Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Just how lacking in inspiration is "Independence Day: Resurgence," the sequel to the 20-year-old mega blockbuster in which aliens attacked Earth and blew up its iconic monuments?

My favorite example is during a scene in which several characters discuss how to stop the alien forces that have returned two decades later to finish the job by sucking out the Earth's core and ending life on the planet. The characters recall how they stopped the aliens the first time around and then one of them exclaims - and I paraphrase - "it worked last time, let's try it again!"

The film exists on an Earth in which our planet has had 20 years to develop spaceships that fly around in our atmosphere, space stations with powerful weapons and all manner of other technology. One thing that has not been developed is screenwriting capacity. Most of the characters speak in expository dialogue. One such nugget: "Wasn't that the plan you debriefed us about?"

The film wastes little time on introducing its new characters, who include Liam Hemsworth as a hot shot pilot (you know, the type who continually gets in trouble with his superiors), Maika Monroe as a presidential aide and daughter of former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman, returning with a Grizzly Adams beard), Sela Ward as the new president, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a scientist, William Fichtner as a general and Jessie Usher as the son of Will Smith's character from the original "Independence Day." The lack of presence of Smith's Hiller is frequently alluded to in the film, but never explained.

And, of course, there are some of the old, familiar faces, including Jeff Goldblum, providing the type of dry delivery you'd expect as scientist David Levinson, as well as Judd Hirsch as his father and Pullman as the retired president, who now suffers from hallucinations. One of the best elements of this sequel is that it gives some much deserved screen time to some great actors whose appearances in movies these days are rare.

Unfortunately, this does not quite make up for the myriad of problems plaguing "Resurgence." For starters, the picture gives off the vibe that an explosion occurred at the screenwriting factory. As the aliens attack Earth, nearly every possible random storyline involving minor characters comes out of the woodwork - there's a group of kids who've lost their parents and are now traveling alone in a car, a boat full of pirates searching for a sunken treasure that gets enlisted in the fight against the extraterrestrials and, naturally, that old stand-by of a doctor trying to save patients, including a pregnant woman, from the hospital in a city under fire.

There's entirely too much going on in the film and much of it isn't that engaging. There are numerous sequences of ace pilots shooting at alien crafts in the sky in scenes that resemble the "Star Wars" pictures as well as explosions, a large alien chasing a school bus, cities being sucked up into the sky by the alien ship and then dropped back down to Earth, interpersonal squabbles between the good guys, a stray romance or two and even a scientist that awakens from a 20-year coma.

At the time of its release, the original "Independence Day" was called silly by some and while that's not entirely inaccurate, Roland Emmerich's 1996 picture was, at least, a good time. I saw it during the summer before I went away to college and I recall it as an entertaining summer popcorn movie. By comparison, this sequel is overstuffed, running low on motivation and mostly just silly. As I said before, it's great to see some old familiar faces - Goldblum, Hirsch and Pullman - but next time it would be even better seeing them in something worthier of their talents.

Review: Swiss Army Man

Image courtesy of A24.
I'll say this for Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan's "Swiss Army Man" - there's nothing else quite like it. Much like Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" or Leos Carax's "Holy Motors," the picture is something wholly unique, at least narratively speaking. But unlike those recent classics, "Swiss Army Man" is just as likely to annoy as it is to cause admiration for its blatant disregard for the rules of narrative filmmaking.

Known simply as Daniels (referring to the directors' shared first names), the filmmakers have crafted one of the most outrageously bizarre buddy movies I've ever come across. The picture moves by its own sense of logic and leaves its peculiar story just open-ended enough to make you wonder what you've seen is meant to be real, imagined, fantasized or dreamed.

As the film opens, a lonely, repressed man named Hank (Paul Dano) who has seemingly been stranded for reasons or explanations unknown on a small, deserted island is about to hang himself. However, just as he is about to end his life, he notices a body washed up on the beach. It turns out that the body is a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who will come to be known as Manny and serve a purpose similar to - but much more expansive than - that beach ball in "Cast Away."

