Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

                   Successfully Doubling Down on Diseases                                                         
                               Review by Ken Burke
(Please pardon the odd strangeness just below, but I'm trying something new in using 3 related links in the same phrase; this is the only way that it seems to fit this layout.)

 In my —>most recent
—>postings I went on at length (no surprise there) about my chosen subjects, so I’ll give you a break this time with shorter (for me at least) explorations of 2 wonderful current films, Infinitely Polar Bear and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  Further, my marvelous wife, Nina, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, with a suggestion that it’s time for our annual reunion with the Francis Ford Coppola Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974. 1990) where not only do we get 3 nights of 5-star-worthy-film-viewing (from marvelous-Coppola-supervised Blu-ray discs—where you can clearly see in the first one her theory of how Michael’s hair becomes increasingly slicked-back as he accepts his role of emerging Don) but she’s also spared her usual voluntary chores of cooking as I buy some nice Chianti (but no liver or fava beans)cook up some tasty 
spaghetti andmeat sauce (definitely not as finely-authentic an Italian dinner as you’d surely get from my friend-and-fellow-critic, Fiore Mastracci, if you’d ever be honored with such on a trip to Pittsburgh, but I do put in enough garlic to keep the vampires far away), and we indulge ourselves with the Corleone clan for 3 nights.  Thus, I don’t have a lot of time for writing and posting this week anyway, so if you feel that there are improperly-addressed aspects of what’s covered in this edition of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark please leave some comments to allow the conversation to continue.  Otherwise, hang on for a quick ride through the local cineplex turnstiles (well, mostly just some particular ones, as neither of these objects of my affection are in very wide release) and don’t spill your red wine on the light beige carpet like I did (but it’s amazing what a combination of salt, cold water, and a baking-soda-paste can do to help remove the stains if you don’t feel like just joining the cats for licking it up yourself).
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                  Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes)

A man from a established Boston family is suffering from bipolar disease, making life difficult for his loving wife and 2 daughters until circumstances force him to take daily responsibility for the girls while the wife’s off getting an MBA in order to enhance future financial stability for them; this is all based on the director’s true story of experiences with her father.
 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)

A reclusive high-schooler who’s devoted his life to being tolerated by all of the cliques while he makes low-budget-famous-movie-parodies with his only buddy is forced by his mother to befriend a classmate with terminal leukemia; his initial reluctance develops into a true friendship with her, likely something deeper but it takes the insistence of others for him to admit it.
 I'll ask you to take my Spoiler Alert above seriously, especially for my first film under review, Infinitely Polar Bear, as it’s just now expanding from a tiny opening last week into my San Francisco area (maybe your location as well) this weekend, then will start spreading out to other locations soon, so what I reveal might ruin your encounter unless you wait to read it until after you’ve seen ... Polar Bear for yourself.  At least in my addled brain (maybe influenced by the difficult reality that I see sobering aspects of myself in both of the main protagonists of the films under review in this posting) I find enough sympathetic vibrations between these presentations to justify blending them into a consolidated review, but I’ll start with the one just now spreading into more venues so as to finally join my local critical brethren with running my comments on local opening weekend rather than later (although mine’s filled with Spoilers while they’re more traditionally tactful, so, again, keep that in mind if you choose to read on at this point).

What Happens: In Infinitely Polar Bear we have a story normally-not-discussed outside of specific-blood-relatives-and-spouses-coalitions because few of us want to reveal when we have a family member with serious personal/ social problems.  However, writer-director Maya Forbes has done just that, basing this biography on how her father, Cameron Forbes, struggled with bipolar disease (misinterpreted by his youngest daughter—called Faith [Ashley Aufderheide] in the film—into the malapropism that becomes this title) as she and her sister were young girls.  In this slight-fictionalization beginning in 1978 the family name is Stuart, with Cam (Mark Ruffalo) well aware of his difficulties, which have led his tradition-bound-grandmother, Gaga (Muriel Gould), to carefully parcel out a pittance of the immense-familial-wealth to Cam’s struggling brood, yet he’s got a constantly-upbeat-attitude toward his wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), and children, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky—the director’s daughter, with the inherent-yet-difficult-task of portraying her own mother, which may make this an autobiography if you see this story as being told from Amelia’s viewpoint, a reasonable argument given whom she’s portraying) and Faith, even as his increasingly-erratic-behavior leads to a move from their home in the woods to a rent-controlled-Cambridge-apartment for the females, a lengthy stay for him in a mental hospital followed by a stint in a halfway-house, after which Maggie decides to pursue an MBA (at Columbia, financed by a scholarship) as long as Cam can shoulder the very-challenging-responsibility of caring for their daughters while living in her place (paid for by Gaga, although she won't support the girls attending a better school—to help them build character, I guess).  Because … Polar Bear is much more of a detailed-character-study than a plot-heavy-encounter (although the plot moves along in an efficient manner) the simple recitation here is that after some screw-ups that humiliate the girls (their home's such a mess that they avoid letting friends visit) or infuriate Maggie (Cam locks the kids in one night after she’s begun her degree program while he runs off to a bar, desperate for adult company/self-medication), all ends well after Maggie’s 18 months of weekdays in NYC, leading to her taking a well-paying job there with E.F. Hutton (Boston firms balked at her childcare-needs) so that the girls can live with Dad while going to a private school in Boston, considerably better than the dumpy public one they previously had to attend, with things coming together nicely for the Stuart family (everyone accepting that Mom's in Manhattan most of the time), at least as the final credits roll.

