Join “The Overnight” Party for Frivolous (NFSW) Fun

Overnight

The Overnight (Patrick Brice, 2015)

I saw this film back in March, at the annual SXSW Festival, and loved it. After two documentaries on Day 1 that left me cold, I finally hit the screening jackpot with this raunchy sex comedy from the director of Creep (which I had missed at the previous year’s festival). Starring Taylor Schilling (“Orange is the New Black“), Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation“), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and Judith Godrèche (Potiche), The Overnight is a delightfully off-beat and unpredictable film about a dinner party to which newly minted Los Angelenos Schilling and Scott are invited by oddly compelling Schwartzman and GodrècheFeaturing alcohol, drugs, some boobs, full-frontal prosthetic penises and paintings of male anuses, the movie is definitely for adults only. But boy is it fun! If it loses energy towards the end, that doesn’t mean we haven’t laughed outrageously on our way there. What makes the film work is the delightfully charming chemistry between all four leads and the disarmingly laid-back vibe to the whole affair. Do not expect to learn profound truths about the human condition, but do expect to be entertained. It opens this weekend at the Charles. Leave the kids at home.

T1 + T2 = T5: “Terminator Genisys” Is Best Film in Franchise Since “Judgment Day”

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015)

The Gubernator is back, and the good news is that he’s as watchable as ever. With his stock-in-trade mix of muscular swagger and tongue-in-cheek delivery, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a powerful (if often silly) screen presence, and his return to the Terminator series after a 12-year hiatus is a welcome one. Granted, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – his last outing – was a fairly dismal affair, but since the makers of Terminator Genisys have chosen to ignore all but the first two films, we can, as well. So sit back, relax, suspend your disbelief and be transported back to the magical era of man-versus-machine doomsday scenarios of 1984 (The Terminator) and 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

The film opens with a hazy memory of a lost, green world, before Skynet – the sinister artificial intelligence at the heart of the series – launches its nuclear bombs. Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard), as Kyle Reese, is our narrator, and he takes us briskly from the machine-powered apocalypse through to the rise of the human resistance led, as always, by John Connor, here played by Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). In the year 2029, we follow Connor’s battalions as they miraculously defeat Skynet, only to discover that the computer has sent a “terminator” (a cyborg covered in living tissue) back in time to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother. So far, so familiar. We know this tale (and if you don’t, then, quite frankly, why are you watching this movie?). Reese, of course, is tasked with going back to 1984 to chase the terminator, where he can save Sarah, sleep with her to father John, and then die.

Except that that is not how it plays out. Instead, though the 1984 to which the terminator and Reese travel looks, initially, like a perfect recreation of the first film, things quickly change. Just as the cyborg – a young Schwarzenegger look-a-like – is about to assault a group of delinquents, we hear a familiar Austrian-accented voice from behind him, and the real deal – Schwarzenegger, himself – appears, straight out of the second film, since he’s clearly fighting for humanity. True, he looks significantly older than the last time we saw him, but the film will, eventually, explain this.

So, too, is Reese’s arrival back in time tweaked. Just as he is grabbing clothes (time travel is a naked affair) from a homeless man, a cop shows up, only, that’s right, it’s not a cop. It’s the T-1000 from the second film, liquid metal reforming every time he’s shot. Just as things look dire for our hero, Sarah Connor – played by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones“) – shows up, and this time she gets to utter Reese’s line from the first film: “Come with me if you want to live.” Soon, Sarah, Reese and the good terminator – or “Pops,” as Sarah calls him – are on the run together, hunting the T-1000 (as it hunts them) as they plan a new jump in time (forward, for once). It turns out that all of the various plot threads of the first two movies have become so confused through conflicting time loops that a brand new future past has been created for Skynet’s online birth, in the year 2017. One has to admire how the clever screenwriters get to indulge our collective nostalgia for the original movies while simultaneously bringing the movie back up to our current era …

Once we’re back to the present, the movie turns into a solid sci-fi action thriller, though some of the fun of the earlier scenes is lost. The actors are all more than competent, including, much to my surprise, Jai Courtney, who heretofore has shown little talent beyond a sneer. Emilia Clarke makes a terrific Sarah, tough and wary, and Jason Clarke (no relation) brings his usual combination of danger and charm. But really, this is Arnold’s movie. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with his age (yes, cyborgs do age), as with his new role as Sarah’s protector, and he really is the best part of the show.

