CineScene

Of Dinosaurs, Childish Men and Basketball

By BILL GEIGER | Jul 04, 2018

I don’t remember ever having a column appear on a day so august as Independence Day. What’s that? Oh no, I was not saying Independence Day occurred in August. August, the adjective, means majestic, noble, revered even. July 4th elicits these types of thoughts. In fact, it represents the actual, legal separation of the fledgling United States from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. But I’ve been writing for this paper for so long that I’m sure there had to be several other times when a column appeared on July 4th; I just can’t remember when. But I will take this opportunity to wish everyone a good Independence Day. I hope you’re able to avoid the heat, cook up some good burgers or franks, and settle in to watch glitzy pyrotechnics light up the sky. During the moments when nothing is happening, remember to read The SandPaper. There are always all kinds of good stuff happening in here.

On a quick side note, sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison died last Thursday. He was an unhappy guy, and he let that unhappiness fuel his writing. Back during the days of the Beat generation, from the late post-war 1940s into the early, pre-psychedelic 1960s, the Beats were kings, led by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg. Across the pond, the Brits had a parallel literary movement called “The Angry Young Men.” Writers like John Osborne and playwrights like Harold Pinter wrote about the disillusionment felt by intellectuals concerning morals and mores after World War II.

Ellison would have fit in with the Angry Young Men quite nicely, for he was an angry young man. His writing was often brilliant, and he published what many considered the finest examples of speculative fiction (sci-fi) ever written. But he could never revel in it. He found too many things wrong with life, with his reputation as a writer, with the things he’d written, and even with the things he had published. He was prolific; he was profane. He chronicled the swinging 1960s like no one else. But above all that, he was a writer.

Now, on to our films.

In our movies this week, I could use the word dinosaur with several different meanings. It would work fine for two of our three, “Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom” and “Uncle Drew.” For the former, the reference is obvious, but for the latter, the reference would be purely figurative. In our third film, “Tag,” the story of a group of five grown men continuing a game of tag from their childhood well into adulthood, I might be able to use it, but I’ll let you, the reader, be the judge.

Let’s start with “Tag.” A game begun when the five boys were in middle school, this diversion has blossomed into a month-long, travel-filled game wherein the boys, who are now men in relationships or in high-powered jobs, move about looking for one another, hiding in closets, surprising each other, hoping to land the touch that would render the other “it.”

An added angle to this mania is that one of the men, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), has avoided being tagged for years, looming as a target that would give the man who tagged him ultimate bragging rights. So the four men go off to the Pacific Northwest where Jerry lives and learn that he is about to be married. This leads to all manner of conniving and designing a plan that would occur just when Jerry is about to say “I do.”

To prevent this type of invasion of his special day, Jerry goes on the offensive, working out ways to surprise the other four and keep his record intact. So the others, Hoagie Malloy (Ed Helms), Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chilli Cilliano (Jake Johnson) and Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress), unaware of this special reception, fall into various traps and stumble around, unable to break Jerry’s secret mojo.

Once the film moves to Jerry’s neighborhood and the four others blunder around all the time, the action heats up and director Jeff Tomsic seems to find his footing. This is not so at the beginning and through at least the first half, but the addition of two women into this all-male club does help a bit. One is a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who was interviewing Callahan, Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), who decides that the story of these five guys still playing tag is a much better story than the original interview. So she decides to “tag” along.

The other “token female” is Hoagie Malloy’s wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), who has known all the men since they were boys, and even though the game’s bylaws specifically state that no females may participate in the game, she still gets caught up in the fervor and can be downright nasty to the other players if they’re not playing by the rules.

So now we have a crew that can go to Jerry’s place and plot the ultimate “tag” just at the right time while the wedding is proceeding. An unfortunate incident at an AA meeting the morning of the wedding has forced the men to give up their tagging rights until after everything, specifically the wedding and reception, are over. This also does not proceed according to plan, so everything is fluid, and nothing coheres.

This unfortunately hurts the film, since the action pieces, some of which are very funny, never seem to add up.

The guys were all interesting and fun to watch, but for my money Jon Hamm’s coolness steals the show. He has got to be the most unflappable dude out there. His character’s exact opposite, Jake Johnson’s Chilli, is a stoner who never kept a relationship going and constantly smokes joints. In this role he gets most of the laughs. Renner seems a bit stiff – it’s possible that comedy is not his thing. Helms is consistently funny as the ring leader, and Buress is the most enigmatic – but he has some really funny lines, most of which are non-sequiturs. This might be a good time to bring in the dinosaur reference.