As it turns out, Manny is a gassy corpse. You read that right. He's so gassy, in fact, that Hank uses his body as a raft and his flatulence as a motor to push them to another larger island, where the two - or one, depending on your perspective of the film - of them must survive in the wilderness for a number of days (or is it months?).

Hank soon comes to find out that Manny's corpse has many uses - for starters, it stores water after rainstorms, which he then pumps out of Manny's mouth. He learns how to use its stiff arms to chop wood and its - how do I put this genteelly? I can't - erection as a compass. If this all sounds absurd to you, it should. The film received both raves and walk-outs during its premiere at Sundance earlier this year and critics seem to be divided as to whether it's a work of genius or just an example of filmmakers taking the piss, so to speak, with an audience.

Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention: Manny eventually begins to speak as if the corpse is discovering all over again the ways of the world. In many ways similar to a child, Manny learns from Hank about fear, love, sexual arousal and what weirdness is. Hank performs scenes from favorite movies as entertainment for Manny and schools the corpse on how to talk to a girl, although Hank himself clearly had problems following his own advice in his previous life.

At times, "Swiss Army Man" is funny and, occasionally, a little bit touching. But it's also a film that, at times, comes off as a bit too pleased with itself. And there are more than a few moments when the picture mistakes being offbeat and quirky with intelligence. It would appear that the movie reaches for a bit of profundity toward its finale - I say appear because there will likely be arguments as to what actually happens during the film's culmination - but I'm not sure it's been earned.

Dano, a truly underrated actor, gives a fine and challenging performance as Hank. Radcliffe makes the most out of the truly bizarre scenario in which his character finds itself, although he is not required to do as much heavy lifting.

So, all in all, I can appreciate "Swiss Army Man" for being something completely different that occasionally intrigues. It will likely make you laugh at least a few times and scratch your head a few others. I consider myself a champion of weird, off-the-beaten-path films and while "Swiss Army Man" certainly fits into that mold, it is, after all, just a movie about a stranded man and a farting corpse. It's a well-enough made curio item with moderate returns.

Review: The Neon Demon

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker who often wears his influences on his sleeve and, as of recently, increasingly more so. His latest, "The Neon Demon," includes a nearly threadbare story and large doses of style as well as numerous touches that recall the works of Dario Argento, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, not to mention countless other giallos and horror movies of generations past.

Refn has long been a director to watch, from his early "Pusher" films and the stylishly disturbing prison movie "Bronson" to 2011's "Drive," a masterful crime thriller that pushed the filmmaker to the top of the pack of the most exciting filmmakers working around the world.

So, it was a bit of a letdown when his follow up to that film, which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, was the visually stylish but otherwise unimpressive "Only God Forgives," an unequivocal bust. And it's even further disappointing that rather than having regrouped, his latest - "The Neon Demon" - is an even further trip down that rabbit hole.

The picture, a giallo-styled horror movie set in the world of modeling, is filled with enticing images as one would expect in a film by Refn, whose work is always stylized and beautifully shot. But "Neon" is both pretty and pretty vacant - an example of style over substance in which the central themes - one of which being the idea that the fashion world will eat you alive, a concept that is eventually realized in the most obvious of ways - disappear completely when they're not beating you over the head.

In the picture, an ethereal waif named Jesse (Elle Fanning) has arrived in the type of Los Angeles that only exists in movies like these to break into the world of modeling. Due to her shyness and young age (she's 16, but is told to tell people that she is three years older), Jesse often appears like a doe in the headlights and all of the town's sleazy denizens are quick to take advantage - a creepy photographer who wants to shoot her nude, an even sleazier designer who makes nasty comments about his models right in front of them, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who appears friendly but isn't and several slightly older models who are jealous of Jesse's natural talent.

