in a bit of competition for an old high-school flame (Rashida Jones), a woman who attracts attention from both Hamm and Johnson’s characters.

All of this generates minimal chemistry. Granted the men are locked in fierce competition, but they seldom seem comfortable with one another, and Hamm, in particular, looks like a misfit addition to a misbegotten group that produces no stand-outs, except possibly for Fisher, who can be more underhanded than any of the male players. By rule, women are excluded from the game.

Renner does a convincing job as Jerry, but his intensely focused performance seems to belong in another movie.

Because the men are not playing in the confined space of a schoolyard but in the real world, they're forced to don lame disguises to sneak up one another or to engage in trickery, bribery and other forms of deceit that will allow them to approach their prey.

I went back and read the original Wall Street Journal article and a couple of follow-ups, all of which were more interesting than the resultant movie which can’t find its rhythm as a robust comedy with outlandish flourishes, including a far-fetched (and not especially funny) bit of action set in a wooded area.

The tag catchphrase — “you’re it" — might have given the movie stinging sharpness, but after laying out its premise, this over-amped effort does little to catch us unaware — and that includes a last-minute revelation that may have been added to create a bit of emotion without having done anything to earn it.

They're at Cannes -- but not for the films

Claire's Camera reunites actress Isabelle Huppert and South Korean director Hong Sang-soo.

It’s arguable that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo could have written the outline for his deceptively slight new film, Claire’s Camera, on the back of a cocktail napkin. Watching the movie, which takes place during the Cannes Film Festival, you may wonder whether Hong isn’t improvising, dropping a quartet of characters onto the festival’s periphery and then sitting back to see what happens.

In one way or another, all the characters in Claire's Camera are related to the world of film. So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) directs films and has one playing at the festival.
Kim Mi-hee's Jeon Manhee has been working for a film sales agent (Chang Mi-hee) who fires her at the beginning of the film, claiming that she no longer trusts Man-hee to be honest with her.

Claire (Isabelle Huppert) portrays the film civilian in the group; her character teaches music but wanders about Cannes with a Polaroid camera, asking if she might snap photos of the people she meets.

In the scene in which Manhee loses her job, Hong sends a clear signal that he’s going to take a few comic shots at the idea of capturing life on film. Chang’s character asks the woman she has just fired to join her in a selfie, an absurd commemoration of a moment both characters probably should want to forget.

Having Huppert walk through the film with a camera seems a little artificial, but Claire serves as a catalyst to bring out the back stories — not necessarily presented in chronological order — that drive Hong’s slender but emotionally piquant narrative.

The movie’s Cannes setting proves relevant but never dominating. This may be Cannes, but watching great films seems pretty far down on anyone's agenda. Hong seems interested in the way his characters respond to slowly revealed truths.

Unlike some directors, Hong seems to know that he has hold of a slender premise and at 68 minutes, he doesn’t overwork it.

As for the director portrayed in the film ... Jung’s character proves as disheveled as his rumpled haircut; he's an unsympathetic mess of a man.

The same can’t be said for Claire’s Camera, a film of elusive but insinuating charms. And, no, I don’t believe anything about the movie was improvised.

A relaxed, enjoyable father/daughter tale

Heart Beats Loud is one of those laid-back movies that isn't out to oversell you on anything. Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the movie tells the story of a father and daughter who make music together. The twist: The daughter (an appealing Kiersey Clemons) has ambitions that go beyond music. She's about to start college and wants to be a doctor. Dad (a relaxed but sometimes dour Nick Offerman) thinks the two should try to pursue a musical career together, particularly because Clemons' Sam has an obviously potent talent. But it’s Offerman's Frank who dreams of striking musical gold. A hit record could liberate him from the failing, vinyl-only record store over which he presides. He'd like to make music, not sell it. The songs -- pleasing enough -- are interrupted by whispers of a plot involving Offerman’s character’s mom (Blythe Danner); his landlady (Toni Collette) and his bartender friend (Ted Danson). A romance between Clemons' character and a young woman played by American Honey's Sasha Lane doesn't add much, but the movie is relaxed enough to accommodate a bit of meandering. Offerman has a sly way of commanding the screen, avoiding any of the ingratiating gestures that would have turned Frank into an off-beat role model. Director Brett Haley (I'll See You in My Dreams) may not dig deep, but his movie wanders into summer buoyed by the odd couple chemistry of a father who may have more growing up to do than his brightly ambitious daughter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where I’ve been lately -- and some sadness

Yes, I’ve fallen behind. As a result of recent travels, I've been unable to keep this running collection of movie reviews up-to-date.

I’ll pick up again this week, but before I do, I want to say something about Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author and TV star who committed suicide in France last week.

I was sitting on a bed in a hotel in Montevecchia, Italy — on the fringes of Italy’s insanely scenic Lake District — when a headline flashed across my tablet. Bourdain had died at the age of 61.

