Emily Schooley‘s new short film, Life and the Art of Lying, has its premiere at the Toronto Short Film festival later this month, and it confirms what many of us already know: Canada is a bright source of LGBTQ media. With recent television shows like Wynonna Earp, Orphan Black, and Killjoys, and web series like the explosively popular Carmilla (which was made into a surprisingly delightful, sleekly produced film), women loving women (WLW) storylines abound in the great north.
Life and the Art of Lying centers on Charlie, a queer artist with a close-knit group of friends, one of whom, Mara, she’s in love with. The film opens during a New Year’s Eve party during which Charlie passes out at midnight, chalking it up to intoxication. This is where we first learn about Charlie’s penchant for lying—mostly about how she feels, whether it’s toward Mara or in her body. Because, it turns out, Charlie is sick.
Following a terminal cancer diagnosis, which is a recurrence of previously diagnosed cancer, Charlie proceeds to hide her physical ailments from her friends until she no longer can.
The story, however, doesn’t go where I expected it to. The twist ending reveals the true hero of the story and bends genre. It took me by surprise, and I like that.
Short-form narratives don’t tend to by my favorite, generally speaking. I like to get to know characters, need time to get invested in them, and I enjoy seeing actors/writers/creators develop and grow over time. Life And the Art of Lying, like most well-told short stories, managed to pack a lot into a small space. In a way, this is jarring. Without the time and space for much buildup, the story seems almost rushed and confusing.
However, after some digestion and reflection on the film, I found that the story bends boundaries in a way that ended up working for me. Its surprising—if a little cheesy—ending considers broad societal questions of capitalism, class, and science, and it uses queer women to do it. That’s something I can get behind.
Images Courtesy of Laughing Cat Productions
Full disclosure: The author was sent an early screener of this film. The opinions are her own.
‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Comes up Short
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is stupid with two “o’s” and in all caps. It’s schlock. J. A. Bayona, the director, knows it’s schlock and leans so far into it, it almost topples over. The first Jurassic World was an exercise in enduring tedium. Fallen Kingdom is better, technically, but it’s still not worth two hours of your time.
The characters of Fallen Kingdom are caught in a Cold War of idiocy. Each side threatening to out-dumb the other. If you remember how dumb the characters were in the first Jurassic World you’ll understand how astounding a feat Fallen Kingdom is. Although it’s not the characters’ fault, not really. They’re just written that way.
Fallen Kingdom can be divided into two parts. Quite frankly you can divide the film up into more parts than two, and scatter its ashes across the ocean. The first part is getting the dinosaurs off Isla Nublar. Dear reader, you might be asking yourself, why would they be trying to get the dinosaurs off the island?
The answer, while not in the wind, still blows. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former head of the Jurassic World theme park, is now the head of a PETA-like organization for the dinosaurs. The volcano on the island where the man-eating dinosaurs live is about to explode and cause an extinction level event. The sane reaction is, “Oh goody.” Claire’s reaction and those of her fellow organizers is to rally to the dinosaurs’ cause. To be fair, she is also the same person who thought the Indominus Rex was a good idea. Her history of good decisions is bordering on nil.
A dying billionaire called Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) offers Claire a chance to save the dinosaurs. Because welcome to 2018 where we want to go to the island with the active volcano and rescue the untamed genetically engineered murderous beasts. Lockwood has an island, presumably one he bought on Craigslist where all shady secretive billionaires sell their islands.
He needs Claire because the tracking devices embedded in the dinosaurs are connected to a system which needs Claire’s handprint to be turned on. If you think that’s convoluted, brother, wait until the movie gets going. Lockwood and his right-hand man Eli (Rafe Spall) also want Blue, the intelligent ‘good’ raptor from the previous film. Of course, there’s only one man who can find her, trap her, and get her on board the transport vessel safely.
But Sam Neil’s Dr. Alan Grant hasn’t gone near the franchise since the third Jurassic Park movie so we’re left with Owen (Chris Pratt). The Jurassic World franchise is developing an annoying talent for being the one cinematic universe in which Chris Pratt is dull, obnoxious, and insipid. Pratt’s Owen is a self-involved jerk who has mistaken arrogance and cluelessness for charming.