 Things don’t end so well for 1 of the 3 titular characters in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl despite assurances from another of them that she’ll survive her deadly cancer, but then that attempted positive spin in narration from Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann)—the “Me” of the title—is characteristic of how Greg tries desperately to manipulate everything about his life so that it has an acceptable outcome, even if his machinations are just intended to avoid conflict.  When we first meet Greg, he’s a high-school-senior in Pittsburgh (I wonder if he’s a devotee of Fiore’s website and YouTube reviews?  They’re both passionate guys—in considerably different ways—about movies.) who’s given little thought to college or much of anything else except blending in unobtrusively with all of his school’s various (contradictory) “nations,” even the loner weirdoes, so as to not have to deal with any of their inherent dramas.  His only real friend is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler)—a Black teen just as isolationist (more so than iconoclastic because neither of them intend to challenge their milieu, they just want to stay unaffected by it) as Greg—although Greg doesn’t even want to admit that level of connection so he refers to Earl as his “co-worker” in their after-school-career of making short parodies of well-known-films (42 so far, with titles and content such as Apocalypse Now [Coppola again—father, not daughter—1979] becoming A Box Lips Now, about tulips [it would take too long to explain; just see this film and enjoy it directly] or Rashomon [Akira Kurosawa, 1950] becoming MonoRash; if nothing else is appealing to you about Me and Earl … then I hope the periodic introduction of this silliness will perk up even viewers who aren’t dedicated film buffs, although knowing the originals being referred to helps up the impact of their wickedly-funny-deconstructions), inspired by their daily-lunchtime-viewings in the office of their hiply-tattooed-history-teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) of the real artsy-cinema they’re twisting around.

 As with … Polar Bear, though, the plotline here is simple, involving how Greg’s mother (Connie Britton—a hoot of a character, well balanced by her partner in offbeat-parenting [Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a tenured Sociology Prof. who spends a lot of time at home in his bathrobe (just as I do, typing up these reviews) giving a lot more love to his cat than to his son]) pushes Greg to befriend Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke)—suffering from Stage 4 leukemia—the daughter of her friend, Denise (Molly Shannon).  Begrudgingly, boy hangs out with girl, but as Greg reminds us frequently in his voiceovers this is not a romance story although it has a happy ending (just not the one we've been led to expect), so they do become close, although it takes caring-acquaintance Madison (Katherine C. Hughes)—a sweet-dispositioned-hottie whom Greg would make a play for if he had better self-esteem—to convince Greg that he needs to make a video for Rachel, along with Earl pushing Greg to admit his feelings for her, especially as her condition worsens.  After a lot of false starts (and estrangement between Earl and Greg when the latter’s in a rotten mood after being pushed away by Rachel for not honoring her plans to just give up on the useless chemo treatments), Rachel does get to enjoy the finished video just before she dies, with one of her final acts being a letter to Pitt State (she finally got Greg to apply, although she had to write the application for him because he wanted to do it as if he were oddball German director Werner Herzog—by the way, we’re talking here about the assumed-fictional-Pittsburgh State U., PA [probably to avoid confusion—and lawsuits—with the actual University of Pittsburgh] rather than Pittsburg State U. in Kansas, another place entirely that you can read about on the Web) begging the Admissions Office to reconsider their cancellation of Greg’s acceptance after his grades fell drastically due to his time spent with her rather than his schoolwork. Greg follows up with his own letter to the college, including a copy of the complete story of his life with Rachel (seemingly the written basis for this film) and a copy of his video for her (familiar faces, transformed pillows, and abstract color patterns, which fully transfixed Rachel just before her final coma).

So What? Where I think these films connect is with the loving depiction by the filmmakers of their central characters, no matter how plausibly flawed all of them are at some level.  Cam Stuart’s problems are clearly known by anyone who’s ever had contact with him (after his 1967 diagnosis of what was then more commonly called manic-depression)—although even from a distance his chain-smoking might easily be a turnoff for anyone else not so inclined—but Maggie’s a constant bundle of nerves herself, ready to assume the worst about Cam (justifiable, given their circumstances but it puts her almost in a supervisory-parenting role with him, including trying to keep him at arm’s length regarding sex as she treats their marriage as being in a state of trial-separation [at best] even though finances require their continued cohabitation with her sleeping on the couch) while their kids can be as much of a hindrance to their Dad as a help in that they resist his reality, complaining about it more so than trying to help him cope (they howl about their material circumstances as well, calling their home a “shithole,” moaning that “nobody wants what we have”—including their car with a hole in the floorboard).  Still, Maggie’s the spiritual center of her film, with long-suffering-tolerance of her husband’s problems (which do come much better under control when he finally accepts the need of taking his lithium)—also giving encouragement to Amelia to identify as Black even though she doesn't look it like her sister does (the interracial-reality of the couple isn't dwelt on except when Maggie tells Cam that he's merely seen as "eccentric" for being poor while it's a social condemnation for her) just as Rachel’s the purer-heart of her story despite her hesitation at letting anyone get close to her because of her disease (Greg provides subtitled chapters for this entire story that note his “doomed friendship”), especially as she’s in her later stages of withdrawal, emotionally from those around her and physically from her own life.

