Movie Review ~ Love, Simon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.

Stars: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was recently reading a book about the impact of John Hughes and The Brat Pack on the generation of teens that grew up in the mid ‘80s.  The book talked about what was going on at the time and how movies once celebrated as sleepover musts are now revered as essential entertainment time capsules for those that came of age in the Reagan era.  I was slightly too young for that wave of influential filmmaking, though I was in my prime when ‘90s teen classics like Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Scream, and 10 Things I Hate About You were first released and I feel that same sense of protection about them.  So I understand why the early buzz around Love, Simon compares the viewing experience to the influential teen movies that came before it.

I tend to recoil at films that are so current that they’ll become dated in six months but Love, Simon is a rare exception.  It’s a genuine gem that speaks to those navigating high school life now while evoking a palpable sense of wistfulness to audience members like me who so wish they had something as assured and confident as this when they were a kid. Yes, Love, Simon is the kind of truthful message movie I wish I had on VHS on the shelf between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Simon Spier lives a pretty good life.  His family, his house, his friends, his high school experience all seem like the dictionary definition of growing up without much complication.  Yet Simon is more complex than people think.  He’s gay and struggling with resolving some inner conflict about that fact but outwardly showing no signs of stress (or so he thinks).  The good news is that there’s not a lot of self-loathing on display here so it’s not the torturous experience other films have made the coming out saga to be.  He doesn’t hate that he’s gay, he just doesn’t know the right way to say it and risk losing out on future happiness.

Surrounded by friends with their own romantic hang-ups, Simon finds a kindred spirit in the form of an e-mail relationship with an anonymous fellow student who is gay as well.  Reaching out first as a way to take his own baby steps out of the closest, he becomes closer and closer to the guy on the other side of the e-mail who can’t reveal his identity.  Not knowing whom the friend he calls Blue looks like, Simon starts to imagine who it could be.  Is it the handsome quarterback that has a sensitive side?  What about the pianist for the high school musical?  Or could it be the Waffle House employee?  When the e-mails are discovered by a fellow classmate and Simon is blackmailed into playing matchmaker or risk being outed, he finds being gay is the least of his worries as friendships, true love, and familial bonds are tested the more he tries to hide who he is.

As Simon, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is a handsome star in the making that ably carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Though he’s Hollywood Leading Man Gay, meaning not too gay, he convincingly plays the conflict without making the journey the least bit maudlin.  By presenting Simon as “just like you”, a balance of normalcy is struck that shows the audience that being gay is who you are and not what ultimately defines you.

Simon’s friends include Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Keiynan Lonsdale (The Finest Hours), and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as a charmingly diverse group that feels like they could be friends had they gone to high school together.  Though each have their own secrets that arise during the course of the film, these developments don’t feel forced or simply existing in service to Simon’s coming out rite of passage.  The adults in the film wisely say their piece and let the youngsters take the spotlight, but kudos to Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven) for presenting understanding but not phony portrayals of Simon’s parents.  As the Vice Principal of Simon’s school, Tony Hale (American Ultra) has some good moments and special mention must go to Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that hates her job and Clark Moore as an out and proud gay man at Simon’s school that has two of the funniest lines in the whole film.

Yeah, let’s not forget that as dramatic as the story arc may be this is still a teen comedy at heart and the film is consistently funny throughout.  The parties, the hallway discussions, the afterhours heart-to-hearts, the long walks home, the car rides…all strike a nice balance between sentiment and humor without tipping the scales either way.  Adapting Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have played around with some characters and characteristics from the source novel without losing the message of Albertalli’s original work.  Director Greg Berlanti resists against getting overly saccharine as the film develops and Simon’s secret starts to get out – there’s pain and hurt but laughter winds up making the wounds sting less.

If there’s one thing that might keep Love, Simon from achieving long-lasting high rank status it’s that it feels like the fantasy way a coming out story would go.  While Simon claims to be just like us in the opening voice-over, can the majority of teens that will see the film relate to a privileged white guy who gets a new car for his birthday, doesn’t seem to have a job but has spending money, lives in an upscale home in the suburbs, and has more than his share of compassionate and understanding family and friends?  Also, there’s an uncomfortable value placed on looks – when Simon is scoping the halls for Blue and pondering who he could be he wrinkles his nose in horror at bearded nerds, Game of Thrones loving dorks, and roly poly dweebs.  Heaven forbid Blue turns out to be an ug-o.

Yet the film ultimately has its heart and message in the right place and any nitpicks are easily shooed away in favor of recognizing the accomplishment at a major movie studio putting out a sweet love story surrounding a gay youth and his friends.  It may not live totally in the reality of now but it rhymes with the truth without much discord.  Now if people will actually line up to see this…that would be the real victory.