The problem with The Terminator series – as with most sequels – has always been that, no matter how much emotional energy we invest in the story outcomes, by the time the next film rolls around, those outcomes have been discarded in favor of new crises, which never end until the franchise dies. The ending of Terminator Genisys provides just such a perfect resolution, followed (of course) by a mid-credit reveal of a new plot point that sets up yet another sequel. Sigh. No matter. It’s no masterpiece. But it is good entertainment.

“Magic Mike XXL” Offers XXS Pleasures

Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)

The women loved it. That is, the largely female audience at the preview screening of Magic Mike XXL that I attended were a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ every time the men on screen took their clothes off. Which was often. To which I reply: if that’s what you want, watch porn. It’s more honest, and you don’t have to sit through the pretense of a story. To be fair, I’m sure that there were folks – and not just me and my two fellow (female) film critics sitting next to me – who did not fall under the spell of beefcake, but they were, of course, not so vocal. Judging by the decibel level of the screams, however, this film might just have a shot at a good opening weekend … among certain demographics.

The problem is that this is an absolutely dreadful movie. The first film, Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), was actually quite fine: a story about a group of working-class guys who just happen to dance in strip clubs to earn the money they need to support their dreams and aspirations. The conflict revolved around whether or not they would get sucked permanently into the dancing lifestyle – putting their ambitions on hold – because the money (and sex) was so good. The dance numbers were well choreographed, and the stars – including Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street) as Mike and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar) as Dallas, the strip club owner – gave solid performances. It was a gritty well-made drama that offered the additional pleasure of erotic titillation and voyeuristic spectacle.

Magic Mike XXL has a different director – though Soderbergh returns as cinematographer and editor, and the screenwriter, Reid Carolin, is the same – and whether or not that is why the sequel lacks all ambition to be anything other than a striptease (and a bad one at that), who knows? Whatever the intentions of those involved, the movie feels like these folks got together and improvised as they went along, forgetting that in order for us to care about the characters, there needs to be a story. There’s a nominal plot – most of the guys from the first film have decided that they want to compete, one last time, in an annual stripping contest, and drag the no-longer-dancing Tatum back from retirement – but nothing at stake. If they win, great; if they lose, so what? Would that the contest were simply a MacGuffin to get us into some decent dance scenes. At least we would then have that. Instead, the journey is an excuse to show us legions of sex-starved women – mainly older and overweight – who swoon at the chance to be fondled, groped and humped by muscular men. A character played by Matt Bomer (“White Collar“) makes the claim that our stripper friends are “healers,” and that these desperate women benefit from the attention, but somehow the whole enterprise feels half-baked, gross, and deeply misogynistic. Then again, let’s not forget about the screaming women at the preview . . .

Matthew McConaughey is gone (he seems to be getting more discerning as he gets older), so we don’t even get to see him liven up the affair with his cocky insouciance. We do, however, get some new blood: Jada Pinkett Smith (“Gotham“) as Rome, the Dallas surrogate (what is it with strip-club owners and city names in this universe?) in a pointless sub-plot; Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as one of those older women yearning to be set free; and Amber Heard (The Rum Diary) as Mike’s jailbait love interest (well, she looks really young, though in real life she’s closer to Tatum’s age than I thought). None of them matter one iota. Just look at the poster, above. That’s what the movie’s selling, and if that appeals to you, then it’s all yours.

“Ted 2″ Is a Crass Act, but Not a Total Failure

Ted 2

Ted 2 (Seth MacFarlane, 2015)

Did you see (and like) Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 box-office hit? If so, the sequel could go either way for you. I hated the original film, in large part because, to me, crudeness and vulgarity, on their own, are not funny. There must be something else, beyond the scatological and obscene, to anchor the grossness in real wit. So it was much to my surprise that I found myself laughing at parts of Ted 2. MacFarlane was showing restraint! The jokes were landing without constant references to outlandish sexual acts! And then Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) knocked over a shelf full of sperm samples, drenching himself in semen in the process, and out went that idea . . .