Which brings us to the curious case of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire. Not since the Lara Croft films has a franchise come so close to fetishizing its heroine quite like the Jurassic Worlds. Much was made about Claire’s heels in the first movie. Her introduction in Fallen Kingdom is a sort of sly nod to the previous installments backwards thinking. Still, Claire’s current outfit isn’t much better. A tight bodice showcasing sweater and a pencil skirt all but drawn on. She trades this outfit quickly for fatigues and comfortable hiking boots. Which would be ideal if not for the myriad of ways Fallen Kingdom seems to find to put Claire in humiliating or painful situations.
Bayona seems to delight in putting Claire in situations where she has to screech, cry, squeal, or bleed. It would be one thing but the rest of the heroes seem to get along fine. Claire’s friend and colleague, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) the feisty punk rock paleo-veterinarian and ex-marine is captured but somehow never is made to squirm. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is the hapless IT guy along for the ride who stumbles from time to time but is allowed to escape with his dignity intact.
On the island, they meet the head of the excavation operation Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine). Levine plays Ken with such a manic glee you’d swear he’s a long-lost cousin of Snidely Whiplash. When you see Levine in a movie your mind instantly jumps to assuming he’s a bad guy. Fallen Kingdom has Levine exploring new heights of skullduggery mixed with bouts of boneheadedness. Ken has a habit of stealing dinosaur teeth from the gaping maw of the beast itself. It’s shocking Ken lives as long as he does.
Owen, Claire, Franklin, and Zia make it off the island in the nick of time. Only to discover the shady secretive billionaire’s right-hand man had a nefarious plan all along. Eli is going to sell the dinosaurs on the black market. Thankfully he has Gunnar (Toby Jones) the premiere black market auctioneer.
As absurd as all this may seem I assure you it’s even more ludicrous if you happen to watch it. Bayona, however, packs Fallen Kingdom with the best. While Pratt may disappoint, Cromwell, Jones, Levine, and Howard do not. Toby Jones plays a southern fried dandy; a toothy smile with a malevolent twinkle in his eye.
More than that though Bayona and his cameraman, Oscar Furara, lend Fallen Kingdom a striking visual sense. Idiotic though it may be, Fallen Kingdom is jammed with evocative imagery well above its source material. As they leave the island, the volcano exploding, we see a brontosaurus stranded on the dock bellowing mournfully to the passing ship as clouds of earth erupt around it.
With each passing installment of the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies, we begin to truly understand how masterful and unique the first Jurassic Park really is. It’s technical and storytelling mastery remains untouched by any other movie in its franchise. The Jurassic World movies especially seem to have forgotten the core of what the other movies are about.
Jurassic Park is a monster movie. I’m old enough to remember being terrified of Velociraptors because they could open doors. As children, we tend to believe such wild things can be stopped by mundane things such as light and doors. The thought of a monster that could open a door was the stuff of nightmares.
Odd then that Jurassic World should ask us to sympathize with the dinosaurs. Jurassic Park was about people trying to get away from the island and the dinosaurs. Every subsequent movie since then has been about rushing back to the island and bringing the dinosaurs to the mainland.
It’s telling of Bayona’s sensibilities as an artist that the monsters should be deserving of our sympathies. In Bayona’s defense, he sees the dinosaurs as children do. Terrifying but fascinating things that seem lost and out of place.
Bayona’s earlier film When A Monster Calls was a startling ellagic beautiful tale of loss and mourning. I found myself left largely cold by the scenes rooted in reality. Here Bayona has fled reality totally. While he has made not a good film he has made a markedly better film than the previous one.
Every bit of this nonsense is from Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. Their script is one part morality tale in which only the bad people die. The other part being a shrieking folktale in which nothing makes sense because it’s being translated by people who don’t speak the native language. Trevorrow wrote and directed the previous Jurassic World and I all but fell asleep. He also directed last years bonkers fable-esque Book of Henry. Having seen Fallen Kingdom I can now say Trevorrow is the foremost practitioner of unhinged melodrama. Had he been the sole writer I imagine his heedlessness and Bayona’s unique evocative eye may have made something truly spectacular.