There's also a seemingly pointless and mostly just unpleasant subplot involving Jesse's stay at a seedy motel, which is run by a creep (Keanu Reeves) who is holding a young runaway hostage in the room next to Jesse's, where the aspiring model can hear the underage girl being raped and beaten. There's also a sequence during which Reeves' sleazeball character sneaks into Jesse's room one night and places a long knife down her throat in a sexually suggestive manner. That the rape of young, underage women is being used here as a means for creating tension in a thriller such as this one is, at the very least, a poor choice.

However, Jesse's stay at the motel provides the film's most hypnotically surreal moment during a scene in which the young woman finds a mountain lion prowling around her room and she enlists Reeves and a motel worker to chase it away. There's another great moment early in the picture when Malone's character invites Jesse to a nightclub, which is exactly the type you'd expect in a Refn film - strobe lights, neon tinted walls, throbbing music sung by some young ingenue and a sense of danger in the air.

It's too bad that these scenes are more the exception than the rule in "The Neon Demon." Refn is undoubtedly a talent - "Drive" is, for my money, the best crime movie of this decade so far and I also dug his "Pusher" trilogy and "Bronson" - but he's currently not putting his abilities to their best use. "Only God Forgives" and "The Neon Demon" are stylish genre exercises, but there's not much else underneath their glittering surfaces. The filmmaker is also heavily inspired by genre and filmmakers exploring darker terrain and I think his talents could put him in the same class as some of his influences. But "The Neon Demon," much like its predecessor, is a step backward.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Eva Husson's feature debut "Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story" does a pretty decent job of conveying some of the tendencies of youth - how boredom and the need for acceptance can lead to bad decision making, the petty rivalries between friends over romantic crushes and the rush of getting involved in something illicit. That being said, the film never becomes much more than what it is - a picture about a group of French youths whose orgiastic parties spiral out of control, leading to a somewhat sour denouement.

The film - which has a title much more salacious than anything portrayed onscreen - is obviously taking a page from the Larry Clark playbook and appears to want to be a French version of 1995's notorious "Kids," although the film borrows stylistically from other filmmakers, especially Sofia Coppola, whose dreamy tales of lithe youths have an undercurrent of sadness.

In the picture, a sexually experienced girl named George (Marilyn Lima) and her virginal pal Laetitia (Daisy Broom) find themselves competing for the attention of a cad named Alex (Finnegan Oldfield), who idles away his days at home with his buddy Nikita (Fred Hotier). Alex's mother is conveniently working in Morocco for a spell, leaving the house for he and his friends to use for raucous parties.

After George discovers that Laetitia has slept with Alex, she throws caution to the wind and initiates a truth or dare type of game with Alex's friends - a group of attractive young men and women - that skips the truth part. The group - dubbed the bang gang for obvious reasons - gains notoriety at school and Alex and Nikita soon set up a pay-per-view online element in which people can watch members of the group, well, take a guess.

Things become even more complicated for George and Laetitia after Gabriel (Lorenzo Lefebvre), Laetitia's EDM-creating classmate and neighbor who is struggling after his father is left crippled, catches both of their eyes and their competition switches from Alex, who has since moved on to some one or two or 20 other girls, to this new love interest.

Husson's film is well shot and pretty well acted for a debut featuring mostly unknowns, but it ultimately pales in comparison next to the films it emulates, such as Clark's profoundly disturbing "Kids." And there's a twist, of sorts, toward the finale during which the teens involved in the bang gang face the music, so to speak, in a plot development that leaves a sour taste in the mouth in the style of the 1980s downer "The Last American Virgin."

There are some elements to admire here that suggest Husson might make a better film with stronger material. But while "Bang Gang" may be nice to look at, it's not showing us anything we haven't seen many times before.

Review: Finding Dory

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. 
Pixar's "Finding Dory" is pretty much the same story of "Finding Nemo," but with a variety of characters pursuing each other and there's a scene toward the end that veers toward the ludicrous side, but the film is still another good natured, fun and charming addition to the animation studio's cannon and, as a point of comparison, about on par with the "Monsters University" sequel from a few years ago.