 By comparison, Greg can be a self-centered-jerk at times, simply because he has so many self-doubts, along with assumptions that he’ll never amount to much so that he has trouble doing anything except making his parodies and keeping Rachel company, especially as she becomes further isolated from what should have been her normal teenage life by having to spend her days in the hospice ward of the local children’s hospital.  Despite all of the gloom that naturally comes with seriously portraying a dying person, Gomez-Rejon keeps the mood light much of the time with constantly-weird-humorous-riffs but also keeps your eye entertained with excellent wide-screen-compositions (all of which I’ve truncated for the layout of these illustrations except for the shot of Rachel in her bedroom just above, to give you a sense of the actual cinematography), active travelling shots within those opens spaces, and the quick pace of the never-quite-know-where-we’re-going-next of the plot.  There’s also a nice sense of complexity in some of the characters (even as we have to wait until the end to see it in “me and Earl”) to offset the zaniness intended with others, especially the male academics, Mr. Gaines and Mr. McCarthy.  The 2 mother figures are especially interesting as Mrs. Gaines goes from being “the LeBron James of nagging” (maybe that now means that she’s no longer the greatest nagger on Earth, at least until she gets to compete in next year’s Finals)—who inserts Greg into Rachel’s life whether the kids want it or not—to a very warm, concerned parent later on trying to help her son navigate the complex emotional waters that she’s pushed him into (still, that doesn’t prevent further nagging about college-application-decisions), just as Rachel’s divorced Mom is a very complex case (with Shannon excellently channeling our memories of her Saturday Night Live skits into a comic persona that plays well off of the seriousness of her situation), purposefully-distraught about her daughter’s condition but dangerously on the verge of putting the moves on Greg, glass of white wine constantly in hand.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Infinitely Polar Bear initially seems far-fetched enough to come across as a screenwriter’s attempt to create a complex character who’ll connect with audiences despite being a cross between a sympathetic, lumbering puppy and a dangerously disturbed man who might easy cause great harm to himself and/or his little children without ever intending to do so (a demanding role given marvelous substance by Ruffalo, which hopefully will be remembered when awards-nomination-season rolls around), that is until you realize that there’s probably not a lot of fiction in this story, given how the screenwriter’s put in so many precise details that likely reflect actualities throughout her actual father’s lifetime (the real Cam Forbes died in 1988; we also get a lot of faux-home-movie-footage of this fictional version of the Forbes family, adding to the sense of authenticity of what’s being depicted here as the Stuarts, although the final credits note that there's some actual Forbes-footage in there as well but it's not easily obvious), with the only semi-false (but likely-logistically-necessary) note coming from the filming being done in RI rather than MA.  With that understanding, this unusual narrative takes on much greater meaning, although it’s told in a manner that anyone with personal coping difficulties or family members suffering from such can relate to, as Cam—whose antics can be quite funny at times when he’s just following his internal drummer rather than making potentially-disastrous-decisions—struggles for a balance that he always knows is necessary to preserve his own stability as well as the family he’s so passionately devoted to, even when he's flying off the handle at any of them (which he often does).

 Given that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is more fiction than biography (although based on the harsh reality that some teenagers do die of cancer, leaving holes in the hearts of all who cared for and about them) it has room to explore more depression-alleviating-farce in its structure (as with the lonely-therefore-always-eager-to-see-Greg Ms. Kushner) which it does quite well in its quick depiction of the cluelessly-disconnected-high-school-“nations,” the quick alienation Greg finds from his former-mildly-associated-cliques (stemming from the first day that he ventures to the hotly-contested-space [“Gaza, Crimea (and somewhere else I couldn't scribble down fast enough in the dark) all rolled into one”] of the cafeteria to have lunch with Rachel rather than going to Mr. McCarthy‘s office with Earl, leading later to a misunderstood-drug-high blamed on the teacher’s office pot of Vietnamese soup [rather than the pot-laced-cookies from one of Greg’s now-former-buddies]), the insanely-hilarious-film-parodies (with my affection for Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, I can’t help but prefer Senior Citizen Kane, but the pure audacity of turning Midnight Cowboy [John Schlesinger, 1969] into 2:48 PM Cowboy with Earl wandering around in a 10-gallon-hat is just magnificent), the unexpected off-the-wall-inserts (some done in goofy-stop-motion-animation, some literally on-the-wall as with a poster of Wolverine [using Hugh Jackman’s voice] berating Greg for the ineffective tactics he proposes to Rachel to ward off her morbid-well-wishers), all balanced by the exotic beauty hidden within Rachel’s room when Greg sneaks in after her death to find that she’s carved marvelous little landscapes—mostly of her, him, and Earl—into many of the books on her shelves (although one focuses on a polar bear so I've now got my connection between my chosen films secured even if I haven't convinced you otherwise anywhere else in this review).

 In choosing my usual Musical Metaphors to accompany what these films are offering to us, I decided that Infinitely Polar Bear deserved to pair with Leonard Cohen’s marvelous song about difficulties, mercy, and forgiveness (you might be thinking “Hallelujah” [not a bad choice either], but I’ve gone back much further for something I feel is more direct for this situation), “Bird on the Wire” [often sung, as in this clip, as “bird on a wire”] (from his 1969 album Songs from a Room) at com/watch?v=LVDUTAn6Ttg, with footage from a concert in England, 1972; I think this presentation of Cohen—as well as the context it provides for his luminous song—is quite appropriate to the story of Cam Stuart because while the video runs for 10:08 Cohen doesn’t start singing until 6 min. into it with the preceding footage showing him tearful and drained after the concert, just not able to summon up the wherewithal to provide one more encore, even though his devoted fans were still loudly advocating for such.  He’s depleted, has given all that he can on this occasion, just like Cam in so many scenes of his film, yet he asks that “if I have been unkind, I hope that you can just let it go by” because “if I have been untrue I hope you know it was never to you” (Cohen apparently changes these lyrics in many recordings and performances of "... Bird"—as in this clip—but these quotes are from his original album presentation, which you can find transcribed in several places including here, where there’s also a link of him singing this original version of his insightful words).

 Of course, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl deserves its Musical Metaphor as well which I think needs to be Otis Redding pleading out in soulful fashion that “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” [to stop now] (from the 1965 Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul album) at https://www. (a clip from the Monterey Pop [D.A. Pennebaker, 1968] documentary of that 1967 festival) because that’s really what’s been going on with Greg and Rachel for the few months that they were able to be together, despite his constant refusal to see her in that light, until her light faded leaving him to carry on—hopefully to Pitt State if they’ll let him back in—with her just as a memory rather than as a potential life companion.  (I say “potential” because how many of us at 18 have truly found their actual soulmates even if we think that we have, or, possibly worse, what if we think we’ve transcended those juvenile crushes to be able to marry at age 23 after knowing our newly-minted-spouse for a whole 6 months prior?  At least in my case the real thing [after that first attempt fizzled 4 years on] finally came along when I was a mere 39 but it was well worth waiting for, thanks to my dear Nina.)  Sadly, you may be better able to find recordings of this song (written by Redding and Jerry Butler), with its various covers from a good number of other musicians from, among others, the Rolling Stones in 1965 (Got Live If You Want It! album) to Ike & Tina Turner in 1968 (Outta Season album) to Etta James in 1997 (Love’s Been Rough on Me album) to Seal in 2008 (Soul album) than you can find screenings of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as it’s been in only 68 theaters after 2 weeks in release (with a paltry $657,451 gross to date) but I’ll just have to hope that it continues to expand its run because I think it’s clearly one of the best films of 2015, no matter what else comes later.  (Gene Siskel took that stance with Fargo [Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996] despite its March release date, saying no film would be better that year; I still agree, even with The English Patient [Anthony Minghella] taking the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director—although Fargo did win for Best Original Screenplay [Coens] and Best Actress [Frances McDormand].)  