Still, such moments are few and far between. What we mostly get is a series of sketch-comedy bits – some of which are funny, some of which aren’t – that doesn’t add up to much of a movie, and that will probably disappoint fans of the first film, but which makes for a fairly watchable 115 minutes worth of passable, though crass (crassable?), entertainment. There’s also a rather offensive (or racially insensitive, at the very least, Morgan Freeman’s participation notwithstanding) bit of jokey equivalency between the plight of an animated bear and that of 19th-century American slave Dred Scott. Then again, this is Seth MacFarlane, after all, so offensiveness is to be expected.

What’s the story? If you remember, in the first film, young John (who would grow up to become Mark Wahlberg), one day wished that his stuffed bear would become real, and – presto! – it happened. Great premise. Squandered by fart jokes. Flash forward 20 years, and John and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) are still best buds … and drunkards, potheads and sex fiends (well, Ted, anyway). Mila Kunis (Jupiter Ascending) was along for the ride in that movie, as John’s long-suffering girlfriend who can’t compete with the furry friend. After much whore-mongering, Ted finally settled down with fellow cashier Tami-Lynn. John was left sans girlfriend, but he had his bear. You know who rules that relationship …

Ted 2 begins with the wedding of Ted and Tami-Lynn, which provides MacFarlane for all the excuse he needs for a (nicely staged and performed) song-and-dance Busby Berkeley homage (MacFarlane loves his musical moments), one of the high points of the movie. Flash forward a year, and the marriage has gone sour, so Ted and Tami-Lynn decide that the best thing for them would be to have a kid (bad idea, obviously, but played for laughs). Ted cannot procreate, since he is, well, a stuffed bear, so the couple heads to an adoption agency, an act which suddenly exposes Ted to all sorts of questions about his legal personhood, which then drives the plot of the rest of the movie (and the awkward parallels to Dred Scott), such as it is.

Really, though, this is a meandering journey through various gags. My favorites – beyond the Berkeley number – include the Liam Neeson Taken-like cameo (one of many cameos in the film) and a hilarious bit set in an improv theater where Ted yells inappropriately tragic suggestions to the flailing members of the troupe. Neeson, though, is representative of the real problem with the film, which is that there is little continuity between scenes. Given what transpires between Neeson and Ted in their moment together, it’s a missed opportunity when MacFarlane doesn’t bring the action star back at the end to save the day. But that would require screenwriting effort, and as pleasant as much of this is, it’s also fundamentally lazy.

Amanda Seyfried (While We’re Young) is the love interest (for John) this time, and she is always an agreeable screen presence. Wahlberg brings the same somnambulance to his performance here as he did in the first film, and while that gets old, it’s appropriate to the passiveness of his character. Giovanni Ribisi (Gangster Squad) is back as the villain, Donny, and thank goodness for that, as he is one of the funniest actors in the movie. So, all in all, the film is a mess, but not a failure.

Herzog’s Happy Homily: The Death-Defying Cinematic Stunt of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

  • “Nature here is vile and base … there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they – they sing. They just screech in pain.” – German film director Werner Herzog, interviewed in Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo

The first thing you need to know about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that, as the title indicates, there is a young woman who is dying at the center of the story. The second thing you need to know about the film is that it is highly original, very funny and extremely cinematic. Yes, this is a movie comedy (and a damn good one) about cancer. As with the best examples of the (comedy) genre, the film uses humor to remind us why life is worth living in the first place. Art doesn’t imitate life here: it nurtures and revitalizes it. Without our ability to express ourselves creatively, who are we?

Based on the book of the same title, the movie adaptation of Me and Earl was actually written by the original author, Jesse Andrews. The basic story structure of book and movie are the same, but there are significant differences in the tone and details of the film that make it an even richer approach to its difficult material. As such, for this reader/viewer, the adaptation is superior to its source. Since Andrews penned both, I hope he will forgive me.