Here’s the big question. Are the men dinosaurs for playing so obvious a child’s game when they themselves are pushing 50? I’ll go out on my customary limb and say that I do think the tag guys were dinosaurs. Competition being what it is, I think the boys could have left the running around, ducking behind parked cars, etc. back in their boyhood.

The action heats up quickly and can get really intense. The story goes that Renner suffered two broken arms during the filming. Come on, guys! Let’s leave the rough stuff to the kids. Go play a round of golf. Half-court basketball is good if physicality is necessary. Go play some tennis. Pinochle is good.

OK, now I’ve finished talking about “Tag.” Let me reach out and touch you ever so gently … there. Now you’re it!

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You could probably sum up “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with a few choice truisms. The first is that there is a lot of running. There is running away from dinosaurs. There is running with dinosaurs. There is running away from erupting volcanoes. Some of the running is sprinting, some is flat-out hauling ass, but whatever it is, if you can’t run, you’re doomed.

The second truism is that hired guns, or mercenaries, always get eaten first by dinosaurs. They’re never to be counted on, for anything, and they’re always the first to go. They’re terrible shots, they can easily be defeated by anyone in the cast, even the smallest of characters, and they’re inherently stupid individuals. A corollary to this truism is that the bad guy will always be the one least expected, but who is somehow in charge of the operation that all the principle characters are heavily invested in. Oh, and he’ll get eaten by a dinosaur, too.

The third truism concerns the philosophy behind the original film’s decision to re-create the huge beasties in the first place. Any educated person having read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein knows the dangers in creating, or in the case of that book, re-animating, life. But they do it nonetheless, and the consequences for some are dire. Greed then sets in, and an animal as fearsome as a T-Rex isn’t enough. Greed has them combine the DNA from a few species (think T-Rex and his cousins) to create yet another, more fearsome creature to captivate people and garner even more money.

So the truism is that if you have a terrifying creature, one that is the top dog in the dinosaur world, don’t rest on your laurels. You’ll need to create an even more fearsome one, and that is how we get to “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Oh yeah, and it has dinosaurs – purportedly real ones.

Things had gone so ghastly wrong in the last film that the theme park had been abandoned. Thus the “Fallen Kingdom.” The humans had escaped from the dinosaur “Theme Park” and the decision was made to leave the park to the animals. So in some kind of dramatic ecosystem, the dinos lived in some kind of harmony, with the herbivores eating the leafy plants and the carnivores eating the herbivores or whatever else they could find. This was the detritus left over from “Jurassic World,” the film directly before “JW: Fallen Kingdom.”

But nobody had the foresight to wonder whether Isla Nublar, the dino island, was geologically stable. Alas, it was not. A long dormant volcano began to erupt, and the very existence of the dinosaurs on the island was in jeopardy. In fact, it looked like the life on the island had very little time. After “Jurassic World” ended, it sure looked like Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) were bound together. But as this film begins, it seems that was not to be.

So Claire is working for a nonprofit, attempting to collect funds to go help move the dinos off the island. She is given a blank check by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the heir-apparent to the fortune of Benjamin Lockwood, who was a silent partner, we’re told, of John Hammond, the first director of Jurassic Park, and an old friend, then old enemy, of Lockwood. But Mills sends for Claire, gives her the go-ahead to move the dinos, and even says there is an island they can all go to and live in peace and harmony. His hired men are on Isla Nublar already, he says, and they’ll help move the creatures. They’re all helpful, but their leader, Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), will be a big help. Sure he will.

Claire is ecstatic, but knows she’ll need Owen to help in the endeavor. So she recruits him, and off they go to the island, which is about to go all Vesuvius on them. They manage to run into Mills’ men, and so they move out, looking especially for Blue, the velociraptor that Owen bonded with and helped raise, but also for other carnivores. Things go bad in a hurry, and Owen, Claire and two others Claire brought along from her nonprofit, a computer geek a la Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, who has a small role in this film) named Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), and a dino doctor and fierce Latina named Daniella Pineda (Zia Rodriguez), are abandoned – hence the running – and are left for dead.

It takes a lot more than an erupting volcano to eliminate Owen, Claire, et al., and once they realize they’ve been had, they go into search and destroy mode. But they’re looking for the dinos, and the ones that have been loaded into a large ship look promising, so they just barely make it onto the ship as it is sailing away. Production note – there follows a scene where a large dino, a brachiosaurus, is seen standing at the end of the pier watching the ship and crying as it knows it will not make it off the island. The big leaf-eater is then consumed by the encroaching volcanic activity, and it is a powerful, emotional scene to watch.