 Speaking of awards, Me and Earl … has one significant accomplishment already, having won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Festival competition among U.S. Dramatic Films, one of the few contenders ever to do such (dual Grand Jury/Filmmakers Trophies coupled with Cinematography winners have happened a few times within their Documentary and Dramatic categories but it’s rare for 1 film to take the overall prizes from juried and audience votes; however, in my first visit to Sundance, in 1998, I got to see such a feat:  
Smoke Signals [Chris Eyre] won the Filmmakers Trophy and the Audience Award for Dramatic features), so we’ll see what else comes as the months roll on toward the year-end-awards-season.

 OK, I’m done until next time, so Nina and I will resume our Chianti tastings and wait for the demise of Sofia Coppola in G Part III.  (Her best scene in the whole film:  “Dad …” as she drops to the stairs, dead—yet, after seeing her in this final installment of Michael Corleone’s life story [with his spikey hairstyle in this episode completely defying Nina’s previous tonsorial-choice-thesis] enough times you can begin to appreciate her acting as being like an actual Mafia chieftain’s daughter somehow wandering into this fictional film from a documentary on mob influences on high finance, or enough of the Chianti can help you see it that way.  Fortunately for all involved she found a much more successful career in directing, especially with the marvelous Lost in Translation [2003], only her second feature at the helm but one that garnered 4 Oscar nominations—including Best Picture and an extremely rare nod for a woman as Best Director—with a win for her script in the Best Original Screenplay race).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s some more information about Infinitely Polar Bear: (6:25 interview with writer-director Maya Forbes and actor Mark Ruffalo about the real-life Cameron Forbes [Cam Stuart in the script], Forbes’ father whose life this film is based on) (82% but only 49 reviews surveyed at my post time so you might want to check back later for a more accurate tally) (65% but only 21 reviews surveyed at my post time so you might want to check back later for a more accurate tally)

Here’s some more information about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: (scroll down through this and you’ll find some quick excerpts from Greg and Earl’s parody movies) (this trailer pretty well sums up the whole film if you’d rather just watch it and then read my review) (11:26 very recent interview [May 26, 2015] with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, writer Jesse Andrews [also wrote the source novel of the same name, 2013], producer Jeremy Dawson, actors Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jurassic World and Spy

 (Let me begin with a huge shout-out to the Golden State Warriors, 2015 NBA champions!)

         Beware of Large, Angry Females on the Rampage
                  (I’m waiting for the P.C. Police to arrest me for this title)

 While I’ve been a bit more in league lately with the overall critical consensus on the various cinematic offerings that I’ve chosen to review, this week I’m mostly going off in my own direction again concerning a couple of current, big-box-office-successes that I really don’t have that much to say about
(although that’s never stopped me before from writing short-story-length-reviews, as I’ve proudly done here in my usual-opinionated-manner), despite many in the overall critics’ community being in popcorn-tub-awe of these recent-runaway-hits (especially Spy, scoring an astoundingly-impressive 95% positive response from the many reviewers surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes—details in the links far below if you like, even if I don't agree with them much).
                                                 Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                         Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
Cloned-but-dangerous-dinosaurs are on the loose again in a theme park where corporate greed has once again raised its ugly head, bringing on unintended disasters where huge, hungry beasts are out to destroy the humans this story’s focused on; just as with the first of these big-lizard-tales back in 1993 the technology is amazing, even as the plot’s very predictable.
What Happens: You can come into Jurassic World with no exposure to its previous installments (but, if you prefer, here are summaries of Jurassic Park [Steven Spielberg, 1993], The Lost World: Jurassic Park [Spielberg, 1997], and Jurassic Park III [Joe Johnston, 2001]—with the first 2 based on successful novels of the same names from Michael Crichton [1990,1995]) without being narratively-lost at all (although the references, especially to the 1st one, are nice for those familiar with these long-ago-"dino-ditties,” with explanations of many of those connections in the 3rd link far below regarding this movie) because—in my opinion—what you get this time is, by nature of the plot-elements involved, very repetitious of what all of these Jurassics have featured, with this one especially reminiscent of the original in its emphasis on the horror of marauding Velociraptors, the danger faced by scared kids on the run, and their needed salvation from a familiar Tyrannosaurus rex.  In this version—which acknowledges the events of Jurassic Park from 22 years ago (so it’s a clearer sequel than with the ambiguous lost time between Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome [George Miller, George Ogilvie; 1985] and the current Mad Max: Fury Road [Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting], which could easily be read as a reboot) but, in many ways, repeats them (even beyond the “Easter Egg” level of what’s in that aforementioned-link)—there’s much of the same stuff as before only with even-larger-critters and even-more-impressive Computer-Generated-Imagery-technology.  We’re back at the site of the original park, Isla Nublar, an island off Costa Rica, today a functioning enterprise, run by mogul Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn) who bought it from originator and InGen CEO John Hammond (Richard Attenborough in the first 2 movies, but not part of this cast—his 2014 death a major factor in that) but now, along with his perpetually-busy-on-site-operations-manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is under constant pressure from their Board to come up with new attractions (“assets,” as they refer to the dinosaurs), so, under the direction of Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, the only character/actor back from Jurassic Park), a lab-created-hybrid-beast (based on the T. rex but with many other additions) called Indominus rex is almost ready for unveiling in her seemly-safe-enclosure where she can be viewed from a distance.  Of course, at this point everything starts going horribly wrong.