At the start of our tale (set in Pittsburgh) we meet Greg Gaines, a severely depressed (though he doesn’t realize it) high-school senior who has spent the better part of his life up to now avoiding meaningful human connection, with one notable exception. He has one friend (the exception), named Earl Jackson, though he calls him a “co-worker,” because the two of them have grown up making movies together. Greg is white and middle-class, the child of academics, while Earl is black and poor, the child of absent parents, yet the two of them, early on, formed a fast bond over their love of cinema (they have an especial fondness for Werner Herzog). This passion has manifested itself in an unusual way. They remake their favorite films – parodic title included – using whatever materials they have at hand, the results of which includeAnatomy of a BurgerRosemary Baby CarrotsAte 1/2 (of my lunch), and The 400 Bros. As silly as this enterprise may sound, one of the great joys of the film is seeing clips from the Gaines/Jackson studio, even though Greg, in voiceover, denigrates the work as dumb and derivative. It is clear that these two social outcasts, “screeching in pain,” are both highly intuitive and sensitive young souls.

Enter Rachel Kushner, a fellow senior and vague acquaintance, just diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mother more or less orders her son to go cheer Rachel up. Unwilling – but more unwilling to disobey mom – Greg finally makes the visit, only to be rebuffed by Rachel, who can tell he’s being forced, and wants no one’s sympathy. Nerdy goofball that he is, however, Greg manages to charm his way past Rachel’s defenses and is soon spending a lot more time with her than he thought he would want to. He may think she needs a friend (and she does), but what’s even clearer is how much he needs her. Earl joins in, and before too long Rachel is watching their formidable movie output. The only problem is that Greg has long maintained the utmost secrecy about the films, wanting no one to watch them, and so when Earl gives Rachel a stack of DVDs, Greg is resentful and uncomfortable. Still, since Rachel seems to enjoy them – a lot – and since she’s dying, what can he do? And so all is (more or less) good until Rachel’s friend Madison – who has, much to Greg’s mortification, also learned of the films – asks Greg to make a movie for Rachel. That’s a lot different than parodying someone else’s work, and it’s Greg’s journey to find his own voice that drives the plot of the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl swept the major awards at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, and no wonder. Last year at this time we saw The Fault in Our Stars, another film about cancer-stricken teens, and while that film was sweet and lovely in many ways, handling its sad subject with decent sensitivity and without excessive sentimentality, there is something about Me and Earl‘s wildly inventive take on the subject that makes us feel the sadness of the situation even more. Because Greg is such a constantly ironic commentator on his own life and that of his friends, when he is finally forced to confront the realities of life and death – losing his sardonic distanciation coping mechanisms in the process – his loss is our loss and the cathartic release is one of the most powerful emotions I have felt on screen in a long time. Perhaps because we have laughed so hard, earlier, our tears flow that much more freely at the end.

Until then, though (and even while you’re crying), the film is a delightful ride. Where else can you see such a wide variety of movie spoofs, along with very funny stop-motion animation interludes (every time Greg talks to a pretty girl in school, we cut to an image of a moose – the girl – stomping on a chipmunk – Greg)? All of it is complemented by Gomez-Rejon’s direction of the brilliant ensemble cast, which includes: Thomas Mann (Project X) as Greg, RJ Cyler (Second Chances) as Earl, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel“) as Rachel, Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) as Greg’s mom, Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation“) as Greg’s dad, Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog) as Rachel’s mom, and Katherine C. Hughes (Men, Women & Children) as Madison, the “moose” to Greg’s chipmunk. This is a very moving, very complex film, which provides a needed antidote to a lot of the mindless (if fun) summer fare currently playing at the multiplexes. It’s art as it should be: thoughtful, thought-provoking, gripping and emotionally overwhelming. It’s also endlessly entertaining. Go see it now.

[NOTE: This review corrected on July 28 to change “mouse” to “chipmunk” in my description of the stop-motion animation. Thanks to Paula Gallagher for catching my mistake.] 

Midday on “Jaws” at 40: June 26 @ 1pm

[NOTE: Missed the show? You can always listen to the podcast!]