As it is we’re stuck with a genetically mutated Indominus Rex crossed with a raptor which gives us the Indominus Raptor. A name so uniformly silly even the great and charismatic B.D. Wong can’t say it with a straight face. Paradoxically, the dumbest part of the movie is also the best. For about ten minutes Fallen Kingdom does become a monster movie as the Indominus Raptor hunts a little girl through a gothic mansion. For that brief period of time Fallen Kingdom begins to unequivocally work as Bayona captures the Gothic and tense mood of the surroundings.
It doesn’t last long and before you know it we’re back to the humdrum lunacy. Though we do have a hint of a story involving clones sadly that storyline goes nowhere. It only leads to a little girl pressing a button that opens a door and allows all the captured dinosaurs to escape into the world. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I hate kids.
Fallen Kingdom has bouts of fun but too often the fun is trampled by its lugubrious stupidity. Pratt’s Owen at one point is passed out on the ground, drugged, and wakes to an encroaching pool of lava. What follows is a protracted physical comedic scene more at home in a Jerry Lewis movie than Fallen Kingdom.
Bayona ladens Fallen Kingdom with visual callbacks to Jurassic Park. He does so in such a way that never detracts from the movie itself. If you catch it fine if you don’t it still holds a shot unto itself.
Fallen Kingdom isn’t awful but it isn’t good either. I laughed when one of the secret organizations at the black market dino auction made the highest bid of the night, twenty-five million dollars. It seems there is no end to the havoc caused by the Great Recession. I can’t recommend actively going to see Fallen Kingdom. But if you happen to find yourself with some friends and they offer to pay and you have nothing else to do, you could do worse.
Childish Men Do Childish Things in ‘Tag’
Tag is a shallow and callous comedy that suffers from a failure of nerve. It wants to be darkly comedic but lacks the comedic sharpness necessary for such observations. Then again it’s Tom and Jerry slapstick bravado contain the highlights of the film’s laughs. It’s all so frustrating because Tag is a movie where we can visibly see the outline of a better movie bubbling underneath its surface.
Based on the Wall Street Journal article It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It by Russell Adams; Tag tells the story of an epic game of, you guessed it, tag. Four men Hogan (Ed Helms), Jerry (Jeremy Renner), Bob (Jon Hamm), Randy (Jake Johnson) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress) have been playing the same game of tag for the last thirty years. The game is confined solely to the month of May.
The script by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen hints as deep observations about how as adults we have trouble maintaining long relationships. But Tag shuffles these ideas aside for cheap laughs or schmaltzy melodrama. The men justify their behavior as a way of keeping in touch. According to them, the game allows them to be constantly present in their lives.
Not constant enough, however, for them to be invited to Jerry’s wedding. Jerry it, seems, holds a perfect record of never being tagged. A May wedding with the one man who’s never been it seems like serendipity. The attempts to tag the run the gamut. They break into his house only to find him phoning from hoagie’s old bedroom on a video phone. At one point the men have a disastrous attempt to tag Jerry involving decoys and booby traps in the woods. These woods are by the golf course where Jerry’s rehearsal dinner was held. Needless to say, eventually the men regroup. The Journal reporter Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) spots the flaw in the men’s plan. “How often to do you guys keep in touch with Jerry?”
We learn that outside of the month of May the men hardly talk to each other, much less Jerry. A moment of self-realization that is quickly shoved aside to make room for Bob and Randy to fight over Cheryl (Rashida Jones). Tag seems more enamored with its premise than with its characters. Moving quickly from one set piece to another Tag never stands still long enough to decide it’s own tone.