 First, Indie (my name for this terrifying-designer-creature [such a badass that she’s already eaten her brother, created at the same time as her so there’d surely be a functioning animal in case one somehow expired], although you might prefer to just call her I. rex, so as not to confuse her with Harrison Ford’s Indy [Indiana] Jones, even as … World’s Chris Pratt is rumored to be the star of a definite reboot of that series as well as the impact he’s likely to have in more Jurassic ... and Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn, 2014; review in our August 7, 2014 posting] sequels), with her genetically-implanted-intelligence, camouflage abilities, and trait of being able to consciously avoid heat-sensors (Huh?) escapes, leaving a path of destruction in her wake while on the trail of Zack (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins), Claire‘s nephews, sent to the park for a holiday vacation while their parents pursue divorce.  Help is immediately sought from Owen Grady (Pratt), who’s been training a group of 4 raptors to respond to human commands, which makes them a prize coveted by InGen (still involved with the park, working with Masrani’s company) security-head Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who sees them as a successful (and lucrative) military weapon.  However, Vic does have the only workable idea to quell the chaos in the park (exacerbated by Masrani’s helicopter crashing into an aviary, killing him while releasing a flock of Pteranodons who attack the tourists, now in panic mode as they wait for escape from the island): use the raptors to chase Indie into the open where she can be fired upon with military-grade-weapons; unfortunately, part of her DNA is raptor so she turns her smaller kin against the humans until Owen can get control of them again.  Claire takes command after Vic’s killed by a raptor, making a decision to release the T. rex (same one that gobbled up the attacking raptors at the end of Jurassic Park) to even the odds a bit.  Indie appears to triumph, though, until the injured T. rex roars back (not unlike the seeming death-and-revival of the “good” monster in the most-recent Godzilla [Gareth Edwards, 2014; review in our May 15, 2014  posting]) into action, with Indie finally conquered by the sudden leap up from the lagoon by the biggest, baddest beast of them all, the Mosasaurus, whose massive jaws take her down for good.

 With the crisis averted (for those still alive), we finish on the reunion of the boys with their now-reconciled-parents, Scott (Andy Buckley) and Karen (Judy Greer) Mitchell, the confirmed romance of Owen and Claire, and the return to dominance of the female T. rex over the island’s jungles and ruins of Jurassic World theme park, roaring her defiance to any other inhabitant of Isla Nublar, at least until some other group of money-hungry-humans show up in the next sequel.  Or sequels, as this movie’s taken in about $524.4 million worldwide in just its opening weekend ($208.8 million domestically, now #1 for that title, passing The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting]; it’s also now #1 internationally, with the $315.6 million debut total outpacing Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows—Part 2 [David Yates, 2011]) so I doubt that Universal’s going to pass on the chance to keep squeezing profits out of these ready-to-hatch-golden-dinosaur-eggs.

So What? I realize that when you’re dealing with a narrative that mixes elements of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy genres that you’ve got to be willing to cut the resulting movie some slack in its plot devices and narrative credibility, but for the life of me I can’t fathom how, after the world at large became aware of the death toll and destruction caused to the original Jurassic Park site, followed by live-on-TV-coverage of the calamitously-failed-attempt to bring a T. rex onto the Central American mainland in The Lost World from the other dinosaur-infested-island of Isla Sorna (home of the labs as the original-DNA-revived-yet-modified-dinosaurs were created, then brought to Isla Nublar), that a tourist attraction could be salvaged and made profitable at the other site.  I get it that Jurassic World sets out to chastise human greed at wanting to make a profit off the presentation of genetically-engineered animals that have no business being alive (“Extinct animals have no rights.”) on a planet where they disappeared 65 million years ago (with a further critique of having to constantly up the ante with more frightening exhibits in order to keep profits high), as well as displaying human stupidity about bad ideas such as enclosures will be effective in containing carnivorous dinosaurs (one of evolution’s most effective-killing-machines in their natural milieu) or that such vicious hunters as Veliciraptors could ever be tamed enough to be useful as military weapons (although I can see the appeal of “Claws, Not Boots, on the Ground” campaigns for those who still want the U.S.A. to remake the Middle East in our own image but are having increasing-trouble with selling that campaign to a public weary of the expense-and-death-tolls of our foreign wars, even as Vic tells us that “War is part of nature … struggle is part of greatness”).  However, the original sense of “Don’t Mess with Mother Nature” from the earlier movies also served as a warning against scientific-inquiry-carried-too-far (as most Futuristic Sci-Fi and even Frankenstein-type Horror movies have been doing for decades) so simply critiquing the consequences of runaway-ambition doesn’t really provide any added-conceptual-depth for Jurassic World nor does its resurrection of long-established-plot-elements give it any particular reason for praise.

 Still, I must admit that the execution of Jurassic World is highly-skilled, well-crafted, and very-engaging, along with the solid acting effectively capturing the tone of this latest-run-for-the-hills-tale (especially Pratt and Howard, but, in truth, they’re about the only ones given motivations and actions that take them beyond the 1-dimensional-plot-requirements; even Owen’s pack of raptors seem to have more interesting personas than the simple put-upon-victims or callous-profit-mongers that populate the rest of the cast, although Jimmy Fallon’s hilarious “safety is our first concern” purposely-gone-awry-video in the boys’ Plexiglas vehicle for traveling among the herbivores is among the movie’s best inclusions).  Further, just because it’s a rehash of very familiar territory hasn’t diminished it’s appeal, even when it had to compete last Sunday with the ratings-record-setting-season-finale of HBO’s popular fantasy-of-another-sort, Game of Thrones, and a very-competitive NBA Finals Game 5 between the tied-at-2-apiece teams from Cleveland and hard-to-locate Golden State (because no one seems to want to admit that they play in Oakland) to still draw in substantial crowds.  Jurassic World is nothing more than a well-engineered-summer-cinema-thrill-ride, but that’s all that’s wanted by most diversion-seeking-audiences this time of year, so who am I to question the wisdom of the ticket-buying-public?  (Especially regarding a movie so clever as to show claws breaking out of eggs as its initial image, giving us a sense of what we expect to soon see, then revealing the hatchers to be birds—but that gets even more clever when we realize the scientific evidence that suggests our contemporary birds may well have evolved from those long-ago-beasts.)  