Jaws original poster

On Friday, June 20, 1975, a then little-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg premiered his second theatrical feature, Jaws. Based on author Peter Benchley’s smash debut novel – a best-seller already a year before its adaptation came out – the film was a phenomenal box-office megahit (the first to make more than $100 million) that transformed how movies were marketed and released; indeed, it almost single-handedly invented the modern blockbuster. Beyond that, it was also an excellent action thriller, made under difficult conditions at sea (it was mostly shot on and off the island of Martha’s Vineyard) that could just as easily have sunk both the film and the career of its young helmer. Instead, Spielberg parlayed his critical and commercial triumph into one of the longest and most successful Hollywood careers of all time. He and his good friend George Lucas (who, with Star Wars in 1977, cemented Hollywood’s embrace of blockbuster culture) may have, in 2013, complained about the kinds of films now made by the studios, but with their one-two knockout punch to the movie industry’s “new wave” experiments of the 1970s, they are largely responsible, for better or for worse, for our current era. Still, Jaws remains ever what it was: a terrifically entertaining movie made with tremendous skill and energy, extremely watchable even 40 years after its release.

Join us on Friday, June 26, at 1pm, on WYPR (88.1FM), on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss, along with our host, Dan Rodricks, our thoughts on Jaws and Spielberg (about whom we did a previous show, back in January, 2013), as well as on the film’s impact on Hollywood and popular culture. What, to you, has been the film’s legacy since it came out in 1975? If you the saw the film in its original run, what did you think of it then, and what do you think of it now? Do you ever, because of the film, think about sharks when you swim in the ocean (I know I do!)? Do you avoid the water completely? Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts in the comment section of this blog. Hope you can listen in!

“Inside Out” Reminds Us of Why Both Pixar – and Being Human – Is Special

Inside Out

Inside Out (Pete Docter/Ronaldo Del Carmen, 2015)

Inside Out may not quite rival the first 10 minutes of Up (co-director Pete Docter’s last film) – then again, for my money, nothing that Pixar has ever done, as good as their movies usually are, comes close to the sublime perfection of the opening of that movie – but it comes awfully close. Here, though, the aesthetic trajectory is reversed. Whereas in Up we begin by being overwhelmed with truths about the human condition, then descend into a comparative banality that improves as the film goes on, ending in a close approximation of the beauty of the prologue, in Inside Out we start with silly fun that threatens to go nowhere interesting, and then slowly move towards profound meditations on the meaning of life. It’s a very satisfying journey and by far the most complex and multi-layered piece of commercial entertainment available at the multiplex right now. When Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in Baltimore next week (at the Senator Theatre), Inside Out will then have a rival for a film that best blends comedy and pathos (avoiding bathos, thankfully). For now, if you want to laugh and cry in equal measure – and be able to bring the kids! – then go see Inside Out immediately.

Inside Out begins with twin births, of Riley and Joy. Riley is a human baby girl, and Joy is a yellow-dressed blue-haired female humanoid (voiced by Amy Poehler, of “Parks and Recreation“), who appears inside of the newly-formed control room at the center of Riley’s brain at the very moment 0f her host’s birth. Joy is so-named because her role is to ensure Riley’s constant happiness. Suddenly, as she manipulates the various buttons and levers on her control panel, another pair of hands appear – as blue as Joy’s hair – and trigger a massive Riley crying fit. These hands belong to Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith, of “The Office“), and for the next 11 years, they will do (mostly) gentle battle over Riley’s moods. They are not alone, though, for they are soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins), Anger (Lewis Black, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart“) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling, also of “The Office“). Why only five emotions? Well, it turns out that Docter consulted with a noted psychologist, and that these – plus surprise (which Docter and his team deemed too similar to fear) – really are the six main emotions of the brain (at least according to current psychological research). So there you go.