The director Jeff Tomsic seems unable to decide what he wants to achieve with all this. The dark turns Tag takes never quite feel fully thought out. The boys crash Jerry’s AA meeting in a last ditch effort to tag Jerry but wind up staging a scene out of a Jackie Chan movie. Except, his friends were utterly unaware of Jerry’s substance abuse issues and seem unfazed that their friend is even in the program or even concerned as to what led him there.
Worse is how Jerry and his fiance Susan (Leslie Bibb) fake a horrible tragedy to ensure Jerry stays untagged. McKittrick and Steilen lack the verve to carry through on the promise of what this charade means. After all, Jerry and Susan faked a traumatic event. Then convinced their friends that the wedding has been cancelled. For a game of tag, meant to ensure everyone stays in touch, this seems somewhat unhinged.
The script then has the audacity to have a bizarre third act reveal. The reveal knocks out any teeth Tag had left after the Jerry and Susan fake out. You could make the argument that since this based on a true story, that the writers are bound by the facts as they happened. But you’d be wrong. The reporter in the movie is a woman, while the actual reporter is a man. The actual gang of men involved in the game number ten or more. Tag is a fascinating human interest story bogged down by Tomsic and his writer’s desperate need to fabricate drama where there is none and ignore the drama where there so clearly is.
All the more tragic is how funny Tag ends up being at times despite these glaring and stumbling flaws. No surprise that in a movie with four white dudes as the stars the funniest ones are neither of the four white dudes. Hannibal Buress as the anxiety-ridden and existentially ponderous Kevin steals almost every scene he’s in. When the boys crash his therapy session to essentially, get the band back together, he questions the wisdom of crashing his session only to have to take him home so he can pack. Plus, he did pay for the full hour.
Hogan’s wife Anna (Ilsa Fisher) is the MVP of Tag. Fisher’s Anna is a gonzo eyed cheerleader who may take the game more seriously than anybody. When Rebecca asks why Anna isn’t allowed to play she responds with, “Because the boys made the rules up when they were 8. No girls allowed.” One of the things I did enjoy was the movie’s conceit that women were and could be just as competitive as the men. Even Susan is shown to be as ruthless and conniving as the other men.
But all of this is left to the edges of the script. Even the scene where the men and women kidnap one of Jerry’s employees and threaten to waterboard him for Jerry’s location falters because of it’s odd homophobic gay panic jokes. Although I did chuckle when one of the men apologized for attempting to waterboard the poor man. “Yeah, we shouldn’t have done that. It’s a war crime. It’s kind of out of line.”
The elephant in the room, is, of course, the rampant white privilege and male entitlement. These men are allowed to cause mass chaos for a game of tag with little to zero repercussions is never addressed. Granted, I believe this is because Tomsic and the writers honestly don’t see it. For them, it’s about male friendship and male bonding. Except it’s a surface level metaphor that lacks any heart.
The third act reveal is spoiler territory so I must warn you if you really care about spoilers for… Tag…well here it is.
At the AA meeting Susan, Jerry’s fiance, collapses. She’s having a miscarriage and the game is put on pause. We later find out that the miscarriage, indeed the pregnancy itself, is an elaborate ruse. It’s a daring reveal and I loved how of all the people it was Anna who didn’t buy it. Well, Randy also didn’t buy it—but he did so in a way that even Tag found him morally reprehensible. To the movie’s credit, it does call out its characters from time to time when they cross a line.
But Tag blows it when it’s revealed that Hogan has a liver tumor. He collapses at the wedding trying to tag Jerry. Had Tomsic better perfected the tone of and had the script been sharper and more precise in what it wanted to do, this could have been brilliantly dark, tense, scene. Instead, we are left confused. The scene is played as if it is dramatic and sad but we, like Jerry, are suspicious. Had Hogan’s tumor been a ruse I might have liked it more. At least then the movie would have had committed to something. Alas, Hogan’s tumor is used as a teaching moment for Jerry.
“You got so good a running away you forgot what the game was about.” Saccharine horse manure. But wait Tag isn’t done demolishing anything it had resembling goodwill. The men bond over the oft-repeated line, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Weirdly, Tag seems obtuse to the fact that only two of the five men have any kind of a mature or healthy relationship with a partner.