Movie Review ~ The 5th Wave

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four waves of increasingly deadly alien attacks have left most of Earth decimated. Cassie is on the run, desperately trying to save her younger brother.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff

Director: J Blakeson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As is tradition, January is proving to be a rough month at the movies…which is largely why The 5th Wave is only the second movie I’ve seen in the theaters so far in this new year.  While it’s not as pretentiously terrible as the other movie I saw earlier in the month (Anomalisa…oy), the latest big screen first installment of a Young Adult trilogy of novels struggles to set itself apart from the numerous other (and better) page to screen adaptations.

Coming off like a Muppet Babies retelling of Independence Day, The 5th Wave is the first novel in Rick Yancey’s trilogy following the after effects of an alien invasion that leaves the world in ruins. An electromagnetic pulse has destroyed anything with a current or engine, a super strain of the bird flu, and a series of catastrophic earthquakes that yield gigantic, yes, waves, has trimmed the population down by the millions.  The screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Akiva Goldsman (Winter’s Tale), and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) often feels more mature than the characters speaking the lines, but that winds up helping the film overall.

At the center of the mayhem is 16-year-old Cassie and her younger brother Sam (spoiler alert if you miss the first 15 minutes of the movie: the parents don’t make it…), left to fend for themselves against an alien race known as the Others who are taking steps to rid the planet of its inhabitants.  When Cassie and Sam are separated by the kind of “just missed the bus” moments that can only exist in fantasy movies, the siblings find themselves split into two separate plot threads.  One thread follows Cassie’s rocky journey to reunite with her brother and the other tracks Sam as he is recruited into an army of children trained to exterminate the alien species by a grumpy looking Liev Schrieber (Spotlight) and a heavily made up Maria Bello (Prisoners, who, it must be said, gets the biggest laugh of the movie thanks to a sight gag involving her red lipstick).  There are a few twists that aren’t hard to predict, though to its credit the film doesn’t expressly telegraph each and every move.

It’s the end of the world as she knows and she feels…ok?  Though the first 1/3 of the movie is decently paced and mildly involving, its biggest problem is its bored-looking star.  Using flared nostrils and expressive lips as a substitute for deep emotion, Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie, Dark Shadows) saunters through the majority of the movie killing time and collecting her paycheck. She gets a few good tough chick moments but they are weakened by the film feeling obligated to give her googly eyes for a hunky piece of could-be-alien man meat (Alex Roe, filling the man-meat qualifications nicely).

I actually found myself more interested in the parallel storyline of a squad of teens and pre-teens going through basic training, though overall it’s given unfortunately short shrift in favor of more Moretz moments.  Led by Zombie (Nick Robinson, Jurassic World) alongside interesting but underdeveloped characters (like Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel and especially Maika Monroe, Labor Day), had the film focused solely on the squad, it may have found its footing easier when it rounds the corner into its final act.   A brief side note, I’m growing a bit weary seeing kids killing kids and being put into such deadly harm so parents, even though its based on a book your kids can pick up in their library, this easily earns it PG-13 thanks to several overly violent and disturbing passages.

As to the conclusion of the movie, it’s no secret that this is the first in a planned trilogy so there’s little resolution to offer by the end…making the previous two hours feel like a large set-up to sequels that may not happen should The 5th Wave get deep sixed at the box office.  My advice would be to wait until the second (or third, or fourth if they dare to split it into two movies) is released and catch The 5th Wave from the comfort of your own home.

Movie Review ~ Jurassic World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. After 10 years of operation and visitor rates declining, in order to fulfill a corporate mandate, a new attraction is created to re-spark visitor’s interest, which backfires horribly.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Chris Pratt, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Katie McGrath, Lauren Lapkus, Andy Buckley

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The original tagline for Jurassic Park was “An adventure 65 million years in the making” and I can summarize my thoughts on Jurassic World with something quite similar: An adventure 65 million and 22 years in the making. After wading through two lesser-than sequels that were equal parts boring and silly, audiences finally are getting the sequel we’ve deserved for the last two decades. It’s not as ground breaking or awe-inspiring as the first film but it comes pretty darn close by going back to where it all started and creating a rarity in filmmaking these days…excitement.

Largely ignoring the events that transpired in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World feels like the direct sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film and mores the better because of it. Now the film is free from having to explain away “Site B” and the lame San Diego-set finale of the first sequel. From its opening title shot of hatching eggs leading into a clever nod to an iconic image from the original, the movie earns its stripes by introducing us to actual characters this time around, rather than walking meals on wheels destined to become dino chew toys.