Until Riley turns 11, all is more or less good. Her three-person family (no siblings) lives happily in Minnesota, where she is a hockey star (how nice to see a mainstream film promoting such an active and athletic young woman) and spends her leisure moments with her best friend. But then they pack up and head to San Francisco, where her father is involved in what appears to be some sort of start-up venture (this is Riley’s story, so we never really learn the details). This violent rupture from the up-until-then idyllic days of youth requires extra effort from Joy (the de facto leader of the brain) to keep Riley’s emotional ship balanced, especially as mishap piles upon mishap: the city townhouse into which they move is drab compared to the Minnesota digs they just left; the family’s moving van has taken a detour to parts unknown; and the first day at Riley’s new school is a disaster. Joy’s task is made all the harder because Sadness, inexplicably (to herself, as well), keeps touching the globes that store Riley’s core memories (heretofore all yellow with joy), tainting (and tinting) them with her blue melancholy. In a tussle over these globes, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked out of the control room and thrown into the nether regions of Riley’s brain, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge (whoops). In the outside world, this means that Riley is no longer herself, a perfect metaphor for the hormonal changes that come over all of us as puberty approaches. In the inside world, this means that the movie turns into a quest story, as Joy and Sadness must find their way back to the control room as they travel through the now unsettled and collapsing territory of Riley’s brain. Will they make it back before Riley does something drastic? Watch and see . . .

So far, so good, and modestly entertaining, though hardly profound. As the film progresses, however, following Joy and Sadness on their odyssey, what emerges is a complex narrative about the nature of happiness and the role that sadness plays in our ability to feel the full range of our emotions. There is a direct link between joy and sorrow: in every happy memory there is embedded a nostalgia for time past, which tinges it (the memory) with melancholy (in the color scheme of Inside Out, it colors it blue) and this is what makes us human. The two emotions can co-exist within the same sphere, and to deny the one in favor of the other is to deny our basic humanity. As this realization dawns on Joy (perhaps explaining why her hair has always been blue, though her clothes are more yellow-green), so does it give new energy to the story, and raise Inside Out far above the usual summer fare.

There is plenty of goofy fun along the way, and plenty of delightful vocal cameos, too (for you to recognize). For film aficionados, especially, the dream center of the brain made up as a Hollywood studio (Hollywood as dream factory) is very clever, and that is only one of many similarly smart set pieces (just wait until you go briefly inside other people’s brains). As is typical with Pixar (and its parent company, Disney), as much of the humor is accessible to adults as it is for children (though the stuff meant for the former will be far over the heads of the latter), making this a film for all. If you don’t mind a good cry to go along with your laughs – the film should prompt the same joy tinged with melancholy in you as it does in the main characters – then you you’ll love Inside Out and emerge reminded of the very reasons why being alive and human is such a special and wondrous thing.

“Gemma Bovery” Is a Delightful, If Slight, Romp through Flaubert’s Tragedy

Gemma Bovery

Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014)

Are you familiar with a British graphic novel entitled Gemma Bovery? No? Neither was I. When I saw the name of this new film by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), I automatically assumed it was an allusion to Gustave Flaubert’s great 19th-century novel of adultery and consequence, Emma Bovary (which it is, for sure). It’s more than that, however, as it’s an adaptation of an adaptation (of a sort). At its center is an English couple living in Normandy – last name Bovery, wife’s first name Gemma – who, in the eyes of local baker Martin Joubert, come to resemble the ill-fated couple of homonymous appellation. Does life actually imitate art, or is it Martin’s obstinate belief in a metaphysical connection between art and life that is the root cause of all that follows? These are the questions posed by Fontaine’s well-made, entertaining and fascinating, if ultimately slight, movie.

The wonderful Fabrice Luchini (Beaumarchais the Scoundrel) plays the middle-aged Martin, who narrates the film in world-weary tones that become a little more animated after the Boverys move in next door. Charles – played by Jason Flemyng (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) – is a man not far from Martin’s own age, married to the much younger Gemma – who, in a nice art-imitating-life twist, is played by Gemma Arterton (Runner Runner). He restores furniture; she is a painter. They’re very much in love, until they cease to be, slowly. As Martin – a married man, himself, and a father, though hardly a happy one – inserts himself into their story through a will to interfere motivated by his own boredom (and Gemma’s luscious curves), we can’t help wonder how Gemma and Charles would have fared without his intrusive meddling. Luchini is a master at showing the warring emotions on Martin’s face as he hesitates, then goes one step too far.