Juvenile, in the best and worst ways, Tag is an amiable film until the third act in which it hits full tilt irritating. Between the faux miscarriage, the liver tumor, and the game of tag being used as a metaphor for how we should stay young at heart, it’s enough to make you want to scream at the screen. Movies can be like little adventures. You start out one place and end up somewhere completely different.
I started out liking Tag. It has likable stars doing heedlessly immature things. The characters are paper thin but the talent is enough to carry them through a movie. But by the end, I found myself actively angry at the movie for it’s third act schmaltzy betrayal. That may seem harsh. But understand the parting shot of Tag is an exterior shot of a hospital hallway. We see CGI recreations of the actors as they race down the hallway in slow motion trying to outrun Hogan who limps along dragging his IV bag. That scene sums up my feeling perfectly about this abysmally shallow and idiotic movie.
‘Incredibles 2’ Is a Perfect Mess
Incredibles 2 is a fascinating mess of a movie. Brad Bird is not a man afraid of having adult themes in a children’s story. But with Incredibles 2 we have the curious problem of too many ideas. All in all, not a horrible problem to have; most Hollywood films do well to have one idea.
Bird’s problem is the lack of a unifying idea. Incredibles 2 is a story with many stories all taking place beside each other but only ever really connecting at the end. Except they never really do; not emotionally anyway. Instead, it feels more as if the stories merge only so we could get to the climax.
Taking place mere seconds after the first Incredibles we see the Parr family try to save the city from the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Helen, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Bob. Mr. Incredible (Craig. T. Nelson), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and of course baby Jack-Jack(Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews) all pitch in and stop the burrowing heister. If you recall being a Super, is illegal. Not to mention the collateral damage incurred from the battle the Parrs are arrested for quite literally saving the day.
So that’s story one: The Parrs dealing with an unjust law. But Bird never really plays with the idea. In a motel room later that night the family has a riveting conversation about how to deal with an unjust law. Shocking for a children’s movie that such a conversation is even broached. But again, while the conversation is nuanced, witty, and engrossing, it’s never really tackled again.
Helen, Bob, and Lucius – Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are being courted by the charismatic billionaire super-fan Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). The two wish to repeal the law banning the Supers. They believe that through a PR campaign they can change the public’s mind. Bob is over the moon believing it’s his chance to return to the spotlight. Unfortunately, the siblings think Elastigirl is the best bet to start the campaign off.
Story number two: Helen gets a job. Winston and Evelyn will fund her, support her, and essentially brand her while Bob stays at home watching the kids. Bob visibly struggles to maintain a positive outlook but it’s clear he believes he’s the right man for the job.
Helen was only earlier that night arguing they should obey the law. However, Helen’s excitement at the prospect of being a hero doesn’t ring false. It adds a layer of complexity because her argument for staying in hiding was rooted in the safety of her family. She doesn’t accept the job on the spot; she asks to have time to think about it. It’s only after Bob begrudgingly gives her his support does she take the job.
The Deavor’s give the Parrs a stylish new house, a new Elastigirl motorbike, and a new suit for a new look. When Bob sees the motorbike he’s shocked to learn his wife knows how to drive it. “I used to have one back in the day. I had a mohawk, too.” Bob takes this new information about his wife in stride as she tears off into the sunset to save the world.
Helen’s story of a woman re-discovering herself while also trying to prove herself feels unto itself. It doesn’t really connect with story one except in the motive. Emotionally or thematically it feels like apart from the rest. The connective tissue of the plot is still there but the unjust law feels more like MacGuffin, a plot device, than anything.
Story number three: Bob becomes Mr. Mom. No surprise he is less than incredible, to start off with. Violet’s first date with the popular Tony (Michael Bird) gets waylaid because Bob told Agent Dicker (Jonathan Banks) the boy had seen Violet without her mask. Dicker interrogates the boy and then wipes his mind of any memory of the incident, and of Violet.