The dinos sail from Isla Nublar, through the Pacific, to the Lockwood estate in Northern California, where they will be auctioned off to the highest bidders, all crooked arms dealers, and you can probably figure out the rest. I haven’t mentioned the precocious Maisie, Lockwood’s granddaughter, who figures out what is happening when the dinosaurs arrive, and when Owen manages to release the top predator, a fierce-looking Indoraptor that was recently created so is still unpredictable, all bets are off.

When Franklin and Daniella confront Dr. Henry Wu, the creator of the Indoraptor, the ensuing fight causes a severe leak of hydrogen cyanide gas, which threatens to kill the other captive dinos. Claire then is confronted with the greatest conundrum of her life. Should she open the doors and let the dinos roam free, or keep it shut and kill them? Should she have left them on the island and let the volcano kill them? Should Hammond never have tried to create dinos using the DNA from that mosquito in the amber?

The paradigm will certainly shift should the dinos begin to roam free in that Northern California neighborhood. There’s a lot to think about with a film like this. Even though there seems to be too much exposition, there still is a lot to ponder. The action is very good, the film very suspenseful. Despite the questions, this film delivers. It’s also the top box office film for two weeks in a row. Plus, it has lots of running. Lots of running.

*   *   *

Our last film is “Uncle Drew,” a basketballin’ freewheelin’ story about life and the need for family. Originally made by Pepsi and based on commercials and YouTube videos, Uncle Drew (the NBA’s Kyrie Irving) is a former street player, fabled for being one of the best, and he’s recruited by a street playing coach named Dax (Lil Rel Howery), who needs to field a team so he can win Harlem’s Rucker Classic, and $100,000 in prize money. Drew is at first unwilling to help, but Dax is a stubborn man, and he convinces Drew to play.

But Drew will play only on one condition: He wants to round up his former team, so off they go on a road trip, similar to the one in “Tag,” looking to sway the former teammates to join in. Since ballin’ is in their blood, it’s difficult to refuse. They get Preacher (Chris Webber), who’s a minister about to baptize a little child, and he spins the baby around his back, lifting the child up to slam dunk him into the water. They get Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson), and finally Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).

Lights is legally blind, Boots is in a depressed funk, unable to climb up out of his wheelchair, and Big Fella is angry at Drew, who back in the day was quite the ladies’ man, taking pretty much anything that moved into the back seat of his van. Apparently he never apologized for bedding the woman that Big Fella loved and was going to marry, so Big Fella does not speak to Drew, even to this day. This obviously adds to the drama as the team waits to play in the Rucker Classic.

Dax has added incentive to win as Mookie (Nick Kroll), his rival, has taken his original team and even his lady, Jess (Tiffany Haddish), so he tries to get the team to practice to regain their forms. The team begins to bond as Drew tries to get them to play like they used to, but he eventually has to apologize to Big Fella, which he does, and then they really become a team. There are a few other twists and turns, which I won’t spoil, but generally “Uncle Drew” is a pleasant diversion, not much to think about and certainly not a big emotional investment.

The downside? Nick Kroll, for one. Here’s an actor who goes way over the top. We could do without practically all of his scenes, and the film wouldn’t suffer a thing. The former NBA players comport themselves very well, with Drew himself being in most of the scenes. Irving, the athlete, is certainly everything his hype says he is. He had a big hand in beating the Sixers in round 2 of the playoffs this past year, so I was a bit skeptical, and a little sorry that he did so well. But he’s a seasoned pro – and so were the others, and they played well. And Lisa Leslie, who played in the WNBA and here was Betty Lou, Preacher’s wife, shot well late in the championship game.

“Uncle Drew” is a fun movie, but don’t read too much into it. I’d say the players were old school, not quite dinosaurs, and they taught the younger players in the tournament how to move without the ball, how to post up, and best of all, how to shoot the lights out. Even a velociraptor can’t do that. Yet.

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On a final, sad note, I wanted to offer a few thoughts for the families of the journalists killed last week at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. They were ordinary folks doing their job, killed by a shotgun-wielding crazy man with a vendetta. The loss felt by the community is keen; the Gazette has endeared itself with the people of Annapolis for years, and many there feel the loss like those killed were family.

We know the importance of community newspapers, and we value their existence for stories on everything local. Our paper might not be a daily like the Gazette, but even as a weekly, and with all the satellite papers we publish, everything important is covered, and that’s what counts. Journalism has taken quite a hit over the last year and a half, and the targeting of journalists for vendettas like this, whether it be a one-man revenge motive or a radical terrorist attack, is certainly sobering.

Let’s offer prayers for those killed, and prayers of hope for the country, especially as we celebrate our country’s birthday. We’re too good a country to let this insulting and violent behavior define us. Moving forward, let’s try to keep this a good and happy July 4th.

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