In the film, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are living peacefully with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the chipper fish who has short term memory loss, as a neighbor. But one day Dory has a flashback of the parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) from whom she was separated as a youngster and, after a few details about where they might be spring into her mind, she sets out on a quest with Marlin and Nemo in tow.

Since this is a Pixar film, there are, of course, a bevy of new characters, including a friendly and blind whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga whale called Bailey (Ty Burrell), a pair of rowdy sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West) and a cranky, but ultimately good natured, squid known as Hank (Ed O'Neill). Most of these individuals are - in the Pixar tradition - pretty well fleshed out for animated characters.

As is typical for animated movies that attempt to bridge the gap between young and adult audience members, there's a little something for everyone. If you begin to tire of the numerous scenes in which Dory and pals chase through underground pipes, then you'll likely warm to the camaraderie, character building and heart-string tugging - although earned, also in the Pixar tradition - during the picture's swift 100 minutes.

Pixar has, in recent years, relied more on franchising its most popular movies (for example, sequels to "Cars" and "Monsters Inc.") and it makes sense that they'd focus on Dory in this picture as DeGeneres's personality makes for a bubbly, funny, occasionally daffy, winsome and poignantly sympathetic character.

As I'd mentioned earlier, there's a scene late in the film involving a car chase that is, perhaps, a stretch of the imagination for even the most credulous - and this, mind you, is a film about talking fish - but it's ultimately no matter. "Finding Dory" cruises on charm and is - in yet another Pixar tradition - a film that will delight children, but also give their parents something to smile about.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: De Palma

Image courtesy of A24.
As far as documentaries focusing on a single subject go, Noah Baumbach's "De Palma" doesn't break any new ground. However, it's a fascinating oral history of its subject - one of Hollywood's most underrated and controversial filmmakers from American film's golden age of the 1970s - and Baumbach is wise enough to just let De Palma narrate his own story, but also a history of American filmmaking from the late 1960s up through the present, without interrupting him too much.

In essence, "De Palma" is the titular director's commentary on his career, kicking off with a brief history of his family (his father was a surgeon and the director originally intended to go into science before becoming interested in movies in the 1960s) and then diving right into his filmography, picture by picture.

For those not familiar with or particularly a fan of De Palma's work - the director's films were often filled with sex and violence and some of his best known titles were panned at the time, only later to become cult classics or respected long after the fact - the director himself makes a pretty good case for why his voice and cinematic style is so unique. Baumbach frequently shows off De Palma's signature stylistic traits - such as extreme close-ups in the foreground with other characters in the background or his brilliant use of split screen - so that those viewing this documentary get a pretty good grasp of De Palma's style, regardless of whether they've actually seen any of his films.

De Palma was obviously a disciple of Alfred Hitchcock and although this should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his work, it's interesting to hear the director discuss exactly how "Vertigo" (his favorite), "Psycho" and "Rear Window" helped inform such films as "Dressed to Kill" and "Body Double." Other obvious references - the Odessa steps sequence in "Battleship Potempkin" being recreated in "The Untouchables," the central concept of "Blowup" influencing "Blow Out" - are also diagnosed here, but, again, hearing De Palma's own take on why those famed sequences inspired his own are presented in an invigorating way in Baumbach's documentary.

The picture will also likely one day act as a document for a style of filmmaking that has increasingly become a thing of the past. De Palma points out that his first 10 films were flops and also how he'd experiment with particular shots and stylistic choices in the middle of filming a scene, whereas - as he mentions - today's Hollywood films are frequently centered around expensive special effects driven scenes that are story-boarded to death and created on a computer before a director even begins shooting the scene.

And, if nothing else, Baumbach's film will likely make you want to revisit De Palma's oeuvre, which includes a number of very good to great titles, including "Sisters," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out," "Scarface," "The Untouchables," "Casualties of War," "Carlito's Way" and "Femme Fatale." The documentary's format - talking head discussions with De Palma punctuated by set photos and movie clips - may be standard, but this fascinating documentary on a great filmmaker in the late stages of his career as well as a view of a style of moviemaking that is, sadly, fading into oblivion is a must-see for movie buffs and those interested in cinema history.