Shot in beautiful golden hues, highlighting Gemma’s sexual allure, the film tackles head-on the (older) male tendency to fixate on (younger) women as objects of desire that can make the world right, if only they would give in. Throughout the movie, Gemma is largely denied personal agency, almost passively giving in to her preordained status as a tragic heroine. But it’s important to always keep in mind that this is Martin Joubert’s story. He acts as our guide, and it is through his point of view that we access the characters. We will never truly know Gemma, only Martin’s version of her.

It’s a very clever movie, and despite the unhappy conclusion (not a plot spoiler, if you have any idea how Madame Bovary ends), it is also very funny, filled with delightfully contentious conversations between French and English people about the nature and meaning of life. One of my favorite characters is Wizzy, the French wife of a British ex-pat, played by the great Elsa Zylberstein (I’ve Loved You So Long), who spends most of the film advising the younger Gemma on what to eat and how to exercise (“I’ve got the ass of a 20-year-old stripper,” she coos). The absurdity of Martin’s obsession with the Bovary-Bovery connection is also played mostly for laughs. So what’s not to like? Nothing, really. If I just liked it, rather than loved it, it’s only because by the end of the film I had grown a little weary of its artifice. If art imitates life, then I was Charles, rather than Martin, tired of the game and ready to move on.

In “Jurassic World,” 3D Dinosaurs Eat 2D Humans (and That’s a Good Thing)

Jurassic World

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

In Jurassic World, dinosaurs rule. Brought back from extinction by the machinations of mad scientists and businessmen, they are not only formidable enemies of the human race, but also much more interesting. As they chomp, stomp and eat their way through Isla Nubar – an island off the coast of Costa Rica that houses the new “Jurassic World” theme park – we, the audience, find ourselves in the odd position of rooting for our destroyers. The whole movie may be in 3D, but only the dinosaurs are truly three-dimensional.

Which, you may point out, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor a reason not to see the film. After all, we watch monster movies for the … monsters. Still, in the original Jurassic Park – directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993, adapted from the original novel by Michael Crichton – our on-screen surrogates were worth rooting for. Not so here. It is fortunate, then, that both the design and characterization of the monsters is as good as it is, for that, at least, makes half a movie.

And that half can be (mostly) very entertaining. Here’s the deal: 20 years after the first theme park went bust after its creatures – a pack of Velociraptors and one ornery Tyrannosaurus Rex, in particular – escaped and made a dinner out of their handlers, a new park has opened, in the same location, with all of the safety kinks (ostensibly) worked out. Owned by “the world’s seventh richest man,” Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan of Life of Pi), the reboot of the world’s most dangerous pleasure garden is both popular and ever in peril of losing its popularity (the ‘raptors and T-Rex are so yesterday). So the team of genetic engineers led by the same brilliant whacko we met in 1993, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, most recently of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fame), , has been busy creating new (and improved) dinosaurs, using secret bits of DNA from here and there. The result? The “Indominus Rex,” a terrifying Frankensaur that Masrani plans to unveil soon … after a few precautionary tests have been run.

So what happens with the I-Rex? Not so fast! First we have to meet the dumb humans. This being a film targeted to young folks (despite the PG-13 rating), we need children. We get two brothers, one a surly teen played by the surly Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer), and one an alternately bouncy and whiny kid played by blank-faced Ty Simpkins (Insidious). Plot spoiler (not really): at the end of the film they are both still alive. This is unfortunate. We also meet their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), who manages the park, and has agreed to host her nephews on a vacation away from their divorcing parents. All suit, heels, lipstick and hairdo, Claire is an ice princess straight out of my next book, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Misogyny. With a phone glued to her ear, she has time for neither the boys nor for … boys. She is clearly due for a comeuppance. Which comes in the form of hunky dinosaur trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, fresh off a great year 2014 with The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy). All grime to her glam, he’s meant to be Gable to her Colbert. The only problem is that while he might be up to it, she is not.