Dash struggles with math and Jack-Jack exhibits not just one but innumerable superpowers. Bob’s ego curtails his common sense so he keeps all of this hidden from Helen so she can concentrate on her job. Although, Bob does eventually see his way through the fog of his own perceived emasculation. He doesn’t hit anything or destroy anything. In, what has to be one of the most mature moments of any superhero movie, Bob thinks it through.
Bob tosses and turns in bed and realizes his frustrations with the children is because he’s trying to do everything as if he knows everything. In a wonderful moment of self-realization, Bob gets out of bed, picks up the math book and tries to learn how to do the math. He calls Dicker and tries to straighten out the Tony situation while also dealing with Jack-Jack.
After leaving Jack-Jack with Edna Mode (Brad Bird) she spends the night testing the child much to both of their delights. “He is intelligent and I am delightful. We deserve each other.” She tells Bob as he arrives to get the diagnosis.
All of this is fine. It’s good. But the stories never feel as if they feed into each other much less off each other. Incredibles 2 lacks any coherent or underlying theme. It never feels jumbled but it also never feels interconnected. The story lacks any emotional underpinning to support it.
Despite Incredibles 2 lack of a cogent theme Brad Bird has, along with the Pixar animators, crafted a spectacularly gorgeous movie. Yes, Incredibles 2 has problems. But, while they might affect the emotional resonance of certain moments or the overall story, they do not deter from the sensational amount of fun within the story. Live action big-budget special effects extravaganzas are often hampered by how the labor is divided. The filmmakers and the special effects studio will communicate but rarely does one have any say over the other.
The result is great special effects but oftentimes rote, unimaginative, or choppy camera work. With animation, Bird is able to control all aspects and the result is one pristine action set piece after another. Helen as Elastigirl must stop a runaway train on her first night out. The sequence is visually as taut and effective as anything from a James Bond movie.
Being a Superhero is illegal and the Parrs are struggling against an unjust law. Maybe I’m so used to seeing Superheros as a metaphor for something else I find it perplexing when they aren’t. The conversation at the dinner table about how to react to an unjust law is tantalizing because of its complexity and its place in a kids film.
But the conversation is never picked up again. It’s never addressed or resolved. Incredibles 2 asks a lot of questions but it also has about fifty answers for every question. Helen discusses with Evelyn about what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. She then spins the conversation to ask why they are the only ones in the room. Again fascinating, but once the scene ends so does the conversation and thus the idea.
Perhaps I’m thinking too much. Pixar is so celebrated for their ability for complex emotional storytelling that sometimes we forget who the movies are supposed to be for. If the audience at my showing is any indication, Incredibles 2 is a kids movie. Incredibles 2 isn’t dumb and it never talks down to them.
Michael Giacchino’s score is a rarity in superhero movies. Swing mixed with jazz set to a staccato rhythm, the music enhances the sort of “future of tomorrow feel” the Incredibles 2 inhabits so well. Music plays such a paltry mediocre role in almost every other modern superhero movie it’s refreshing to hear one so distinctive and alive.
The humor is accessible for all ages because it doesn’t rely on pop culture references. At one point in the film, Jack-Jack is watching an old black and white movie on the screen. A man is robbing the bank with a little black face mask. The baby looks outside and sees a raccoon whose face seems eerily similar. The resulting fight is as inventive, fun, and more colorful than anything Marvel or DC have put forth.
Screenslaver (Bill Wise) is an interesting villain until we begin to suspect he might not be the actual villain. Predictability isn’t always a hindrance but by the end I found myself wishing they had stuck with the Underminer. His joyous cry of “Prepare–to be undermined!” is a rare perfect jewel of dialogue.
Incredibles 2 may not be a masterpiece but that doesn’t mean it’s not really good. Kids movies rarely have characters who have interesting conversations or relatable problems. Bird isn’t phoning it in and the script never feels as if it’s slouching or pandering. Quite frankly I love it a little because of its problems. I wish more superhero movies even acknowledged half the issues Incredibles 2 even hints at. It’s a sad time at the movies when the kids’ movie is more thoughtful than the ones made for grownups. But hey, at least someone is making them.