Review: The Conjuring 2

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema.
As far as horror movie sequels go, James Wan's "The Conjuring 2" belongs near the top of the heap. Not only is it just as good - and frightening - as the original, but its length and measured pace give the impression that the director - who has increasingly become one of the preeminent horror filmmakers - is going for a genre opus in the style of Stanley Kubrick. That he doesn't quite get there is no matter as this sequel to Wan's 2013 original is a fun summer movie that will likely jangle your nerves.

As the picture opens, real life paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are enmeshed in the horrific Amityville case that would end up being their most famous. Lorraine gets terrible premonitions - including a very spooky demon in the form of a nun that will haunt her throughout the entire picture - upon visiting the Long Island home at the center of that case and determines that she and her husband should take a break from their line of work.

But just a short while later, they are called upon to look into a ghastly situation in London's Enfield section where a family - especially one of its daughters - is being tormented by the ghost of a creepy old man who rattles their beds and sends toys flying out of a makeshift tent that one of the young boys has set up in the family's home. For those unfamiliar with the case, it is considered one of the most notorious of its kind in the UK.

With the exception of a sympathetic investigator (Simon McBurney), most of the people who have looked into the Enfield case are skeptical and believe that two of the family's girls are pulling a hoax for attention. Their mother (Frances O'Connor) doesn't even seem to believe them, that is, until she witnesses a dresser scoot across a room on its own.

The Warrens also have difficulty determining whether the Enfield home is actually haunted, despite Lorraine's apparent gift for detecting such things. Meanwhile, she's still being haunted in her visions by the demonic nun, who makes one particularly heart stopping visit during a scene in which Lorraine stares at what has to be the creepiest painting I've seen in a few moons.

Not surprisingly, the film's finale ends with a bang similar to the one set in the dark cellar - the house in this sequel also has a creepy basement - in the first "Conjuring" picture. But the dread inducing two-plus hours leading up to the finale, which features some special effects and furniture smashing into walls, is much more frightening. Wan, who is also responsible for the eerie "Insidious," is a master of the slow burn and making inanimate objects (a painting, a toy fire truck) unsettling.

Another element of this sequel that I appreciated is its propensity for outright weirdness. Right smack in the middle of all the sequences of hauntings, Ed attempts to cheer the tormented British family by strapping on a guitar and doing an Elvis impersonation. It's an odd moment, but one that momentarily breaks the tension. Some religious hard-selling toward the end of the movie is, perhaps, a little more awkwardly executed.

So, while Wan's sequel doesn't reach the heights of Kubrick's "The Shining," which appears to be the hallmark for which the director is reaching, it's an impressive piece of genre filmmaking. Wan nails the visual style of the era (1977 England) and, despite its atypically long running time for a horror film, holds our rapt attention for much of the proceedings. I rarely look forward to horror movie sequels as they are often just excuses for cashing in, but if Wan intends another go-round with the Warrens - and I'm sure they were involved in other cases than these - I'm all in.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: Now You See Me 2

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment. 
"Now You See Me 2" is a little lightweight in the story department and follows the steps of what most sequels driven by box office are meant to do. It also has a number of tricks up its sleeve, a handful of which are fairly enjoyable and clever.

If your aim is to watch a movie in which all manner of elaborate sleights of hand are carried out, then you'll likely not be disappointed with this second film in the franchise. However, if you are hoping for something in the way of character motivation and development, then you might find that this picture is much like one of its characters' magic tricks - when you close your hand on it, you'll find nothing but air.

That's not to say that "Now You See Me 2," in which director Jon M. Chu has taken over for Louis Letterier, isn't skillfully made in terms of what it sets out to do. Although many of the tricks performed by the Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson and Lizzy Caplan as a spunky newbie) are explained - perhaps in too much detail and, in effect, ruining the stunt - others are clearly impossible and mostly left to the imagination.