 Yet, I wish that more of that box-office-moolah were going to touching stories of the human spirit such as the Brian Wilson biography Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad; still under $5 million in receipts after 2 weeks in release) and the aging-gracefully-experiences of I’ll See You in My Dreams (Brett Haley; doing even worse with only about $3 million after 5 weeks), both reviewed in our first posting of June 10, 2015 (the second one is about Satyajit Ray’s well-honored-human-interest-classic from India, The Apu Trilogy, now playing in select cities, also unlikely to be making much money as it dares to use subtitles).  But, it’s not too expected, even my me, that trauma-induced-pop-music or septuagenarian-love could provide notable competition against massive teeth and claws for ticket-sales, so I’ll just thank the universe that such personally-focused-films also get made, to some degree because the industry as a whole continues to be propped up by the financial successes of such fare as Jurassic World, ultimately allowing the quieter moments to also be heard occasionally.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While Jurassic World’s drawn a lot of glowingly-positive-comments by my local San Francisco-area-critics, I’m just not all that hot on this movie (despite my admitted visceral reactions at times while watching it), with my 3½ of 5 stars matching up instead with the Rotten Tomatoes 70% positive nationwide-consensus (the folks at Metacritic offered only 59% positive responses, but they’re known for being more restrictive in their numbers than either the Tomato Tossers or me most of the time).  As with San Andreas (Brad Peyton; review in our May 29, 2015 posting), which I found limiting in concept but spectacular in CGI renderings of the devastating effects of earthquakes and floods, I’m impressed with how events on screen are depicted more so than with the events themselves, as San Andreas just keeps shaking tall buildings down while the various Jurassic episodes in their own way just keep finding ways of recycling humans on the run from various beasts (with these current-high-quality-depictions being most of what separates Jurassic’s dinosaurs-on-the-loose from the cheesy giant-monster-diversions of the 1950s so aptly referred to as Creature Features—not that you can’t do something substantial with this genre [Or is it a sub-genre of Fantasy?], a proposition which could lead to some interesting discussions, as shown by the original/remake versions of King Kong [Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, 1933; John Guillermin, 1976; Peter Jackson, 2005] and even the wonder-of-interaction-with-long-dead-species-scenes in Jurassic Park).  I totally agree that Jurassic World is spectacular to look at (and offers some chilling moments, as when we see that the I. rex has killed other dinosaurs not for food but “for sport,” giving us reason to dread that one unintended result of our genetic tinkering is to unleash the worst aspects of us higher primates), but for me it’s just so repetitive of Jurassic Park in terms of thematics (the evils of corporate greed will unleash havoc upon the world—not that we don’t need reminders of that concept but couldn’t we find more original ways to depict it) and plot devices (even to the point of the same T. rex—more-or-less-unwittingly—saving the day for the surviving humans in each bookend of this series [so far], although requiring much more help this time, even teaming with … World’s surviving raptor, Blue [the others of Owen’s original cluster of 4 die because of human weaponry or Indie], to bring down the seemingly-indomitable I. rex).

 However, to close out my commentary on Jurassic World, I’ll offer you the Musical Metaphor of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” music video at com/watch?v=w6iRNV wslM4 (from their 1969 Green River album); admittedly, this song has a more appropriate placement as a comedic comment in an “assault of the lycanthropes”-type-movie (as is was used, to fine effect, in An American Werewolf in London [John Landis, 1981]), but it seems to me to be useful for this dinosaur-disaster-tale as well, especially as it fits with songwriter-performer John Fogerty’s oblique-inspiration from watching The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941), leading to these lyrics “about the apocalypse that’s going to be visited upon us.”  There’s sure dino-delivered-death waiting around the corner throughout the latter half of Jurassic World, no matter whether the doom comes initially during daylight hours or lingers into the night until the queen predator has finally been destroyed, but even if you still don’t think this song’s quite right for this particular movie at least it’s got a bouncy beat that can carry you into the silly-secret-agent-world of my next review.
                                                           Spy (Paul Feig)
A CIA computer-jockey goes into the field undercover in this comic version of a Bond/Bourne movie because the agent she’s got a major crush on was killed by the cold-hearted-villain who’s about to sell a nuclear bomb to a deadly buyer; lots of humor here if you like dirty words, physical gags, and intentional stereotypes, but it does wear thin after awhile.