As an occasional watcher of Bourdain’s CNN show, Parts Unknown, I found myself in step with just about everyone else who thought that a Bourdain suicide was inconceivable. Not the robust, I’ll-eat-anything world traveler who drank and ate his way across the globe, sometimes visiting places few of us voluntarily would venture. On a recent show, Bourdain proclaimed Glasgow, by no means the most exotic of his many destinations, as one of his favorite cities. He didn’t convince me, but the guy earned points for going against the grain.

In a foodie culture in which restaurants have become exalted Meccas of culinary worship, Bourdain seemed like a guy with his feet firmly planted on the ground, someone who held little truck with places that serve meticulously assembled, nibble-sized portions on oversized plates, high-priced oases of pleasure on otherwise arid dinnerware deserts. There was more than a hint of the working man about him.

Better yet, Bourdain seemed as if he’d be fun to hang out with, something to which those who knew him attested in various startled post-death reflections on his life as America’s explorer-in-chief. My liking of Bourdain also may have had parochial roots; he grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the northern Jersey town where I was raised. Another Jersey boy. I knew the accent.

I have no idea what demons haunted Bourdain, but I wondered whether those demons were encouraged to flap their serrated wings by too much air travel, too many unfamiliar hotel beds, too many ports-of-call, and too much cultural bombardment. Bourdain said he liked to move, and he seemed to have turned his life into a form of cross-cultural aerobics.

Cliche has it that travel broadens one’s horizons, which — of course - is true. But it also can kick the shit out of you, challenging your body clock with time shifts that sometimes require merciful assistance from pharmaceutical sleeping aids.

Of course, Bourdain and his crew made it all look easy. There he was walking the streets of this or that city, tapping the wisdom of top local experts or long-standing friends, sharing drinks and meals. He so frequently pronounced these meals as “delicious” that I wondered whether the guy ever ate anything he didn’t enjoy.

He did. In interviews, Bourdain talked about being a guest in various cultures and how he learned to respect those cultures by sharing local cuisines, always without queasy judgment or moral censure. He once even ate — begin grimacing now — unwashed warthog anus.

I’m all for experiencing cultural diversity and I’d like to think of myself as fairly open to new experiences, but if someone offered me unwashed warthog anus I’d politely refuse and ask whether they might be able to dig up some chips instead.

I wondered, too, whether all the travel and adventurous eating had taken the place of the rush that Bourdain once got from heroin, part of a young man's foray into a world of drugs that he openly discussed.

But I’m no psychologist and I won't play one here.

All I’ll say is that Bourdain’s suicide serves as a powerful reminder that what we see on TV should be taken cum grano salis; i.e., with a large grain of salt that Bourdain probably would have encouraged us to enjoy without guilt.

In the end, Bourdain reminded us of an important truth: We do not know the people who turn up on screens in our living rooms any more than we should presume to know or understand those who turn up on bigger screens at the movies.

There’s only one way really to get to know someone; that’s eye-ball-to-eye-ball over time -- and even that isn't always enough.

I’m going to miss the Bourdain I saw on TV, but when I watch reruns of his program, I’ll know that I’m not seeing the whole person. We never do.

Like you, I’m not the same person at 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon as I am on those occasions (fortunately infrequent) when I awaken at 4 a.m. abandoned by sleep as my mind restlessly stumbles through thickets of anxiety or regret, things unsaid or undone.

I’m saddened that Bourdain has so abruptly vanished from the public scene; I’m also saddened by the thought that Bourdain, a man who could accept all manner of challenge and diversity, might finally have faced one he couldn’t fully accommodate: himself.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A cleric caught in a web of torment

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a movie with which to reckon.

In director Paul Schrader's First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays a minister who presides over the First Reformed Church, a once-proud but diminished church in upstate New York. Hawke's Reverend Toller wears a constricting clerical collar that seems more of a choice than a requirement. When he's outside of the church a long black overcoat gives him an ominous look, as if he's wrapped himself in a cloud of heavy gloom.

Toller stands on an altar built from personal guilt. As a former military chaplain, he sold family tradition to his son, urging him to enlist in the military. The young man followed his father's advice and was killed in Iraq. Toller's wife subsequently left him. From the look of things, Toller has spent the ensuing years turning his life into a form of punishing penance.

Toller's church is part of a larger organization run by a minister (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) who understands the business of operating a mega church and wants to create a successful event as First Reformed approaches its 250th anniversary, an occasion that's to be celebrated with a reconsecration ceremony.

Worried about Toller's obvious depression, Kyles' Pastor Jeffers cautions that even Jesus didn't spend all his time in the Garden of Gethsemane. He thinks Toller should lighten up.

Both Toller and his church seem to be stuck in a harsh spiritual winter. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad and a bastion of fiery abolitionist morality, First Reformed now tries to get by with a depleted gift shop. It has become a minor tourist attraction.

Schrader broadens the movie's thematic reach by linking the future of the church to ecological plunder. Jeffers and Toller are supported by Balq Industries, a company run by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a businessman who represents a more-or-less American attitude about separating business practices from religious dictates that might -- if taken too seriously -- interfere with those same practices. Balq is one of the country’s major polluters.