Brothers Gray (Ty Simpkins, Insidious) and Zach (Nick Robinson) are leaving their wintery Wisconsin homestead for the warm weather and excitement of the Jurassic World theme park. Gray is a big dinosaur buff but it helps that their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is head of operations at the dino-themed world of wonder. There’s some thin subplot with the boys and their bickering parents but the film largely forgets about it and so should you.

Claire doesn’t have much time to spend with them because she’s in the midst of securing sponsors for the park’s newest attraction, a genetic hybrid dinosaur cooked up in the lab (governed by B.D. Wong, the only returning character that isn’t from the prehistoric era) as a way to renew interest in the park. You see, the public is bored with dinosaurs now that they are so easily accessible so the park has to reinvent itself every few years to stay financially stable. There’s a heavy amount of product placement in the film but unlike other summer blockbusters the products featured here are there for a purpose, showcasing the rampant consumerism and sponsorship in marketing today.

Fears about the safety of the containment facility of the new species means that Claire has to call on rugged Owen for assistance. Played by Chris Pratt, Owen is a retired army man that has a bond with the four raptors he’s been training and doesn’t have time or interest in the financial stakes of the park. When the clever dinosaur manages to escape (in the first of several gruesome and gruesomely thrilling sequences), Owen and Claire work together to take down the beast on the loose before she makes it to the main section of the park where 20,000 tourists are enjoying fun in the sun.

Admittedly, the media hype surrounding the film has spoiled more than a few of the surprises the theme park has cooked up in the past two decades. From a gigantic water-based dinosaur to the pterodactyls housed in a mountain aviary, there isn’t much the film hasn’t outright shown or hinted at in the ads leading up to the release. But fear not, more than a little of the fun of the film is seeing how it all comes together…and don’t forget this is the island where the original took place so keep your eyes out for well-placed mementos of the past. The finale may borrow a bit from 2014’s Godzilla but I found it to be an adrenaline-fueled reward for those of us that have waited so long for the sequel.

If I’m going to knock the film for anything it’s the violence. Yeah yeah yeah, it’s a PG-13 movie and it’s not as gory as it could have been but it’s simply too frightening to take young children too. Many an unlucky soul is eaten and they don’t always go quietly so I’m urging parents to think twice before bringing their children along with them. The violence isn’t just to humans either and I was a little amazed at how visceral a reaction I had in several dino on dino battles.

I had heard some internet buzz that the CGI was poor in Jurassic World but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s some top-notch creations here and the effects team mixes computer animation and animatronic models with skill, once again blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. From a baby triceratops giving a ride to young children to the fearsome size of the genetically created Indominous Rex there are moments in Jurassic World where I was transported back in time to the first screening of Jurassic Park.

While I doubt any cast assembled could top the original, director Colin Trevorrow has cast the film with some unexpected choices. Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) is a nice, meaty slick of bo-hunk that comes across better in the finished film than he did in a frightfully bad clip released a few months back. I’ve always found Howard to be a bargain basement Jessica Chastain and it’s true her blunt ginger bob is the most severe thing about her, but she too makes for a good female protagonist even if she’s forced to do it in a cream ankle-length sheath dress and high heels. Claims that the film has a sexist tone aren’t totally unfounded, but it feels like it comes from an old-school battle of the sexes place rather than a misogynistic one (helps that the screenwriters are husband and wife).

Making a huge leap from his first film (Safety Not Guaranteed), sophomore director Trevorrow seemed like a random choice when it was announced he was sitting in the director’s chair but credit producer Steven Spielberg (JAWS) with knowing talent when he sees it. Trevorrow keeps things tight and exciting from beginning to end, never letting the audience get ahead of the film and treating them to a bundle of scares and adventure along the way.

I’d waited over a decade for another Jurassic Park movie and wasn’t the least bit disappointed in Jurassic World. It not only honored the film that started it all but made a comfortable place for itself on the shelf next to Spielberg’s history-making effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jurassic World

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Synopsis: Twenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond.

Release Date: June 12, 2015

Thoughts: I love the holiday season that is swiftly approaching, the great food of Thanksgiving, the joy of Christmas, the promise of a New Year, and the anticipation of an awards season that looks to be packed with the most worthy of contenders.

After watching the first trailer for 2015’s Jurassic World, though, I kinda want them all to be over so we’ll be that much closer to seeing what’s up with the dinos 22 years after their debut in Steven Spielberg’s landmark original.  I was skeptical at first that this fourth film would be in line with the sillier third entry but our first look has a Spielberg vibe of adventure and wonderment flowing through its veins.  With Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) heading the cast and a nice tease of familiar dinos and one nasty new one, this park can’t be open soon enough.