What Happens: Ex-teacher Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is now part of the CIA Agent-Support team, working in Langley's bat-and-rat-infested basement (for no particular reason, just to add to the absurd comedic aspects of this movie), where she provides up-to-the-second-precise-surveillance-intel to Field Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), gathering satellite and body-camera data to feed to him via an earpiece, frequently saving his life as his self-opinion of being unbeatable is a bit inflated (an example of that comes in Bulgaria when he’s cornered Tihomir Boyanov [Raad Rawi], the only guy who knows the location of a deadly suitcase bomb, but Fine accidently shoots him as the result of an allergy-sneeze, leaving his superiors in a temporary fix as to what to do next).  Back home, Fine invites Susan to dinner in thanks for her excellent work, but her unrequited passion for him is mismatched with his clueless gift of a cute cupcake necklace; back on the job, he’s stalking his previous victim’s daughter, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), on the hope that she’s got the bomb, but she catches him off-guard, presumably killing him on camera for Susan to see.  Rayna then reveals to no-nonsense-CIA Deputy Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) that she knows the identities of the agency’s top spies so there’s no use in sending anyone else after her.  However, Susan volunteers to go undercover in an effort to avenge Fine, thoroughly infuriating foul-mouthed-Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) who quits after Crocker accepts Susan’s offer.  She goes to Paris to trail Rayna’s associate, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), but instead of any exotic identity she’s disguised (much to her disgust) as Carol Jenkins, a frumpy Midwesterner housed in a cheap hotel; then she’s shocked to encounter Ford working rogue on this case, still insisting that Susan back off (she’s now got her own earpiece-handler, her friend Nancy Artingstall [Miranda Hart], living vicariously through Susan’s lucky break to be on a field assignment but terrified that her buddy’s endangering herself by getting too involved, although Susan’s surprisingly-well-versed in gunplay and martial arts).  Susan prevents Ford from being blown up with a backpack bomb, accidently kills the intended-killer after a chase around Paris, then heads off to Rome to follow De Luca.

 After faking her way into a high-class-casino (where Ford’s still shadowing her), Susan prevents yet another assassination, this time a poisoned cocktail meant for Rayna, who then takes our novice spy onto her private jet to Budapest but the pilot also turns on Rayna so Susan has to save her again, covering up her blown-identity with her own foul-mouthed-exaggeration (another characteristic of Ford’s, whose exploits—if true, or even feasible—would make James Bond look like a small-town-librarian by comparison [a stereotype, I admit, but well within the spirit of this farce]) of being hired by Rayna’s father as a secret bodyguard.  In Budapest, Susan encounters Nancy, sent by Crocker as further protection, which she needs when they’re almost killed by double-crossing-double-agent Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin) but someone shoots her first.  Ultimately, we find that “someone” was Fine, working a ruse as a fake double-agent himself, to get close to Rayna, so Susan also uses that angle with Rayna during the negotiations for selling the bomb to a Russian gangster, but he’s killed by De Luca, who wants to then eliminate everyone else before leaving with the briefcase-of-diamonds-payoff—along with the bomb—but he simply escapes to a helicopter after Ford blunders in, causing enough of a distraction that Fine is only wounded while everyone else survives.  Susan finally saves the day after jumping onto De Luca’s helicopter, climbing aboard (dropping Ford into the nearby lake in the process), being saved from him by Nancy’s rifle-shot from another ‘chopper that belongs to rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (just noting that he’s part of this plot shows you how intentionally absurd it is, so I won’t bother explaining how he got there; I also won’t note subplot details about Aldo [Peter Serafinowicz], who’s either an Italian agent with a lustful interest in Susan or Albert, a British MI6 agent pretending to be such, although he does show genuine interest in her either way), with De Luca falling to his death as he tries to grab Susan’s cupcake necklace but she opens the clasp.  In the aftermath, Crocker recovers the bomb and promotes Susan to Field Agent, Ford sets off on a seaside-cruise not realizing he’s on a lake, Fine asks Susan to dinner but she (probably aware that there’s nothing but professional teamwork between them) opts instead for a celebration with Nancy (who got a stash of champagne and beef jerky from Fiddy), then wakes up the next morning to find that she’s likely spent the night with Ford (much to her shocked dismay).

So What? From an income standpoint, while Spy’s not bringing in the record amount of bucks attached to Jurassic Work it’s no slouch either, having grossed about $56.9 million after only 2 weeks in release; further, it’s getting raves from the critics, with that lofty, aforementioned 95% at Rotten Tomatoes plus a hefty 75% from the Metacritics, which is quite generous relative to what that group usually has to offer (more details in the links farther below).  McCarthy demonstrates versatility with her smooth transformation from meek, browbeaten data-gather to profane, gutsy, limber field agent, while Law is appropriately self-centered and self-important, Janney is consistently fierce until the very end (not the mode you want if you’re working for her), Byrne is a great ice-princess (but not like Elsa in Frozen [Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013; review in our January 24, 2014 posting])and Statham is impressing everyone with hilarious parodies of his normal action roles, coming across as a bit of a moron who may only have a successful career by dumb luck rather than any particular skill on his part.  (In fact, Spy leaves you with the impression that CIA agents as a whole are mostly bumbling or corrupt, a rather discomforting thought as our Congress muddles through what to do with legislation intended to protect us from terrorist threats such as the bomb-sellers in this movie; I’m no advocate of unlimited-government-surveillance, but if these “protectors”—who seem to depend on their earpiece-handlers for their very survival—are anything like our actual frontline of defense [as many recent stories about idiocy by our Secret Service and TSA agents imply], then I think Rand Paul and his fellow “Don’t Tread on Me” libertarians might want to reconsider their absolutist-privacy-stances in favor of some tools to better defend against terrorists who aren’t so smug and easily-defeated as the ones undone by McCarthy—OK, enough politically-charged-conflation from me about silly movies and real national security issues, but given many of the news stories we find on a regular basis you have to wonder sometimes who’s producing the crazier “scripts,” Hollywood or the collective operations of our national government—Democrats and Republicans alike.)

 And, if I’ve irritated any of you with my political opinions (not my intention, but you have to speak pretty blandly these days to avoid that), I’d hate to think that I didn’t also fire up some opposition to my combining of McCarthy’s character with the rampaging Indominus rex in Jurassic World for my title about “Large, Angry Females on the Rampage,” because I assume the complaints would center on inappropriate implications about Melissa’s girth, as if I’d actually said “fat” or “overweight” (although Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy character in the Pitch Perfect movies [Jason Moore, 2012; Elizabeth Banks for the current sequel] aims to reclaim that concept by proudly owning rather than rejecting such terms; McCarthy’s characters, though, generally don’t even comment on their plus-size-status, as if it's not necessary).  But, such was not my intention in this case either, as “large” is simply a descriptor relative to other characters in either of these movie environments (while “angry” is clearly appropriate in Spy’s case, given Susan’s fury over Fine’s presumed death at Rayna’s hand).  In fact, I admire the presentation of McCarthy’s character as someone who resents being pigeonholed as a clueless hick by her CIA superiors while bristling to Ford about not being taking seriously as being an attractive woman (with Aldo’s sincere come-ons as proof that she’s not delusional).  But, if offensive has been given here, then please accept my apologies for typical male boneheaded-ness, another target at which Spy consistently takes aim.

