“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Jurassic World

"Jurassic World poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg#/media/File:Jurassic_World_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regarding this weekend’s big summer blockbuster release Jurassic World, my animal advocate mom posted this on my Facebook wall earlier today: “But are they mean to dinosaurs? Are the dinosaurs the villains? Is it a glorified hunting movie? Inquiring minds want to know these things? Would Sarah Palin approve and reignite girls to wear clean sportsy clothes and hiking boots? Posing with bears and rabbits and deer and giraffes pretending they killed them? Because if so, my friend… ha!”

I can pretty safely say that it’s not a glorified hunting movie, and I don’t think the Sarah Palin-types would like it, as most of their stand-ins in the film get eaten pretty quickly by roaring, teeth-gnashing dinos. However, the film is a typically schizophrenic Steven Spielberg production (he executive produced this installment but directed the original Jurassic Park way back in 1993). Is the film making a satiric point about how horrible humans are to the environment, how we reap what we sow, and how we deserve any and all climate change payback which results from our rampant over-development of land, air, and sea? Or is Jurassic World just more yuppie disaster porn designed to sell Happy Meal toys, glistening Jeeps, and Patagonia safari gear? I’m still scratching my head. I just don’t know.

When you look at Spielberg’s filmography, as both director and producer, from Jaws to Close Encounters, E.T. to Gremlins, Poltergeist to, yes, Jurassic Park, he returns time and again to themes of man’s infinite ineptitude and limitless arrogance in the face of a planet, nay universe, full of mystery, wonder, and violent counterbalance. For Spielberg, karma is a four-color funny – build a beach home, destroy a burial ground, feed a cooing creature after midnight, genetically modify a reptile for an overpriced amusement park? You’re gonna get sliced, diced, and eviscerated, all to the strains of a symphonic John Williams score.

And you know what? That is ok by me!

The problem with Spielberg’s films is he wants to have his sardonic cake and eat it too. Spielberg’s movies are expensive and they make a lot of money; whether directed by Spielberg or under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment or DreamWorks, these big budget boogers are sold to every demographic quadrant an army of polished marketers can dream up, so ultimately the flicks dare not go too far. We don’t want to alienate any viewer, slurping over their Mr. Pibb and Kit Kat bites (yeah, that’s what I had today), and, consequently, any unique and incisive POV gets diluted in a gauzy haze of product placement, no matter how postmodern and ironic said placement may be.

No, Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World. Those honors (?) go to Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), but Spielbergian DNA is all over this sucker. Sorry, Colin. I can only imagine this must have been like being hired for a dream design job at Apple, only to find they really just want you to arrange, into artful displays, the new Apple Watches when they arrive in stores.

Jurassic World does its job efficiently and effectively. It entertains, and it will make a mint … but it has no real raison d’etre. (Yeah, I got all fancy. It doesn’t need to exist.) It basically lifts the very plot from the first film, but this time we get Bryce Dallas Howard (how is this mugging, one-note actor still making movies? oh, right, Ron Howard’s kid) instead of Richard Attenborough and Chris Pratt instead of Sam Neill. Jeff Goldblum is now Irrfan Khan, and Wayne Knight is now Vincent D’Onfrio. B.D. Wong? Still B.D. Wong – that man must be an automaton as he hasn’t aged one freaking bit.

Seriously, these actors may be playing different characters (obvi) twenty-some years later (natch) but their narrative functions are still the same.

Portraying a grizzled velociraptor trainer (and apologist), Pratt is the best thing in the film by far. Wearing a steady exasperation that seems to suggest he wishes he had a better script with which to work, Pratt does a fine job channeling Neill’s gravitas: just because you can make a dinosaur does mean you should make a dinosaur. Pratt is a delight, one of the few actors in the film who seems to believe where he is and what is doing and who has a genuine affection for the misunderstood creatures in this world (dino or otherwise).

Howard fares less favorably as the Isla Nubar theme park’s chief executive who in sexist Hollywood shorthand is an out-of-touch, controlling, insecure ninny with a severe bob, impractical shoes, and an ever present iPhone. Ugh. It doesn’t help that her emotions range from sweaty to panicked to rigid to … sweaty.

D’Onofrio is a kick in an underwritten role as a nebulous InGen contractor who wants to use these “assets” (that’s how mean people refer to animals in this cardboard world) for military purposes. Boo hiss. Blessedly, he has the chops to fill in the mile-wide gaps the script allows. He exudes the oily opportunism of those post-millennial types who see our natural resources simply as walking/breathing/pooping dollar signs. He may as well have had Monsanto painted on his backside.

At one point, Wong’s character (you may recall he is the ethically-dubious geneticist who figured out how to fabricate dinos from whole cloth in the first place) intones what passes for a philosophical thesis in the film: “To a canary, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” Yup, amen to that.

There is a perverse joy in seeing blank-faced, cornfed tourists hoisted by their own petards, tossed like beach balls from one pteranodon to another above Jurassic World‘s Starbucks/Margaritaville/Pandora encrusted main street. I also loved the jab at Sea World with a dino sea creature (mosaurus?) that grudgingly entertains a nautical football-arena-size stadium of onlookers but gets the last laugh when he/she gobbles a few vacationers down.

Ultimately, by the final act, when the Frankenstein’s monster dino “Indominus Rex” (cooked up by Howard and Wong to sell more t-shirts and key chains) has shredded the park top to bottom and is now fighting a pack of velociraptors and a t-rex for no real explainable reason, I was in a Mr. Pibb/Kit Kat coma. I just didn’t care.

And the adult in me kept thinking … Who is going to put these dinos back in their paddocks? Is the Hilton corporation going to rebuild their opulent hotel on Isla Nubar for future product placement? Who is going to clean up this mess, and will Starbucks return to sell more mocha-choca-lattes? And why didn’t the dinos just finish off all the humans? That’s a movie I’d pay $10 more bucks to see.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.