Wait … did I just write “dinosaur trainer,” above? Yep. Owen, you see, has been working with a pack of four Velociraptors, acting as their Alpha, under the aegis of an island security program created by an (obviously evil) corporation called InGen headed by Vincent D’Onofrio (toning it down only slightly from his recent turn as Wilson Fisk on the Netflix series “Daredevil“). An ex-Navy guy, Owen is a real hombre – or “badass” as Claire’s nephews dub him – and since he can tame actual savage beasts, how hard can an ice princess be?

As retrograde as the sexual politics of the film may be (as Baltimore Magazine editor and film critic Max Weiss has pointed out), at least most of the action sequences are fairly exciting. Especially once InGen puts into place a plan to use the ‘raptors to track the I-Rex (which has, predictably, escaped). And Claire even gets one good moment where she rises above her role as stuffy screamer, rescuing Owen by shooting a Pterodactyl in the head. But it’s the interactions between the dinosaurs that make the film work, when it works. Transcending their ephemeral CG status, they are fully realized creatures whose life-and-death fate matters to us. It means something at the end when they are not all dead (sorry, another plot spoiler, though, again, not really).

At times excruciatingly boring and at other times riveting, Jurassic World should enchant as many viewers as it repels. Colin Trevorrow, the director, has only one other feature credit to his name: the 2012 indie sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed. We’ll see if the Velociraptors are as good to him as they are to this movie.

In “Spy,” a Fine Supporting Team Propels Agent Melissa McCarthy to 00-Comedy

[NOTE: I reviewed this on the radio on June 5, along with Entourage” and “San Andreas.” The reviews start at 38min. on the podcast of the show.]

Spy - June 5

Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

How do you solve a problem like Melissa? She’s not exactly a conventional leading lady, and yet ever since Bridesmaids – for which she was nominated for an Oscar, after a long career in television on such shows as “Gilmore Girls” and “Mike & Molly” – she’s been on something of a roll. How long can it last? In films like The Heat and Tammy, she has continued with the vulgar shtick that made her famous, and it’s getting (for this guy, anyway) old, and fast. But then, in the recent St. Vincent, she showed that she was capable of delivering a real – yet still funny – performance (albeit in a supporting role, once more). Now, in Spy (from Paul Feig, who directed both Bridesmaids and The Heat), she lands in a nice middle ground between the grotesquerie of her first big success and the restraint of her last film, and is delightful as the lead, Susan Cooper, a female support analyst, working for the CIA, who gets her big break when the agency’s top spy goes missing.

Behind every great man is a great woman, they used to say. In the opening of Spy, we see this outdated maxim played out in literal terms. Jude Law (Black Sea) – bedecked in quite a toupee – plays 007 look-a-like Bradley Fine. He’s on a mission in a Balkan country, breaking into a compound filled with gunmen. Communicating with Fine via earpiece is McCarthy’s Cooper who, thanks to (amazingly improbable) satellite imagery, sees all of his surroundings, and so directs him on his every move, letting him know who and what is beyond which door. That Fine completes his mission (sort of) and escapes alive is due only to Cooper’s brilliance. He knows it – and is duly grateful, if arrogant – but Cooper is too insecure and smitten with him to realize that she truly completes him. But then, shortly after beginning a new case, Fine vanishes, presumed dead, and the CIA must send an agent without a known profile out into the field. Of course, the only one who qualifies is Cooper, and so begins our fish-out-of-water/fish-discovers-she’s-a-damn-competent-amphibian comedy-action-adventure tale.

Fans of both McCarthy and James Bond films should love it. And with a fine supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne (Annie), Jason Statham (The Transporter), Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine) and Allison Janney (“The West Wing“) – not to mention British comedienne Miranda Hart (Miranda“), largely unknown in the States – there is plenty of talent on the screen beyond McCarthy, giving as good as they get. Devoid of much of McCarthy’s trademark excess, the movie – though unquestionably dumb, dumb, dumb – offers plenty of jokes that hit their mark, and fits nicely into the recent string of big movies featuring strong central female protagonists (such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect 2). I saw the film at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and laughed so hard that my belly ached. Go see it.