Bottom Line Final Comments: In trying to determine my stars rating for Spy I found myself thinking back to my discussion about such decisions in my review of San Andreas, mulling over the evaluative difference between praising something for simply being an enjoyable diversion when that’s all it tries to be vs. assigning a larger-cultural-context-value that compares the current object of discussion to a larger framework of relevant conceptual considerations (films in this case, which I usually—haughtily—differentiate as “movies” when they fall into my 3½-stars-or-below-categories).  There (as I noted in my comments on Jurassic World, where I made a similar decision) I was wiling to go to the 3½ level (which is actually pretty high for me; I normally don’t go above 4 stars, reserving the highest numbers for films that truly make a lasting mark on both the cinema industry and the culture that surrounds it, as with The Apu Trilogy) in respect of how San Andreas takes its main reason for existing—the depiction of physical catastrophe in the arena of the Disaster genre (or, maybe a subgenre parallel to Futuristic Science-Fiction where the calamity comes in our present time, presenting us with a natural phenomenon impossible to overcome, reinforcing fears of our human limitations, with the Futuristic Sci-Fi stories taking us a step up the cinematic-conceptual-ladder by presenting warnings about external-crises-of-existence [not internal-existential-crises; those are stories for angst-ridden-independent/artistic-filmmakers] that are caused by human intrusions into what should be a more benign natural order)—to a level of significant impact with its special effects.  With Spy I must admit that I admire the far-fetched-parody-attitude toward James Bond-Jason Bourne-Ethan Hunt-movies (the latter character is from the Mission: Impossible series, if you have as much trouble as I do remembering that protagonist’s name; there’s another one of these—Rogue Nation—due on July 31, 2015, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, once again starring Mr. Smug, Tom Cruise), the opportunity for Melissa McCarthy to further demonstrate her extensive verbal and physical comedic range, the opportunity to see more of Budapest (even when it was filling in for Rome, as well as Paris some of the time), and the amusing final credits sequence where we get details of Susan’s later spy exploits.  

 However, unlike many other critics who’re praising Spy as one of the best of the year, I found it funny but easily forgettable, hence my mere 3 stars.  Because of the obsessive desire of marketing-teams to put most of what matters about a movie into the trailer in order to lure us immediately into the theaters rather than just stream something that came out 6 months ago, we all come to a screening with a lot of expectation about what will transpire; while I may be satisfied if all I get is what I expect, I’m not really moved to full admiration unless I get even more, which for me was not the case with Spy where expectations of solid humor were fulfilled but not, unfortunately, exceeded.

 As for a Musical Metaphor to finish off my comments on Spy, I first considered the theme song from Thunderball, both because the faux song under Spy’s floating-ink-swirled-opening-credits most reminded me of this actual James Bond tune and because it’d be great to hear Tom Jones staining his voice to the limit again; then I thought maybe I should use something more obvious, such as Johnny Rivers singing “Secret Agent Man” as a comment on how expectations are such that we assume spies leading dangerous lives to be male (which gets us back to “Thunderball” connotations again, if you follow my dirty pun) and of a certain athletic build and appearance (although a look at Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Tomas Alfredson, 2011; review in our January 6, 2012 posting] would tell you otherwise on the appearance front, although the principals in that opaquely-plotted-film are all from the traditional XY-chromosome-team).  However, I finally settled on Kim Carnes’ version of “Betty Davis Eyes” (on her 1981 Mistaken Identity album, the biggest hit single of that year [9 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, also #1 in many other countries], winning the 1982 Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Yearwritten by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon in 1974, originally recorded on DeShannon’s New Arrangement album that year; the line “she knows just what it takes to make a crow blush” was mistakenly recorded by Carnes as “make a pro blush,” which could have some oblique meaning but isn’t nearly as evocative) at https://www. watch?v=tuleYF5KF84 (with some interesting visuals of famous Hollywood female faces added or here’s just Kim singing it in her official music video at watch?v=EPOIS 5taqA8) in tribute to Susan Cooper’s emerging-self-image (after being pushed away from higher aspirations by her limited-vision-mother) where she sees no reason why “All the boys [can’t] think she’s a spy” because she’s quite ready to “take a tumble on you, roll you like you were dice” if she feels like doing so, with no hesitation that she should be seen as capable of such despite the insults she gets from Ford and the dowdy disguises that the stereotype-focused-brains in the CIA echelon think are appropriate for her.  Maybe Susan’s not yet “pure as New York snow” (not a compliment if you’re talking about what accumulates on the ground in the city—I've lived there; I know—rather than more upstate in the Adirondacks) but she sees herself as having such potential, even as she realizes that cocky Agent Fine isn’t really the man of her dreams after all.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:

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Here’s some more information about Jurassic World: (“Easter Eggs” and other references to previous Jurassic Park movies that are contained within Jurassic World)

Here’s some more information about Spy: (this is a Red Band trailer with language retained from this R-rated movie so you have to sign in to prove you’re at least 18 in order to watch it; if you’d prefer a more sanitized version here’s one at 

Here are a couple of short clips from the movie for you to watch at watch?v=wLGD8g7pTfo (Jason Statham’s character raising hell about why he’s not being sent in to stop the villain—this one and the next also have original saucy dialogue as well so be forewarned) and (Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham argue about tactics while she’s on the job in disguise)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.