The film opens with Ruffalo's FBI agent/Horseman attempting to continue to lead the bureau off the trail of his compadres, while Morgan Freeman's magic debunker plots his own revenge from a jail cell and teams up with a bevy of new villains, including a rich scion played by Daniel Radcliffe as the brattiest heavy in recent memory.

The film opens with a flashback to Ruffalo's younger self watching his magician father attempt a daring stunt that has a tragic result and this informs much of the twisty plot throughout the film. Many secrets are unveiled during the picture's course - some clever, others obvious - although this still goes little way in giving the Horsemen personalities outside of their abilities - for example, Harrelson's capacity to put people into trances, Franco's to throw cards as if they were ninja stars.

And since we know so little about these characters, while the picture has a fair amount of suspense that results from kidnappings, tight situations and daring magic stunts, it mostly comes from a heavy dosage of plotting, rather than our ability to empathize with or feel drawn in by the characters and, therefore, care about the binds in which they find themselves.

As I've mentioned, there are some fun and clever tricks in the film, most notably a heist involving a chip inserted into a playing card that the Horsemen must sneak out of a vault and the finale, which involves a group of villains and our heroes in a plane.

So, what I'm saying is you could do a whole lot worse for a night out at the movies. "Now You See Me 2" has its equal share of decent moments and flaws. It's well made and features a cast full of faces you'll likely be glad to see sharing screen time - Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman always class up any joint - and doesn't take itself too seriously. The magic in the film may be of the manufactured kind, but I suppose that's better than none at all.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The jokes per minute ratio in "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping," Andy Samberg's satire of an overexposed megalomaniac star, is pretty high and more than a few of them land, although the picture pales in comparison to the gold standard of its type, Rob Reiner's classic "This is Spinal Tap."

While I wouldn't say there's an urgency for this type of parody, it certainly feels of a piece in the current climate in which we exist, from Justin Bieber's goofy antics to the fact that a vapid reality show star is a presidential candidate. However, Samberg and company only take one noticeable shot at Biebs during a scene in which Samber's Conner stinks up the bathroom at the Anne Frank House and makes a Jim Carrey reference, which I can only imagine is poking fun at Bieber's outrageously dunderheaded comment he wrote in the ledger at that historic Amsterdam house.

On "Saturday Night Live," Samberg was known primarily for his Lonely Island videos, such as "Dick in a Box," and "Popstar" often feels like a series of sketches - albeit ones focusing on a recurring cast of characters - strung together as a movie.

Some of these sketches and particular scenes are very funny. I was amused that the best gag in the film involved a reference to an early to mid 90s group - Tony! Toni! Tone! - that could be lost on many of the younger crowd for whom this film is obviously aimed and that the picture's best line delivery belonged to Nas as he comments on a failed video involving a jeep. The movie's best running gag is its portrayal of a TMZ-esque TV channel.

But for all of the scattered moments of hilarity, "Popstar" is ultimately a straightforward behind-the-music style of mockumentary as well as a rise-and-fall story that you'd expect to see in any musical biopic from the past 10 years.

Conner starts out in a Beastie Boys flavored boy band but eventually - much like Justin Timberlake - becomes the break-out star and moves forward with a solo career, relegating one of the former members of his band to operating an iPod at his live shows, while the other disappears into the wilds to become a farmer, which makes for one of the film's least effective ongoing gags.

The picture features a who's who of comedy - Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and an especially effective Tim Meadows - and musical - Nas, 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, DJ Khaled, Usher, Michael Bolton, Seal, Questlove, Ringo Starr and many others portraying themselves - talent. While in other films, such an overstuffed cast might spoil the broth, it actually works to this film's advantage as some of these bit players get the best lines.

So, if "Popstar" never quite reaches the maximum level of cleverness that some of Lonely Island's best work did, it has its moments and a few genuine laugh-out-loud bits. And in case this wasn't clear, while the film only works just about half of the time, it's miles ahead of most of the "SNL" spin-off pictures of years past.