Sparse and austere, First Reformed does have a plot of sorts. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant wife turns up at First Reformed to talk to Toller. It turns out Mary's husband (Philip Ettinger) does not want her to bring a baby into a world that he believes is headed toward an irrevocable environmental catastrophe. Mary wants Toller to convince her husband to support her pregnancy.

Toller visits Ettinger’s Michael to see what he can do to persuade the young man that all hope is not lost. Schrader then does something truly rare in movies: He allows two characters -- Toller and Michael -- to engage in an extended philosophical conversation, the kind with consequences. If the world is bleak, diminished and joyless, can survival still have any meaning?

Michael soon answers the question for himself by blowing his brains out with a rifle.

Michael, who has flirted with ecoterrorism, serves as a kind of catalyst that pushes Toller deeper into a torment that's expressed in a journal that he keeps and which serves as the movie's narration. Toller, by the way, already is suffering from a serious but unspecified illness that he insists on ignoring. He urinates blood, the life leaking out of him.

Toller apparently has had a fleeting affair with a choir director (Victoria Hill) who clearly cares about him and fears that he’s unraveling. In a moment of swift and perhaps unforgivable cruelty, Toller rejects her.

The increasingly distraught Toller begins to wonder whether Michael may have been right. Perhaps an act of terror, namely a suicide bombing, is the only way to draw attention to the monstrous crimes that are being committed against God's creation.

Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, is no stranger to compelling but tormented characters. Although all the actors in First Reformed are good, Schrader puts the movie squarely on Hawke's shoulders. It's no easy job. Hawke plays a character who lives on a fault line of irreconcilable contradictions.

At one point, Toller even offers a version of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald definition of a first-rate intelligence: "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
In Toller's case, those contradictory ideas involve pain and pleasure, love and the futility, guilt and redemption. Schrader pushes those ideas to extremes that result in an ending which is both unforgettable and which surely will puzzle many viewers. I won't describe it here but I believe it is intended as a moment in which Toller's fragmented soul achieves its unity.

The movie's images are spartan and purposefully depleted -- right up until the point when Schrader includes a fantasy scene in which Toller and Mary float over the world, a visual precis of the movie’s diagnosis of the material world that begins with a natural idyll and ends with ecological catastrophe.

For those who are new to Schrader's work, it's worth knowing that when he as a young film critic, he wrote an important book: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer. Those familiar with that book and with the work of the aforementioned directors will note the way their influences play out in First Reformed. (The book has been republished with a new forward and with Schrader's observations about additional directors.)

The style to which Schrader refers has to do with holding images until they teeter on the edge of boredom, of not providing a lot of visual cues but demanding that viewers explore the images that are put in front of them, of limiting the use of music so that when it’s heard, its impact is heightened, of providing eventual release for emotions that have been tamped down throughout.

Schrader, a man of serious concerns, has managed to spend a life in film. He has written for Scorsese -- not only Taxi Driver, but Raging Bull (as co-writer), The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead. His own movies include American Gigolo, Blue Collar, a remake of Cat People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Affliction.

Schrader can be a confounding figure who both understands Hollywood and who follows an auteur's lonely path. I'd be lying if I told you that I totally "get" Schrader, but I will tell you that First Reformed stands as a stark work that resounds with cinematic echoes (Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, for example) and yet feels rooted in the present moment of threat, disunity and unbridgeable moral gaps. It is a work that isn't' afraid to look at something most movies try their best to avoid: deep despair.

This 'Seagull' takes wobbly flight

A so-so adaptation of a Chekhov play.
The Seagull, a filmed version of Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov's 1896 play has a bumpy beginning, so much so that Chekov's language sounds a bit too contemporary, even a little trite. In the hands of director Michael Mayer, it takes some time for Chekhov's drama about a group of unhappy, self-absorbed people to find its rhythm, but it eventually does. Annette Bening plays the signature role of Irina Arkadina, an aging actress who has taken to the country with her new lover, the writer Boris Trigoren (Corey Stoll). Irina's son (Billy Howle) fancies himself a writer but has yet to establish himself in ways that allow him to be taken seriously. A fine cast also includes Saoirse Ronan as Nina, the play's aspiring actress and naive innocent; and Elizabeth Moss, as the perpetually embittered Masha. Masha always wears black because, she says, the color matches her life. Mayer's adaptation works in fits and starts, but if you're interested in the way a new group of actors approach important theatrical roles, Seagull is worth seeing for Bening's warbled, agitated Irina and, even more so, for Stoll's Trigoren, a writer whose understated personal ambitions can be alarming. Mayer's rendition of the first in a quartet of Chekhov's great plays that continued with Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard preserves enough of Chekhov’s thematic intensity to to avoid disaster. No one who tackles Chekhov entirely can miss the troubled nature of characters whose momentous concerns often seem like overwrought preoccupations. How grand we all are in our embrace of the fleeting and the trivial.